Ancient poet Homer praised the Greek island of Corfu as “rich and beautiful.” About 2,500 years later, the Ionian Sea gem still boasts plenty to rhapsodize about. Inland, the rolling countryside is home to quaint small towns and verdant olive groves, while elegant modern resorts compete for attention along the sandy coast. Playground of early Venetians and a long-time respite from court life for European royalty, Corfu’s natural beauty and rustic charm lured some of its earliest visitors to live here, including one eccentric empress.
An Empress Goes Big
An hour’s drive south, the village of Gastouri became a leisure destination in the 19th century. The lush hillside town was so well known for its coastal views, pure springs, and temperate climate, that Europe’s doctors began recommending it for rest and relaxation. But for one visitor, even the best local accommodations were not quite good enough.
Austrian Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi, first visited Corfu in 1863, staying at its grandest house. Mon Repos Palace had been built by the British High Commissioner for his wife, a native of the island, in 1831. Ever after, it was the lodging of choice for local and visiting royalty alike, including British and Italian Governors, and later the Greek royal family. It was during her stay at Mon Repos that Sisi fell in love with the island.
When her son died young in 1889, she turned her eyes to Corfu for recovery. But Mon Repos was a bit modest for her taste, and she ordered construction of Achilleion Palace, named after the Greek hero. With three stories, original frescoes and statuary, Pompeiian pillars, and a triumphal staircase, it took two years to build. When it opened in 1891, there was nothing like it on Corfu.
And there was no one quite like its owner. Obsessed with appearance, Sisi spent two hours a day grooming her waist-length hair. For sleeping, she wore leather eye masks with alternating poultices of berries and raw meat said to benefit her complexion. She learned fencing and went hiking, while fasting regularly, all to help keep her weight at no more than 110 pounds (on a 5’8” frame). She was determined to stay beautiful—and she did, until she was assassinated by an anarchist at age 60.
What remains is Sisi’s fascination with Greek mythology, as you will see at Achilleion Palace today. From the neo-classical architecture to the gods and goddesses featured in countless frescoes and paintings, the palace is a shrine to a Greek culture she idealized nearly as much as her own beauty.