Corfu’s “Queen of Real Estate” Dances the Sirtaki

Featured as the setting for epics by both Homer and Shakespeare, the island of Corfu lives up to its mythological hype. (prosIgn)

The rest of the world has finally realized what the Brits have known for centuries: the mythology that surrounds Corfu is only partly myth. In legend, a shipwrecked Odysseus washed up on the Greek isles’ shores, but real-life legends have long been drawn to the Ionian Eden as a residence and holiday home.

In the 20th century, a starry list of aristos and elites boosted the island’s cachet: the Rothschilds, Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene of Monaco, the Gettys, the Emir of Qatar, the Onassis family, the British royal family. And further back, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who summered in Achilleion, her neoclassical palace outside the village of Gastouri on the island’s eastern coast. All perhaps enticed by the island’s fabled feel, forever etched in a spectrum of color: aquamarine waters shot through with light, the vivid greens of inland forests, and the pale ochre and rose of the island’s signature stone.

Roula Rouva, founder of Roula Rouva Real Estate.

“A conspiracy of light, air, blue sea and cypresses,” is how British novelist, poet and travel writer Lawrence Durrell described Corfu. 

In Corfu, every day is a sapphire day.

“Here, you feel free, like nothing can bother you,” says Roula Rouva, who founded Roula Rouva Real Estate in 2003. Rouva intimately knows Corfu’s terrain and byways, and moreover, the island’s villas perched over pebbly bays with ineffable views. Her award-winning family-run business, which has long dominated home sales on Corfu and the nearby island of Paxos, recently became a member of Forbes Global Properties.

We spoke with Rouva about the storied charm of the islands and her close-knit, woman-centric, 40-member, multi-lingual team.

Your buyer demographic has been weighted toward the Brits, with all of Europe now a strong market. But we understand you do have a soft spot for Americans. 

Yes, for us, our hearts are open to the Americans to come to Greece. I think for the past two or three decades, Americans have forgotten a bit. Forgotten the memory, the emotion, what it is like to enjoy the sun and sea. To drink ouzo with us, to sit around a table all together and share different meze. And to walk around without fear of crime—we do not lock our doors on Corfu. A carefree lifestyle. Tonight, people are out on the square drinking in little cafes and the streets are full of life with dancing and singing. Everyone is hugging and kissing, and when they hug, they mean it. There is a warmness of heart. This type of life, you will not find anywhere else.

You’ve been practicing that brand of conviviality for a long time. As a teenager and adult, you managed your family’s Corfu businesses: a hotel, a restaurant, a supermarket and a souvenir shop.

That was a big school for me, and it prepared me for my career. I met people from all different nationalities and served them, making sure they were happy and satisfied, just like I do now. There were a lot of good times, and a lot of dancing—every night I taught guests the sirtaki [a Greek folk dance famously choreographed for the 1964 film, Zorba the Greek].

What’s happening property-wise in Corfu? Where is the development occurring?

The most developed area of Corfu is the north and northeastern coast. This is where the Durrell family lived in the 1930s [brothers Lawrence and Gerald were best-selling writers]. They call it Kensington-on-Sea, after the West London neighborhood, because so many British people came. The older luxury villas are there, but the southeast is now seeing development too as big investors come in, like Banyan Tree [in 2021, the hotel and resort chain opened its first flagship European property on Corfu]. The east side now has more development, and the south has less, but it’s just as beautiful. 

Unobstructed views of the Ionian Sea are reserved for the island’s premier villas. (ROULA ROUVA REAL ESTATE)

We understand that in addition to “Queen of Real Estate” (bestowed by the Greek press), you’re also known as the “Iron Lady.”

Ah, well, I am not that iron, you should know. But when somebody promises something, they have to deliver. They cannot change their mind or let my clients down. I am very forthright, and I want things completed as they should be, as promised to my clients. I am very determined, which I learned after the 2008 financial crisis. Business got difficult, especially for a woman because when you make mistakes it’s easier to bring you down. So I had to be very focused. Seventy percent of our staff are women, and that includes my two daughters—all very strong women.

An amazing 98% of your clients are international. How do you cater to their specific needs as newcomers?

It’s very important for us that our clients feel at home here. So we are with them before, during and after the sale. People come from so far away, so many different countries. They need a plumber, an electrician or the best place to buy furniture, and they don’t know who to call. Where can they buy the best fresh vegetables, the best fish? We connect them. And we become close—we invite them to our weddings and we become a part of their lives. We become like family. 

To help further that ethos, you’ve established a group of companies that deliver a whole range of property services. 

Yes, one is our company Compass, staffed by architects and engineers; if a client buys a plot of land, we can design and build a home for them. The client can choose the styling, the bathrooms, the kitchen, furniture––everything to their taste. We also offer property management services and consulting on investment property sales. We can manage due diligence for clients with legal support so that a sale or the opening of a company is without legal issues. This includes obtaining a Golden Visa or other types of visas. And if a client wants to book a villa, a cruise, a Michelin-star restaurant or other arrangements, we will do that for them. 

At €14,000,000 , the Benitses Villa occupies the highest end of the market in Corfu. Presented by Roula Rouva Real Estate

Please take us on a quick tour inside two of your villa listings.

The Benitses Villa is a truly exceptional seafront estate. It consists of two villas, one slightly smaller, and the entire living space is 520 square meters (5,600 square feet). There are a total of seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms. You arrive by yacht and dock directly in front of the property. There’s no need for a car—Corfu and the neighboring islands are right out your front door, explored via the sea. At these two villas, you have the sensation of being right on top of the water with uninterrupted sea views. The living room has walls of glass that open to the air, sun and sea. We’ve listed this property for €14 million ($15.1 million).

Another villa is set on a peninsula in Kontokali, one of the most prestigious areas just outside of Corfu Town. It’s close to the Gouvia Marina, renowned as one of the best and biggest in the Mediterranean. The four-bedroom five-bathroom villa has a modern look with a minimalist interior design—clean lines, quite sophisticated. From one terrace, you can see a small white chapel with a bell tower in the near distance, set at the end of a narrow peninsula. It’s really quite charming. This property is listed for €4.1 million ($4.43 million).

Roula, do you still dance the Sirtaki?

Of course! We don’t have enough space in this room, otherwise I would show you right now, I would demonstrate. And if you come to Corfu, after a few weeks you will dance the sirtaki perfectly, probably better than we do. 

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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