Corfu. This is the island where we did not seek out ruins of temples and instead followed a different path – an overview of the island led by a local tour guide. In Corfu, we got to drive up a narrow zigzagging mountain street, have homemade baklava, and eat vegetables and tzatziki sauce while overlooking Palaiokastritsa’s heart-shaped bay. It’s a beautiful island, the greenest one we saw, and I absolutely loved it.
Like Olympia, Corfu has left me longing to return (albeit, not in the heat of summer). This island had the nicest people, the most beautiful views, and the tastiest food I had in Greece. It’s a vibrant island. In the summer, they rely on tourism as their primary source of income while agriculture sustains them through the winter months. When I think about the fires that ravaged Greece in the heatwave just after we returned… I think of Corfu and the people we met there.
Our tour for the day took us from the pier in a line of jeeps to Dassia, on the north east of the island. Once we reached Dassia, we took an old road up through Kato Korakiana and Ano Korakiana. It was a beautiful experience to pass through these old Corfu towns.
While Kate Korakiana is a bit more spread out, Ano Korakiana is a more condensed old town. Both are filled with churches and nestled at the foot of the Pantokrator Mountain. When they were first settled, these villages were filled with individuals coming from the Aegean Sea and eventually the Venetians when the colonized Greece. Today, there’s still a bit of medieval charm to these villages.
As we traveled past Kato Korakiana and Ano Korakiana, the climb became more steep. It was at about this point I was really glad to be the photographer and not the driver – climbing Pantokrator consists of numerous hairpin turns winding up the mountain. At one point, our caravan met a bus and had to drive deep into the roadside shrubbery so it could safely pass. On the other side of the road, there’s nothing but a steep drop.
These roads reminded me of driving on some of the roads in the Azores – another underappreciated travel location. Even though the streets were narrow and winding, the views were incredible.
While we were in Corfu, Greece was experiencing the most intense heatwave it had seen in nearly a half-century. As I mentioned earlier, there were some terrible fallouts to this heatwave, including fires across the country and on several islands (included Corfu). While these panoramic views are still breathtaking to me, on a clear day without the heat haze, the views would be even more spectacular.
Climbing the mountain road, we stopped in Sokraki. If you want a small, rural town feel, Sokraki is the place. We parked just outside of the town center and walked in. I immediately loved the way this town was tucked into the corner of the mountain – it seemed so peaceful.
While in Sokraki, we paused between two small cafes and some shops. I think the main idea was to use the restrooms and grab a drink (as one does on tours!) but we were able to spend a little time in the area, which I really enjoyed. We started at the cafes, where the tour guide recommended birch beer. If you’ve never had birch beer, it’s non-alcoholic and a bit bubbly and bitter. I grew up having it in New England, but if you’ve never had it, it’s a specialty in Greece and that’s a good place to try it for your first time.
I was lucky enough to step into the Cherry Cafe just in time to get the last piece of baklava. Again, if you’ve never had baklava, it’s something I grew up with (there was a decently-sized Greek community in my home town). There’s more to it than this, but the simplest description of baklava is that it’s filo dough triangles baked with honey and walnuts and spices. A good piece of baklava will just about melt in your mouth – sweet, but not too sweet.
This baklava was perfect.
It was served warm and I had it with some lemon ginger ale (tastes similar to lemonade in France, but more bitter). The baklava was just the right amount of sweet and a rush of flavor burst with every bite. It’s the best piece I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I decided to try it even though we were a little tight on time. I’d intended to try it at some point while we were there… I think Sokraki was the exact right place for it. Absolutely delicious.
After breakfast, we snuck away down the path a bit to a gift shop selling hand-carved olive tree goods. The young man inside was very nice, he talked to us for a while about how he went to New York once and really loved it whereas the life he lives with his family in Sokraki is less exciting and folks are less open to change. He actually talked to us so long that the tour guide stuck her head in the window and asked if he was giving us a lecture on life in Sokraki or ringing out the purchase (in a friendly, teasing way!). He was so nice and personable, it was lovely to talk to him. I have a carved wood cat sitting on top my bookshelf from his shop.
I was a bit sorry to leave Sokrarki behind to be honest, I really liked the town. From there, we climbed the winding roads up and then down the other side towards Lakones. Once we arrived, we parked below the Castellino Restaurant and were able to take in the panoramic view.
Lakones has a couple viewpoints and despite the heat haze, it was truly lovely. From Lakones, you are able to see into Paleokastritsa and the bays below. Of particular interest is the heart-shaped bay. There are two naturally made heart-shaped bays in Greece – the first is on Rhodes, and the second here in Corfu. We watched folks sailing and laid out on the beaches below, as well as the ships coming and going. While we never made it into Paleokastritsa itself, this view from above was lovely and left me convinced that if we were to return to Corfu, Paleokastritsa is a place we simply must visit.
Unfortunately what you cannot see is that on a clear day, from this point visitors can see across the ocean to Albania. Through the heat haze, I could see a faint outline with the naked eye, but nothing that would show up on film. You’ll just have to visit Corfu and see for yourself!
In all seriousness, if you were ever thinking about booking a trip to the Greek Islands, now is the time. Much of Greece’s economy is dually supported by tourism and agriculture. Because of COVID-19, tourism has been scarce. In 2020, Corfu itself saw about 20% of its normal tourism levels with an expectation of 30% from 2021. In addition to this, the harsh summer affected the olive groves and other crops, impacting agricultural exports for the year.
As much as I like to travel all over and how exciting it is to travel off the beaten path, per se, places like Greece that rely on tourism as a central component of their economy could really use your patronage right now. So if it’s on the bucket list… maybe move it up a couple slots if you can.
After admiring the view of Paleokastritsa, we headed up and inside the Castellino Restaurant where we were graciously served olives, tzatziki, tomatoes, bread, soft cheese, spanakopita, and roe. If you’ve not had spanakopita, it’s a Greek pastry of cheese and spinach cooked in a filo dough, sort of a savory alternative to baklava! Very tasty.
I passed on the roe myself, but the rest of it was absolutely delicious. Like the baklava earlier in the day, the tzatziki was next level delicious. The herbs were more defined and there was a definite bite to the garlic which, as a lover of garlic, I very much enjoyed. It was great to get a sampling of some of Greece’s most well-known foods straight from the source.
It was nice to rest up at the Castellino and if you’re visiting Corfu, this restaurant also has amazing views of the landscape below. Depending where you sit, the windows are wind open the the warm air wafts in. It’s a beautiful spot for a lunch or quick respite as you enjoy your day.
From Lakones we made our way to one of the kumquat distilleries on the island. Corfu is the only Greek island that supports the growth of kumquat, and so within Greece the industry is unique to here. Otherwise, the kumquat is grown in parts of Asia. This is a fruit you don’t generally eat raw – in Corfu, it is made into jams, liquors, and candies.
Our group visited the Mavromatis Kumquat Factory in Skripero. I initially expected a building tucked away amidst a grove of kumquats (similar to Chá Gorreana in the Azores) but Mavromatis is much more unassuming than that – an unremarkable building set back from a highway. They did have a couple kumquat trees in their courtyard!
If you’ve never tried it, kumquat tastes a bit like an apricot, only with a little more of a citrus twinge. If you don’t like either apricots or oranges, you probably won’t enjoy kumquat. For myself, I don’t love apricots but I do love oranges and other citrus, so I was pleased to find the kumquat flavored products really pleasant.
Kumquats have been growing in Corfu for nearly a millennium and the people of Corfu have perfected their byproducts. The sample I tried was sweet but not too sweet, and had a kick even though it was just a mouthful. Mavromatis sells more than just kumquat products (we picked up some chocolate almond mandolato as well, which was quite delicious), they are the specialty and after trying a sample, we took home a small bottle of extract of kumquat liquor which can be drunk straight as an after-meal treat, or mixed into cocktails. I’m very much a fruity drink person (when I drink at all) so I’m excited to try it! However, if you’re not a liquor person, there are kumquat marmalade’s and mandolato and sweets as well.
Mavromatis was our last stop in Corfu before heading back to the ship. The taste we had on on tour cemented Corfu as a must-visit island in any future Greece itineraries. It was a beautiful island and while Olympia was my favorite archaeological site on the trip, Corfu was my favorite island. The food was so delicious and the people so friendly and overall it was so picturesque. I feel very much like I got a taste of Corfu and it left me wanting more.
If you’re looking for a relaxing day (or week!) in Greece without too many museums or historical sites, Corfu is the place to be. The landscapes are green and stunning – even during the extreme heat wave – and the whole island is incredibly welcoming.
Next week will be the last day reflecting on Greece as I take you to the ruins at Akrotiri and to a winery on Santorini! I will warn you that it’s not going to be a normal Santorini post – we spent very little time in Fira and did not visit Oia at all (next time!) but I hope I can share a couple places you don’t know in Santorini and tempt you to visit.
Do you prefer to go off the beaten path when you travel? Or are you drawn by the tourist sites? A little of both? Let me know in the comments!