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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While Corfu born Angelos Giallinas died before World War II his fame as a painter seems to be spreading still. Having been a very productive artist his watercolours and lithographs can be purchased at Greek and international auctions for prices ranging from € 1.000 to € 6.000. His main subject were the land- and seascapes and architecture of his beloved island, and very few painters – perhaps apart from Edward Lear and Joseph Cartwright – seem to have captured the spirit of the place like he did.
But Giallinas liked his travelling too. After taking painting lessons during 1872-1875 at the Corfu Art School and privately from Charalambos Pachis he studied painting in Venice, Naples and Rome. In Italy he discovered his skills and passion for watercolouring. Returning to Corfu in 1878 he devoted himself almost entirely to this art – next to some lithography – and soon became immensely popular.
National Gallery Giallinas painted scenes in cities like Athens and Istanbul and soon his work was part of exhibitions, both in Greece and abroad. After his long life his reputation kept growing and in 1974 the National Art Gallery in Athens posthumously honoured him with a grand Retrospective.
Corfu Postcards The fact he managed to reach a truly international public much wider than that of connoisseurs of art is also linked to a brilliant move: from 1910 on he had his gorgeous watercolours of village scenes reproduced on postcards. They served a few goals indeed. The enchanting reputation of Corfu went all over Europe, long before the days of mass tourism. Giallinas received a good income from it and his reputation? Well, that’s not hard to guess.
Original Giallinas postcards, printed in Corfu by the Aspiotis-ELKA printworks, today are collector’s items. That’s why it is good news for all admirers of Giallinas and Corfu’s unspoilt scenery that thirteen reprints of his postcards can now be obtained for only € 8,- (including postage and packaging).
The Giallinas Mansion Born to a noble family Angelos Giallinas lived and worked in a Venetian mansion, that is to be found near the Esplanade in Corfu Town, indicated by a commemorative plaque in blue and red on the façade. This plaque and various others in and around town was put up by the Corfu Heritage Foundation.
In March 2018 a project was approved to renovate and reuse the protected Giallinas Mansion with a budget of over € 5 million. The ground floor of the gallery will be used for educational and commercial activities, the first floor will house an exhibition of works by Angelos Giallinas and the second floor will be a multipurpose area. The Corfu Municipality is responsible for the work and the Giallinas Foundation will be responsible for its operation when completed. More news.
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.