Tuesday, January 15, 2013
My daughter Joanna belongs to a group here in Corfu that promotes the riding of bicycles, The group is called ORTHOPETALIA and amongst other activities, which include efforts to keep Corfu’s roads safe for cyclists, especially in the town, the group organizes regular bike rides, day and evening, children welcomed..
The most recent ride. around the town, was joined by a group from outside Greece, with some funky bikes and a musical accompaniment – the sight and sounds of which added some spice to the usual Sunday morning coffee at the Liston!
Bike-riding in Corfu needs little promotion – it used to be very popular, not only for recreation and it is within living memory that the choice of transport lay between the donkey and the bicycle. It was common to see women of indeterminate age riding a donkey that was loaded with hay or firewood or sacks of just-picked olives. They rode side-saddle, swaddled in their traditional costume, often leading several goats at the same time.
( well not an old village woman but me – getting in some practice and enjoying the experience!)
The Sixties saw the arrival of Vespas and Lambrettas, which the local women continued to ride as passengers, strictly side-saddle!
Men seemed to prefer bicycles though could be seen riding a donkey with the wife walking behind! - and they were ridden by tradesmen of all kinds .
I remember one character from the Sixties, when the Club Med was very popular in Corfu and had a great influence on some people; he was a fisherman and called himself Pierre. He rode his bike with a basket bearing his catch, while he himself always wore a French matelot – style striped tee shirt, with a jaunty beret on his head, a red scarf about his neck and a Gauloise clamped between his teeth.
Young teenagers then had little chance of owning a moped or motorbike let alone a car and they rode around on courting expeditions on old-fashioned bikes. Skilled at what we now call ‘wheelies’, the boys and girls used to corral each other in ever-decreasing circles, graceful and charming to watch.
Walking was, of course, the third option for getting about, and the number of very old people in Corfu who until recently were to be seen striding up and down the hillside roads between their homes and their places of work was proof of the advantages of this lifestyle. Along with the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ that was always followed here, the exercise virtually guaranteed a long and healthy life
The results of years of increasing prosperity – complacency, idleness and a dependence on the automobile - have been affected seriously by the present state of the Greek economy and this has been one of the causes of a revival in certain activities – growing your own food, a return to the harvesting of olives, barter schemes, clothing sold by the kilo and a new interest in the use of the bicycle which seemed to have lapsed temporarily.
Back in England, the bike was much favoured by my own family. I started with a tricycle but graduated to a ladies’ Raleigh. My father, grandmother and grandpa all had Raleighs – my mother preferred her own two legs.
My grandpa rode his well into his nineties, at which point the local constabulary paid us a visit and begged my father to curtail Papa’s rides as he had become a traffic hazard. Pipe between his teeth, hands firmly on the handlebars, he would sail out into the main road and make right-hand turns across oncoming traffic without a glance or an indication of his intent.
When I came to live and work in Corfu in the Sixties, there were very few cars on the island and I quickly rediscovered the pleasure of a long bike ride.
Setting off from the Ionion Hotel where I used to stay, I would ride through Mandouki, where the sea still came up to the old houses and the small factories of the district, and fishing boats were tied up alongside the road.
Further along, where the main road is now lined on one side with commercial property in the form of bars, discos, clubs and restaurants, there was nothing but olive groves, with eucalyptus and mimosa trees bordering the sea. I would stop there for a chat in halting Greek with the people working in the olive grove.
At Alykes, with its saltpans, the road continued to be lined with eucalyptus trees, tall and infinitely graceful. This was the area where Gerald Durrell, then living in the Daffodil Yellow Villa just above sea level, met his convict friend and learned about fishing. Lidl and Profi were still a long way in the future, and the sea curled far closer to the wooded hillside and the grand Victorian mansion itself than it now does.
The dual carriageway did not exist then and the ‘main’ road squeezed through Kontokali with its old cottages and on through Gouvia, with the remains of some old estates.
Here I would turn right and follow the road to Dassia. The whole of this area appeared to be one giant orange grove, and in early summer the air was heady with the sweet perfume of the orange blossom. Often the flowers were sharing the twigs with the last of the fruit.
The Merlin Estate was, and still is, at Dassia. It was one of the Greek estates owned by the British Merlin family, and it was here that Sydney Merlin, a noted botanist, introduced a type of Californian navel orange to Greece in 1925, known ever since as the Merlin orange, and subsequently grew the first koum kwats in Greece – a fruit that is now almost a trademark of Corfu. It is worth reading about the Merlin family – their history is interesting with its varied connections – Greek politics, Olympic marksmanship, citrus fruit and the famous Merlin aircraft engine!
Beyond Dassia, the road continued past the famous Castello Mimbelli, then a rather grand hotel, and the gates of the Club Mediterranee, then in its Corfu heyday. It dipped to sea level again at Ipsos, which presented a very different appearance from that of today. Two or three old-fashioned hotels with gardens running down to the sea, fishing boats and a serene, typically Corfiot hinterland of olive and orange groves.
It would have been easy to continue further north, as the Ipsos coastal road was flat, but from Pyrgi onwards the road, such as it was, became a rough corniche route with many hills and moreover that part of the island was a military zone due to its proximity to Albania. Foreigners required a special permit from the Aliens Police Dept in order to travel there.
Car traffic was not a problem the cyclist of the Sixties was likely to encounter. Unlike today, when car drivers are reluctant to share the roads, in town at least, with bikes and their riders.
But in Corfu, people start riding bikes from an early age and let’s hope the revived popularity of the machine will continue to grow and be recognized.