Corfu: An Ionian Adventure
“A maiden akin to the immortal goddesses in form and comeliness, Nausicaa, the daughter of the great hearted Alcinous” (Homer’s Oddysey).
Odysseus wanders for 10 years before being shipwrecked on ‘Scheria’ (Corfu). He falls asleep to be awakened by the laughter of Nausicaa, a princess, playing handball with her handmaidens. Odysseus is sea beaten and naked and gazes upon them as if they were water-nymphs. He had cursed his first mate for insisting on “one last up spirits for old times sake” as his ship glided silently towards the ‘reef of impending doom’. His curse was misplaced and in vain because the reef was not on the chart in any case, this being before GPS, and his course was already set by the capricious gods of tide and time. However, upon seeing Nausicaa, he now wished for another round of ‘up spirits’ to fortify his less than honourable intentions.
Corfu, or its Greek name Kerkyra, can be found in the north Ionian Sea, sitting just off the coasts of Albania to its north east and mainland Greece to its south east. To the west lies Italy and the setting sun over a blue horizon of the Aegean Sea. It is the northernmost of the seven ‘Eptanisa’ or Ionian Islands.
It is said to be shaped like a scythe, just like the one used by Cronos to castrate his father Uranus (Sky). Cronos was urged on by his mother, Gaia (Earth) in revenge for either Uranus’s cruel treatment of Cronos’s brothers or for leaving the toilet seat up. The blood dripping from the unkindest cut of all into the Aegean Sea gave rise to divinities such as Aphrodite, the Nymphs and the Furies. With family dynamics like that it is no wonder psychoanalysts looked to the Greek myths to explain our deepest emotional natures. Homer in the Oddysey describes the island inhabitants’ fondness for democracy and gender equality at a time when certain wode wearing northern tribes were still trying to figure out the difference between a rock and a hard place.
All of this mythology is unknown to 8 modern followers of Odysseus, who are bound for the marina at Gouvia to enjoy a week’s sailing to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Corfu is a few short hours flight from Heathrow, but a thousand years distant from the clattering yammer that is democracy in a modern post industrial state.
There is a wealth of knowledge and experience of sailing between them all. However just about all of that experience and knowledge belongs to just two crew members, who also happily turn out to be the skipper Mick and ‘competent crew’ Eileen. Otherwise it is a midwife, an electrician, an academic, an administrator, and two IT specialists. What could possibly go wrong with a skill set like that?
This particular odyssey begins from a small town in Oxfordshire….
The dawn chorus. At this time of year (May) this starts very early. It is also the time to haul one’s sorry carcass out of bed and make the nightly troupe to ease bladder pressure. The rest of the house, all seven of them, is asleep, not a peep. Cold grey light tries to sneak in between the curtains, the birds greet the new day, the floor creaks under foot as I pad my way to experience life’s sweet release. The urgency of tonight’s excursion was underpinned by the three ales quaffed in the Fat Fox Inn in Watlington, a town cradled by the Chilterns to its south and a rat run for the M40.
The necessaries undertaken means another hour in bed before the day starts properly when eight of us, and about 16 bags, and a boat load of bravado and hope, fly to the Ionian to find a 48 foot yacht. The yacht is already there waiting for us as its too big to get on the plane.
For those who like detail, it is a Beneteau Oceanis 48.
It is called ‘Butterfly’.
So, there, now you know.
For four of us – Karen, Chris, Ben and Ann – the trip requires driving to Oxfordshire from Cornwall the day before to meet up with the other four in Watlington. This is the ‘Cornwall tax’, something we all have to pay being so far down in the South West of England. The upside is a late afternoon/early evening in the ‘Fat Fox’ before dinner. The pub is busy but no one gets arrested or naked, but as the evening wears on the possibility increases. To prevent this, dinner is prepared and so full of the joys of dipsomania, we scuttle back for steak and chips. Perfect.
Sleep. Perchance to dream of ouzo, retsina and souvlaki. This will, of course, all be before the nocturnal call presaged by blackbirds staking out their territory in the early misty morning.
At a reasonable 0800, we are all ready for Heathrow, throw the bags into the minibus and off south down the M40. It is not too cold, the sky is grey and it’s a little damp. Usual UK weather then.
Heathrow is just another airport, a conduit to foreign lands, a spirit sapping temple of ennui and a cathedral built to enable the worship of retail. All the shops are here. Louis Vuitton, Fortnum’s, Gucci and “World of Duty Free”, which of course is not ‘free’ of temptation. Breakfast is taken at “Giraffe”, an oddly named chain probably thought up by the boss’s six year old granddaughter or a graduate of a prestigious university who likes to take the post modernist approach to graphic design.
So far so good, it’s been about 4 hours in each other’s company and no one has had a temper tantrum or stamped a foot in frustration. No social gaffes or faux pas have emerged, but give it time and a little gin and I’m sure it will.
At 1230 we are finally off the runway and up into the blue. Actually it’s up into the white, grey and damp. This is still England whose miserable meteorology is only matched by the misery of an old bloke at the pub upon finding he’s three pounds short of a five pint evening. The plane will eventually get to 37,000 feet and then hopefully it will be blue.
And right on cue it is. Below us the white capped Alps float into view. I might get excited at this point but I have to remember it is early, I’m British and I don’t have the emotional disposition of an American. The German Alps give way to the Dolomites and soon we arrive in Moldovan, Bosnian, Albanian airspace. It is picture postcard from up here, little fluffy clouds way below, the azure sea (it cannot be anything else) while the land breaks up into myriad islands with long golden sandy beaches. There is a little sign of life down there and what fields there are, if indeed there are any fields, are brown. Not much rainfall here then. The islands are cut into with many turquoise coves which would be ideal anchorages for anyone with a yacht. This is the Dalmation coast famous for its islands of Croatia, Boznia and Macedonia.
Somewhere further down the plane, a young baby cries. Somewhere down the plane someone loses the will to live. Somewhere down the plane there’s a bloke trying to look cool, a girl fixing her make up, and a fat bloke trying to control his intestinal fluctuations. Somewhere further down the plane is unalloyed excitement, or indifference or barely concealed fear of flying. The ‘hostesses’ ply us with drink and a boxed lunch made of cardboard and salad cream. Soon they will try to part us from our cash with ‘offers’ of exotic promise, but are really based in the lie that is consumerism, and can only end in tears should we succumb.
Dubrovnik slips beneath us and we have 260 miles to go, at 530 miles per hour. That’s going faster than a plateful of pepp’ry pasties at a Cornish wedding.
Corfu comes into view as the aircraft descends southwards along its western shores. At the very southern tip of the island the plane banks to port and descends northwards still further along its eastern shores down to the airport. Soon we are below the skyline and mountains rise up above us. The flight path is over the sea and runs parallel to the island’s main road that runs from the southern tip, north to Corfu Old Town. The sea glistens below us. “Look out the left the captain says, those lights down there, that’s where we’ll land”.
Corfu airport has seen better days, in truth it is looking a bit battered and the sort of airport one would expect in places like Beirut during the troubles or Aleppo after an air strike. The concrete is doing its job, but pretty it is not. The baggage reclaim has the feel of an empty 1970’s built school assembly room but without the charm or urine. One can’t help compare it with Malaga, but that is not a fair comparison. Corfu is to Malaga as a Cortina is to a Prius. They’ll both do the job but which one would you rather arrive in?
The short taxi to Gouvia takes us through the bits of Corfu the brochures don’t show. Many buildings are dilapidated, boarded up and crumbling. The infrastructure has not seen any investment since Aristotle’s time. This should be a boon for the construction industry as there is so much work needing doing just to bring buildings up to ‘acceptable’. Kerbsides are crumbling, paint peels off and bits of concrete have fallen off at random. The wiring resembles a plate of spaghetti and must be a fire hazard. All buildings look a bit ‘tired’ and in need of good lie down to recover after a heavy night on the ouzo. If this bit of Corfu was a bloke he’d be Rab C Nesbitt with a tan; all grey string vest and hangover.
Upon arrival at Gouvia marina, things pick up. The challenge now is finding the boat among the flotilla moored up before us. This will prove tricky and so the answer is to find a bar and think about it. Luckily there a few water side bars in which to think.
Gouvia to Sivota
The morning awakens in the Marina. Not a cloud. Just the quiet calm of people stirring. The odd gull, a few swifts, and a fat german’s fart sweeps slowly across the glass surfaced sea. The temperature is already ‘comfortable’ for those inclined to nudity and so one’s morning constitutional becomes not only a requirement but also can be done without freezing. The shower block is just a few metres from the mooring, across the concrete jetty, shielded by a few bushes. As I enter it feels like one is standing at the doors of Hades or Dante’s inferno, and given the sounds that emanate, there is a host of minor demons sticking three pronged pitchforks into the bloated bellies of old men. The sounds are demonic belches, blowings and mine deep bowel rumblings of hideous portent. This is not for the weak of moral fibre or the sensitive of character. Undaunted, I enter.
Refreshed, and unscathed, tiz time for breakfast.
At sea, there is a natural order which must be adhered to if things are to go smoothly. This requires everyone to be cognisant of their place in the hierarchy. Nelson won at Trafalgar not only due to superior seamanship and purpose of vision, but also because the humble english seaman knew his duty. If it worked for Nelson it will work for this motley crew.
Mick the skipper is nominally in charge, and definitely in charge of all things nautical including navigation and boat handling. There are 4 women on board and past strictures about women bringing bad luck to vessels did not come about by accident or whim. At some point, a hapless skipper must have noted the melee below decks and muttered to himself, noting in the ship’s log, that “those of the fairer sex do oft display machinations and bedevilments to vex the temperaments of the most placid of Bishops and his horses”. Mick has (‘come on’) Eileen, his partner as crew, thus we have more than adequate skill, knowledge and attitude to take on the tempests.
Upon leaving the jetty, wind speed hardly merited getting the sails up and thus we chugged at about 6 knots for an hour or so while learning the rudiments of sailing. We now know the difference between a ‘sheet’, a ‘halyard’ and a ‘cat o nine tails’. Thankfully the wind picked up a little around noon to warrant hoisting the genoa and mainsail, and at times we even made 6-7 knots. The ‘Genoa’ is the big triangular power sail at the front of the boat, and the mainsail is the, um, ‘main sail’ at the mast. Duty at the wheel was happily shared under Mick’s supervision and no whales were hurt during the making of this voyage. The destination was a tiny coastal ‘town’ called Sivota on mainland Greece. At this point the North Ionian sea is more like a vast lake flanked as it is by Corfu to the west, Albania to the north east and then mainland Greece to the south east. Our bearing once safely out of Gouvia Marina in Corfu was about 135-145 degrees, give or take the odd circular tack. Above us only blue, and flanked by the cloud topped mountains and hills, the weather was perfect. Our only hazards were other boats, flotsam and jetsam, and over enthusiasm with gin. Soon the tiny port came into view. A small row of harbour side houses, bars and restaurants shimmered in the afternoon heat as we approached. The depth at the wall was just enough to dock, this boat having 2.2 meters draft and the water at the wall being about the same. The boat reversed stern first up to the jetty to sit alongside other boats to form a long rank of yachts whose collective value was probably higher than a small Oxfordshire village. ‘Butterfly’ makes a pretty sight among the others.
We do not have far to go to the facilities. As soon as one steps ashore onto the harbour wall there are several stone built bars/restaurants lining the shore, fronted by tables, chairs and shady umbrellas. Swifts swoop and dance through the streets in small black arcs of speed while the reds of bougainvillea decorate the walls. The harbour faces about due east towards the setting sun. It is a small
cove enclosed by the land to the north and south, a safe haven from any winds coming from the three points of the compass, while a breakwater tries to protect it from westerlies. Fishing pots dot the sea, the odd small ship is anchored off shore, the mountains of Corfu are silhouetted to the West behind the setting sun. It is film set scenery, or the sort of place one would photograph for a travel guide or a steamy romantic novel involving meaningful stares, stolen glances, the merest touch of hand against hand at the dinner table, and remembrance of things past involving a dildo.
The Filakis Hotel takes the southern arm of land overlooking the harbour and lays out its tables to make the most of sunsets. Perfect. Ouzo is taken alongside pictures of the setting sun within the blues, yellows, oranges and reds of the sky. The, by now black, shape of Corfu’s far away mountains form the horizon and just the right distance to pip the sun to the sea as it climbs down to rest beneath the earth. Just enough wine and ouzo is taken to smooth passage towards sleep.
Sivota to Lakka
Not much happens in sleepy Greek harbour side towns except when the articulated Lorry turns up at 0700, parks beside the boats and runs his engine for about 30 minutes, so drowning out the gentle lapping of water against the hulls. I awake to peep up the cabin stairs to the deck and can just see the big white beast of a truck sitting harbour side, idling his engine. There is a faint whiff of human material disgorgments, the reason being that this is the truck that drains the sewers. This is quite a relief really because the thought of all that waste flowing directly into the water where all the yachts are moored is frankly frightening. The water is clear beneath the hull and one can see fish, so the truck is doing its job.
Another very warm blue morning greets each member of the crew as they wipe slumber from their eyes. Breakfast is taken at a cafe right beside the boat under a shady umbrella. Bacon, cheese, eggs, toast, the usual filler washed down with coffee and a lovely cinnamon topped coffee shot is provided gratis.
We set sail for a tiny bay where we can drop anchor and laze about for a couple of hours. Chris and I snorkel, lunch is made, beer and gin is taken at the appropriate hour. The water is crystal clear if just a tad chilly. It must be remembered that chilly means something quite different in the Ionian than it does in Dogger, Fisher or German Bight. Here it merely means that one registers the temperature as one dives in but then it quickly becomes a passing note. At home chilly means wetsuits, willy warmers and icebergs. We swim among a throng of black tailed bream and ‘other fish’. The sunlight streams through the water from above like torchlight beams puncturing the sub marine aquatic ambience. Soon however it is time to set sail for the destination on a nearby island: Lakka on Paxos island.
The wind is momentarily kind, we hoist sails and learn that our point of sail is towards the wind (again) and so tacking will be the order of the day. We are surrounded in the distance all around by Corfu, mainland Greece and far away the mountains of Albania. As we go, Chris has made a puttanesca sauce in a huge pan clamped onto the gas ring. Huge red ripe tomatoes, onions, garlic, roasted red peppers, anchovies and capers. Just a hint of chilli. This will be tonight’s dinner and will have several hours to marinade. The island of Paxos is always in view ahead and we head for distant masts. As we approach it is not obvious where the little harbour is, as it is tucked away in an inlet. Soon, however the small white sticks become masts, masts become boats and we slide across azure water around a tiny headland and into the bay when suddenly the harbour side opens up. There are already over 20 yachts moored either at the harbor or in the tiny bay. Paxos is another Sivita, but smaller again. Bars and cafes here have been painted in pastel colors to go with the cream and white stone facades. Anchor dropped, we decide that red wine is required and the only way to get to shore is in the tiny dinghy.
One tiny dinghy, 4 blokes. Thankfully one calm bay. The women wisely decide to stay on board. The chugging of the outboard engine get us to shore without incident or affray, we tie up and step straight into a bar for 4 beers. These are provided free as the owner knows Mick. We remember that the purpose of going ashore was to be ‘victualling ship’ and so one beer later we are off.
Getting into a a potentially bobbing, inherently unstable, dinghy should be done carefully and without accident. When it comes to letting go from the metal ring on the harbour wall, this should only require undoing the hitch knot and off! However, it takes two of us to get back out of the dinghy to relieve the tension on the rope so that the knot can actually be released. The good news is that no one falls into the water. A couple sitting nearby at a waterside bar find the sight of 4 men with as much organization as a toddler high on sugar induced ADHD, trying to get free from the harbour wall, highly amusing.
Safely on board, coastguards stood down, dinner and wine is served. We are surrounded by yachts and there seems to be a mix of experience and common sense ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘what the f*ck?” There are rules about where to drop anchors and distances between boats that some appear to either ignore or believe do not apply to them. So, from time to time we are entertained by the comings and goings of various boats in the bay all looking for a slot for safe berth. A boat flying a German flag goes around in circles and seems hell bent on annoying other boat owners by getting too close. He approaches another German boat only for the crew on board to wave their arms about to suggest that he takes his anchor and shove it up his Black Forest.
The sun sets, the lights on the boats go on, it all becomes very, well, ‘pretty’.
Tomorrow is for birthdays and anniversaries celebrated under a Greek sun upon the Ionian Sea.
Lakka to Gaios (Paxos Island)
The funny thing about sea sickness is that it is not funny at all. About as amusing as swallowing a lightly salted slug, only less so. There is less slime going down on a slug than that experienced coming up after a hefty period retching, praying for an early death and considering that being buggered is an improvement as a career move. I’d swap the slug for ‘mal de mer’ anyday.
There is no wind, so we chug out of the bay to hit a few rollers coming straight at us at first and then a bit sideways. For seasoned mariners, this would cause no more discomfort than a scrotum tickling with a feather boa. However, we had just enjoyed breakfast once and were in no mood to ‘enjoy’ breakfast a second time (or third or fourth). Mick decided to turn the boat around and let the waves drive behind us so that we surfed the rollers rather than crash through them. When I say ‘rollers’, do not have in mind walls of sea green rising majestically up to the sky. These little beauties bore more than a passing resemblance to ripples in your bathtub after a particularly vigorous soaping. So, with a new course for the very pretty little port of Gaios on the island of Paxos in time for lunch, we surfed away. We pass a submerged reef closer to shore. It is just visible as a patch of light blue water amid the darker sea. It does not break surface and so there are no waves to mark its place, nor any light, buoy, or the wreck of a reckless skipper to mark the spot. It is on the chart. This little beauty would take your keel off as fast as whore loses her knickers. This, of course, would not be a ‘good thing’ except as a story to tell the grandchildren in one’s dotage. There is a boat closer to shore than us and it seemed to be heading straight for the reef. This was going to be interesting if it did not change course.
However, life returned to being dull as it changed course and slipped past at, well, a ‘rate of knots’.
Entering Gaios is like running up an estuary, olive lined slopes to one side as the curve of passage leads us on. Again many boats are already here tied up. We try to moor at one point but are advised that a ferry docks there. Our final resting place is right in ‘town’. Again one can step off straight into a bar or cafe. Before going ashore the birthday and anniversary necessaries are carried out with a glass of fizz.
Mick is 50 today. Life from this point, I inform him is downhill. He has led ‘la dolce vita’ and has now reached the summit. George Bernard Shaw remarked that a man is at the ‘apex of his villainy’ in his 40’s. So, at this point he reaches that apex and as the next year beckons will discern that the slope starts downwards as his innards begin the slow transformation to mush and his cognitive function resembles that of an out of tune piano. The decline will be imperceptible at first but nonetheless real for all that. He will grow a fondness for a ‘nice cup of tea’ and consider a late night to be 2230. He will regale friends in pubs with histories of his bowel functions, when it does and when it doesn’t, consistency, timing and flow will become important. Don’t mention the prostate, Chalfonts or memory loss. The only time a young lady will smile at you is when she is in a carer’s uniform and is emptying your catheter bag. Amsterdam’s attractions include the Van Gogh museum rather than the red light district, ‘music’ is radio 4 not radio 1 and you sometimes wonder if operation yew tree will come knocking because you ‘tapped that pretty little thing’s pert arse’ in the office during the 70’s in lieu of the spoken request for a cup of tea.
In short life is over.
But for today, there is sunshine, a birthday meal to enjoy and ouzo.
Dinner is booked at restaurant Taka Taka just about 30 seconds walk from the boat. The tables sit under trees and ‘other flora’. It is very very picturesque, with the ambience of a slowly bursting orgasm (?) and will be home to squadrons of hungry mozzies. Fish is eaten, wine is infused, plates are smashed with celebratory dancing at close of day.
Gaios to Plataria
Do you ever look into a mirror and think “who the f*ck is that” staring back at you? And then you remember the late night parties, the rivers of booze and illicit substances, the flings, affairs and liaisons dangereuses, the highs and the lows of misspent youth, and the decades you let slip through your fingers like they were confetti blowing in the wind.
That’s you that is.
The laws of physics will not be mocked, entropy will do it’s work and all we can do is enjoy the ride for it will not stop till that last anchor is dropped and the last dram supped. Your face will eventually mark every safe passage you’ve ever made, every following wind that guided, every tide of hope dashed on the seas of experience until the ‘star you’ve steered her by’ twinkles into the invisibility your last dawn brings.
Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking as I wait for the heads to become free. I’m going to invent a mirror that reflects youth, vitality and hope or one that just tells lies.
There are many advantages of course of having a face that looks like it’s been battered by a force 10 in the North Atlantic for most of its life. For experience and wisdom does not come cheap. Whether one gains such positive outcomes rather than just being a rash, unwise, impetuous youth who just happens to be older is part of your own life’s voyage.
Enough of maritime references, Nelson would turn in his rum soaked grave to hear such mockery crying ‘Emma, raise your self, ma’am, from upon my visage, for there are battles to win and Triumph will not wait e’en for this son of England!” Or something like that.
Today there will be some wind, which is great news for yachting. We are told it will be from the west, and a different ‘point of sail’* for once. The sun rose orange, poking over the small island and streaming its morning rays into the face of the houses on the quayside who all lit up in sheer joy and colourful bursts of welcome for the new warmth of morning. Gulls swooped into life and harbour-side cats stretched legs and scratched ears in anticipation of a good day’s lying about in the sun. The yachts are all moored stern to the wall and sit dormant in the slight dawn breeze ever so gently pulling on their anchor chains over their mirrored reflections. Line upon line of white hulled boats, their stick like masts pierce up into the blue, with hardly a motion, while nation state flags flutter from stays. The usual suspects are here: Germans, French, a flotilla of Brits, one American whose boat is called ‘Albequerque New Mexico’. That’s like calling a British Boat ‘Coventry Warwickshire’. There is the flag of St Piran making a welcome appearance. I’ve not spotted any boats from Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Redruth.
We get a little excitement as boats around us start to pull away from the quays without however and sense of decorum or skill. Anchor chains are in danger of snagging and oaths being shouted. Finally we leave the melee behind and head back out to open sea. There is indeed wind, 13 knots coming over our port side. So it’s up with the mainsail, then the Genoa and we’re off! The ocean gets a bit lumpy, a wave every three seconds
and a force 3-4. White horses join us, and boat tips about 40 degrees. Unfortunately the waves start taking their toll and augers of nausea make an appearance. A bit of a lie down below is required to ease the growing discomfort but suddenly the ocean calms down although the wind stays blowing. Equilibrium returns and we head towards another tiny bay and another tiny port: Plataria.
The wind is blowing straight into the harbour making ‘parking’ a little serious. Mick of course knows exactly what he is doing but we have learned that many others do not. The routine is always to berth stern to the wall. To do this requires dropping the anchor at least three or four boat lengths from the wall and then reversing back until two lines from the stern can be tied up to secure the boat. Just as we are adjusting the last line a French boat comes in and starts drifting towards us. So much so that we have to fend it off and Mick has to take charge of its berthing as the skipper seems a bit clueless. An F word is used. The problem is the wind pushes boats across the water and this has to be taken into consideration along with where the anchor chain is as this is holding the position. We know this because Mick explains everything and it makes sense. Other ‘skippers’ appear to have swapped the need for knowledge with a ‘suck it and see’ attitude. The result is their efforts suck and I can see disaster waiting to claim another idiot. Some people handle boats like pissed monkeys handle high risk investment portfolios. They should really leave it to other people and stick to bananas.
Tonight’s dinner is at Olga’s, a old friend of Mick’s. This is a wonderful harbour-side restaurant bar/cafe. Swallows have made nests in the rafters at the front of the building and one may pass a happy hour watching their comings and goings and chitterings above one’s head. The view is straight out to sea towards the blue silhouette of Corfu which lies about 12 miles away.
Plataria to Mandraki Harbour
We leave Plataria without trauma. The French boat on our starboard leaves first, overseen by Mick who is watching out for our anchor, the chain of which lies underneath the chain of the other boat’s. Given the insouciance, or just plain lackadaisical attitude of the French skipper to Maritime skill, this could be a silly situation should he just haul up and go. Dragging our anchor without our knowledge would loose the boat from our own moorings. While Mick ensures this does not happen, the rest of us breakfast to ease the transition into sunlit day following last night’s meal and nightcaps of Tsiporou.
Each country has its ‘moonshine’, a locally produced fire water. Scotland’s developed into Malt whisky, Brittany has its ‘eau de vie’ and the Nordics have their ‘aquavit’. Tsiporou belongs to Greece. Olga, the owner of the eponymous restaurant, gives us a 50 ml bottle of the stuff. It is a clear colourless liquid just like water itself. Olga has a friend who makes it, or should that be ‘conjures up’, and kindly donates a sample of his latest experiment in alcoholic alchemy. The bottle is indeed an unlabelled water bottle. It is very important we don’t mistake it for such, for this stuff would bleach a coral reef with a small dose from a pipette. The nightcap results in us descending into a state that giggling schoolgirls would recognise as their own.
There is a promise of some wind, and so we head out of the bay. Another blue sky and silver and diamond flecked sea. Either side we are flanked by the tree clad limestone hills hugging the narrow bay until we slip into open sea. The wind however is ‘right on the nose’ so this means chugging straight ahead into it. Eventually we raise sail, and tack our way slowly but rather grandly towards Mandraki harbour on Corfu. The hills and mountains of Albania, mainland Greece and Corfu are all around us in the blue hazed distance. Ferries sneak past with their courses set for their destinations and not for avoiding yachts. Bouncing off the bow of one of them is not on our itinerary. Dolphins have been booked to make an appearance but I fear have forgotten their end of the bargain.
Corfu gently and slowly looms into focus, it’s hill fort above the old town takes on the shape of the fortress it is. Built it seems by the British in the 1830’s to ward off marauding Turks and other assorted ‘fuzzy wuzzies’. The fortress walls tower in majestic defiance over the tiny harbour. I say harbour, but in reality it is a small concrete and stone assemblage thrown together into the sea in a loose formation upon which the electrics, water supplies and moorings are fixed. It rises only about a foot or two above the water. Far more care has been taken in building the bar and restaurant on the harbourside. These sit below the walls of the fortress which are their backdrop, and so with the security of the British empire rising to our backs we can sit and drink a cold beer looking out to sea across the bobbing masts of the small flotilla in front of us. Above our heads swifts make a welcome appearance, clearly in dogfight mode with each other, their screams adding to the totality of this Mediterranean idyll. As yet there are no drunk British teenagers fornicating or vomiting in front of us. There is nothing here for them in any case, it is just sailboats, the sea and serenity.
Tonight restaurant is a Mexican. Greek food is great but a change is needed. To get there we have to walk from the yacht club bar and through a small arched gate in the fortress walls, up steps to the ramparts to where we have a panoramic view across the bay. The fortress is indeed impressive and one can still hear the drill steps of old long gone British regiments on the parade ground if you close your eyes. Corfu town is faded colonial glory, narrow streets with tall buildings on either side, colonnaded at ground level and paint peeled adding to the atmosphere of elegant dilapidation. To renew the paint and fix the shutters would detract from the charm and should be avoided. There seems to be little or no modern development, no glass and steel structures beloved of financial districts. The streets are bare feet clean. Litter and canine metabolic deposits are conspicuous by their absence on the marble smooth stones. There are very few cars, which seems to be limited to the perimeter road, enabling the throng to amble and peruse at leisure without fear of imminent trauma. All life is here, old couples strolling, young mums musing and young couples holding hands and stealing kisses as the evening sun lights up their full of hope faces. Bars and cafes line the streets, tables taken by the languid smokers and the dawdling drinkers taking a pre dinner ouzo. The low sun turns the whisps of cigarette smoke blue, throws shafts of gold into young girls breeze flicked hair and quickly disperses, high into the swift and swallow filled sky, any latent melancholia which might occur.
Old town Corfu is thus an absolute pleasure. The Mexican restaurant a joy and the weather perfect. On returning through the old streets back to the boat we pass a small dance club. Windows open, the Greek traditional music wafts into the street, while the group of young Greeks all hold hands and dance in a circle. They laugh and sing and dance in sheer exuberance and joy. I can’t see any of them drinking or smoking, just dancing to old time folk music, with not a care and in defiance of the country’s perilous financial position. If one can dance, one can hope. Greece is still dancing and so Greece can still hope.
Mandraki Harbour to Gouvia
The last full day with no wind. This is not a problem because through the miracle of modern engineering we have a big fat Diesel engine. We are parked nose on to the tiny wall that passes for the harbour, access to which is over a long plank that slopes down in a wobbly sort of way over the water before resting in a wibbly sort of way on the stones. We have secured one end to the boat with rope and the other end to the harbour with hope. Should one decide to throw oneself off mid wobbly plank, a distance of about 6 feet will be enjoyed before hitting the water. Two black bow lines secure us for’ard, while the stern is secured with a ‘lazy line’, a rope tied to an underwater mooring that acts like an anchor. It is often slimy and home to new forms of bacteria. As the sun really starts to get hot, and with breakfast stowed we have to let go of all these lines to chug out into the bay of Corfu, as we do so, the fortress watches on silently. The surface of the water is mirror like with the occasional ripple of a passing wake.
After a pleasant couple of hours, we anchor near shore, near turquoise water. This is the cue for a little light snorkeling and lunch. There is not a cloud in the sky, the boat sits lazily into wind on its anchor. The only noise is from birdsong onshore. There are a few houses dotted among the trees, poplars in ceremonial ranks among the scattered shrubbery.
The gently swaying of the boat induces a certain melancholy in the afternoon sunshine. A few yachts sail by in the far distance, the surface of the sea sparkles, time stands still for just a moment. Life cannot go on like this, it is not stationary but just for this moment the cosmic march of time is halted. Tomorrow it will all begin again as British Airways has its schedule and we must be on the way home to England, merry England to rejoin the happy throng of miserabilists caught in a web of despond while streams of grey cold water washes the last vestiges of hope down life’s drain. Is this fair on England? Does the warmth of a sunnier ambience distort the memories of home? Does the lack of traffic, access to fresh fish, predictable cloudless skies, a warm breeze on one’s face, the hot sun on one’s back, the gentle swishing of water at the bow, the arc of the mainsail sweeping up above and the promise of a cold beer in port refract one’s home bound memories into a miasma of grey? We have been momentarily freed from the daily concerns about what is, in actuality, nothing. We are freed from the the drip drip drip of incessant racist headlines, freed from the fear mongering about a distant black clad gun toting psychopath with virgin issues, and freed from our darker melancholic selves whose horizons stretch no further than the A30, the M25 or the Redditch bypass.
Meanwhile, we still have Tsiperou, beer and rum on board and ‘up spirits’ will be called for as night beckons us to sleep. ‘Up Spirits’ is a toast to the Queen taken traditionally with rum:
“Stand Fast the Holy Ghost”.
“Angels muster on the flight deck”.
(The rum or spirit of choice is then downed in one).
An optional “hurrah’ then follows before bedtime or an ambulance is called.
All is quiet on the quay side as we retire for the last snooze once more aboard the ‘Butterfly’, and home for the past week.
I awake in England for the sky is cloud laden though the temperature is hot enough to be not of an English summer born. Tiz but a mirage and a temporary blip as the sun burns off the mists to reveal another azure ambience. A tepid shower before breakfast is taken. Tepid because the water is heated through solar panels, and as is often noted by the quick witted there is little sunshine at night. All body parts are checked as present and correct before packing the bags into the taxi for Corfu Old Town. The flight home is at 1740 and as we have to be off the boat at 0900 we need somewhere to stow bags as we spend another lazy day. The solution is that the 2 taxi drivers know a small tavern where we may breakfast and at no charge can drop our bags before catching another taxi to the airport.
Yanis and Spiros are old friends who played football together. They are competitive no doubt and probably want to beat each other at every opportunity. They talk at and with each other at lightening speed. This speed matches the way they drive their taxis. Yes indeed, as with many Latin countries the emphasis when driving is more on excitement (from the driver’s perspective) than safety. Spiros informs us that the planes coming in to land had to be diverted due to the morning mists. Yanis plays Zorba the Greek all the way into town. Road markings and lane discipline is for theory only. We weave through lorries and motorbikes and mopeds. No one wears a crash helmet even though it is the law to do as in the UK. One may be fined 100 euros for not wearing a helmet, but everyone flouts this particular law.
The small taverna has its outside seating across the road. It is right on the apex of this road that goes from Corfu Old Town into the port area. It is not busy by English standards but none the less cars, coaches and wagons trundle by. The waiter has to carry the trays of breakfast across the traffic every single time. To his right there is a zebra crossing but this is ignored by everybody. There ought to be an ambulance on standby at this point but I guess when it comes to matters of life and death, the Greeks are philosophical about this.
Breakfast suitably dealt with, there are a few hours of meanderings to do while away the time. The short walk into town takes us pass a statue in bronze of a man and his wife. The father has his young son leaning on his leg in sorrow and the mother is holding a babe in arms. They are depicted thin and naked. Inscribed underneath is ‘never again for any nation’.
During the Nazi occupation, 2000 of Corfu’s Jewish community were taken to Auschwitz and Berkenau concentration camps. This sits beneath ‘new’ fort’s tall grey stone wall nearly in the shade of a purple jacaranda. It is a bit of a moment for reflection of where we have come from in Europe and also where we could so easily go to again.
Lunch will be Gyros: ‘a little fluffy pillow of joy’ involving a kind of wrap, filled with pork, salad and tsatziki. Scrumptious. The tiny gyros shop is very narrow and dark, and of course welcome shade from the sun. However, we all cannot queue up at the counter due to the lack of room, this means that while half of us file in and order, the rest wait outside in the sun soaked street. This is a pedestrian area, the streets are just over one car wide, stone paved and flanked by five or six storeyed houses. There are two tables with 8 seats just outside the shop. Two of the seats are taken up by gentlemen filling their faces with the gyros they have just bought. I think they are tourists as they don’t have the swarthy Greek look about them. One wears a Panama type hat and the other a baseball cap, both are in t shirts and shorts and sock free sandals. Their complexions are Northern European. One looks like he enjoys beer, pies and cabbage in proportions to victual a battleship. The gyros are not so much eaten as pushed forcefully into the mouth as if they fear the taste will dissipate in the heat. I note they have a tray of the things on the table, each one about two or three bite size if one has a Bavarian appetite. For us, just one is lunch. I suspect they are Germans just from their ‘look’, an indescribable touch of the Teutonic which has to be seen to be understood. No doubt they say they can spot a Brit abroad. They finish their gyros with a flourish and two cans of Coke, one picks up the litter and goes back inside the shop. His colleague gets up out of the straining chair, and stands in the sun trying to wipe his fingers. He calls to his colleague “Papir Bitte” (“paper please”) in an almost high falsetto belying his stature as an official poster boy for the ‘Over 30 Body Mass Index club”. The voice belonged to a choir boy, the gesture to a ballerina and the body to a panzer tank.
I smirk inwardly in vindication of my stereotyped judgement on Germans. I half expect them to go back into the shop and demand their money back from the Greek shop owner in part payment for the euro ‘bail out’. It is also a little bit insensitive to shout ‘paper please’ in the street given Greco-German relationships in the modern era.
And another thing….
Each slow intermittent swish of the wiper blade skimming the surface of the windscreen, flicking cold grey water, marks the passage of one’s evaporating life in the commuter belt of doom. The greyness of the weather matched only by the grey of one’s soul as it sits parked nose to tail in a traffic queue where you have only the registration plate of the car in front for company. Radio 4 brings gloom and despond into the interior of the car resulting in the fingers of despair and suicidal ideation gripping one’s heart strings so tight that they might just snap.
The gentle lapping of the clear Mediterranean vies only with the high flying swifts for one’s attention as the rising sun warms one’s back. Yacht masts sway in slow unison. Blue skies rise from horizon to horizon, while small shoals of mullet and bream swim between the boats. The reds and purples of Bougainvillia shade the opposite walkway adding more colour the the blue and white stripes of little Greek flags tied to the stays. Olive oil, garlic, cheese and toast, eggs and coffee provide breakfast. One’s blood is warmed, one’s soul is redeemed, one’s heart heals.