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A trip to Corfu, by Ste


Choosing a destination for joint holidays with the lovely Lisa can be a fraught business. Every year it is the same. We hold a summit meeting and each arrive armed with brochures designed to tempt the other into going somewhere they don't want to. After five years she has never yet agreed to a week in Berlin, and I still have no intention of going to Ibiza. Year on year, weeks of negotiation produce the same compromise result: a week on a Greek island. Sun and beaches for her, forts and temples for me. The decision was made: Corfu. Within ten days we were booked, packed and heading for our place in the sun.

On our first full day on the island we caught the bus into Corfu town, or Kerkyra, as the locals know it. It is a Nice Place. Two massive forts act as book ends to the maze of alleyways winding between Venetian buildings with a spiders web of washing lines hung between them, high overhead. Whether they are holding the rickety old walls together or keeping them apart is not clear. Either way, they clearly must serve some important structural purpose. The idiosyncrasies of Venetian architecture, huh?

Scooters buzz about the narrow streets like wasps - angry ones - with tanned drivers seemingly indifferent to pedestrian casualties. Despite a couple of near calamities at the hands of the Flying Mopedeers we finally found our way through the labyrinth to the Esplanade, a French build colonnaded arcade of cafes and shops, facing a tatty looking cricket pitch. Yes, a cricket pitch, overlooked from another side by the old British High Commissioner's palace.

Kerkyra is very close to Albania, which can be seen clearly across the straits to the north east. Hmm, my first glimpse of an ex-Soviet satellite state. Is this what I expected one to look like? Brooding away from across the water? Yes, countries once behind the Iron Curtain must surely 'brood', or at the very least glare sternly. But something is wrong. This one doesn't. Albania - at least the little bit of it I can see, after an admittedly brief and somewhat distant survey - looks just the same as green and pleasant Corfu. Bugger. My cosy pre-conceptions about Eastern Europe are already under threat, and I've only glimpsed it from across the briny. This 'traveling' stuff could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Ah, but surely things are different on the ground over there. The (formerly) oppressed citizens of Albania can hardly be as jovial and friendly ad our hosts on Corfu. Can they? They probably have 'TRIUMPH OF THE WORKER'S STATE!' tattooed on their arms. Or maybe their foreheads. Quite faded tattoos, I should imagine, which they haven't bothered having removed (the People's Laser Treatment being quite expensive these days) but don't care much for anymore. Like that 'Debbie 4 eva' one the wife objects to so much.

Another near miss with a scooter interrupts my train of thought. Why are those bloody contraptions so popular in Mediterranean countries? Is it the heat? Or for historical reasons? Maybe they like The Muppet Show? Ah, I remember: they all have a death wish.

That evening my good lady Lisa and I went for a walk. In the fashion of The Grand Old Duke of York we chose the largest hill and set off, full of vigour. The village of Lakrones looks really close on a map. How far can half a centimetre possibly represent?? Scales are for fish, anyway. Hairpin after hairpin, it went on and on, and that was just Lisa getting ready.

Seriously, whoever designed this road was drunk. Or mad. Or possibly both. The thing zigzagged interminably through the olive groves up the hillside, getting progressively steeper as we went ever higher. We witnessed one near accident as another bloody moped swerved in front of a truck, and saw parts of numerous car bumpers tangled worryingly amongst roadside piles of stones that looked as if they could have once formed part of a wall. A death wish, I'm telling you.

A little further up we were treated to hearing what must have been the Lakrones male voice choir performing in a church. I have sometimes heard melodies described - usually incorrectly - as 'soaring'. Never has the word been more appropriate. Such beautiful voices in such a lovely setting, half way up a wooded hillside overlooking the Ionian Sea at sunset. The choir propelled us effortlessly to the top of the hill without a further huff or a puff from our weary bodies, and as such, should be available on the National Health Service.

Ambling past the Bella Vista restaurant - which claims Kaiser Wilhelm, Tito and Nasser amongst its former clientele - we finally reached the summit, and chose an establishment named The Golden Fox from which to enjoy the panorama and a cold beer. Even when viewed from much lower on the slope, the bay below presented a striking collage of blue shades and spectacular rocks. From this eyrie it was simply stunning. The whole coastline stretched out into the sunset, and as dusk fell the stars began to shimmer, mirrored by the hundreds of twinkling lights from the villages below.

On the following day I managed to persuade Lisa - as almost all physically attractive specimens of her sex, not noted for her appreciation of all things military - that we should explore the two fortresses in Kerkyra town. It seems that 'Palaio' and 'Neo Frurio' sound so much more interesting than 'two fortresses'.

The Palaio covers a large, rocky headland, cut off from the town by a deep moat. After Goth raiders destroyed an earlier settlement (rumours that this was done a'la Jericho by playing Marilyn Manson records at the walls are sadly unconfirmed) the locals set up shop on the headland in about AD550. Within its mighty perimeter lie two peaks, each topped with a doughty citadel. The garrison church is a statuesque British construction in the Doric style. It was converted for use by the Orthodox faith in the 1860s and unfortunately reveals little about Victorian garrison life. The church faces a former parade ground littered with British cannon barrels marked 'GR', having been cast during the reign of George III or IV. They are amongst the largest muzzle loaders I have ever seen.

The Neo Frurio is a little more stark, its setting less spectacular than the headland occupied by the Palaio. Its bastions are mighty enough and it hides an absolute warren of tunnels and vaulted subterranean chambers constructed by the British to house victuals sufficient to withstand a long siege. Or maybe to keep the garrison busy.

Both forts bear scars from the period of British control, as although we maintained and even improved the fortifications, we carried out an extensive programme of rampart demolition before leaving in 1864. Greece, newly liberated, was proving a disappointment as a bulwark against Russian ambitions, and the islanders weren't terribly keen on our continued presence. Malta was an admirable base for the fleet, so we agreed to transfer the Ionians to the new King of Greece...but not until the fortifications were demolished, lest France or Russia recover the islands and reap the benefit of British military engineering.

After a hard afternoon of exploring fortifications we retired to a handy cafe on the Esplanade. Whereupon I was struck by a couple more Corfiot singularities: crickets and cricket. Of course, neither is unique in the world, but certain aspects of their occurrence in Corfu are remarkable. For one thing, the crickets are the loudest I have ever heard. Absolutely bloody deafening. Before I further rail against the din, I must provisionally apologise to the local crickets (the bugs, not the game) in case some altogether different cause is responsible for the racket. A shipyard, for example, or at the very least a foundry.

Then there is the cricket (the game, not the bug). It is unusual by its very presence in the Mediterranean. The all weather (sun = all weather) pitch sits there out on the pleasant patch of grass in front of the Esplanade, and guide books extol the local brand of the famous old game. But do they actually play any matches? I asked Ashley, a fellow tourist and veteran visitor to Corfu. 'No, at least not that I've seen, and I've been here every summer for the past three years'.

Unperturbed, I resolve to ask one of the locals: a weatherbeaten older gent in a fedora, holding forth as from Sinai to a group of friends in the cafe. I considered my question to the sage carefully. What was the best game he has ever seen? The fastest bowler? The doughtiest batsman? I resolved to stick to basics. 'Can you tell me anything about cricket here in Kerkyra?' The old chap's face lit up. 'Ah, yes, he is very loud!'

After spending most of the ret of the week lounging on the beach we resolved to make one final nod in the direction of culture with a visit to the Ahillion Palace, former home to Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Fate - and Greek public transport - was to intervene. Upon arrival at the bus station I enquired at the booth and was told that the next bus was due at noon. We went for a stroll and returned at 11.40, purchased tickets and obtained a timetable, which confirmed what we had been told. Satisfied we were on course we sat on a handy bench to await our carriage and survey the scene.

By Greek standards, our station scored about average in terms of confusion. It consists of a single lane set off the main road on the southeast side of the giant roundabout that is the Plateia San Rocco. The square is pleasant enough, with a slightly scruffy looking public park acting as an island amidst the merry-go-round of traffic. The bus lane is wide enough for two vehicles and long enough for three. Buses pull in and contentedly block the traffic whilst their drivers take a break. German tourists mill around in obvious confusion, as families are reduced to tears as the stress of the great bus game exposes the cracks in team functionality. Marriages break down, children scream, and I get ice cream on my shirt.

The locals are clearly expert at playing the bus station and seldom fail to get on the right bus at the right time. Or should their journey be hit by some sundry set back - perish the thought - it seems not to induce a breakdown. They are used to it. Amongst traveling Greeks apoplexy is reserved for that special breed: 'the bus driver'. They specialise in certain essential driving skills: arm waving, muttering darkly, glaring diabolically and - the sport of Kings itself - horn honking. Interestingly, both the Greeks and Maltese recognise the dedication of the bus driver to his art by providing conductors, thus allowing the driver full concentration on the skills of his trade.

Eventually, the No.10 for Ahillion appeared from some improbable side street a full fifty minutes late and chugged straight past the station without some much as a honked horn or waved arm. It seems that it doesn't actually stop at the station. Silly me.

Both Lisa and I liked Corfu a lot. It combines old world charm and culture with plenty of opportunities to indulge modern tourist pastimes such as drinking heavily and being dragged around the sea from the back of a speedboat. The wooded, hilly interior of the north makes for interesting walks away from the holiday hordes and the climate is everything you would expect from a Mediterranean island. Better still, they even give their fortifications sexy sounding names just so you can persuade your good lady to pay them a visit. Maybe next year I'll translate 'The Imperial War Museum' into some flashy sounding Latin or Italian phrase, and aim for a week's holiday there. Now where did I put that Italian dictionary?

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