There’s a slim, white cat sitting at the water’s edge intently watching the sea-going ducks as they paddle about among the moored boats. We, in turn, are watching the cat as we lounge in comfortable wicker armchairs, lazily popping peanuts into our mouths in between sips of gin and tonic. The sea is literally inches away from our toes. The Albanian coastline is not much further away with the intervening channel dotted with small, white boats nodding gently in the sunshine. Behind us villagers and visitors alike are going about their business while the occasional car makes its careful way among them. This is Agios Stephanos (San Stephano) at its beguiling best.
You start to enjoy Agios Stephanos several minutes before you even reach it as it lies at the bottom of a series of hairpin (but not difficult) bends with its buildings clustered along the shore of a horse-shoe shaped cove making an enticing picture from above. Down at sea-level the road becomes very narrow as it continues through the village so we leave the car in the designated parking space among the olive trees and continue along the road on foot.
A sandy beach runs along one arm of the horse-shoe while the road follows the apex, which is barely 150 metres long, with its shops and tavernas offering everything that a holiday maker might desire. It is possible to walk from one end to the other in about ten minutes but it always takes us much longer. There’s usually something to delay us. The scent of lamb and rigani draws us to the taverna menus. We pause to watch a smart yacht drop anchor in the bay. There are some lovely blue and white Greek shirts to be examined. We call in at a small but well-filled supermarket to buy yesterday’s paper, but only to do the crossword. The rest of the world is too far away for us to have any interest in what it’s doing. We then climb up a few steps among pots of basil and, passing the tiny travel office where you can hire a boat or a taxi, we reach the last shop in the village. It’s one of my favourite shops offering attractive gifts and clothes that are just that bit different from the usual tourist goods.
By this time we’ve been on our feet for an hour and half but, fortunately, the bar is close at hand. We settle into the armchairs and order the ‘g and t’s.
The evening finds us less indolent. We’ve come to the top of the hairpin road and now we’re sitting on plastic chairs in the hamlet of Eleourgeia drinking retsina from plastic cups. Both Eleourgeia and Agios Stephanos are in North-east Corfu,within the district of Sinies, but the two communities are very different. Agios Stephanos has evolved from a fishing village into a popular holiday spot while Eleourgeia has just a supermarket and a bakery and perhaps twenty houses where local people live. However, this tiny settlement has one important attraction and that is the headquarters of the Sinies Cultural Association. Its purpose is to keep alive the traditional music, dances and songs and it runs classes teaching all these to the children. Unlike in the UK, the youngsters in Greece consider it to be quite acceptable to be seen doing the traditional dances. It’s part of their everyday life.
Tonight the association has organised a party for the community and everyone is welcome; Greeks, ex-pats and holiday makers. It’s all very informal – the invitation is extended simply by hanging a notice on the fence and then you just turn up. Plastic tables and chairs are set out in a small field with strings of lights twinkling in the nearby trees and there’s a souvlaki barbecue going full tilt with the drinks stall next to it, manned by a team of helpers serving and taking the money quickly and efficiently. And it’s service with a smile. A bouzouki band is playing on a small stage with amplifiers turned up to explosive levels and a circular dance floor has been laid out on the grass. We sit as far back as we can as our tender English ears struggle to cope with the thousands of pounding decibels and we watch the proceedings.
There must be 150 people here of all ages from very senior citizens to babes in arms and most of them seem to know each other. They sit in groups which change in formation as friends greet friends and cousins join up with cousins. We recognise many faces – the man from the super market, a waiter from a taverna up the hill – and some of our acquaintances come and sit with us before drifting off to greet an uncle or to fetch another beer. It’s a great social occasion with the local residents joined by people from the surrounding villages. Everyone is in a good mood despite having done a day’s work with more the next day. (The event had been scheduled for the previous weekend but had been postponed because of heavy rain, ‘raining chair-legs’ as the Greeks say.)
Then, without any ceremony, two people walk on to the dance floor – a middle-aged lady in black trousers and a neat blue jumper and a younger man in jeans and they begin to dance. Side by side and holding hands, they step neatly round the floor and are joined by a resident English woman who dances as well as any Corfiot The line becomes longer as more people run to join them and soon the snaking line represents a broad cross-section of the community – teenage girls in tight jeans and low necklines, housewives, small boys and girls, a tall, a grey-haired man dancing with his jacket slung over his shoulders, a statuesque, blonde lady in an ankle-length, black dress and the man who picks up the litter from the roadside. And the spectators sit and chat, pausing occasionally to give a delighted whoop of appreciation and encouragement.
The band plays non-stop, and seemingly the dance will never end. People slip into the line and others step out of it. A young woman and her toddler step up and she picks up the rhythm with the toddler tottering along at her side. When the music does finally stop, the toddler continues to wobble his way around the floor.
At about eleven o’clock, even though there’s no sign of the gathering breaking up, we feel the need for our bed and, having said Good Night to our friends, we set off up the starlit lane back to our car. However, the loukoumades man is there with his roadside stall and he’s just serving up a fresh batch of the small, fried doughnuts. We buy a tub full, drizzled with honey and cinnamon, and sit on a wall to eat them while the music comes to us on the night air. It’s the perfect end to the day.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends CV Villas for holidays to Corfu and the Ionian islands.