19 October 2011

Corfu - Glorious Sofrito

Corfu - Glorious Sofrito

Corfu has long conjured up romantic notions of Greek islands so we were pleased to be going there at last. As Athens is my least favourite city, we booked into the Sofitel, Athens Airport rather than having the hassle of an early taxi from the city back to the airport. The Sofitel brand is great, the beds are soo very comfy, the bathrooms are divine and its a treat to be spoilt for a change! As this hotel is literally on the doorstep of the airport, it's a wonderful overnight stop in Athens.

Aegean Airlines were very efficient with lovely smooth landing in Corfu. Our rental car, via Top Cars, was waiting for us and we found our way to RCI Govina Bay fairly easily. We didn't get the unit we had booked so kept quiet for 2 nights but then decided to complain as it was so tiny and noisy. We were  transferred to the unit we had booked after listening to a long list of excuses re renovations etc! The "new" unit was great - much bigger lounge area with a lovely view over the trees outside, plus a better bathroom. So we moved happily and enjoyed this unit for the rest of the week.  The staff at this resort were extremely helpful and pleasant and earned top marks in our estimation.


Our first drive took us to Roda where there were many little pubs, seemingly catering for British tourists. We wandered up and down the street and settled on an authentic looking Greek restaurant which proved to be the right choice. Family run with excellent food and the favourite beer, Mythos!

Stifades & Stuffed peppers - both went down a treat.
After lunch we carried on down the coast - Corfu has some lovely little villages.
The roads are very winding so our little Opel Corsa was fine - a bigger car could be a bit of a bind.

You need to try all the little beaches until you find your favourite - the sea is crystal clear and just invites swimming! We were there in early May so it was not quite warm enough for me yet. There were many yachts around and the restaurants all seemed fairly busy even though this was early season.

The area around Govina Bay was not the best but there were loads of restaurants just down the road. The recession and government problems in Greece equate to weeds and run-down buildings so turn a blind eye to those and focus on the scenery, the sea, the food and Greek beer. You won't be disappointed!

Corfu Town is a real mix of old and run-down and then cute in many places. The restaurants were an eye-opener - some absolutely empty with staff practically begging you to sit down and others very busy. I felt desperately sorry for these people as it must be so soul-destroying to have an empty restaurant. We found Pizza Pete in a cafe facing the sea where we whiled away some time watching 3 people in the sea below doing a slow doggie-paddle  below despite the wash of the passing ferries. 

After lunch, we walked further on past Mandraki Harbour where there are a number of cafes, then onto the village green which seems to be the hub for the locals. It was a public holiday so there was a cricket match in progress and tons of families packed into the restaurants in this area. All appeared very relaxed and enjoying time with family and friends. Motor Bikes are much in evidence as this is an easy way of getting around the narrow roads!

Parking was free because of the holiday but normally it is fairly expensive to park anywhere in Corfu Town. Its also difficult to find parking after 10.00 am!

The Old Town has hundreds of very touristy shops but you can pick up interesting items if you browse slowly. Leather goods, jewellery, ceramics are all available in the many little shops. Corfu is also famous for it's olive wood carvings and goods - try and buy these further into the country where there are many road-side shops. You will see shops selling rows and rows of Kumquat Liqueurs - orange in colour and in all shapes of bottles, you can't miss them! If buying olive oil check that it is made in Corfu. Corfu has over 4 million olive trees and the olive plantations are all over the island. Corfu is a very green island so it always looks pretty even if the buildings are so grubby and run-down.

Outside of the main tourist area, the roads are narrow and often covered in washing! The Venetian influence is visible in Corfu Town so wander at will - you can't really get too lost.

Washing always fascinates me, trying to guess how many occupants the house has by their items on the line. It is, of course, a very European scenario to have washing hanging over balconies as space is at such a premium. It would totally freak me out to have my laundry hanging for all to see but that comes from English upbringing!

We strolled along the old fort which has lovely views of Corfu Town. We were rather amazed to see "squatters" living along a wall. In South Africa squatters are the norm in our sprawling townships but we found this a strange sight in Greece. A lady was on her way back with a shopping bag so life seems to be quite normal in this little enclave against the high wall.

After our stop in Corfu Town, we headed towards Benitses where we found the Corfu Shell Museum. This was a worthwhile  stop and we enjoyed chatting to the owner, Napoleon Sagias who is a diver and has lived and dived all over the world with many years spent in Australia. The shell collection is simply amazing and some shells are listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Spend some time here and just imagine all the dives that went into finding these many rare and beautiful specimens. Some are donated but all are amazing. The family decided to return to their roots in Corfu and share their treasures with all. Don't miss it! You can also buy shells and they were very helpful in finding us some "hardy" shells that would withstand the long plane ride back to South Africa. The shells we chose now have pride of place in my lounge and will always remind us of this amazing, brave diver and his huge shell collection and other creatures of the deep.

The sea in this area also looked very inviting, crystal clear - just waiting for warmer weather!

We continued down the coast to Mesongi where a river, lined with small craft, runs into the sea. The beach is lovely and stretches in a long curve - some holiday "lets" are right on the beach - what a way to wake up every morning!

On the way back to Govina Bay, we stopped for an early supper at a Greek Taverna overlooking the bay and airport runway. The restaurant was full of the most beautiful geraniums that I have ever seen - I wished I could bring some back for my garden.The setting was lovely, the service great - the only snag was the Euro 2.50 charge for the bread which we sent back! Always ask if the bread is extra (in most cases it is) and tell them you don't want it. We don't really like eating bread with our supper unless we are simply starving and object to paying for something that has not been ordered. It seems the norm in Europe whilst bread rolls are free with meals in South Africa.

The islands ahead are Vlachema and Pontikonisi (Mouse Island)You can catch a little boat to Mouse Island where there is a Byzantine church. These can also be seen from the Kanoni Peninsula which we visited later on in the trip.

Corfu roads are crazy! Nothing goes in a straight line and there are a number of one way streets, just there to confuse silly tourists like us in getting lost. But one does not stay lost for very long - anybody can point you back in the direction of Corfu Town (Kerkyra)

The following day, refreshed again, we headed North West with our first stop being Koukades. This is a tiny little mountain village with about 4 Tavernas scattered around the village square. Only one was open, Taverna Elizabeth. The hostess did not speak much english but she agreed to make us breakfast and what a feast this was! Eggs, huge beans, tomato, cucumber,lovely fresh bread (yum!) with jam/tea and coffee. It was superb hospitality, delicious food and we could take our time whilst watching the villagers going about their morning chores. It was totally amazing to see how much life was happening in this tiny place with cars and people coming and going. Who ever said life was quiet or dull in a little Greek village? Problem is we did not have a clue what anybody was saying! But it was fun trying to guess.

Suitably fed for awhile we headed for the beautiful area of Paleokastritsa. There is a monastery which dates back to the 18th century but the area today is better known for its beautiful beaches, its scenic beauty and tree covered mountains. There are tours along the coast to the sea caves or you can hire boats to explore the area on your own. For those into Scuba diving, the area around this bay is popular.

The road up to Lakones is very scenic and beautiful; hence also popular and  busy. We ended up getting stuck behind a bus in a narrow little street. How these Greek drivers manage to negotiate the amazing narrow roads through the heart of the tiny villages is a miracle!  

We drove through many small villages where time seems to stand still. The olive groves make the island so green and lush and some trees look extremely old. Wealth is often gauged by how many olive trees you own as it is a sign of wealth in many of the Greek Islands. The views from high above looking down towards Agios Georgios are breathtaking and well worth the effort of narrow, bumpy roads with many potholes. The drivers are pretty good - no complaints there at all. Unlike the Cretans!

We found an unfinished house, high up on the hill overlooking the beach with the most incredible views in all directions. Weeds were growing all around so it seemed as if the house was abandoned before completion. What a waste - imagine waking up to the view alongside every morning? Maybe they have a 5year plan?  Four storeys high - we hope somebody has rescued this half-completed house and that they will enjoy many years of pleasure with sea views as far as the eye can focus.

The 12 km beach at Agios Georgious was very windy on the day we visited - this seems to be a regular occurrence - but the brilliant water and less crowds would be a selling point for many.

It was quite distressing to see many elderly ladies trying to make a living at little road-side stalls. At Makrades an old lady did not want to let us go - she asked if we spoke French,German,Dutch or English and appeared truly desperate to sell something from her stall. We didn't ask if she spoke all those languages - she most probably did!

Further north we roamed to Peroulades - a forgotten place. In this area there are lots of farm plots with grapes, veggies, and goats. It all looks rather forlorn.

Drive a little further on and you reach Longas or Sunset Beach. These cliffs above Sunset Beach are well worth the drive and there is a large restaurant overlooking these cliffs so you can enjoy sundowners or a meal whilst enjoying the views.
To get down to the cliffs, you need to walk down many steps to the pebble beach below which can be flooded during high tides. The sandstone cliffs are an awesome sight that have stood the test of time despite being bashed daily by the winds and tides.

It seemed as if everybody favoured a pinkish colour for their houses in this area. Why, we did not discover but they all looked the same. perhaps the paint shop man had a special on? Or maybe there is some significance to this colour in this area of Peroulades. It was quite uncanny but seems to be a favourite colour of Corfu!

Sidari, further North was rather tired looking in places but appears to be a busy resort during the summer months with a water park, boat excursions, lively night-life and good beaches. It seems to be a favourite spot for the Brits and their pub crawling habits, given the sign we saw on a parked car!

But we can't tar everybody with the same brush and this resort town seems great for families with children, given the activities around.  There were tons of British looking pubs though so maybe.........? the sign is true of many!

The hills of Corfu are just covered in olive trees and more olive trees. Many of them very old, unpruned and wild looking. Fascinating! Corfu is Corfu because of its olive trees - green, green, green! The little villages away from the coast appear to be in better condition than some of the coastal villages which are busy mainly during the summer months. Locals live in the country villages where the Greek way of life is taken for granted. Winter at the cold seaside would not be much fun and many most probably take to their hillside homes during this period.

Our next drive was to Lefkimmi, south from Corfu. This consists of a number of linked villages so it's quite disconcerting trying to find what you are looking for!  One does see the funniest sights at times - like the young man on his tractor, legs folded and chatting on his cell phone. Tractors conjure up another era but modern youth combine the best of both worlds so the "cell" is a tool nobody seems to be without today no matter where in the world they live. It's so much part of our current times - we wonder what will replace this in 50 years time?

We drove in circles for quite some time before finding Potami. You can wander down the river all the way to the beach which was very quiet, still being out of season. A number of boats are tied up along the river banks so it must be a good spot for fishermen or just leisure boating.

The promenade has a number of restaurants and its lovely to relax quietly whilst enjoying a light lunch.
As with many of the towns in Corfu, this one is also pretty run-down with crumbling buildings, overflowing rubbish bins and a sad air of neglect. Whether this is a sign of the times with the problems the Greek Government is experiencing or whether the people themselves don't care about upkeep of their houses, one does not like to ask. A general air of malaise hangs around this village and the vibe is quite depressing. The locals don't seem too bothered, they catch up with friends whilst out on their scooters and life seems slow and unhurried. Given how we scurry around daily, maybe they have a point!!  Olive oil, great Corfu cooking, slow pace of life - it has to be said, it sounds like a plan!

The Promenade, with it's many restaurants, looks good with pretty flowers and an inviting look.

The port at Lefkimmi is a huge expanse of concrete and there were only 2  ferries waiting to leave but looking quite empty of cars and passengers.

Lake Korisson is a protected wildlife area due to the large numbers of migrating birds who stop off here.|The lake covers approx 600 ha. The beach runs for miles and you can certainly escape the crowds here. Unfortunately, the beach was very dirty when we visited - again pre-season in May/June so it had most probably not been cleaned up but it made a depressing sight with broken bottles, old tiles, etc lying around. For bird watchers, it would be a good place as over 120 species have been recorded here. Spring and autumn are apparently the best times.

Pelekas was our next stop - a truly Greek Village with little lanes going to houses - one feels as if you are intruding into very private areas and the locals do look at you strangely if you wander off the beaten track. But it gives you an insight into their living conditions and how closely they are interwoven.

You have to wander up the hill in the village, past a little church to the hotel at the top. Behind the hotel there is a path which leads to a viewpoint with amazing views all the way to Corfu Town int the East, the Ropa Valley to the North and the mountain of Agios Mattheos to the south.

It's a wonderful spot and one can well understand why Kaiser Wilhelm ll loved this scenic spot so much that he used to motor across the island from the  Achilleon Palace just for the views.

The Ropa Valley was a sight for sore eyes - FLAT!!! Quite amazing in Corfu where there are so very few straight roads! This valley is an important wetland area as it is a drained lake and canals and ditches carry the water into the river or the sea.
The Levant Hotel in Pelekas looks great and the views must be totally awesome. The beaches in this area are down steep and winding roads but with the obligatory taverna's. You cannot go hungry anywhere on a Greek island no matter that Greece is currently in a financial pickle. Pelekas is an interesting village and even has an old sea mine painted in the Greek colours and used as a plant holder!

The Kanoni Peninsula appearsto have been a great place in the past but now the buildings are run down and a huge hotel, Hotel Royal, appears to have been abandoned. With 3 swimming pools and a pool bar, it conjured up shades of decadent holidays - truly sad to see such a massive hotel going to ruin but perhaps they have revived it since?

The road in front of the hotel overlooks the airport runway and has lovely views. We walked down to the Monastery and crossed over the causeway - scary stuff thinking a plane could fly over our heads at any moment! Its also very narrow and surrounded by water.

We lunched at Nino's on the other side of the causeway. A nicely decorated restaurant with a very obliging owner who let down the blinds as I was feeling cold. He was telling us that they only open 2 days a week in winter as it is so quiet. It's a large restaurant with a friendly vibe and we wish him loads of success in his venture.

Mon Repos is also on the Kanoni Peninsula so we went to soak up some history. Price Phillip was born at Mon Repos in 1921 but the family left 18 months later when Greece banished their monarch, King Constantine. It is indeed a splendid old building, built in 1824 but was unfortunately closed to the public when we visited. The grounds are open to all and the locals make good use of the numerous shady paths as they enjoy their afternoon or morning jog. There is only limited parking at the entrance so park in the street and walk into the grounds - they are lovely and peaceful.

Our favourite areas did end up being North of Corfu (see photos above) after we had explored the island in depth. There are lovely beaches and coves all along this coast - just be prepared for winding roads! In Dassia, we found a car into the river - heavy night out? The road to the beach is straight (amazingly!) so how they happened to get into the river is a mystery! In Ipsos we walked all the way to Pigi and back as the villages virtually run into each other. Shops and houses are better maintained on this coast as it seems a more popular coastline. There are some gorgeous villas along this coast as well each little bay is worth a detour/swim/lunch etc.  

"Taverna On the Rocks" was a huge bonus lunch stop - amazing views, so much garlic that I had to mop it up with the bread (that we don't normally eat!!) But I cannot remember if this Taverna was in Agni. You can't miss it though if you hit the right village!

Our favourite ended up being Agios Stefanos where there always seemed to be some activity, the tavernas were busy, the yachts came and went and we enjoyed a long walk up the cliffs with Albania in sight all the way. So close you feel you could swim across but perhaps that would not be a good idea! We enjoyed a swim (with shoes on for the pebbles) before walking back to find that 12 yachts, flying Dutch flags, had tied up and seemed set for a huge party!

But sadly our time in Corfu was coming to an end.
We would miss the bumpy roads, full of pot holes, the twists and turns, the cockerels crowing, the orange and lemon trees, the crystal, clear water, the thousands of olive trees and the food!
Look beyond the Greek austerity measures, the run-down buildings and the down-turn in tourism, and enjoy the most wonderful food, the friendly people, the clear, clear water and all those olive groves!

Our favourite restaurant was "Moukas" in Gouvia. This is just down the road from the RCI Resort of Govina Bay so it was very convenient. Their food is superb and the Sofrito is the best of all! Melt in the mouth meat with Greek Style potatoes done in the oven, you cannot wish for more. Our waiter was so helpful and got to know our likes and dislikes as we ate there so often. The owner wrote out the recipe for us but needless to say, we have not got it right yet! That Greek touch just makes all the difference. This dish, called Sofrito, is found on Corfu only and is veal cooked in white wine with garlic and herb sauce. I cannot rave about it enough - just yum, yum!! Many of the restaurant owners/waiters work summers only May - October and seem to make enough money to live comfortably, despite the down-turn.
 They must have olive groves as well!!

Who doesn't own an olive grove in Corfu???

© Judelle Drake

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