Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Narrow, narrower, narrowest

Before setting out on my solo trip to Corfu I had asked some colleagues who had stayed on the island before about the best way to see as much as possible. Most of them recommended renting a car and venturing out on my own, at my own pace and leisure. They all advised me to rent the smallest car possible. Otherwise it would not be possible to penetrate into the heart of the picturesque mountain villages. The country roads are notoriously narrow as in the past only pedestrians and donkey(carts) needed access. 

As driving a car is not my favourite activity, especially not on foreign and unknown ground, I never even considered this option. Dimitris’ taxi service, however, seemed like a nice alternative. And I wasn’t disappointed. 

He took us up into the mountains, along narrow, winding roads, that got narrower by the minute … His driving skills were just amazing. At some point I thought the rear view mirrors of his Mercedes were going to touch the fa├žade of a house. But he cleared it beautifully, without even slowing down! 

Here are some examples of Dimitris’ driving skills. All these photos were taken from the passenger seat of the car.


To be fair, he didn't drive us down these steps ... but only because he didn't want to ruin the car's suspension ...

Saturday, 25 July 2015

On the road with Dimitris - 2

After a brief stop for a photo shoot, with Dimitris volunteering as our photographer, we continued our journey westwards. The scenery was breath-taking and there was a surprise around every corner. At some point, on the side of the winding road, I noticed this pretty – what shall I call it? – ‘construction? – chapel? – elf’s house? … I expected our driver to stop the car to explain what it was and give us the time to shoot a photo.

However, he continued, not even looking at it. I managed to get the above shot through the side window of the car. It’s not a good photo. It’s blurry and the sun is in the wrong place, but for some reason our driver continued without even paying attention to our interest in the ‘object’.

A few seconds later he must have realized that he owed us an explanation. After hearing the story I felt slightly embarrassed for taking the photo. But I’m posting it anyway, because it’s part of Corfu’s tradition and I want to share it with you. Btw, we would never have seen or known this if we had taken one of the regular tourist bus tours. Here’s the story:

When you live in France or elsewhere in Europe, you’ll often see black wooden silhouettes by the side of the road or small crosses with plastic flowers attached to them. They indicate the spots were people have been killed in road accidents. Well these little ‘chapels’ are the Corfu equivalent. But there is more to it. Some of these ‘chapels’ are very elaborate, like the one in the photo. Most of them are very simple though, consisting of a plain wooden box sitting on a stone base. We saw many more of those throughout the day.

They may be different from the outside, but on the inside they all contain the same items: a small icon of the deceased’s patron or favourite saint and a recipient filled with olive oil in which a candle wick is placed and lit. Every time, before the oil runs out, someone comes and refills the recipient to keep the flame alive. In the night people driving past these places, see the light and know that this a dangerous place, where something bad has happened (these are Dimitris’ exact words). It incites them to drive carefully. Dimitris was very emotional when he told us the story, so I guess that he – a third generation taxi driver – must have lost a relative or a good friend, maybe a fellow taxi driver, in a car accident.

Corfu vineyard

We continued our journey in silence, until we reached this beautiful spot: a small orthodox church, with its typical flat bell tower amidst a small vineyard. Although I drank some excellent local white wine during my stay, this is the only vineyard I saw on Corfu. I guess the majority of the vineyards is located in south part of the island. (Note to myself: need to find out the next time I go back!). I didn’t drink any Retsina, the most famous Greek wine, because it isn’t a Corfu product and I wanted to stick to the local produce as much as possible.

The white wine at the hotel was very good. I wasn’t too fond of the red though. I would have liked buying a bottle of two of the white, but I was travelling light, meaning my suitcase was too small to take too many extra items. Moreover, I had read somewhere that the local wines, although very good when consumed ‘sur place’, don’t travel very well …

(more to come) 

Thursday, 23 July 2015

On the road with Dimitris - 1

‘I’ll meet you at your hotel at 9 a.m. You’ll easily recognize me; I have red hair’. That’s the confirmation I received from Dimitris after booking a private 6-hour tour of Corfu Island with his company. The guy definitely had a sense of humour!

When I arrived in the hotel lobby at about 10 to 9, there were several black Mercedes waiting by the entrance. The drivers stood beside their cars, chatting with each other. They all had black or grey hair …

I sat down in one of the comfortable armchairs by the door and waited for my driver to arrive. Five minutes later a tall, slim, well-dressed man with a bright red crew-cut walked up the steps. After a few yards he stopped overlooking the lobby. No mistake possible, this was Dimitris. The green scarf I was wearing – I have used this scarf before to identify myself to people I’m meeting for the first time – caught his eye. His handshake was firm and his smile warm and genuine.

Ropa Valley - Corfu, May 29th.

As my friends were late – they had overslept because they had forgotten to change the time on their alarm clock (8 o’clock in Belgium is 9 o’clock in Corfu) – Dimitris and I had a chance to get acquainted. This wasn’t very difficult as my chauffeur turned out to be very easy going and talkative. In 15 minutes I learnt all about his wife, his three sons, life in his village, … We also discussed our tour. Dimitris suggested an itinerary which was somewhat different from the standard tour described on his website. It was slightly shorter (in distance, but not in time), but included more highlights and more time to stop and take photos. Moreover, it involved less walking and climbing steps, and therefore more comfortable for my elderly friends.

Notice the American flag on the house! While we were taking photos and listening to Dimitris , a man came out of the house and said something to Dimitris. He later explained that the man had family living in the US, and wanted to know whether we were Americans
.. because maybe then we knew his family! 

As soon they arrived, we hit the road, with Dimitris telling us the facts and figures I mentioned in my earlier post. His English was fluent and I had no trouble understanding him. Judging by the questions C. asked me in French, though, I discovered that they were missing out on some interesting information. I therefore suggested acting as an interpreter, a suggestion well received by all parties involved. It gave Dimitris a chance to rest his voice from time to time – talking during 6 hours without interruption (which he intended to do!) can be exhausting, especially if you are driving at the same time and keeping an eye on the road. This way our tour became very interactive …

We drove along the main road for a while, before turning into a country lane leading up into the mountains. There are two mountain ridges on Corfu, one on the west side of the island and one on the east, with in between the Ropa Valley. The highest peak on the eastern ridge and on the island is the Pantokrator (917 metres).

As you can see, the island is very green compared
to other Greek islands which can be very arid.

(more to come)