islands join hands…

may 20, 2013

a bright, sunny and almost too hot day, clear blue skies, greet us at our first island destination, the greek island of corfu.

I’ve long wanted to visit corfu, every since reading gerald durrell’s “my family and other animals” (the first and most famous of his three books about his childhood in corfu) as a young man, and I can tell you right away, I was in no way disappointed – in fact, I would say I am astonished at what a wonderful and diverse place corfu is.

I am not normally one to book a proper tour, but given that we only had one day on the island, and we wanted to cover as much ground as possible, we relented and I picked the longest possible tour, which goes right round the entire island stopping at various scenic and/or historic sites along the way – a six and a half hour tour.  not much time, but as much as we could manage, and I was so, so pleased with that decision – because it was possibly the most enjoyable tour, and the most enjoyable day, I can remember in a long time.

where to begin? we were met by our tour guide, a pleasant middle-aged greek woman, who had an enormous wealth of knowledge about corfu; it’s history, it’s inhabitants, it’s customs, it’s quirks, and listening to her commentary throughout the day really opened my eyes about the place that corfu has in both greek and world history.  this stood us in good stead throughout the day, and by the end of it, I felt educated, entertained and thoroughly pleased.  we set off on the tour, and after perhaps 20 or 30 minutes, we began to climb and climb, up and up, on the tightest switchbacks, on a tiny road, and it was difficult to see how on earth that large of a bus could actually stay on a road that narrow and winding – but it did, and we eventually reached what seemed like quite literally, the top of the world.

our first destination was very possibly chosen for the incredibly dramatic effect that it had on the tour’s passengers, a monastery – the monastery of the virgin at paleoakstritska, corfu –  placed high, high on a hill overlooking the most incredibly coloured and beautiful sea I have ever, ever seen.  an old greek orthodox church stands on the site, guarded by vine-climbing cats and beautiful gardens both decorative and practical – vegetables growing alongside palm trees with grape vines overhead, cool shady gardens surrounding the all white buildings.

but the view – was literally breathtaking.  in the bright sun, the colour of the water, seen from on high, is so extraordinary that the only way I can describe it is to say “you had to see it for yourself”.  yes, I took photos, lots and lots of photos, and videos, and while you can see the colours well in the photos, it’s still not the same as standing against a smooth, white wall and gazing down at the beautiful, rocky inlets – and depending on the depth of the water, many different coloured areas blend together into a stunning seascape the likes of which I’ve never seen – set in an equally impressive landscape.  we took the obligatory photos and videos and panoramas, of course, and then reluctantly got back onto the bus to carry on around the island…

the next stop was another high point, after another feat of large-bus-on-tiny-climbing-road-miracle-driving, which included a drive through a greek village with streets so incredibly narrow that there is literally millimetres of clearance on either side of the road, and in actual fact, residents cannot open their shutters without risking them being knocked off by passing tour buses – absolutely remarkable – eventually, we arrive at what was actually just a rest stop (called “the golden fox”), but again, once we disembarked from the bus, we were treated to an amazing overlook of palaiokastritsa (or paleoakstritska whichever you prefer), which is another incredibly beautiful and unique corfu seascape / landscape…and we realised later, that we were actually now looking down on the monastery of the virgin where we had just been…looking down at the beautiful seascapes!  it’s strange to think we were in such an amazing, high spot while at the monastery…and then, that we would climb even higher, ending up looking down on the high spot that wasn’t so high after all…that’s strange!

as the day was getting hotter, not unpleasantly so, but we could not have asked for better weather really…(especially given that our three days in venice previously had shown us the worst of mediterranean weather, downpour, rough seas, rain, winds, etc.) we felt that ice cream was in order, so we sat there eating delicious greek ice cream, looking out over this incredible scene, with the endlessly fascinating / coloured sea, and already at this point, I could totally understand naturalist-turned-author-turned-zoo-owner gerald durrell’s love for the place (and indeed, the whole durrell family, which includes another very respected author, lawrence durrell) – I got it, immediately.

I don’t at this point want to give the impression that corfu is only amazing views or overlooks of the sea, while that is certainly one aspect of it’s many charms, it’s only one aspect, and as we drove on through the countryside, continuing towards mount pantokrator , we were treated to a series of unique and beautiful landscapes, climbing through scrub covered hills that might have been in southern california; on through farmlands, towns, villages, treeless areas and many different and often beautiful environments.  corfu is full of surprises, around every corner, and our next destination, the seaside town of kassiopia, was simply one of the most idyllic places that we’ve ever been to.

the tour bus could only go so far into the town, but a short walk down the main street for my companion, and a short car ride for myself, delivered us to a really nice outdoor restaurant just a few hundred yards from the seafront, with huge quantities of white wine, and a lovely vegetarian meal following our greek salads…a really fantastic lunch, outdoors, in the shade, watching the world go by.  afterwards, we walked the short distance to the seaside, and sat on a bench a few inches from the water, and watched the boats, both those that were moored and any that were under sail, too.  it was midday, but the bright, bright sun was not in any way too hot, it was just perfect.

we agreed that we could have sat there, looking at the rippling, clear mediterranean water, lapping gently against the shore, forever.  but we couldn’t – so we went back up to the meeting point, and sat in a very pleasant town square, in the sun, until the bus returned to retrieve us.

more travel…more environments, me snapping many, many photos through the bus windows; driving along the northeast coastline via the village of nissaki and the coastal resorts of barbati, ipsos, dassia, gouvia and kontokali, as we made our way back to our starting point, corfu town.  driving through the one substantial urban centre on the island that we did visit, the architecture and the faded buildings lent an air of neglected grace. but as interesting as corfu town assuredly is (and time constraints meant we couldn’t stop in corfu town, only drive through it – so we did have a whirlwind view of it), it’s the countryside that sticks in my mind…the rural areas of corfu, the tiny villages, the churches, the amazing, amazing sea surrounding the island and the awe-inspiring views of the sea and the coastline – that’s the charm and the beauty of corfu.

corfu town does have a charm of it’s own, and some very grand buildings, a large fortress and many historical landmarks which flew past the bus windows faster than we could really register them, and before we knew it, we were headed back out to our ship on the tender, preparing for the next day, the next island adventure…

may 21, 2013

today, after steaming all night from corfu, we arrive to an incredibly bright, sunny and extremely hot day, to find ourselves at santorini, our next island destination, and santorini, for me, was incredibly beautiful to look at, almost unreal, but a very physical challenge, because the main city, thera (or fira, depending) is precariously perched at the top of a cliff, and, since we refuse to ride the poor donkeys, the only way up besides walking, which is also out – was a very small and fairly terrifying funicular.  it had to be something like 90 degrees fahrenheit (at least 90!!) at the base of that cliff, and of course, there was a long queue, standing in the sun…I was seeking shade, shade, any shade while my partner braved the queue for the funicular.  eventually, she got the tickets, and we climbed up to queue again – and there it was, six tiny cars, four passengers to a car – not a particularly efficient way to travel.

a few rocking and terrifying, but with an amazing view, minutes later, we were at the top, in thera itself.  but we were so hot, and so tired, from that experience, that all we wanted was to sit down in a restaurant and get a cool drink – so that is what we did.  we discussed our original plan to get a bus to visit nearby oia, a town some distance away, and decided with the heat, and the physical difficulties, that it was out of the question, so we settled instead for a look around thera.

it’s a remarkable city, since all of the houses are painted white, with the occasional famous blue dome (photos of santorini are all over the internet, and you can see this all white with blue domes construction all across the island) – the white houses simply because that’s reflects the most heat, so it’s for a sensible reason.  but it also looks amazing, all of these bright, bright white buildings perched on this cliff top – remarkable.

santorini itself has a unique history, it’s one of a few islands that are the remnant of a massive volcanic (bronze age) eruption, there is a “ring” of islands that surround a very volcanic looking “island”, called “volcano” on the local maps, in the centre of the circle, and you can take a boat out to visit this central volcanic island, which contains the unique black volcanic rock common to the region.  that rock is used now to make statues and other artefacts, and it’s a beautiful, porous, deep black material – lovely.

so standing, or sitting, up on the cliff, overlooking the sea, seeing the cruise ships anchored below, and the volcano island out in the middle of the circle, is an amazing sight, what an incredible, incredible view!

we walked around thera for a short while, finding two museums, both closed (not very useful, but there you are) and looking through some of the local shops, before returning to the cliff edge, finding another restaurant – and having a couple more cold drinks – this time, we were still SO thirsty, and SO hot, that we each had a large fresh orange juice, and a strawberry sorbet – and that was just fantastic, in fact, we would often order fresh orange juice and despite it being quite expensive, no matter where we bought it, it was always absolutely fantastic tasting, cold but as if it had just come out of the orange – absolutely wonderful.

time was pressing, so once again, my partner queued for the downhill funicular ride, while I sat in the shade, and eventually, we found ourselves back down at the water’s edge, we boarded the tender and returned to the ship for the next part of the adventure, which will be in the next blog – hopefully very soon.

I would say that out of the four islands we visited, that I really, really loved corfu the best – it had such a range of beautiful environments, and dramatic scenery, amazing, impossibly beautiful views, but also, a homey, sleepy, quiet, dreamy atmosphere, a place where you could just rest in a sort of endless siesta…sleep, wake, sleep some more…while santorini has the dramatic cliff and beautiful white city, it did not have the same kind of feeling that corfu did.

this was an amazing memory for myself and for my partner, a trip we will never, ever forget, and I am so glad we decided to do it, despite the physical challenges it presented – it was so, so worth it, I would have done it just for the six and a half hours on corfu – it would have been worth it just for that part alone, so the rest is just a bonus, really!

there is so much more that I could say about both corfu and santorini, but words fail me, and all I see, if I close my eyes, are the images of the dramatic views from both islands, which are unforgettable, and while I did preserve those views in pictures, taking many, many photos at each of the four islands we visited, it’s the views in my memory that I cherish the most, and I can close my eyes and go to corfu any time I want to, which is the most amazing feeling – I love it!

next time: mykonos and katakolon (olympia)

see you there. 🙂