For more than 30 years, I’ve been searching for my personal paradise. My criteria isn’t unreasonable. I want a mild climate; good infrastructure (a good international airport, since I travel so much); decent health care; political stability; a low cost of living; cultural opportunities; a low crime rate; availability of quality, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables; access to spiritual programs such as meditation, Buddhism, and Yoga; and a friendly, eco-conscious community. After visiting almost all the States in the U.S. and more than 50 countries, I’d all but given up. My paradise just didn’t seem to exist. And then I was invited to visit Arillas, a small town on the northwestern tip of the island of Corfu, Greece.
The first indication that Arillas was different came when my host, Alex Christou, owner of Zambeta Apartments, welcomed me to his complex, installed me in a sunny two-room suite, provided me with a map and some literature, and then left me alone for the next 24 hours. Normally, when I am invited somewhere in my capacity as a travel writer, my host puts together an itinerary so jam packed with events and activities that it makes my head hurt. Wise man that he is, Alex wanted to give me free time to discover Arillas on my own.
After checking out my home for the next few days, I headed for the beach, a pretty expanse of caramel colored sand with a pier stretching out into a crystal blue Mediterranean. Everywhere I looked, the pride that Arillas takes in its town was evident. Markets, shops, cafes, and resorts were strung along the opposite side of the road, but unlike many over-touristed spots, in Arillas the beach has been kept free of commercial development. Park benches surrounded by pots of blooming plants beckoned whenever I needed to rest. When the road turned inland I descended via flagstone steps and walked another mile on the pristine beach toward the distant cliffs.
On the way back to my apartment, I stopped into one of the resorts to ask if I could pay a day fee to use their swimming pool. The manager smiled and waved off my offer. “Feel free to come and use our pool anytime, no charge.” After cooking a bit of dinner, I wandered back down to the new Ammos Beach Bar-Cafe I had noticed during my walk. Hoping to write, I asked if they had wifi. “Our wifi is being installed tomorrow,” the owner apologized. “But I hope you will come back, and feel free to just sit and use the wifi. There is no need to buy anything.” I was dumbfounded. This was not typical tourist spot behavior.
The following day I broached the subject with Alex. “That’s the way it is all over Arillas. You would get the same response from any business here. We want people to feel welcome.”
This unique mentality may be a result of the town’s history as a tourist destination. Central European hippies “discovered” it in the 1970’s and soon other spiritual people, many of whom had been to India, followed. One couple started a spiritual holiday club in the surrounding hills, which became something of a trend; today there are four similar facilities where guests can participate in meditation, Yoga and healing retreats.
Other than these few meditation centers, most accommodations in Arillas continue to be small, family-owned operations like Alex’s. There are no high-rises looming over the beach, no giant grocery stores, no fast-food restaurants, and the focus is on sustainability. As further proof, one afternoon Alex introduced me to Dimitris (Brouklis) Kourkoulos, owner of Brouklis Grill-Taverna.
I asked Brouklis what the term “green” means to him as a restaurateur. “It’s producing locally, eating locally. It’s seasonal, sustainable living. For example, restaurants in Greece have menus for legal reasons, but if I go to a restaurant I ask the waiter, ‘What do you have fresh or what do you recommend.’ If they cannot tell me, I leave. In my restaurant, I want the customer to return again and again, so the level of service and food is high quality. The best local olive oil, the best fresh sardines.”
I grinned and asked him to bring me whatever he recommended for lunch. Minutes later, I was staring at a heaping plate of fresh-caught sardines, lightly battered and fried to crisp perfection, with a size of tzatziki sauce. I wolfed them down and, for an instant, considered ordering a second plate, but my increasing waistline was the voice of reason. Brouklis joined me as I set my napkin aside with a sigh of contentment. I related the story of the swimming pool and wifi and asked if this was as common as Alex had implied.
“We work with the heart, not with the brain,” he confirmed. A fascinating conversation ensued about Arilliots view of life – what is important and what is not, and how Arillas has succeeded as a tourist destination without losing their core values. By the time I left, I was convinced that Arillas is a place I could easily live full time. The discussion was so intriguing that, rather than try to summarize, I decided to provide the entire recording below:
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That Arillas residents have such a positive attitude, despite the horrible economic problems in Greece, is nothing short of miraculous. With little hope for governmental assistance, they decided to take matters into their own hands. A professor of marketing with strong ties to the community carried out a two-year marketing research study to determine what, if anything, needed to be improved in order to best serve the tourists. A whopping 75% of tourists interviewed said absolutely nothing needed to be changed.
“Guests come to Arillas for peace and quiet, relaxation, beach holidays, walking in nature, spiritual holidays, and nude sunbathing,” Alex said. The few amenities that were lacking either have been addressed, or are in the works. “We’ve installed an ATM machine in the center of town, and several of the restaurants have added vegetarian items to their menus.” A Business Union that formed three years ago constructed trash bin enclosures on the beach and created an eight-kilometer foot path along the coast to the top of the mountain. A cultural club sprung up to offer yoga, aerobics, painting for children, dance classes, and CPR classes. As a result of the latter, 60% of the residents are now qualified to give CPR and defibrillator has been installed at the beach.
For the same reasons that tourists love Arillas, Alex and his family decided to return after being away for many years.
“We believed that the place where you live has a major influence on your life. We…had busy jobs in other parts of the world but didn’t feel content with the hectic business and running in circles our lives were built around. We knew that Corfu was a place of true beauty and abundance, a perfect place to live as much as possible in harmony with the natural rhythm of the Earth. And the island hasn’t let us down!”
After reestablishing themselves, Alex and his wife, Christina, hopped on board with their own organization, Green Corfu, which promotes alternative holidays and showcases the sustainability aspect of Arillas. “Many of products you eat here are produced or caught locally. Eggs, tomatoes, Corfu olive oil, tsitsibyra (ginger beer), seafood, and kumquats, for example. There’s lots of awareness on recycling. Our garden waste is composted and our kitchen waste goes to the chickens next door.”
Over the years, a series of special events have been organized around culture and sustainability. The lineup begins in May with the Analipsi (Ascension) Festival, dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. During the first week of August, the Antamoma (Get together) Festival features performances by dance groups from around Greece. At the Wine Festival, held in early September, visitors are invited to make wine in the traditional way by stomping grapes in barrel. The previous year’s vintage is served for free all night to anyone who purchases a hand-painted carafe, though Alex is quick to point out that the wine from the grape stomping is discarded.
The most recent addition is the five-day Corfu Beer Festival, which held its inaugural event just last year. Sponsored by Corfu-Beer, a microbrewery based in Arillas and Greece’s only real ale producing brewery, this year’s theme is ‘Corfu Meets UK.’ Guest brewers from the UK are already on site, producing their special brews in preparation for five days of sampling that begins tomorrow.
My time in Arillas passed much too fast. One evening, Alex took me along to a weekly Osho meditation at the Corfu Buddha Hall, after which everyone shared a delicious vegan dinner. Another day, I craved a Greek salad, so I headed back to my favorite little beach cafe, where the wifi was now working. My eyes bugged out out when they set an enormous salad in front of me, pile