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29 Sep
Old Perithia │ Why Corfu's ghost town is the island's best kept secret

 

By Anastasia Miari - Independent

Abandoned by its people in the Sixties, the town offers visitors to the Greek island something completely different

“The total population of the village? Two. There’ve always been two permanent residents living in Old Perithia at any one time,” says Mark Hendriksen, British owner of The Merchant’s House guesthouse at the foot of Corfu’s tallest peak, Mount Pantokrator. Corfu might be one of Greece’s best-known islands, but abandoned by its people in the 1960s, Old Perithia is without a doubt this holiday hotspot’s best-kept secret.

Cooler, greener, quieter and arguably cleaner (Mark and his Dutch wife Saskia have a strict no-litter policy) than most villages on the island, this is the ultimate destination for an authentic Greek getaway. With impressive vistas over the Ionian islands and neighbouring Albania, as well as wild-flower meadows humming with bees, it’s definitely enough to lure my travel companions and I up hairpin bends and away from the beach for a couple of days unplugged, offline and in nature

“All the jams and marmalades we use for guests are from the area,” Mark says as we dive into dollops of fig compote and cherry jam on hunks of white bread for breakfast. “I bake the only sourdough on Corfu, I make all the jams and, of course, Vasili gives us the honey.”

Vasili, as we learn later on our tour of the village, is the local bee man, proud owner of seven million of them plus a collection of 90-year-old pastel blue hives that he inherited from his grandfather. He welcomes us in with a kiss on either cheek (a real Greek) and insists on giving us a drink. We settle on iced tea and sip it in the dappled shade of fruit trees. There are bees everywhere.

“My bees are calm. It’s the weather,” Vasili assures, sans bee suit.

The bees dominate the conversation with a steady hum that’s surprisingly meditative. “My family was the last to leave in the 1960s so I have an emotional connection to this place,” says Vasili. “My sons will have it when I am gone.” Thanks to Mark and Saskia’s restoration work on Old Perithia and the subsequent 150 per cent rise in its visitors, Vasili is now able to turn a profit selling honey and plans on returning to the mountain village and his beehives full-time.

The hour-long tour of 130 medieval, hand-built stone houses way above the beaches of Kassiopi is something Mark and Saskia give to all visitors as part of their mission to put the village back on the map. Worthy of its title, Old Perithia existed as a settlement in 700BC and is the oldest village on the island.

“We read about this abandoned ghost village in the mountains in the villa we were staying at, came up here and fell in love with the place,” explains Saskia. With the Archaeological Society, the couple have managed to restore the old Merchant’s House to its former Venetian glory, sourcing bespoke furniture from Crete to give it an authentic 17th century feel. Not only this, but they’re helping others restore their own properties to wake them from a 60-year slumber

As we stop by a fig tree, weighed down with plump, purple fruit ripe for picking, Mark remembers to read out a list he’s written for us of all the fruit and wild herbs he forages for his various jams, preserves and dinners. Figs, cherries, pomegranates, pears, apples, asparagus, fennel and oregano (there are more on the list) grow wild here. It was this very fertile land that made Old Perithia rich 700 years ago. The village’s oak trees were used to build Venetian ships and agriculture was the mainstay of its economy right up until the 1960s. In the end, it was the rise of package holidays that drove residents to move further down the mountain, closer to the cash-toting tourists descending on Corfu’s coastlines.

Buying in 2009 and opening up for business the following year, Mark and Saskia have made restoring the Merchant’s House look easy. They’ve cleared paths, fixed lamps, added street signs and Mark, a London publisher by trade, has written a guidebook to get people back into the village that Corfu forgot.

It’s working. The local church had its first baptism and wedding after a 61 year hiatus this summer, and we’re not the only ones staying at the guesthouse. In fact, high-profile names like the Missoni family – the eponymous fashion empire – have enjoyed the anonymity that this low-key mountain village offers.

Sitting out on the neatly trimmed lawn of the guesthouse, smothering Vasili’s honey onto Mark’s second loaf of sourdough and swilling it down with tarry black coffee brought out by a smiling Saskia, I can see why the Missonis would want to come here. It’s not just the peace and quiet, the verdant backdrop, or the history, that’s so dreamy about Old Perithia. It’s the love that’s being poured back into it.

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