Saturday, 21 June 2008

Nostalgia in Corfu 9th-13th June

We meet up with Angeliki and George at Liapades
The monastery at Paleokastritsa...the site of Lord Alcinous' palace?

A snake slid over Doreen's sandals while she stood by this spring on the beach. An omen from the gods maybe that THIS was the place where Nausicaa washed her clothes?
We have been reading Homer's story as we go along. Once you've got to grips with the flowery prose it's a really great read, with lots of meaty descriptions. Here's a little taster.
Corfu (Kerkyra for the Greeks) was Odysseus' last port of call before he reached his home in Ithaca. All his comrades were dead; he was the sole survivor of the long journey. He had spent seven years with the lovely lady Calypso on the island of Gozo (Malta) but at last the Gods took pity on him and decided to help him get back home. Following Calypso's advice he made a raft and set sail with a fair wind behind him. As sailors always have, (until satellite navigation), he depended on the stars to navigate his course. Homer describes it thus: "He sat with his hands on the steering oar and in expert fashion began to guide his course. Sleep never fell on his eyelids as he watched the Pleiades, watched the Wagoner, slow to set, watched the Bear that some call the Wain, and which ever on the same spot with anxious eye upon Orion, and which alone among the constellations has no share in the baths of the ocean. Calypso the goddess had bidden him in his sailing to keep the Bear on his left hand side. For seventeen days he sailed onwards across the sea; on the eighteenth day there loomed before him the shadowy hills of the land of the Phaeacians (Corfu); at the point where it was nearest it looked like a shield in the misty sea."

So close to home, but Odysseus' luck runs out again. The god Poseidon, who never liked Odysseus, conjures up a terrible storm; the mast of the raft breaks in two and the waves sweep the craft along "like the North wind, late in summer, sweeping thistle stalks over the plain" At last the raft breaks up and Odysseus must swim for his life. After two days in the sea he sees land..."But when he is no further distant than the voice of a shouting man can reach, he heard the roar of the sea against the rocks, for the heavy breakers dashed themselves on the solid coast, thundering in fury....there were only jutting headlands and reefs and crags". After hours of struggling, and searching for safe spot to swim ashore, he "came abreast of a flowing river, where he thought the ground best to land on, being clear of rocks and sheltered from winds". He manages to drag himself out on to the beach. "His body was swollen now all over and brine in streams gushed from his mouth and nostrils" Poor guy! However he manages to drag himself up the beach to the shelter of two olive trees, cover himself in leaves and fall into a deep sleep. Next day, he is found there by Nausicaa, daughter of one of the island chieftains, lord Alcinous. She, with other young women, has been washing her clothes in the river. She gives him olive oil to clean himself, some clothes to wear, and shows him the way to her father's palace. Alcinous listens to his tales of woe - about Cyclops, Circe, the Laestragonians and the cattle of the sun god. Odysseus had been in uncharted waters and, being the sole survivor, had no-one to contradict his stories. Wouldn't you exaggerate a little to justify how you had managed to lose the crews of twelve ships? Alcinous however had a generous nature, and he loads Odysseus with gifts and takes him back to Ithaca in one of his own ships.

We have our own, rather more prosaic, story of arrival to tell. There are no direct ferries from Ithaca to Corfu. With Doreen, we boarded a huge luxurious ferry to Igoumenitsa, a large port on the mainland very close to Corfu. At midnight, we were the only foot passengers disembarking, into a dark, empty harbour.....deserted except for one playful dog, who picked up the ball at the end of the ferry's mooring rope in his mouth and ran off into the darkness with it, leaving the harbour worker scratching his head. A funny moment...but then we had to roll our suitcases a good half mile to our prebooked hotel...not such fun.

Next morning another ferry took us the short distance to Corfu, which was looking dreamy in the gentle sunlight. We had arranged to stay in a friend's flat in Corfu town, and this turned out to be ideally situated, close to the sea and a short walk to the old town. The Venetians ruled Corfu for 400 years and they certainly made themselves at home. Walking round this beautful town we had the feeling that we already half way to italy. Lines of washing are strung across the narrow streets; tall building in various shades and pattinas of yellow, white and ochre, with green and blue shutters; ornate balconies with flowers tumbling down; squares and collonades; churches with domes and painted ceilings. That first evening we sat outside a small snackbar and listened to a choir, practicing in a room opposite; hundreds of swifts were sweeping overhead making their shrill little screeches. We were enchanted.

In Corfu we wanted to find lord Alcinous' palace, and also the beach with the river where Nausicaa found Odysseus. As usual, many places make the claim to fame, so we would have to decide for ourselves which ones fitted the story the best. We also wanted to visit the places where we had family holidays many years ago. Serendipity, these happened to be in the same area. A bus to Paleokastritsa. Our first stay in Corfu was here, when Mikis was only 8 months old. The area has wild, rocky headlands and spectacular cliffs -fits Homer's description. We walked up to the little monastery on the promontory. It has a commanding view over the bays on both sides, as described by Homer , and is Lawrence Durrell's favoured location for Alcinous' palace, but there are no ancient remains to back up the claim. The monastery itself is pretty and simply built, with storerooms below, a bell tower, and with the rooms and church around a central courtyard. We could imagine the original palace might have looked something like this, and bought some herb tea.

From the beach we took a water taxi to Liapades, in the next bay along the coast. For old times sake we stopped at 'The Cricketers' taverna for a drink, and then walked up to the villa where we had spent two long summer holidays with family and friends in 1981 and 1982. And there they were, 25 years older but still looking good, George and Angeliki, the owners. They remembered us well, as we were one of the first occupants of their prize posession, the first holiday villa to be built in Liapades. There is now a bar and swimming pool in place of the olive grove, and other villas and hotels around it, but it's still very pleasant. We sat and drank coffee with them and reminisced. The people at the Cricketers insisted that Alcinous' palace was on another site nearby -Angelocastro (Angel's castle). Next day we hired a little white car and buzzed around the northern part of the island. We visited the castle, and also possible sites for Nausicaa's washing expedition- Ayios Georgios bay to the North of Paleokastritsa and Ermones bay to the South. Both have rivers flowing into them, but we favoured Ermones, which is smaller and has nasty sharp rocks all around. With the sun going down, it had a romantic feel to it which stirred the imagination.

On Friday 13th we said farewell to Doreen and to the Greek islands. Doreen flew back home (only a little pinker than when she arrived) and we boarded another rust bucket bound for Bari in Southern Italy. (why do they save the rust buckets for the long haul trips, we wondered). The Pope had prevented us taking a more direct route to Brindisi. He was spending the w/e there and all ferries had been cancelled. Was that a godly intervention? No doubt Odysseus would have thought so.

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