The stunning appearance of this stately palace takes the visitor back in history to when the palace was inhabited by two great figures from European history whose only common bond was their adoration for Corfu, Greece and its culture, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (known as ‘Sissi’) and Kaiser William II of Germany.
Empress Elisabeth built the palace to escape the tragedies of her life, and William II purchased it after her untimely death. William II, however, never had a chance to enjoy the palace’s beauty because of a war that broke out, from his own doing.
During the First and Second World War the palace was abandoned and inevitably pillaged by the enemy. After years of rebuilding and restoration, the palace was finally restored to its former beauty.
Empress Elisabeth, a mythological figure, who was renowned for her beauty, intellect, and her liberal attitude, gained great popularity from the historical film ‘Sissi’, in which the famous German actress – Romy Schneider performed as the Empress.
Elizabeth was born in 1837 in the house of Posenhoffen, Bavaria, Germany. Before Elisabeth turned sixteen, following a short affair, married Frans-Joseph I of the Hapsburg Dynasty. Because of the many issues that troubled her, Elisabeth was driven to leave the royal court numerous times and travel to other places as a means of release. In some of these trips Elisabeth visited Corfu, where she resided for three months, captivated by Corfu’s landscapes. Elisabeth returned often to her beloved Corfu, and to other parts of Greece where she was educated in the Greek language and culture by many teachers, one of them being Constantine Christomas, who was rumored to have had a platonic relationship with the Empress.
Between the years 1867 and 1889, Elisabeth was tormented by many tragic and unpleasant events that occurred during that time. Events, such as the untimely demise of her son, prince to the crown, Prince Rudolf shocked the Empress’s world, and drove her away from Vienna, in search of refuge at Corfu, where she dealt with her sorrows. At Gastouri, she began rebuilding her palace which was completed at 1891. The Empress herself decorated the inner and exterior parts of the palace with pieces of art from Greek mythology and history. The name Achilleion was given to the palace because of her unique passion towards the central hero in the mythological story, the Iliad and the Trojan War. Unworthy of such a tormented life, Empress Elisabeth was murdered on a trip to Switzerland in the year 1898. After her unfortunate death, the palace of Achilleion remained uninhabited for 9 years.
Kaiser of Germany
It was the King of Greece, George I, that proposed the idea of buying the palace of Achilleion to the Kaiser (Emperor) of Germany, William II. The Kaiser bought the Achilleion in the year 1907 after 2 years of negotiations.
The Kaiser being the master of the palace, began making changes to the palace, such as the moving the statue of the ‘Dying Achilles’. In its place he erected the huge statue of the ‘Victorious Achilles’ which was more suited to his personality. He also removed the statue of the Gennan poet -Heine which Elisabeth had liked and had placed in the forest below the palace, and to house his personal guard the Kaiser built a large building next to the palace. One of the things that the Kaiser took care of first was the restoration of the beautiful gardens of the palace, which had not been seen to in over 9 years. For this reason, he brought famous agriculturalists, gardeners, and also rare trees and plants. These trees and plants that still live in the gardens in our times.
The Emperor was active contributor to the archeological digs of Saint Theodore, in Garitsa. There, with the help of the well-known German archaeologist William Doerpfeld they discovered the findings that are housed in the Museum of Corfu, with their most important founding, the Mermaid. The last thing that the Kaiser had constructed was the look-out tower at Peleka where one can see a large part of the island. He would have done a lot more, however his trip to Corfu at 1914 was destined to become his last.
During the great wars
Corfu was occupied on the December of 1915 from the French and the Serbian armies, during the First World War. During this occupation the French and the Serbian armies turned the Achilleion palace into a military headquarters and hospital. The fact that the Germans were the enemy was to the greatest extend at fault for the many disasters that befell the palace onto the parts of the palace that were of Kaisers making. To this day it remains a unknown how many statues and other precious items were lost at that period.
After the end of the war, following the’ Treaty of Versailles’ in 1919, the palace became the property of the Greek state. In peacetime, many items of furniture were sold off by auction, scattering the pieces far and wide, sadly lost to Achilleion forever. During World War II, Achilleion was again occupied by foreign troops – this time the Germans and Italians as a military headquarters and hospital and was again abused. After the liberation of the island after the war, parts of the palace were utilized as a technical institution in the training of young men and women in trades, but unfortunately, as the years went by the once stunning palace slowly became a ruin due to the lack of funds for the reconstruction repairs that it badly needed.