When I’m retelling a fairytale I always draw detailed plans of the main character’s abode. The information might never get used but it helps me to visualise not only the place but the characters as well. I particularly love sketching out palaces. Not that I would want to live in one; I tend to go for rustic places in real life, but I am fascinated with palaces.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the shadow of one. It was called Palazzo Parisio, and from my father’s carpentry workshop you could see the roof of a folly in its garden, and rambling roses cascaded over its walls into our ours. Today it’s open to the public but when I was a child it was reserved solely for the family of the local marquis, except for a part of the garden which had been leased out to a trade fair corporation and was used for two weeks a year. The ballroom served as a location for a few Hollywood films, and I once saw Roger Moore signing autographs outside, although I had no idea who he was then.
My mum didn’t have a clue about Mr. Moore either. ‘Who is he?’ she asked a neighbour.
‘The Saint” came the reply.
‘Bless,’ sighed my mother enviously, ‘a saint and he’s not even dead yet.’
Over the years, I have visited quite a few palaces and manor houses and always managed to take something away with me for my stories. But this summer I discovered the most enchanting palace of all – the Achilleion in Corfu.
It was built in 1890 for the tragic Sisi, the Austrian empress Elizabeth of Bavaria as a refuge from the heartache of losing her son Crown Prince Rudolph in the Mayerling incident a year before. Sisi was obsessed with Greek myths and culture and the whole palace is a tribute to the hero Achilles, the mythical prince with one fatal flaw – he could only be shot in the heel. The halls and gardens are crammed with Victorian interpretations of the classic myths about Achilles and the Trojan war. There are paintings, sculptures and furniture, all produced by the leading artists of the day. For me, the best part is the roof garden, built to look like a portico in Pompeii, with a stunning view of the countryside and the Ionian Sea below. To reach it, you climb up one flight of stairs after another, past locked doors and empty rooms and, just when you think you are going to reach a bedroom, or boudoir, you stumble out into bright sunshine and – a roof garden. This is what the hanging gardens of Babylon must have looked like.
In the ground level garden below, which was crawling with butterflies when I visited, stands the famous statue of Achilles drawing his last breath. Sisi was assasinated in 1898, by an Italian madman who offered her a bunch of flowers with a knife hidden inside. Kaiser Wilhem II purchased the palace and he replaced a lot of the empress’ original furniture and decoration. He also added a towering statue of Achilles as a victorious hoplite. It shows the hero returning from battle, with a gorgon carved into his shield and lion heads for kneecaps. The gorgon here is a charm to ward off evil, and echoes similar images in the furniture indoors. Today the sword is missing its gold covering which used to catch the light of the setting sun so the Kaiser could see it as he sailed into Corfu Harbour.
The kaiser never returned to the palace after World War I was declared. It was used as a military hospital during the war, then passed into the hands of the Greek government and later became a casino. The gambling scenes in For Your Eyes Only were shot here. It’s that ***** Roger Moore again. You just can’t keep a martini-loving spy away from a sumptuous palace.
As for me, I’ve got the setting for my next fairytale. Watch this space!
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