ALAS, OLD CORFU, I MISS YOU
William Sitwell harks back to the simple days of his youth when a holiday to a Greek isle may have burnt your back but it didn't break the bank
HER voice rang shrill and echoed through the villa. ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow. Mr, Corfu, fish, salad.’ Stavroula, the cook, was issuing instructions to my father. We were in a villa on the little pebble beached bay of Kerasia. Here was part of his shopping list and the day after tomorrow, he, Mr, was to go to Corfu and purchase some fish and salad.
The route to the town was via a small wooden boat. My father and doubtless other males of our party, keen for a change of scene, would pile into the boat, driven by Andreas, otherwise gardener, maintenance man and husband to Stavroula.
A few hours later and they would return, the boat laden with shopping bags and crates of retsina, water and Coca Cola. There would follow a procession to the kitchen as the men, burnt and red from sun and an extended lunch, would carry in the provisions.
Stavroula would then cook our party simple meals. She would arrive each morning, bobbing gently through the olive trees astride a donkey. And, charmed by her huge grin, us children would attempt conversations with her as she flexed her broken English.
Some days we stayed by the villa, swimming in the bay, snorkelling and collecting sea urchin shells. Some days we would pootle off in the ‘futt-futt’ to find a taverna in a nearby bay for lunch. My firm memory is always of my father struggling with the motor, yanking in vain at the chain, squeezing petrol into the chamber, yanking again, flooding the engine, yanking again and finally getting the thing to splutter into life.
Our gang would then set off to find some lunch spot. Our party could be a dozen. Lunch: was taramasalata, fried calamari, Greek salad and moussaka (we usually declined the offer of some lonely, tired-looking fish presented to us under glass by the kitchen) with lashings of Retsina, a dubious brand called Domestica, and then ice creams dug deep from a freezer. It would need several sheets of drachma but would barely reach 50 sterling pounds.
It was the mid 1970s and us kids slept in tents in the garden, falling asleep to the sounds of the grown-ups talking on the terrace and the ciccadas chattering loudly all around us.
The nights were hot and uncomfortable, more so for me as I usually developed a sun-rash they called prickly heat. As I tried to itch my back my father would chuckle and say I looked like a performing contortionist.
Some days we would water-ski, my father doing it with a large banana-coloured ring around his waist, a float to help him get stable in the water after a wipe-out. Generally, as he skied, the ‘banana’ would slip down his waste and then down to his ankles taking his swimming trunks with it.
Year after year we returned. Holidays that were simple, fun and affordable. But time, ambition, modernisation, accessibility, fashion and progress means the Corfu of my childhood is all but gone. You don’t need a futt-futt to get to a supermarket, there’s a road to your villa door. You can’t just rock up to a taverna for lunch you need to book your lunches and dinners weeks, if not months, in advance. Ask for retsina in a taverna and they’ll look at you as if you’re not all there. The tables in today’s tavernas have linen tablecloths and are adorned with bottles of Chateau Minuty. As to the price, think London…
Fancy a snorkel? Well, if you can find space to swim in the bay between the gin palaces piling in, the water is still clear as a crystal, but there’s not a sea urchin shell in sight.
One can at least sleep well because no villa or hotel room comes without air-conditioning and forget prickly heat because modern sun creams are so effective if you pile on Factor 15 you’ll still be a shade of white when you step off the plan at Heathrow. My father, eschewed sun lotion, and simply splashed on Hawaiian Tropic oil but he didn’t burn; proof positive of that depleted ozone layer.
Take a cruise, today, from San Stefano, round Kassiopi and south past Nissaki and you’ll see huge fancy villas on every promontory, the property of gazillionaires from Moscow to London. New resorts are being built around the likes of Ipsos as property magnates do their utmost to make Corfu as flash as Ibiza.
And, staying on the nearby island of Paxos, that little voyage, of old, to the quiet, secret sandy beaches of Antipaxos reveal a sandy beach, but, alas, its secrecy is a long-gone dream. It’s like a crowded waterpark.
The Paxos Beach Hotel, a place of good-value charm is also now in the process of being ruined having been purchased by the flash resort chain Domes. Prices are already rocketing and the staff at the bar shame the ancient Greek concept of hospitality (yet to infect the restaurant whose staff are the definition of charming).
I know the holidays and experiences of our youth merge into myth, but I yearn for the simplicity (and cost) of those days. Greek food may have been a joke to some, but we loved it and it didn’t break the bank. Bring me that easy charm of old Corfu, the days when holidays meant no work calls, not too much news and prices that didn’t shake the bank account to its core and I’ll take the itchy back and the occasional sleepless night…