Friday, October 8, 2010

Adventure in Corfu

Saturday, 02 October

Hints from Helen:

Learn to drive a car with a manual shift before you rent a car in Europe.  And/or practice with one in a large, empty lot to refresh your skill before you come here.  Some places don’t have cars with automatic shifts, and even if they do, manual shifts cost less. 

Rent as small a car as you comfortably can.  You’ll be glad you did.

We were up at 6:30 and in the breakfast room of the hotel by 7:15.  We had planned to leave by 7:40 to find David and Julia’s cruise ship and position ourselves at the end of whatever walkway they would be using, but we didn’t notice the time again until Demetrios’ watch said 7:50.

We hurried out to the parking lot and got into the car and I started it – and then made the awful discovery that it was a manual shift.  I hadn’t driven a manual shift car in over 20 years.  I wasn’t even sure any more which pedal was the brake and which, the clutch. 

Demetrios hadn’t driven a manual shift car in about 30 years.  And he didn’t have his driver’s license with him, either.  But there was no choice; I was thoroughly panicked.  And David had been emphatic:  in their years of cruising, he and Julia had learned that to rely upon public transportation was a big no-no.  Their ship would sail at 4:00, with or without them, and they must be back aboard by 3:30 and at least 10 minutes had to be allotted for them to walk from the waterfront through the terminal building and out the walkway to the ship.

“I can do it,” said Demetrios, climbing in behind the wheel.  We buckled ourselves in and he started the car, which immediately stalled.  He started it again, grated it into reverse, and we rocketed out of the parking spot and stalled again.  He started the car again, and it jumped forward.  He slammed on the brake; the car stalled. 

We had a map, but most of the streets weren’t labeled.  We didn’t know how to get to the port; we only had a general idea:  it’s on the waterfront to our left.  So Demetrios drove in that direction, the first time he had ever driven in Greece (which is to say, amid Greek drivers!); and we moved slowly, jolting along about 100 meters at a time before having to re-start the engine.  Whenever this happened, people behind us would honk impatiently.

 “It’s two minutes until eight,” said Demetrios as we neared the harbor.  “We’re competing with the Queen!”  That’s a standing joke of ours, as Queen Elizabeth is known for her exact punctuality – and Demetrios isn’t.

“We’re losing,” I said as the car leapt to a stop. 

The Star Princess  was perfectly obvious, even from a distance, by far the biggest vessel in port, not a floating hotel but a floating city, population 2,600 passengers plus 1,300 crew.

 “Look, two warships, too,” said Demetrios. 

The car shuddered to a halt in front of the water. Never mind; in a few moments, David would be driving.  David’s own car has a manual shift; he is well used to it.  I climbed out to find him and Julia while Demetrios went in search of a place to park.

Julia and David saw me getting out of the car, and were coming toward me, all smiles, when Demetrios spotted us.  Hasty hugs and kisses and we all climbed back in – with Demetrios still behind the wheel.  I had forgotten that David is used to driving on the other side of the road.  And that his manual shift is operated with the left hand. 

“Never mind,” said Demetrios as the car lurched forward and stalled, “I think I’m getting the hang of it.” 

We decided the first place to go was the Achilleion.  It’s a summer palace built by the Austro-Hungarian Empress, Elizabeth, who for some absurd reason was known as “Sissy.”  (Would you allow yourself to be called that if you were an empress?  No, you wouldn’t!)

Anyway, this Empress admired Achilles, that great Homeric hero, so she named her residence after him, and there are two statues of him there, one of him victorious (over Hector) and the other of him wounded in the heel and dying.  Both are quite good, as are all the other statues about the courtyard, graceful Muses.

The gardens are lovely and go all the way down to the sea. There are azaleas in bloom (!) and laurel, also in bloom, and smelling of (what else?) bay leaves.

Inside, there are various items that belonged to dear Sissy, and some that belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who bought the place after she had been assassinated. 

Sissy, by the way, was succeeded by her nephew, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Yes, the one who was assassinated at Sarajevo, sparking World War I. 

(Well, you know, oppress people and you have to expect them to try to assassinate you.  That’s part of the job description.  Call it your occupational hazard.)

After the Achilleion, we decided simply to drive through the southern part of the Island (since we were already south of town) and see what was to be seen. 

What the map calls main roads are back country roads.  Yes, they are paved, and yes, most of them could be construed as having two lanes, although I don’t know what we would have done if we had encountered a tour bus coming the other way.  The roads are narrow, steep, and twisty; and most of them lack guard rails.   Their chief advantage is the lack of other drivers, other people being less, um, less adventurous, shall we say, than we.

So along these roads we went lurching along.  To be fair, Demetrios, although still was driving in a foreign country in an unfamiliar car along unknown roads, really was beginning to get the hang of it by now.  He was greatly assisted, of course, by three backseat drivers.  (I remember at one point, as he was backing up toward I forget what, a lamp post or a steep drop-off or something, saying, “Stop!  STOP!” and finally screaming, “STOP!”

“One of these times, you are going to cause me to have a serious accident,” said Demetrios, jerking the car forward. 


We drove through shady slopes covered with olive trees, ancient ones.  The Venetians had a policy about planting olive trees; there had to be a certain number planted every year, and that number was in proportion to the population.  They wanted to supply all of Venice’s olive oil and then some. 

Every once in a while David, bracing himself against the dashboard as we bumped along, would say something like, “Well, we’ve all had good lives,” or “This really isn’t a bad way to go.” 

Perhaps because the tens of thousands of olive trees I’ve seen until now were younger and cultivated, I never realized what a wild olive tree’s trunk looks like.  It resembles a dozen ropes thicker than your arm, all twisted together and leaving lots of gaps. 

We got lost once or twice, and were very glad of it, because each time, we found ourselves in a picture postcard village with whitewashed houses, balconies overflowing with bougainvillea, palm trees, a maze of sunny little streets.

We stopped for coffee at a little place on a hill overlooking the sea.  We sat under a canopy of vines and watched the sparkling sea and thoroughly enjoyed just being there, and being together.  And not driving.  David said, and I agree, this spot was so lovely it was worth the whole trip.

Keeping a sharp eye on the clock, we headed back to town.  We found a spot to eat that was literally in sight of the Star Princess and had moussaka and relaxed and talked until time to take Julia and David back to their boat. Well, we relaxed more or less; I’m not sure David really did until he was back aboard the ship.

Too bad, they said, that visitors are no longer allowed aboard.  Yes, indeed.  We would have loved to see that cruise ship from the inside.  But in these post 9/11 times, that can’t be done.

When they had gone, there were still three hours before we had to return our hired car.  So when Demetrios asked what I’d like to do next, I said if he wasn’t too tired of driving, I’d like to see some of the northern part of the island.  That’s where Durrell lived and played as a boy.  Demetrios wanted to see it, too, because he’d heard of its beauty.

The northern part of the island is steeper than the southern.  The other main difference is, it has goats.  In the road.  I was so grateful Julia and especially David didn’t have to experience that!

But we were no longer frightened; Demetrios really was driving well by this time.  We meandered up the coast, admiring various villages and beaches.  The mountains of Albania are visible “in the background,” I think Durrell wrote.  Well, not in the background; at one point, Albania is only a mile away.  I can see now why his mother used to let him go sailing around this coast in his little boat, all alone, exploring the sun-drenched coves and beaches.  It isn’t as if there were any open water or any waves.  Again, it was all as I had imagined it from his description, which shows what a good writer he was, and all just as charming.

We got as far as Kassiopi before we had to turn back.  I had wanted to go a little further, to Lake Antonioti, because Durrell described it as an almost magical place; and today it is still an important wildlife refuge.  But our time ran out, so we picked up two small rocks from the Ionian shore, dabbled our hands in the water so we could say we had, then watched a while before turning back. 

A whole school of fish jumped out of the water as we were watching.  They were little silver fish, and they jumped in about a three-foot arc, their bodies making a shimmering spray in the sunlight.  It was beautiful, and we’ve never seen anything like it before.

Back in Corfu City, we found a parking spot along the Spianada and went back to our hotel for a rest before supper.

Supper was a shared pizza, small but still too much for both of us after our big lunch.  It wasn’t very good, but never mind.  It’s all part of the adventure, we said.  (You know what an “adventure” is, don’t you?  It’s something that while it’s still in progress, you call a nightmare but after it’s over, when you’re retelling the story, it becomes an adventure.  Except that it couldn’t be that much of a nightmare if you’re with David and Julia and/or if you’re in Corfu!)  

We wandered among the tourist shops for a while without buying anything and then, very tired, turned in early – still laughing at the thought of how David would describe this day to his sons.


Chocolatesa said...

I remember I loved reading Gerald Durrell's books when I was a kid. I'd dream of doing all the stuff he did, I always loved nature and critters. That's so cool that you actually got to go there!

Sbd. Benjamin Harju said...

You sound like you're having a wonderful time. I'm glad I checked in to read of your adventures.