September 30, 2022

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The fascinating Corfu of the Durrells: in the footsteps of this renowned family on the Greek island

8 min read

The Durrells were not a normal family, its members proclaimed an involuntary eccentricity and flaunted their freedom without fuss, each one was a different universe and, together, they simply wanted to move forward minimizing concerns. A rarity, all in all. From these crazy characteristics derives his legacy, which is distributed in books, documentaries or a television series that bears his surname as its title, The Durrells, and narrates his stay in Corfu.

In the mid-1930s they arrived on this Greek island and their presence can still be glimpsed: without an official tour, anyone interested in this curious family can visit their different residences, some of the corners where they spent more time or the recognitions that have been made to them through plaques or sculptures: their spirit still remains in Corfu, despite the changes that this place of rocky beaches, rugged villages and medieval fortresses has undergone.

The lineage was consolidated from Lawrence Samuel and Louisa Durrell, who had Lawrence, Margery (who died at one year of diphtheria), Leslie, Margaret and Gerald between 1912 and 1925. All were born in India, where the father worked as an engineer , and returned to England when he died in April 1928. From the misty beaches of Bournemouth, south of Southampton, the Durrells moved to Greek territory in 1935. These were times when, as their mother would say, they did not know I knew what you were going to find when you got off the ship.

And what they found was a paradise totally opposite to the English landscape. Corfu, the mythical island where Odysseus was supposedly shipwrecked before reaching Ithaca, had green hills that descended imposingly to the lapis lazuli of the Ionian Sea. The towns were home to orchards of friendly farmers. The old city, with a Byzantine wall protecting the historic center, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007, sought entertainment among the beauty of its alleys and the mixture of influences in urban planning or in buildings.

From the tropics they had jumped into the British cold. And from there to Mediterranean splendor. Corfu was a separate planet for the Durrells. On their paths they crossed paths with people of unknown language who lent themselves to help at any time and on a day-to-day basis they had altered the humid school for a kind of anarchy under the sun. Under Louisa’s tutelage, the brothers forged their identity among orchards and pebble coves. They changed houses three times, they were victims of innocent misunderstandings and, above all, a saga was consolidated that has not stopped making people talk.

Gerald, not one of the brothers, perhaps the best known, renowned naturalist and founder of the zoo on the island of Jersey (United Kingdom), the youngest of the family was not only a figure in his guild, but also left several literary works for posterity that tell, precisely, their childhood on the island. With My Family and Other Animals (1956), included in the Corfu Trilogy along with Bichos y otros relatives (1969) and El Jardín de los Dioses (1978), he began his foray into literature and left for posterity a humorous portrait of his brothers and the comings and goings until 1939 for this piece of Greece.

It is told in it how Leslie became fond of weapons and hunting, without miraculously amputating any of his relatives’ limbs; how Margaret, or Margo, was quite successful with the male sex and wept over disappointments in love; how Lawrence (affectionately nicknamed Larry), the eldest, got his writing career off the ground with the novel Pied Piper of Lovers (1935). In addition, he was inspired by this geography for Prospero’s Cell, the forerunner of an extensive bibliography of theater, stories, poetry or the famous tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet, which placed him on the verge of the Nobel Prize in 1962. And, of course, permeates each feat with the fight of Louisa, head of the family, before this domestic farce.

 

The strawberry house, the daffodil house and the white villa

Currently you can visit some of the most important places where the Durrell pawned these years, apart from finding their name on a school or store and in one of the main parks of the citadel. The fundamental thing is to go to the houses where they lived and that are the backbone of the chapters of these memories, following the route marked out in My family and other animals, in which he recounts that first incursion on the back of Spiro Hakiaopulos or Spiro Americano, who was his driver. trustworthy the rest of the time.

Gerald writes about that journey to the first village, pink or “strawberry” in color “Like an exhalation we crossed the tortuous outskirts of the town, happily dodging the loaded donkeys, the carts, the small groups of peasant women and the innumerable dogs, announcing our passage with thunderous honks. As he introduces, “it was small and square, planted in its little garden with a pinkish and arrogant appearance. The shutters, cracked and peeling in places, had turned a delicate pastel green in the sun. In the garden, surrounded by tall fuchsia hedges, the flower beds formed intricate geometric patterns, outlined with white edges.

It can be reached from the Vlacherna monastery, an icon of the island for being located on the sea, only connected to land by a boardwalk in the form of an appendage. And with a corridor on the other bank from which you can see (and hear) the planes that descend, brushing your hair, landing at the airport. It is about 10 kilometers from the capital (Kerkyra, in Greek), but it is private property and can only be seen from the outside or on one of the platforms where the villa is rented: reserve its 240 square meter plot with a pool and three bedrooms It costs about 350 euros a night. What it allows is to take the opportunity to see the so-called Pontikonisi or Mouse Island, named after its shape and with the legend of having been the ship in which Ulysses sailed in The Odyssey before Poseidon transformed it into a green stone.

This mansion, which for the Durrells is “enormous”, “of a tall and square Venetian type”, stands “on a hill overlooking the sea, surrounded by unkempt olive groves and silent lemon and orange groves”. The atmosphere, continues the youngest of the family, exhales melancholy through its walls “full of cracks and chipping” or through “the echo of its immense halls”. Gerald plays there with spiders and other insects listening in the background to “the screaming cicadas”, a sound that accompanies the traveler throughout the island. Shortly afterward they would pack up again and drive, with Spiro at the wheel, to the daffodil-colored villa.

A small town on the east coast, about nine kilometers north of Corfu town. The block, which was once surrounded by anemones and geraniums, is now a disused plot near Gouvia. On its reverse, where “a shaggy crest” of olive groves peeked out, Gerald Durrell scrutinized the ants and their larvae or stopped among the cypresses to see the nests of finches, but, above all, he discovered the courtship of the turtles. Along with his friend Roger, he spent “hours and hours” watching “the knights in mismatched armor in contention for their ladies”, without being bored by “the show” and betting on who was going to win that courtship battle.

And from there to the key point of the route: the “white” town. A sturdy building, built on the shores of Kalami Bay, 30 kilometers north of the main city, that could be classified as the goal of this literary pilgrimage through the planet of the Durrells. This is how Gerald describes it: “Perched on a hill among olive trees, the new villa, white as snow, had a wide terrace framed by a thick vine cornice on all one side. Ahead was a well-walled pocket garden, dense tangle of wildflowers, shaded by the glossy dark green foliage of a large magnolia tree. The dirt road, furrowed with potholes, went around the house and then descended between olive groves, vineyards and orchards until it came out on the road”.

It should be added that this front yard bordered a cove of dark rock and crystal clear waters. It is assumed that Lawrence had become independent there with his wife Nancy, although this diversification is not nuanced in the novel. The intact building recalls those passages and stands as a tribute to the family. In the lower part, with the name of the White House in large letters and a plaque that highlights it, a restaurant has been set up with dozens of photos of the Durrells on the walls and a space dedicated to their books or merchandising. You can buy the English edition of What Happened to Margo?, published in 1996, the memoirs that Margaret wrote decades later and in which she added anecdotes from those years in Corfu.

Where the owners of the premises live is on the second floor. And in the third, built later, an apartment is rented for 600 euros a day. In the event that there are no guests, you can see this room-museum on the history of the site for three euros. If not, a virtual option on the web summarizes its evolution in seven sections, from the beginning of the 20th century to the present, explaining the years of World War I, the Durrell period, the disaster of World War II and the path towards mass tourism.

Gerald and the rest went to the Antioniti lagoon from there, at the southern end of the island, to have picnics. Or they entered the forests covered with cyclamen flowers (Cyclamen graecum), “an ideal place to rest after a hunt for lizards”, as the naturalist notes. The surroundings of this white villa resembled the base of a board game, due to its plots framed with water canals where corn, potatoes, figs or grapes were grown. He points out “Those fields, small squares of color surrounded by bright water, formed like a wide and multicolored chessboard on which the varied figures of the peasants circulated”.

They said goodbye between “tearful goodbyes” from Corfu and their suitcases and animals filled a caravan of cars that Lawrence described as “the funeral procession of a posh ragpicker”. It was the war declared in 1939 that forced the Durrells to return to England . In the land where they settled, each one followed their passions, be they bugs, weapons, furtive romances or letters, but none of them forgot this fascinating Greek corner. They are now remembered at different points on the island, as ambassadors of honor thanks to their stories or fictions in memory of this extravagant clan. Posted by Iraic.info, a news and information agency.

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