03 August 2020

A planned luxury resort
threatens Corfu’s ‘last
piece of virgin territory’

Kassiopi Harbour, close to the proposed luxury resort at Erimitis … contractors are being lined up for the flagship ‘Kassiopi project’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is a bank holiday weekend in Ireland, and in the evenings over the last few days I have been catching up on the television series The Durrells, a television series I missed when it was first broadcast on ITV in 2016.

The series tells of the story of the Durrells, a family struggling financially in Bournemouth in the mid-1930s and who decides to uproot themselves and move to the Greek island of Corfu.

The 26-episode series was inspired by Gerald Durrell’s three autobiographical books about the four years the family spent in Corfu between 1935 and 1939.

It is an evocative series, bringing back sweet memories of visits to Corfu, first in May 2006 to lecture on 19th century Greek history and Irish Philhellenes at the Durrell School of Corfu, then directed by the Irish writer and journalist, and writer Richard Pine, and, of course, last year’s holiday in Corfu, when I travelled throughout the island, as well as visiting Paxos, the monasteries of Meteora and northern Epirus in southern Albania.

The series is all the more poignant, because a planned holiday in Greece later this month has been cancelled in the past week because of the travel restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and because of reports at the weekend of threats to some of the beautiful places I visited in Corfu last year that are associated with the Durrell family.

In a news feature in The Guardian at the weekend (1 August 2020), Helena Smith reported how there is ‘anger is in the air and battle lines have been drawn’ in Corfu in response to plans for an ‘ultra-luxury’ in ‘the island’s last piece of virgin territory – a place of unique biodiversity.’

She lines up, on the one side, campaigners who include Lee Durrell, widow Gerald Durrell, whose portrayed Corfu in My Family and Other Animals, and, on the other, the Greek government and the New York-based private equity fund NCH Capital, which acquired a ‘natural paradise’ near Kassiopi in north-east Corfu eight years ago, when Athens was selling off assets at the height of the Greek debt crisis.

The permits have been granted for the flagship ‘Kassiopi project,’ contractors are being lined up, and by 2026, the developers hopes to have transformed a headland known as Erimitis (‘The Hermit’) into a five-star resort with a large hotel, holiday villas and a 60-berth marina.

Lee Durrell is quoted as pointing out that Corfu has long had enough architectural ‘carbuncles’ along its coast.

But Erimitis is not only home to otters, seals, raptors and reptiles but also lakes, marshes and bright pebble beaches, orchids and strawberry trees, in an area that remains one of the least developed in the Mediterranean and with a unique ecosystem, making it ‘a jewel of nature that must be saved.’

The headland lies along a coastline jokingly referred to as Kensington-on-Sea after the wealthy London district that is home to many of its summer residents. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are regular visitors.

But Corfu already attracts the super-rich, and billionaires with villas on the island have joined resident conservationists, anti-capitalists, leftists and environmentalists opposing the development. Last month, the financier Nathaniel Rothschild, a frequent visitor to his family’s estate in the area, tweeted that that the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was ‘foolish’ for endorsing the Erimitis ‘development fiasco.’

Building work is about to begin, but activists are preparing to go back to court to try to block the €120 million development.

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely cut the number of tourists in Greece this year, and is exposing how many parts of Greece, including Corfu, are overly dependent on tourism. Helena Smith reports, ‘Much of the island’s coast is now lined with rundown and eerily empty hotels: the price of mass tourism seemingly catering to another age.’

‘In retrospect it’s a tragedy that some of the very wealthy people who live along this coastline didn’t form a consortium when the property was put up for sale,’ Richard Pine told her. ‘They could have matched the absurdly low figure of €25m, which was all that the state received for selling it off. In place of the resort, they could have endowed a national park with an interpretive centre for schoolchildren to appreciate the ecosystem on their doorsteps.’

Lake Korission in south-west Corfu … one of the many unspoiled natural habitats on the island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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