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.

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.

The Dylan Project in Corfu

Stills of the singer, songwriter and artist Bob Dylan, about 1965

An attentive reader from France commented the other day on the front page of The Corfiot Magazine, that I used as an illustration for my post about its on line archive. Did he read a headline saying “The Dylan Project in Corfu” and would I elaborate on that?

So quoting from Paul McGovern’s article in The Corfiot’s September 2009 issue I will gladly fill in the gaps in our memory. The Dylan Project was a band formed around the millennium by Steve Gibbons and Dave Pegg, who knew each other from the Birmingham band The Uglys. The Dylan Project was the headline of Agiotfest 09, the premiere of a music festival taking place on the village square of Agios Ioannis from September 7-12 2009. The line up for their live performance was: vocalist Steve Gibbons and lead guitarist PJ Wright (both from the Steve Gibbons Band); bass guitarist Dave Pegg (Fairport Convention, formerly with Jethro Tull); keyboardist Phil Bond (a Dylan regular and Greek music fan); drummer Brendan Day (late replacement for Gerry Conway).

Review
On the website of Agiotfest there is a review of all the performances on that Saturday night September 12th. A wonderful evening it seems, when it rained everywhere on Corfu, apart from Agios Ioannis. The Dylan Project, together with the bands East of Memphis (two folksingers from Edinburgh), Omega 5 (an experienced British band from Corfu) and The Good Old Boys was to entertain the all seated audience in the Central Corfu village for five hours. Spyros Hytiris remembers the ‘wonderful evening at the family-friendly plateia of Agios Ioannis, where you had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see quite a few legendary figures from mainly seventies folk-rock and blues bands.’

I quote from Hytiris’ review: “The Dylan Project are delayed by previous sets, but finally they are away. I’d never seen them live before, so was hopeful but slightly apprehensive for them, following such a strong supporting cast. I needn’t have worried. Consummate professionals, they had the audience in their palms and people up and dancing on the improvised dancefloor below the stage. What performers, what a tight sound. Yes they played Dylan, but not exclusively.* Numbers tumbled out effortlessly, some of which were probably unfamiliar to the appreciative listeners.”

“The Dylans come back for their final set. They are obviously enjoying themselves, as they go way past closing time and then beyond one o’ clock, before wrapping up with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, during which they invite all artists up onto stage for a grand finale. ‘More, more’ is being shrieked at the end.
It is over, like a dream. The crowd disperses, all smiles.”

*From The Corfiot Magazine we learn the repertoire of The Dylan Project – apart from Bob Dylan numbers – comprised (no surprise) renditions of Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention, as well as own new compositions.

Agiotfest 2020?
Agiotfest did very well since the start in 2009. On August 30th and 31st 2019 the 11th edition rolled by, this time near a camping site just outside Agios Ioannis. The dates for the 2020 edition have not yet been revealed. ‘So keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again’: https://agiotfest.com

Poster of the first Agiotfest, once pinned to an olive tree and taken home by yours truly

A Black Sun

The shrine for Odysseas Grekousis, by the side of The Corfu Trail between Pelekas and Sinarades.

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.

Paul and Linda McCartney in Benitses in 1969

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.

Kaiser Wilhelm II postcard

Postcard showing Kaiser Wilhelm II (black hat and binoculars) and Prince zu Fürstenberg at the Kaiser’s Throne, Pelekas

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!

Aircraft down! 75 years ago

The cover of Philip D. Caine’s history of the heroic evaders of aircrafts shot down over Europe in WW II.

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.
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.

Forty years Corfu

In the Ionian Sea

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!

Peter Dicker,
October 17th 2019

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