On the Corfu Trail
'Everywhere I look there's blue,'exclaimed Dudley in awe. It was May 2001 and we were sitting at the harbour at Benitses enjoying a cold beer after a day of walking on the Corfu Trail, the island's long-distance waymarked route. Close by, brightly painted fishing boats bobbed by the jetty. Beyond stretched the blue, with only the bare mainland mountains sundering the sea from the sky. After the grey of England during the wettest twelve months since records began, coupled with the Foot and Mouth crisis which barred hikers from the countryside, Corfu that Spring was a joy, and the Trail a journey back to normality.
John and Maura, Dudley and Denise, and Mike and Diane were the very first walkers on the Trail. That day, we had walked from Paramonas on the west coast, first climbing a narrow footpath to cross the high coastal ridge, then descending through villages smothered in geraniums and roses. The route wandered on in the shade of endless olive groves then, taking an ancient cobbled footpath, climbed amongst alpine-like meadows. At white-washed Komianata, a view stopped us in our tracks. Directly ahead, the cone of Pantokrator mountain rose sheer out of the bay, and Corfu Town and its suburbs spread at our feet.
Distant Pantokrator was our destination on Day Five. But we didn't make it. As we ascended the old pilgrims' path up a precipitous gully to the Church of Taxiarchis, the clouds rolled in and Corfu’s weather, until then unseasonably hot, showed its other face. By the time we had reached the Karst Plateau just under the summit, freezing horizontal rain and thick mist forced us off the mountain into the shelter of the nearest village, Strinilas. The Sunday lunchtime arrival at a local taverna of seven drenched and dripping hikers severely tested the renowned Corfiot hospitality. But Stamatis and his mum and dad rallied round and soon we were warming up with borrowed clothes and brandy, and tucking into the best egg and chips in Corfu.
The next day, our last, the weather took another about-turn, and sunshine accompanied us on a tough eight-hour crossing of the Pantokrator Massif, shore to shore. Near Nissaki, the coastal footpath is among the most photogenic locations on the Corfu Trail. Dark spires of cypress and the gnarled trunks of the olive trees framed glimpses of azure and aquamarine water, and pink and purple orchids bordered the path. Our climb soon began and, as everywhere on the Trail, the scene changed quickly. Two hours' climb on the cobbled mule tracks which link the mountain villages with the coast took us above the olive line. But even here, where wind and sun had scoured the landscape to its bare bones, wild pinks, crepis and spurge grew amongst the rocks, and herds of goats found rich pickings in the lush grass of terraces long out of cultivation.
Old Perithia, a stone-built Byzantine village hidden in a mountain valley, is witness to the former wealth of this region. Once home to a thriving population, the village is mostly abandoned, its stone-built houses derelict, some in ruins. But in and around the tree-shaded central square four tavernas do a roaring trade with the visitors who take the long and scary drive up from the north coast. Arriving on foot, we stopped too, and enjoyed an impromptu lunch, at Forus Taverna, of local pies and artichokes in olive oil. It set us up for the long descent to Acharavi, where we dipped our tired toes in the sea at the northern end of the Trail.
An island highlight, Old Perithia is indicative of the direction a small branch of Corfu's tourism industry is taking, a direction also underlined by the establishment of the Corfu Trail. Some of the abandoned houses in the village are being renovated, and more are for sale, awaiting a loving owner - an owner who prefers tradition and a peaceful setting to the brash modernism and clamour of the coastal resorts. Old Perithia is protected as a heritage village by the local council, and restoration work must be in keeping with the time-honoured building style. It is the most spectacular of the many villages which the Trail links, villages which offer an alternative to traditional, resort-based holidays. Here, local colour reigns over stereotyped entertainment.
An important reason for establishing the Corfu Trail was to redirect visitors into the villages, to offer out-of-reach places a share in the 'tourism euro'. As hikers start to use the Trail regularly, coffee bars frequented only by the old folk will come alive again. Village shops will gain a new market. Eventually, it is hoped that small 'pensions' will open in villages on the route, catering not just for walkers, but also, out of the main walking period, for visitors seeking a holiday in the ‘real’ Corfu.
On an island some sixty kilometres from north to south, the Trail measures over 200, taking a meandering course through the eleven of the island’s twelve municipal regions. One of the main criteria for the selection of the route was to link many of the island's must-see locations, as well as the forgotten villages. Thus, walkers will visit important biotopes such as Lake Korission with its cedar-covered sand-dunes, the wildlife sanctuary of the Ropa Valley, and the spectacular Byzantine castle of Angelokastro, in addition to monasteries, summits and viewpoints. Eventually, it is hoped that the Trail will serve as the 'artery route' for a series of local footpath networks. Already, Fried Aumann, a German hotelier who part-financed the Trail, has established a series of circular walks in the hinterland of Acharavi in north Corfu. During the last few winters, he has toured local hamlets and quizzed elderly residents about the course of pre-asphalt pathways, half-remembered. Once the main means of communication between settlements, these paths were choked with trees and undergrowth and, like many parts of the Trail, had to be cleared. Now, following blue signs, visitors have confident access to the northern foothills of the Pantokrator range, revealing its bare hillsides and forested gullies.
Scenery like this prompted its first six walkers to describe the Corfu Trail as the 'best route we've hiked in the world.' It was a week which exceeded all their expectations. Other walkers may now follow in their footsteps, and step out into the blue...
photography by Dave Hancy web design by truetype web solutions