A long-deferred sojourn to Corfu proves well worth the wait, with pleasures aplenty to be sought out beyond the summertime crush of the island’s main beaches.
By Daven Wu
Photographs by Vlasis Tsonos
“This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu.”
And so begins, somewhat innocuously, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, his memoir of a brief sunlit period between 1935 and 1939 that would shape the rest of his life as one of the world’s most eminent animal conservationists. I was 14 when, as part of my grade-nine English syllabus, I read that line for the first time. By the end of the first term, I had consumed the other two volumes in the trilogy, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods.
To say I was transfixed is to understate things. Durrell’s loving homage to his sun-warmed past was as far removed as one could get from my stunningly dull life growing up in ’80s Perth, Western Australia, then still very much a sleepy provincial city.
There are two hearts to the books. One is the Durrell family, a motley crew comprising Durrell’s indulgent, slightly scattered but always well-meaning mother; his siblings—a book-mad eldest brother (the great English novelist Lawrence Durrell), a gun-mad older brother, Leslie, and a boy-mad sister, Margo; and a menagerie of rescued reptiles and birds. The second heart is Corfu itself.
Shaped like a scimitar that hangs off the west coast of Albania and Greece, the island is an Eden of colors and textures. The stony mountains of the north, haunted in Durrell’s days by blue rock thrushes and peregrine falcons, undulate gently southward through dense swathes of almond and walnut trees, forests of sweet-scented myrtle, and silver-trunked fig trees with leaves as large as salvers, before dropping down to a narrow tip edged with sand dunes and great salt marshes.
Durrell’s memoirs still haunt me three decades later. In that time, I have reread the books so often it sometimes feels as if his memories of growing up on the island are mine.
“I must go one day.” Every few years, I told myself the same thing but never did anything about it. The desire to see Corfu battled with the very real fear that the reality would not live up to the weight of so much expectation. How could it? The past, after all, is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley insists; they do things differently there.
But then one day came an invitation to stay at the Marbella Corfu, a five-star pleasure dome on the island’s east coast. There were promises of panoramas of the Ionian Sea under skies the color of crushed sapphires; of sandy bays and warm, fish-filled waters; of hills cloaked in cypress and heather. We booked a flight, packed our bags, and, like Durrell and his family 80 years ago, fled the gray, damp English summer.