Corfu Day 5 – Turning Japanese

Today we found St Spiridon’s cathedral – hardly surprising since we had chosen to walk down St Spiridon Street on the assumption that the cathedral would be somewhere along it. We almost missed it, since it was part way along the street with other buildings adjoining it on each side. None of the wide open spaces I’m used to in England.

People were going in and out, so we went in, and then came out. A choir was singing at one end. A queue of people were lined up to do I don’t know what. It all seemed very active. I prefer my cathedrals quiet and museum-like.

So we went to the Museum of Asiatic Art where for €6 you can walk around for hours looking at art from many Asian countries. The biggest part is Chinese, mainly plates and bowls in bronze, pottery, stoneware, porcelain and enamels. The timeline, starting at 30,000BC, is well explained in both Greek and English. Then you go on to India, where most of the art is carved figures, representing gods, warriors and sex, often all at once, followed by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand and several other countries, finishing up with Japan. In fact, when we came to the spiral staircase where Japan continued upstairs through six more rooms, we called it a day.

There was a temporary exhibition of Japanese drawings of courtesans and Kabuki actors, which included – as a sign sternly warned at the entrance – some explicit ones. There were just two, in fact. There was no such warning about the equally explicit Indian wood carvings in the permanent exhibition.

After yesterday’s sofrito, we tried souvlaki for dinner – essentially meat cubes cooked on skewers and served without the skewers but with sauté potatoes. We also had dessert, a big mistake. The desserts were huge, but tasted really good, so we had to eat them…

Corfu Day 4 – History

Today (Sunday) we went to the Archeological Museum of Corfu, a daring journey right to the edge of our map. It was closed. It’s been closed for ages, with no indication of when it might reopen. Should have used a well known search engine, not relied on a clearly out of date guide book.

So we turned around and headed back towards the Old Town, determined to get our history fix by visiting the Old Fort. On the way, we heard a cacophony of car horns, so we stopped to see why, expecting boy racers angry with each other. Instead, the lead car, a black Mercedes, was decorated in white ribbons, and leading the hooting. The next half dozen cars were making just as much noise. A wedding procession, we surmised, the hooting indicating much joy at the marriage and also, possibly, “We are all together, please don’t cut in.” (Except that someone did, in a black pickup truck, the scum.)

Entry to the fort costs just €4 and for that you get to wander around fallen down walls, pop in to various chapels and churches with displays of art both Byzantine and modern, and climb to the top of the Land Tower. This is built on the highest hill, nearest to the land. The other hill, more out to sea, is called with classic logic the Sea Tower, but the ways to it are fenced off. From the top you get a good view of Corfu town and a clear sight of the airport. We also reckoned we could pick out the Bella Venezia and even our room window.

Kevin on the bridge to the Old Fort

Kevin on the bridge to the Old Fort

Coming down, we discovered that some of the cobbles in the steps were made of marble and worn to shiny smoothness by many feet. Thank goodness for Shell’s “Hold the handrail” rule, ingrained over years of HSE training, because it stopped me going flat on my back.

The fort has its own cafeteria, so we had lunch there, until the wind blew the last few crisps off my plate and onto the floor, where they were seized by pigeons with very feathery legs.

After siesta In the hotel room, we went for a walk to the port area. Round the corner from the hotel we found a horde of chattering children with their mums and dads, all waiting to get into a cinema. Waiting, mind you, not queuing. In Britain there’d have been a line of people along the pavement, but this is not Britain. A scrum, spilling out into the road, is what it was, and into the road we had to go to get by. But that was okay, the road was only the major route around the Old Town.

On our artist’s impression of a map of Corfu, there seemed to be a road round the New Fortress that I wanted to take. We overshot it, since it looked so unprepossessing, and had to backtrack. If it had started out unprepossessing, it got worse, narrowing as it rose alongside the walls of the fortress. But a girl on a motorcycle came the other way, which reassured me (if not Diana) that we weren’t on a road to nowhere. Suddenly, we were in a very narrow alley and heading back downhill, sometimes on steps, but we couldn’t get (more) lost since there were no side alleys. We emerged onto wider roads by the port, which after all that was very dull.

Plunging back into some more tiny roads in a different part of Old Town, we came to a large, bright pink building at the top of some steps. Painstakingly working out the Greek letters spelling “Metropolitan”, we deduced it was the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. We decided not to go up the steps because it didn’t seem right to get mixed up in the wedding party there.

So we went up some other steps and round the cathedral and along some dimly lit streets and ended up at a taverna where we ate a classic Corfu sofrito – very tender beef cooked in a garlic sauce and served with chips.

Back at the hotel, Diana insisted upon margaritas before bedtime. “Make sure there’s salt,” she said. “It’s not the same without salt.” Or perhaps it didn’t quite happen that way and maybe someone else suggested margaritas. Who can tell?

Corfu Day 3 – Plumbing

The Bella Venezia Hotel occupies an old building surrounded by modern ones. It apparently survived bombing and destruction in 1943, alone among its neighbours including the original hotel, and became the hotel in 1985.

It fronts onto N. Zambeli street and has a courtyard garden around two sides, where breakfast is served in the morning and drinks at more or less any time after that. Our room is on the second (and top) floor in one corner. We have a view one way onto an apartment block with rusting balcony rails that stands higher than the hotel and the other way over the rooftops to the west. The windows are high in the room, such that Diana can only see upwards, unless she stands on something.

It has interesting plumbing. A sign over the toilet rolls says “Please use bin for waste paper.” English custom and practice, not to mention middle class sensibilities, lead one to interpret that as meaning don’t put any other things such as tissues down the toilet. However, if that was meant, why not put the sign where you’d see it if you were about to do that, rather over the toilet rolls where you wouldn’t? This is where our careful preparatory reading paid off. An early episode in Gerald Durrell’s “My family and other animals” (set in Corfu) has Margot using toilet paper from a convenient box by the side, to the alarm of the family, and her own mortification as she discovers this is the “used” box…

We still couldn’t quite believe it, but Diana checked, woman to woman, with the hotel receptionist, who confirmed our misgivings. What I tell you three times is true.

After breakfast we headed for Guilford street (not quite the Surrey city), which we’d crossed yesterday and thought looked interesting. We aimed for the start of the street, but went too far and had to loop back, but no matter – we’re not on a tight schedule, as I may have remarked already. Guilford was another narrow, paved street (so we were on car alert of course) containing lots of small shops and lots more restaurants, including a bakery and pie shop recommended by our guide book, which we noted for later.

Guilford opens into a square with even more restaurants, plus the Catholic cathedral and the Municipal Art Gallery. The cathedral was quite small as cathedrals go, but of course the prevailing religion is Greek Orthodox (my spellchecker nearly gave me “Orthodontist” there – a beguiling concept for a religion) so this isn’t really surprising. The art gallery had a show of recent local Corfiot artists and a couple of the pictures stood out. One, entitled “Red”, was especially hard to interpret. Was it a horde of Crusader knights storming ashore in a sea of blood, St George pennants flying? If so, who was the dark skinned young person in a white t-shirt trying to hold up a red and white striped police tape against them?

We found the local bus station in San Rocco Square, and the ticket machines that showed an all-day ticket costs only €5. We headed off to find the long distance bus station, taking a back-street route alongside the New Venetian Fortress because it looked more interesting. As we were hesitating, looking down twenty feet on a road not marked as distinct on our map, an elderly man appeared up some steps carrying three bags of fruit and veg. He asked if we needed help, telling us how to get to the New Port and to the Old Town. Before long we found out he was an artist and had five children, one of whom was a sculptor. He hauled out his Samsung tablet to show us photos of his work, his daughter and her work, which was actually very impressive. He was pleased we were British, because so was his wife. We talked a little about Ellie and Tris. After about thirty minutes he went on his way and we continued to the end of the road, from which we could see down into the coach station, but not actually get to it. The end of the road is meant literally, as the only way to continue was down some narrow unofficial steps made of old bricks, breeze blocks, stone and concrete.

The old gent had been shopping in the market, so we did a u-turn on the lower road to find it, giving up on the port for the time being. Some of the stalls were closed already, but there were enough open to see what was going on. We could have bought fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and I don’t know what. Our idea was to walk through the market and then find a restaurant, but we never made it. Once again we were trapped by an enthusiastic waiter.

Diana and the waiter

Diana and the waiter

“Would you like small snack?” he asked. Small snack was exactly what we wanted, and a beer and an orange juice, which they freshly squeezed on the spot. The small snack arrived – bread, tomato salad, mixed plate of prawns, tzatziki and potato salad. Excellent, just what we were after, and we tucked in. Then he produced a plate of hot whitebait and calamari. “That will be enough,” we said hurriedly. It was actually very good. He offered coffee on the house, so we had that as well.

My desire to get to the hotel without looking at the map failed, but we found Guilford again and took a small alley, which led us to the Anglican church. Our old gent had mentioned this when we said we were staying at the Bella Venezia. “Only 50 metres away. My wife went there.” The gate was open, but the door locked.

After a siesta of sorts, we went down to the hotel garden and on impulse, since it was past five o’clock and sort of approaching sundown, decided to have cocktails. I had a phase of making them at home a few years ago, and do a mean martini (mainly because I’m too cheap to keep olives in the house), but this is the first time we’ve had cocktails when out together. Sad, isn’t it?

Yes, we’re going to … Corfu

Day 1 – Exeter

The flight to Corfu was very carefully planned to go from Exeter. In fact, we chose Corfu precisely because the flight went from Exeter. And then we found that this oh so convenient flight took off at 7am, with check in at 5.

So we drove to Exeter the day before and stayed in the airport hotel, which was clearly used to early starters since breakfast was available from 4am.

Day 2 – To Corfu

We woke up on time. Flight was fine. Arrived Corfu airport at around midday, local time. Tour rep on hand as soon as we passed through Customs to give us a welcome pack and take us to our pre-booked taxi, which went straight to the hotel, where we checked in without problem. They gave us a welcoming fruit punch in the garden while they took our bags up to our room. There was no wrecks and nobody drownded, in fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

After unpacking and lounging around for a while, we ventured out on foot into the town in search of a late lunch. We were armed with a free map with the street names in English, which made it easy to read, but hard to translate into the street signs which are naturally written in the Greek alphabet.

We found a restaurant on the edge of the Esplanade – or rather, it found us. While pausing to look at a menu, an enthusiastic waiter bustled up to explain how wonderful the menu was. Would we like to sit down here, or across the road? So we went across the road and our lunch turned out to be enormous. If brunch is a morning meal this was more a “dinch”. Diana had a tuna salad which contained chunks of a delicious big tomato. I had an excellent “Greek Pizza”, about a metre across, made Greek by the feta cheese coating it. The waiter remained busy, talking to every potential customer from one end of his outdoor patch to the other, his motto clearly being “They shall not pass”, and crossing the road often, balancing trays of food one way and used crockery the other.

Late in the afternoon we resumed our walk about town. The Old Fort was just across the road from the restaurant, so we meandered over to it. Like many attractions, it is open 8am to 8pm, but we just marked its location for a later visit. We have a fortnight, no need to rush. We then decided to walk round the old town, sticking close to the sea and then cutting inland at the New Venetian Fortress. (“New” is a comparative term here, as in New College, Oxford.)

New Venetian Fort

New Venetian Fort

The road we wanted was Velissariou, a wide, major road according to the map. The tiny alley that seemed barely big enough to squeeze through, but in the right place, didn’t seem promising, but I surprised myself by managing to read the Greek street name. What looks like a B is a V, then there’s a lambda and a couple of sigmas, and you can deduce the rest. It turns out that a science education is great preparation – all those Greek letters used for symbols and constants.

Velissariou turned out to be wide enough to let cars through. This was disconcerting, since the road was paved with very attractive flagstones, for all the world an archetypal pedestrian area. For the rest of the world, maybe. Not for the Corfiots. We were continually dodging cars in a road less than half the width of Molesworth Street*.




The next street we needed started by going up 20 or 30 steps. Diana was doubtful, but it came out where I expected, at the end of the road of our hotel. We finished the day with a toasted sandwich and a beer/coffee in the hotel garden.

What have we learned? That the map of Corfu Town is an artist’s impression, and that it is possible to read Greek.

* If you don’t know Molesworth Street, you’d better come to visit us, and find out.