Published on 15/05/18 in Reading
But let’s get back to Elisabeth, whose love of wandering was just the extension of her desperate desire to find happiness. Discipline and undiscipline danced a duet in her heart and, when her soul lay captive, there was always escape, something in her which the Emperor found difficult to tame. “We can always create an island just for us,” she would say metaphorically, but her thoughts were focused on magical Corfu. And Frances Joseph bought her the Miramar so that she could sail to the island of the Phaeacians, her romantic destination, whenever she wanted. It was as if the needle of the goddess Tyche had been turned. Until that time, Corfu had been known only for its strategic position, now people were travelling there to be wooed by its natural beauty, and Elisabeth was its most famous champion after Homer, whom she had studied, as she was well-versed in both ancient and modern Greek.
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, I walked as quickly as she did, all the while gazing at the rambling hillocks and the slim, graceful cypresses that dotted the landscape. They would reach out from the densely-populated olive groves, like standing guards for the golden seclusion required by the Empress which was also the nectar needed to calm her turbulent soul. I suspect that her going incognito, which she needed to do in order to travel to other places, was not necessary here, as the villagers didn’t know who she was, and if they ever learned of her identity, they wouldn’t understand much as they didn’t have knowledge of letters nor of History. Her tutor of Greek, Constantin Christomanos, would accompany her on her walks in the country, required to keep up with her brisk pace. With a tome of Homer in his hand, he would pant after her, trying to keep up. Her tall, lithe silhouette was a common sight to the villagers, and they soon grew fond of the foreign lady whose face was always covered with a veil. She would often stop to speak to them in Greek and to drink a cup of goat milk, rewarding them with a gold coin.
One day I was speaking on the phone with my dear, Corfiot friend Eugene Pierris, whose ancestors had arrived in Corfu in 1485. One of their parcels of land was located just north of Gastouri and when I told him I would be writing about the area he informed me that he had a pair of Elisabeth’s gloves in his possession.
“How is that possible?” I asked him in surprise.
“I’ll send you a picture of the gloves, and an explanation, as well,” he answered.
And this is what I received:
“My dear Barbara,
Corfu 1897 (one year before her assassination)
Empress Elisabeth, on one of her visits to the country home of the Pierris family, and always accompanied by her Greek tutor (and some say lover) Constantin Christomanos (he was charming but ugly), forgot one of her gloves. Antonio Trivoli Pierris returned it to her and the Empress, to show her appreciation, sent Antonio the pair to keep. I inherited the gloves from my uncle (my father’s brother) and Corfiot historian, Stefano Pierris. Stefano was also a benefactor to the Corfu Reading Society, the first such centre in contemporary Greece.
The red colour on the walls of my home is influenced by the style of traditional Corfiot homes.
One revelation after another… I had been under the impression that Elisabeth, whenever she was in Corfu, spent her time with either gods or villagers. Finding out that she was also visiting the private estates of the Corfiot élite was news to me, and elegant gestures, like the one in Eugene’s letter, showed how very comfortable she must have felt here. Imagine then, how she reacted when the Kaiser of Germany, passing by the island and discovering that the Empress was there, set off a round of 189 canons (!) from the battleships that were following him, and all this just to announce his intent to visit. Elisabeth ran away and hid in the countryside. All she asked for and desired was some typical discretion and not salvos fired in her honour.
“Good morning,” the guardians told me.
“Good morning,” I replied, amused at the fact that in my own country I am usually mistaken for a tourist.
I arrived at the palace early in the morning, exactly when the gates were being opened, so that I could avoid the influx of tourists that would inevitably follow a little later. The site that the Achilleion is built on, formerly belonged to the Corfiot philosopher and diplomat Petrou Vraila-Armeni, and contained a charming pink villa whose gardens were covered with hanging grape vines and bougainvillea, and surrounded by orange groves and wild orchids, and whose hanging gardens, which viewed the Ionian Sea, reached the quaint little fishing village of Benitses The villa Vraila no longer exists as it has been replaced by the legendary pure-white palace, my impressions of which will soon follow. But right now I will tell you of the Achilleion... An excerpt from the book GREECE, The Dance of the Seas
The book GREECE, The Dance of the Seas is due to be published soon.
YouTube GREECE, The Dance of the Seas book trailer: