Solomos, poet of the national anthem “Hymn to Liberty”

His residence in Arseniou Street, the high boulevard along the seaside, offered poet Dionysios Solomos one of the most spectacular views in Corfu Town. Now a museum, inside you can picture him looking down at the horsedrawn carts rattling by, the sailing ships passing to the nearby Old Port against the background of the lush green of Vido Island. No wonder Solomos called this house his home longer than any other, until his dying day in February 1857.

The poet of Greece’s national anthem was born in 1798 on Zakynthos, an Ionian island, one or two days sailing southward from Corfu. He was the son of a sixty years old count and his sixteen years young housekeeper. Father recognized the son by marrying his mother on the night before he died, in 1807. The next year young Dionysios was sent to Italy, where over the next ten years he attended the Lyceum in Cremona and the University of Pavia. While studying literature he started writing sonnets in Italian and after his return to Zakynthos he continued his poetic work.

War of Independence
After several attempts to write poetry in Greek in 1823 he finished the 158 four-line verses of his Hymn to Liberty, saluting the Greek War of Independence (after centuries of Ottoman rule), that started two years earlier. In this work he addresses a personified image of Liberty, reborn and renewed out of “the sacred bones of the Greeks”. It was published in Messolonghi in 1824 and a year later in Paris and soon his fame as a poet spread. He went on writing lots of material, although – driven by his quest for perfection – a good deal of his poetry and prose remained fragmentary and incomplete.

Settling in Corfu
In 1828 Solomos settled in Corfu, the capital of the Ionian Islands, and soon became the center of a circle of intellectual admirers and friends like composer Nikolaos Mantzaros, the poet Iakovos Polylas and others. He reworked older poems and experimented with metrical form, rhyming and non-rhyming verses, lyrical, epic and satirical poetry. He read it to his friends, but would publish very little of it.

In 1851 he suffered the first of a few strokes, after which he rarely left his house at Arseniou street. At his death by apoplexy at the age of 59 the Ionian Parliament interrupted its work and a state of public mourning was declared. In 1864 the Ionian Islands were reunited with the new Greek state and a year later Solomos’ old friend Mantzaros set the first three stanzas of his Hymn to Liberty to music and made a different choral version for the entire poem.

The three stanzas (later reduced to two) were soon promoted to become Greece’s national anthem. That same year Solomos’ remains were transferred to Zakynthos. The irony of history: how Solomos would have loved to see the reunion of his islands with Greece and the promotion of his hymn to the highest national level! In 1966 the hymn also became the national anthem of Cyprus.

Hymn in translation
In translation the Greek national anthem would be something like this:

I recognize you by the fearsome
sharpness of your sword,
I recognize you by the look in your eyes
forcefully defining the land.

From the sacred bones
of the Hellenes arisen,
and brave again as before,
Welcome, o welcome, Liberty!

Now this may sound a little patriotic and moralising but we have to keep in mind that Solomos – who when he wrote this was save in Zakynthos under British protection, while the struggle for independence was raging on the mainland and the Peloponnese – desperately wanted to do his bit. By raising his pen instead of the sword. While one of his aims surely was to incite a national conscience. He would have been so proud to know these lines above are still taught at school to every boy and girl in Greece and Cyprus.

Today Solomos is considered as the national poet because of his important legacy to Greek literature and national identity, connecting the early traditions to modern literature and promoting the Greek language spoken by the common people (the “dhimotiki”) as a literary vehicle.

Two museums
It may be that Solomos’ most famous work was not written in Corfu; without the music of Corfiot Nikolaos Mantzaros it would not have been promoted to the national anthem. So to get the full story it is a good idea to visit the former Solomos residence – now a museum – and then stroll from Arseniou 1 to Nikiforou Theotoki 10, where Nikolaos Mantzaros, the first director of the Corfu Philharmonic Society, is honoured in the society’s museum. For the opening hours of the Solomos Museum: check the website.

Mon Repos Palace, cradle of Prince Philip

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.

Erikousa’s wartime secret


Erikousa, one of the Diapontian islands off the northwestern tip of Corfu, for seventy years kept a secret. From June 1944 until the end of WW II the few hundred inhabitants of a 5 km2 islet managed to keep a Jewish family hidden from the nazi’s. Even when German soldiers came searching from door to door, they bravely cooperated to not give the secret away. Each at the risk of losing their lives.

After the war the surviving family emigrated to Israel and the bravery of the Erikousa population would have been lost in time. If it wasn’t for a Greek grandmother, sharing the story of her life with her American born granddaughter. Who happened to be Emmy Award winning writer and producer Yvette Manessis Corporon. Yvette decided to honour the brave activities of her grandma and the other islanders in a novel. Five years of hard work later – besides her professional and family activities in New York – Harper Books published When The Cypress Whispers (2014).

Fatal June 9th 1944
In her novel Yvette Manessis Corporon interweaves myths and magic with the tragic events of the Summer of 1944 . On June 9th the German occupying force starts rounding up the Jewish inhabitants of Corfu. Almost everyone of the 2.000 men, women and children is deported off the island in small boats. 91% of them will be executed in the concentration camps. A Jewish tailor, Shabtai (in Greek: Savvas), just in time escapes the pogrom in town. He takes his daughters to Erikousa. He knows his way well out there as he visited the tiny adjacent islands regularly to sell clothing and offer his tailoring service.

The inhabitants of Erikousa welcome Shabtai and his family, share the little food there is and by constantly hiding them save some of the very few Jewish lives in WW II Corfu. A story of courage, loyalty, kindness and hope, but it does not end with the novel. From the moment she started to work on her novel it was author Yvette’s ambition to let her family and the people of Erikousa know what had become of tailor Shabtai and his family.

My Heritage
Armed with just the first names of the family members after several attempts Yvette tries her luck with the Holocaust Museum in Jeruzalem and the platform for family history My Heritage. The founder of this platform, Gilad Japhet, helps her out and identifies Shabtai’s three daughters, a living grandson and several other descendants in Israel and Los Angeles. None of whom knew anything about the way their ancestors survived wartime in Corfu/Erikousa.

In 2016 Yvette arranges a meeting between descendants of both the Jewish survivors and some Erikousa families. Yvette produced a film documentary about her quest, Searching for Savvas and also wrote another book: Something beautiful happened.

In the last part of this second book Yvette admirably deals with a cruel tragedy. A brutal murder took place three days after the meeting that meant so much to the new generations of Israelis, Greeks and Greek Americans. Yvette’s 14 year old nephew and his grandfather were killed by a neonazi gunman in a parking lot in Kansas, who was out to kill Jews. Confronting her with the question: can we defeat great evil?

EXTRA
Yvette Manessis Corporon currently works as a Senior Producer with the syndicated entertainment news show, EXTRA. She lives in New York with her husband and two children, but her heart is also somewhere else: “Erikousa and Corfu are not just the setting of When The Cypress Whispers, they are truly my favourite places on Earth.  There is a magical quality to these islands that I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.”

When The Cypress Whispers was translated in 13 languages. The sequel Something beautiful happened (2017) so far was published in English, Hebrew and Serbian. More information is to be found on the website of Yvette Manessis Corporon. The role of My Heritage is explained in a short video (6 min., 23 sec.), and the family members in Israel can be seen in another video (7 min., 10 sec.).

Corfu Counts its Caves

The stunning beauty of the first chamber in the Platesgourna cave

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!

René van Vliet crawling and exploring the Platesgourna cave (April 2019)

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.

Nikos Gisdakis and René van Vliet after their visit to the Platesgourna cave (April 2019)

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.

Beautiful decoration in the Platesgourna cave (April 2019)

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  info@speleocorfu.com or on Facebook: VlietVanRene.



Corfu First, ten times or more

The former San Giacomo Theatre, now the Town Hall

Is it because Corfu – with or without the invaluable aid of Saint Spiridon – was never occupied by the Ottomans? Are we maybe looking at the imprint of four centuries Venetian rule and culture (1386-1797)? Or has the British protectorate (1814-1864) pushed the island to a forerunner’s role in the state of modern Greece? Fact is the island can boast being modern Greece’s number one in various fields. And surely the following list of ten is far from complete.

  • The first theatre (in modern Greece, and even in the eastern Mediterranean). The ‘Nobile Teatro di San Giacomo’, finished in 1720, is now the Town Hall.
  • The first opera in the Greek language, The Parliamentary Candidate was performed in the San Giacomo in 1867. The libretto was written by Ioannis Rinopulos and the music by the Spyridon Xyndas, a Corfiot who was one of the co-founders of the Philharmonic Society of Corfu.
  • The first university, The Ionian Academy, in 1824. (One could argue this is not ‘a first’, as Lord Guilford originally started this university in 1811 on Ithaca and transferred it to Corfu after the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821).
  • The first Governor of modern Greece. Corfu born Ioannis Kapodistrias in 1827 was elected as the first head of state by the National Greek Assembly of newly liberated Greece.
  • The first library. The Public Historical Corfu Library was founded in the mid 18th century in the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Justine in Garitsa. From the end of 1997 it was housed in the southern section of the English barracks in the Old Fortress.
  • The first bank. In 1839 the Ionian State Bank was established in Corfu, to finance trade between the seven Ionian Islands and Great Britain.
  • The first lighthouse (1822) and the first floating lighthouse (1825).
  • The first lady mayor, Maria Desilla-Kapodistrias, from April 15th 1956 till May 9th 1959. She was a grand niece of Ioannis Kapodistrias.
  • The first tennis club. The Corfu Lawn Tennis Club was established in 1896 and can be found in the residential area Kefalomandouko in Corfu Town, at Ioannou Romanou 4.
  • The first cricket club. The first teams in the island were set up after the departure of the British, shortly after 1864. The Corfiot Athletic Club started in 1893 and is still active. The best known cricket ground of course is on the Spianada Square.


Giallinas Mansion renovated over the next two years

The Giallinas Mansion in its actual state of deterioration

The Giallinas Mansion near the Esplanade in Corfu Town is saved from further deterioration and will be renovated over the next two years. A budget of over € 5 million has been approved for the reconstruction and restoration of the Venetian building, where the painter Angelos Giallinas lived and worked. Mayor Ydraiou announced last week the mansion will be “one of the most modern art and cultural venues” in town. She proudly added: “Corfu is slowly healing its open wounds, renovating its historical buildings and will become a major attraction.”

When the work is complete the building will be put to new use. The ground floor of the gallery will host educational and commercial activities and a restaurant. On the first floor there will be an exhibition of works by Angelos Giallinas, no less than 586 watercolours and oil paintings divided into 16 thematic units. The two rooms at the front, thanks to the wealth of decorations (ceiling paintings, ornate plasterwork etc.), will be a reconstruction of the Giallinas living room and studio with authentic furniture.

Source of this news: http://www.enimerosi.com. Read more about the painter Giallinas in my previous post (published on November 19th.)

Achilles’ Triumph, a painting by Franz Matsch

‘Triumph des Achill’ (1894), a 10 x 3 metres (!) fresco by Franz Matsch in Empress Sisi’s Achillion Palace in Corfu.

The tragic life of Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1837-1898) has been subjected to many books and films. Her heritage on Corfu consists of stone and bronze, gardens and terraces, sculptures, ornaments and paintings: Achilleion Palace. Designed in Dorian, Ionian and Pompeian styles by two Napolitan architects and built between 1889 and 1891 the ‘Achillio’ to some is a monstrosity spoiling the lovely landscape, to others a fine piece of living history. Either way the neo-classical building – now Museum Achillion – keeps drawing coach loads of tourists to the village of Gastouri. Some of whom may well be interested in the resident who acquired the palace some years after Sisi’s death and turned it into a centre of European diplomacy: the German Emperor Wilhelm II.

For your eyes only
Some other time I might take you through the 72 lavishly furnished rooms, halls and chapel of the museum, for now I content myself taking you through the gardens and up a flight of stairs. Come see the grand terrace on the back that levels with the palace’s second floor. See the dazzling grey and white pattern of the floor tiles, remember the scene in the casino in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”, admire the row of busts of the blind poet Homer and the Greek philosophers, Shakespeare and the Nine Muses, and then…

Then gaze through the windows to catch a view of the upper part of the main hall, a view that is hidden to you from the inside of the palace, as the stairway to the second floor is closed for the public. But there it is: ‘Triumph des Achill’, as Sisi and the painter called it in German, ‘Achilles’ Triumph’. Homer again!

Ten metres by three…
Even from where you are on the terrace, quite a bit away, you most likely cannot help being overwhelmed. The Austrian painter Franz senior Matsch worked on this panoramic, ten metres by three fresco at intervals during the years 1892 to 1894. He had worked for Sisi before, decorating the Hermes Villa near Vienna and this time he choose to depict one of the cruelest scenes from Homer’s Iliad. But he was instructed carefully how to picture it.

We stare at the Greek hero and warrior Achilles racing on his horse drawn chariot around the walls of Troy. The warrior is showing off the helmet that Hector, Troy’s king Priamos’ son, was wearing when he killed him in a duel. Hector’s lifeless body is being dragged behind the chariot through the dust, for all to see from high upon the walls of Troy, his parents, his wife and new-born son…

Rage and horror
The rage of Achilles is there, who has seen his best friend Patroklos slain the other day by the same Hector. It flashes like the helmet he holds out to the sun and shines in the sweaty skin of the dark horse. The vengeful jubilation of the Greek warriors is there, swaying their weapons and running after the chariot. And the horror and dismay of the Trojan spectators is there, even though Matsch protected Hektor from the bloody fate that Homer created for him: his head is out of sight and none of his multiple wounds is visible (see: Homer, Iliad, 22, verses 375-404).

The empress wanted her Achilles should not be a muscular warrior. And he is not. Perhaps with his angelic face he had to counterbalance the sculpture by Ernst Herter (1884) further down in the garden, a dying Achilles that pulls the fateful arrow out of his heel. In fact Achilles is omnipresent, inside the palace and outside.

Hidden failure?
Many years ago, as I was going to the “Achillio” for the first time, I was prepared by a born islander. He wanted me to detect the painting’s hidden failure. A fatal failure, that caused the painter to kill himself soon after he had finished his long labour. On my return I admitted to my friend I hadn’t got a clue. Ah, but it was in the wheel of the chariot, he said. It showed no movement, it looked like a photograph taken at a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec.

Then I dug into Franz Matsch. Born in Vienna in 1861 he enjoyed a fruitful career as a painter, sculptor and instructor. He studied and worked with the painters Gustav Klimt and Ernst Klimt, decorating theaters throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Around 1891 the artistic trio fell apart. Franz Matsch devoted himself to portrait painting, which he did with some success. Gustav Klimt became very popular with his own personal style of painting.

The “Anker-Uhr
From 1893 to 1901 Matsch was a teacher at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. In the years 1911-1917 he designed the landmark “Anker-Uhr” clock in Vienna’s first district on the “Hoher Markt”, where it can still be seen today. Franz Matsch lived to be 81 and died of old age in 1942, half a century after the unveiling of his monumental fresco in the “Achillio”. And yes, the style of his triumphing Achilles resembles the art practice of an “action shot”, popular throughout different periods in the history of art. Although it’s true the left part of the painting shows considerably more “movement”.

Rudolfs suicide
There was someone else who took his life. Empress Elisabeth’s son, the crown prince Rudolf von Habsburg, did in January 1889. Thirty years of age he had just caused the death of his mistress, 17 years young. Shortly after these horrendous events Elisabeth decided to make Corfu her home. She had her Achilleion Palace built and in the memory of her beloved son she idealized Achilles, the strong and divinely beautiful hero. The demigod that would have been immortal if it wasn’t for that vulnerable spot at the back of his heel.

P.S.
A remarkable feature is to be seen in the upper right hand corner of Matsch’ fresco. Above the gate in the wall there is a swastika. Of course in 1894 there was not such a thing as a nazi symbol. This abstract figure – that probably originates from an ancient culture in India – was one of the symbols of the city of Troy.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria was stabbed and killed on the quay of Lake Geneva on the 10th of September 1898 by the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni.

Corfu in the Stone Age


“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?


Casanova: a young adventurer in Corfu

The cover of one of many biographies on Casanova (1725-1798)

In March 1741, not even sixteen years of age, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova sailed from Venice, destination Constantinople. In the harbour of Corfu – Venetian territory of course – he left the ship to explore the town. We know what happens next thanks to his own unfinished Memoires, written in French from 1790 onwards (Histoire de ma vie) and only published long after his death in 1798.

Before we follow his footsteps I have to disappoint the reader who expects a series of erotic Corfiot conquests. It may be true that in the 12 volumes of his autobiography Casanova describes in detail the 122 ladies that he courted in his life and times but a good deal of his writing is also devoted to his adventurous life as priest-student, doctor in law, spy, rambling violinist, chemist, prisoner, gambler, organizer of a French lottery, diplomat, spy for Louis XV and librarian. Driven by an ever eager curiosity he pursued these activities all over Europe.

No-one else but the leading European Prince De Ligne – who was seeing Casanova as often as he could – remarked: “Every word he utters is a revelation and every thought a book.” Modern historians have claimed that if humanity would have lost all the writings from the 18th century except the unfinished memoires of Casanova, his extensive and yet intimate account could well fill us in on the morality and social behaviour in the Europe he explored inside-out.

Escaping arrest
Meanwhile back in Corfu 1741. After getting into a fight with an impostor claiming to be a French prince he avoided arrest by ‘borrowing’ a vessel in Corfu Town’s harbour. Taking it out to open sea he was taken aboard a sailing ship bound for Kassiopi harbour in the northeast of the island. He soon set up an enjoyable life in ‘Kasopo’, as the Venetians called the town. Where he got the money from he doesn’t mention, but he specifically describes the seamstresses he assembles around him to replace the wardrobe he so hastily left in town.

Then an officer arrives on this idyllic scene, meaning to take the young rogue back to the authorities in town. Much to Casanova’s relief the impostor La Valeur appears to have been found out and it is not prison awaiting him, but recognition for exposing the swindler. It doesn’t keep him in town for very long; soon he boards another ship and resumes his trip to Constantinople.

Thrown overboard
The next time Corfu appears in his memoires is in 1745. The now nineteen year old hero of his own tale nearly gets drowned during the sea voyage from Venice to Corfu. He got himself thrown overboard by the crew as a result of upsetting a priest. Arriving safe and sound in Corfu Harbour by the end of March he is well in time for the Easter festivities, which he enjoys from Good Friday 16th of April through to Easter Monday April 19th. On the 1st of July he sails with the ‘Europa’, once more to Constantinople.

Corfu Carnival
Due back home again later in the year he sailed from the Ottoman capital on October 12th and once more stops over in Corfu, well in time for the annual Carnival. “It is a long period, this time,” he writes. And so it was, kicking off at December 26th 1745 and stretching till February 23rd 1746, eight and a half weeks in all. He is very specific about this, since he is acting as impresario for a group of actors. Having negotiated a fee equalling two days of receipts per week he ends up cashing the troupe’s income of seventeen days.

Thinking of the famed masked pleasures of promiscuous Venetian Carnival, who would expect a young and strong, 1 meter 80 tall Casanova to dwell on his earnings? But perhaps this only adds to the credibility of his romantic adventures at other times and in other places.

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