For the first time our popular Magazine is available to request from our website. With a wealth of fascinating travel features, mouth-watering recipes, holiday fashion and interest features, it makes for a great read. There’s even the opportunity to win a James Villa Holiday worth £2500. Here’s an abridged extract on Durrell’s Corfu to whet your appetite, and perhaps help you on your way to winning your own villa escape…
Gazing out of the window of a steam train, travelling through grey-skied northern Europe in search of Corfu, Gerald Durrell and his family could not have considered that their voyage would not only change their own lives irrevocably, but also change the face of tourism in years to come.
Little did they know what adventures and characters lay in wait, and that these would eventually become immortalised in front of millions of viewers on Sunday night Prime Time television – an alien concept to those living in the 1930s.
My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956, written by Gerald Durrell, the youngest of the Durrell siblings. It tells the story of the Durrell family as they emigrate from their home in Hampshire to Corfu. The novel retells the family’s exploits and introduces readers to a trove of eccentric and charming characters. As for the “other animals”, Gerald Durrell’s passion for the natural world was well-established by the tender age of ten, when the first book begins. The narrative is intertwined with the many animals that Gerald managed to source, study and home – resulting in gloriously funny anecdotes, which bring the novel to life. And the backdrop to all of this – Corfu – which Durrell describes with such eloquence and warmth, in a way that speaks of a pure and genuine affection for this breathtaking island.
Gerald – who went on to have a long and rewarding career as a naturalist, conservationist and zookeeper – lived a seemingly idyllic existence. His description of a natural playground, fertile grounds, vast olive groves and carefree days inspired a post-war generation of travellers to visit the island, bringing with them an economic boom of development, changing the face of Corfu forever.
The northeast coast – now fondly nicknamed ‘Kensington on Sea’ – has seen most of this rapid development. It was to this area that the Durrells returned in later life – unrecognisable from the pre-war, pre-developed island that they fell in love with in the 1930s.
If you wish to emulate the Durrells and imitate a step back in time for yourself, away from the busier resorts and closer to the soul of the island, then a visit to Kalami is highly recommended. The village, snuggled around a horse-shoe bay, rises out of the white sandy beach and you can easily imagine a young Gerald Durrell in his element among the surrounding olive, lemon and cypress trees. Meanwhile, at the end of the bay is a taverna – noticeably larger than the neighbouring buildings – painted in a brilliant white. This, the ‘White House’, was the former home of eldest brother Lawrence, who returned to the island in later life and wrote ‘Prospero’s Cell’, a novel about his own experience of life on the island.
But the Durrells weren’t the first British people to fall for the charms of the island. Long before their arrival, Britain and Corfu had a rich, intertwined history dating back to 1814, when the British formed a ‘protectorate’ of the island, with a Lord Commissioner stationed alongside military garrisons to protect its interests. Evidence of this period can still be seen today in architectural remnants as well as fusion culture, particularly on Sundays when cricket is still played on the green opposite the esplanade in Corfu Town.
If cricket is one of Corfu Town’s idiosyncrasies, then there is plenty more facets to its character for the contemporary holidaymaker to see and admire. Perched on a hillside, the winding alleyways reveal many architectural treasures, amongst them the Corfu’s Venetian Palaces. Here there is a fascinating harmony between the modern and vibrant capital life and its history, respecting its position as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps you’ll even discover the church of St. Spyridon, where in his book a young Gerald Durrell recounts his experience of being swept along with the devote Greek crowd, to narrowly avoid kissing the feet of the interred saint.
To truly understand the spirit of the Durrells’ time on the island, you must visit Corfu Town. Jutting out to sea is a wooden jetty, which the locals use to launch themselves into the turquoise blue water beneath. The historic fort acts as a backdrop and its commanding shadow gives the scene an otherworldliness as you swim alongside the locals. While time slows down and the term ‘lazy afternoon’ develops a tangible meaning, the scene can be taken as a snapshot and placed at any point in time and nobody would be the wiser.
Durrell alluded to it in his novel – the ‘attitude’ of the island – the carefree days we as readers picture in our mind’s eye, which Corfu truly delivers. It is because of this ambience that holidaymakers return time and time again, while the recurring images that Durrell drew in his account across the Corfu trilogy likewise continue to inspire new minds. The island invigorates and quenches that thirst.
In the search for ‘Durrell’s Corfu’, with much of the island changing beyond recognition over the past 80 years, there are still nods to the past. In Corfu Town, plaques can be found depicting the location of ‘Theo’s house’ and also busts of Gerald and his brother Lawrence, who received acclaim as an author in his own right. Meanwhile on the outskirts of the town are the villas that featured as part of the first novel. The ‘Strawberry-Pink Villa’ sadly no longer exists and the ‘Snow White Villa’ is now owned by a prominent Greek businessman, while the ‘Daffodil-Yellow Villa’ is still owned by the same Corfiot family. The area around them has grown considerably with resorts and properties dominating much of the north-eastern coastline, so tracking down the two remaining properties can prove an adventure in its own right.
Slightly easier to find and a delight to discover, at the island’s furthest, northern-most point at Agios Spyridon beach, is Lake Antiniotissa or the ‘Lake of the Lilies’, as it is so evocatively described towards the end of My Family and Other Animals. Gerald’s mother even goes as far as saying that she wished to be buried there, such was her sense of attachment and affinity to the area at that time. Even now, it is easy to see why. Corfu may, in places, have changed beyond recognition from what the Durrells knew and loved, but in others, such as these sacred, natural areas of outstanding beauty, life has a timeless charm.
Try timing your stay just right, during the beginning of May, and have an evening meal at sunset. On your way home you may well be fortunate to experience the majestic sight of fireflies, which sparkle brightly like phosphorus during this brief time of year. Alongside this phenomenon you’ll be able to listen to the soundtrack of a chorus of frogs, channeling the experience of Gerald as a boy, enthusiastically discovering the abundance of wildlife.
With more than 40 James Villa properties on Corfu all handpicked and ideally situated, the opportunity to step into the shoes of Gerald Durrell and his family are plentiful. If you have a secret Gerald Durrell-themed bucket list, you’ll rent a villa of ‘Snow White’, ‘Daffodil Yellow’ or ‘Strawberry Pink’, hire a boat (perhaps named Bootle-Bumtrinket or Sea Cow), sail out to sea in the morning, find a secluded beach, sunbathe like Margo and return back to write like Lawrence in the afternoon. You might meet a local named Spiro in the evening, toast a glass of Ouzo to the heavens and thank whoever it is that you get to live the same, carefree day over again tomorrow.