A day by the seaside at Southend-on-Sea …… or is it: -on-estuary?

The sun continues to shine and draw me away to continue my travels. You may remember that a few years back my journey down the east coast was interrupted when my car decided to stop in a huge plume of smoke and I had to get home on the back of an AA low loader. See, the life of a travel blogger is no easy ride (ooohhh, actually it was very easy!!). So I missed out visiting Southend (on the east coast).

Now, here I have a real quandary. My question, that many of you have helped me with, but no-one head give me a categorical answer, is this: is Southend-on-Sea on the coast as its name suggests? Or is it on the estuary? Even locals cannot give me a definitive answer. But, as its name includes the word ‘sea’ and as it proudly claims to have the longest pier in the world..and as it has Rossi’s ice cream, I feel duty bound to include this long piece of seaside as part of my coastal journey around the UK.

So first into the beach huts and sea defences of Shoeburyness which is tucked neatly around that marshy bit of coast, facing across the estuary to industrial skyline on the Kent bank on the other side.

The beach blends seamlessly into the traditional seaside delights of Southend-on-Sea where Victorian elegance stretches side by side with the coats of colour of fairgrounds & arcades, candy floss, rock & ice cream. Easy to reach from the East End of London by the early railways the resort soon took off with its soft sandy beach and long paved promenade with a line of rather stunted palms, supposed to remind us of the south of France.

Around the front of the pier a collection of fairground rides rattle and squirm and hiss and scream to let the punters know they are on holiday. The pier itself is rather colossal. The longest pier in the world, it stretches for a mile out into the estuary until it feels like the it touches the far side. You can walk to the end or get the original train. Guess what? I took the train.

Leigh Old Town, part of Leigh-on-Sea and so included on my tour, is further up the estuary. The estuary turns sand and beach into proper mud and silt, divided up by creeks and wriggling worm lines of brown sucking squelch. Is it water or is it land? Here the cockle sheds still exist but no longer a crescent of crunchy shells over which fisherman bounce over planks, unloading their catch in buckets on yokes. When the tide is right they still use yokes but straight onto the quay. The old sheds are now more glitzy pubs and bars serving young families at a ranch of trestle tables under wide umbrellas, a range of shellfish – oysters, dressed crab, lobster, scallops. Where have the cockles and winkles and whelks gone to? Are we so superior now that these are beneath us.

Great, I have now filled the gap in my journey down the east coast. I have now travelled from Berwick-upon-Tweed down and round to Bournemouth, visiting every coastal settlement on the way. Now I have to travel around the sticky out bit and up the west coast doing the same. See you soon.

Mixed reflections on Corfu

It’s my last day. Sadly I am not going to find that romantic island, caught in the warm words of ITV’s The Durrells, better known as My Family and Other Animals, which I vaguely remember reading for O level 50 years ago. Nor will I recreate my 16 year old youth when my folks took me to on a Club Med holiday as a skinny, rib-showing teenager. I stayed in a grass hut, use beads as money, fell in love and learned how to water-ski. Yes folks, hard to imagine the hippy Mark. To get my Premier Vague badge I had to sit on a pontoon, the speed boat would swing by, a guy with a rod would grab the handle, you grab it tightly refusing to let go, take the slack and around you go in a big circuit, finally coming back in to the beach, letting go and sinking gracefully into the water while the boat goes of to collect. the next punter. Imagine my delight when the person in front of me on the pontoon is an attractive young lady who I am far to shy to even acknowledge except fleeting glances from under lowered eyebrows. Half way around, in the far distance the top of her bikini flies off. She cannot let go of the handle and so comes around back to the pontoon and sinks into the water in front of a line of eager, wide-eyed, hormonal boys.

Anyway, I digress. Corfu’s wonderful coastline is best read about in guide books and viewed from a distance with turquoise waters, wooded craggy headlands, crescent shaped bays, sandy beaches and distant horizons. It is best appreciated from the high coastal roads around the mountains through gaps in the old olive trees and the mixed woodland.

By actually going down into the ‘white-washed, fishing villages’, a different picture is revealed. Each one looks very similar to all the other with a bay of sand/stones, lined by rather a lot of bars and apartment and small hotels and cheap restaurants. Nothing quaint or traditional. I am not going to say anything about the range of humanity that holidays here. Suffice to say someone needs to run workshops on sun safety and covering up. You get a lot of flesh for your money – most of it lobster red or leather brown.

The best places to visit are by taking the car into the mountains that form the spine of the island and find the peace of the small inland villages. A small clutch of homes, 50% relatively new and 50% overgrown and dilapidated, will huddle along a contour or around a small shaded square and church which provides a centre to the community. All the churches have stand-alone bell towers alongside from the place of worship.

I have told you about Doukades. 350 folk live here around a small square with a shop/bar, a church and three tavernas. Spiro runs one. He used to run restaurants at the high end of Milan and Genoa. He came back to the village of his birth. When busy he does a good imitation of a steam train blowing down. Glorious, cheap, local dishes and local wine.

The locals are very friendly, quick to welcome and chat. If all the time was spent in the mountains amongst ancient olive trees, with locals, eating local food with local wine and overlooking the wonderfully picturesque coastline then Corfu would be a wonderful place to visit.

The past, and present, glories of Corfu Town

The Weather said ‘rain showers’ so what a good day to venture into Corfu Town. And what a gem it is. In fact with only one heavy shower it was ideal conditions to visit a place that oozes history. The origins of the town can be traced back to the 8th century and since them the influence of Venice is heavily felt in trade, fortification, architecture and food.
The Old Town is sandwiched between the Old Venetian Fort facing eastwards, and around the headland guarding the port where the cruise ships now dock, is the gargantuan new fortress which, despite its name, originates in 1576.

My tour of this lovely old town starts down in the old port, where, after following a line of traffic for miles with no likelihood of finding a parking space, I accidentally enter a crowded car park through the exit barrier, jump the queue of rotating drivers and squeeze into the only free space amid some very angry faces. ‘I’m British’ I mouth; a very pertinent fact as the Duke of Edinburgh was born here, and he is Our royalty). The new fortress dominates the skyline above and overpowers all that lies below it.

Then it is a dive into the narrow streets of the old town. Churches, domes and Venetian facades with flaking plaster and rusty balconies mingle with squares & fountains & parks & cloistered walkways. The colour washes on the buildings add an extra dimension as the sun and clouds play catch up across their surface and facades. The colours of clay cover the slopes & angles of the roofs and, along with pitted columns and faded statues, give the town a soft, familiar hue like a pair of faded slippers.

.Surprises are found around every corner. The wicket of the Corfu cricket club, who, I found out from the car park attendant, play in September. The artificial wicket requires little preparation and offers little respite for bowlers. Boy, what a glorious place to play, surrounded by such Venetian glory.

The town museum lines the cliff top promenade of the Peoples’ Garden and houses exhibitions of Asiatic art.

The tourist buses unload their cargoes outside the old fortress. This is a hugely impressive structure, protecting the town from land and sea alike and separated from the main island by Lover’s Canal. Why it is called that I have no idea.

Corfu Town has a charm and a warmth and a buzz about it that can be enjoyed, even on a short visit. I wish more of the island retained as much character and atmosphere as is captured here amongst the muted colours of the old town.

The ruins of Perithia

Well, I think I’m getting the hang of this place. Firstly head out to the glorious coastline of craggy headlands, wooded oaks and olive groves, splashed with the colours of bougainvillaea, smart, cliffside villas overlooking sandy/pebbly bays and coves and turquoise waters and try to find in coastal villages any remaining evidence of the romantic Corfu of yester year. Then, rather than staying in the oven of apartment blocks, tourist shops, eateries and bars, cluttered with a scattering, at least until high season, of lizard skinned, loud & inappropriately clad Germans & Brits, moving up into the mountains for the real island.

The first trip is up the slithering, sharp meanders of the coastal road up the east coast to Kassiopi, which still has an element of charm for the visitor.

A perfect crescent of bars & restaurants line the harbour, overlooked by the omnipresent apartment blocks and guarded by the ruins of the medieval castle.

The intriguing image, through the breakwater and over the narrow straight, is that of the mainland, which at this point has given way to Albania.

It is so different to the white-washed buildings and assorted shapes and sizes of any Greek landscape. Through the haze, in the distance, block upon block of dull, grey blocks of functionality are indiscriminately arranged in layers along the even duller rocky coastline. There is no real colour, no soft shapes, no variation – just a drab presentation to the modern world.

Leaving the tourist fleshpots, it is a drive through the wonderful landscape of Corfu’s mountainous centre. Here are the crags and rocks, the ancient, wizened olive trees with giant, gnarled girths, the mixed oaks and Cypress trees, all smothered in the herby smells of yellow gorse and white and pink flowered shrubs, up to Old Perithia. Following a single track above the tree line the air cools and for the first time it feels fresh and one can breathe deep again.

Perithia is a ruined village, dating from the 14th century in the middle of the mountains. Despite the fact that 95% of its 130 dwellings are in ruins there are two ruins for sale and 5 tavernas that are open for business and staffed by the last inhabitants of this rubbled ghost of a village. Quite why there are 5 tavernas operating, I don’t know. Maybe tourist coaches battle up here through the potholes and dust in the high season. The village is famous for producing honey and ….ginger beer!

After a wander in the peace and emptiness, a drink of some pretty average ginger beer (we make it better in the UK) it is back down to dinner on the bay.

Baking in Corfu

This trip to the island of Corfu has taken a while to take off. One reason is that it is so frigging hot. What is wrong with our planet? It is early June and the thermometer gets as high 34° after about 1 o’clock so there is no incentive to get out of the shade and into the sauna of the car to start exploring the island. The first few sorties out have been around Gouvia, where we are staying in a little oasis of green and pool.

Another reason for the slow start is that this is the party area, with lines of bars, eateries passing themselves off as traditional tavernas, minimarkets, apartment blocks. Thank goodness its not high season. It would be rocking with karaoke and pumping happy hours. So I’ve not really had the urge to take any photos as this could be anywhere.

Sadly the whole island is blighted with huge areas of rotting bags of waste along the roads. The islands only landfill site had been closed by the EU as being illegal and there is nowhere to dump the trash so it simple lies there in growing piles of black bags which also reduces the incentive to wander around snapping picturesque images, even if I could find them around here.

So, eventually, braving these elements, we venture further afield to try a beach on the west coast, supposed to be really nice. Paleokastrista consists of a public stoney/sandy beach around a crescent bay lined by low apartment blocks and hotels and high craggy rocks up to low mountain ridges. A couple of smaller bays lie around the corner. Exciting holiday activities are on offer – you can pay for a pair of sunbeds + an umbrella + Wi-Fi, you can hire a speed boat for the day, you can chug with the local fishermen (now no longer netting fish but netting tourists) along the coast for a bit to visit 4 caves in 40 minutes (hmmm), the banana boat is a must, sit in a bar and watch the international tourist enjoy themselves, all under the pong of the huge pile of rubbish in the carpark.

Oh, two images of contradiction – the sign up the hill to the monastery and the hoard of goats that clip down the narrow road, bells ringing and scrotums, or is the plural of scrotum-scroti, swinging, chased by a red faced goat-herder. I think he is in control.

We decide to spend a few hours on the beach and swim in the sea – looks good but freezing. I can’t remember when I last did a beach. Probably when my two girls were of an age. Is it really fun? Find a space on the clinker between the couples and families. Lay out towels which absorb the sand, sit down and lie out (boy, is it a long way down there….and even further to get up again, grunting and swiveling and pushing, trying to avoid pulling something), sand covers every patch of oiled, sweaty body wether it comes from leaning outside the towel, the shaken towel from neighbours or the bathers as they pass. Fun? Na. Backache, sore elbows, sand in every crack, fold, orifice. You can’t read without breaking your back or cracking your neck,  every time you want to drink you have to sit up, gulp, flop down. It is just so much hard work. So you simply watch the beach and think how daft all this is.

The saving grace comes on the way home with an instinctive diversion into the mountains to find the traditional village of Doukas and the amazing Taverna Dukas with papa serving and mama cooking. Lamb casserole to die for, beef stefano to fall for, a cheap half litre of red and homemade yogurt with strawberry sauce on the house. My faith has been restored.