Early Days in Corfu
As I mentioned in my first post, I ended up spending three months in Corfu instead of the originally intended couple of days. I’d pitched tent in an olive grove (with the blessing of the owner) in an area just outside town, called Kanoni, and I was two minutes walk away from Pontikonisi, which is now probably the most iconic and photographed spot in Greece.
The Kanoni area today is a concrete jungle, with wall to wall apartment blocks and hotels, but back in 1967, it was virtually untouched, with just one five star hotel (called the ‘Xenia’ back then) overlooking Pontikonisi, with a small, semi-private beach below (not visible in the photo above, but just off to the left about twenty metres out of frame), which is where I used to go to swim. Apart from the Xenia hotel and a few houses dotted around, the area was just olive groves and orange groves. I used to swim to the island almost daily. It was idyllic. The bonus of swimming from the hotel beach was that I got to know a lot of the guests who would go down to swim, and was able sell them the clam shells that proliferated on the sea bed there (after I’d cooked the contents and cleaned up the shells). They were large and easy to find, as they were only about ten metres down, and not very far from shore; and when cleaned up were very attractive with their Mother-of-Pearl interiors. It was on that beach that I met the woman who offered me a lift to Istanbul; but more of that later.
One of my enduring memories of that beach was when an American couple (mid-twenties I’d say) were coming down to the beach every day for a fortnight or so. The guy was built like Sylvester Stallone in his ‘Rambo’ days, and the girl (who was slim, shapely and very attractive in a Marilyn Monroe sort of way), had the most staggeringly amazing tits I’d ever set eyes on (most girls went topless at the beach back then). They were large, and immovable. When she lay on her back on the beach, they stuck up like Buddhist stupas, and when she stood up, they thrust out in front of her horizontally, as if they had some invisible support mechanism. She had to lean back slightly when she stood, to counterbalance the frontal load. I realise in retrospect that I was probably witnessing an early example of breast augmentation, but knowing nothing about those procedures then, I was just transfixed. It was all I could do to avoid staring fixedly at those monumental edifices. She epitomised Barbie before Barbie had been invented. Ha! Surprising (or perhaps not, given my age at the time) what sticks in your mind!
In the evenings, I would usually stroll into town. It was a good half-hour walk, but very pleasant, and I wasn’t in a hurry. I’d often go to the Liston, a beautiful arcaded terrace facing the cricket pitch, which was given over for the most part to cafés and restaurants. In those days, it was slightly upmarket, but nevertheless was still frequented by ordinary locals, many of them older men who would be hunched over Tavli boards, komboloi clacking away in their free hand as they flung the dice onto the board and rapidly shifted their checkers to a new position. I met some interesting people there, too, not least a chap called Stanley, who spent most of his summers in Corfu, and his friend George, who was resident there. They were quite old (or so it seemed to me at the time), Stanley being I guess in his late fifties, and George in his seventies, but they were great company. They were both ‘old-school’ queers, and made no bones about it. “Well, women are all right – but it’s not like the real thing, is it?”, Stanley would say in his clipped, Etonian accent. They found it most strange that I had no interest in men on that level, but were quite happy to enjoy my young company, my heterosexuality notwithstanding, and I spent many a pleasurable evening with them, eating, drinking and talking. Stanley was a script-writer, and did a lot of work for the BBC turning books into television dramas, and George had also worked for the BBC before his retirement, on the world news-desk. George was a polyglot, and spoke something like twenty four languages fluently, and could get by in another twenty. He delighted in showing me his large collection of ancient Greek erotic art, mostly depictions of homosexuality, perhaps in the hope of persuading me of its merits! He was also the acting Swedish (I think) Consul on the island, I guess because he was the only resident who spoke Swedish.They were both fascinating people to talk to; funny, knowledgeable, and highly intelligent. I really enjoyed their company, and stayed in touch with both of them until they died.
The Liston is now a very upmarket parade, where people go in the evenings to see and be seen, and drink their €5 plus coffees. I still enjoy going there, but when a few drinks can set you back fifty Euros or so, it’s not exactly a daily venue.
I’d been on Corfu a few weeks when it occurred to me that I’d told people that I’d be in Athens not long after I left Italy, and all my post had gone to Poste Restante in the main Athens Post Office. Athens was (after the 2 hours on the local ferry) a good day’s drive away back then – at least double that if you were hitch-hiking, as I was. But with the insouciant disregard for small difficulties like that that only the young have, I set out to get my mail. I was somewhat incentivised by the fact that my mother had probably slipped a fiver in her letter. I picked up my mail (yes, she had put a fiver in with her letter, bless her), and hit the road back to Corfu. I was rather perplexed at the lack of traffic on the way back – there was very little traffic normally, then, because not many people had cars, but the roads were almost completely empty. It was only when I eventually got back to Corfu a couple of days later that I learned that during my trip back there had been a military coup, and there were curfews imposed and martial law. It didn’t seem to impact on Corfu too much, though. Life seemed to carry on as usual, and I only got shouted at a couple of times by soldiers when walking home after curfew. And that was only in the first few days.
The days and weeks slipped by without my noticing. I was spending the days on the beach, swimming and sunning myself in a state of torpor, although I’d occasionally be infused with a burst of energy, and strike out along the coast to explore the rocky inlets and look for good places to swim. My original travel plans had been somewhat subsumed by my bucolic environment, and barely impinged on my daily thoughts.
That changed, however, with the arrival at the hotel of an American woman who was travelling with her mother and her two young children. She had bought a VW campervan in northern Europe and they were doing the ‘Grand Tour’. She was actually a very nice lady, intelligent and good company. Her mother never stopped complaining about everything – the heat, the food, the Greeks, the hotel, her daughter, the kids (especially the kids) – in fact everything around her. The kids, a girl and a boy, were about six and eight respectively. The little girl was ok, she just did her own thing playing on the beach and not disturbing anyone too much. The little boy, though, was completely psychotic. He had no self-control whatsoever, and the slightest thing would throw him into a screaming tantrum. He obviously had quite serious mental problems, and I had great admiration for his mother, who displayed supreme patience and serenity in the face of constant massive disruption as the boy had one manic outburst after another. Anyway, in the course of our conversations I told her that I was on my way (haha) to Asia, at which she promptly offered me a lift to Istanbul. She was going to spend a few days at a campsite near Athens so they could take in the antiquities in and around the city, and then proceed north to Turkey. In Istanbul she was going to meet up with a nephew a few years older than me who was living there. I mention the nephew because he introduced me to several aspects of Istanbul, and life, that would otherwise have passed me by. But that’s a story I’ll probably cover in another post sometime.
Thus I found myself in a VW campervan, doing most of the driving (I didn’t have a licence at that time, but I knew how to drive) on my way to Istanbul, with a psychotic kid having tantrums in the back and a grandma screaming in terror because she thought I was going to hit a donkey / plunge over the edge / was going too fast / had skidded slightly on the dirt road etc etc. It wasn’t the most relaxing of trips, I have to say. But it was a lift to Istanbul, gratis, and for that I was grateful.
I was sad to leave Corfu, but I was told I’d be back, because I’d drunk from the magic spring. This was a natural spring that appeared out of the rocks on the coast in the grounds of Mon Repos, a royal summer palace and the birthplace of Prince Phillip. It was one of the days I was exploring the nearby coast, and when I arrived at where the spring was, I was hot and thirsty having spent a couple of hours clambering over and around rocks, so drank deeply of the sweet, cold water pouring out of the rock face. It was only later, when talking to some Greek friends that I found out that local legend has it that if you drink from this spring you will never escape the magic of Corfu, and are destined to forever return. I laughed at the time, but given that I’ve now spent more than a third of my adult life, cumulatively, on the island, perhaps the legend isn’t so fanciful after all. As Hamlet said:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
There is magic in Greece…