Tracking down the former haunts of Corfu’s most famous English expatriates takes you into a Corfu far removed from the island’s package resorts. The Durrells lived on the island from 1935-39, as immortalised by Gerald Durrell in My Family and other Animals, and in the more literary works of his elder brother Lawrence.
Gerald, at 10, was the youngest when the family arrived in Corfu. With brothers Leslie and Lawrence – or Larry, as Gerald called him – sister Margo and their widowed mother, the Durrells lived a comically adventurous life in what was then an unspoiled backwater.
People in Corfu still remember them. Spiros Halikiopoulos, for example, the grandson of “Spiros Americanos”, the taxi driver who became the Durrells’ guide and mentor, grew up listening to tales of his grandfather’s larger-than-life exploits, and of his devotion to the English family.
The Halikiopoulos home lies at Kanoni, a once-quiet suburb of Corfu Town which now overlooks the runway of the international airport. Although mass tourism has defiled parts of Corfu’s coastline, much of the island remains unspoiled. Cricket matches – a legacy of British rule – still take place on the town square, which is flanked by graceful colonnades modelled on the Rue de Rivoli and built by the French during their own brief occupation. Even today, you sense the eccentric appeal of this verdant, quirky island.
The three houses occupied by the Durrells are still private homes. The Strawberry-Pink Villa has been completely rebuilt and bears little resemblance to the original, apart from its colour. The “Snow-White Villa” lies hidden among narrow lanes and dense foliage at nearby Cressida, and visitors can only glimpse it from the road. But at the Durrell’s third home, the “Daffodil-Yellow Villa”, you really can sense the ghosts of the past.
This Villa is a Venetian mansion adjacent to the coast road north of Corfu Town. When I arrived the gates were unlocked, and I stole up the driveway to glimpse the house above. With its long driveway, wide veranda and overgrown garden, the house has been left just as it was in the Durrells’ day.
It was easy to imagine Spiro Americanos, voice booming, (“the sort of voice you’d expect a volcano to have,” wrote Gerald) arriving in his ancient Dodge taxi to join the guests at one of the Durrells’ many parties.
The Durrells were rich by Corfu standards, and always generous. The peasant children who came to the house returned home laden with gifts of food and sweets. To the locals, the English family were “gold from Heaven”.
For Gerald, Corfu’s mountainous interior was a giant playground in which he was free to roam. It remains a beautiful garden today, rich in wildlife and flora, threaded by ancient walking trails. I set off into the hills north of Barbati, one of Gerald’s favourite haunts, climbing up into a landscape of deep green hills, criss-crossed by valleys lined with cypresses. Butterflies flitted among the trees; there was the sound of birdsong, and the occasional splash of colour from a wild rose or pyramid orchid.
And, just as Gerald on his rambles encountered many locals, such as the “Rose-Beetle man”, or a “trusty” convict from the prison island of Vido, so I now ran into one – the local beekeeper, who gave me a gap-toothed salute. He was an ancient chap who wore plastic shopping bags on his feet and a flimsy gauze veil for protection, and who shambled around his wooden hives talking to himself.
By late afternoon I was descending to Lake Antiniotissa, “the lake of lilies” where the Durrells often picnicked. Here, on Corfu’s north-east edge, water as flat as glass rippled in the breeze and the sea beyond was a deep cobalt blue.
The north-east, now home to most of Corfu’s upmarket holiday villas, is where Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy chose to live (although Gerald, with artistic licence, has his brother sharing the family home). Larry was a colourful and controversial character (one of his pet theories was that Shakespeare set The Tempest in Corfu, the Bard’s mythical “Sycorax” being a loose anagram of the ancient name for the island, Kerkyra).
Lawrence and Nancy were freethinkers whose uninhibited lifestyle would have been impossible in 1930s England. In Corfu the couple thrived. Visiting writers, such as Henry Miller, would take up residence in their home at Kalami, a former fisherman’s cottage called the White House.
You approach Kalami from the sea, skimming over the deep blue water and into a wide bay that enfolds you like an encircling arm. Cypresses and olives line the hills beyond. To your right are concrete hotels and apartment buildings, the face of modern Corfu. To your left is the White House, now a taverna downstairs and apartments upstairs, rented out by an English villa company, but essentially the same as it was 60 years ago.
Owner Tassos Athinaios is the grandson of the man who first let the property to Lawrence and Nancy in 1935. A shy, smiling man of 34, Tassos remembers Lawrence Durrell’s final visit to Corfu 20 years ago. “He was shocked and angry at all the new building,” says Tassos, pointing to the other side of the bay. “But when we walked to the Shrine together he was much happier. He said it hadn’t changed at all.”
This is the Shrine of St Arsenius, where Lawrence, Nancy and friends swam naked, Larry dropping cherries into the water “clear down two fathoms to the sandy floor where they loom like drops of blood. Nancy has been going in for them like an otter and bringing them up in her lips.” The shrine is a long, hot walk from the White House but a cool, quick ride by boat. From flat white rocks, you can dive into a crystal-clear pool, with the tiny white shrine standing guard above, and no sound apart from the lapping of water and whirring of cicadas.
Heading back to Kalami I stopped for lunch at the neighbouring bay of Agni. Here, three tavernas sit in a deserted cove, the oldest dating back to 1879. You tie your boat up at the wooden jetty and eat at the water’s edge. At Toula’s, the best of the three, an occasional speciality is bourdetto, the “eel meat with red sauce” described by Lawrence, accompanied by plates of mussels and anchovies, or peppers stuffed with feta cheese.
It takes copious amounts of chilled retsina to wash this down – the kind of sybaritic Greek meal, described so well by Gerald, in which the Durrells often indulged.
Afterwards, feeling like a wine cask on legs, you stagger off into the shade clutching one of Toula’s free sunloungers, and take a siesta. Paradise.
But for the Durrells it became paradise lost. The family left Corfu in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The subsequent German occupation of the island was ruthless. Spiros Americanos died heartbroken, asking in a fever for directions to “Henry Miller’s house in New York”.
Lawrence eventually settled in France, where his turbulent emotional life culminated in several broken marriages and the suicide of his daughter Sappho, accompanied by suggestions of incest. He died in 1990.
Gerald, too, never recovered the happiness of his earlier days. The success of his books having put Corfu on the map, he held himself responsible for the tourist invasion of the 1970s and 1980s, and railed against the island’s overdevelopment. He, too, was a troubled character.
Judith Mackrell, an Englishwoman who has lived on Corfu for 30 years, worked for Gerald at his zoo in Jersey. She talked about his battles against alcoholism and depression. “It must have been magical growing up in Corfu at that time,” she says sadly. “But, looking back, it probably wasn’t the best preparation for real life.”
Perhaps not. But at sunset, in a cafe high above Kanoni, I looked across the sea to the Strawberry-Pink Villa. Gerald’s “chessboard fields”, marshlands rich with wildlife, glittered below in the silvery evening light. It was easy to picture a young English boy down there, rambling without a care in the world.
I remembered a comment he made before his death in 1995. “If I could give a child a gift, I’d give him my childhood.”