Over 30 years ago, hippies travelled to the village of Agios Ioannis, right in the heart of Corfu, to set up camp. It's now the perfect place to experience a real taste of Corfiot village life
The “Cactus Hilton” is hidden amongst the olive and orange groves of Agios Ioannis, a village nestled right in the centre of Corfu. There aren't many cactuses there any more, but the name is still used by those who remember the days, about thirty years ago, when it was one of the first places on the island to be "discovered" by visiting hippies. Unable to afford the 20 drachmas for a room in the youth hostel by the plaka- or square – they set up their tents in the cactus fields behind it. These early visitors were the self-styled 'Degenerates' and the area was well known for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The 'Degenerates' all have respectable jobs and families of their own now... but they still return year after year, bringing their children and grandchildren.
Since then the youth hostel has been transformed into the 4 star Marida Traditional Hotel, but its history goes back further than the days of the Cactus Hilton. Built by the Greeks in 1823, some say the three storey building was once used by the revolutionary government. Corfu was then under English, not Turkish, occupation, but the people of this island offered moral and financial help to the Greek Revolution to remind the world that they wanted the Ionian Islands to be united with the rest of Greece. The Marida is still run by Vasili Combolitis, the former youth hostel manager, who named it after his daughter. It’s now the cycle hotel of the island and the headquarters for Dutch cyclists to take tours to the mountain area of Pantokrator...
Back then, the fields known as 'Cactus Hilton' belonged to Costa and there was no charge for staying there, as long as you ate your meals at his taverna. It's still the only taverna in village and inside its walls are covered with photos of faces you’ll soon find familiar…. they’re still there, mingling with the former hippies or the Albanian boys who've come over for work, swapping stories and sipping home made wine at the long tables of the taverna.
Costa himself is now well into his 90s but night after night he’ll be there helping his daughter Anna serve meals. The menu is not vast, just delicious grills and one daily special, ask Anna and she'll offer you something like fresh fish, butter beans and greens, prepared corfiot style, with just a dash of olive oil and lemon juice.
The night seems endless outside Costa's Taverna and as the hours slide by, if you're lucky, someone might be in the mood for a late scooter ride…so jump on the back and head up to the famous hilltop village of Pelakas to gaze some of the best views of the island by night. It was here that Kaiser Wilhelm II used to come every sundown during his stay at the Achilleion Palace in Corfu to watch the sun sink into the Ionian Sea.
Agios Ioannis now can’t be missed as it’s right next door to Aqualand - one of the largest water parks in Europe. As you approach it from the Pelakas road, stop at the Vassilakis winery to pick up some local liqueurs made from kumquat and other island fruits (www.vassilakisproducts.gr). When the road turns left to Pelekas, carry on straight to the top of the hill, turn right at the traffic lights and head right into the square.
In September the annual Agiot Fest begins. The week long festival of international music features nights of Greek, classical, folk and rock (www.agiotfest.co.uk).
But for something more traditional try one of the many local festivals - paniyiris – that happen during the summer. The Corfiot newspaper lists the main ones, but there are others only locals know about. The nearby village of Agni has a famous paniyiris at Gimari, on the coastal road just above Kouloura.
A short stroll from the square to the crossroads brings you to a handful of bars. Find the local men playing cards and debating politics at Time Out or sample some of the 20 brands of beer at The Spider Bar. Later, grab a cab to the nearby seaside strip of Gouvia for cocktails at Tree Tops or Melodies, before some late night dancing at Whispers. Another night, head to the Liston by the old cricket ground in Corfu Town. The French style parade is lined with bars and coffee shops where you can people watch into the early hours. Then follow the Greeks to the Amaze Café Bar opposite the old fortress, where the waves gently lap right up to your feet.
As the Dutch realised, one of the best ways of exploring the island is by mountain bike. Hire one from the Corfu Mountain Bike shop in Dassia (www.mountainbikecorfu.gr). They'll also provide you with maps and trip ideas.
The beaches were once well over an hour's walk away but the Pelakas road now means there’s easy access to both coasts. One of the most popular in the west is Glyfada - a large sandy beach surrounded by tree-covered cliffs and imposing rocky formations. Locals say Kontoyalos or neighbouring Pelakas beach are even better. Since the 1960s their clean soft sands made them favourite destinations for backpackers. The east coast beaches offer warmer, calmer waters. Try the beautiful long pebble beaches of Barbati or Kalami, which inspired the authors Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.
Now in her 50s, Hilary Paipeti once lived in Agios Ioannis and wrote the guide to the 220km Corfu Trail (www.corfutrail.org). Every Saturday Hilary guides hikers through hidden olive groves and small mountain villages and finishes with a meal in the lively fish taverna Paxinos in the old village of Benitses. See the Corfiot Magazine for a schedule of walks (www.thecorfiotmagazine.com).
Where to stay
By the nineties people stopped staying at the 'Cactus Hilton.' The fields became the permanent home of 'Freddie Fuhrer,' a German itinerant worker who became known as 'Freddie-two-tents' (before he bought an extra one and became 'Freddie-three-tents'). The 'Cactus Hilton' is now going through a different phase. A small villa has been built there called Villa Lula – and it's currently being rented by one of the 'Degenerates.' But nearby is Villa Theodora; once an old ruin occasionally used by cash strapped tourists who slept happily amongst the debris, it's now been reinvented as a summer retreat for visitors with modern amenities, secluded gardens and a swimming pool. Or for something more spacious there's Villa Aphrodite; sleeping eight, its nestled on the western edge of the village it has great views across the island through the Ermones gap in the hills. Or try Villa Persephone; with room for five, it's set amongst the olive groves in the valley, not far from the square (Note: the owner of Villa Persephone has informed us that his villa is no longer available to rent [Ed.]). But if you want to be within stumbling distance of Costa's Taverna, there are also simple rooms to stay in at Anna's Pension just behind it.