By Sasha Slater, 26 June 2023, The Telegraph
You have to wear linen here, because it’s very hot,’ says shoe designer Christina Martini, speaking in her workspace in ancient Corfu Town, from where she can look down on the bright turquoise Ionian Sea. She used to work for Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga in Paris, so it’s safe to assume she knows what to wear where. ‘It’s not a dressy island like Mykonos,’ she explains. ‘It’s more relaxed, and people wear whatever they want.’
Perhaps it’s this sense of freedom that has attracted discerning British escapees to Corfu for centuries – and never more so than now. We are not the most dapper breed, and anywhere where the rules are simply ‘absolutely no heels’ because of the cobbles, will strike a reassuring note. It’s one of the many idiosyncrasies that make this the ultimate stealth wealthdestination.
The singer Isabel Getty – a scion of both the Getty and Miller dynasties – is a frequent visitor to friends’ villas in the north of the island. ‘It’s not flashy,’ she confirms. ‘You can go to the beach with no make-up, and your hair down, and because it’s not too windy, it won’t blow in your face while you’re eating. Plus you don’t bump into everyone while you’re here: it’s a hidden gem.’
Also comforting is the fact that this island, some seven miles or so off the west coast of Greece, is intensely Anglophile. When the British arrived in 1815, they booted out the unpopular French and, in a broad-minded way, set up Greece’s first university, improved the water system, and introduced the island to cricket. Of the 15 cricket clubs that now flourish in Greece, 11 are Corfiot. British rule here (it was a protectorate not a colony) was benign compared with what had come before.
The island has other eccentricities that would appeal to anyone allergic to sterile, custard-yellow sandy beaches, and chips with everything. For starters, thanks to its mountains, Corfu is a good deal rainier, and therefore greener, than most Greek islands, which brings a welcome touch of Blighty to the Med. And bear in mind that any stroll round the hidden alleys and minute squares of Corfu town will probably be accompanied by the sound of a band striking up. The island has 17 Philharmonic Societies and Orchestras that rehearse regularly, and almost every child learns a musical instrument or two to an almost professional standard.
The historical figures who’ve dropped by have been defiantly outré. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the glamorous Sisi (she liked to scatter diamonds and pearls through her cascading black hair), left her husband in the 1880s and moved to a villa she had built here. It was furnished exclusively with extremely uncomfortable repro Pompeian furniture.
Our own Prince Philip started as he meant to go on by being born on a table in the palace of Mon Repos in Corfu Town. And that’s before you even start on the Durrell family – the naturalist Gerald and the novelist Lawrence are so essential to the appeal of the island to Brits that the equivalent of Green Park in Corfu Town is now the Durrell memorial garden. In later years, Gerald worried that his books had over-popularised the place and led to its ruin thanks to a million package holidays.
But paradoxically this is the ultimate insider’s island: you just have to make sure you’ve not settled into an all-inclusive resort that discourages exploration. So long as you steer clear of these, it seems scarcely possible to come for a week’s holiday to Corfu without planning to relocate to the island for good, and also dreaming up your own perfect villa. James Blunt did exactly this, buying an ancient Venetian farmhouse on the chic north coast near the fishing village of Kassiopi and gussying it up with no expense or time spared.
‘Corfu is not pretentious,’ he has said to explain his purchase. ‘It’s not trying to be cool, but retains an old-fashioned charm.’ He’s now looking to sell at a profit. Others have not been so canny.
On a nature ramble with Yorgos Hatziandreou, who runs walking tours around the cliffs and olive groves that line the coast, we saw a beautiful 1960s modernist villa. A Frenchman (or possibly a Russian, stories vary) had it built overlooking the tiny and exquisite Limni Beach, on the west of the island. He spent all his money on the project, including transporting all the building materials by boat – there were no roads – but died before his white colonnaded folly could be completed. It now lies in picturesque ruins, and local lovers come here to propose to their girlfriends at sunset: the crumbling roof terrace is dotted with bunches of wilted red roses.
Lord Rothschild’s self-build was definitely more successful than this. His mother, Barbara, was married to a Greek artist, Niko Ghika, and together the three of them built a summer house on Corfu looking out towards the nearby coast of Albania. Hannah, Jacob’s daughter, says now, ‘Spending every summer on the island was etched into my earliest memories.’
The Rothschild family has a strong gravitational pull, and King Charles and Queen Camilla are among the throng to have visited the estate. ‘From Emperor Nero onwards, people have chosen Corfu as their holiday destination,’ explains Hannah. ‘It’s a combination of beautiful landscape, a temperate climate and incredibly charming people.’ Modern-day emperors from the Agnellis to the Murdochs moor their yachts nearby. Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco can’t stay away.
Of course, there are splashy hotels to stay in. The Domes Miramare, which was once Aristotle Onassis’s villa, has all the glamour of chandeliers, marble floors and Michelin-starred cheffing. The Kerkyra Blue Hotel and Spa is newly refurbished this year and has a wave-shaped pool and candlelit spa treatment rooms, not to mention a Japanese fusion restaurant. But opting for planet five-star would be to miss the point of the island, which is all about relaxed homeliness.
The boats and villas are luxurious, but the atmosphere ashore is relaxed: Toula’s Seaside restaurant on the beach at Agni is the place for fresh-caught fish and discreet people-watching, according to both Hannah and Isabel. Christina, whose label, Ancient Greek Sandals, was inspired by the relaxed lifestyle of the island, goes for the wine-pairing menu at Salto in Corfu Old Town. Hannah buys her homemade ginger beer in Corfu Town, though not, ‘since a teenage mishap’, the sickly sweet local liquor, Metaxa.
You may not have an eight-bedroom, 73m vessel to moor opposite your father’s estate, as Nathaniel Rothschild does, but life afloat is still an option. Any beach-front resort will have little speedboats to rent for the day. After a short driving lesson, away you go, hopping from bay to pristine bay, and jumping into water so warm, even in October, that you don’t have to brace yourself before taking the plunge. Instantly, you can be as at home in a yachting cap as Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot.
The views, the nature, and the charm of the people also inspired the Durrell family, who at one point in the 1930s had a house down the road from the Rothschilds (they lived in several on the island). Hannah says that, thanks to Gerald’s nature books, ‘I spent my youth trying to lure tortoises and bugs.’ It’s easy to get carried away: on our nature walk with Yorgos, we became absurdly excited about some weasel poo on the path.
Perhaps a better way to dive into Durrell country is by staying in the villa that served as the Durrells’ house in the television series. Posillipo has the proportions of a generous English country house – shallow treads to the central staircase, heavy wooden doors and elegant sofas – but it also has views over the calm, limpid waters of Lake Butrint, the shallow salt lagoon between Corfu and Albania.
That’s in addition to date palms and hammocks in the large garden, a private jetty with paddle boarding which is host to a large heron in the early mornings, and outdoor dining on an ancient stone terrace. If you don’t fancy cooking for yourselves in the hi-tech kitchen, a cook and a waiter will come and conjure up a local feast for you. Pleasingly, a slender black kitten-cat made our acquaintance there and became very domesticated. Given a few more days, she’d have been worth her own chapter in My Family and Other Animals.
An article published by The Telegraph on June 13th, 2023.