I had not been to Corfu since I was 19 and ended up in a place called The Pink Palace, a ramshackle hotel for backpackers. Drinking, wet t-shirt competitions and the kind of fun which did not pay too much heed to classical civilisation was the order of the day.
No, Corfu is not for me, I used to think. It’s one of those Greek islands that has been spoiled by hedonistic travellers and swamped by concrete. In fact, I had only been back to Greece once since Pink Palace-gate, and that was to a family hotel in Cephalonia that did not live up to my expectations or the brochure.
But The Durrells made me think twice.
ITV’s drama is filmed on the island and is based on Gerald Durrell’s memoir, My Family and Other Animals. In 1935, the Durrells — twenty-something novelist Lawrence, Leslie, teenager Margo and animal-loving Gerald (who grew up to be an eminent conservationist as well as an author) and their long-suffering mother who is played by Hawes — swapped England for Corfu, the northernmost Greek island.
They lived on the island until the Second World War broke out in 1939. And the picture painted by Gerald in My Family and other Animals, and in the more literary works of his elder brother Lawrence, of an unspoilt backwater with stunning scenery and wildlife is recreated beautifully in the TV series.
But of course the Durrells association with the island had a sting in its tail. The success of Gerald’s books put Corfu on the map, and he held himself responsible for the tourist invasion of the 1970s and 1980s, and railed against the island’s overdevelopment.
So is there anything of his Greek paradise left? Those sun-drenched, sea-lapped scenes made me keen to look afresh at the place. Are there be pockets of this island that still have Hellenistic charm?
The secret, it turns out, is to head to the north-east corner. This is real Durrell country and the part of the island brought most vividly to life in the books. And it is, for the most part, picturesque and unspoilt.
The Durrells moved around. They lived in the island’s capital Corfu Town for a bit, which is in the middle of the island and a lovely place to while away an afternoon: much of the architecture is stunning, especially the graceful colonnades modelled on the Rue de Rivoli and built by the French during their brief occupation. It still hosts cricket matches in the central green, a quaint legacy of British rule.
A 16th-century fortress built by the Venetians presides over Corfu Town
If you make the hour-long drive from there to the north-eastern part, you will discover pretty villages perched on rocky outcrops and postcard-worthy sandy beaches every mile or so. Getting to the beaches isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth the effort.
My tip would be to hire a diesel-powered boat for around £50 a day, plus £25 for diesel, and chug around the coast. All the hiring outlets call them “speedboats”, but they don’t get much beyond 10 knots. Nor do they require much skill or instruction, although I would recommend taking in the sun canopy when the wind picks up – steering can be tricky when it’s gusty.
A view of Kalami Beach
On your forays you can visit The White House in Kalami Beach, where Lawrence lived with his artist wife Nancy and wrote his ode to Corfu, Prospero’s Cell. You can eat in the taverna or rent rooms above, which haven’t changed much since he resided here.
Approaching The White House from the sea
Nearby Agni (about ten minutes “speeding”) is a must-see. It’s a little town with three tavernas; the oldest dates back to 1879 and Taverna Agni is probably the best restaurant on the island.
You can also indulge in some celebrity-spotting. The gin palaces of the super-rich dot the sea. This is where George Osborne and Peter Mandelson had a confrontation that made headlines in 2008 while on board the yacht of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripraska.
One of the island’s prettiest spots for dropping anchor and having a swim is the tiny bay that hosts a little stone shrine to St Arsenios, just south of Agni Bay. This is where Margo sunbathed in the very first episode of The Durrells, much to the surprise of the young priest tending the shrine. In My Family and Other Animals, it’s where Lawrence, Nancy and their bohemian friends swam naked.
If you search, you’ll find a sea-level cave accessed by a corridor in the rock, with a separate underwater exit. It’s gorgeous.
Probably the prettiest of the villages is Agios Stefanos – not to be confused with a (very different, much more touristy) town of the same name on the north-west coast. The one on the north-east coast is a stunning little place with a bay, an array of restaurants, two well stocked (if expensive) supermarkets and a number of beautiful houses clinging to the hillsides above. I stayed in Villa Sotiris (pictured below), just outside the town.
The nightlife was quiet, which is just how I like it. There is a small marina for boats and a large beach in the village, with rocks at the end of a peninsula that are excellent for snorkelling. It also provided a superb base from which to explore the island’s rugged interior and the flora and fauna that so dazzled the Durrells.
Villa Sotiris viewed from the pool
Cat lovers will love Corfu and bemuse the locals. Feline friends seem to be everywhere and Corfiots generally find them a pain. Our house had three who were more than keen on a slice of octopus stifado when it was offered, which was pretty much always. The Durrells would doubtless have done the same.
Ben Dowell was a guest of Simpson Travel (0208 003 6557). A week at Villa Sotiris on a self-catering basis costs from £767 per person based on six sharing, and includes flights from Heathrow to Corfu with BA, car hire and a cleaner twice a week.