Article on The Times (2006)

Greece and the Balkans all in a day

Mike Gerrard takes time out from Corfu for a day trip to Albania

Liston CorfuWE HAVE come to one of the most mysterious countries in Europe, and someone walks off the boat in front of me with a Morrison’s carrier bag. Just add it to the strangeness of a land where a shake of the head means yes and dolls dangle from new houses to ward off evil spirits.

“This terminal building wasn’t here ten years ago,” my wife says, having made the trip from Corfu once before. “It wasn’t here three weeks ago,” our guide replies.

A decade ago, Albania was a popular day trip from Corfu, but then the Balkans went to war and the drawbridge was pulled up, although Albania was never directly involved. But for those who want an easy taste of southern Albania, you can once again take a trip across the water from nearby Corfu.

“The shortest distance between Corfu and Albania is 2km (about a mile and a quarter),” our guide tells us. Ben Cipa is Albanian, but has lived in Corfu for the past 15 years and now runs Sipa Tours — having decided that a company name that sounded like “Cheaper Tours” wasn’t ideal. “When the borders closed, people in pedalos would drift too close to Albania and the police would come in boats firing guns into the air, and that quickly had them pedalling back.”

We’ve come by the more conventional hydrofoil from Corfu Town and are soon driving through scenery that has us open-mouthed: lush green plains with a river on one side of us and a canal on the other. We zig-zag up into the mountains where Judas trees line the road, turning from pink to green in their contradictory way — just right for Albania, which is full of contradictions.

We spend a few hours in Butrint, one of the Med’s most important archaeological sites and now a national park. There is evidence of occupation by Neolithic tribes, Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans and Venetians, among others, all quite unspoilt and much less crowded than similar places in Greece.

The old town of Gjirokaster, with its cobbled streets, is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and here we visit the castle and the grand mansion where the dictator Enver Hoxha was born, now an Ethnographic Museum. Except that he wasn’t born there as the house burnt down and has been rebuilt since, but our museum guide points out the room that he was — and yet wasn’t — born in.

“It’s always good to find a reason for visiting Corfu Town,” writes Emma Tennant in Corfu Banquet, and, back from our Albanian side trip, I agree. I love this meze of a place that offers Venetian buildings and a taste of Paris’s rue de Rivoli next to a cricket pitch. Inside a British palace is one of the finest collections of Asian art in Europe.

Including our side trip to Albania, seven days isn’t nearly enough time to explore all Corfu Town’s nooks and crannies, or to eat in all its restaurants and see its excellent museums, but we’re going to give it a go.

On previous visits I’ve stayed in hotels, but this time we’ve taken Dora’s House for a week. It is a tall, private apartment hidden down a narrow side street beside the Cavalieri Hotel, with several flights of steps to get from room to room. At least there’s a couch and chairs on the balcony where we can recover from the stairs and enjoy the views.

And what views! A hundred yards in front of us are the waters of Garitsa Bay, to the left is the New Fortress (which was begun in 1572) and beyond that the Ionian Sea. In the distance are the mountains of mainland Greece. In the hot sun, under a blue sky and with a glass of chilled white from the fridge, the ache of the 4am check-in soon eased, and we had enough energy to explore the local shops and buy yoghurt, honey, beer and more wine.

Most mornings we take in a museum. The new Palaiopolis Museum, an impressive display of the history of the area, is in Mon Repos, the house where the Duke of Edinburgh was born. Its wild and wooded grounds are so lovely that we walk through them twice.

The Byzantine Museum has a new annexe, though the core of the collection remains in the atmospheric 16th-century church of the Panagia Antivouniotissa, the church of the Blessed Virgin. Here icons gaze at you across the centuries, including the work of Michael Damaskinos, who was the first to give figures and faces a more rounded and realistic look. Two more powerful works by Damaskinos, The Stoning of Stephen and The Decapitation of John the Baptist, are in Corfu’s Municipal Art Gallery, housed in the Palace of St Michael and St George.

This is small, as palaces go, with only three of the state rooms open to peek in, but they’re impressively grand. You think of the banquets that must have been held here when the British “protected” Corfu for 50 years in the early 19th century. It is the Museum of Asian Art in the east and west wings, though, that make the palace a must. The core of the collection is a mind-boggling 10,500 pieces, amassed by a Corfiot diplomat, Gregorios Manos. He handed them to the state in 1927, and the following year died in poverty, having spent all his money on these glorious items.

The Manos Collection includes Samurai armour from the Han Dynasty, 206BC to AD202, 17th-century Chinese porcelain vases and Hindu wood carvings. The displays are beautifully lit and information panels are in Greek and English. In room after exquisite room, the colours become brighter as the centuries roll by. I’ve never seen porcelain with blues so blue, such rich turquoises, such a deep green.

After this feast for the eyes we’re in need of sustenance, and it’s not far to Ninos, the best grill in town and thoroughly Greek. The house wine is poured from a water cooler in the corner, a TV blares, but no one is watching and a painting of Christ regards the scene from over the door, as if giving it his blessing. The souvlaki is certainly divine, and with a pitcher of wine (OK, two) we still spend less than a tenner. Yes, it’s always good to find a reason for visiting Corfu Town.

Mike Gerrard and his wife Donna Dailey are the authors of the Spiral Guide to Corfu (AA Publishing, 2006).

Need to know

Mike Gerrard travelled to Corfu with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7788, www.tapestryholidays.com). One week in Tritsi’s House in northeast Corfu is from £774, including return flights to Heathrow, fuel surcharges, and Jeep hire.

A seven-night stay at the four-star Cavalieri Hotel (www.cavalieri-hotel.com), costs from £544pp, with Sunvil Specialist Greece (020-8758 4747; www.sunvil.co.uk), including B&B, return flights from Gatwick and transfers (Birmingham and Manchester departures are £25 extra). Ninos is at Sevastianou 44 in the Old Town.

Reading: Corfu (Rough Guides, £6.99).

To visit Albania from Corfu, see: www.sipatours.com.

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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