The corniche road that winds along Corfu’s north-eastern coast takes me past forested coves and dreamy beaches that draw thousands of tourists each year. But while most visitors base themselves in one of the numerous coastal resorts, I follow a lonely and sinuous road up into the mountains. My destination is Old Perithia – an atmospheric former ghost village – and Mark and Saskia Hendriksen, the couple who have helped revive it and turn it into one of Corfu’s most spellbinding attractions.
As I climb higher, the air cools, the olive trees turn to pines and I wonder whether I have taken a wrong turn, until suddenly the village appears, as if hidden until the final moment. “Of course that’s intentional,” says Mark Hendriksen as I meet him by the entrance. “The village was built in such a way as to see but not be seen,” he adds.
With houses dating from the 14th century, Old Perithia is Corfu’s most ancient village. Built to be safe from pirate attacks, it’s near the top of the island’s highest peak, Mount Pantokrator, surrounded by dense forest and with views over the Ionian Sea towards Albania. And yet for decades this was a ghost village, abandoned in the 1960s when tourism hit Corfu and villagers sought their fortunes down by the coast.
“The irony is that tourism is what originally killed Old Perithia,” says Mark, “and now tourism is bringing the village back to life.”
When Mark, a publisher from London, and Saskia, who is Dutch, first visited Old Perithia in 2009, it was a beautiful but abandoned relic of a bygone age. But they fell in love and devoted themselves to restoring the village, seeing its potential as a haven for visitors turned off by Corfu’s packed and gaudy coastal resorts.
The couple began by restoring an elaborate complex of connected properties into the Merchant’s House, a luxurious B&B with six suites. “We thought that this one restoration might serve as a catalyst,” says Mark. “If we could show that there was opportunity here, it might entice back the old villagers.” Gradually tourists started arriving, intrigued by the project and seeking peace and quiet in the hillsides. And as interest in the project grew, the original inhabitants of Old Perithia also began to return.
“I never thought I would be back,” said Nikos, who was born in Old Perithia and remembers long mule rides as a child from the village to the coast. Now he runs Ognistra, one of five tavernas in the village. “The restoration project has brought hope, not just to the village, but to the island,” he adds.
The huge increase in visitors means that his taverna, which is open daily for most of the year, is always busy serving traditional Corfiot dishes such as a pastitsada (macaroni with rooster) and sofrito (veal in wine and garlic sauce). Nikos has been able to do up his old house and return permanently to the village where he was born.
A walk through Old Perithia evokes something of its past glory and future potential. Elegant stone mansions in various states of ruin and repair line the streets, many with ornate features still visible, such as frescoes, sundials and coats of arms. At various points, you catch glimpses of the sea through undulating crenels in the mountain, like beams of light bursting through turret windows.
When Mark and Saskia arrived, only about 10% of the houses were in a habitable state. Today it’s 35% and growing, thanks to a delicate restoration process overseen by Greece’s notoriously finicky Central Archaeological Council, which has classified the village as a “historic monument”. Houses must be restored to their strict requirements, including interiors. Streets can be paved with stone only. Cars must be left outside the village. Only LED lights are permitted. There are no swimming pools. This does mean Old Perithia looks (more or less) how it did 500 years ago. It is a living fossil of a village but, crucially, it is living.
On my walk I meet Vasilis, whose parents were among the last to abandon Old Perithia in the 1960s. Thanks to the restoration project and the uptick in tourism, he was able to return with his family and take over his father’s long-dormant beehives. He now earns a living making honey to sell to visitors. “I grew up with my parents’ stories about life here,” he tells me. “There was a school, a cafe, a bakery, farmers, artisans … this was one of the most important villages in Corfu. It means a lot to return here, where my roots are. What makes me especially happy is that my children love it here and want to learn beekeeping, and so the traditions of the village will continue with the new generation.”
Today Vasilis and his family are among the 20 or so permanent inhabitants of Old Perithia. While Mark and Saskia may have kickstarted the revival, the villagers themselves have now taken ownership of the project, restoring their old houses, churches and tavernas. “Of course, we can’t stop tourists coming, but I want this to remain an authentically Corfiot village,” says Vasilis. “I never want to see a supermarket here.”
The chance to see the “real Corfu” is one of the village’s main draws. The other is plentiful hiking opportunities. The Corfu Trail, which runs from the north of the island to the south, passes through Old Perithia. There are also hikes to the top of Mount Pantokrator or to neighbouring villages. But I’m content simply wandering the surrounding paths, amid the wildflowers, trees and occasional tortoises. The village has also become a retreat for writers and artists. “Many visitors come here just to paint,” Mark tells me. “There’s something special here, something different.”
During the height of the pandemic, the isolation of the village was a shield that allowed life to continue relatively unscathed. “People understood and appreciated what they had, went back to their roots and so have cared more for their land and properties in Old Perithia,” says Mark. “However, this year we’ve seen an increase in bookings, mainly because the village is one of the safest and generally quietest places to stay.”
As part of its Blue Freedom plan, the Greek government has prioritised the vaccination of islands to encourage tourists. According to its online vaccination tracker, just over half of eligible islanders have had both jabs (about 66,000 people).
On my walk, I pass by the pretty pink church of St Iakovos Persis. In perhaps the most symbolic example of Old Perithia’s revival, the church’s bells, which had lain silent for decades, began to toll again as the village celebrated its first wedding and first baptism in over 50 years.
The arrival of a minibus of tourists interrupts the peace somewhat, so I head to the coast. It’s only a 15-minute drive to Agios Spyridon beach, a sandy spit of land which backs on to a protected lagoon, sparing it from any crude overdevelopment. Across the water, the gleaming white buildings of Albania seem almost within swimming distance.
I come back in the evening, when the daytrippers have departed and the village returns its peaceful splendour. To best appreciate a stay in Old Perithia, you really need the freedom of a car to come and go as you like. After dinner, I wander up the hills again. The air is fresh, everything is serene and I can understand why the villagers have always longed to return.
The next morning, I swing by Vasilis’ house to buy a jar of honey. “It’s funny,” he tells me, “20 years ago, I would have told you that Old Perithia had no future. Now I feel like our best days might be yet to come.”
Suites at The Merchant’s House in Old Perithia start from €120 per night