The phone rang on Sunday morning just as I was busying myself with the five millionth photographic update from the wedding. No need to explain whose, unless (say) you’ve been without power for the past six months.
‘I’m just sifting through the Sunday papers,’ my sister told me, before adding that she was particularly interested in an article about a woman about to turn forty who packed up everything and travelled to India to have her future read by a Guru in Mumbai.
‘Oh I did that once, in Rishikesh when I was 23,’ I explained laughingly, ’a cross – legged man on the edge of the Ganges told me that I’d meet a nice man when I was 27 and he’d gift me three beautiful children by the age of 30. After this rendezvous, thrilled with news of my bright future, I went for a long celebratory swim at the top of the river and a human skull floated past as I was performing a gentle breaststroke. Three months later, in Istanbul, I was still keeling over with a most horrific stomach ache,’ I finished.
All that came from my palm reading in India sixteen years ago, was a brutal parasite.
It’s probably quite obvious that my palms didn’t tell the truth and when I explained to my sister that, ‘perhaps Mr 27 was kidnapped, and this is why he didn’t eventuate,’ she giggled and responded with a long ‘hmmmmm, maybe you should write about this’.
There’s not much more to say about Mr 27, or the reading overall, except that the cross-legged man did say that my palms suggested a long life blessed with excellent health – and not once have I questioned his integrity because I’m still alive and I feel exceptionally healthy.
On the eve of my own 40th birthday (just eleven months away and counting – do love a milestone), I returned to Paris last week which signalled the end of two and a half incredibly enjoyable weeks in Greece with my parents – part of which I wrote about in my last piece. Had I been blessed with one child per year between the age of 27 and 30, not only would I have been exceptionally busy in the birthing suite, but there is also probably slim to little chance that I would have been able to enjoy all the little things that have become very important in my life, now that I’m 39.
Arriving on Corfu from Crete via Athens, was like stepping back in time. I’d visited Corfu ever so briefly at the age of 19 and had never returned. In my teens, I read Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ a book I revisited soon after my palm reading in Rishikesh. Last week on Corfu I savoured for the third time in my life, every page of this paperback favourite.
Winding around wide boulevards from the airport as dusk edged its way into the later part of the day, my eyes darted from building to building with paint peeling off ancient facades and shutters stood wide open and obedient against tired walls.
Throughout the ages, the Cavalieri Hotel has been a meeting point for writers, actors and poets, statesmen, businessmen and travellers. Originally built in the 17th century as a nobleman’s mansion belonging to the ancestors of Count Flamburiari, it opened it’s doors as a hotel in the late 1960’s. The Cavalieri is situated on the edge of Durrell Park, home to the Corfu Cricket Pitch and Enoseos Square, all framed by the lush greenery of the Kapodistristou Boulevard.
On arrival, I felt further transported into another era with the town’s Old Fortress standing proud just moments away, and as we enjoyed our first dinner on the hotel’s rooftop later that evening, I explained to my travel companions (also known as my dear parents, squared off with the added bonus of one of their oldest friends), that these types of places really have an impact on me. It was a memorable moment made even more special by the company kept.
The week was spent exploring all that is the glory of the old town and island, in its unique architectural blend of Byzantine, Venetian, French and English influences – history would suggest that almost everyone has tried their hand on Corfu, and while the island looks (in part) exhausted, it is a place brimming with history and if each tired wall could talk, I’m sure we’d have heard some unbelievable stories.
Throughout the week, we followed narrow alleys lined with pots filled with healthy geraniums and enjoyed lunches in the beautiful, warm spring air. One afternoon, I found Mum positively breathless after an impromptu meeting with a group of women at the incredible Municipal Art Gallery of Corfu. A new book, ‘The Gardens of Corfu,’ carefully curated by English writer and Corfu resident Rachel Weaving, and beautifully photographed by one of the worlds finest garden photographers, Marianne Majerus – was due to launch at the gallery later that night.
Following an early evening apéro at the old Liston Hotel, where Mum, Dad and I chatted about life with even more vigour than a man bowling a ball on the cricket pitch across the road, we attended the book launch before enjoying a glass of retsina with Corfu locals, both English and Greek, under ancient fig trees in the gallery gardens. Here, we were further spoilt with breathtaking views across the Ionian Sea towards mainland Greece and to the left, the mountains of Albania.
One morning we visited the Reading Society of Corfu, founded in 1836 by a group of intellectuals whose principal goal was to stay informed about European scholarly and cultural developments. Today, the core of the Reading Society is the main reading room and valuable library of over 30,000 volumes in seemingly as many languages, including the important holdings in the Ionian Island collection and the Guilford Archives. Chalk pink hallways lined with maps and pretty light fittings and a reading room in perfect Giverny green, had me in further conniptions.
Days later, Mum and I travelled to the village of Old Perithia, a tiny, rambling town built in the 14th century while the island was under Byzantine rule, and one which sits on the northern flanks of Mount Pantokrator at about 400 meters above sea level. Our driver, Giannis (you can call me John), was not only one of the most heavenly people I’ve ever met, but also incredibly informative when it came to the history of the island, and patient with every request to stop and photograph another wildflower or sweeping vista. On the way home, he insisted on shouting us a cup of tea at the White House, the last Corfu home of Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy.
The following morning, Dad and I set off on foot to Mon Repos, a villa built in 1831 as a summer residence for the British Lord High Commissioner of the United States of the Ionian Islands, Frederick Adam, and his second wife Diamantina Palatino. Adam and his wife had to vacate the villa soon afterwards in 1832 when he was sent to serve in India, which saw the house rarely used as a residence for the later British governors. In 1833, it housed a school of fine arts, and in 1834, the park was opened to the public.
After the union with Greece in 1864, Mon Repos was granted to King George I of the Hellenes as a summer residence.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria stayed at Mon Repos in 1863. Here, she fell in love with the island, which resulted in her building the Achilleion Palace, another wonderful villa and surrounding garden that we explored during one of our first days on Corfu.
At Mon Repos, Dad and I wandered around the now wild gardens, agreeing that it wasn’t hard to imagine generations of children running free along winding pathways amongst established, European trees with views across the Ionian Sea flanked by tall pencil pines.
Towards the end of our time on Corfu, we sailed to the tiny island of Paxos for a day trip. On our way home that afternoon I gazed out to the horizon, one that holds a future not yet known to anyone, perhaps not even a cross – legged man on the edge of the Ganges.
As we approached Corfu at dusk, I sat between my parents (quite literally my oldest friends), and contemplated the words of Lawrence Durrell who described Corfu as ‘this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian with waters like the heartbeat of the world itself’.
When it comes to understanding tomorrow, I quite like the idea of relying on the ocean, nature, history, beauty, friendship and laughter – all of which I’ve been delivered in spades during two and a half incredibly special weeks.