Now’s the time to welcome Greeks bearing gifts, John Phillips finds during a trip to Corfu.
Silence fell around our table as the tiny Greek lady in black approached the fence between her market garden and the patio at our holiday flat in Corfu… Was she going to complain about the noise?
No – with a white smile breaking across her olive face, she thrust two giant, juicy cucumbers into our hands and walked away.
“Efkaristo,” we shouted in thanks.
“Parakalo,” she waved back: ‘you’re welcome’, in Greek.
And welcome you certainly are in Greece these days, as the incident with the cucumbers proved. By the end of the holiday, Mrs P, our daughter and son-in-law and I left the island marvelling at how much a country so in debt was still prepared to give to others without counting the cost.
We’d chosen the resort of Agios Georgios (South) – note the brackets: there’s an Agios Georgios (North), with an unwanted 60 mile round bus trip waiting for the unwary tourist – for its perfect beach where the sea is so still and clear that sometimes the water looks golden until it gently slips into away into blue.
The plan was to mend the Greek economy: Mrs P would address the retail sector while I grappled with the issue of liquidity in the bar, and we had been promised by the Greek Tourism Minister that this year that our experience would be better than ever.
And we found that in exchange for our Euros, the Greeks are offering holidays that leave you quids in.
As Chancellor of our little economy, Mrs P had budgeted 12 Euros a day for two sun-beds – only to find that this year on the bit of beach run by the wonderful Angelique Skolariki at Agios Georgios, they were only five.
Armed with the change, I set off for a coffee, smugly noting that in the next sector of the beach the sunbeds were six Euros. The lady in the coffee shop pointed out, however, that if I’d used her sunbeds, the first coffees were free.
Reporting back with this insider info from the sun-bed stock exchange, Mrs P trumped it with the revelation that Angelique offered not just discount on all drinks and food, she would deliver them to the beach, too!
She was making good the Tourism Minister’s promise that this most hospitable of people would be even more welcoming than ever before.
The blonde and beautiful Angelique adopted our family in much the same way that Spiros adopted the Durrells in “My Family and Other Animals”, which, if you’ve never read the book, is another Corfu-related treat awaiting you.
Hire cars, advice on trips, translations – even a full-sized builder’s spade when attempts by my daughter to bury me up to my neck in sand looked doomed to failure – were all effortlessly organised by this Greek goddess of the beach, making the difference between a good holiday and a genuine experience.
Corfu may no longer be the completely undisturbed paradise which turned the young Gerald Durrell into a leading naturalist, but it is still one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean.
Agios Georgios contains no architectural delights, but Angelique’s beach is a perfect centre for the lazy days, while the resort is well-placed for excursions.
Hiring a car is great way to see the island. We started with the splendour of Corfu Town, laid out in part by Napoleon’s Grande Armee as a European mainland city, surrounded by a maze of atmospheric Greek alleyways and squares.
The British put two fingers up to the French by slapping a cricket pitch right in front of their magnificent colonnades, now packed with restaurants and bars, and Corfu hit a six by giving us in return the gloriously irascible Duke of Edinburgh, who was born on the island.
A short drive takes you to Paleokastritsa, an up-market resort which has grown around a series of mountainous coves with bright sandy beaches in a deep blue sea. Topping it all is a whitewashed monastery where Harry Potter meets Byzantium, as nearly every monk’s cell is reached by its own bridge radiating from the church.
Driving back through Corfu’s central plain gives a chance to see rural Greece really close up – so much so that in some villages the little old ladies sitting in front of their houses have to move their chairs to let you pass!
If you want to go further afield, a boat which leaves from “Behind George’s Bike Hire” at Agios Georgios will take you – passing dolphins if you are as lucky as we were – to Paxos, where you can sip coffee in the millionaire’s playground of Lakka while you choose your next yacht.
Greece needs help today - but in return is offering more than ever, which a wood turner demonstrated in his shop in the middle of nowhere. We had stopped so Mrs P could stock up on olive wood salad bowls, little boxes for presents and picture frames.
But in a fit of restraint which brought gasps from the rest of the family, she put back on the shelf a beautifully carved wooden Christmas tree ornament.
The shopkeeper waited until we were about to leave – and gave her the bauble with a little smile.
“Efkaristo,” we said.
“Parakalo,” he replied.
You’re welcome – very welcome, in Greece today.