The people of Kerkyra (Corfu) have an accent that I’ve heard other Greeks describe as ‘singing’ – the same way some English people might describe the Welsh accent, I guess. I don’t find it difficult to understand, but some Corfiots use Italian words occasionally, which always baffles me! I suppose a lot of people speak English because of the tourists, but not so much in our village (or at least not to me!) There aren’t many tourists in our village – Agios Matthaios – because it doesn’t have a hotel and it’s not right on the beach. That’s probably the reason why, the first time I walked down the main street all those years ago, everybody sitting outside the cafeterias and shops put down their coffees, stopped talking and stared at me. It was like walking into a bar in a Western! Now most people know I’m ‘tou Andrea’ (meaning I belong to my father-in-law!) … of course, everyone knows your business in the village!
Aghios Matthaios itself is a beautiful place, built on the side of a mountain with an Orthodox Church near the top. The views across the valley to the other mountains are amazing. Kerkyra is unlike most other Greek islands in that it has a humid climate and, as a consequence, it is wonderfully green. The annual rainfall here is actually higher than in the UK!) On the summit of the mountain is the monastery of The Pantokrator (He who holds everything in His hands). On the other side of the mountain the ground drops away – there is no way down that I am aware of, the incline is so steep – and there is a stretch of forest and fields before you reach the sea.
In order to get to the sea from the village, however, you must go around the base of the mountain and this takes you through the natural olive forest. I have been told (by Corfiots) that this is the largest natural olive forest in the world. (I take this information with a pinch of salt, as some islanders are prone to exaggeration, especially when talking about something they are fiercely proud of). The forest is a great sight though – twisted and knarled tree trunks with dense, dark leaves. At night the forest is totally black – you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face – and even driving through it is distinctly eerie. By day though the shade is welcoming and the noise of the cicadas in the trees is deafening. At certain times of the year you will see black netting draped all over the forest floor, which puzzled me at first, until I was told that this is how Corfiots harvest their olives. It seems it’s too much effort to pick the olives, and so they simply wait for them to fall off the trees and catch them in their nets. (Neither the olives nor the olive oil from Kerkyra are very famous!)
Another thing about the olive forest is that it contains a lot of ruins, which the locals are again very proud of. However, when I asked questions, no one seemed to know how old the ruins were or who built them. Neither could I convince anyone to show them to me when I first visited – it seemed there were always fish to be caught or swimming to be done – so eventually I took myself off to the closest one for a poke around. It was very beautiful, with lovely views, but there was no information other than the brown sign stating “13th century Byzantine fortress – Gardiki”. At first the Brit in me I thought this was a missed opportunity – but then I thought how good it was just to stand inside a piece of history. No information boards, no reconstructions, no ticket office, no gift shop – just the crumbling stones under the sunshine.
That’s how life is here in the village. Apart from the appearance of smart phones, not much has changed over the years. There’s an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude here. It might get frustrating over time, but for holidays it’s kind of nice. People do things the way they’ve always done them because … why change it?
I think I can sum up life in the village with a little story about the time I ordered a cold chocolate. In Athens, or even Corfu Town for that matter, every coffee shop serves cold chocolate – sometimes with ice cream, sometimes with crushed ice, sometimes decorated with syrup or crumbled biscuit. In the village, when I ordered, the waitress looked a little surprised, but she went off and returned a bit later with my drink. It was cocoa powder mixed with cold water. It was pretty vile. But they did the best with what they had, they aimed to please, they didn’t charge me – and the view was amazing. That’s Agios Matthaios and its inhabitants in a nutshell: resourceful, hospitable, generous and beautiful … and just a little bit odd.