In Search of the Real Greece in Corfu

By Daily Mail Travel Writer, Thomas W. Hodgkinson


What is the “real Greece”? Is it packed beaches and peeling, sunburnt skin? Or are you more likely to find it inland, in the untouched villages in the hills, and on the winding paths through olive groves, along which, to this day, you might spot a farmer with his donkey, laden down with a bundle of firewood?

Photo by Thomas W. Hodgkinson on a guided walk

Photo by Thomas W. Hodgkinson on a guided walk

For anyone keen to explore the second possibility, a boutique walking-tour company has just launched in Corfu. The guide, Dimitris Tsirigotis, is a bemuscled modern-day Pheidippides — a keen runner of ultra-marathons, who got to know the local landscape while pounding his way through the hills as part of his training.

My marathon-running days are a distant memory, so I was relieved when Dimitris set a gentle pace on our first walk. We strolled uphill along a road, before plunging into the undergrowth. It was a route that, without a guide, you simply wouldn’t know about — and if you risked it, chances are you’d end up hopelessly lost.

Another reason to be glad of my guide was his knowledge of the local flora. Those crimson, serrated flowers, he pointed out, were “skylakia" after the Greek word for “dog”, since that was what they resembled. The purple Judas Tree was so-named because it was from such a tree that Jesus’s least-loved disciple hanged himself. 

The king of trees in Corfu is the olive, of which the island has more per square km than anywhere else in Greece. For 400 years, the place was governed by the Venetians, who wanted to corner the market in olive oil. They decreed that every local must plant olive trees, with the result that Corfu has the best olive groves in the world. These tangled orchards seem to embody Robert Frost’s description of woods that are “lovely, dark and deep”. You couldn’t grow tired of looking at them. 

Eventually, we rose above the olive line into a landscape that was more various and less cultivated. Suddenly, Dimitris restrained me, a flat palm pressed against my chest. On the path ahead, a large black snake was wending its way. With a fine sense of drama, my guide led me to believe that this had been a near-death experience.  

After a pause, we continued, cresting a rise to reach the climax of our walk: a spectacular viewing point, from where we could see for miles in three directions. Spread out below, there was an ocean of olive trees, and further, the sea itself. I could make out three little islands, which I had once had visited with my uncle Winslow on his concrete sailing boat (another story, for another time). Further, to the north, the mountains of Albania, whose peaks in late April still shone with snow. 

The first day’s walk had been steep. The second day’s was flatter, allowing tired muscles to recover. We skirted the lagoon of Antinioti, which Gerald Durrell dubbed “the lake of lilies” in My Family and Other Animals. He was referring to the sand lilies, which conceal themselves in the sand, and sprout once a year, with the result that the sand dunes around the lake become, in Durrell’s phrase, “a glacier of flowers”. 

The lagoon is a protected area, a haven too for Agile Frogs, so-named because they have unusually long legs, and can leap up to 2m at a time — further than any other frog of a similar size. When I was there, I’m glad to say, I wasn’t assailed by any flying amphibians, but I heard them grunting among the reeds. 

Photo by Thomas W. Hodgkinson on a guided walk

Photo by Thomas W. Hodgkinson on a guided walk

We wandered on, assailed by the scent of wisteria, before entering a copse of eucalyptus and birch trees, among which was concealed a derelict old church. Founded in 1713, the Monastery of Agia Ekaterini housed nuns until it fell into disuse and became an impromptu refuge for goats. It’s a magical place, from the cracked inscription above the entrance to the apparently bottomless well in a tumble-down outhouse. This, one feels with a frisson of satisfaction, isn’t on the beaten tourist route.

This self-congratulatory kick of authenticity — the sense that your Greek holiday is going that little bit deeper than most — extends to the accommodation. The Olive Press, as its name suggests, is a building in which, once upon a time, the locals would process their olive oil. The heavy stone pressing wheel sits decoratively on the terrace. It’s a charming little house on two floors, which clings to the hillside in the midst of the charming village of Agios Panteleimon. 

It was on this terrace that, one afternoon, I met the life coach Carl Daeche. Having spent 20 years giving the Metropolitan Police the benefit of his practical, no-nonsense guidance, Carl relocated to Corfu. And you may be wondering what the connection is between searching for the "real Greece" and evaluating one’s priorities with Carl. 

Consider it this way: the Greeks invented this stuff. Homer’s Odyssey is in one sense a self-help manual, telling how to face the storms that life throws at you. And the works of Plato are clearly manuals for self-improvement. It was Plato’s mentor, Socrates, who declared that the “unexamined life is not worth living”. This is the unspoken principle behind what Carl does: the idea that, whether things are going well or not, they could always benefit from improvement. 

One of the reasons we go on holiday is to get a new perspective, which isn’t easy amid the static of ordinary life. We move away, albeit temporarily, so that we can see ourselves better. And during that time, we make resolutions: when I get home, I’m going to be a better son, a more attentive father, or whatever it might be. 

An hour or two with Carl, and the likelihood you’ll have tightened those resolutions, and then actually stick to them after you get home, will double. You’ll have come in search of the real Greece. There’s a good chance that, by the time you leave, you'll feel you’ve discovered the real you.

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To learn more about walking tour holidays with Sole of Corfu, go to www.soleofcorfu.com.