The amazing and beautiful Achillieon Palace is located about 10 km south of Corfu Town on the edge of a village called Gastouri.
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 and Kaiser William II of Germany.
It was built by the enigmatic, slightly eccentric and intriguing Empress Elizabeth of Austria, also known as Sisy who was married to the Emperor of Austria at the time, Franz Joseph 1. In a story that reads like a real life Greek tragedy which ends in her, rather random, assassination at the age of 61, poor Sisy was undermined by her mother in law, who took her children away from her at birth, and made to feel inadequate for not producing an heir to the throne. Never a particularly outgoing person, her shyness increased to painful levels, affecting her health and eating habits to the point she became extremely unwell. Hating the strict regimes of court life, suffering from mental breakdowns and depressions she took to travelling extensively for her health. Each time she returned to court she became rapidly and noticeably ill again.
The birth of her son Rudolph in 1858 did improve her standing in the court but yet again her mother in law stepped in to take over the upbringing of the child. Her illness following this incident was when she first traveled to Corfu, under doctors orders, and when her love affair with the island began. She continued to travel widely but in 1889, Elisabeth’s life was shattered by the death of her only son. He was found dead together with his young lover Baroness Mary Vetsera in what was believed to be a murder-suicide pact and became known as the Mayerling Incident. This was when Sisy, wracked by grief, focused her attentions on building a palace on Corfu Island replacing the simple house given to her by Corfiot Petros Vrailas Armenis who was rewarded with a large diamond-encrusted brooch.
Elizabeth herself oversaw the entire decoration of the palace and it reflects her admiration and love for Classical Greece. Inside the palace and the beautifully kept surrounding gardens are decorated with statues of ancient philosophers, heroes and mythical ancient gods.
“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”
But the central theme of the palace is the mythical hero Achilles who Sisy felt represented the spirit and soul of the local Greek people. Elisabeth spoke fluent Greek and expressed a desire to further immerse herself in the Greek culture.
The palace was designed by Italian architect Raffaele Caritto and Ernst Herter, a famous German sculptor, was commissioned to create works inspired from Greek mythology. His famous sculpture Dying Achilles, created in Berlin in 1884, forms the centre piece of the Achilleion Gardens. The palace, surrounded with classic Greek statues is a monument to romanticism as well as escapism and was, naturally, named after Achilles. It 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.
Perched on top of a hill and set in grounds that stretch down to the sea, the palace affords amazing panoramic views as far across as Corfu town.
Empress Elisabeth built the palace to escape the tragedies of her life, and William II purchased it after her untimely death because he wanted to holiday there. However, he never had a chance to enjoy the palace’s beauty because of a war that broke out, from his own doing.
The Achillieon Palace has been a military hospital in WW1, an orphanage, a military headquarters in WW2, after which it came under the management of The Hellenic Tourist Organisation which leased it out in 1962 to a private company that turned the top floor into a casino. The casino scene of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981) was filmed at the Achilleion.
Finally in 1983 in reverted back to the H.T.O. and after years of rebuilding and restoration, the palace was finally restored to its former beauty. It is now open to the public and is quite rightly one of the most visited, loved and photographed tourist sites on Corfu.