I discovered the emerald Ionian isle of Corfu – ancient poet Homer's "beautiful and rich land" – a few years back, en route to Albania, and it has been one of my go-to short-hop havens ever since. The island encapsulates Greek warmth – friendly outgoing people, fire dancing and plate smashing, welcoming rustic villages, and hearty food served beside sun-drenched scenic bays. This time around, I travelled with my mum to explore the mountainous north-west coast by land and sea, and soak up some of the island's cultural sights.
Lightning flashed across the night sky, illuminating the steep forested cliffs and deep coves of north-west Corfu's wonderfully scenic coastline. We had been sitting in a taverna admiring a graceful yacht anchored in one of Paleokastritsa's many bays, its double masts lined with little lights, when it began to sway evermore violently as the heavens suddenly opened.
We watched as the Belvedere Taverna's staff, evidently not expecting an almighty downpour, began furiously winding away at the canopy as if manning the sails in a storm. Victoria, the Scandinavian-turned-Greek waitress, with the benign look of a dormouse but the rapid energy of a squirrel, told us that rain is a rarity in Corfu in the summer, though damp winters are the reason the island is so green.
As we tucked into tasty chicken Souvlaki, cosy and sheltered against the storm, a little bat, clearly looking for shelter too, caused yet more commotion as he became trapped beneath the canopy and flapped to free himself. A couple of drinks later, the rain stopped completely and the sky was a majestic realm of stars. As we ventured back to our accommodation accompanied by an affable, scruffy stray dog, the fresh air was filled with the fragrant and invigorating smell of cypress and wild herbs. It felt as if the island could keep us in bucolic grace indefinitely.
The calm after the storm
Next morning the sea was still and clear as a mountain lake. This was how it had been for the last few days as we swam and trekked along the north-west coast, living between the woods and the water, climbing on rocks, nipping into sea caves and traversing winding donkey tracks through shady cypress groves.
Having booked the cheapest possible return ticket – £100 each isn't bad for July – we took a night flight from Gatwick to Corfu with Thomson Airways. Landing at first light, a menagerie of moths still fluttered around the lamps as we headed through the crumpled green countryside. Our wonderful hosts – Eleni and family – showed us to a 2-bedroom apartment at the Marilena complex on the edge of Paleokastritsa with a large balcony overlooking almost unbroken wilderness. We had reserved a studio so were pleasantly surprised at the impromptu upgrade.
Drinking in the view at the first cock's crow, I witnessed a magical spectacle as a large cloud of bats appeared above the balcony. They suddenly began to take it in turns to dart down towards the swimming pool, leaving behind small ripples on the surface like raindrops in a puddle. At this time of day, Corfu belongs to its wildlife, and it was strange to think that later kids would unknowingly splash about in the watering hole of these little winged beasts. In fact, for a city girl, it is delightful to see such an abundance of small creatures in Corfu – from wild tortoises, lizards and snakes to pine martens, bats and copious butterflies. Sadly, my first tortoise sighting was of a crushed one at the roadside – proof that retreating into your shell is no defence against the modern age.
The coast is clear
On our first day amid the deeply curving coves of Paleokastritsa, a grass snake slalomed into a crevice as I descended stairs to a small secret beach. This sand and stone cove and its translucent waters are no secret to the locals though, and a few Greek families were enjoying a Saturday at the beach. The cerulean blue of the sea here still takes me by surprise. Even after floating around the famous Caribbean waters a few weeks earlier, the bays around Paleokastritsa appear a surer shade of cyan.
Flanked by silver cliffs, sunlight dances off the water and across the rocks. Swimming out into the lovely languid waters, I could see why: the shallow sandy bottom and crystal-clear water reflect the warm sunlight to create the deep turquoise hue. My mum, not accustomed to swimming in the wild, was bobbing about like a mermaid. "Oo it's better than a swimming pool," she said.
The area is just perfect for swimming and snorkelling, and the coves and caverns are ripe for exploration by boat. We rented a small motor boat with a full tank of petrol from Agathos for 60 Euros for the day and picked it up from the port. Many of the beaches along the rugged coastline are only accessible by sea and I had spied a golden sand bar betwixt land and a rocky outcrop on Google maps that provided fine treasure for the hunt. A local friend, Patros, who runs Petrino's Garden, a delightful bar-eatery along the coastal road, advised us to check that petrol is included in the agreed price as sometimes fuel is charged separately and it can really bump up the cost.
Between the woods and the water
While hiring a boat is a must, if you are up for the challenge of steep and sometimes difficult terrain, by far the best way to explore the coast is on foot. In north Corfu, crags and promontories carpeted with olive trees, punctuated by pyramidal cypress trees, soar towards the sky, rugged and impossibly high. Beneath them orchards of lemons and grapes grow. Though I tried many times to frame it, the coast here has a transcendental beauty that can't be captured on camera. It drives you to explore further and further afield knowing there will be a hidden cavern or off-the-beaten track beach as a reward for your efforts.
"You get to know the landscape and the people by walking," said my mum. "Little things like being greeting by a passing woman leading a donkey down a track, waving and smiling old ladies doing embroidery in a shack and children selling home-made lemonade outside their gate give you a glimpse of Corfu that seems like it hasn't changed in centuries." While ambling through the north-west countryside, one of our quirkier discoveries was a fascinating old oil factory complete with enormous cogs resembling the inner workings of a huge clock. I'm pretty sure that it won't be mentioned in any of the guide books.
As we trekked up a rough donkey track that passes from the rustic village of Liapedes into cypress trees and olive groves, I noticed a veritable kitchen of wild herbs growing beside it – oregano, bay, rosemary, sage and fennel to name a few. Weaving our way up and down stony paths we caught glimpses of turquoise between the trees before descending onto a sparsely populated sand and pebble cove. Rimmed by low cliffs set with dark green caves, the bay is a dazzling deep blue. This must be the fabled Rovina, I thought, that Iocals had told me was "the best beach". The setting is not as spectacular as the much-photographed bay of Paleokastritsa, but a merciful lack of roads means Rovina is still surrounded by unfettered nature and never crowded.
Though nature's bounty is undoubtedly the main attraction in this part of the island, the farthest high promontory of Paleokastritsa is crowned by a cultural gem. Perched on the edge, shrouded by wild groves and guarded by dozens of cats, is a small and charming 13th-century monastery.
During the steep climb up the concrete road that circles the rock, I agree with my mum that coaches should not be allowed up here. The road is narrow, and as the tour buses swing round the corners, pedestrians are left teetering on the edge of the precipice. 'Not good for vertigo,' said mum, attempting to steady her legs. At the top we stopped to rest in a shady garden and were surprised to find peacocks housed in an enclosure next door. From the highest vantage point we gazed on dramatic sea views stretching to the famous Kolovri Rock, said to be the petrified ship of ancient Greek hero Odysseus.
Visitors can enter the monastery of Theotokos from 3pm provided they are appropriately dressed. Fortunately brightly coloured sarongs to cover legs and shoulders are handed out by the heavy wooden door. The outer building, with sunny yellow walls draped in bougainvillea and arched walkways lined with plant pots, is a mere 200 years old. Wizened, contemplative and benign, the nuns sit in shady corners dispensing nods and smiles and there is an easy, peaceful air about the place. But inside the old church – candle-lit and richly decorated with medieval paintings and icons – the atmosphere is deeply reverent. "It's really an enchanting place," said my mum. "Stunning iconography and I feel very comfortable here even though I'm not religious. It's so peaceful I could come here every day of the week."
Taking a break from the coast, mum and I took a public bus to Corfu Town to explore the island's heart. My first impressions of Corfu Town had been of a charming city with leafy squares serving a thriving cafe culture and lots of bakeries selling tasty Greek pastries. Having relished the narrow warren of streets in the city's UNESCO-listed old town on a previous visit, I was curious to see what mum would think. As we disembarked at the bus station near the port and walked along the seafront, mum was first struck by the towering twin fortresses keeping watch over the city. And as we dived into the old town's maze of lanes squeezed between Venetian-style buildings and emerged into open squares filled with cafes, she was impressed by the city's timeworn grace. "It's good to see the modern shops disguised behind the colonnaded walkways", she commented as we walked down the main street. "It's a very pretty city which has an old world feel."
After lunch in the wide open and green Esplanade Square we headed up to the neighbouring old fortress set on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea and the city. Built by the Venetians in the 15th century, this crumbling lump of a castle is worth scaling simply for the superb panoramic views from the top. Aside from the canons, there is precious little else to see.
A smashing time
On our last night in Paleokastritsa we visited an upmarket local restaurant – Nereids – with a large garden set into a deep hollow by the sea. At first we took the young Greek dancers for waiters – with their all-black outfits and red sashes – but they had already pointed us towards a table before we realised that they were the purveyors of the night's entertainment.
As I tucked into Bekri Meze – a delicious hotpot of slow-cooked beef, white wine, peppers, mushrooms and a hint of cinnamon served with roasted potatoes – we had a front-row seat for the action, as they begun their frenetic dance. A series of ever-more energetic and acrobatic routines built gradually into a crescendo, performed to Zorba the Greek-style music. The dynamic duo linked arms and begun with fancy footwork and synchronized leg flicking that reminded me of an Irish jig. But this was just the warm up. Soon the earth was on fire and they were stamping rhythmically between the flames.
Next, a table in the corner was set alight and one of the dancers lifted it into the air by gripping it between his teeth, before spinning it around like a giant Catherine wheel. For the next trick, two burning tables were piled on top of each other as the dancer clasped the bottom one in his jaw and whirled around with his partner hanging upside down from his waist. This was no ordinary Greek dance; these two had the showmanship of magicians. Awe-inspiring acrobatics over, they handed round plates in preparation for the finale – the infamous plate smashing. As the flying saucers hurtled over our table and smashed onto the flagstones all around, I found myself wishing the British could find time for such cathartic customs, just to loosen us up a smidge.