Amsterdam for a day… Corfu Greece revisited
The day we flew to Amsterdam, I made myself one of the worst cappuccinos and regardless of me being a worldly, educated and independent woman, I am superstitious. Before we even left Schiphol airport, I had lost my designer prescription sun glasses and left my iPhone, I hoped, at the information desk. The Dutch, polite and honest folk, had tried to find us and then taken the phone to lost and found.
Wondering what else awaited us on this trip, we found out when we arrived at our three star hotel. Located in a Turkish, Moroccan neighborhood, thirty minutes by tram from the center, it appeared to have been converted from an old office building into a $100 a night hotel. The lobby reminded me of a YMCA and our eight euro breakfast was served in a grey, badly lite cement church like basement. I doubt if I need to comment on the food. The building had 4 floors but only the first two were the hotel. The rooms, at least forty on each floor, down a sliver of a hallway, were modern, immaculate and tiny. It was difficult to even open the bathroom door.
Our dining choices were limited. There were Turkish restaurants and more Turkish restaurants and lots of meat. The Turkish tea,served in the traditional small glasses and the baklava were the highlight of the meal. We found out from the desk clerks, young, cute and Latvian, that there were several mafias in the neighborhood.
Our one day in Amsterdam was wet, the rains had begun. The MOCO museum, I guessed a takeoff from MOCA in Los Angeles, had an exhibition of pop art, highlighting Banksy. The museum building was originally the Villa Allsburg until 1939. This was the home of a Jewish family, who had been wise enough to leave the Netherlands before the Nazis arrived. Amsterdam, for me, has lost a lot of its charm. The center is so full of chain stores, tacky bars, mobs of tourists and lots of buses and trams, so we looked for some place away from the chaos. Since it was the last day of Rosh Shoshana , I thought it might be a good idea to find a synagogue and say a prayer. We decided to go to the Portuguese Sephardic synagogue in time for the last service.After walking around the building several times ,and finally seeing a sign, closed for the High Holidays, we realized it was a museum, not used as a synagogue.
Our first and last full day in Amsterdam over, we prepared for our 6 am flight to Corfu. Since we were still jet lagged, getting up at 3:30 am was for the first time in my life, no big deal. Tourism is still in all its glory even in October. It was 4:30 am and the airport was like rush hour in New York City. Our $55 flight to Corfu was worth every dollar, but don’t expect a free drink of water.
For all you Americans fed up with the U.S., the EU now demands an international drivers’ license if you want to rent a car. The Greek car rental waited until the day we flew out to share this fact. But as with almost everything in life these day, we found a site online, e-its.org, that offered an international drivers’ license in 30 minutes. After much downloading and cursing, Yana finally received her license. PIcked up by the rental car agency at Corfu airport, we had finished all the paper work for the car rental, when Yana pulled out her wallet and realized she had grabbed her expired license. The promise was kept and in 30 minutes, adding $20 for express rush, I had my international drivers license.
We drove around the entire town and seafront, through narrow alleys and one way streets in our mini Nissan micra looking for parking, competing with the jumbo tour buses, and rude drivers. Finally after almost giving up, we found a spot and kept the car there until we left the next day. The lesson we learned about Airbnb apartments in Corfu town is anything is called an apartment.
Our Airbnb host asked us to meet her at the church of Saint Spyridon. True believers and tourists were flocking in and out of the church and Yana was almost mowed over by an Orthodox priest. After going in and out of every door of the church, we finally found her. The apartment was in the center of the old city, up several flights of a steep, 2ft wide, uneven stone stairwell. Not recommended for basketball players or the elderly, we actually had 2 bedrooms. If you like hot water, it was a scalding surprise.
Corfu town is one big shopping mall between 10 am and 10 pm. When I began thinking about the lives of most of these people, 6 days a week,12 hours a day, selling stuff; food, souvenirs, fur coats, every type and price of clothing, always depending on tourists for their livelihood, I realized again how lucky I had been in my life.Before sundown we decided to browse the markets and the sea front in Corfu town. We ended up at the old Palace which had become the museum of Asian art, a building I had never stepped foot in during all the time I had lived in and visited Corfu. There were exquisite textiles and rugs from Central Asia, but I was more interested in chatting with the women who worked in the museum. Middle aged, they both had lived in Corfu most of their lives, raised two children each, one was a widow, the other still married. But they had few opportunities in their lives working as civil servants. During the financial crisis in Greece, the government cut pensions and wages 50%. The only industry unscathed was tourism on the islands. The mainland ,especially Athens ,has suffered the most. Unfortunately, except for the lucky people like myself who traveled here in the 1970’s, tourism has destroyed the landscape and the once pristine beaches.
So to escape the masses, we decided to stay up in one of the old villages on the west side of the island. The reviews on Airbnb were outstanding, the photos intriguing and the price $50 a night for a 2 bedroom home sealed the deal. Following in our rental car, after driving on curves, dirt roads and up mountains, we finally arrived at an almost deserted village. Entering the house was the biggest shock, a tiny room the size of a kitchen, a bathroom the size of a broom closet and two bedrooms at the top of steep stairs. The WiFi did not work and the stone walls of the house were so thick, my phone’s data was non existent. Plus thunder and lightning storms and a down pour that could wash a car off the mountain all night. When we opened the door in the morning there was not human insight.
The next day we moved down to Agios Gordios, the tourist town where we could finally take a shower. The family, a 65 year old mother and 40 + daughter who owned the small hotel, were barely surviving but when we left, they bought each of us a bottle of jam as a gift. The highlight of our stay in the village was an outstanding meal at Sebastian’s and my impromptu lesson to the owner and waiters on espresso coffee and machine maintenance.
Off the beaten path
Part 2. Travels on Corfu
We were blessed with Indian summer weather in Corfu; I had wired ahead so they knew we were coming. A lovely renovated house in the upper village of Vatos, provided each of us with our own bedroom and bathroom. A must have in Corfu is a rental car; the best beaches are at the bottom of mountains, down semi drivable roads. Before leaving for Vatos, we spent 2 nights in Agios Gordis. The highlight of our stay was our dining experience for two nights at Sebastian’s, one of the best on the island. That was where i had given my espresso machine maintenance lesson to the staff.
Against my better judgement, I agreed to go down to this once pristine beach, now transformed into something resembling the package tour holiday hotels for Canadaians in Varadero, Cuba. Being early October, there were more umbrellas and beach chairs on the beach than people. As I walked down to one end of the beach, I chatted with an English tourist staying at the large,luxurious looking hotel behind us. I assumed the rooms were expensive, being beach front with a huge swimming pool but the couple had paid 850 euros for the week, including meals and all the drinks they could consume. Luckily for the hotel, they didn’t look like alcoholics.
There was no sweltering sun enticing me to take a swim, the air temperature was only 76F. But how could I be on a Greek island, sitting on a not too clean beach and not take a swim. My fearless friend was jumping the waves; the best I could do was wade up to my knees. I was saving my first swim for Myrtiotissa, the nude beach in Corfu, where I lived for several summers in the seventies and returned to over the years.
The last time I was in Corfu was 2008, when I came to visit my ex mother-in -law before she died. The beach hadn’t changed much, still lots of nude men and woman of all ages and shapes. The incursion of a tiny bar selling drinks and renting beach chairs was a bit disheartening. But returning to Myrtiotissa the other day, I was shocked to find the sea had encroached the beach, until it was barely one third of its original size and the stairs down to the beach were 2 ft wide, uneven, and steep. Not a deterrent to nude bathers, we climbed down to find my special beach so crowded with naked bodies, that we could barely find a place to sit. I hate crowded beaches but I had to take a swim in the calm, turquoise blue sea. That had not changed, but I knew this was probably my last visit to Myrtiotissa.
The next morning I went down to the taverna where I had begun my cooking career, to visit Spiros, 93 and Maria 85, now retired, who had adopted all of us as family during those wonderful years 1973-1976 living in Vatos. Such a wonderful moment, visiting them again and in the evening, when I walked into the taverna, their daughter Thespina, who I had known since she was 12 years old, now in her fifties, called out lois “is that you”. Thespina then pointed at the guy sitting at the bar, “ Lois remember Tim.”. It took me awhile to search the face, we all looked younger in 1973. But when he showed me a picture of his brother and himself on the beach in 1971, his eyes suddenly matched with the photo. Greece was still parochial in the seventies so when his brother Chris was caught smoking marijuana, he spent a year in a Greek jail. This had been our main topic of conversation then.
Thespina, glamours now, had married, had 2 children, and luckily didn’t have to divorce since her husband, died of a heart attack at age 40 something. I had heard that he drank too much and had angry management problems. She and her sister and her sister’s grown son and daughter, ran the taverna and watched over their aging parents. The 4 month summer season was always full, so they all lived quite well.
The Greek Islands survive on tourism, but life becomes unbearable between June and September. The beaches are wall to wall people and umbrellas, the roads,especially into Corfu town, resemble parking lots. Even now in mid October, driving into town there is always a traffic jam. The most evil vehicle on the road is the jumbo tourist bus, filled with so many less than adventurous people.
The joy of traveling for me is connecting with the locals, finding out about their lives, sharing personal stories and experiencing the culture. I am fortunate to speak several languages and Greek is opening up many doors. Especially when we crossed over by boat to Saranda in Albania.