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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

TRAVEL - Corfu

Coastal coves and scenic mountains create a dramatic backdrop to island village life
by Nathalie Kyrou

Corfu, or Kerkyra, is an island steeped in history, the most northern of the Ionian isles on the western coast of Greece. Mythology says it was named after the nymph ‘Korkyra’, but the name ‘Corfu’ is actually an Italian corruption derived from the Greek ‘Koryphai’, meaning ‘crests’ or ‘peaks’. Indeed, Corfu is full of mountainous peaks from where one can take in the plethora of stunning views this island has to offer.

My first impression of Corfu is that it is the greenest Greek island I have ever visited. Cypress and pine trees, and naturally grown grass, create an interesting backdrop to the little villages which emerge like beige spots on a rich dark-green canvas. Everywhere I turn I am faced with a dramatic amalgam of contrasting scenery: from cliffs and hills to valleys and the sea.

A bus journey takes me through the charming villages of Liapades and Gardelades, which, with their old village homes cradled in hanging grape vines, are truly characteristic of the island. As we near our destination, on the north-western side of the island, I notice majestic slopes draped in lush greenery looming to my right, dotted with large Italian-style villas with terracotta tiled roofs and staccato yellow-washed and peach-stained walls, while to the left lies the intensely blue horizon of the vast and brilliant Ionian Sea. Sailboats peacefully graze the horizon while Greek flags flutter in the breeze.

Upon reaching Paleokastritsa (old castle place), I discover an array of small tranquil bays of aquamarine water, speckled with sailboats, and sprinkled with golden sand. I climb the road up to the monastery of Panagia-Theotokou from where the view is supreme. At the top of the hill I spot the sea caves in the distant coast below, which, like the more isolated sandy coves, are only reachable by boat. I click away with my camera, spoilt for choice by the scenery. Every angle presents me with a different - yet equally stimulating – viewpoint, each fascinating landscape more breathtaking than the last.

The monastery, located on the mountaintop, was founded in the 13th century. With its spilt-level courtyard intricately decorated with a variety of flowers and shrubbery, it too makes a model subject for endless photography. Arches are adorned with brilliant-coloured bougainvilleas, striking against the white-washed stone walls. You can visit the church which lies under a magnificent mural, or take a stroll through the leafy gardens with their stone-paved paths, through antique doors onto balconies which hang daringly over long drops and offer panoramic vistas of the sea beyond. Alternatively, you can visit the relics of a tiny museum or take a peek at the old oil-mill which is now surrounded by souvenirs and bottles of Kumquat liqueur (a divine concoction made from the small, citrusy-sweet, orange-like fruit which apparently only grow naturally in Corfu and China).

About 3 km further up the road we reach the village of Krini, from where you can ascent to Angelokastro, (Angelo’s or Angel’s castle), one of the most important Byzantine castles in all of Greece. The engineering of its construction at such a remote and forbidding location is remarkable. Perched on the peak of a precipitous rock it was built in the 13th century by priest Michael Angelo. The impregnable fortress played a pivotal role during the Great Siege of Corfu in 1571 when the Turkish attackers were successfully defended by the castle.

A great way to replenish your energy after an excursion in Corfu is to order a fish meze at a local taverna. I indulge in delicious, fried marides (tiny fish) and fresh sardines, as well as calamari so tender that it practically melts in my mouth. Avgotaraho, an island delicacy (which I wish I could get a life-time supply of), is a type of caviar-like fish roe, packed into a sausage shape and preserved in a wrapping of wax. The dancers at the restaurant dazzle me as they perform amongst flames, while the owner stands proudly beside them squirting lighter fluid onto the blaze and throwing metal plates onto the floor (obviously a modern and less messy version of the Greek plate-smashing tradition).

My next trip is to Corfu’s capital, Kerkyra. Officially declared a Kastropolis (castle city) by the Greek Government, the city's old town was also added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007. Under Venetian rule from 1401 until 1797, the capital, as a result, has acquired a unique look influenced by Italianate architecture, and epitomised by the Venetian-Roman style City Hall. Unlike many other touristic city centres, the old pedestriansed part of Kerkyra is not jarred by modern souvenir shops. Crumbling houses stand remarkably steady in their fresh coats of peach, yellow or pink paint, with their original wooden shutters and tiny iron balconies upon which sit Corfiot women, drinking their afternoon kafĂ© as they peer down at the masses of foreigners wandering around the narrow, 13th century granite streets below.

If you can tackle the maze of roads in town, there is a plentitude of historical attractions worth visiting, namely Kerkyra’s churches. Ayios Eleftherios and Ayia Anna are fascinating chapels, their detailed ceiling murals inspiring silent admiration. Considered the city’s most important church, Ayios Thavmatourvos Spiridonas is named after the patron saint of Corfu, Cypriot-born Saint Spyridon ‘Keeper of the City’, who was revered for his miracles, especially that of expelling the plague from Corfu.

The most captivating site from the town’s central square is of the old Venetian fortress at the tip of Garista Bay. The ‘Palaio Frourio’ (old fortress) is the most famous and important castle in Corfu. Built on a rocky islet, with fortifications surrounding its entire perimeter, the citadel is connected to the mainland by a bridge which lies across a pseudo half-moat. The lighthouse which stands at the peak of the fortress, as well as the temple of Apollo and the restored ancient buildings, are enchanting.

The next morning, I set off to tour the north-eastern part of the island. Dassia’s pebbly beaches are too touristic to muster any of my interest, but as I pass by the coastal towns of Barbati and Nissaki, tall peaks rise to my left and the open sea falls to my right, and it is hard not to get carried away by the splendour of it all as the narrow lane wraps itself like a twisted rope around bends, weaving in and out of tiny villages which are perched precariously on the cliff-side.

My next stop is the picturesque village of Kalami, one of the most famous spots on the island, mainly thanks to the Bristish Durrell brothers, Gerald and Lawrence, who found a writing haven here back in the 1930s. Corfu, with its vegetation and weather is the perfect breeding ground for all sorts of creatures: fish, lizards, stray dogs, birds, and lots of insects. All of this was certainly an inspiration to Gerald Durrell, author of best-selling novel, ‘My Family and Other Animals’, which was written here in the brothers’ house, which has now been converted into a tavern called The White House - a popular place for tourists to visit or lodge. (Brother Lawrence is best known for his novel ‘The Bitter Lemons of Cyprus’ also written here in Corfu.)

I follow the route towards the most north-eastern point of the island, diverting at Ayios Stefanos to catch a glimpse of the Albanian mountains on the horizon. At Kassiopi, on the bottom edge of Aspraou Bay, I am appalled to find village life bombarded by tourism. Only the sandy beach further along Aspraou Bay is worth stopping at for a swim. On the other side of the clean, shallow waters, runs a footpath (one of the many hiking trails which exist in Corfu), which leads from the main road through the tall grasses to one of the few lakes that exist in Corfu: Limni Antiniotissa.

As I approach Acharavi and continue to Roda, the bland effects of the tourist invasion once again suck all the character out of each town. Thankfully, the drive further along the coast to the famous beach at Sidari is worth the journey up here. The natural rock formations are spectacular: at the entrance of the bay there is a natural tunnel in the rock - this sea channel gave the beach its name: canal d'amour (French for ‘channel of love’).

On my way back, I turn inland onto a side road which leads to the mountains through Episkepsi (a lovely name which means ‘visit’), a village known for being untouched by the ugly hands of tourism. I continue along the winding roads framed by never-ending fields of olive trees (of which there are more than 3 million on the island!). I am flabbergasted by their ancient barks, all twisted and filled with holes, cracks and protrusions, like something out of a fairy-tale.

At Sgourades I take a sharp turn left and start the steep climb uphill. From any point, if you are high enough, you will be rewarded with a “bella vista”. Finally I reach the highest point on Mount Pantokratoras, which looms above its rocky peers at a towering height of 906m. At its peak (the highest point on the island), I have a dazzling view of Corfu’s entire coastline.

At Strinilas, a village close to the summit, I stop for a bite to eat. To my amazement, I discover that the square opposite the tavern is called none other than Platea M.Karaolis & A.Dimitriou, named after two Cypriot war heroes who, to my disbelief, actually originate from my village in Cyprus! I enjoy my Greek salad and spanahopittes (spinach pies) under the shade of the old elm tree, then later walk through the little streets behind the tavern as the scent of burning olive wood lingers in the air, and the odd elderly woman tackles steep, rocky steps with the aid of nothing but her wooden cane.

In the region of Gastouri to the south of the capital, I visit one of Corfu’s main attractions: the Achilleion. Built by Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, this grand summer palace, a monument to platonic romanticism as well as escapism, is adorned with neoclassical statues and paintings depicting scenes from the Trojan War. The Imperial gardens, where the marble statue of the mortally wounded Achilles is erected, provide a captivating view of the surrounding hill crests, valleys and sea. Another place of interest to be found just south of the capital is the island known as Pontikonisi (mouse island). Filled with trees, this miniature isle is home to the monastery of Pantokrator. It is the white stone staircase that when viewed from afar gives the impression of a mouse’s tail which lent the island its name.

My time in Corfu seems to end much too swiftly. As my plane rises up into the dusky sky, seeming for a few moments to glide along Lake Korissou beneath it, I can just make out the dusty, pale outline of the island. As the dramatic cliffs recede into the distance, a fleeting image of a villa, nestled amongst tall cypress trees by a cosy harbour, imprints one final and lasting memory of Corfu’s contrasting and glorious landscape in my mind.

Copyright Nathalie Kyrou © 2009