14 January – 1938 –

On this day in 1938 Lawrence Durrell wrote:

Abstemious in the matter of drinks the Greeks produce their own light wines and cognacs in abundance. Yet during our whole stay here we have seen a drunk person not more than once; and more endearing still, we have discovered that these people have so delicate a palate as to be connoisseurs of cold water. The glass of water appears everywhere; it is an adjunct to every kind of sweetmeat, and even to alcohol. It has a kind of biblical significance. When a Greek drinks water he tastes it, and pressing it against the palate, savours it. The peasants will readily tell you which wells give the sweetest water, while even the townspeople retain a delicate taste in water, and are able to recognize the different sources from which the little white town handcarts (covered in green boughs) are replenished.

Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell. A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, Faber And Faber, London 1978, p. 97.

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.

23 December – 1937 –

Looking down from Mount Pantokrator towards Butrinto, Albania (photo: Peter Dicker)

About this day in 1937 the British writer Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) wrote the following lines:

Two days before Christmas we climbed the dizzy barren razorback of Pantocratoras to the monastery from which the whole strait lay bare, lazy and dancing in the cold haze. Lines of dazzling water crept out from Butrinto and southward, like a beetle on a plate, the Italian steamer jogged its six knots towards Ithaca. Clouds were massing over Albania, but the flat lands of Epirus were frosty bright. In the little cell of the warden monk, whose windows gave directly upon the distant sea, and the vague rulings of waves to the east, we sat at a deal table and accepted the most royal of hospitalities – fresh mountain walnuts and pure water from the highest spring; water that had been carried up on the backs of women in stone jars for several hundred fee.

Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell. A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, Faber And Faber, London 1978, p. 97.

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.


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.

Anthony Quinn, how Greek can you get?

Mexican actor Anthony Quinn (left) playing ‘tavli’ with a villager in Corfu’s Pelekas, during a break while shooting The Greek Tycoon in 1977

In 1964 the movie Zorba the Greek (and the soundtrack!) stormed and conquered the hearts of film fans around the world. ‘Zorba’ – based on a novel by Greece’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature Nikos Kazantzakis – won three Oscars. While much appraised leading actor Anthony Quinn had to satisfy himself with a nomination. Although surely his role as Alexis Zorba added enormously to his popularity.

Mexican born Antonio Rudolfo Quinn Oaxaca had played Greek characters before, like in Ulisse (1954) and in the hit The guns of Navarone (1961). Now by his acting and dancing (sirtaki!) in ‘Zorba’ he convinced many cinema visitors that he was at least partly Greek. More Greek in looks and behaviour than some Greeks anyway.

The Greek Tycoon
Still we would have to wait until 1978 to see multitalented Quinn (also film director, painter and sculptor) in his next Greek role. In The Greek Tycoon he is Theo Tomasis, a character based on Aristoteles Onassis. British actress Jacqueline Bisset plays Liz Cassidy, the beautiful widow of the assassinated president of the United States. So we are looking at a romanced account of the courtship and marriage of Onassis and Jacqueline (Bouvier) Kennedy. A relation that begun even before John F. Kennedy became president and lasted for almost two decades.

Negative reviews
The Greek Tycoon (budget 6,5 million dollars, running time: 107 minutes) was met with a lot of critical reception: “As witless as it is gutless” (The New York Times); “You have watched the headlines, now you can read the movie” (Variety). TV Guide rated the movie one star and had only one favourable comment: “If scenery, greenery and lavish living are what you like to see, you may enjoy The Greek Tycoon.” An positive exception is made for the final scene, in which Anthony Quinn’s once more shows his great sense for dance.

The scenery of Corfu
“The scenery” and “the greenery” was shot on location in Corfu and Mykonos. The Corfu landscape gets a fair and lavish share. And is anyone familiar with the the background of the photo above? It shows Anthony Quinn in a corner of the village square of Pelekas, entertaining himself during a break in the filming. In The Greek Tycoon you might recognize this setting when Tomasis gets out of a car and slowly walks towards the door of a café on the other side of the square. This café was no more than fifteen meters from Anthony’s playing table. In 1980, some three years after this scene was shot, the café was turned into a bar, known as the ‘Zanzibar’.

Today the Zanzibar is a bar with a both local and international clientele. It’s cocktail menu today proudly shows the photograph above. If even a footnote in the life and times of Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), an icon in the film industry, who twice won the Oscar for supporting actor but never for best actor. And who for a wide audience was more Greek than some Greeks. See for yourself in the final scene from The Greek Tycoon.

Today: 15 November – 1937 –

A copy of Prospero’s Cell, acquired in 1983 in Pelekas, wearing the marks of travelling time and again to the places of the book’s origin.

On this day in 1937 Lawrence Durrel wrote:

‘You wake one morning in the late autumn and notice that the tone of everything has changed; the sky shines more deeply pearl, and the sun rises like a ball of blood – for the peaks of the Albanian hills are touched with snow. The sea has become leaden or sluggish and the olives a deep platinum grey. Fires smoke in the villages, and the breath of Maria as she passes with her sheep to the headland, is faintly white upon the air.’

Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell. A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, Faber And Faber, London 1978

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