Our plane arrives past midnight in Corfu, Greece, 300 miles from bustling and ancient Athens. Lacy and I sit in the tiny waiting area of the airport in exhaustion and panic. We were to be picked up by our hosts, Maria and Alexo who told us that they had no physical address and that it would be best if they came to get us. Over an hour passes and no one arrives. Should we take a taxi to the town center and try to find somewhere else to stay? Get back on the plane? Had we just been scammed? Determined to prove our fearful yet loving mothers wrong, we decided to wait. An adorable older gentleman finally arrives and in broken English asks us if we are Misty and Lacy. We enthusiastically shake our heads yes and answer, “Naí” ( ‘yes’ in Greek). He does his best to communicate with us, and vice versa. It’s dark, we are tired and hungry and have no idea the magic we were about to experience. Sensing our fatigued state, Alexo drives us to the local shop on the way to his home and treating us to beer and food. We scarf it all down and go to bed full of anticipation.
I had been resistant to traveling to Corfu. It wasn’t at the top of my list of places to go in Greece. It was also going to cost us more time and money to fly from Athens to Corfu and then to Santorini. But Lacy, a powerhouse literary agent and long-time friend, was pining to go. She had recently represented and helped launch the publication of Allison Pataki’s The Accidental Empress, a recent bestseller. The novel tells the story of Empress Elizabeth “Sisi” of Austria, reluctant royalty, famous for her beauty and love of travel. The Empress reigned during the 1850’s until her untimely death by assassination in 1898. She’s widely regarded for having an impeccable and strange beauty regimen, which included veal face masks and binding her waist to a tiny 19 inches!
More importantly, she played an important role in changing the course of history in the Austro-Hungarian union and was quite political savvy and influential. Lacy was invested in seeing the Achillieion, Sisi’s home away from Vienna. We would come to see how an Empress could fall madly in love with this Ionian island, and all of the ways in which her influence touched the land. Learning about Sisi, you can’t help but fall in love with her– untraditional and imperfect. She endured quite a bit of drama and had little control over her life, except when she was on a horse or roaming foreign lands. Corfu was her refuge from the stuffy courts of Vienna. She would stay for months at a time, much to the chagrin of her mother-in-law, Sophie, and her husband, Franz Joseph. You could say she was one of the first advocates of slow and immersive travel. She threw herself into a culture and place, and asked it to embrace her rather than expecting it to. Her love for the community and preservation of the island was potent and she valued creating roots while traveling verse hopping from place to place.
Day one takes us on a journey to Achillieion. “It’s just up the hill,” Maria, our Airbnb hostess, tells us, “About a mile.” Armed with camera and backpack, we march towards the imperial palace excited for the day ahead. You know those moments when you think, “Dear God, if you ever loved me, please save me from this endless journey“? This was one of those moments. It was NOT a mile (more like five); it was all uphill, and neither of us had eaten breakfast or had coffee. Crankily, we climbed the top of the hill hoping that this was going to be worth it.
This brought us to the central theme of our time in Corfu: the destination is always worth the journey. When we finally arrived, we were greeted by sweeping views of the endless ocean, lush vegetation and a palace overlooking the whole island. The immaculately preened grounds were a tribute to how much Sisi loved the classics. Statues and frescos of Achilles, and her penchant for adventure and Greek Literature was evident throughout the estate. You feel royal walking around the Achillieion, and you get the feeling that Sisi wanted anyone who visited to feel that way—that she wanted everyone to feel at home at her palace. The Achillieion is her love letter to Corfu.
After starting our morning with Sisi, we began our descent to the town center. There are disadvantages to traveling during a destination’s “off” season, yes; but mostly, you can create space for unique experiences to happen. “I take you,” said the ruddy-haired man. The small schooner was bobbing up and down in the water, as if taunting us. It was our only way to get to Vidos Island, and the group tour we had shown up for was no longer running for the season. We decided to go for it; this was Greece after all, and we wanted the full experience. Lacy and I hopped into the boat, giggling and thrilled with the adventure. The gentleman took us to see sea lions, and to a spot where we could swim. We reverted to our childhood selves and splashed around in the water with sheer joy.
The next day, we journeyed to town to see some of the better known sites and one highly unusual attraction that we had discovered in the narrative of another great fiction book with roots in the island’s history, When the Cypress Whispers by Yvette Manessis Corporon. If you ask yourself what an empress and a petrified saint have in common, the answer is Corfu. In the heart of the city lies the sarcophagus of St. Spyridon. The Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church has a line of visitors waiting to see the man whose influence, like Sisi’s, has great importance. A Cypriot by birth, Spyridon was rumored to have performed miracles, some of which occurred posthumously. After the fall of Constantinople, his remains were transported to Corfu, where they remain today. It is believed by the Islanders that he warded off the plague during the 1890’s, and that his spirit aided the Venetian soldiers who defeated the Turks during the Ottoman siege of 1716. Once a year, the clergy replace his slippers because he walks the streets at night protecting the city. The Church itself was a haven for several Jewish refugees during WWII. The Germans decided not to go into the church, for whatever reason, during their invasion of the island. Many believe that Spyridon was protecting them. As if not impressive enough, the man was also at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.C.). Our experience seeing him lying in his ornate casket was bizarre and humbling. He emanated a strange but gentle presence, and I understood why the people of Corfu celebrate him. At some point during our journey, Lacy had lost the picture of Sisi that she had bought. She was naturally upset about it, not only because we didn’t have time (or calf muscle) to go back to the Achillieion to get another, but also because it contained a gift that was meant for Allison Pataki. We spent a few hours retracing our steps and, as luck would have it, a the little relic shop right next to the Church was holding on to it. Maybe it was just coincidence….or maybe Sisi and Spyridon had met up to give us a gift. They were watching over us, just as they had been watching over the island for Centuries since their earthly departure.
On our last day in town, we spent some time with our hostess Maria about Corfu. Her grandmother was among those who were forced out of Cappadocia in the 1920’s by the Turkish army. As an eight-year-old child, she managed to make it on her own to Corfu, where a family in town took her in. Her family now owns one of the oldest houses still standing in the town center, and Maria loves the island, its people and all that it represents, having people visit her home and sharing her history and community. We were in Greece during summer of 2015, shortly after the peak of the economic crisis and people had warned us to be on the lookout for desperate thieves out to pick-pocket or scam us. Those who feared for us couldn’t have been more wrong; this was a place where, despite hardship, there was still so much love and generosity by the locals. Everywhere we went, people wanted to really get to know us, not just to have surface conversations.
Given the current refugee crisis in Syria, I had hope listening to Maria’s story. Out of something truly awful sprang this beautiful family and their love of a place that wasn’t their original home. Like Sisi and St. Spyridon, this wasn’t their original home either, but they ended up on an island that welcomed them wholeheartedly. While Corfu itself hasn’t been a big stopping point for refugees, the locals have been doing their part to help. In fact, Corfu has a history of helping those fleeing from danger. To visit Corfu is to be embraced by the beauty of its nature, people and history. Experience the ‘Eudaimonia’ while you are there, the Greek expression for “human flourishing”; a contented state of being happy, healthy and prosperous..