(Editor’s note: We’re reposting this because it’s freezing in our part of Europe and we’re dreaming of summer. And a personal note: Maggie is currently on her annual global tour, this year to Sri Lanka and Vietnam. But she will be returning to Corfu.)
My sister Marjorie is our family’s original expat, but her story is fairly typical of a class of restless Americans who fall in love with Europe, usually while in high school.
In high school, she did the de rigueur summer trip to Europe.
Just out of college, she took off for France for a year, making ends meet by walking dogs for rich people in the 6th Arrondissement and teaching English. Marge got her degree in International Relations, then her MBA. She went to work in import/export before she took off again for France.
I asked her a few days ago how many countries she’s visited in her 55 years, and she has no idea.
Recently, she and her husband Martin – whose family is from Latvia – have taken to traveling six months of the year, renting out their condo in the States. This year, they’ll be returning to Corfu for the summer, which Marge pronounces even more alluring than her beloved France.
Corfu is a large mountainous island in the Ionian Sea on the west side of the Greek mainland, right at the border of Albania. It’s a guidebook favorite because of the European-influenced architecture left behind in Corfu town by the Venetians, Romans and other empires who’ve ruled the island.
Corfu Town is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Marge ended up there because the cost of living is so reasonable and the sea is spectacular. But it’s the vibe, more than anything, my sister can’t resist. The slow pace of life. The languid meals. The friendliness of the Greeks and the British expats.
“Of all the places I’ve ever been, the Greeks are the ones who get it,” Marge says. “They know how to live life. To enjoy life.” In other words, it’s one of those places where people go on vacation, then forget to go home.
Before this turns into a travelogue, here’s what you need to know if you’re scouting places to live. First, Marge says, Greece’s economic woes and EU-enforced austerity haven’t penetrated Corfu. “It’s like two different economies,” she said. “Athens is a mess, but the prosperous tourist islands are doing great.”
Second, there aren’t the same level of amenities on Corfu that you find in, for example, the Netherlands or Germany. There is exactly one doctor on Corfu who takes national insurance, according to Marge. Otherwise, patients have to pay medical costs out of pocket.
Other than that, Corfu fulfills literally every one of her needs.
• The Ionian islands are the only green Greek island, Marge says, and the vegetation on Corfu looks like England or our native Kentucky because it rains in the winter. “Being a fair Scots person, I need shade.”
• The cost of living there with a spectacular seascape off her balcony is totally affordable.
• The Greeks are welcoming and accommodating.
• All the elements that make day-to-day life in Corfu Town so appealing are there including cuisine, architecture with an Italian/Roman influence and a variety of things to do and see. Where Marge lives is fairly basic, but if they want a bit more gloss, they can go to another part of the island such as up the coast to the resorts around Ipsos, or to the nearby islands of Paxos or Antipaxos.
Not that they’re exactly slumming it. Their apartment in Corfu Town has two bedrooms, one bath, two balconies – “BIG balconies,” Marjorie said –
high ceilings, a third floor and clear views of the Ionian Sea. They don’t have a kitchen, so they eat out at nearby restaurants, dining on the water.
“The food is lovely, and there is wonderful service. The vegetables are always beautiful. They have lamb, fish. You name it, it’s there,” though choices of vegetables and fruit are limited to what is in season.
“Life is good.”
They have wireless. “It’s not fast, but okay,” Marge says.
Now for the crazy part: Marge says you can find a great house on Corfu for 30 euros per day, “sometimes 25.”
When they return in a few weeks, their landlord has agreed to 22 euros per day based on a 3-month rental.
Last year, when they ran a few days over, Marjorie and Martin tried to pay their landlord for the extra time.
“He said, ‘You’ve given us enough. Keep it.’ ”
In the 21st Century, Corfu – like so many Greek islands – is both a party destination for discount-tour Brits and Europeans, and a sophisticated upscale retreat for more well-healed travelers and expats.
There are Brits married to Greeks … a handful of Brits live in Ipsos full-time. The island gets its share of high-season – July and August – tourists including “crazy Italian kids. Middle-aged Brits come in June and September, where there are bus loads of German college kids,” Marge says.
There is one tourist segment who never makes an appearance. “There are no Americans,” Marge says. Well, except Marge and Marty.
Living on an island comes with the inherent risk of Island Fever, that dread infection of ennui after you’ve seen it all and done it all. That’s not an issue on Corfu.
Marge and Martin take boat rides to Sidari on the other side of island. “The town is not much but the sea there is beautiful,” Marge says. “It’s different from any other area.”
She figures for about 25 euros, they have a full day traveling around the island by bus, hiking, wine with dinner, then getting a baklava from the grocery and sitting on the sea. Travel to the nearby islands such as Paxos and Antipaxos also is affordable.
Last year, they took the two-hour ride on a ferry boat to the posh resort island of Paxos for a week where they watched million-dollar sailboats coming by like cars streaming down a street. That apartment cost 50 euros per day. “Again, it was a completely different experience.”
Their favorite experience, though, is just relaxing wherever they might find themselves in the Greek Islands, Marge says. “We sit (at the restaurants) all day and for 20 euros we have grilled sardines and a carafe of wine.” Waiters bring them ouzo and free dessert.
What’s most important, she says, is enjoying island life. “We liked (Corfu) as soon as we got there. There’s nothing not to like.”
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.