History and museums
Achilleion (Greek: Αχίλλειο or Αχίλλειον) is a palace built in Gastouri, Corfu by Empress (German: Kaiserin) of Austria Elisabeth of Bavaria, also known as Sisi, after a suggestion by Austrian Consul Alexander von Watzberg. Elisabeth was a woman obsessed with beauty, and very powerful, but tragically vulnerable since the loss of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in the Mayerling Incident in 1889. A year later in 1890, she built a summer palace in the region of Gastouri (Γαστούρι), now the municipality of Achilleion, about ten kilometres to the south of the city of Corfu. The palace was designed with the mythical hero Achilles as its central theme. Corfu was Elizabeth's favourite vacation place and she built the palace because she admired Greece and its language and culture. Achilleion's location provides a panoramic view of Corfu city to the north, and across the whole southern part of the island. The architectural design was intended to represent an ancient Phaeacian palace.
The Achilleion property was originally owned by Corfiote philosopher and diplomat Petros Vrailas Armenis and it was known as "Villa Vraila". In 1888 the Empress of Austria after visiting the place decided that it was the ideal location for her to build her palace in Corfu. The palace was designed by Italian architect Raffaele Caritto and built on a 200,000 m2 area. Elizabeth's husband, emperor Franz Josef of Austria, had owned some nearby land as well. Ernst Herter, a famous German sculptor, was commissioned to create works inspired from Greek mythology. His famous sculpture Dying Achilles (Ancient Greek: Αχιλλεύς θνήσκων), created in Berlin in 1884 as inscribed in the statue, forms the centrepiece of the Achilleion Gardens.
The architectural design was intended to represent an ancient Phaecian palace. The building, with the classic Greek statues that surround it, is a monument to platonic romanticism as well as escapism and was, naturally, named after Achilles: Achilleion.
The place abounds with paintings and statues of Achilles, both in the main hall and in the lavish gardens depicting the heroic and tragic scenes of the Trojan war. The architectural style is Pompeian and has many parallels to that of the Russian imperial residence in Crimea. Elisabeth wrote that "I want a palace with pillared colonnades and hanging gardens, protected from prying glances - a palace worthy of Achilles, who despised all mortals and did not fear even the gods."
The Imperial gardens on top of the hill provide a majestic view of the surrounding green hill crests and valleys as the Ionian sea gleams in the background.
Elisabeth used to visit the place often until 1898 when she was assassinated in Geneva by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni.
After Elisabeth's death, the palace was inherited by her daughter but was not used often. German Kaiser Wilhelm II purchased Achilleion in 1907 and used it as a summer residence. During Kaiser Wilhelm's visits a lot of diplomatic activity used to take place in Achilleion and it became a hub of European diplomacy.
Wilhelm, expanding on the main theme of the grounds, commissioned his own Achilles statue from the sculptor Johannes Götz who created an imposing bronze sculpture that stands tall as a guardian of the Gardens facing north toward the city.
Archaeologist Reinhard Kekulé von Stradonitz, who was also the Kaiser's advisor, was invited by the Kaiser to come to Corfu to give him advice where to position the huge statue. The famous salute to Achilles from the Kaiser, which had been inscribed at the statue's base, was also created by Kekulé. The inscription read:
To the Greatest Greek from the Greatest German
The inscription was subsequently removed after WWII.
The Kaiser's statue represents Achilles in full hoplite uniform with intricate detailing such as a relief of a gorgon's head at the shield, apparently to petrify any enemies, as well as lion heads as knee protectors. This tall statue is surrounded by palm trees that complement its graceful outline. Kaiser Wilhelm visited the place until 1914 when World War I was declared. The Kaiser also attended performances at the Municipal Theatre of Corfu while vacationing at the Achilleion.
The Kaiser, while vacationing at Achilleion and while Europe was preparing for war, had been involved in excavations at the site of the ancient temple of Artemis in Corfu. He also removed the statue of Jewish poet Heinrich Heine which Empress Elisabeth had installed at Achilleion. Kaiser's actions became the subject of the film-poem The Gaze of the Gorgon, written by British poet Tony Harrison.
During World War I, the Achilleion was used as a military hospital by French and Serbian troops. After World War I, it became the property of the Greek state according to the treaty of Versailles and the war reparations that followed in 1919.
From about 1921 to 1924, the palace housed the Save the Children Fund orphanage under the administration of brothers Garabed and Margos Keshishian. This operation moved its 1,000+ orphans, including many Armenians, from Constantinople after Ataturk took Smyrna.
In the years between World War I and World War II the Achilleion property was used to house various government services and at the same time a number of artifacts were auctioned off.
During World War II, the axis powers used the Achilleion as military headquarters. After World War II, the Achilleion came under the management umbrella of the Hellenic Tourist Organisation (HTO).
In 1962 the Achilleion was leased to a private company that converted the upper level to a casino and the lower grounds to a museum. In 1983 the lease was terminated and the palace management was returned to the HTO.
In September 1979, twelve historians from the United States, the UK, and Germany, assembled to discuss Kaiser Wilhelm's character and the historical role he played in German politics and society. The conference was held at what once was the Kaiser's bed-chamber and the proceedings were published in the book Kaiser Wilhelm II New Interpretations: The Corfu Papers.
Briefly reclaiming the status of centre for European diplomacy that it possessed during the Kaiser years, the Achilleion has been used in recent times for the European summit meeting in 1994, and in 2003 it hosted the meeting of the European ministers for Agriculture. Lately it has been used as a museum while the casino function has been relocated to the Corfu Hilton.
The casino scene of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981) was filmed at the Achilleion.
Achilleion is also featured Tony Harrison's film-poem The Gaze of the Gorgon when a chorus of tourists says in rhyming verse:
Soon, in 1994,
in this palace Greece starts to restore,
in this the Kaiser's old retreat
Europe's heads of state will meet...