Read Lawrence Durrell, or just look at the sickel shaped island of Corfu on a map, in the middle of the Med and right between Rome and Istanbul, and you will immediately understand the historic and geographical significance of Corfu. It’s why, when the Brits took control of the Ionaian Islands, in the 1815 Treaty of Paris, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Governor built a residence here. In the days when Government officials could do things like that, he built a road up behind Corfu town, along with the road and sanitation works right across the island, that have lasted to today, so that he could have better communications with his Corfeat wife. She is recorded in a dreadful copy of a painting inside the house, all bundled up in Jane Austin pleats, and not at all reflective of the famous beauty of many Corfu girls. The Adams later went on to India.
Mon Repos, on the little peninsula that juts out into the mesmerizing cobalt blue, is where Prince Phillip was born into the Greek Royal family, a fairly small yet elegant Regency building, among a winding forest of wild oak, cyprus and monkey puzzle trees. At the little Hereum in the grounds, the temple to Hera, local archaeological works were underway, which consisted of a half bearded bloke with his two sweet daughters liberally bulldozing earth away in his dump truck, while his colleagues sheltered from the dripping heat, and smoked the odd cigarette. No careful toothbrush combing of earth layers here then.
The ancient Greek remains there are obviously far more extensive than have so far been revealed, but the neighbouring temple on the cliff edge that they describe simply as ‘Doric’ was most likely a temple to Poseidon. The place was lovely for a gentle, sweating walk, but it all seems rather haphazard and down at heel. Ill now and ninety one, the Queen’s hubby Phillip may remember it more clearly, and in grander times too. If another Greek financial crisis is looming tomorrow though, August 20th, when the coffers are due to run dry again, they could make far more of the whole complex of Mon Repos. Perhaps it is natural Greek indolence, some uncomfortable relationship to the idea of the British role in Greece, or because half of Corfu’s immense charm is not doing anything very much at all. It would be a nice idea to stage concerts and plays here though, encourage local tavernas, with regional produce, or make much more of the grounds and facilities, but it will probably never happen. Unless some clever entrepreneur steps off one of those super yachts in the bay and offers to buy it.
More visitors seem to flock up the hill to the palace just above our village of Gastouri, The Achilleion, where the famous Sissy, Empress of Austria and then Austria Hungary, found snatches of happiness. The story of her beauty, isolation and ultimately tragic life involved her sister setting fire to herself, as she learnt the dubious art of secret smoking, her husband playing away, and finally Sissy’s own assassination by some swaggering anarchist, even if Sissy had a comparatively radical temperament. But she found the spirit of the muses away from it all up here and her interest in classical Greece turned the elegant terraces into a stone Tussaud’s of Classical Greek statuary. It is more pleasing than the over-ornate, wedding cake style Baroque interiors and worth a visit.
It is still all very Germanic though, with the gigantic, over stylised statue of Achilles crowning the view that looks out at to Kerkyra, Corfu town. Another is set back in the gardens, with the prostrate hero clutching that arrow in his heel, launched by another Paris, after his tussles with the Apple of Discord. If the myths teach of the relationship between the eternal, and the mortal and transitory, the entry point into the real world around us, perhaps Greece will still prove the Achilles heal to the whole Eurozone. But despite corruption, some primitive superstitions and ignorances, like a neighbour remarking that British spending on the Olympics was a waste of ‘their’ money, and that oddly Greek sense of its own right, on wealthy, warm Corfu, where people are both welcoming and filled with a lively sense of humour, it is absurd to think of Greece as anything but a proud, beautiful and important European neighbour.
So, with all the work here on Edmund Shakespeare, to Lawrence Durrell recording in Prospero’s Cell the theory of a local Count in the 1930’s, as another war loomed, who gently insisted that Corfu is actually Shakespeare’s setting for The Tempest. It’s a lovely idea, as well as being the place that Odysseus overcame that siren song, on his eternal journey back home from war with man and Gods to Penelope and real love. But in the walls between fact and fiction there are few absolutes, and as much as any real place, or the possibility of Shakespeare travelling, that ‘isle full of noises’ is the islands of Shakespeare’s creative psyche and imagination.
Phoenix Ark and oddball family spent two lovely weeks there, filled with the noises of cicadas, skop’s owls and conversation. We swam, ate fish, drank Ouzo, played scrabble, puttered around in a little fiat, went to a festival, hired a boat and had gentle adventures. Now we are dispersed again, sadly, and preparing to face whatever the real world claims to be.