June is the month when Afionas – the ‘Garden Village’ – is at the peak of its beauty
If Corfu is the ‘Garden Isle’ then Afionas is its ‘Garden Village’. Set on the shoulder of a promontory in the far north west of Corfu, the old village begins where the road runs out. Entering the village along the ascending lane is like stepping into another visual dimension. Not a Corfiot one. Gone are the ochres and strawberry-pinks of the house walls, the dark shiny green of shutters. Here the world is stark blue and white. And even the bougainvillea, purple elsewhere, choses to be white in Afionas.
Afionas is very old indeed. Although systematic excavations have never been implemented, remains in the vicinity of the ‘Sunset Viewpoint’ on the far side of the settlement have been dated to the Middle Hellenic Period, around 3000 BC, when it was called Amfionas. As you approach by road from Kavadades and top the rise, the outline of the hill above the ‘modern’ village so resembles an acropolis that you expect to see a Parthenon-style temple on its summit; you can’t imagine that the Ancients would have missed the chance to build one in such a commanding spot.
Year by year, the sea is eroding the coast of North West Corfu. The phenomenon is visible almost in real time on the sandstone and clay cliffs of the area, like at Canal d’Amour in Sidari – and last winter near Arillas where large sections of the cliffs slumped during storms. Many thousands of years ago, the offshore islands were joined to Corfu. Off the shoreline, in sea that once was land, there are ruins of buildings under two and a half metres of water. Fishermen report seeing rocks on the seabed which resemble ancient columns. Pots of various kinds have also been spotted.
If these sightings are valid, it seems there was a now off-shore city which was abandoned as the sea encroached. Did the residents of this city, relocating to a safer spot inland, re-establish their town at Amfionas, whose ruins we can see today near Afionas?
Tradition and the academic world generally identify the island of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus finished his Wanderings, with Corfu (Scheria). A number of locations squabble to be named as the site of the Palace of Alcinous and the meeting point of Odysseus and Nausicaa; one of the candidates for the latter is the Megapotamos (the ‘Great River’) which flows into the sea on the beach at Saint George, the bay immediately south of the Afionas promontory.
Striking parallels exist between the Phaeacian city and the legendary city of Atlantis. Both are said to have been founded by the great sea god Poseidon (Alcinous is his ‘grandson’, though that title in all likelihood is symbolic). Both are rich and fertile. Atlantis was destroyed by a natural disaster; in a passage in Homer’s Odyssey, Scheria’s king predicts that his city will suffer the same fate.
German archeologists discovered Amfionas in 1934. Convinced that a more ancient city lay out at sea, they made an application to the Greek Government to dam the sea between Afionas and Sidari and drain away the water to expose the sea bed. But the Prime Minister of the day, Metaxas, did not agree. The came the War and decades of poverty, so that the sea-bound ruins still await excavation. Does lost Atlantis lie off Afionas?
In the ‘modern’ village, the blue-and-white colour scheme is reminiscent of a ‘Chora’-type village in the Cyclades – a hilltop settlement above a harbour and (formerly) reached from the sea by way of a steep mule path to deter pirates. If any village in Corfu deserves a Cycladic garnish, Afionas is the one. In contrast to the majority of Corfu’s villages, built facing away from the sea, Afionas is embraced by water, giving its visitor salmost the feel of being on a small, separate island. And indeed, the blue and white theme comes straight from the Cyclades.
In 1988, Fred Gebhardt bought a number of tumbledown houses in the centre of the old settlement. Already a Corfu resident for a decade, he had previously been a ship’s captain; he had visited the Aegean and fallen in love with the Cycladic colours – white to beat off the merciless sun and blue to reflect the surrounding sea. Settling in Corfu’s only Aegean-ish village and gradually restoring his property, he introduced the blue and white colour scheme, and it was subsequently taken up by others – so much so that the village even has a restaurant called The Blue House. Even the Night Owl, formerly a traditional kafenion on the approaches to the village, added a bright blue note during a recent makeover.
Amongst the blue of gates and shutters and the natural stone walls all whitewashed, shades of pink, crimson, coral, saffron and amethyst provide a vivid and glowing counterpoint. Geraniums, carnations, roses, marigolds and nasturtiums spill from every yard, sometimes companion-plated with neat rows of onions and luxuriant courgettes. Even the public space is embellished: a pot of geraniums set in a corner; stones tumbled from a ruin whitewashed and turned into an informal rock-garden. Afionians take pride in their surroundings.
The village is further enhanced by growing number of activities which are making their base there. The perpetrator of the blue and white theme, Fred Gebhardt, is an artist who has converted part of his rambling property into an atelier and gallery. Heidi Kalkmann is also an artist with a studio and gallery, and she also runs ‘Oliven und Meer’, a beautiful souvenir shop which is a treasure trove of local products, including olive oil, olive soap, ceramics with an olive theme, and her own olive paste. Heidi celebrated ten years in Afionas in late May 2009.
Then there are the restaurants – seven I think at the last count, and ranging from simple grills and fried squid at the Night Owl and authentic home-made casseroles with a view at Porto Timoni, to the sophisticated cuisine of The Blue House.
And walking! Just a short stroll through the lanes leads you to the ‘Sunset View’ plateau, where benches have been set, facing towards Arillas. A part of Amfionas was excavated here. Or you can follow the (sometimes steep and rough) footpath from the village, traversing the mountainside high above the sea and descending to Pirate’s Cove, a double-sided beach. Onward, the path continues to a chapel, set in a cave and dedicated to Agios Stylianos. It’s one of Corfu’s most spectacular hikes (one and half hours approximately), in a wild and stark landscape which provides a contrasting background for the order and harmony contained in Corfu’s ‘Garden Village’.
By Hilary Paipeti – read more from Hilary