Next summer 99 years ago the German Princess Alice van Battenberg in the Mon Repos Palace in Corfu gave birth to her fifth child. After four girls she and her husband, Prince Andreas of Greece on June 10th 1921 welcomed a son, Philippos. By birth he was Prince of Greece and Denmark. From the balcony on the second floor of the small, but elegant palace, in his mother’s arms young Philippos will have seen the eternal blue of the Ionian Sea and the mountains of Epiros beyond. For two summers only. The Greek monarchy was young and there was revolution in the air.
On September 22, 1922, Philippos’ uncle, King Constantine I of Greece, was forced to abdicate the throne. The military government arrested Prince Andreas. In December Andreas was banned from Greece for life and settled with his family in Paris. In 1930 Philips’ mother was committed to a psychiatric institution, while his father relocated to Monaco, maintaining limited contact with his family. He died in Monaco in 1944, while Princess Alice spent most of the rest of her life in Athens.
From palace to palace Being educated in France, Germany and Scotland Philippos – now Philip – excelled in the Royal Naval College and served in the British Navy during World War II. Preparing for his marriage in 1947 with Princess Elizabeth he abandoned his Greek and Danish royal titles. On the morning of his wedding he was made Duke of Edinburgh. Five years later when Elizabeth succeeded her father King George VI, as Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Philip was a Prince once more. Quite a way to go from a revolution in Greece to the British throne, and from Mon Repos Palace in Corfu to Buckingham Palace in London. In 1967 Philip’s mother Alice came to stay in Buckingham Palace, where she would die two years later at the age of 84.
Mon Repos Palace Unlike Buckingham Palace Mon Repos Palace and its lovely park are easily accessible for the public. The palace, now housing a museum and rooms in use by the Corfu Municipality, was built in 1824-1826 to serve the British Lord High Commissioner Frederic Adams and his Corfiot wife Nina Palatianou. When the famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann visited Mon Repos in July 1868, it took him no time at all to identify the park and surroundings with the ancient city of Palaiopolis and the very spot of Mon Repos as the place where the mythical palace of Homer’s Phaeacians would have been.
There is no proof of Schliemann’s claim to this day, though in the park several ancient buildings have been uncovered, like the Temple of Hera, one of the earliest archaic temples in Greece (610 BC). Built on top of Analipsis Hill it must have created an impressive view for ships entering the harbour of ancient Corcyra. Last Summer and in the Summer of 2018 archaeological excavations have been conducted in the park. They yielded some interesting finds, but nothing spectacular. New excavations have been announced for 2020.
While the majority of Corfu’s visitors look up at the sunny sky and look out over the blue sea or at the lovely architecture in Corfu Town, something is happening underground that very few are aware of. Caves! The island has more than 213 of them, of which 89 are ‘under study’ by Dutch speleologist René van Vliet. He searches, explores, photographs and describes the underground treasures and shares his experiences with the Corfiots and the general public. He often writes articles about the caves of Corfu and their stories for Greek newspapers, magazines and news sites (in 2019: 85 publications). His articles are also published in Athens and by the National Herald in New York.
Besides sea caves and a waterfall cave, Corfu has land caves in various shapes and formats. Some are like holes, big and small. In Greek they are called spilies, in Corfiot dialect: graves. Deep openings in rocky terrain are known as varathra. Also sinkholes katavothres can be found on Corfu. Some caves have been in use through the ages for practical purposes as storing milk and vegetables, thanks to their constant temperature and darkness. The locals would call these kaves. A number of caves were lived in during the Palaeolithic Age and Neolithic period, or provided shelter against pirates, like the impressive Katsouris cave in Glyfa, or against Italian and German bombing during World War II.
Speleo Corfu The folklore, oral tradition and the personal stories about the caves are the favourite subject of the Dutch speleologist. He studies old Greek literature, analyses old maps and talks to villagers, shepherds and foresters. Researching caves in Corfu is not an easy task. Many caves are hidden, some already for many decades like for example the Panadograva cave in Sgourades. For generations stories had been told about this cave, until René proved it was not a legend but just deeply hidden in the forest. It took him three years to find it, but with the help of the chairman of the village and a local guide, the speleologist could visit the cave during his summer expedition.
Latest news While talking, René van Vliet receives a message from a Greek friend that a cave with a unique history has been found. The news clearly excites him. He says: “This cave was hidden for decades and is of great historical value to the local community. I heard that there were lots of bats in the cave. I can’t wait to explore the cave and to see the flora and fauna!”
As mentioned above, (at least) 89 caves are still waiting for a visit. To find and explore those caves many Corfiots help René van Vliet to clear dense vegetation or to guide him through forests or on heights. Only with the local help Corfu’s hidden caves can be discovered or rediscovered. After visiting a cave, often aided by special equipment, the speleologist shares his information, pictures and videos through his website www.speleocorfu.com. Thus also serving archaeologists, geologists and biologists. René van Vliet is always available for lectures about his research and the hidden natural beauties on the island of Corfu.
Man with a mission… In April and August-September 2019 René van Vliet was out again exploring caves in Corfu. He calls speleology his hobby, but he is clearly a man with a mission. He wants to mark out all the caves on the island, record their beauty and history and preserve this valuable information for future generations. What’s more, he reckons there are still hidden caves to explore, time capsules with traces from Corfu civilisations from thousands of years ago, untouched and with valuable information.
When I ask him about his goals for the long term he promptly answered: “Keeping the vulnerable caves with their unique flora and fauna clean, to make and keep them accessible, and to inform the younger generations about the treasures of their island.” These places with a long history must be passed on in good condition to the next generations!
Recent discovery in Spartilas René van Vliet’s lively enthusiasm clearly shows in the article in Corfu Magazine, issue 23 (October 2019) in which he described the various caves he visited this year, standing out by their natural beauty. Amongst them is the Platesgourna cave in Spartilas, discovered by Nikos Gisdakis in the winter of 2018.
René went up to northern Spartilas to visit this cave for the first time in April: “The Platesgourna cave is hidden in an olive grove and has two small entrances. (…) After a small hall follows the first chamber, with stunning beauty.” (see the main picture above this article). In August, the speleologist visited the cave for the second time and this time with special lamps so he could map and photograph the cave. A few days later he visited the Platesgourna cave for the third time. “I was in the upper level of the cave and suddenly I saw an open space. Behind a big monolith and beneath the first chamber there is a second chamber with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and a group of four stalagmites, the tallest about 1,5 metres high! (…) I would not be surprised if there is also a third chamber.”
Unfortunately the speleologist could not go further down, because he lacked a vital piece of equipment, a drill. During a next expedition he will continue his exploration of the Platesgourna cave.
Support the important research of the caves! Sponsorship is very important for the research of the caves of Corfu. The two caving expeditions this year were materially supported by companies from The Netherlands (CanyonZone), France (Aventure Verticale), Spain (Rodcle), Italy (Climbing Technology), Greece (Vasilikos / Nitecore). Fresh- All Day Food Bar in Gouvia offered the speleologist to support his next caving expedition. René van Vliet hopes that travel organisations, hotels and car rentals will support him too, so he can make his next caving expedition in the spring of 2020. For information and contact with the speleologist: see the wonderful website of Speleo Corfu.
As every bit of information can lead to new discoveries, René van Vliet calls on locals and visitors to contact him if they know a cave or cave story. Even a rumour or myth is very welcome. He can be contacted in Greek or English at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook: VlietVanRene.
“Drepani” – sickle – is one of the oldest recorded names for Corfu. “Korkyra” is how the Corinthian settlers in 734 B.C. baptised the island, probably after a mythological nymph (although the word also meant something lik “tail”). “Korkyra” of course seems to echo in modern Greek: “Kerkyra”. “A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava”, was the rather romantic observation by Lawrence Durrell in the first lines of his Prosperos’s Cell (1945). A fact is, if you would look downwards from high altitude the island – sickle – tail – looks like a mere splinter torn off of the massive mountains of Albania and Epirus.
And it’s true the mainland is never far away: no more than two kilometres of sea divide Cape Agios Stefanos in the northeast from the Albanian coastline and a mere eight kilometres Kavos (Cape Koundouris) at the southeastern tip and Sivota in Epirus. With this broader picture in mind it is a small step to see that the 593 km² of Corfu island and the vast mainland were once connected. A dramatic change set in some 10.000 B.C. when ice started to melt and sea levels rose in the Mediterranean.
The western coast of the island more or less follows a fault, and the sea-floor drops rapidly to over 1000 m. The oldest rocks are hard, gray limestones (250–145 million years old), which crop out in the north (Mount Pantokrator, 906 meters). Further south, the rocks are younger and softer and have developed thick, red soils. Paleolithic tools have been found in this soil, dating back to the period that the fertile island was in fact an outer region of the mainland.
Cave Grava Gardiki Tools made of flint, bones of boar and deer and other objects were unearthed in Cave Grava Gardiki (Halikounas). The cave is to be found in an olive grove at an altitude of 60 metres, near the 13th century Byzantine Fortress in Gardiki. The cave has two entrances, is about 20 meters long and wide and 13 meters high. It is accessible, even for children with adults, but some climbing is involved. For those who know where to look the geological history of the region can be traced in the cave’s inside. Many of the cave finds are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. They have been dated to the Late Paleolithic Age (between 30.000 and 9.000 B.C.). (Also read my special post about caves!)
From the Neolithic Age (circa 6.000-3.000 B.C.) – after the rising sea levels had turned Corfu into an island – are the finds from the earliest human settlements: near Sidari, and on the small islet Diaplo, just off the northwest coast. While on the coast itself the traces of prehistoric villages were discovered in Aphionas, Kephali and Ermones. Objects of stone, clay and – in the latter stages – copper tell a tale of agricultural communities. Closed societies, trading mainly with tribes on the Epirote coast, to whom they seem to have been related. A relation that dates back to the days before the flood?
A field near Strongyli in Central Corfu is home to one of the oldest and largest living trees in Europe. The age of the olive tree, to the locals known as ‘Evdokía’ (Grace), has been estimated by German scientists from the Dresden University of Technology to 1200 years, with a margin of error of ten percent. Researchers professors Andreas Roloff and Stern Gillner believe the tree was planted around 928 A.D., even before the island’s successive occupations by Saracens, Normans and Venetians.
Dendrochronologists from the TU Dresden’s Institute of Forest Botany and Forest Zoology began their examination process in Corfu in 2014, with the aid of biologist Eleni Louka, a resident of Strongyli. The result of the German study was presented only last June on Corfu at an event organised by Louka and Eleni Konofaou, founder of the Hellenic Union of Heptanesians (HUH).
Evdokía is one of three especially enormous olive trees on Corfu. The HUH aims at promoting all three areas where these trees are located as alternative tourist destinations.
It was a running gag for me and my wife on every visit to the island. We would walk the long way to the Archaeological Museum of Corfu again and again to find the entrance gate shut. We would stare at the board advertising the opening date, after years of renovation. A date that slipped further and further into the past… Last spring we were unexpectedly rewarded for our stubbornness: the museum had reopened on March 23rd 2019. And what a great job has been done! Now the recently launched museum’s website is bound to add to its reputation.
Τhe antiquities on display originate from the ancient city Corcyra as well as various other sites on the island, such as Kassiopi, Acharavi, Almiros, Afionas, Roda and the palaeolithic caves of Grava Gardiki.
The layout of the exhibition – aided by modern audiovisual device – follows a narrative that invites visitors to experience aspects of the of the daily life of the inhabitants of ancient Corcyra. One is introduced to their relation to death, their cult beliefs and their artisanal and economic activities. Much attention goes to the city-state, the institution that structured and deeply influenced public and private life.
Ground floor On the ground floor the wonderful prehistoric collection of the museum is displayed, and in an adjacent room are finds from the era of the foundation and colonization of ancient Corcyra and the city’s relations with other powerful Greek city-states.
Upper floor The four rooms of the upper floor take the visitor on a tour through Corcyra from the Archaic to the late Roman period, by presenting six thematic units. These are: Topography and Civic Organisation, Private Life, Burial Customs, Cults, Worship of Artemis, Public life, Economy.
Temple of Artemis The magnificent centrepiece on the upper floor is the complete west pediment of the Temple of Artemis, 17 meters long and over 3 meters high. With the winged Medusa Gorgo in the heart of the presentation, flanked by her two children and two mythological lion-panthers the sculptured porous limestone is probably the oldest surviving artwork of its kind in Greece.
Very much worth the visit, not to mention the other highlights on the upper floor such as the Pediments of Dionysos, the Lion of Menecrates, the Stele (gravestone) of Arniadas and the Capital of Xembares.
Running gag On leaving after our enjoyable visit I enquire with one of the staff members why the renovation was so long overdue. Ah well, I had got it all wrong. The renovation had maybe taken a little longer, which was to be considered normal in unique and complex projects like this one. But the real problem was the hiring of the staff. I was very surprised: who would not want a job like this? Ah well, but that was exactly the problem. ‘Everybody wanted an easy government job at the museum’. So it took ages to sort out which candidate was more entitled to it than so many others.
The museum is closed on Wednesday. General admission fee: € 6,-; reduced fee: € 3,-. Free for minors up to 18. For opening hours etc. check the website.
The undated postcard above shows the German Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) and Prince zu Fürstenberg. The kaiser is checking out the surroundings with binoculars. The two men are stood a little below the actual ‘Kaiser’s Throne’ where Wilhelm would often sit to admire the sunset. Today this spot would be found under the metal construction that accommodates the thousands of tourists that visit the summit of Pelekas Hill every year to check out the 360 degrees view. The photograph is taken in the direction of the mountainside of Pantokrator.
Kaiser Wilhelm (1859-1941) had a Corfu summer residence in the Achilleion Palace, that he purchased in 1907 from the daughter of Empress Sisi of Austria (1837-1898). Until the start of World War I in 1914 he would come and stay in the Achilleion every spring. In 1911 he was in charge of the excavations by archeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld of the famous Artemis Temple in Garitsa.
Who knows more? Anyone who can shed light on the occasion or date when the photograph for this postcard was taken is kindly asked to leave me a message!