One of the world’s all-time favourite holiday destinations, Corfu is the sun-drenched Greek Island famed not only as the setting for Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, but also as a place of gorgeous beaches, beautiful scenery and stunning coastal views over the glittering Mediterranean.
Inspired by pictures of her ridiculously amazing villa Agnos House (available to rent this summer through Scott Williams), we turned to Interior Designer Looby Crean, who has been visiting Corfu for years and is an expert on what to do and where to go on this most idyllic of Greek islands. If you’re going this summer, read on for her hot tips and to discover how she transformed the house into a stunning home. If not, read on, be inspired and book for next year! You won’t regret it….
Agnos House is stunning. How long have you owned it for?
We first saw the old house and it’s amazing land around it in 2000. This was the year after we had wondered, after visiting Corfu for many years, what on earth happened, if you turned LEFT up the hill, rather than right, down to the sea where everyone wants to stay near Kassioppi and St Stephano. We happened to ask the agent at the end of our holidays, and she said that, by chance, they were going to rent a house in the hills for the following year. After further rather innocent enquiries, I asked if she thought there was anything for sale up there. Three months later, out of the blue, she rang me and told me that she had found the place. Rather sceptically, I made the journey, in the pouring rain, via Athens, in November, to see what she was insisting on. I could not believe my eyes. We walked down a grassy goat track – with the goats and the goatherd, bells ringing, and, around the corner, there was this idyll. Just out of My Family and Other Animals. This beautiful arrangement of stone houses on a shallow rise, surrounded by fruit trees and a meadow, and all around, olive groves. And, even more, we walked up the meadow and turned around to see this quite breathtaking view – 270 degrees from Corfu Town all the way to the North of the Island, across to Albania and were able to see over the mountains to the inland sea behind. We had absolutely no choice but to enter the struggle to buy it from numerous owners of small pieces. You couldn’t have made it up.
Was there much to do to it when you bought it?
Over the years that it took to not only build, decorate, furnish and actually iron out all the technical teething problems, probably the greatest triumph has been the garden. Jennie Gaye, the astounding garden designer – who actually not only designs, but creates it herself with her team – have made for the house a paradise in its garden. It was finished only a few months ago and has given the house the most extraordinary setting. She has managed to create what feels like the original meadow in which the house sits, using flowing terraces of planting and old stone that sweeps around the contours of the land and in which the pool sits so beautifully. It flows incredibly naturally out in to the surrounding olive groves and leads your eye out to sea. There is the constant humming of insects and blizzards of white butterflies as they enjoy it as well.
What first attracted you to the house?
I have been working on houses for years as an interior designer. The most difficult thing here was to manage what was there, both the existing buildings and the land, without destroying the magic of the place. In order to have the full benefit of the view, we had to add buildings and therefore they had to have the same, incredibly authentic simple stone shapes with shallow roofs which are so typical of the original houses on the island, and which you only see now away from the sea, up in the hills. The new building is in the style of the old with the same shallow roof, old stone (one metre thick), arches and shuttered windows. It took almost 5 years to get to the stage where it was habitable.
How would you describe the decorative style of the house?
The house rather designed itself. Everything had to feel natural and authentic. That is not as easy as it sounds! All the limestone flooring was imported to the UK to be distressed and then shipped out. The same with the Pitch Pine flooring – old boards from Lancashire mills fixed with traditional cut head nails. The ceilings are also clad, in typical local style, with pine boarding. Timber shuttered windows and old pine doors and antique ironmongery. The bathrooms have very simple fittings with teak washstands and freestanding or teak topped baths. Behind the scenes, to keep the impression of simplicity. the technology works away in secret – no visible and noisy air conditioning – rather, a hidden heat pump in a large room of its own which delivers cooling to all the rooms. The same story with water – the most precious item on the island. Although it rains twice as much in Corfu as the UK, in the summer, it vanishes. The mains water is often switched off for weeks at a time. The house has underground water storage the size of three swimming pools which is collected in winter. Sophisticated pumping systems deliver pressurised water in to the house. As if by magic, as it is all invisible. A labour of love.
What inspired your design scheme?
Once the bones of the house were clear, so was everything that was to go in to it. The critical issue was the best quality and large beds and linen. Then, calm places to sleep. All the bedrooms have incredible sea views and are all very large. No one likes to be put in a second class room. They are layered with all the comforts that everyone appreciates in various subtle washed linens and wool paisley throws – all sourced from an array of suppliers that I use for my work. The ground floor living spaces are livened up with bursts of strong colour in painted cabinets and curtains. I wanted it to be timeless but good humoured. Above all, no bling. This is low key luxury.
What do you love about Corfu?
It is the very easiest place to immediately relax. It is an extraordinarily unpompous place. Despite the stories of large boats and important arrivals on the island, the island remains resolutely unphased and unchanged. The food improves, but the general atmosphere is totally relaxing. Once someone has been, then return year after year. I have seen it with my own eyes again and again.
How does Corfu differ from other Greek islands?
It is fun for everyone – from babies to toddlers to teenagers, parents of teenagers (who know that their offspring are having a good time), the later middle aged and those just going to have an out of school holidays few days in the sun. Because people go back year after year, it is likely that friends will be there and new acquaintances made from people before vaguely met. We have had wonderful encounters with people we vaguely knew, and then became good friends, having had elongated lucnhes over one too many bottles of wine – young ones at one end of the table and the parents at the other (footing the bill!).
What are your top 5 things to do in Corfu and why?
- Go down to St Stephano. Sit in the bar while someone hires a boat and spend the day going from cove to cove, swimming in the fabulously clean sea.
- Go in to Corfu Town in the evening and have a drink on the Venetian arcade that looks over the cricket pitch (it is called the Liston – literally, List on – you had to be on the list to be allowed to go there!). Wander down the marble cobbles streets getting lost and have supper at one of the tavernas with the incredibly long names that I couldn’t possible write down here!
- Go up to Old Perithia – the abandoned village where you see the incredibly beautiful old architecture of these stone houses and shallow roofs. Have dinner in any of the three or four tavernas there.
- Get up really early and for those who are mountain goats, walk up Mount Panokrator. There is a monastery on top. If you get there early enough, you will be deafened by the bells ringing – and see the incredibly view.
- Go on a trip to Butrint – the old Roman City in Albania (it is directly opposite and visible from Agnos House). This is a world heritage site (as is Corfu Town). It is an astonishing archaeological site where you can see the ruins of the City’s extraordinary development under various different rulers. Have lunch in a local Taverna with a guide.
What are your top 5 places to eat and why?
- Sitting by the wall overlooking the harbour at the taverna in Koloura to eat fabulous fish at lunchtime.
- Eating “Toula’s Spicy Prawns” at Toula’s on Agni beach in the evening.
- Taking a boat to Kerasia, mooring it on the pontoon and eating Calamari and drinking a beer after a morning of swimming for a late lunch
- Sitting right on the beach at Eucalyptus in St Stephano.
- Cavo Barbaro on Avlaki beach – glorious breeze at lunch time and great food.
What typically Greek dishes would you suggest ordering?
- Toula’s Prawns
- Horta (wild greens)
- Aubergine castles
- Grilled Feta with chilli (make sure you eat it straight away)
- Grilled Sea bream with boiled potatoes and plenty of lemon.
Where are the best beaches?
- Avlaki – it’s the perfect arc of white pebbles beach. You can sail with Jan the sailing man or just hire a sun lounger. It’s never busy. It’s blue water and backed by beautiful vegetation. No fighting traffic and finding car parking spaces. And, it has Cavo Barbaro for lunch. A treasure.
- Kerasia is another perfect beach. More white pebbles and gorgeous water. A bit packed on Sundays as sensibly, Corfiots come here too. Fabulous Taverna.
- Agni – a perfect little beach, but as it has three fantastic tavernas right next to each other, it can be a bit crowded with boats which leave little room for swimming.
Where’s best for a family day out?
Hire a boat to tootle up and down the coves, swimming and bobbing about, going to Kerasia for lunch, meeting other people there for a long lunch, dropping off the boat, stopping at Yanni’s (at his supermarket on the road down to St Stephano) for some provisions for dinner (and a chat with him catching up on the local news) a swim in the pool back at Agnos, cup of tea, long soak in the bath, glass of wine on the terrace marvelling again at the view and seeing who will light the barbeque to grill up some chicken. Bliss.
Do you have any ‘secret insider addresses’ you can share with us?
The Old School at Porta. You don’t get more Greek than that. It’s just above Agnos in the school house next to the Church. You may be the only guests. Make sure they know you are coming.
Finally, what’s the one thing everyone must do when they visit Corfu?
Located in the north east of Corfu, Agnos House is available through Scott Williams for hire. The house sleeps up to 13 in six bedrooms and costs £1230pp based on 13 sharing during high season (includes daily cleaning and pool guy. A chef is available on request.)