Slowing down in Corfu

We celebrated one year on the road by taking our longest ‘break’ yet – staying a whole six nights in one place! Katie (my sister) and her husband Andy had invited us to join them for part of their summer holiday in a quiet corner of northern Corfu. A minor children-to-bedrooms counting error meant that there wasn’t quite room for us in the villa, but they weren’t getting rid of us that easily, so we stayed in a very peaceful little studio just down the road and spent our days freeloading from the villa-dwellers.

To be honest, we spent the vast majority of our time on Corfu eating baklava (I wanted Katie to do a guest post on her tasting notes but she kept eating them before we’d had a chance to take a photo!) but we did manage to clean the honey off our sticky paws for long enough to do a couple of activities…

The 14-minute monastery visit

Mum had visited Corfu on a cruise when she was 15 years old and recalled that the view from the Monastery of Paleokastritsa, which is perched on a rocky headland, was absolutely magical. Unfortunately, in the intervening years there has been quite a lot of development along this coastline and it took us rather longer than expected to get there. So, true to form, we screeched into the carpark at 12.46, knowing that the monastery would shut for the afternoon in just 14 minutes. No matter, Oli and I thought – we’ve explored monasteries in literally half this time! It didn’t help that the church and museum had closed early, but we still managed to admire the flower-filled courtyards and see the view down to the turquoise sea below, which was just as gorgeous as billed.

On our way back, we stopped at a viewpoint for an ice cream and an absolutely epic panoramic view of the coastline. Corfu is incredibly mountainous, which does make for some slightly hairy driving conditions, but it is so beautiful as a result.

The boat trip

Last time we were in Corfu (also as a family), we hired a boat for the day and had the most hilariously disastrous time that we still cry with laughter when reminiscing about it. Short of sinking the boat, pretty much everything else went wrong, including losing all the lifejackets off the back of the boat, getting caught in the wind and veering dangerously close to the Rothschilds’ yacht, leaving a crew member behind while a restaurant full of judgy boaty-types looked on, and dredging the harbour with our anchor.

We were roughly evenly split between those who thought we’d come a long way since then (with very little evidence of why this might be, may I say) and those of us who were convinced that our luck would run out this time and we might actually sink the boat.

We set sail from Agios Stefanos with a new captain (Andy – Dad had demoted himself to the rank of Ship’s Dog this time) and headed up the coast to The White House, famous as being the Durrells’ house (of My Family and Other Animals fame).

We still got laughed at by people dining at The White House as we moored there for lunch (but this time for dropping just one life jacket in the sea – they should have seen us last time), but otherwise, the day was glorious and almost incident-free!

The seafood feast

Oli are I aren’t big seafood eaters, but we hate to miss out on local specialities, so we tagged along on an evening expedition to a place simply known as the fish restaurant (at least among us – it turns out it did have an actual name!). There was no menu; instead we were invited into the kitchen to pick from the catch of the day, which would then be prepared for us and served with some simple (read: very generous) side dishes.

Of course, we got totally carried away and selected a genuinely enormous seabass to share, plus a couple of squid just because they looked good.

By the time we’d gorged on the plates of fried whitebait and baskets of fresh bread served with local olive oil that were brought out as a complimentary starter, we were filling up and more than a little apprehensive about what was to come. In the end, though, it was some of the best fish I’ve ever eaten, and between us we very nearly did it justice.

We couldn’t believe it when they told us that the seabass had been prepared with no salt or pepper – it tasted so perfectly seasoned, but we concluded that must have been the salt from the sea doing a great job. When the lovely staff brought us a complimentary dessert (a tenet of Greek hospitality that still somehow takes us by surprise every time), we were in real trouble and there were some very full bellies that evening.

The pool party

William turned six while we were in Corfu, so naturally he had a pool party to celebrate. This included activities such as pin the tail on the donkey (which resulted in no injuries except to the donkey), and a water fight (which resulted in so many injuries to both teams that we had to set up a field hospital).

Unfortunately, the kids’ diving competition had to be cancelled because the adults got slightly carried away by a lilo surfing display. Even though everyone agreed that this was a recipe for disaster, the display continued to chants of “Lilo surf! Lilo surf!” until the lilo had had enough of the abuse and abruptly burst in the pool.

Katie was still lamenting the loss of her new lilo when we realised with horror that it was spilling millions of tiny, sparkly confetti into the pool. The villa’s owner had made very clear that we should be really careful not to put anything into the pool in case the filter blocked, so we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening armed with nets, brooms, sieves, colanders, and (my favourite) a tea strainer trying to clear up the mess we’d made. We actually got most of it, but we all agreed that any undue good fortune we’d had in not sinking our boat a few days ago had well and truly run out today!

The next morning, Oli and I were due to leave, which seemed like excellent timing given the villa’s owner was due to come round for daily pool maintenance and would surely spot the pesky last few pieces of confetti. In the end, he said it wasn’t a problem and instead recounted a tale of how previous guests had deliberately poured spaghetti bolognese into the pool! But by this point, we’d skipped the country and were on a ferry bound for Albania…

Western Europe roundup 🇵🇹🇪🇸🇫🇷🇮🇹

After landing in Lisbon, we travelled 2,825 km over land to reach the port of Ancona. In Spain, we scaled two cathedrals for the price of one in Salamanca and gorged on tapas in Zaragoza, before walking the medieval walls of Girona. In France, we soaked up the atmosphere of Place Royal du Peyrou in Montpellier and sampled a Calisson (or two) in Aix-en-Provence. Finally, in Italy we ate our way through everything Parma had to offer, gawked at some expensive red cars in Maranello, slurped on Tagliatelle al Ragù in Bologna, and explored the gorgeous cobbled streets of Brisighella.

We’d planned our route through southwestern Europe around convenient long-distance train and bus routes. Although these routes tend to connect large cities (like Madrid, Barcelona, Marseille and Nice), we generally passed straight through them in order to leave more time to visit smaller cities and towns. This seemed to give us the best of both worlds, in that many of our stops felt slightly off the beaten track without actually being too time consuming to reach.

Carbon 🚆

Our flight from New York to Lisbon was responsible for 91% of our carbon emissions from this leg of the journey, which is understandable since we did travel further in the air than we did by land.

We normally allocate carbon emissions from international travel to the arrival country, but this didn’t seem very fair on poor old Portugal since we only stayed in the country for one night before heading east into Spain. Instead, this time we’ve distributed the carbon from our trans-Atlantic journey across Portugal, Spain, France and Italy, proportional to how many nights we stayed in each country.

As usual, we’ve offset these emissions through Gold Standard’s Climate+ Portfolio. The offsets from this leg of our journey are helping to fund the construction of a wind farm in Turkey. All of our carbon offsets from the past year are recorded in Gold Standard’s offset registry, along with the various projects that they’ve supported.

Cost 💰

All four countries ranked highly on our spend per day tracker. A key contributor to these totals was our expenditure on transport, since we did travel fairly quickly through these countries (e.g. taking advantage of high-speed rail links). We also distributed the cost of our flight to Lisbon between Portugal, Spain, France and Italy using the same method as for our carbon emissions, which pushed up the transport costs further. In general, though, it felt like we were getting a lot for our money being back in Europe – both food and accommodation was so much cheaper than in the United States.

Cats 🐈

Sadly, the ongoing cat drought continued throughout western Europe, with Portugal receiving the dubious honour of being the first totally cat-free country of our trip so far.

As with the graphs above, Italy’s total reflects the average cats per day across both of our visits to Italy, because let’s face it, people need to know a country’s cat density before planning their next holiday.

🏅Snappiest dresser

It’s no secret that the Italians are a well-dressed bunch, but this black eyeliner, white neckerchief and socks combo blew les chats français out of the water.

🏅Most photogenic spot for a nap

This is already the third photo of Brisighella’s cats to feature on this blog, and we haven’t even started to scrape the barrel. What a little poser!

Having spent nearly a year travelling outside of Europe, we felt like we had a newfound appreciation for its beauty and variety, which we’ve definitely taken for granted in the past. The biggest adjustment was actually mealtimes! But given New York is five hours behind Portugal, the jet lag actually worked in our favour when it came to typical Iberian mealtimes – with lunch occurring mid-afternoon and dinner some time around 9-11pm! And the food was worth staying up for, anyway…

Setting sail for Greece 🇮🇹🛳🇬🇷

From lovely Brisighella, we hopped back onto the rail replacement bus (our favourite) and then a train to reach Ancona, from where we would board our international ferry to Greece.

We’d read that Ancona was a typical port city but that we’d uncover its charms if we just gave it a chance. To be honest, that wasn’t necessary – we passed through this arch even before we’d reached our accommodation and it was a stunning introduction to the city.

With less than 24 hours in town, we headed straight up to the cathedral, which sits atop a cliff overlooking the city. I tried feeding Oli to the lions who were guarding the door, but they weren’t very hungry.

From our vantage point, we had a great view over the old town and the port, but we were particularly taken with the sunset over the shipbuilding yard (romantic)! We could see the components of a huge ship being assembled on the dock and some parts were so large they looked like blocks of flats – it was pretty cool!

The next morning, we headed off on foot to catch our ferry to Corfu, but sadly, this wasn’t the first port we’ve visited that was clearly not built with pedestrians in mind. Eventually, we found a sign that suggested we needed to check in at a building some 20 minutes’ walk away before returning to where we were, but there were no pavements to get there. We were busy Brysoning our way along in the heat when thankfully a passing chap all but ordered us onto a shuttle bus that was running in that direction. The existence of this bus had (literally) passed us by and we were very relieved to enjoy the air conditioning for a few minutes. While checking in, we got our first hint that our ferry might be a little late, but the casualness of the woman’s tone and her lack of apology suggested this wasn’t anything new!

Once we made our way back to the passenger terminal, we headed through security, where an atypically kindly border guard pulled me aside. “Madam,” he said, “There is no ship.” This really made us smile – no ship at all?! He went on to explain where we could wait inside, which wasn’t at all obvious so I’m glad he told us. And sure enough, the ship didn’t appear for quite some hours so we spent most of the day quoting his line. Madam, there is no ship…

Eventually, our ship, the Olympic Champion, docked and we watched the lorries unload painfully slowly, before it was our time to join the utter chaos and attempt to board under the very hot sun.

After a long discussion about which side of the ship we should aim to sit so that we would be in the shade as we sailed south (and some confusion about which end of the ship was the front), we were slightly puzzled to find the sun in our eyes most of the afternoon. So convinced were we about our calculations that we considered whether (a) the ship was sailing in the wrong direction or (b) the sun was setting in the wrong place, before eventually concluding that we are just absolute idiots and had sat on the wrong side.

These crossings are quite the experience, but thankfully we knew what to expect having taken a similar route last summer. Firstly, there are three main ticket types: deck space, airline-style seating and private cabins. Unlike some of the very civilised long-distance ferries we took in Japan and South Korea, getting a cabin this time was way out of our financial reach, costing at least twice the price of an already-expensive deck ticket. But deck tickets really are the wild west – you have to barge your way onto the ship and claim some sleeping space in a mad rush, and there were people laid out on yoga mats, air mattresses and even in tents everywhere (and I mean everywhere – on the open deck, in busy corridors, crammed into stairwells, at the entrance to the restaurant…). So, we went for the middle option, the airline-style seating. This got us a reserved seat in a large lounge full of rows of reclining chairs. The lights remained on and the television was blaring until a frustrated fellow passenger unplugged it around 2am, so it wasn’t exactly a restful night – particularly as we were sat close to a (very popular!) door that led directly out onto the windy deck. Thankfully, our eye masks and noise-cancelling headphones did their jobs and we got at least a bit of sleep.

The next morning, we stood out on deck in the sunshine as the Greek coastline drew closer, before stumbling off the ship in Corfu Town, finding our way through another un-pedestrianised port, and taking a bus across the island. It was time for our Corfu ‘holiday’ to begin! 🏖