Saturday 28 September 2019

Greece Is The Word - Corfu, 2019

Kalispera! We'd arrived in the mountain village of Paleokastritsa on the Greek island of Corfu. In Prospero's Cell (1945), Lawrence Durrell described it as being drenched in the slither of olives on the north-west coast. The little bay lies in a trance, drugged by its own ordinary perfection - a conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses. The rock faces splinter the light and reflect it both upward and downward; so that, staring through the broken dazzle of the Ionian sun, the quiet bather in his boat can at the same time look down into three fathoms of water with neither rock nor weed to interrupt the play of imagination and, some 75 years later, its breathtaking natural beauty remained unchanged.

Within minutes of stepping off the bus and casting our eyes upon this view the incessant rain, gale force winds, unseasonably cold weather and the full-on craziness of our 2019 festival season seemed but a dim and distant memory.

The Paleo Inn, our base for the week.

When we first went to Corfu in 2017 we'd visited in June, before the tourist season had got fully underway. The tiny deserted cove to which we'd previously laid claim was now lined with sunbeds and beach umbrellas, presided over by local fisherman Spiro. Breaking the habit of a lifetime we rented beds - but declined the services of Spiro's grandson who'd run up and down the precarious steps carved out of the cliff to collect lunch from the village tavernas and deliver it direct to your sunbed - instead opting to bring a picnic of freshly baked village bread, tubs of homemade tzakizi or olive pate along with juicy misshapen Greek tomatoes the size of your head. 

We thought that after more than three months of blisteringly hot weather Corfu would be starting to look a bit parched but it was as green and lush as it was on our first visit and we soon realised why. On the first evening, whilst sitting beneath some ancient plane trees in the village sipping an ice cold Alpha beer, we were mesmerised by the brilliant lights illuminating the night sky, until it dawned on us that it was a huge electrical storm somewhere over the Ionian Sea. When it finally reached Paleokastritsa we were forced to run to the nearest tavern to shelter from torrential rain, thunder and forked lightning. Such was the violence of the storm that the village lost its electricity supply for eight hours and we had to dine by candlelight. We might not have been able to see what we were eating but we can verify that it was delicious. It turns out that Corfu gets quite a lot of rain - but at least its warm rain.

Much as we'd have been content to spend a week on our sunbeds, basking in the 30°C sunshine punctuated with a swim in the calm and crystal clear waters of the Ionian Sea, it would have been a sin not to explore the rest of Corfu so, after three days of sun worshipping, we headed to Kérkyra, Corfu's foremost town.

Corfu's public transport system is pretty good, with bus stops clearly marked with the latest timetables printed in both Greek and English. While the buses aren't always on time and often cancelled altogether if it rains, at 2.50€ for a 40 minute journey, they're a lot cheaper than at home. Halfway to Kérkyra a couple of tourists realised in a panic that they'd caught the wrong bus so the driver pulled over whilst the conductor escorted them safely across the dual carriageway and led them to the correct bus stop in order for them to continue their journey, excellent service!

The Esplanade approaching the Old Fort.

When we'd visited Kérkyra back in 2017 (see HERE) we explored the forts and the town's two main museums so, after a restorative iced coffee from one of the swanky cafes lining the esplanade, we decided that we'd just wander without a plan.

Greece's first president, Ioannis Kapodistrias (1827 - 31)

Although carved reliefs featuring athletes with clubs and balls dating back to Ancient Greece have been discovered, the modern game of cricket was only introduced to Corfu during British rule (1815-1864). Our visit, on a Sunday, coincided with a match being played. When asked where in the world he'd most enjoyed playing cricket, former England captain David Gower replied, Corfu Town.

We'd loved Kérkyra when we'd first visited and this time was no different, the joyful atmosphere as Greek families dressed in their Sunday best, strolled leisurely along the esplanade, gossiped over ouzo in the shady cafes or ran after errant toddlers on tricycles really was something special.

Kérkyra has a relaxed, old-world elegance featuring predominately Venetian architecture peppered with French and English-Georgian building styles which reflect the influence of several centuries of foreign occupation. 

Erected in 1807, the elegant arcades of the Listón border the west side of the esplanade and were inspired by the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. 

Described as Greece's largest living medieval town, the Old Town is a fascinating maze of narrow streets, steep stairways and arched alleys squeezed into the northern half of Kérkyra between the esplanade and the port. The marble-paved, traffic-free streets are often compared to a miniature Venice (obviously without the canals) and still retains the Venetian name, Campiello.

In Venetian times the town was surrounded by the city walls (demolished during the 19th Century) and with Corfiots forbidden from living outside these fortifications, the only way to expand their dwellings was by building upwards producing the area's unusually high architecture. 

The only sight to speak of was this pretty 17th Century Venetian well on the Campiello's Platia Kremasti where a mega posh restaurant, also called The Venetian Well, usually sets out its tables. It was closed when we visited so we took advantage of the deserted space for photos.

 How fortuitous, my 1970s Anokhi dress matches the plaster!

 Cafe culture.

On the upper storey of Kérkyra's oldest bank, the Ioniki, which was built in 1846, you'll find the Banknote Museum which was a lot more interesting than it sounds - honest! Who knew about Greece's Raisin Crisis which nearly bankrupted the country in 1893? It's free, friendly and fascinating - go!

Lunch was taken under the colonnades on the Listón at AegliKérkyra's oldest restaurant. Needless to say, we ate Greek salad washed down with a bottle of Mythos and were delighted to be served by the same waiter as our visit in 2017.

With washing strung up across alleyways, elderly women sitting on stools weaving or watching babies and cats snoozing in tiny sun-splashed squares, the atmospheric back streets were a wonderful place to walk off our lunch.

Kapodistriou Street runs behind the Listón to the southern end of the town and is lined with handsome townhouses, most of which were built by the Venetian aristocracy. Like much of the surrounding area, many were destroyed after the heavy bombing by the Germans in 1943.

Wherever you look in Greece you're overwhelmed by its beauty - just look at this tiny Orthodox altar in the middle of the bus station.

Cultural trip accomplished, we jumped back on the bus to Paleokastritsa only to find this lot waiting for us outside our room (the word was obviously out, those crazy British cat people were back with their endless supply of biscuits!)

There's more, much more.....see you soon!

Tuesday 17 September 2019

By Order Of The Peaky Blinders

I've never been a fan of period dramas, posh people poncing about on horseback and being beastly to the servants whilst passive females languish indoors, waiting for a man to come along and rescue them. That was until Peaky Blinders swaggered onto our TV screens six years ago bringing with it visceral violence, working class anti-heroes & strong independent women, not to mention breathtaking cinematography, an achingly cool rock soundtrack, clothes to kill for and, of course, Cillian Murphy's cheekbones. From the first episode I was hooked.

Peaky Blinders is huge, especially in our part of the world, where the real-life gang of the same name controlled the streets from the 1880s until the outbreak of WWII. After years of being the butt of many a British joke, the series gave Birmingham and the Black Country kudos and nowadays, instead of being bemused by our funny accents, when we travel the country everyone loves the way we speak.

Last weekend the first ever Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival took place in Digbeth, the streets of which the gang originally controlled. In sharp contrast to the uber modern Birmingham city centre, all contemporary architecture, high street fashion and chain restaurants, the district of Digbeth is an atmospherically dilapidated tangle of interconnecting back streets lined with old industrial buildings and shabby pubs, bisected by the Digbeth Branch canal and overlooked by a Victorian blue-brick railway viaduct. In other words, the perfect location for immersing oneself into the world of the Shelbys.

Photo courtesy of Claire

Understandably the festival, being in its first year, had a few teething problems. Despite both myself and Claire being festival regulars and fully acquainting ourselves with the prohibited items on the website beforehand, when we reached the box office we were refused admission as Claire was carrying an SLR camera. After asking the security guard about the on-site lockers advertised on the festival website it turned out that there weren't any, so we had to return to New Street Station (where we'd met half an hour previously) and pay to use the railway's left luggage facility instead. 

After walking the best part of three miles we decided we deserved a drink so we called into one of my favourite Digbeth pubs, The Big Bulls Head, for a restorative pint.

 Refreshed and ready we were able to join the throngs of Peaky Blinders fans at the festival.

You look like one of those gypsy women to me, said the dapper chap eyeing me up and down, whisking Claire away to try her luck with the coconut shy.

And talking of gypsies, I could quite happily lived in this encampment we found tucked away in a corner off the main street.

We'd heard talk of a bare knuckle boxing match and found our way to the old warehouse where it was scheduled to take place, only to discover we'd just missed it, but we did find what appeared to be an illicit drinking establishment with a gambling den tucked away up the corner.

Never in all my days have I encountered so many well-dressed people in one place.

Although many of the female festival goers were dressed in flapper dresses and 1920s-inspired fashion, a lot embraced the sharp tailored look more associated with the male characters of the series and they looked great.

We proceeded along the winding streets of Digbeth, encountering all manner of miscreants from itinerant hawkers, street fighters and pickpockets to women dancing outside the pub, intoxicated on Mother's Ruin. Peeping through the public bar we overheard a would-be politician delivering an impassioned speech to the clientele within. Policemen roamed the streets, many with bruised faces and black eyes, no doubt from unfortunate incidents with the likes of the Peaky Blinders.

The only other negative issue we had with the festival was the absence of signage. Although timings and locations of the gigs and events were helpfully displayed on boards around the site, nobody knew exactly where to find them and as a consequence we missed the Ballet Rambert and the vintage fashion show as even the security team weren't entirely sure of the layout. But, this being the Midlands, we're a friendly lot and we struck up many an interesting conversation with other dazed and confused festival goers.

On our adventures around the site we'd often find an interesting looking building only to be refused entry as the main entrance was on the other side of Digbeth or we'd stumble into somewhere like this old warehouse containing a pop-up local history museum containing, amongst other interesting artifacts, the original pub sign from The Garrison.

Of course, a massive part of the appeal of Peaky Blinders is the soundtrack, the music is stupendously good and the line-up over the weekend certainly didn't disappoint. Saturday's headliners included Primal Scream, Liam Gallagher, a Paul Simenon DJ set and Nadine Shah whilst Sunday offered Mike Skinner, Frank Carter and the Rattlesnakes, Slaves....

Anna Calvi....

Featuring the incredible Jehnney Beth from Savages...

And the fantastic Richard Hawley.

We made our way to The Night Owl, a cosy nightclub tucked away up a side street, for another beer. On leaving we caught the attention of a lady called Jane who turned out to be a BBC producer and an acquaintance of Steven Knight (the creator of Peaky Blinders) who insisted on filming us wittering on about why were Peaky Blinders fans and why there needed to be more feisty women like Polly Grey on TV. She told us that our interview was going to be sent straight to Boston (USA not Lincolnshire) where, apparently, there's plans afoot for a Peaky Blinders festival next year. After posing for a few photos and giddy with the prospect of international stardom, we stopped at a street food cart for a tray of chips to calm us down.

Whilst we stuffed ourselves with chips, Jane introduced us to a sharply dressed chap called Glynn who we chatted to about life in general and to whom I offered a few of my chips, telling him that they some of the finest I'd ever consumed (the only thing I'd eaten was a slice of toast nine hours earlier). As you know I'm pretty useless with celebrities but after he'd left and I asked Jane how she knew him it turned out that he was a famous TV chef with a Michelin starred restaurant in the city ...and there's me blathering on about chips! Duh!

By now dusk was falling. We caught some of Slaves' set before heading back to the Night Owl for another beer.

 Damn, there goes Arthur Shelby! A missed photo opportunity!

Walking around Digbeth several women stopped us to tell us that there would be a suffragette march shortly and that some sisterly support would be appreciated.

Although British women over the age of thirty had gained the vote in 1918, younger women had to wait until 1928 to have the right to vote on the same terms as men (21 years of age).

Photo courtesy of Claire

Of course I signed the petition amid jeers from many of the males present who, even in the twentieth century, didn't feel women had the mental capacity to vote, having been put on the earth to breed and to serve their menfolk.

Although there was no mention of it on the information boards, Jane had told us that there was another Q & A session with Seven Knight at 7.30 pm (we'd missed the first one rushing around Birmingham looking for safety deposit lockers) so we made our way to the Spoken Word stage (we knew where that was having stumbled on a poetry performance earlier in the day).

After listening to Cillian Murphy (aka Tommy Shelby) recite a poem over the tannoy system, local poet Hussein Manawar was joined on stage by series 5 director Anthony Byre and writer/producer Steven Knight who read extracts from his late mother's diary recalling growing up in a poor, working class household in Birmingham's Small Heath during the era of the Peaky Blinders. After a Q&A session we rushed back to New Street Station to collect Claire's camera and make our respective journeys back home to the Black Country.

Throughout the day we had loads of lovely comments about our outfits and how clever we were to dress in vintage gypsy fashion in-keeping with the Shelby's heritage, although this was more by accident than design as we were wearing our normal clothes.

Claire's in an All About Audrey dress, handmade from recycled sari fabric, topped with a vintage reversible Chinese brocade jacket and secondhand Mjus fake snake metallic cowboy boots.

I'm wearing my Janet Wood for Monsoon Afghan dress topped with a 1920s silk kimono, my great-grandma's carpet bag, an Egyptian Revival necklace by Thomas Fattorini of Birmingham ( a 50th birthday present from Jon) and some secondhand Doc Marten Darcie boots in oxblood leather.

The Legitimate Peaky Blinders festival will be held in Birmingham & Boston (and possibly London) next year and we'll be there.

You can find Claire's photos HERE

See you soon!