Ionian Island Hopping

“And now it’s time for more alcohol!” the airplane Tannoy system blared out.

“This is your last chance… If you’re coming to Greece you must make sure you drink plenty of alcohol….”

The deafening, thick-accented directive came courtesy of Ryanair’s in-flight stewards, on our in-bound flight to Corfu for this year’s summer holidays.

As well as alcohol, the (no doubt commission-incentivized) staff were determined to flog us all manner of overpriced tat, from scratch cards, to Beyonce-branded cologne, and of course – pancakes.

Every 10-15 minutes we were reminded that holidays were not, a time for relaxation, recuperation and reflection, but instead, an opportunity for mindless consumerism, and well…. getting shit-faced.

The flight was also notable for the significantly different demographic to the usual Kalamata crowd we travel with every year. Corfu and the surrounding Ionian islands are a popular package holiday destination, and our fellow travellers were largely made up of seemingly party-hard revellers bound for Kavos or one of the resorts where HP Sauce is a common as souvlaki.

Despite my thinly veiled class-prejudice, we had a good reason to visit Corfu. The trip was the first leg of a mini Ioanian island-hopping adventure, beginning with a trip to visit T’s brother, whom shall be known as George (mainly because that’s his name).

Expectations were high for my first visit to Corfu, or Kerkyra, as it’s known to the locals. The island is situated in the north-west of Greece, just a hop away from the Italian peninsula. Corfu has its own distinctive climate, more humid, more rainy than much of Greece’s more arid climate, and hence a higher proliferation of greenery. Indeed our Ryanair stewardess liked to repeatedly emphasise how Corfu was the ‘most beautiful island in Greece’

However on the short hop from the airport to the hotel the first impression was not floral splendour, but instead, the proliferation of periodically scattered mountains of rubbish bags on the roadside. A stinking, rotting reminder of the strikes and public funding crises that still dog this country.

The hotel itself was grand and splendorous, a hulking 5-star edifice built in the 1970’s with all the accoutrements that luxury accommodation can offer. Not that we paid for anything. George and one of the hotel managers arranged that our luxury stay didn’t cost a penny, instead disappearing into one of a million ‘deals’ that keep the Greek ‘alternative’ economy ticking along.

After enjoying pool-time, gargantuan buffet breakfasts and a bizarre close-up room-view of the main airport landing strip, we began our ventures exploring the island. Our mode of transport a beaten-up Chevvy Matiz who ended up becoming eternally known as Banana-car by virtue of the lurid yellow paint-job.

Travelling along the east coast toward the north it became clear that Corfu’s relatively high population density has left little of the coastline undeveloped. Hence, to be polite, unspoilt is probably not the term to describe the region. That said, we visited plenty of pretty beaches and tavernas, more than enough to justify a visit for two weeks in the sun.

Our one night in Corfu town gave a flavour of the multiple cultural influences that permeate this once walled citadel. Over the millenia Kerkyra has been occupied by Greek, Roman, Byzatine, Venetian, French and English empires so much of the architecture is suitably impressive and sometimes sweeping, such as the ‘liston’ – the Venetian word for the town’s expansive central square which includes, bizarrely, a full-scale English cricket pitch.

Unfortunately, for reasons both historical and crisis-related, the town’s infrastructure has kept up with the grand visions of its many historic occupiers. Unkempt roads, traffic-choked streets and gaudy shop fronts make for a vibrant, but not you would call a ‘pretty’ town. Perhaps a visit outside of the summer months might provide a more aesthetically pleasing experience of the region.

Heading out from Kerkyra, we boarded a ferry bound for Lefkada, another constituent of the Ionian’s seven islands. Although we only spend a day, the pace and the scenery make for an instantly more relaxed holiday vibe. Staying near the seaside port of Nydri, a short hop from the privateisland of Skorpios, population…. 5. Once owned by Aristotle Onassis, the island is now the property of a Russian oligarch – a constant reminder of the stark inequality that still pervades much of Greece’s economy. Still, Lefkada has much to offer the non-billionaires.  Highlights included climbing waterfalls and Ta Kalamia, a superlative restaurant with no menu, where you order by price, and leave the rest to the creativity of the chefs.

Hopping on to another ferry, we set a course for Kefalonia. Driving across the island during the golden hour, the vistas are magnificent, and rate amongst the top awe-inspiring coastlines yet witnessed in my short history of Greek travels.

Bowel-trembling vertiginous drops along winding coastal roads. Passing via azure seas and white sanded beaches we arrive in the capital of Argostoli just as the sun sets. A new hotel room and a late night souvlaki supper see in the end of the day and we approach the end of our island hopping adventure. Next stop, more familiarity territory,  the Mani….