With deep regret I learned the other day that Dutch speleologist René van Vliet died on March 24th in a hospice in The Hague, where he had been admitted just the day before. Only two weeks before his untimely death at the age of 47 René had been diagnosed with incurable cancer of intestines, liver and abdomen. His next exploration trip to Corfu was scheduled for April 17 – April 28.
René van Vliet explored and described 213 caves on Corfu, some of which he was the first to discover. His legacy is visible in the wonderful website www.speleocorfu.com. René’s brother Fred is determined to keep this website going and available for interested travellers, scholars and scientists alike. Dutch readers may check out the last (8 pages) article that René wrote; it was published in the first edition in 2020 of Griekenland Magazine. He received a copy of the magazine only days before he passed away.
René van Vliet will be buried in ‘s-Gravenzande on Monday March 30th. He will be remembered by many, both in Corfu and The Netherlands. About his work: see my previous post.
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 email@example.com or on Facebook: VlietVanRene.
The death toll of the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that hit northwestern Albania in the early morning of Tuesday 26 November has risen to 27 according to several sources. The depth of the epicentre has been corrected from 20 kilometres to a ‘shallow’ 10. The Ministry of Defence reports 46 people have been rescued from the rubble, while 600 have been injured.
This morning (Wednesday 27 November) a new shock was recorded of 4.9-magnitude in Mamurras, Lezhë, also in Albania’s northwest. There are no reports of new damage or casualties.
At 04.00 o’ clock this morning Albania was struck by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake, taking at least fifteen lives, causing 600 casualties and damaging buildings in the capital Tirana, the port city of Durrës and other towns. 28 people were saved so far (13.00 hrs Greek Timezone) from crashed buildings.
The epicentre was some 30 kilometres northwest of the capital, at an approximate depth of 10 kilometres. At 07.00 there was a strong aftershock. The shocks could be felt along the Albanian coastline, in the Italian regions Apulia and Basilicata and on Corfu. Albanian authorities claim today’s earthquakes are the strongest recorded since 1929.
My correspondent in Corfu Town says he was woken up by the shocks, but didn’t even get out of bed. Although the shockwave lasted long, it was not strong enough to disturb him or his family. The Greek government this morning quickly promised to send rescue teams to its neighbouring country, helping to locate and rescue people trapped in buildings.
Earthquakes are not a rare phenomenon in Albania. Last September a 5.6-magnitude shock was recorded, demolishing some 500 buildings.
“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?