Monday, September 30, 2013

Corfu: My First Impressions of Greece

Finally, after a long train ride and 2 ferries we arrive in Corfu in the early hours of the morning.  Our accommodation is in the old town, not too far from the port, so after checking our map we walk there.  Thankfully, breakfast is still open so we tuck into some food before we crash and catch up on lost sleep. 

Later in the afternoon we get out and explore.  Corfu is beautiful. The old town is full of atmosphere and the castle looks down from its high vantage point, reminding us of its past history, rich with stories of battles and conquests.  We have had very little seafood on this journey, and so we settle for a café overlooking the ocean and order up a treat – calamari, fish and prawns…we don’t get to eat like this very often!

We explore the old town the next day.  We have a week here and it will be nice to relax, spend time at the beach and generally catch our breath after all the travel and work.  The old town is buzzing with travellers, souvenir sellers and roadside cafes.  It is easy to get lost in here.  The place is a maze of narrow cobblestoned alleyways and streets.  The Old Town evolved within the walls of the fort and of course space was a constraint, which explains its haphazard street pattern.  It certainly adds to the character of the place and is obviously a popular place for travellers to hang out. 

The place empties a little during the heat of the day but is a hive of activity once again at night.  Locals mingle with tourists at the various bars in town and there is a heightened vibe in the air that was not present during the day, accentuated by the sound of Greek music that wafts through wherever you walk.  I wish I had my tripod.  I know many of these night photographs won’t come out too well…but I try anyway. 

Earlier in the day we had discovered the sky bar in our hotel, so we venture up there to have a look at the town.  The views are beautiful – the old fort is lit up and the lights mingle from those reflected off the ships in the port.  

We head up north on Day 3.  Palaiokastritsa is a picturesque spot but the beach is a little crowded so we decide to catch a boat to a more deserted spot.  The boat stops at a few caves on the way before
dropping us off at a less crowded beach.  Still not deserted, but perhaps we need a car to find those beaches on this very popular Greek Island. 

We wake up late again on Day 4.  We are enjoying the fact that we don’t have any deadlines to meet or buses to catch.  We spend the morning at the rooftop café catching up on some admin work that is inevitable on a trip such as this. 

Yesterday, while browsing through a calendar on the top 17 spots in Corfu, we saw pictures of what looked like an idyllic spot, Pontikonisi – and it was only a 10 minute bus ride away, so we’ve decided to check it out.  But first, we have lunch at a café serving up really traditional Greek food. It’s a great experience to be here with Steve.  He can speak Greek relatively well and it’s a lot easier for people to be able to converse in Greek than convey a more diluted version of the information in English.  We are often treated differently, because of this – almost as if we were locals.  Today, the proprietor shepherds us to the back of the café so we can view
the food that has just come fresh out of the oven.  The dish of moussaka still hot to the touch looks mouth-wateringly delicious.  We settle for a little bit of everything – moussaka, with stuffed tomatoes, Greek salad and anchovies cooked just how Steve loves them.  Mmm- this was a good find.

We get directions to the bus that will drop us off at Pontikonisi and we are blown away by the view when we get there.  A beautiful white monastery sits on a little island.  There are other islands with lush green vegetation that dot the adjacent area.  To the right is Corfu’s airport, where planes keep arriving and departing at a rate one would not expect on a small Greek island.   Corfu is a popular place and travellers from all over Europe will fly here directly. 

We have a very relaxed afternoon here.  We wander down to the monastery, sit at the waters edge and watch the schools of fish darting about and then enjoy the sunset over Frappes – Greek Iced Coffees that come with ice and a dollop of ice cream.  Yes – I feel as if the holiday part of this journey has finally started!  As the sun sets, the colours of this landscape change also.  I can say that I have honestly found a place where the postcards and calendar photographs don’t even come close to doing it justice.  This place is truly magic.  I know now those postcards were not photo shopped – this place is just that beautiful. 

We hop off the bus in town and hear the strains of music in the air.  We follow the sound to a beautifully lit building outside of which a harmonious choir of more than 50 people are performing a
free outdoor concert.  We sit on the sidewalk and listen.  Greek music and Italian opera…the music is superbly accompanied by a pianist – yes the piano is on the street as well.  On the way home we walk past a café where a group of locals are playing and singing traditional Greek songs.  Their table is overflowing with food and they smile and wave as we walk past.  We stop for a while in the square to enjoy a completely different performance.  This is one of the reason we both love Europe.  You can stumble upon the most amazing finds…and then you realise that the best things in life are really free! 

On Day 5 we take a bus to the west side of the island, to a place called Glyfada, renowned for its beaches.   Initially, we thought the bus might take us to a far rockier beach but everyone on the bus
wanted to get to Glyfada.  A phone call to head office seemed to settle it and the bus does a detour to drop us off at our preferred destination.  “See where I brought you”, the bus driver yells after us as we hop off and wave goodbye.  “Efharisto”, (thank you) we yell back.  Back comes the standard response - “Parakalo”, (your welcome)!

The beach stretches for miles and after a bite to eat at a café on the top of the cliff we wander down to explore it.  Eventually we get in the water but despite the heat of the day, the water is freezing cold.  We’ve found a sheltered cove with a sandy beach and despite what appears to be idyllic conditions, the water never really seems to warm up.  We give up eventually, and sit in the sun but not for too long because we don’t want to burn.  Later in the afternoon we catch the bus back to Corfu Town. 

Corfu has been my first introduction to Greece.  Despite all the backpacking I’ve done in Western
Europe, my travels never brought me to the Greek Islands.  Being here with Steven has certainly made a huge difference.  People always assume we are English speakers because he is with me.  The minute he responds in Greek, they are intrigued and the perennial questions always seem to follow in rapid succession. Where are you from, where are your parents from?  Greeks just like Sri Lankans and perhaps people the world over, are very curious about your heritage. 

In fact, there is a lot about the Sri Lankan and Greek cultures and also the physical places themselves that are very similar.  When Steve went to Sri Lanka for the first time last year, he kept saying, “this is just like Greece!”  Now I find myself saying, “This is just like Sri Lanka!” 

The old world culture, the buildings that are only half completed, the buses that have both a driver
AND a conductor, dust everywhere, stray dogs and cats on the street, the warm weather, the laid back lifestyle, their attitude to time itself, late night eating – the list goes on.  There is also something about being ‘island people’ that defines the culture of these places.  It feels less busy and certainly the stress we physically felt in some of the big cities we visited is non-existent. 

I’m glad to be in Greece and to be discovering her hidden gems with someone who is ‘almost’ a local.  Steve tells me that his grandfather used to say, “You can only get to a place by asking!”  All along our travels we have realised this to be true.   But to truly get to what makes a place tick, to discover the gems only locals know about, it is important to speak the language.  I’ve always wished as I travelled the world that I could speak the languages of the places I am travelling through.  Being with a traveller who does, is almost as good and the experience is one I will treasure forever. 

No comments:

Post a Comment