Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Alexander Armstrong takes his family to Corfu

A pool, a boat and some lard: the Pointless host discovers the secret of family harmony on Corfu

From The Times, 16 July 2017

Short of popping off to Switzerland for an old-skool rock-star blood transfusion, is there any more rejuvenating feeling than arriving on a holiday that you can see from the outset is going to be a corker? Seriously, give me one flash of a twinkly blue sea from a terrace, chuck in a whiff of cypress and the languid slap and gurgle of a swimming pool, and I feel the yip, pep and general how-d’ye-do of an 18-year-old taking over my system once more after these many years.

This was only my second trip to the Greek islands — the first was to Zakynthos for a friend’s wedding six years ago — and on both occasions I had this reviving sense on arrival of the dirt falling from my fingernails and the animals at the end of my mental reins transforming from a couple of old farting dogs to a pair of whinnying Arab stallions. Put it down to some ancient magic of the islands, the mad blueness of the sea or just the sheer ruddy pinkness of the rosé. But for its restorative effect, I don’t think you can beat it.

Corfu in itself is exciting. It sets out its stall pretty unequivocally: Cor! Foo! You might as well call a place Crikeywow or Shitblimey. And, on the whole, I’d say it lives up to the billing.
We took the bold step of booking a villa up in the pretty northeast of the island. You really want to be certain of having found the right place when it’s going to be just you and your immediate family there for the whole holiday.

Ours was right on the coast, just round the point from Kassiopi, so we made the decision to do (almost) all our travelling by boat and eschew the rental car. (How many days of your life have been idled away queuing to pick up a car YOU HAVE ALREADY BOOKED AND PAID FOR while a man in a tight suit stares at a screen and taps out The Ketchup Song on the counter with the keys to a Picasso?) Well, I can tell you, it was the best holiday-transport decision we have ever taken.

Island roads dutifully curl and saunter around every bay, inlet and mountain pass in these parts. We, on the other hand, bombed up the east coast in a straight line from a jetty near the airport. It probably still took 45 minutes, but who cared? We were in a huge pointy grey inflatable that made me think I was in The Night Manager, and which delivered us invigorated and salt-dried onto a tiny little bobbing jetty just below our villa’s gate.

We are a family of six, two adults and four fighting boys (10, 8, 7 and 2), and we’ve struggled to come to terms with the sheer numbers involved in being on manoeuvre — not just the headcount, but the automatic costs of flights, taxis, hotels, etc. Renting a villa normally ends up being the most economical way of doing it. In fact, for the past three holidays, we’ve ganged up with other friends who have children and shared, which makes the villa option an even more alluring prospect financially. And there’s an undoubted smugness that you get from feeling all independent, swinging your basket off to the market on Day 2 like you’ve been there for ever, and making salads in your own kitchen with basil from the garden and courgette flowers and... LARD?

Ah yes, that’s a thing about Greece: the language and script make absolutely no sense to anyone who isn’t actually Greek. None of your Romance languages will help you out here. Happily, on Corfu nearly everyone speaks English, so here’s a tip for husbands going off on “helpful” shopping trips: just ask someone if it definitely is feta cheese.

The northeast of Corfu is pleasingly light on concrete and development, which means the coast has that lovely familiar look of pretty much any Mediterranean coastline. Less steep than the Amalfi, I suppose, less nocturnal than Ibiza, but it’s full of drama nonetheless: crags and bays and cypress trees and terracotta rooftops. If you’re lucky enough to get there in May or June, then it’s also thrillingly green and bursting with wild flowers. Anemones, irises, honeysuckle and acanthus were all jockeying for position by the roadsides, and the air — particularly in the evenings — was thick with wild herbs and jasmine.

Our boat would be dropped off at the bobbing jetty each morning we needed it and picked up again in the evening, so no nagging worries about it drifting off to Albania in the night. It was a) not cripplingly expensive (€50 for the day) and b) wonderfully easy.

I suppose my lesson in how to drive the thing was as thorough as it needed to be: I was shown the ignition, forwards and reverse, and seven seconds later was handed command of the vessel. After making our way gingerly around the point, I soon got the hang of it and opened it up a bit. Cor! Foo! It was fun. We spent two deliriously happy days tearing around, grinning like idiots, waving to people in other boats and generally enjoying the total freedom of the water.

On the first day, we chugged down past the pretty harbour of Kassiopi and explored all the little bays and beaches, many of which are part of a nature reserve and nearly all of which we had to ourselves, as they are inaccessible by land.

On the second day, we went up north, to Kalamaki beach and beyond. The great beauty of being afloat is that you can drop anchor anywhere you like and hurl yourself into the clear blue water whenever the fancy takes you. It’s worth pointing out that the beaches of Corfu (certainly in the northeast) are pebbly rather than sandy, so if you’re planning on going ashore, it’s a good idea to have some decent rubbery shoes that you don’t mind swimming in.

For lunch, we headed down to Agni — one of the grander inlets of the northeast coast and (glamorously) the scene of the infamous tête-à-tête between Peter Mandelson and George Osborne in that brief Corfu hoopla of a few years ago. Here, there are three stonking restaurants side by side, and a handsome wooded backdrop that is only a couple of nymphs and shepherds shy of being an Old Master.

The man at the end of the Taverna Agni jetty seemed the keenest to help with our mooring, so they got our custom and there we ate ambrosial grilled fish, which I dare say hadn’t been out of the sea much longer than we had.

We came back from our boating days weathered, salty, tired and happy. I’m struggling to think of a better day out. For a moment, the children even stopped fighting, swapped cigarettes in no man’s land and showed each other photographs of their loved ones. These were glorious days.

On our last evening, we took our only journey by road up into the mountains to check out Old Perithia, an ancient village someone had recommended, to see if we could find some supper there. Old Perithia, it turns out, is almost completely uninhabited (ah yes, that’ll be the “old” bit), being a cluster of charming dilapidated houses, farms, a schoolhouse and a church — all now roofless and overgrown — strung out along a steep, winding flagstone path. This would be a glorious restoration job for someone with deep enough pockets. (I had to stop myself half closing my eyes and imposing vulgar Armstrong Villas onto the noble bones of practically every tumbledown in the place.) But Perithia was heavenly and the mountains were cool and lush — the winding path that took us for about a mile and looped back onto the main track to make a satisfying circuit was blooming with willowherb, buttercups and daisies. It might have been a walk in Donegal rather than by the Ionian Sea, but what a magical finale to the holiday. And, best of all, the few inhabited buildings included an excellent taverna with a huge terrace, so we supped on hearty rustic stew among the vines before wiggling our way back down to the sea.

I suspect early June sees Corfu at its best — the temperatures are in the high 20s by day, then cool by night, and the island is in full spring fig — but the charm of the place is surely year-round.
The one thing I would mention — and this is a good thing or a bad thing, depending entirely on how far from home you like to feel when on holiday — is that about 98% of the people we came across on Corfu were British. British, I hasten to add, of the most affable sort. On our evening walks into Kassiopi, we made all kinds of friends. But that, I suggest, is another reason why a villa is quite a good idea. You can get the best of both worlds — venture out to enjoy the bustle, then retreat to enjoy the quiet, magnificent Greekness of it all. And some lard.

Alexander Armstong and family were guests of Scott Williams, which has 40 villas on Corfu. They stayed at Castro, which sleeps up to 10; a week starts at £8,000, including boat transfers and the services of a concierge, a chef and a maid (01749 812721, scottwilliams.co.uk). Airlines flying to Corfu include British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair and Thomson Airways.

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