The Mystery of the Corfu Trail

I once had a used bookseller tell me that there wasn’t a market for guidebooks; they become outdated too quickly, he said. But the 2015 edition of the Corfu Trail book is the only one I can find online, so it will have to do. That, and the fact that the book is all that I can find online. I can’t tell if this dearth of information is a good or a bad sign, but I opt for the former. The Internet has robbed us of so many mysteries, why not follow one down the length of an island in the Ionian Sea?

Corfu Hiking Trail in Greece
Photo by Betsy Welch

I arrive in Kavos, on Corfu’s southeastern tip, after dark, and I’m indeed mystified. Surely this 600 square kilometer Greek island doesn’t have the equivalent of  . . . Cancun? The bus creeps along a strip of hotels and bars pumping dance music into the mostly empty streets before disgorging me at a particularly loud corner. Thank goodness it’s off-season, I think. Maybe they’ll all shut down early. Later, as I lie on the threadbare sheets in my cheap hotel room, foam earplugs merely symbolic at this point, I worry that the bookseller was right – this guidebook must be horribly outdated. How could a 150-kilometer hiking route through ancient olive groves begin in such a tacky, tourist town?

I’ve chosen to walk the Corfu Trail because I have six days in Europe that are unaccounted for. My brother and I road-tripped around Albania for a week, and Corfu is just a few hours ferry-ride from Sararde. I’m an avid outdoors person, and I love to let a physical activity like biking or running or hiking serve as my mode of transportation through a new place. When I discover that there is a long-distance hike on the island, my decision of how to spend my time there is made. I buy the Corfu Trail book and use it as a rough guide: although the author breaks the walk down into ten, digestible, 15km days of walking, I am fit and used to the pleasant discomfort of endurance sports and decide I can do it in five.

Sandy path oh the Corfu hiking trail in Greece
Photo by Betsy Welch

I am so excited to start walking that I skip coffee in Kavos; the bars have barely closed, and the cafes are hours from opening. After about fifteen minutes, the tacky part of town abruptly ends, and the silvery green canopy of olive trees begins. During my time on Corfu, I will never not be walking under, near, and around trees; according to the book, “extensive oak forests once cloaked the hilly island and were widely exploited by the Venetians who used the wood for shipbuilding. They were partially replaced by extensive and profitable olive groves; an estimated three million graceful olive trees now thrive on Corfu.” The length of the Corfu Trail is waymarked by yellow metal plaques marked with ‘CT’ and black arrows; sometimes, they’re affixed to the pockmarked trunks of one of the ancient olives. More often than the plaques, though, I am looking for spray painted yellow blotches or arrows on rock walls, telephone poles, or on the ground; when I meet Kostas, who lets rooms and has a taverna in Dafnata at kilometer 58, he shares that the plaques (which he orders from London as part of his participation on the Corfu Trail committee) often go missing, likely into the packs of walkers like me. We’re therefore beholden to the yellow paint splotches which are easily mistaken for the golden lichen that colonizes rocks and trunks.

Olive Grove on Corfu in Greece
Photo by Betsy Welch

I walk almost 40 kilometers the first day, and by the time I stumble onto Marathias Beach, my hips have had enough. Normally, I like to inquire about a handful of rooms before picking a place to stay, but I meet Penelope at a little beachside shop, and when I tell her that I’ve walked all the way from Kavos, she becomes immediately motherly, and I can’t say no even though the room costs slightly more than I’ve budgeted to pay. She insists that I take a cold bottle of water from the cooler and scurries me into a room. I’ve made a pact with myself that I will swim multiple times a day while on the trail, and even though the thought of walking back down the stairs from my room to the beach seems overwhelming, I slip my tired feet out of my sneakers and into sandals and hobble down to the sea. 

The next morning, I feel sorer than when I biked 200 miles in one day earlier in the summer. All from walking! After a breakfast of yogurt and honey and tomatoes and bread, I get a hug from Penelope and limp down the beach. At the touristy town of Agios Giorgios South, I try to find Ibuprofen for my soreness and stiffness, but it’s Sunday, and the pharmacies are closed. I settle for espresso, which at least improves my mood, and trudge on. 

Corfu Hiking Trail Sign on a Tree
Photo by Betsy Welch

After a few hours of walking on sand and a dip in the sea at a tiny beach called Paramonas (where I doze off for 15 minutes and wish I could stay all afternoon), the trail turns inland from the coast. I realize that I am short on cash, and in the next village, I look for someone to ask if there is a bank or ATM. As I wind down the sinewy street, I don’t see any people, but I see a door ajar. I peek in. A man opens the door. He has a small glass of wine in his hand, and I ask about a bank. I don’t speak Greek, and he doesn’t speak much English, but he understands what I’m asking for and he laughs and shakes his head. Not in the village! His elderly mother, silver hair pinned up and a white apron over her pink dress, insists on bringing me into their dark, subterranean-feeling home and offering me water and then wine. She disappears into the kitchen and emerges with three tomatoes. For me? Then, a cucumber. She goes on and on about something, and her son doesn’t translate, he just sits and laughs, drinking his wine. I stuff the cucumber and tomatoes into the side pockets of my backpack, repeat ‘efharisto’ over and over until I finally have to back out of their doorway. I chuckle to myself as I leave and pick up my pace. Just when I think that I haven’t seen a yellow blaze in a while, one appears, and I make my way down a steep and narrow trail off of the main road. The rest of the afternoon is on a steep singletrack trail, and I arrive in Dafnata, which is high above the coast and affords an incredible view of Corfu town below, thoroughly exhausted, again.

Dafnata is where I stay at Kostas’ hostel, and he fills me in on the best secret of the trail: a baker lives down the road and opens to the public for 30 minutes every morning before he leaves to deliver bread. I’ve never wanted to be on time for something so much in my life! The only way to identify the baker’s shop, says Kostas, are the stacks of olive wood on the porch. Although he is no doubt busy, the baker welcomes me (and a few other prompt patrons) inside, where the smell of baking bread practically knocks me off my feet. Perfect loaves line flour-dusted tables. Olive wood crackles in the massive clay oven. I want to take one of each, but I know my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and weight matters when you’re walking 40 kilometers a day. I settle on a spinach-filled pastry and a perfectly round loaf of whole wheat. I will end up nibbling on it for the next three days, as my stomach has decided that drinking from the tap – or maybe it’s the exhaustion of hiking eight hours a day in the sun – wasn’t such a bright idea.

Spinach filled pastry in Greece
Photo by Betsy Welch

I’m frustrated that my normally voracious appetite has chosen Greece (of all places!) to peter out. There is one unique thing I can enjoy, however. Like the olive trees, ginger beer was introduced to the island by the British, and I buy small bottles of it when I pass through villages. It’s spicy and just a little bit sweet, and it helps settle my stomach. 

»My feet are now plagued with blisters, but views like these provide legitimate distraction from the discomfort.«

The fourth day of walking brings perhaps the most scenic section yet. The descent to the resort town of Agios Giorgios North is on a well-preserved ‘kalderimi,’ or donkey track, and I stop often to take photographs of the cobbled trail as it plunges toward the turquoise sea. My feet are now plagued with blisters, but views like these provide legitimate distraction from the discomfort. The donkey track ends at the beach, and I enjoy walking into town this way, among families and couples splashing in the surf. I find a room above a small supermarket, and the cashier cum innkeeper shakes his head at me when I say where I have come from. It’s become a typical response; no one seems to have heard of the Corfu Trail and they wonder why I would take such a circuitous route from place to place, especially when, as the road goes, they’re only a few kilometers apart.

Supermarket und Corfu in Greece
Photo by Betsy Welch

On my last day of walking, I meet a friendly German couple at a cafe. When I explain how much I’ve been walking each day and how battered by blisters my feet are, they produce some medical-grade blister pads from their packs. They’ve learned from experience, they tell me. After hiking in Austria this summer, the woman had horrible blisters, so she came to Corfu well-stocked. I have only met five other trekkers since I started the trail: two Australian ladies who have picked up a Belgian named Philipe along the way, and another Australian who is hiking with her Icelandic friend (they meet yearly to have an adventure together). They’re all taking the trail at the pace suggested in the book, which is good because they also all have stories of taking wrong turns and wandering off-trail for hours at a time. I walk with the Germans for about an hour, talking about politics (a topic that flusters me so much I have to change it to something much more palatable – travel). I can walk much faster now that my blisters are covered, so I bid them farewell and head up into the hills. The day’s route is steep and dense with gnarled bushes and trees, and I settle into a brisk hiking pace. It’s lovely, and I pay close attention to the landscape. I have to be back in Albania the next day for my flight home, so I’ve decided to detour to the beach town of Barbati where I can catch a bus back to Corfu town and then the ferry back to Sarande.

»I’ve been humbled by the brute physicality of walking – how many parts of my body have been awakened by pain despite the fact that I haven’t done anything particularly difficult.«

By the time I get to the turn-off for Barbati, I’m moving at a snail’s pace. I’m stubborn and want to think that I can make it the last six kilometers to the beach, but it’s all downhill, on a paved road, and this aggravates my feet. I stick my thumb out. It’s funny that I’m hitchhiking with so little to go, but I’m not upset at all. I’ve been humbled by the brute physicality of walking – how many parts of my body have been awakened by pain despite the fact that I haven’t done anything particularly difficult. I’m also impressed that I made it as far as I did, only 12 kilometers short of completing the entire trail. Lying on the beach later that afternoon, blistered feet stung by salt water, I think of how thankful I am that this trip was uncomplicated by the endless chatter of the Internet with its reviews and blog posts and information overload. Somehow, I managed to find my way from south to north, from the coast through the hills and the olive groves, with an only an outdated guidebook and some yellow splotches and arrows to guide the way. 

Map of the Corfu Trail in Greece