A Little Tour in North West Corfu Where can you find the island’s most beautiful sunsets? The real ‘best view in Europe’? Resorts on long-sandy beaches, that recall the tranquility of thirty years past? In North West Corfu, of course! Having avoided the North West for 18 years due to horrid memories of getting stuck on muddy cart tracks (and that was in the resorts, not out in the wilds!), I finally revisited the area in 2001. Since then, it has become my favourite part of the island – and there’s still lots more for me to explore!
I find the best approach is through the Ropa Valley, where the formerly patchwork road has recently been widened and resurfaced. It is also virtually traffic-free and without the strip development that is creeping out along the alternative route, the Paleokastritsa highway. Past Liapades, you reach the Paleokastritsa road. Here turn left downhill and half a kilometre or so on fork right for Lakones. A windy road takes you sharply up, with increasingly vertiginous views. You may have to wait for some time at the village traffic light, which aims to prevent jams in the narrow street. After the village, you reach the famous ‘Bella Vista’, now much more than the eponymous restaurant. (This establishment carries a sign reminding you of the famous people, like the Kaiser and the Greek Royals, who’ve eaten here, among them a Mrs Satzartaki. Mrs Who? Answer: the wife of a former politically-appointed President of the Republic.) The Bella Vista view is advertised as the ‘best in Europe’; you can judge for yourself in a few minutes. Having duly admired, drive on past Makrades (beware old people jumping in front of your car – they are not flagging an emergency lift to the hospital, but trying to sell you dodgy wine), then after a few hairpin bends, take a left signposted to Prinilas. This little road is the ‘back door’ to North West Corfu. And what a doorway! You round a bend and breast a small rise and, all of a sudden, the whole of North Corfu is spread at your feet. Seemingly directly below, the great arc of Saint George Bay is backed by chalky ridges and, in the distance, framed by the Offshore Islands. To the right, you can see as far as Cape Ekaterini, Corfu’s northernmost tip. Ridge after ridge provide the stitchwork of a vast patchwork quilt of olive groves and plains. It’s both a geography lesson and a spectacle where you’d like to drag all those ignoramuses who insist that Corfu’s ‘spoilt’.
A breathtaking descent to Prinilas and Pagi, and your way down is gentler as you approach Saint George. In keeping with its low-key development – the resort does not even spread all the way along the
seafront – there is no road all the way along the beach due to two streams that no one has bothered to build a road bridge over. As a result, the way dives inland at two points, and if you take a wrong turning it is easy to end up 1) at a cul-de-sac on the sand or 2) in Kavadades, because in North West Corfu all roads lead to Kavadades. Eventually, should you find your way through the labyrinth to the northern end of the beach, you climb up to Afiones.
Afiones is both one of Corfu’s prettiest and best kept villages, and perhaps its oldest. Just beyond the village, remains of a Bronze Age settlement were excavated in the years before World War 2. The finds prompted the German archaeologists to apply to the Greek government for permission – yes, it’s true – to drain the seabed; they believed that an even more ancient city lay beneath the waves (their plans were scuppered by the War). The Offshore Islands and the sculpted shoreline are proof that the coast here is receding, and local legend has it that the drowned city is the fabled home of Alkinous, where Odysseus finished his travels (accordingly, the nearest island – uninhabited – is called Gravia, a corruption of καράβι, which means ‘ship’. It is one of the candidates for the Phaecean ship which took Odysseus home to Ithaca and which Poseidon subsequently turned to stone as punishment). Another speculation is that the city is ‘Lost Atlantis’, which was engulfed by the sea. Whatever you believe – and until they drain the seabed we’ll never know for sure – Afionas is a delight. Park at the side of the road (not in the inviting space at the end of the road, which is where the bus turns around) and wander along the alleys. The rough stone walls enclosing small yards are pristinely whitewashed, and many of the old doors and windows are painted bright Hellenic blue. In spring, the gardens are a riot of colour, with geraniums, roses and bougainvillea in abundance. The alleys direct you to an open meadow high above the sea, with a bench to rest on as you take in the vista.
At this point, if you feel the need for some more vigorous exercise, I recommend a stroll to the Pirate’s Cove. To get there, head to your left (with the village at your back) and cross the scrub on a clear path. Along the lane, you’ll come to Porto Timoni Restaurant, which has a huge clifftop terrace with a glorious view of Saint George Bay. Back down the lane, on the right, a path takes you down to the cove. It’s 20-30 minutes walk, and VERY steep in places; but the cove – or rather coves – is one of the most picturesque sights on the island. It comprises a double-sided beach, which just prevents the end section of the headland from tumbling away to become an island. The bay to the north is deep-cut, and its was here that ‘pirate’ ships (probably manned by opportunist locals) would lurk until they spotted a passing vessel. The path continues beyond the beaches to the lookout point, where a small shrine is built in to the rock. Leave Afionas, and the road heads towards Arillas. The quickest way down to the resort is to take the second road on the left. Observant viewers of Rick Stein’s food rogramme Mediterranean Escapes, may recognize this road in one of the driving sequences – and indeed there are spectacular views down to Arillas as you make the steep descent. Turn left at the bottom, and soon the first buildings of Arillas border the road.
Arillas is another low-key resort which retains the atmosphere of an earlier touristic incarnation. Nothing is in-your-face commercialized or pushy. The road hugs the beach for a few hundred metres, then you leave the sea again beside a 1970s style three-floor hotel. If it’s lunchtime, you can do no better than to stop at Amourada Restaurant, or Brouklis Taverna, both of which are on this road leading inland. A feature of many of the restaurants in the North West is the use of locally-grown (indeed, family-grown) ingredients. Because tourism came late to the region, agriculture has not died out as in other parts, and often the taverna owner is also a farmer or fisherman. Diners reap the benefits in the form of lovely vegetable dishes (try Brouklis’ Pumpkin Pie!) and the freshest seafood. All roads lead to Kavadades, the hub of the North West’s road network. Continue inland, and soon you reach it. In reality, it is more a scattering of smaller settlements, with a church and a blink-and-you-miss-it square. At the square and just below it, ignore signs for Magoulades and Sidari, and head through Armenades to reach Rachtades.
Afionas is a happy, bright village; Rachtades is full of melancholy. The village square, shaded by an old elm tree, is neglected, and the village shop has closed down for good. It’s a fitting mood for a village whose origins came through conflict. Sometime long ago, two clans of refugees from Armenia settled in what is now Armenades. The clans fell out with one another, with the result that the one called (by this time) Armenis left to found a separate settlement, Rachtades, on a nearby ridge (ridge is ‘rachi’ in Greek). The legacy of this event is the absurd and contrary fact that virtually everyone in Rachtades shares the surname of Armenis, whilst Armenades is almost entirely populated by people called Chandrinos! Have a little stroll around Rachtades, which has some picturesque corners and nice views; rest under the ‘Tree of Idleness’ – because there’s not much else to do here other than relax.
A contrast again is your next stop – Corfu’s tourism capital, Sidari. Head back through Rachtades the way you came, and just as the houses finish (before the junction you turned up to get there) take a sharp left. This almost unused road takes you down through the lower part of the village and down through forest to the flat lands of the Tyflopotamos valley, the so-called ‘blind river’ which reaches the sea at Sidari. There’s plenty of parking space in and around the resort. Early evening, the main drag, closely bordered by shops and eating and drinking establishments, is humming with visitors browsing and choosing where to spend their evening. Ignore the ‘Wet T-shirt and Y-front Night’ notices and the young Brits trying to get you into a bar, and observe the street happenings: artists, itinerates selling nuts and balloons, henna tattoo and hairbeading specialists – they all come out to add to the bustle.
There is only one location to end a day in North West Corfu, and that is Sunset Beach near Peroulades. You need about ten minutes to get to Peroulades, so time it to get there before the sunset. Panorama Restaurant sits right on the edge of the cliff, with the beach far below; the sea stretches to a far horizon. You can sit at the bar listening to the mood music as the sun drops, or enjoy a meal from a menu with some unusual dishes, like dried fish salad and courgette balls with garlic mayonnaise. Out of the more common choices, the stuffed tomatoes and peppers and the mousaka are among the best I’ve tried. Here is the edge of the world. Beyond the Offshore Islands floating in the water, open ocean; next stop, Italy. Facing the evening, North West Corfu holds on to the light, and the sun leaves it last. If you fall for the North West, so will you.
This article, first published in The Corfiot Magazine in October 2007, is taken from the ebook ‘Corfu Off The Map’ by Hilary Whitton Paipeti. The ebook (not available as a print copy) contains a vast amount of information about less well known aspects of the island, including traditions, villages, off-the-track inland and coastal locations, areas for walking, plus offbeat car trips and places to visit, as well as a ‘New Age’ section. The ebook is available from the site www.corfuoffthemap.com at a price of 3.50 euros.