Corfu, My Family and Other Disasters – Saint Spyridon

Saint Spyirdon Corfu Greece

He lies in hibernating stillness in his richly wrought casket, whose outer shell of silver is permanently clouded by the breath of the faithful who stoop to kiss it”  – Lawrence Durrell

Wandering around the labyrinth of tiny twisting streets we finally arrived at the focal point of the city, the tall, red domed church of Agios Spyridon where lies the mummified body of the patron saint of the island, Saint Spyridon and inside tourists jostled with Corfiots to push their way into a side chapel to visit his elaborate silver tomb.

Outside and around the church there were old fashioned stores selling various cards or pieces of pressed aluminium each with a picture of a part of the body.   If you have a bad leg then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and leave it there so that God doesn’t just forget about it after you have gone and these were securely fastened in bunches to railings and picture frames.

In return for this service it is the custom to light a candle which is as tall as yourself and leave it burning at the door.  Six foot candles were burning away with such intensity it might have been what it was like to be caught in the middle of the Great Fire of London and it all looked rather dangerous to me but there were men on hand whose job it was to extinguish the flames as soon as the pilgrim that had left it there was an appropriate distance away down the street and then whisk the unburned portion away for immediate recycling and to cut down and sell to a shorter pilgrim!

We duly noted this and went through the heavy doors into an alternative world of black robed beardy priests, local worshippers and travelling pilgrims all lining up to kiss the lavish icons of their favourite Saint.

spyridon

I don’t know if this was a special day in Corfu for Saint Spyridon but I suspect it might have been because inside the place was so busy it resembled the first day of the Harrods January sale and people were pushing and shoving and waiting in a long line for their turn to visit the silver casket and to make a request for a miracle cure or for the winning lottery numbers.  And the queue wasn’t moving very quickly because having stood in line for so long the pilgrims had plenty of time to draw up an expanding list of requests and having finally made it to the front no one was inclined to rush the experience of  an audience with the preserved corpse and everyone seemed to stand around for eternity kissing the icons and the casket and saying personal prayers.

After almost two thousand years the preserved relics are not in great shape and the right hand is missing altogether because that is in Rome so the mummified skin and bone is covered in a sort of embroidered carpet, I assume so that it doesn’t scare the children half to death!

All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.

Spyridon is a very important Saint in Corfu who at various times is said to have saved the island from foreign invaders and from outbreaks of deadly disease and because he does his best to try and deliver on the requests of the visitors to his tomb.  He is so important to Corfiots that apparently Spiros is even today the most common boys name on the island.

This is my favourite story – it is said that at night when everyone is gone and the town is empty he rises from the silver sarcophagus and walks the streets of Corfu granting peoples wishes.  Every year he wears out a perfectly good pair of shoes and every year he has to be fitted up for a new pair! Really!

Sadly there really wasn’t time to stand in the line of people and shuffle slowly to the chapel containing the relics and I couldn’t really think of anything to ask for anyway, except perhaps could Leicester City not get relegated this year, so choking on incense and elbowing our way past genuine pilgrims we made our way to the door and back out into the sunlit street.

Saint Syridos Siver Coffin

Corfu, My Family and Other Disasters – Corfu Town

Cortfu Town from the New Fortress

“The architecture of the town is Venetian; the houses above the old port are built up elegantly into slim tiers with narrow alleys and colonnades running between them; red, yellow, pink, umber – a jumble of pastel shades which the moonlight transforms into a dazzling white city…”                                          Lawrence Durrell -‘Prospero’s Cell’

Travelling to Corfu town by speed boat seemed a much preferable option than taking the long tedious journey by bus all around the bay because even though it was rather expensive (€19 each but children free) it only took twenty minutes.

The boat bounced over the gentle waves and we looked unsuccessfully for dolphins as the direct route to Corfu town bypassed all of the holiday resorts that punctuate the horseshoe bay and then we passed the monstrous cruise ships in the harbour and shortly after that disembarked at a small jetty quite close to the old fortress.

No one can really accuse Corfu town of being picturesque (that’s just my opinion) and it is an odd mix of busy streets and unappealing modern buildings and this is because sadly a lot of the town was destroyed in the Second-World-War when the Luftwaffe bombed Corfu as they grasped control from the Italians following Italy’s surrender to the Allies.  No one has gotten around to restoring the place to its former glory and sadly it is doubtful that they ever will.  Time marches on!

The old town of Corfu with its pastel-hued, multi-storey Venetian styled shuttered buildings, peaceful squares and graceful arcades was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007 and stands on the broad part of a peninsula at the end of which the old Venetian citadel is cut off by a natural gully with a seawater moat.  To begin with we walked in the opposite direction along Arseniou, the old coastal road with the sea on one side and the elegant buildings on the other.

History has left the Ionian isles with a fascinating cultural legacy, the result of Corinthian, Byzantine, Venetian, French and British influences that extend from architecture to cuisine and Corfu Town boasts the stateliest of Neoclassical buildings a legacy of the nineteenth century British Protectorate of the Ionian islands.

During two short spells of Napoleonic occupation, the French left their mark as well. This influence is best seen in the town’s arcaded Liston, a recreation of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris and a sun-drenched venue for sipping coffee and people-watching. It runs alongside the town’s huge grassy open space, the Spianada and before  all of this, the Venetians bequeathed all of the Ionian islands a distinctive landscape of Italianate buildings.

Corfu Town Greece

The overall impression is that of a cosmopolitan and Italianate city so we picked out our photo opportunities carefully concentrating on the stylish mansions courtesy of the Venetians, the large public buildings and parks left there by the British and the esplanade thanks to the French and all looking faded, sun damaged and dilapidated but all splendidly elegant.

Eventually we found a café that we liked and stopped for ice cream and a drink before continuing our walk through the cobblestone streets and up and down the steep steps which sucked us towards the very centre.  Having been developed within the confines of the fortifications the old town is a warren of narrow streets, which, as we walked through them were often hard work as they followed the gentle irregularities of the ground and corkscrewed through narrow alleys.

Emerging from the shady streets back into the sunshine we passed the Esplanade, once the exclusive place for nobles and important residents and the cricket pitch, which looked lush and green and rather out of place.  It is a quirky legacy of fifty years of British rule from 1814 to 1864 and where matches are still played today on a pitch with a precariously short boundary if you have parked your car near by and if Ian Botham or Viv Richards were batting!

Corfu Town Cricket Ground

I don’t suppose many people would expect to find cricket being played in Greece but it was introduced in Corfu in April 1823 when a match was played between the British Navy and the local Army garrison.

The Hellenic Cricket Federation was founded a hundred and seventy years later in 1996 when Greece became a member of the European Cricket Council and an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council.  There are now twenty-one cricket clubs in Greece, thirteen of which are based in Corfu and Greece competes annually in the European Cricket Championship despite being banned for a year in 2008 for cheating.

(For information there are ten full members of the International Cricket Council (ICC), fifty-two Associate Members including USA, Canada and Gibraltar and fifty-nine Affiliate Members including Greece)

To complete our visit we visited first the old Fortress to the east of the town and then the new Fortress built in 1813 during the Napoleonic wars and enjoying panoramic views of the town and the sea from the very top of the battlements.

I liked Corfu town, it is untidy and noisy but it has a friendly and familiar feel, rather like an old pair of shoes or a favourite holiday tee shirt that is both reliable and comfortable.  Four hours wandering around the town had passed surprisingly quickly and soon it was time to run the gauntlet of the pesky waiters trying to draw customers into the restaurants and return to the harbour for the return journey.

These men are masters of persuasion and can intercept people who have no immediate plans to stop for a drink or food and have them sitting down with a menu card in their hand in the bat of an eye lid and before they can fully understand what has happened to them.

The best man I ever saw at this was on the Greek island of Kalymnos.  I watched him working the pavement because he was a genius.  He had an infectious smile that he probably practised to perfection every morning in a mirror and he had the ability to make people stop and sit at a table and order drinks as though he could manipulate their minds and thoughts.  He stood back in the shadows waiting for his opportunity and then with a predatory sixth sense and a perfect awareness of potential customers as they passed by he stepped forward and pounced and was almost always successful.  It was a pleasure to watch him work and when we left I told him so and congratulated him on his skills.

Corfu Town Greece

Corfu, My Family and Other Disasters – Achilles Heel

Corfu Achillion

In Corfu we visited the Achilleion at Gastouri, in between Perama and Benitses, which is a casino and a museum now but was once a summer Palace built in 1890 by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was a curious woman obsessed with the classical Homeric hero Achilles and with all things beautiful (including herself apparently).

It was also used as a location in the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’  as were several other places on Corfu including Kalami Bay where we were staying this time.

The Palace, with the neoclassical Greek statues that surround it, is a monument to platonic romanticism and escapism and is filled with paintings and statues of Achilles, both in the main hall and in the gardens, depicting the scenes of the Trojan War.

The dazzling white Palace has a wedding cake like appearance and the beautiful Imperial gardens on the hill look over the surrounding green hill crests and valleys and the azure blue Ionian Sea.

Achilles Perama Corfu Achillion

The centre piece of the gardens is a marble statue on a high pedestal, of the mortally wounded Achilles wearing only a simple cloth and an ancient Greek hoplite helmet.  This statue was created by German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter and the hero is presented devoid of rank or status, and seems notably human though heroic, as he is forever trying to pull the arrow shot by Paris from his heel.  His classically depicted face is full of pain and he gazes skyward, as if to seek help from the Gods on Olympus.

In contrast, at the great staircase in the main hall is a giant painting of the triumphant Achilles full of pride.  Dressed in full royal military regalia and erect on his racing chariot, he pulls the lifeless body of Hector of Troy in front of the stunned crowd watching helplessly from inside the walls of the Trojan citadel.

In 1898 at the age of sixty the Empress was assassinated when she was stabbed by a lunatic anarchist whilst walking in a park in Geneva, Switzerland.  After her death the palace was sold to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who also liked to take summer holidays on Corfu and later it was acquired by the Greek State who converted it into a museum.

It is a beautiful place with grand sweeping gardens befitting royal ownership and we enjoyed the visit and even went back later to see the sunset from the Kaiser’s chair, which is an area at the highest point in the gardens where Wilhelm would go in the evening to enjoy the end of the day.

Achilles

Corfu, My Family and Other Disasters – Greek Dancing

Kalami Corfu Greece

A little scare with the weather passed by as the grey clouds dispersed as quickly as they gathered, the wind disappeared and the previously agitated sea returned to normal which enabled us to return to our now familiar routine of beach and swimming pool.  The local people lamented the fact that it wasn’t going to rain but we of course were selfishly glad of that no matter how much the place needed precipitation.

In the evenings as the cicadas settled down we would walk through the twisting paths by the sun baked gardens and the flower beds of straining woody geraniums and sprawling succulents and back to the sea front and ate in our favourite tavernas where good food was served by the attentive waiters and where we chose plates of Greek traditional dishes and sat by the water’s edge lit up now by a copper moon over a bottomless ink black sea and silent but for the sound of the occasional wave and the contented murmur of fellow diners.

And if the children didn’t fall asleep then we would finish at the hotel bar where there was nightly entertainment.

Whilst I am not an enthusiast of quizzes and karaoke a holiday in Greece is just not complete without going to a traditional Greek food and party night and this really must include participative Greek dancing and one evening we were delighted to find Greek entertainment.  A real enthusiast will prepare for such an evening by purchasing a CD of Greek music to practice beforehand but this is not strictly necessary and all you really need to be able to do is to recognise the opening chords of ‘Zorba’s Dance.

Greek Dancing

What you really need to do to get ready for a Greek night is:

  • Abandon high culinary expectation
  • Prepare yourself for copious amounts of cheap retsina
  • Be prepared to make a complete fool of yourself on the dance floor
  • Have your travel insurance documents handy, as they will be needed at the hospital.

In ancient Greece, dancing was believed to be the gift of the gods. Sacred dances were held as offerings to the deities, as commemorations of key events, and as a way of keeping communities together.

Most Greek dances are danced in a line and the line moves generally to the right and the person on the end with their right hand free is the leader.  Everyone else follows the leader who calls the steps that can be quite complicated.  Beginners are supposed to join the line at the end and it is considered bad manners to barge into the middle.

One of the most common dances at Greek party night is called the Zembekiko, or drunkard’s dance. After a few glasses of retsina this one is quite easy because it has no specific steps and involves stumbling around precariously to the rhythm of the music. In the Zembekiko there are several dancers down on one knee clapping around a particular dancer, and then they’ll swap places now and again. There are no rules. You can dance alone or join the clapping for someone else. As long as people are having a good time, that is just fine.

The Greek night here in Corfu was good but the best that I have been to was in Mykonos in 2005, which was held in a rustic bar in a village in the hills and as well as the food and the wine and the dancing also had table dancing, setting fire to the floor with lighter fuel dancing and plate smashing.  Breaking plates is linked with the Greek concept of kefi, which is the spirit of joy, passion, enthusiasm, high spirits, or frenzy.  Some say that it wards off evil spirits, others that breaking plates symbolises good luck (especially for potters I should imagine).  Whatever it means it is a lot of good fun.

Breaking plates like this is now considered a dangerous practice due to flying shards, and perhaps also because of intoxicated tourists who have poor aim and may hit innocent bystanders. It is officially discouraged and in Greece, as well as in the United Kingdom  a bar or restaurant that wants to do it requires a license and probably has to satisfy a long list of EU regulations.   Tucked away in the hills, I doubt if this place had a license but it didn’t last long and they very quickly substituted the plates with paper napkins to throw around.

Mind you if you think plate smashing is dangerous in the old days they used to throw knives at the dancers feet as a sign of respect and manhood.  This was a bit reckless and not surprisingly, due to countless injuries, that tradition gradually changed to the present-day flower throwing alternative, which is a bit pansy but a whole lot safer.

As it got later the children tired so we returned to the room and the balcony which overlooked the bar and with a final ouzo listened to the pulsating beat of ‘Zorba’s Dance’ against a background of velvet sky with a scattering of stars all reflected in the placid sea where boats rested like fireflys on the water waiting for tomorrow’s adventure.

Greek Night Corfu

Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure

Schauinslandbahn Black Forest Cable Car

At the top once more it was snowing again and we emerged into a scene of pristine white snow, several centimetres deep, a crisp atmosphere that clawed at our fingers and toes and pure mountain air that filled our lungs and cleared our heads.

We walked for a while through trees weighed down heavily with snow, deep frozen and covered in frost and ice, along steep slippery paths where we had to watch our step as we walked all around the summit and then back to the cable car.

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Corfu, My Family and Other Disasters – Stuck in a Lift with a Turtle

Corfu Stuck in a lift with a turtle

“Marvellous things happen to one in Greece – marvellous good things which can happen to one nowhere else on earth”                                                                  Henry Miller – ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’

Every morning was a challenge rather similar I imagine to a US Navy SEALs advanced level assault course because I felt obliged to organise early manoeuvres and when everyone had left the rooms to give them a tidy and leave them in some sort of reasonable shape before the cleaners moved in.

Sally and the girls had rearranged their room in the way that they like it – rather like Belgium after the German Panzer division had passed through on the way to France in 1939 and this took some time to make presentable so generally I waited for everyone to leave for the beach, do a bit of tidying up and then have fifteen minutes with a cup of tea and sometimes, depending on how much work I had had to do, thirty minutes with two!

This particular morning I took the extended option.

There are a lot of steps at the Adonis and Asonitis Apartments so the sensible route to ground level is by the lift (elevator) so rather than tackle the challenging vertical concrete stairs my habit was to take the easy route.  Today it was my job to bring with me the inflatable turtle so it was a doubly sensible alternative this morning.

We were on level four and I had to go to level minus one but somewhere between one and three the lift suddenly stopped and the lights all went out as though there was a sort of power failure.  I waited a minute or two (actually, if I am being honest, only a second or two) and then I descended into frantic panic.  I jabbed at the control buttons and it was then that I noticed that they were all damaged and caved in as though someone had attacked them with a lump hammer so I could only conclude that this sort of thing was a regular occurrence.

I waited a minute or two (actually only a second or two) and then pressed the alarm button which emitted a deafening screeching sound rather like someone having open heart surgery without an anaesthetic but still nothing happened and I started to contemplate a day stuck in a broken down lift and wondering how I was going to pass the time.

Stuck in a broken down lift with an inflatable turtle!

I had no mobile phone (probably wouldn’t have worked anyway) no water, no Mythos, no book to read, no knife and fork in case I was here for so long that I had to eat my green reptile companion and no weapon to defend myself if it decided to try and eat me!

It was very hot and very humid stuck in the confines of a metal prison cell dangling from a cable and probably about to crash to the bottom in a nasty, messy accident.

I pressed the alarm several times, blamed the turtle for our predicament and looked for a hatch in the roof like you see in a James Bond movie but the situation was hopeless so I put the turtle in one corner and told it to leave things to me and had another attempt at operating the controls.  Nothing, nothing, nothing but then a flicker of lights, a hum of air conditioning and a whirr of machinery as the lift returned to the top floor and the doors thankfully opened!

After that lucky escape I walked down the steps to the beach and at the poolside bar realised that I needed a Mythos.  I found a table for turtle and me (after sharing a traumatic experience together we were bonding now) and went to the bar and ordered a glass of beer and a beaker of plankton.

I offered a fifty euro note in payment and then came across another Greek peculiarity.  Shops, bars and restaurants have never got any change in the till.  Hand over anything bigger than a twenty and they freeze in panic and look at you as though you are trying to pay in Spanish doubloons or you are a Martian passing by and offering to pay in Moon Tokens.  If you don’t believe me next time in Greece take a look inside a cash till and all you will see is a couple of one cent coins, some disused drachma and a couple of rusty washers.

Anyway, we got the payment thing sorted out and I sat and enjoyed the Mythos and had ten minutes lad chat with the turtle and then left and made my way to the beach where everyone wondered why it had taken me so long to get there and completely refused to believe my (admittedly) unlikely broken lift story and accused me of just hanging around the bar while I continued to protest that I had been literally hanging around in a lift!

For the rest of the day we went through a familiar routine, swimming in the sea, riding on turtle while listening to the occasional drone of an outboard motor, the melodic flapping of pedalo paddle wheels and the gentle plop or rowing boat oars spearing the limpid sea before returning to the rooms and then a final swim in the pool before going out for evening meal.

At the next table tonight were a young couple who had probably been there some time judging by how much drink he had consumed and they worked their way through starters and main course and then just as the desserts arrived he did something completely foolish and produced a diamond ring and made a dramatic down on one knee proposal.  I wanted to intervene and say NOOOOOO! Don’t do it!  But it was all over in a flash, the offer made and accepted and they ate their baklava, drank the complimentary ouzo and disappeared into the night.  Luckily I didn’t have turtle with me so I couldn’t make the same mistake!

I imagine that sometime early next morning the poor man woke with a thumping headache and hazy memory and looking over at this girlfriend would be consumed by the thought “What’s that bloody sparkly thing on her finger?”

Corfu Turtle

Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure

Sealink Ferry SNCF Senlac

Even in the protection of the harbour the ferry was swaying dramatically from side to side and the staff had to be very careful about getting vehicles on board.  One driver in front lost his exhaust as the boat pitched at the wrong moment and metal ramp reared up and attacked the underside of the car.  Richard got us onboard safely and the green Escort was directed to a perfect place where we sure to drive of first in Newhaven.

On board we went to the bar, found a seat and ordered beers and settled in ready for the four hour crossing.  Even though we were in the harbour the boat was already pitching from side to side which made walking with a pint of beer in hand a little bit difficult but we really had no idea what was about to happen.  A member of the crew told us that there was a force seven gale and if it reached force eight that we wouldn’t be sailing anywhere.

Wind speed is measured on the Beaufort Scale that was developed in 1805 by Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort who divided weather conditions into twelve categories for the purposes of reporting consistency.  Force seven is a near gale, force eight is a gale and so on all the way to force twelve, which is a hurricane.

The ferry cast off and now that there was nothing to hold it to the land it immediately started to roll even more dramatically.  Anthony was the first to go and without an explanation he left the lounge in an almighty rush and that was the last we saw of him for the entire journey.  Tony was perfectly alright but Richard and I felt a bit queasy so we finished our drinks and went outside where we hoped the fresh air might be beneficial.

Conditions were really bad and things didn’t look good and the ferry was finding it difficult to even get out of the harbour but when it did then matters took a turn for the worse.  Officially, according to the Beaufort Scale, in a force seven, sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind.  Well, it was certainly heaping up today I can tell you and spray was coming up over the sides and once outside the protective walls of the harbour the ferry started to bob about like a helpless cork.

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