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 Animal Shelter: one important step nearer

Hope at last for the future of these strays

The  Municipal Council for Central Corfu & Diapontia Islands on December 2nd unanimously agreed to proceed with the plans for establishing an Animal Shelter on the island. 

The plan however to start this shelter for stray animals in a mansion donated by an individual (in Lakones, near Palaiokastritsa), lacked enough support.

While the Council has now voted in favour of setting up a shelter for stray animals the location remains unclear. In the mean time there is a deadline for the funding, from the national Philodimos Programme. The actual plans need to be proposed before or on December 31st.

Source: enimerosi.com. See also my previous post To stray or not to stray.

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 is my Island: thank you mr. David Bowie

David Bowie at the Cannes Film Festival – 1983 (photo by Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock (100574s) )

A rather keen reader in France – Julien de Bellevue again – asked me the other day if I have stolen the title for my blog – Corfu is my Island – from the singer, songwriter, painter and artist David Bowie (1947-2016). Now what could I reply? I mean he is right. I had this one particular song in mind and couldn’t help repeating these lines: “Cyprus is my island/ And when the going’s rough/ I would love to find you/ Somewhere in a place like that.”

Angie Bowie: born on Cyprus
The words are from the third verse of a song called ‘Move On’, from ‘Lodger’ (1979), Bowie’s 13th studio album. It was Angie Barnett, Bowie’s first wife, who introduced him to the island where she was born and she remembers he was “very taken” by Cyprus. A year after the song’s release the singer Bowie and his muse Angie were divorced. So much for beautiful lines.

Bowie on Corfu?
Let’s agree I did not steal the words, but yes, borrowed the idea for my own purpose. For Corfu, that is. Mitigating circumstances, surely? Now what this reader in France wanted to know next: has David Bowie ever been to Corfu? An absolutely irrelevant question, or is it? Anyway I wanted to ignore it, but sometimes things are in the air. The very same day I see this lady on FB – not my medium, but how to avoid it? – reply to an overall question posted by someone about celebrities having visited Corfu. “David Bowie,” she stated clearly.

So for the record, dear Julien, I kindly asked the lady how she knew. She had witnessed it herself, she claimed. “I saw him in 1980 or 1981, in a nightclub near Corfu Town. The one with a swing and swimming pool.” Now I happen to have been on the island in both years, but a backpacker and not a nightclubber I seem to have missed all the fun. “1980 or 1981”: it would fit, Bowie blowing of some steam after his divorce. Meanwhile that “swing” puzzles me. “Boys keep swinging”, that’s for sure. Thank you for all, mr. David Bowie!

Earthquake Albania, update

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.

Strong earthquakes in Albania, 26 November

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.

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?


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