Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh's Corfu birthplace: A royal birth's hidden history

If not for a small, faded and rather anonymous metal plaque, framed and almost concealed by foliage beside the entrance of Mon Repos, visitors would likely remain oblivious to the fact that this so-called palace was the birthplace of the spouse of Britain longest-reigning monarch.

In English, as well as in Greek, the plaque reads: "Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was born here in 1921." Mon Repos Palace, located south of Corfu's captivating UNESCO World Heritage-listed, Venetian-built Old Town, is reached by a long, shaded driveway flanked by gardens, that meanders its slightly steep path towards the mansion.

It was built in 1826 by Frederick Adams, the then British commissioner, as a gift to his Corfiot spouse Nina Palatianous, during the almost four decade long era when Corfu was a protectorate of Britain due to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon.

I'm visiting Mon Repos as part of a Corfu shore excursion of the island, one of several ports visited on my Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise around the Mediterranean from Athens to Rome via Istanbul. My all-too-brief Corfu sojourn also includes a visit to Achillion Palace and the Palace of St Michael and St George.

Mon Repos, in reality, a relatively modest, slightly-weathered neoclassical villa, later became the summer residence for British governors and, when the Ionian Islands were incorporated into Greece in 1864, Mon Repos was donated to King George I of Greece.

Today the palace serves as the premises of the underwhelming Museum of Palaeopolis, operated by the Greek Government, which includes a room devoted to a small photographic exhibition on the British presence in Corfu, located off Greece's northwest coast in the Ionian Sea.

Perhaps because of the Greeks' chequered relationship with royalty, the museum inside Mon Repos features little if anything about "Phil the Greek", as the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, became colloquially, if not a tad disdainfully, known due to his Hellenic heritage.

However, it was here that Prince Philip, who in later life became infamous for his acerbic and occasionally offensive bon mots, was born here 98 years ago, with his stay short-lived. With little or no reference to its most famous occupant, I'm left to unearth the rather complex story behind Prince Philip's brief stay myself.

He was the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg, who was born in Windsor Castle in Britain. She was raised here and in Germany. Perhaps it's due to the family's dramatic departure from Corfu that the plaque outside Mon Repos recording the Duke of Edinburgh's birth is one of the scant references to his home there.

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Prince Andrew was blamed by many Greeks for Greece's defeat by Turkey in the Greco-Turkish War between 1919 and 1922 and he was forced to abdicate by the Greek government. Fearing he would be put on trial or worse, Prince Andrew fled with his family to Paris while Philip was still an infant.

What followed was an unsettled life, with Princess Alice succumbing to severe, ongoing mental illness largely due to the dramatic events surrounding the family's fleeing from Corfu. Her condition was later diagnosed as schizophrenia.

For five of his most formative years between 1932 and 1937, an increasingly lonely and abandoned Philip had no contact with his mother while his father was exiled in the south of France. Two British families, the Milford Havens and the Mountbattens, relatives of his mother who had direct connections to the British monarchy, rescued Philip.

They arranged to send him to school in England and later Gordonstoun, the exclusive Scottish boarding school. After graduating, Philip joined the Royal Navy. Later, at the age of 18, he met his third cousin and future wife, the then 13-year-old Elizabeth.

Although Prince Philip returned to Greece briefly in the 1950s, he is thought not to have returned to Corfu, let alone to Mon Repos. The Hellenic Republic is not among the 116 countries the Queen has visited during her long reign. Greece's cause in the British royal household also wasn't aided when in 1973 that King Constantine, Prince Philip's cousin, was expelled and the Greek monarchy abolished.

Mon Repos, which the beleaguered Greek Government unsuccessfully sought to sell during Greece's most recent financial crisis, along with the island's palaces, isn't the only mansion on Corfu boasting a torrid royal history.

Achillion Place, the 19th century summer retreat of Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary, also known as "Sissi" and the niece of King Otto of Greece, welcomes far more visitors than Mon Repos to the point of overcrowding. Situated about 10 kilometres southwest of Old Corfu Town.

It was left deserted after Sissi was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898 while walking unguarded in Geneva. It was not reoccupied until it was bought by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor who abdicated not long before Germany's humiliating defeat in World War I.

One of the best features of Achillion, similarly to Mon Repos, are its gardens, which are dominated by a giant statue of Achilles, in Greek mythology the hero of the Trojan War.

However, the most architecturally impressive and conveniently-located of the trio of grand Corfu mansions is the Regency-style Palace of St Michael and St George which, like Mon Repos, was commissioned by Sir Frederick Adam in 1819.

Built from Maltese stone, the palace served as the High Commissioner's residence, but was also the home of the Ionian Senate and the Order of St Michael and St George, a British order of chivalry founded in 1818. After the union of Corfu with the Kingdom of Greece in 1864, the palace served as a Royal residence untiil World War II

Across the street from the Palace of St Michael and St George is a seemingly incongruous cricket green where matches are still played against the magnificent backdrop of Old Corfu Town, the Venetian citadel and the palace itself.. It's first game can be traced to 1823.

The Greeks may have effectively banished a future British prince in his infancy but they haven't been entirely able to erase the memory of his fleeting stay on Corfu or even that of one of his adopted homeland's most cherished pastimes.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE IN CORFU TOWN.

THE OLD FORTRESS

One of Corfu Town's most prominent features, the Old Fortress, built by the Venetians during their four-century rule, is not from the historic town centre. It dominates a promontory on the site of the original main settlement of Corf during Byzantine times.

SAINT SPYRIDON CHURCH

Built in the late 16th century, the Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church dominates Corfu Town, its dominant bell-tower framing its streets narrow laneways. The church houses the relics of Saint Spyridon, who it's claimed, expelled the plague from Corfu by way of a miracle, with its bell-tower the tallest in the Ionians.

LISTON

Constructed not by the Venetians but by the French during their brief early 19th century rule of the Ioanian islands, Corfu Town's attractive main pedestrianised street with cobblestones smoothed by time and passage, was designed as the Corfiot equivalent of Rue de Rivoli in Paris.

THE NEW FORTRESS OF CORFU

Built by the Venetians in the 16th century and added to by the British in the 19th century, Corfu's other imposing citadel lies on the hill of St Mark and was designed by Ferrante Viteli, a military engineer. The fortress, open to the public, also includes a Museum of Ceramic Arts.

MUSEUM OF ASIAN ART

The upper floor of the Palace of St Michael and St George also houses the extensive Museum of Asian Art of Corfu comprising 10,500 donated pieces, the bulk from the collection of Gregorios Manos, a former 19th and early 20th century Greek diplomat.

TRIP NOTES

CRUISE

A total of 23 Mediterranean sailings, ranging from seven to 40 night, are scheduled aboard board Regent Seven Seas Voyager in 2020. Fares for these itineraries start from $4,755 in a deluxe veranda suite. See rssc.com

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traveller.com.au/Greece

visitgreece.gr

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

See also: Exploring Greece's largest island

See also: Destinations where you can get treated like royalty

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