A haven for British visitors for more than 200 years, the luxuriantly leafy island is as popular as ever. Lucretia Stewart goes to find out why, staying on the sophisticated north-east coast, touring the interior and even venturing into the hedonistic south
Corfu is green and leafy, so much so that it seems as if every inch of the island is covered with trees. Even when your eye becomes accustomed to the landscape, you cannot stop reeling at the sheer number of trees, particularly the olives. There doesn’t seem be any bare land, open spaces or fields. I never once saw a cow.
In 1623, the Venetians, who occupied the Greek island for four centuries from 1386 to 1797, offered the Corfiots financial incentives to plant olive trees and to replace wild ones with cultivated ones. Within 100 years there were more than two million; and this number has continued increasing so that today Corfu is one huge olive grove. The trees are rarely pruned, so they look quite different from those in the rest of Greece, being much taller and wilder; there are also lemon trees, orange trees, oaks, elms and tall Italian cypresses, which give the landscape a distinctive, haunting, un-Greek quality (to those of us accustomed to the stark Cyclades), as well as Judas trees with their spectacular purple flowers in spring. Corfu, despite the olives, doesn’t seem all that Greek (and a couple of years ago the BBC reported the existence of a small movement for autonomy, the basis for which was that all the revenue from taxes raised on the island by central government in Athens was being spent on the mainland); or maybe my visit just reminded me of the diversity of Greece. Certainly Corfu Town, with its broad streets, splendid monuments, esoteric museums, fashionable shops and pavement cafés often seemed as grand and cosmopolitan as Paris or Rome.
What To Do
Corfu is the second largest island in the Ionians, about the same size as Mallorca but less crowded. Perenially popular with the English, to the south of Corfu Town and north as far as Nissaki, there are strings of tacky nightclubs and 1970s apartment blocks crowded with restaurants offering ‘happy hours’ and ‘all-you-can-eat’ breakfasts; but inland, there are villages where old women still wear the traditional black dress and knee-length pop socks.
Explore the 16km curl of coast on the north-east side between the villages of Nissaki and Kassiopi and you’ll find something altogether different; aptly referred to as ‘Millionaire’s Row’, ‘Costa Serena’ or ‘Costa Verde’. The evolution of north-east Corfu, with its beautiful villas and pebbly cove-like beaches, can be put down to a peculiar combination of topography, an English tour operator – CV Villas – and a handful of major landowners rich enough not to have to sell to mass-market tour operators.
The north-east coast of Corfu is rugged, its cove-like beaches pebbly and generally smaller than elsewhere on the island. Like the water, the beaches are clean. As a rule, where there is sand there is package tourism, take Kavos in the south, or Rodha, popular with Germans, at the other end of the island. But on the north-east coast the roads provide limited access, which is why most visitors hire a boat. In places, the land is so steep that even olive trees topple from their terraces, and this prevents hotel development.
Many people go to Corfu for the superb walking, usually out of season (April, May and June) when the island is blanketed in wild flowers.
There’s a good choice of bars and cafés on the harbour front in Corfu Town and in the Liston, its French-style, arcaded promenade. You’ll also find lively, late-opening venues in the resorts of Aghios Stephanos, Kassiopi and Acharavi.