A field near Strongyli in Central Corfu is home to one of the oldest and largest living trees in Europe. The age of the olive tree, to the locals known as ‘Evdokía’ (Grace), has been estimated by German scientists from the Dresden University of Technology to 1200 years, with a margin of error of ten percent. Researchers professors Andreas Roloff and Stern Gillner believe the tree was planted around 928 A.D., even before the island’s successive occupations by Saracens, Normans and Venetians.
Dendrochronologists from the TU Dresden’s Institute of Forest Botany and Forest Zoology began their examination process in Corfu in 2014, with the aid of biologist Eleni Louka, a resident of Strongyli. The result of the German study was presented only last June on Corfu at an event organised by Louka and Eleni Konofaou, founder of the Hellenic Union of Heptanesians (HUH).
Evdokía is one of three especially enormous olive trees on Corfu. The HUH aims at promoting all three areas where these trees are located as alternative tourist destinations.
It was a running gag for me and my wife on every visit to the island. We would walk the long way to the Archaeological Museum of Corfu again and again to find the entrance gate shut. We would stare at the board advertising the opening date, after years of renovation. A date that slipped further and further into the past… Last spring we were unexpectedly rewarded for our stubbornness: the museum had reopened on March 23rd 2019. And what a great job has been done! Now the recently launched museum’s website is bound to add to its reputation.
Τhe antiquities on display originate from the ancient city Corcyra as well as various other sites on the island, such as Kassiopi, Acharavi, Almiros, Afionas, Roda and the palaeolithic caves of Grava Gardiki.
The layout of the exhibition – aided by modern audiovisual device – follows a narrative that invites visitors to experience aspects of the of the daily life of the inhabitants of ancient Corcyra. One is introduced to their relation to death, their cult beliefs and their artisanal and economic activities. Much attention goes to the city-state, the institution that structured and deeply influenced public and private life.
Ground floor On the ground floor the wonderful prehistoric collection of the museum is displayed, and in an adjacent room are finds from the era of the foundation and colonization of ancient Corcyra and the city’s relations with other powerful Greek city-states.
Upper floor The four rooms of the upper floor take the visitor on a tour through Corcyra from the Archaic to the late Roman period, by presenting six thematic units. These are: Topography and Civic Organisation, Private Life, Burial Customs, Cults, Worship of Artemis, Public life, Economy.
Temple of Artemis The magnificent centrepiece on the upper floor is the complete west pediment of the Temple of Artemis, 17 meters long and over 3 meters high. With the winged Medusa Gorgo in the heart of the presentation, flanked by her two children and two mythological lion-panthers the sculptured porous limestone is probably the oldest surviving artwork of its kind in Greece.
Very much worth the visit, not to mention the other highlights on the upper floor such as the Pediments of Dionysos, the Lion of Menecrates, the Stele (gravestone) of Arniadas and the Capital of Xembares.
Running gag On leaving after our enjoyable visit I enquire with one of the staff members why the renovation was so long overdue. Ah well, I had got it all wrong. The renovation had maybe taken a little longer, which was to be considered normal in unique and complex projects like this one. But the real problem was the hiring of the staff. I was very surprised: who would not want a job like this? Ah well, but that was exactly the problem. ‘Everybody wanted an easy government job at the museum’. So it took ages to sort out which candidate was more entitled to it than so many others.
The museum is closed on Wednesday. General admission fee: € 6,-; reduced fee: € 3,-. Free for minors up to 18. For opening hours etc. check the website.
‘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
Of the many roadside shrines that once adorned the Corfu landscape, in Pelekas too only a few stood the test of time. Some were erected honouring a saint, others remind of tragic events: a traffic accident, a sudden death in a nearby field. More and more the shrines’ windows will be broken and icons fallen over or faded from the light of the merciless sun and the smoke of the small oil lamps. If the lamps are intact they are now seldom kept alight. One of the miniature chapels however that is honoured to this day can be found right on the route of Corfu’s long-distance footpath ‘The Corfu Trail’.
Coming from Pelekas you will stumble upon it about a hundred meters before the path meets the asphalt road from the village of Sinarades to the – long ago shut down – hotel Yaliscari Beach. From the centre of the shrine a sepia photo portrait in a frame of a melancholic looking boy stares at the passing walkers. The marble plaque at the foot of the monument reads in ruthless katharevousa: ‘Born 2-11-1977, murdered 4-6-1994’. Seventeen years old was Odysseas Grekousis, according to the partly erased lettering. From the dates I gather he was just sixteen, but the intention will be that he was in the seventeenth year of his life.
Wreaths and withered flowers Every time we pass here we pause for a moment. But on a rainy day in the Spring of 2017 we somehow had to halt a little longer. Perhaps our attention was drawn by the wreaths and withered flowers laid in a rectangle of white stones at the right side of the shrine. Or because the oil lamp in the niche with the icons flickered as if the wind could extinguish it at any moment. It was then it dawned on me yesterday had been the day the young lad met his death. I crossed myself instinctively, only just remembering the orthodox rite: touching the forehead with two fingers, then the right shoulder, the left shoulder and finally the belly. It can’t do any harm and it may do some good.
A few steps behind the small monument a ravine unfolds. For tens of meters on down we see a stream of spring mattresses, rusty fridges and washing machines, wrecks of mopeds and plastic bags with garbage. Sticking out like sore thumbs against the dripping fresh green of the fir trees and pines. Would he have crashed down there, somewhere, young Odysseas? And was he now buried beneath that neglected rectangle besides the monument?
One ominous day An hour and a half’s walk down the road we gratefully positioned ourselves beneath the roof of the terrace of a taverna. Watching the wind and the rain reigning over beach and sea. Sun beds remained empty, waves were white-crested. Before we ordered our beers I asked our friend, host of the taverna, about the history of Odysseas. He gazed out upon the sea for some time before he got himself to respond. “Yesterday I could hardly think of anything else,” he started off. “Why? you may ask. Because I am in some way guilty too.” There was no way we could hide our surprise. “Odysseas took part in a boys gang, stealing mopeds and motorcycles. One ominous day he decided to quit. May have even threatened to tell his parents. Whatever, the lad that threw him down the ravine was his age. This boy went to my school, a few classes behind me. Never will I be able to forget that one day I passed the open door of a class room and his teacher called me inside. If I wanted to have a look at a drawing the boy had painted. It was a seascape with a black sun. A black sun… I recall it as if it were yesterday. Both the teacher and I had a loss for words. A few years later, after the killing and the trial, the teacher addressed me and spoke in a rather melancholy way: ‘But who is to punish us’?” “Punish you? How could you have seen this coming?” I reacted, trying to somewhat cheer him up. “That is not what it is about, both of us still felt guilty. We had looked at that frightful sunset and had done nothing at all.” “So did the teacher never speak to the parents?” “The boy was from a poor family. Strange people, who kept to themselves. They lived at some distance from our village, always busy with their chicken, goats and sheep. You wouldn’t see any of his parents near the schoolyard. When we were children we didn’t dare to even approach their house.”
Everybody deserves a second chance A seagull landed on top of a folded parasol, right before our eyes. “What happened next?” I inquired. “Surely he was too young for a jail sentence?” “I never laid eyes on him again. After serving a long term in the underground prison near town he vanished from the island. He’s living on the mainland now, married, children. I am happy for him.” I hesitated, only too aware that my friend had no wife or children. “Everybody deserves a second chance,” he went on. “When this lad’s grandmother had died he secretly sneaked back to the island during the night just to sea his beloved dead one more time and bid his farewell to her. Now you tell me: a person paying his respect in such way cannot be thoroughly bad, can he?” “Will we see at least any sunshine today?” I said, in an attempt to change our moods. He shrugged his shoulders. The seagull had flown off while we were unaware of it. I am sure in that moment we were all thinking of one and the same thing. How a sixteen year old boy briefly hang in between us. Just before he started his gliding flight down to the garbage in the abyss.
Half a century ago, from May 16th till June 17th 1969, Beatle Paul McCartney, his wife Linda and her daughter Heather holidayed in the village of Benitses. During their stay on Corfu’s east coast Paul seems to have completed his song ‘Every Night’, an early version of which he had performed in January 1969 during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions. The song was finally released in april 1970 on McCartney’s solo album.
Paul and Linda were not the only celebrities that discovered the traditional fishing village in the Sixties. Apparently Beatle John Lennon stayed there too, and Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman. Soon however the tourist trade set in and changed the unspoilt scene in many ways, not always for the better.
Over the last years Benitses is picking up and has witnessed the opening of a new marina, new tavernas and cafes. It is unknown wether Paul, now of course Sir Paul McCartney, has ever visited the island again. Soon after his return from the holiday in Benitses the Beatles started going separate ways.
The undated postcard above shows the German Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) and Prince zu Fürstenberg. The kaiser is checking out the surroundings with binoculars. The two men are stood a little below the actual ‘Kaiser’s Throne’ where Wilhelm would often sit to admire the sunset. Today this spot would be found under the metal construction that accommodates the thousands of tourists that visit the summit of Pelekas Hill every year to check out the 360 degrees view. The photograph is taken in the direction of the mountainside of Pantokrator.
Kaiser Wilhelm (1859-1941) had a Corfu summer residence in the Achilleion Palace, that he purchased in 1907 from the daughter of Empress Sisi of Austria (1837-1898). Until the start of World War I in 1914 he would come and stay in the Achilleion every spring. In 1911 he was in charge of the excavations by archeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld of the famous Artemis Temple in Garitsa.
Who knows more? Anyone who can shed light on the occasion or date when the photograph for this postcard was taken is kindly asked to leave me a message!
75 years ago – almost 76 – in the early hours of November 18th 1943, US pilot Dick Flournoy crash-landed his B-17 bomber plane, on the shore of a sandy marsh near Lefkimi, in the south of Corfu. Immediately after bombing Eleusis Airfield, the key German air base west of Athens, his Flying Fortress had got hit by antiaircraft gunfire. With only one of four engines running he and his nine member crew hoped to reach Brindisi in southern Italy, but fate forced them down to the last Greek island on their route.
The aircraft had stopped just short of a row of trees and none of the crew got injured. Within a few minutes villagers arrived; some climbed aboard and the crew abandoned the plan to set fire to the big bomber, thus denying anything on board to the German occupiers of Corfu. None of the locals spoke English, but some had carried native clothing with them and made it obvious to the crew members to put it on and follow them away from the area of the crash. Soon all the airmen had gone, guided by different people to different hide-outs. When the first Germans arrived on the scene of the crash they found only local inhabitants climbing and searching the plane.
Underground resistance After hiding in individual shelters the crew were guided to different hiding places in the town of Lefkimi, with the efficient help of the underground resistance in the area. Within a week or two most members of the crew got malaria, which they combatted with bloodletting. Just before Christmas the Germans thoroughly searched the town, but the Americans had been forewarned and taken refuge in the hills.
Some days later the very well organised resistance smuggled the ten in olive carts pulled by donkeys through the outskirts of Corfu Town. Later on they went by foot past a German army camp and after many adventures and hazards reached the small fishing village of Kontokali, a few miles north of the town. Two Greek fishermen rowed them in two boats in twelve hours across to the bay of Butrinti in Albania, avoiding almost continual patrols by the German navy.
Ten weeks on the run The group made it under horrific circumstances by foot through the snow-clad mountains of Albania and Epirus to the coast of northern Greece. It was not until March 16th 1944 that they were shipped out to Gallipoli in southern Italy and could consider themselves save and free once more. The common thread of all their conversations “was each person’s admiration for the courage, the cleverness, imagination and vigilant protection given us by the Greeks. No matter the danger or the challenge, they were ready to do whatever was needed to see to it that we survived. Each of us would eternally be indebted to them for that.”
A local friend of mine eyewitnessed that in Lefkimi are still objects to be found from the crashed B-17 and even original clothing of the crew. Perhaps a small museum will be dedicated one day to the extraordinary escape to freedom of the US crew with the remarkable and self-sacrificing aid of the inhabitants of Corfu.
Nowadays a monument of granite and white marble, near the municipality beach of Alikès, commemorates the crash. The text says: “In memory of the event that took place on November 18 1943 during the German Occupation, in which an American B-17 War Plane Bomber with a ten man crew on board crash landed in this area. Local Lefkimmi patriots courageously rescued them, hid them and safely led them into the hands of the allies. Municipality of Lefkimmi.”
I quoted freely from: Philip D. Caine, Aircraft Down!, Evading Capture in WWII Europe, Potomax Books, Washington D.C. 2005, Chapter six, ‘All present and accounted for’, pp. 182-223.
The old town of Corfu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007 on the grounds of ‘outstanding universal value’. Visitors and tourists can find hostels, B&B’s and hotels in all classes. My fondest personal memory goes back to a weekend many years ago in the classic Hotel Konstantinoupolis, opening the Venetian blinds in the morning overlooking the square, the old port and the magical blue of the sea.
But here is a tip for a quite different accommodation.
Guest house Locandiera advertizes itself as a ‘mini hotel with personality’. You can find this hidden gem at 8 Ioanni Gennata Street, a quiet side street in the historical centre of Corfu Town, between picturesque Guilford Street with its art shops and Kapodistriou Street, bordered by beautiful Spianada Park & Square, near the Old Fortress.
Locandiera – based in a carefully renovated originally Venetian building – provides six single/double rooms with kitchenette, each with its own individual and artistic identity and style. The ground floor offers a cosy open living room and kitchen area, where you can enjoy your breakfast or drink a coffee. There are regular exhibitions of paintings and photography.
The accommodation blends traditional architectural elements (a centuries old well!) and modern comfort. Quality products (breakfast is included) and reliable and friendly services (free WiFi, iMac, music, books, games, fax, postage, photocopying, bicycles to ride the town!) add to your tranquility, relaxation and wellbeing.
Andreas Monopolis (who learned the art of hospitality in his father’s Jimmy’s Restaurant in Pelekas) and his business partner went out of their way to design and fabricate unique furniture as well as the interior and exterior of the historical building. They even upgraded the street by painting several neighbouring buildings.
Tripadvisor: ‘Great boutique hotel in fabulous location’ (14 October 2019).
My name is Peter Dicker and I was born in Arnhem, The Netherlands, in 1952.
After 41 years of travelling in Greece and 40 years exactly after my first visit to Corfu it is about time to celebrate all the friendship, hospitality and joy that was bestowed on me and my travel companions over all this time.
So after publishing a novel, some short stories and journalistic articles on Corfu in this blog I intend to share a bit of news, stories and side-stories, history and photography. I hope you will share yours with me too, so we can enjoy this magical island a little more, especially when we are – temporarily – not there.
Here is a toast to the generous and hospitable friends and people of ‘our island’ Corfu. Giá mas!