Aug 31, 2014

Limoncello for mastique in Ioanian islands

Kerri caves in Zakynthos.

Bridge to Agios Sostis in Zakynthos, Greece.

Our arrival in Athens was so refreshing. As we walked by TVs at the airport, not seeing Erdogan on every channel was already feeling like liberation. Then we started to look for a place to buy tickets to the bus station, an old man approached us in Turkish. For someone who migrated to Greece 50 years ago from Istanbul, he spoke amazingly well. His reply: "We are the children of the Ottomans, we are Istanbulian". His strong identification with his homeland struck me since he ended up selling lottery tickets at his 70s with barely any teeth in his mouth. Indeed, no matter how Western-forward looking, the Republic of Turkey was a nation state that barely left any breathing space for minorities like him while quiet contrary the Ottomans were in the end a multicultural empire. It seems that no matter what I did, I could not avoid politics in the land of polis and politics. Next, our taxi driver turns out to have lived in New York City, he tells us with his perfect English that he has no political hope for his country. In fact, these men were the epitomes of the crisis ridden, staid Athens. Even on a Saturday, stores were empty and full with for sale/rent signs. Let alone new buildings not being seen, people do not even have new cars. It is like the city is frozen in the 1990s.  

Navago Bay from the top, Zakynthos.

There are various versions as to how the shipwreck
landed here at Navago Bay, Zakynthos.

After this depressing sight, the vibrancy of the Ioanian -the Italian- islands of Greece make a good start for vacation. You should forget about the white and blue typical Greek thing here. Even the names of the islands are Italian like Zante for Zakynthos and Corfu for Kerkyra not to mention Italian delicacies being cooked also well. To get to Zakynthos, taking the bus instead of the flight is not only cheaper but also provides a great opportunity to pass through the Corinth Canal and see the southern shores of the Ioanian Sea dotted with summer houses and cypress and olive trees. After a six hours drive, we arrived at Killini to cross to Zakynthos. It is a huge island so renting a car is a good idea and beware of package tourist filled beaches such as Laganas. This is also where the party crowd is and the main street is filled with Bodrum style clubs and bars. At the same time, the boat trips to see the sea turtles and the Kerri caves also depart from here. If you want some peace and quiet, stay in the southeastern part of the island in Vassilikos like we did. 

A caretta caretta at Laganas, Zakynthos.
Picture: Sinan Güngör.
Corfu looks a little bit like its close neighbor Dubrovnik.
Picture: Sinan Güngör.

Zakynthos is home to one of the most known beaches in Greece: Navagio beach (the Shipwreck Bay). It is in the Northwest part of the island and if you get lost like we did, it might take up to two hours to get to. Nevertheless, the mountain villages of the island make it worth the trip. On the top of the hill where one can take pictures of the bay, there is an incredible line under the burning sun. Unless you are a pro photographer, skip the line and take a shot from the sides. Although the view and the color of the sea look pretty amazing, the spot is packed with tourists. In order to access the beach itself, you will need to go down to Vromi and take a boat. Once you are at the beach, forget about a peaceful stay since there is constant boat approaches and people arriving and leaving. Also, swimming is not that nice since the limestone that gives the sea its incredible blue renders it low visibility. Note that there is not even a single spot to buy any water or drinks. 

The Esplanade in Corfu town is full of people after sunset.

The food on Zakynthos island is great with usual Greek goodies but try the island rabbit that is cooked with local herbs. If you are in the southeastern side of the island, on the main road Taverna Agnati is superb. And do not be suprised at the Italian touches after dinner such as being served limoncello as appetizer. And for the after hour partying, overlooking Zante town, go to "the Island". 

Catholic outside, notice the tower of the church,
Orthodox inside, Corfu, Greece. 
Kanoni can be spotted from the air
if you are arriving to Corfu by plane.

Of the "Italian islands", the most mixed is probably Corfu, given also the fact that it remained the only Greek soil that did not fall under Turkish occupation. In fact, the Italian -Venetian- influence is very strong starting on the mainland close to Patras, not to mention the islands, even the churches look Catholic from the outside although they are clearly Orthodox inside. Despite the clear Italian influence, Corfu was the place for artists and writers not only of Greek origin as the signs on many houses attest. Its charms are today enjoyed by many more today given its proximity to the Balkans. Indeed, there are many Serbs, Albanians (right across the island), Roumanians and Slovenes that add to the mix and in a way revive who ever has left its prints on the island from the Brits to Russians and French and the Venetians. Its great climate definitly must have contributed to this: it is not burning hot like the Aegean islands and is very green.

Views from Corfu town.

Corfu is huge and is preferebly enjoyed with a car but in the town itself parking and one way streets can be a problem especially in the high season. You should spend some time in Corfu town and enjoy the architecture, the fort and dining in the old establishments such as Rex (fancy great) and Chrisomalis (not fancy, old school great) and newcomers like la Famiglia. Again, these places serve traditional goodies (fish soup) as well as fine Italian ones. For breakfasts -difficult to find- try the le Petit Fleur. Once you are in town, visit also Kanoni, only 1 km from the town. After that, you should try beaches of the island according to your preferences. We mostly stayed in northern and western parts of the island.

Corfu Promenade has romantic views in the evenings.

Glifada and Paleokastritsa are both very nice beaches. However, my favorites were in the northeast of Kerkyra: Kouloura and Kalami where the Durrell House (owned by Durrell brothers Lawrence and Gerard) stood. These are also spots where you can see Albania. In fact, daily tours to Saranda and surroundings are availabale everyday from Corfu town. But then one wonders, it is so peaceful and tasteful here, why bother?

A house in Kouloura, Corfu island, Greece.

Corfu fort, Greece.

Durrell House in Kalami, Corfu.

Special thanks to Sinan Güngör for his important contribution: remembering restaurant names.