I am sorry for not publishing in the last three weeks but I have been resting up in Corfu, which of course is in Greece and believe me whatever they say about Greece and its economic woes it is certainly obvious in Corfu. With petrol at 1.90 euros per litre and cash the only real way of getting by. Cheques and cards are laughed at and I understand that this is not a new phenomenon. The black economy thrives and has done for years. What a pity because the north part of the island is a little jewel.
Monday afternoon we landed in Corfu after a relatively comfortable flight in an Air Bus 300 packed with 300 plus expectant holiday makers. A very warm blast of 32C air hit us as we emerged from the massive people carrier. The descent had been over the heel of Italy, round the bottom of the island and landing from the south west onto a very narrow airstrip that had obviously been reclaimed from the Med. Over water one minute and then onto tarmac and swiftly through passport control to be met by two very nice gangsters from the car hire company who were not worried about insurance formalities or future damage, their only interest was cash. We were given a four door Hyundai for 140 euros per week and told to leave the key under the mat and park up in the adjacent car park when we were leaving. It was all very laid back and our man counted out the 280 euros three times.
We drove north out of a crowded Kekyra town, along the east side of the island with some tremendous views over bays and out across the straits to Albania, a few miles across the straits. It is amazing that when Enver Hoxha was at the heights of his powers, ruling Albania with a communistic iron fist, there was this little jewel of opulence sitting winking at the abject poverty of the mainland just a short distance across the water. Things do not seem to have changed Albania seems an hostile place even today and the few tourists who do cross on the ferry come back with alarming stories. The Albanians prefer to stay in the 19th century.
A passable meal and a bottle or two of local plonk in beautiful surroundings in the local taverna just a few hundred yards up the mountain with unbeatable views south to Kekyra and beyond to Greece proper and we were ready for bed after our exertions. As we slept the mosquitos took their toll. We had ignored the mosquito nets at every bed and had opened all windows to catch the odd whiff of sea breeze. We were soon educated but by then too late as we were covered with itchy red blotches. I counted 38 bites on my pale northern body at breakfast the next day.
The Villa del Cielo that my daughter had picked was something else. We had just found out that it was listed in the 100 finest villas in Europe and it certainly lived up to its reputation, sitting as it did on a shoulder of Mount Pantokratur, the highest mountain on the island. The mountain itself was about 3000 feet high and we were situated 1200 feet up it, approached by a very narrow road that twisted and turned up this nearly sheer face of the mountain. We were on the 27th hairpin bend just about 1o bends below the village of Spartilas. We then hit the dirt track approach road which was really just one of the terraces that had been constructed many years before. You had to hand it to the ancient Corfiotans, they had terraced the whole mountain to enable olive trees to grow on these slopes. It was not a good idea to tackle this approach road at night and certainly not with drink taken.
The Villa itself was so beautifully thought out and constructed, a rambling affair with a massive kitchen and lounge area overlooking the straits and with views across to Albania and down to Corfu Town about 15 kilometres away. Across the olive tree studded gardens was a massive pool, the end of which just merged with the sea albeit a thousand feet above it. Adjacent to the pool was the tower, newly constructed on the lines of an Irish round tower of the 12th century about 10 metres in diameter entered up a flight of steps and through a door into the bathroom with a massive iron bath about 1.2 metres deep, you could almost swim in it. Up stone steps to the bedroom and a bed you could sleep four people with ease and up more steps and onto the viewing platform with even better views over the panorama. Four other bedrooms containing everything you could wish for were splayed at angles all over and all accessible from the house proper. The kitchen itself had every known instrument and knife one could imagine and a large Rangemaster stove and massive American fridge/ freezer. It was heaven. The lounge area where I never went had comfortable seating for lots of people and had a large screen that could receive nearly every channel in the world from its 2.4 metre diameter dish set up at the back of the house. There was also lots of other contraptions connected to this media centre which I did not try to understand but it kept the children busy.
There were 14 of us in total, six kids and eight adults and thankfully lots and lots of space. On the meandering path between tower and house was the barbecue area, a covered space laid out like a proper kitchen with its own wood burning stove, charcoal grill, electric grill, fridge, cutlery and crockery, dishwasher and sink . The owners had thought of everything. Outside of this was a massive stone table that easily sat us all, positioned in the shade of several olive trees where unfortunately in the evening the dreaded mossies lurked, scanning the panoply for an inch of exposed and unprotected flesh. They sometimes ate better than we did. It seems, so the locals told us that the mountain does not suffer from these insidious insects but the very warm autumn weather, more August than October had caused these pesky nuisances to proliferate. I suppose as with life you cannot have everything your way.
I awoke on Day Two at 6.30am with the mountain coming to life but still dark. From the verandha, which was really another living and eating area, you could look down and see the headlights of cars weaving their way through the succession of hairpins. Locals going to work and traders bringing their goods up these treacherous slopes. Just following their erratic routes was a new found pleasure I never tired of. The lovely coolness of this hour I treated as my bonus, alone while the rest slept, writing and watching the darkness unfold into light, the dawn is a wonderful sight as you await the sun as it creeps up over the Albanian hinterland, slowly bathing the mountain in brilliant light and warmth, reflecting a sunny causeway across the straits and picking out the early fishermen in their boats going about their daily tasks. The sea is dead calm, village dogs barking in choir, birds feet tip tapping their way across pan tiled roofs and thatch of the verandha. On that first morning I cannot believe how lucky I am.
The kids awake first and run around searching out the place for hidden and secret corners followed by a slow procession of adults. The immediate task is a trip to the shops to stock the larder and fridge. Yesterday we had been given a welcoming pack of food but the army of ravenous children soon ate their way through these rations. So with my morning coffee I dined on a thin heel of bread and confiture. It is now 9.ooam and the heat of the sun is more than I have experienced in our dank Irish summer.
Three of us set out as if on a skirmishing patrol, picking our way down the many bended road and realising we had a lot to learn. We need not have worried as most locals could speak English better than I could, only the old sometimes had difficulty, but my Classical Greek training 50 years previously stood me in good stead. In fact to my mind there was not much difference between Attic Greek of the 6th Century BC that was assiduously beaten in to me by the miserable Smith and the horrible Dodgeon and the modern day stuff spoken Corfiot style.
We visited two supermarkets, one twice the price of the other. The butcher was very cheap but his cuts of meat were strange. The booze was the same price as in Ireland with the local Ouzo the bargain at five euros for a 75 cl bottle of 40% proof spirit. I know many a man who would fill his boots at that price. Local wine seemed cheap but on tasting wasn’t, mainland Greek wine was no good unless you spent over 12 euros for a bottle and even then you were not sure until tasting. We spent hundreds of euros buying in a week of food and two or three days supply of booze.
Back home to lunch, magnifique. Salad and local sausage and bread. What more could a man ask for, the sun beating down, the kids in the pool supervised by Jessica and Mamon. Jessica is a lovely girl from Perpignan in France who has come with us on holiday and has foolishly offered to look after the kids. What more could a man…….. my dear wife has just passed me a glass of cold rose wine, pleasure on pleasure. A little relaxation after lunch and Day two came to an end with a seven hour barbecue accompanied by liquid refreshment. Chicken, pork and these fabulous local sausages and salads of various kinds, picking and chewing and slurping was the order of the day whilst the kids exhausted themselves in the pool. The place is unbelievable, the garden is full of herbs nestling under a canopy of olive trees. In the evening the heat remains, it is just a darker day.
And so to bed wallowing in acres of very comfortable mattress whilst the stars twinkled your way to sleep and you earned your rest. Day three commenced with a lie in after the previous night’s exertions and it is 8.30am before I rise. Over breakfast the consensus is that the younger adults and kids are off foraging for some local beach. With age comes wiseness and Helen and myself offer to caretake the mansion but first a quick trip up to Spartilas for bread and toilet rolls. Spartilas is an ancient village on the olive line, above which olive trees do not grow. Our villa is placed about 1200ft above sea level, the village is probably at 1500ft and the top of the mountain is about 3000ft, above Spartilas you see scattered lumps of shrubs and wild herbs but it is mainly one big lump of weathered limestone but to sniff what air there is up here gives you such an olfactory blast. Wild sage, thyme, rosemary, a small leafed basil and oregano fill the nasal passages. The village is lovely but it was built when the only mode of transport was donkeys so the winding road through it is to say the least narrow but local buses climb the mountain on a regular basis during the day causing consternation whilst the old folk come out and move their vehicles which are parked higgledy-piggledy in any space they can. It is a little like a community dance four or five times a day.