Dear fellow travellers
It is said that Nero himself took a pickaxe and a shovel and went to Corinth to start work on a canal to bisect the isthmus at Corinth. When 1800 years later there was a second attempt to construct a canal at Corinth, surveyors claimed that the earlier efforts by Nero, with his 10,000 slaves and conscripted workers, could still be discerned in the landscape. Various trenches and mounds served as reminders that someone had an earlier shot at this same project.
Let’s just remind ourselves of the local geography. The isthmus at Corinth is one of the most celebrated isthmuses (or possibly isthmi) of the classical world. It connects the Greek mainland with the huge ragged-edged peninsula known as the Peloponnese. The Ancients portaged their small boats over the narrow neck of the isthmus as a shortcut between the Ionian Sea and the Aegean, so saving a long voyage around the Peloponnese.
There are other celebrated European isthmuses like the Saddle of Marcellinara and the Karelian Isthmus, but Corinth is really the tops when it comes to saving time on a long sea voyage. Corinth emerged as an iconic piece of geography. For the Greek philosopher-cum-geographer Strabo, the economic power and moral character of Corinth derived from the city’s strategic location on its narrow isthmus. Geography became destiny in these early accounts of Corinth.
Fast forward to the late 19th century and, as is the way with ambitious infrastructure projects, the Corinth Canal opened late. The first vessels sailed through the canal in 1893. Because it is constructed at sea level, there are no locks. Getting through it should be a breeze, or so the canal’s promoters expected. But gusty winds in the confined bays at either end of the canal made navigation risky, and in some weather conditions the canal trench itself acted as a wind funnel.
Then there were the landslides. The sides of the canal are impressively steep and certainly appeal to the Romantic imagination. When it first opened artists and poets loved this great gash through pale-coloured rock which connected two seas and effectively made the Peloponnese a huge island. Mariners were less enthusiastic. Tumbling rocks made for a hazardous passage, and the accumulation of debris obstructed shipping, for the canal was narrow and not very deep. The landslides have been a recurrent theme over the last 130 years. Last month the canal reopened to shipping after an 18-month closure necessitated by landslides early last year.
By the canal there is a plaque honouring the two 19th-century engineers who promoted the canal, surveyed the terrain and supervised the canal’s construction. It is in three languages, and thereby hangs a tale. Hungarian isn’t a language you generally stumble across in the Greek public sphere. But this memorial plaque is in Greek, Hungarian and English. For the Corinth Canal is a fine example of Habsburg commercial ambition and engineering ingenuity. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 transformed global maritime trade and there were great rewards for shipping agencies which could offer the fastest passage time to East Africa, southern Arabia, India and the Far East.
It was shipping magnates in Trieste and Fiume, agitating for a shorter route to Suez, who catalyzed interest in the shortcut through the isthmus at Corinth. Trieste was of course the premier Habsburg port on the Adriatic and after the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise, Fiume on the Kvarner Gulf acquired new status as a Hungarian port. So no surprise, perhaps, that it was Hungarian engineers who stepped in and transformed Nero’s dream into maritime reality.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
We feature another European waterway in the latest issue of hidden europe magazine, the Nieuwe Waterweg, which gave improved access from the North Sea to the port of Rotterdam. This year marks the 150th anniversary of its opening. Elsewhere in that new issue of hidden europe, we have articles on the Po Delta region, Georgia’s Black Sea coast, an Essex backwater and sea views from the hills above Rijeka. This very watery issue of the magazine is yours for just €9 (or €10 for delivery to addresses outside Europe). Order in our online shop.