Every May, conservationist Gerald Durrell’s widow, Lee, returns to Corfu. She’s joined by naturalists, botanists, entomologists and Durrell devotees, and they spend a week retracing the footsteps of her late husband: picnicking by the “lake of lilies”, exploring Corfu Town and examining the island’s flora and fauna.
The Greek island that Gerald put on the map has changed dramatically since his memoir My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956, and he knew he only had himself to blame.
“Gerry and his first wife went back to Corfu in the 70s,” recalls Lee, “and he was complaining mightily about how tourism was changing the place. Somebody said: ‘It’s your fault, Gerry. You wrote such a popular book about Corfu.’ He was mortified, of course.”
In later life Gerald became known as a presenter of TV wildlife programmes, but he got to know Corfu through living there with his family (including his married brother Lawrence, who later wrote The Alexandria Quartet) from 1935 to 1939.
Milo Parker as young Gerald in ITV’s adaptation
From the age of ten, when Gerald and his family arrived on the island, he developed a deep interest in the local plants and wildlife. His love affair with the place was lifelong and it’s easy to see why. The island, as seen in ITV’s drama The Durrells, looks idyllic – from the crystal-clear Ionian Sea and sun-baked olive groves to the wildlife scuttling into every scene. “Gerry always said that if he had the gift of Merlin, he would give every child the kind of childhood he had in Corfu,” says Lee.
As honorary director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust since Gerald’s death in 1995, Lee makes the annual trip because it’s still possible to escape the package holidayers and find the island Gerald recalled in his Corfu trilogy. Her favourite time of year is spring, when wildflowers carpet the hills: “If there’s a second series, I hope they are able to shoot in the spring because I’ve never seen wildflowers as beautiful.”
The “Garden of the Gods” (the title of the final book of the trilogy) owes its lushness to the Venetians. They ruled from the 14th to late-18th century and planted the olive trees that are still yielding fruit today. (The British governed the island from 1815 to 1864, which is why Corfiots play cricket and eat turkey at Christmas.)
Nowadays, the north coast is lined with hotels, but in spring you can still find the sand lilies that inspired young Gerald to rechristen the Durrells’ favourite picnicking spot, Lake Antiniotissa on Agios Spyridon beach, the “lake of lilies”. Lee always seeks them out. “We have a little ceremony where we all gather some of their seeds and throw them into the sea, hoping they’ll help to re-establish this endangered species.”
Gerald and Lee Durrell with Spook the barn owl
But if you really want to feel that you and the lizards have Corfu to yourselves, walk and swim the four miles from Agios Stephanos to Avlaki in the north-east of the island – one of the few remaining stretches of undeveloped coastline.
Lee also recommends exploring the mountainous interior, which is like a different isle in a different era. The hills and valleys dense with cypresses north of Barbati were Gerald’s playground and their fauna are best admired via its ancient paths. In later life, he contented himself with a scenic drive and secluded tipple. “He didn’t like to walk very far so we’d drive right up into the mountains and go to the little tavernas.”
The three Venetian mansions that the Durrell family rented in the 1930s were all on the outskirts of Corfu Town. The “Strawberry-Pink Villa” was knocked down in the 50s (the replacement bears little resemblance bar its colour), an Athens businessman owns the “Snow-White Villa”, while the “Daffodil-Yellow Villa” still belongs to the same Corfiot family. Lee takes her party for lunch at the excellent taverna in the “White House” in the waterfront village of Kalami. This former fisherman’s cottage is where Lawrence and his wife Nancy (who is not mentioned in My Family and Other Animals) lived and where he wrote his poetic book about Corfu, Prospero’s Cell.
No tour of the Durrells’ island would be complete without a day strolling around Corfu Town. Arguably the most beautiful city in Greece, the historic centre is actually Venetian and a Unesco World Heritage site. Keep an eye out for Mon Repos on the southern outskirts – this elegant mansion was Prince Philip’s birthplace, which is why so many Corfiots are called Philip or Philippina. These days it’s an archaeological museum and has a cameo in the ITV adaptation as the home of Leslie Caron’s mischievous Countess Mavrodaki.
As you get lost in the town’s maze of narrow paved lanes, look out for the old house of Gerald’s mentor and friend Theo, which is marked with a plaque. Sadly the little bar where Gerald’s brother, Lawrence, and Theo used to knock back glasses of ouzo is long gone, but there are shady tavernas along with upmarket shops.
In 2006, the park next to the medieval Old Fortress (which offers panoramic views from its battlements) was renamed “Bosketto Durrell” and is home to busts of Lawrence and Gerald. What would Lee’s late husband have made of the tribute? “He was a very humble man,” she says, “modest and a bit shy – I think he’d be pleased as anything.”
This article was first published in April 2016. For information about Gerald Durrell Week, go to: geralddurrellscorfu.org.