Corfu (sometimes known as Kerkyra) is the second largest island in the Ionian Sea and is located just off the northwestern coast of Greece. I spent just over two weeks on the island as part of my second HelpX placement. I’m glad I did two placements in Greece, since life and work on an island is very different than life and work on the mainland. Corfu is known as one of the greenest Greek islands due to the high rainfall the island receives. Agriculture and fishing are the main industries, in addition to a huge tourism industry across the island.
First, some history on the island: Corfu was the longest-held overseas possession of the Venetian Empire. The Venetian influence can be seen across the island, with Italian-style architecture, Italian restaurants and two Venetian fortresses framing either side of Corfu Town. The Ionian Islands became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1815, and the British influence can also been seen, most noticeably in the love of cricket that still exists on the island. The island became part of Greece in 1864. During World War II, the island was occupied first by Italian forces and secondly by the Germans before being liberated by the British. It is said that the island is still occupied each summer by Germans and British – but at least now they are paying for the privilege. The island is especially popular for British expats.
The family I stayed with lives about ten kilometers north of Corfu Town. Apostolos and Christina, along with their two kids Stefanos and Daphne were very welcoming and a great family to spend some time with. Going in, the plan was to help out around the farm and help pick olives. However, this year was a bad year for olives and there weren’t many to harvest. There are several different ways that olives are harvested, and in Corfu the majority of olives are harvested by placing large nets under the tree to catch the ripen fruit when it falls naturally. Even though I didn’t end up picking any olives, I had the opportunity to work with the trees and the finished olive oil quite a bit.
The majority of the time, I worked on removing lichen from the branches of the olive trees with steel wool. These lichens must be removed manually so that they do not drain resources away from the olive trees and olives. While considered a “small” grove by most standards, there are about 200 trees – I didn’t get to them all. Also every day I was responsible for helping to feed the cats, goats and chickens at the farm.
On rainy days (of which there were a couple), I helped with filling in labels on the olive oil that was produced with last year’s crop. Each label needed to be filled in with the information on the variety of olives, expiration date and acidity information and then affixed to the bottles. This was olive oil left from last season’s harvest.
Besides working, I had a couple of great opportunities to explore the island. One Sunday I borrowed a bike and biked across the island to the resort town of Ipsos. I hung out here at the beach and read for a little while. Much of Corfu closes down during the off-season from November to mid-April, including shops, restaurants and bars so the town was pretty empty. While I was at the beach on a beautifully sunny 70-something degree day, there were only about five other people. While it was too cold for swimming, I did wade a bit and enjoy the solitude of the beach in the off-season. This was my first taste of how dependent Corfu is on seasonal tourism.
On the last day of my work with Apostolos and Christina, I went across to the western part of the island of Paleokastritsa. Corfu is widely accepted to be the mythical island of the Phaeacians, which was the last stop in Odysses’s journey back home. Specifically, Paleokastritsa is acknowledged to be the place where Odysseus came ashore and encountered Nausicaa (the daughter of the king) for the first time. (Here’s a helpful Wikipedia article on the Phaeacians in case you don’t remember your high school English lesson on the Odyssey). I just took the bus and upon my arrival I noticed immediately how deserted the town was. I checked out the beautiful beaches and noticed there were a large number of boat rentals, restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels – all of which were boarded up soundly. I saw a few people in town – but the town left me with the impression of being in a zombie movie.
Corfu is a beautiful island full of life, amazing beaches, history and friendly people. I loved my time there, and I hope to return to the island someday. In a second post, I will recap my experiences in Corfu Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site.