Discover the charms of Corfu
Gerald Durrell describes the magic of the Greek island of Corfu in his book, My Family and Other Animals. We explore this jewel of an island in the Ionian Sea and get some local insight from artist and musician Louise du Toit. Of course, you’ll also want to try a few local specialities and if you fancy following in the footsteps of the Durrells, we’ve got just the experience for you
The island with something for everyone
Thanks to the mix of hot, dry summers and winter rains, thousands of olive trees, lemon groves and cypress trees dominate the landscape of Corfu, making it one of the prettiest and most verdant of the Ionian islands. With its historic capital, turquoise waters and beautiful landscapes, there is something for everyone to enjoy on a trip to Corfu.
Sights not to miss
Corfu is nicknamed ‘the green island’ – and it’s easy to see why. Much of this small Ionian island (just 40 miles long by 20 miles wide) is covered in olive trees – some four million of them. For a taste of the green nectar, head out to Theotoky Estate in the Ropa Valley, not far from Corfu Town, which presses its own organic extra virgin olive oil. It’s also famed for its fine wines – the white was even name-checked by James Bond in For Your Eyes Only, which was filmed on Corfu.
One of the locations used for the movie was the Achilleion Palace, in the village of Gastouri. Built in 1890 as a summer residence by Empress Elisabeth ‘Sisi’ of Austria, it is themed around, and named after, Achilles. There are plenty of statues and paintings of the Greek mythical hero to be found in the museum, which is set in beautiful gardens with a backdrop of mountains and views over the Ionian Sea.
Take a dip
A swim in the crystal-clear waters of Corfu is a must, and there are more than 50 beaches to choose from around the stunning coastline. One of the best is Paleokastritsa (actually a stretch of six separate beaches) in the north-west of the island, but it can get crowded. Glyfada, a large sandy beach on the west coast, is also popular, and is in easy reach of Corfu Town. For a more relaxed feel, head further round the north-west coast to the quieter Agios Georgios and Agios Stefanos.
The capital Corfu Town has a surprisingly cosmopolitan feel for a small Greek island, thanks in no small part to the Venetians, who ruled from 1386 to 1797 and left their legacy in the island’s architecture and food. The Old Town, full of narrow cobbled streets, charming squares and balconied houses, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and sits between two impressive Venetian fortresses – Old and New – that are well worth a visit.
When Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797, Corfu became part of the French empire. Their influence can be seen in The Liston, a long promenade in Corfu Town built to the same design as the Rue du Rivoli in Paris. Today it is full of shops and cafés, and is the perfect place to sit and people-watch. The British who ruled for a while in the 19th century, also left their mark in the form of a cricket pitch in Spianada Square. They played a game here in 1823 and converted Corfiots to a love of the sport, which they nicknamed ‘fermaro kai issia’, or ‘block and wallop’.
My inspiring island
Louise du Toit is an artist and musician living in Corfu. Here, she lets us in on the reasons why Corfu has stolen her heart.
I love living on Corfu because it combines tranquillity with vibrancy. I can wake up and plan my day as I like: take my violin and sit on the beach and write a song without being disturbed, or go for a dip in the sea to unwind after a performance.
Paleokastritsa is a beautiful secluded beach with spectacular rock formations and clear, refreshing water. Achilleion Palace is a special place, too, full of atmosphere and perfect for recharging your batteries. You can stand on the ramparts and gaze at the panorama below, just as Empress Sisi, who had it built as her summer residence, would have done.
The island is very musical, and there are many artists here. It’s buzzing with people and ideas, so I always have an audience to give me encouragement, inspiration and feedback. There are lots of open-air performances to enjoy, and Corfu has 18 marching bands – it’s quite a spectacle to see children and adults marching together through the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old Town.
The Old Town is a must-visit: there are some wonderful family tavernas where you’ll find home cooking at its best. I love the simplicity of island food. I grow my own vegetables, and there’s nothing like cooking outside under the trees: my own potatoes with wild greens foraged in the fields, olive oil and lemon. We’re surrounded by fruit trees and have fresh juice all year round.
Corfu is all about nature, family and community. I feel truly blessed with my life here. The island keeps you young.
A taste of Corfu
When in Corfu, dine like a king on these local specialities:
Mezze mezze mezze
When it comes to starters, go Greek and choose a mezze selection of small dishes to share. Traditional choices include taramasalata (fish roe), tzatziki (yoghurt and cucumber) and melitzanosalata (aubergine) dips, along with feta cheese, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), spanakopita (spinach and feta filo pie), saganaki (fried cheese), gigantes (butter beans in tomato sauce), keftedes (meatballs) and calamari.
Mains you must try
For main courses, there’s much more on offer than moussaka. Corfiot specialities include pastitsada (chicken, beef or veal in tomato sauce served with pasta) and sofrito (strips of beef or veal cooked in a white wine sauce and served with rice or potatoes). Fish lovers should try the spicy bourdeto and garlicky bianco stews.
As well as the popular filo, nuts and honey-based desserts baklava and kataifi, Corfu has a number of traditional sweets including sikomaida – a fig cake made with the anise-flavoured aperitif ouzo – a pancake with raisins called tsaletia, and tzintzola, dried fruits with sesame.
The kumquat is abundant on the island, and can be found in jams and sweets, as well as a famous liqueur. Ouzo, retsina and metaxa are popular drinks, and there are plenty of homemade wines on offer, too. Any meal should be rounded off with a Greek coffee, served small and strong with a choice of sketo (no sugar), metrio (one sugar) or glyko (two sugars).
Follow in the footsteps of the Durrells
If you previously spent your Sunday nights watching ITV’s The Durrells, wishing you could visit the sun-drenched locations, you’re in luck. The series based on the autobiographical novels of the naturalist Gerald Durrell, including the much-loved My Family and Other Animals told the story of his idyllic but somewhat unusual childhood in Corfu in the 1930s. Why not take the In the Footsteps of the Durrells shore experience to relive some of what he found so fascinating. Small groups will be taken to the family’s former haunts to explore some of the natural beauty that the island has to offer. The first visit will be to Perama, location of the ‘strawberry-pink villa’ that was the family’s first home on the island. Then it’s on to Kontokali Bay, where the family’s Venetian-style villa is almost unchanged – you’ll really feel like you’ve been transported back in time. Next, you will be driven to Kalami for a photo stop at the famous ‘White House’, the former residence of author Lawrence Durrell, Gerald’s oldest brother.