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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the all time favourite James Bond movies, For Your Eyes Only, duration 127 minutes and directed by John Glen, was released on July 2nd 1981. Worldwide it made 195 million US dollars and effectively saved United Artists from financial ruin. When British actor Roger Moore – in 2003 knighted by Queen Elizabeth II – had become Sir Roger Moore he would clearly remember which car he liked best in the seven Bond movies he played in: “The Citroën 2CV was my favourite.”
So where did he drive the 2CV? Corfu was one of the primary locations in For Your Eyes Only. We see James Bond and Bond-girl Melina Havelock (French actress and model Carole Bouquet) in sceneries ranging from the Agios Spyridon church, the Old Fortress and the Mandraki marina in Corfu Town, to the Vlacherna monastery and Kanoni island, Danilia village, the Achilleion casino, and Agios Georgios beach. And the narrow, winding roads of course that turn the odd car chase into something else!
Yellow Citroën 2CV Let’s watch Bond and Melina being chased and gunned at in a yellow – no, not a submarine – but a Citroën 2CV through the rough terrain of olive groves. They end up in the narrow streets of the village Pagoi (in Corfu’s hilly northwest, between Palaiokastritsa and Agios Georgios). Melina driving escapes from running straight into a bus by turning the car upside down, near a café. Bond to Melina: “Take the low road… not too low.”
Bystanders rush in to roll the car upright again and on goes the epic chase, now with 007 behind the wheel: “You don’t mind if I drive, do you?” Next thing we see is bus nr. 44 continue its journey to… Madrid – as this part of the movie story is taking place in Spain. (Are you still with me?)
Roger Moore (1927-2017) lived to be almost ninety years of age. Carole Bouquet (playing the character of Melina Havelock) was only 23 when the movie was shot, being thirty years his younger. She is acting to this day.
Spiros Bond 007 Café Bar Want to visit the café opposite the spot where the famous yellow 2CV went upside down? Spiros Bond 007 Café Bar does not just provide a terrace with a (virtual) view of that spectacular film scene, inside you will find many photographs, posters and memorabilia reviving For Your Eyes Only. You will find the café (actually a restaurant as well) in Pagoi, on the provincial road Arkadades-Agios Georgios. Want to stir up your appetite and see the car chase (4min. 40 sec.)? Follow this link to YouTube.
The official death toll of the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that hit northwestern Albania in the early morning of Tuesday 26 November has been confirmed as 51. Some 2000 people were injured and 14.000 are homeless as a result of the initial earthquake and shocks on the day after.
The member states of the European Union are organising a special donor conference, scheduled for January 2020. The authorities and the public in Corfu have sent several truckloads to neighbouring Albania with essentials like food, drinking water, blankets and tents.
Nine arrests The Albanian government has made a reservation of a 120 million euro for restoration work and has made an appeal to the international community for (financial) support. Meanwhile a prosecutor has brought charges to 17 builders, architects and owners of real estate for causing the death of the 51 victims. They are suspected of neglecting rules and standards for safe building. Nine of the seventeen suspects have been arrested, some others are believed to be on the run. For previous posts about the earthquakes: see 26 November and 27 November.
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.).
In the beginning of August 1979 I got off the ferry from Brindisi, Italy to set foot in Corfu for the first time. Unaware I was to stay for seven weeks, camping in an olive grove near the beach of Kontogialos, beneath the hill of Pelekas. The beach life agreed with me so well I literally had to drag myself up the 272 metres high hill once in a while to get on the bus to Corfu Town. To sniff some culture.
According to my travel diary on Thursday September 13th I found the Archeological Museum closed until 4 o’ clock, for the lunch break. I wandered past the Old Fortress – closed as well – and near the Esplanade slipped into the shade to watch a cricket match. Just then a buzz of voices and shrieking car tyres drifted around the corner. Before I knew I walked into a film set and found myself on a narrow sidewalk surrounded by crew, actors, shop owners, residents and tourists like myself.
Annie Girardot For the next hour and a half we would watch this dusty Renault taxi hit a three-wheel moped loaded with cardboard boxes, then crash through a newspaper stall and cause a pick up truck to send its entire load of watermelons all over the asphalt. Over and over again. With intervals of around fifteen minutes, needed to rehearse the scene and glue all the pre-cut watermelons together again etc. It was during such a break I spotted Annie Girardot.
Philippe Noiret Or at least I thought I recognised the most popular French actress of the seventies, hiding beneath a white summer hat. Or maybe I just read her name, scribbled on an assistant’s scrapbook, along with Philippe Noiret’s, another favourite actor of mine. Just two years earlier Annie had won her first César for best actress, while Philippe scored that success a year before her. Through all the excitement I don’t really remember what I did and did not see.
IMDb That is why I am really happy the unsurpassed IMDb (source for movie and TV content) filled me in on all the details about On a volé la cuisse de Jupiter (in English that would be something like They have stolen Jupiter’s buttocks, a rather unusual title. Quite French, I’d say). So I learned the movie was shot in Kalabaka (near the Meteora monasteries), in and around Corfu Town and – much to my surprise – in Pelekas, the village where I had jumped on the bus in the first place. And where I somehow missed all the film set fun during those weeks.
The comedy, directed by Philippe de Broca, was released in February 1980. Soon after that Annie Girardot (1931-2011) sort of withdrew herself from the screen, doing four films only during the eighties before she made a real comeback in the nineties. Her last part she played in 2007. Philippe Noiret (1930-2006) starred in a great number of French and Italian movies until an illness forced him to quit the scene in 2003.
Trailer I am not sure wether to recommend On a volé la cuisse de Jupiter. IMDb rates it with 6,2 out of 10. For lovers of the scenery: at least the lighthearted comedy was filmed entirely in Greece, and mainly on Corfu. A three minutes trailer can be viewed here. You might still find me standing there on the sidewalk, watching the splashing watermelons.
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.