I think the foremost advantage is that your friends give you a sort of licence to enjoy yourselves, and any tendency to inappropriate abstemiousness is overwhelmed by a new group dynamic focused on conviviality. Thus, a half-litre carafe of wine shared by a couple, becomes two litres shared by two couples. At least, that’s what seems to happen when Joan and I holiday with our good friends Jon and Jean.
Also, friends give you more options. If your usual walking partner doesn’t feel up to one of the more strenuous hikes, there is always someone there to accompany them on an easier trek, while you and your pal can try the more manly option. This happened on our first full day in Corfu in September 2017 on the first walk from the Paramonas Beach Hotel up to the highest peak in southern Corfu, Agios Mattheos.
We all set off to attempt it, but it was a hot day, and about halfway there, the ladies peeled off towards Agios Mattheos village in search of ice-cream. Jon and I continued the steep ascent through semi-vertical olive groves to the summit, with lots of pauses to gasp for breath on the way. The views were as breathtaking as the walk up, a sort of visual poem in blue and green.
On the way back, we automatically entered the very first bar we came to and ordered beer. Served in a glass straight from the freezer with a film of ice on the outside, it began our love affair with Mythos, a superb Greek lager that, for me, is up there with the best Munich beers. There is another Greek lager sold in Corfu called Alpha, but it is but a pale imitation of the blonde nectar that is Mythos.
Walking stimulates the brain and, when you walk with friends, it frees up the conversation too. I am often stunned by the perspicacity of the insights that come to Jon and me when we are on a walk. Indeed, I have thought of writing to the Government and suggesting that, whenever they have a particularly knotty problem, they should send us on an Inntravel holiday. We’d have it solved in under a week – or maybe two.
The olive groves of Corfu, like our beards, rather leant themselves to our image of ourselves as bearded sages. The trees are gnarled and ancient, their trunks twisted into fantastical shapes, and through their dappled shade, Jon and I sauntered one day in profound conversation like twin busts of Socrates, styled by Berghaus.
Suddenly, we were interrupted in our philosophising by a sort of strangled cry from behind us. We turned to see Joan looking in perplexity at Jean, who had thrown down her walking poles and was in the process of tearing off her rucksack, which she also threw to the ground. She then began a sort of Scottish sword dance around the things on the floor, while uttering strange cries and clawing at the buttons of her shirt, which she tore off and swung wildly round her head.
Afterwards, she explained, somewhat breathlessly, that a flying insect, about the size of a small bird, had flown down the front of her shirt. “It’s a good job I was wearing my vest,” she declared.
Another encounter with animals of the insect variety occurred when we were staying at the Hotel Corfu Pearl. We had a superb dinner here and, with it, were introduced to an unusual, local Liapades wine, a dry white called Kakotrygis. The name means “hard to harvest” in Greek and it is so-called because the stalks of this unique Corfu grape are tough and hard to cut. This wine is also unusual amongst whites because it does not require additional sulphites to stabilise it.
Towards the end of this meal, Jon asked me, “Do you know there’s a stick insect on your shoulder?”
I said, no but if he sang it, I would try to hum along. Then, catching a movement in my peripheral vision, I brushed at my left shoulder.
“It’s on the wall now, behind you.”
We got up to have a look. It was a praying mantis. It turned its green, diamond-shaped head and looked at me over its shoulder, accusingly I thought, with its tiny, glossy black eyes.
“Hello,” I said.
“You just said hello to an insect,” Jon said.
“It’s the way it looked at me.”
“The praying mantis is unusual amongst insects in that it can turn its head and look at you over its shoulder,” said Jon, sounding and looking, rather appropriately, just like Gerald Durrell.