Sunday, July 1, 2012


 A gentle jaunt along the sublime north-east coast of Corfu

No, these are not photos from Thailand or the Caribbean - they are from the northeast coast of Corfu where I am fortunate enough to live.

Is there anything more relaxing than a leisurely cruise along a beautiful coastline in a boat that is small enough to get into the nooks and crannies of a rocky shoreline?
That is, as long as you are not under the command of a skipper who thinks he is Captain Bligh.
Fortunately ours is always pretty laid-back and his only desire is to please his passengers. As my son, I suppose he has to treat me as a cherished client, but I do not hesitate to recommend him here, not only as a skipper, but as the proprietor of one of the best boat chandleries in Corfu - Boatman's World at Kontokali! He and Joanna know their stuff!

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

 However you choose to interpret the words of this old rhyme, there is no denying that to sail, if not actually row, along the north-east coast of Corfu is to sail into a dream. And not only into a dream – into a reminder that we are never quite done with the past.
Corfu was a part of the Venetian Empire for almost 400 years, and today we cannot but recall that fact wherever we go on, or around,  this splendid island.

You may think that you know Corfu, but until you have sailed along its shores you cannot truly say that. Yachtsmen say that the coastline of Corfu is one of the most beautiful in the world and few would argue with that. There is such surprising variety in its scenery, such a pleasing harmony between the work of Man and of Nature. Seen from a small boat, the most blatantly ugly modern hotels (of which we have remarkably few in Corfu) are reduced to a regrettable but forgettable blot on the landscape, while the grace and charm of older buildings put things into perspective.
Now is the time to make such a journey, before the bays and coves of Corfu become cluttered with pleasure-craft, before the water-side tavernas become crowded, before the beaches lose their sparkling innocence.
It is the ideal way to escape from the heat, and if you are not lucky enough to own your own boat, then borrow one, rent one, or wheedle your way into some skipper's heart and persuade him to take you with him.

Come with me, and let’s sail merrily into that dream..

We could set off this time from the town of Corfu. We did so on a Benetteau Oceanis 461.

Lying off the east coast of Corfu, visible from the town, are two small islands – three if you count the solitary slab of rock called Brouzada. (It is also called Kaloyeros (Monk) by the locals, or Punk Rock by some of the British, as it appears to have a tuft of punk-style hair atop its otherwise bare rock.) Many a less-experienced sailor, taking part in one of  the regular off-shore races, has been led astray by the sheer sides of the rock and run aground on the shallow reef that lurks below the pale, tell-tale aquamarine sea that surrounds the rock.

The other two islands are called Vido and Lazaretto. Despite their small size, they carry an enormous amount of historical weight and human tragedy  upon their pine-clad shoulders,

Beach on Vido

Vido, in Venetian times, was connected by tunnels with the town of Corfu, and convicted criminals, after trial in the town, would be led via the tunnels to imprisonment on the island.

 In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it bristled with fortifications, Venetian. French and then British. But on the ceding of the Ionian Islands to Greece, the British blew up almost everything on the island, including a very ancient Byzantine church. Today, massive chunks of masonry are largely hidden by the abundant foliage of the island’s many trees and bushes. Rabbits, goats and pheasants, a reminder that this was for a while a Bird and Wild Life Sanctuary, roam freely and are quite tame. Vido was for a time a reformatory and as such was out of bounds, but now it welcomes visitors with its beautiful, tranquil scenery and unspoilt beaches.
It is perhaps best known for its Serbian Mausoleum and monument, commemorating the Serbian soldiers and civilians who were hospitalized on the island in 1915, many of whom subsequently died there.

The even smaller island of Lazaretto, also has a tragic history. The Venetians established a quarantine station here, for ships bound for Corfu. They were the first to establish the quarantine system, in the fifteenth century, and their stringent rules did much to lessen the spread of the plague epidemics that rampaged across Europe in those times. There was also a ‘leprosarium’ on Lazaretto, where victims of contagious diseases such as leprosy would be confined.
During the Second World War, and also between 1947 and 1949, a great many Greek Resistance fighters and political prisoners were executed on the island.

Hidden amongst mature trees, on the Corfiot hillside overlooking Lazaretto, is one of the famous ‘Durrell houses’, so-called because in the nineteen-thirties, the Durrell family rented it for a time, and Gerald Durrell wrote about it in his much-loved book, ‘My Family and Other Animals’, christening it ‘The Daffodil-Yellow Villa’.
Like so many of the old houses that remain along the Corfu coast-line, it dates back to Venetian times.

View of Lazaretto from the Durrell villa

Not far from this villa, is Sotiriotissa, with its old church  and attached house. Here the main road leading north out of Corfu Town turns inland, but the coastline continues in a series of small beaches backed by tall trees in which some outstanding examples of Venetian domestic and sometimes fortified architecture remain, many of them still occupied, some beautifully renovated.



Old houses and churches on the shoreline

It is here that we find Kontokali and Gouvia – well-known these days as holiday resorts, though the fortunes of Kontokali have declined noticeably, perhaps because the busy dual carriageway  discourages timid tourists from crossing it. The village is now dominated by the yacht marina, but there are still areas that look just as they always did, such as Gerekos island – not really an island but with the sense of separation from the mainstream that is the joy of island life. The men of Kontokali were always seamen and fishermen, and they still fish here, and mend their nets, maintain their boats and are closely monitored by hungry gulls and herons.

Gerekos Island

Govino Bay, enclosed by Gerekos island and the Kommeno peninsula, and the site of the large yacht marina, is a huge, safe anchorage, where the Venetian navy gathered its ships, and closed off the narrow entry with a great chain, which could be raised and lowered as required. Ruins of watchtowers and other naval buildings can still be seen, including the Venetian arsenal and dockyard at Gouvia, now a pleasant and popular little holiday resort.

  Venetian shipyard at Gouvia

Passing the little church of Ypapanti, a favourite venue for weddings and baptisms thanks to its photogenic appearance, we sail up towards the sparkling bays and coves formed where the limestone slopes of Mt Pantocrator meet the water’s edge.
Continuing northwards along the green, wooded shores, the idea that Corfu is ‘spoiled’ by tourism seems very far-fetched. Clusters of villas, apartments and tavernas are strung along the coast, dwarfed by the dense olive groves that give way here and there to the glittering crags and outcrops of Corfu’s highest mountain, Pantocrator.

Elegant villas abound, the older ones  screened by Mediterranean gardens brimming with palms, jasmine and bougainvillea.
There are houses that could not be closer to the sea, that were once fishermen’s huts, olive presses or olive pickers sheds- now so coolly glamorous that they frequently grace the pages of glossy magazines.

For example - 


The residences of modern, international giants of commerce, politics and the media draw the eye and perhaps arouse some envy, but even the longest lenses of the paparazzi are rarely able to breach the privacy  - that they offer gracious living by the sea is obvious, but who enjoys it is less easily observed.
Not all the Venetian buildings that dot the coast of Corfu started life as domestic residences. Let us not forget that in those days there was no road along the coast, and that pirates infested these waters, not to mention the successive waves of invaders . Many of the buildings that are now homes or tavernas, for example, were once staging posts for the boats that plied the coast, carrying passengers, freight and mail. Some simply provided seasonal accommodation for the olive pickers, who brought the crop to the shore to be pressed and shipped, in those days back to the relentlessly greedy merchants of Venice. St Stephano, Kaminaki, Agni and Kalami are testimony to these origins. 

View of Agni Bay

Most of the ancient villages were built high upon the hillsides overlooking the coast, their dwellings clustered tightly about each other, interspersed with narrow, twisting alleys and high walls to deter the marauders.
The closer to the shore a ‘modern’ villa is, the more likely it is that it started life as a functional building of some kind, usually an olive press.

There are several churches too, down at sea-level.
Perhaps the most famous (Lawrence Durrell write about it) and the most spectacularly-sited is the tiny chapel of St Arsenius, below Kentroma village.

I love Durrell's description of throwing cherries into the crystal-clear water nearby, and his wife               Nancy diving for them .

But the great white house that seems to rise out of the water itself at Kouloura, was a fortified Venetian lookout post. It was occupied by German troops in WWII for similar purposes, and its owner, an elderly lady, refused to leave her home and was allowed to remain, interned in one of the towers.  Wrongly identified by many guides and guidebooks as Lawrence Durrell’s temporary home, it now belongs to an influential Italian family.


The White House that was indeed Lawrence Durrell’s home for a time from 1936  still stands at Kalami, and is still available for rent. Its simple furnishings have changed little from Durrell’s day and include his writing desk. Much has changed at Kalami, but The White House retains a charm and an allure that represents the very best of the traditional Greek island holiday. The terrace of the building houses a Greek taverna where wisteria droops above the tables in April and May, where the view is of boats and ducks, swimming merrily if implausibly, between the small boats..

The White House at Kalami

Another of the most famous villas along this coast is of course that on the Rothschild estate. Its design could be said to hark back beyond Venetian times, perhaps to an Angevin stronghold?

Spotting the celebrities that visit each summer, when they emerge for a taverna supper, is a popular holiday pastime for holidaymakers in this area.
But more about the pleasures of a meal by the sea another time.

It is not only the creations of Man, however, that attract attention while sailing along past cliffs and coves, caves and beaches. The rock formations themselves are astonishing, hinting at primeval upheavals we can barely imagine.

Historical facts. rumour, intrigue and downright gossip – all have been borne on the sea breezes of this lovely and historic coastline.

So, row or sail or gently cruise your way up and down the coastline where history has been made in the past and continues, from time to time, to be made today.

 You could even surf it!

Or swim it!

I do recommend you read, or re-read, 'Prospero's Cell' by Lawrence Durrell for poetic descriptions of this coastline as it was and as it remains - utterly beautiful, utterly magical.

Thanks to my friend Frosso and to my sister Katy for the use of their photos - the rest are my own.


  1. A wonderful sail around Corfu's East Coast!!

  2. that was an ever so nice little journey along the so much loved coast! thanks!!!

  3. Just a little extra "useless" info from your son... Lazaretto was actually the name for leper quarantines all over, so there are other islands with the same name in Ithaca and Zakinthos. The name comes from Lazarus the most famous leper. It has also found its way into nautical terms with a "lazarette" being a locker or small hold at the back of a yacht or vessel where things are stowed in reverse order of usefelness. That is the most useful stuff hidden in the depths and all the useless stuff on top of it!!

  4. Oh, thank you for this priceless blog.

    I have been in love with Corfu since reading Gerald Durrell over 50 years ago. My one visit was not enough. These photos were wonderful as was your narrative.

  5. Lovely, makes me want to jump on a boat immediately!!

  6. A lovely sail along the coast. So much interesting info., ; and you can almost feel the dip and sway of the yachy.

    Photos lovely as usual,would that I could be there again!

  7. Such beautiful scenery, and fascinating history. Thanks for the virtual tour!


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