When my family and I arrived on Corfu in 1973, we were part of a long line of blow-ins. For a small island, it has a blockbuster of a history, and not surprisingly, features in Greek mythology. Homer’s hero, Odysseus, washed up on it’s shores after being shipwrecked. It’s strategic location between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas made it a great location for trade and an excellent naval base, and it’s turbulent history reflects that. The Corinthians founded the ancient city of Kerkyra around 734 B.C.E., while many others over the millennia, sought to exploit the island including the Romans, Goths, Venetians, French, and British. Interested to read more- http://www.greecetravel.com/corfu/history.html
My sisters and I were lucky enough to see, first hand, evidence of Corfu’s earliest settlers. With Dr. Augustus Sordinas, an expert on Corfu’s early human inhabitants, we explored the cave where he excavated the bones of wild cattle, deer, and hyenas, and flint tools dating from the Paleolithic period, about 25,000 years ago.
At Sidari in the north of the island we were not the first to camp by a small river leading down to the sea. In the sandy cliff face we studied the layers of fossilized shells left over from Stone Age clambakes, and shards of flint, chipped into workable tools. I still treasure the finely worked flint spear tip I found poking out of the mud. We visited a man who lived in a remote coastal area. His home was built from marsh reeds, and inside, his bed was a raised pallet of earth. We watched in awe as he caught his dinner of sardines using a net weighted down with rocks that he cast into the shallow bay. He then offered Mum and Dad wine made from his own foot-crushed grapes. His lifestyle had probably changed little from that of his ancestors, hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.
Some of the strongest memories of living on Corfu revolve around food. At first, my seven-year-old palate craved cornflakes and peanut butter, a throwback to home. I soon saw the light, and a pan full of fresh-caught sardines, fried to a crisp in olive oil was a treat—eyeballs and all. I even came to like the chewy texture of octopus.
Our favorite place to eat was on an unprepossessing backstreet in Corfu’s main town, Kerkyra. The tiny neighborhood restaurant had two tables outside and the same number inside. Grilled lamb kebabs, Greek salad fragrant with oregano and olive oil, and slivered potato fries—that’s all they made, but that’s all they needed to make. Afterwards we wended our way through the labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets of the old town, little changed since the Venetians laid them out five hundred years earlier.
At Spianada square, overlooked by the ancient Citadel and moat (also courtesy of the Venetians), we joined in the passeo of Corfiots strolling along the esplanade flanked by its arched colonnade filled with cafes and restaurants. Sometimes we’d sit and enjoy a bottle of the local ginger beer, or lick ice cream and listen to the brass band playing in the bandstand. On Sunday afternoons, we watched the strange sight of cricket being played, a reminder that Corfu was a British colony in the 19th century. On our way home, we had to stop at a tiny dairy shop for a dessert treat. They served the most delicious, cinnamon-topped rice pudding. As soon as Easter was over and the restrictions of Lent, they switched to serving equally wonderful rich, creamy goats milk yogurt.
Another one of our greatest pleasures on Corfu was swimming. In addition to the small tourist beaches, surrounded by hotels, there were plenty of remote swathes of sand with only seabird footprints. Mum and Dad kitted us out with snorkels and flippers and we entertained ourselves for hours while Dad fiddled with his leaky underwater camera. Tourists would sit up and gawk as three small, blonde children swam in, often from half a mile or more offshore, and trouped out of the water like ducklings.
Some of the best beaches for snorkeling were the rocky coves reached by a steep cliff path. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. After a morning of swimming, we’d picnic in the olive groves: hunks of fresh bread doused in musky, green olive oil and topped with slabs of salty feta and slices of sweet tomato, and a handful of pungent little olives. Desert might be a juicy peach, or a square of sweet halvah made from crushed sesame seeds and honey. Heaven!
When it came time for my 8th birthday in the middle of July, I knew exactly what I wanted—a watermelon. I had fantasized about that watermelon for months, keeping my eye out for it every time we went to the market. The Irish climate precluded growing anything more exciting than cabbage, potatoes, and the rare zucchini in the early 70s, so this would be a first. On the morning of my birthday, my excitement knew no bounds at the sight of that huge, dark green globe. I carried it around the neighborhood showing it off to all my friends. Just as I staggered home with it, my arms gave out. Splat! It landed on the cobblestones in a pink, mushy mess. I was heartbroken—until Mum took me down the village to the watermelon man and I picked out another from his huge pyramid of ripe fruit.
To this day, nothing says summer and Greece and birthday quite like a slice of sweet, crisp watermelon.
Fifth & final installment coming soon