Friday, 30 September 2011


I am in an almost subterranean place to write this, the entry hall to the tower house. It's Friday and we're waiting for new day to unfold. This little room is the footprint of the main citadel of the building, and the water cistern (described yesterday) lies directly underneath it. So I am sitting under the little barrel-vaulted roof which is white-washed and with a concrete floor. One end has the front door, the other a steepish flight of seven rocky steps leads up to an open landing and thence to the rest of the house. Everywhere you look, there is stone.
Outside I can see a lowish drystone wall guarding part of the land of the opposite tower – no more than fifteen feet away, and then another fifteen feet behind that, the neighbouring tower itself, whose stonework is filled with a greyish mortar and dressed with elegant wellfaced quoins at the corners.
Many of these old tower houses are being done up now, and it matters a lot which colour cement they use to fill in between the ancient stones. If it is too dark it creates quite a dour appearance. Some manage a lovely golden or blond colour and this makes the old stones shine.
The fields round about are edged with walls or lines of stone boulders, mostly in a drystone technique, but with some given slightly more permanent life with cements of various kinds. Margaret says these walls were mostly built by women. It looks as if rocks and boulders were just about the only resource available to people on such steep, dry, parched land. There is some terracing where the land allows it, and most of the olive groves have had the rocks cleared away from round them, which must make harvesting easier. Some fields, however, are totally cluttered with great rocks and boulders. It is difficult to see how anyone could even get across this kind of terrain to plant the trees or collect the olive in the winter.
Modern housing is allowed in some areas, and people choose to re-create tower-houses as the local genre, but even though the proportions are right, they don't look anything like the old ones.... the stones have been cut mechanically, and everything is too straight and tidy. The old towers look tremendously like English country churches, in fact, though their purpose and history is different. They were used to wage war, one family against another, right up till the 19th century, bristling with guns and cannons and stone missiles. Only the men fought (newborn sons were greeted as 'guns'). Women were allowed to go in and out to bring food etc., but any male from a family at war with another was a target for sniping or kidnap and ransome. Even marriage between clans made no difference.... after a truce for wedding celebrations, it would be back to battle. They only stopped for harvest times. The entire peninsular proved to be ungovernable for centuries. A nest of scorpions.
I forgot to mention that we are also liable to find real scorpions and snakes in our room, though thankfully we have seen only the vile-smelling millipedes.
However, last night, a great big cicada flew onto the terrace where we were eating and landed on the wall where it hung in dull brown exhaustion. Having tried in vain to see one while we were in Croatia a few weeks ago, this presented a wonderful chance to see one close up. Poor thing. I imagine this was the end of its summer, maybe of its life. It was a dull, detailed, dusty-coloured dunbrown colour, with large eyes (?) right up on top of its head. Its two feelers tested out the precipice in front of it and then with painstaking and what looked like agonising slowness, it sought out a safe foothold, one foot after another, to haul itself up the wall. Each leg ends in a rather elegant fleur-de-lys style hand, and it seemed the tiniest knob of whitewash or crevice in the stonework would be a valuable assistance for it to work from. The great pair of back legs was able to spread out to quite a width, flattening out to search two or three inches away, but it looked awkward. Inch by inch, this marvellous insect groped and grappled its way up the wall, taking no notice of me or my camera, or the flash. The back legs are laced with (I think) ten little hooks which it uses to create that scraping song. We could hear them when we arrived a few days ago, but yesterday I heard only one, and so this summer is really coming to an end.
Our outing yesterday took us down to Areopoli, a fine little town where Petrobey declared independence from Turkey in 1821 and it is therefore adorned with a patriotic statue in the newish market square. We saw inside three little churches shimmering with frescos, and a little tower-house museum staffed by two strapping guys who were playing cards on their computer, in an otherwise empty and immaculate building, all EU funded. One who guided us round spoke nothing but Greek, and would not allow us to photograph the very interesting carved stone relics on display, which was a shame as they were very nice and we did not have time to sit and draw them, which would have been the only alternative.
We lunched at a tiny smokey pavement cafe, and then went to the Caves of Diros, which open up a sea level in a pretty bay just south of Areopolis. These were discovered in modern times about 1900 by a fisherman and subsequently explored from 1949, and are part of a huge space under the limestone mountains which form this whole peninsular. It is all very reminiscent of Jewel Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which my readers will know we visited three years ago – in fact the story of the discovery of these cave systems is almost contemporaneous, and the subsequent realisation that they extend for hundreds of miles also came about the same time.
However, in this case, the caves are flooded and public access is by boat. We bought our tickets (12 euros, price reduced since last year), waited for our turn, and then were handed into a wide punt, along with half a dozen others. Our photos were taken as we went aboard. We were then gently poled along by our guide who explained at length what we were seeing (but only in Greek. 'Do you speak English?' 'No!' 'Deutsch?' ' Only Greek!')
It is a wonderland of course, simply presented with plain lighting, and no bogus dinosaurs. It seems to me to be a series of caverns and tunnels once occupied by actual rivers as you can see the native rock here and there scoured out in smooth whorls and patterns. The rivers disappeared and a long slow process of percolation of ground water through the limestone mountains above decorated the caverns with that soft-looking, rubbery-coloured crystalline deposition which forms into astonishing shapes... pipes, tubes, blankets, fingers, hairy-masses, stalactites, stalagmites, horns, chandeliers, statues, etc... The boat trip goes on for well over a kilometre, and ends with a walk with handrails and flights of steps up and down, back to the daylight. Some of the stalagmites ring with their own notes as you bing them. The only other sound we heard (apart from water plopping and the punt pole knocking on boulders) was a distant dog. (Cerberus?) As you come back into daylight, you are shown photos of yourself getting into the punt, cost 5 euros each.
It is a terrific place. A kingdom under the mountains, and well arranged for people to visit (though we could only speculate on 'disabled access'). They have not got anywhere near the whole extent of the caves yet, and are calculating that it might reach as far north as Sparti. This morning, back at the house I read more about the caves - how the paleolithic and neolithic artefacts found there show that the landscape at that time was one of thickly forested pinewoods. It is all maquis and scrub now. The beautiful bay was the site of an attempt on Areopolis by one of the pasha pirates, which was repelled by the women of the area, armed with sickles and domestic implements.
I also see that I am not the only one to wonder if it was a cave like this, in memory or folktale, which led to the creation of those myths of the River Styx leading to the underground Kingdoms of Hades or Pluto, where you must not look back if through the intercession of the gods you are allowed to leave – else you will be held there forever, maybe turned into stone in the dark halls of the dead.
We drove back through the mountains, giving a lift to an English girl from Devon who was on a camping holiday after a summer teaching English as a foreign language in Athens. We dropped her off not far from Githio, and saw her walking straight and tall towards the sea. We went back up into the total silence of the mountains, with the olive-terraces and empty villages, and the sun beating down. We saw a solar array, and then another... Today we are doodling around in this neighbourhood.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Animals and Bouzouki

I'd like to say something about the animal life. Today we saw a bull on the back of a lorry down by the beach, and then later this afternoon a different bull being manoeuvred into or out of an olive grove beside a couple of cows and some calves. It must be that time of year. We have also seen a few cattle and donkeys left to graze on the side of the road, severely hobbled with their heads tied down near to the ground. Looks very uncomfortable, and also a hazard to motorists as they are quite unattended.
In the house here, we have a little pre-bed-time ritual which is to seek out any millipedes and sweep them outside. They get to about two inches long, very cylindrical and tough, and black. I am not sure what they do, but they are unwanted, particularly as they can swarm, and cover the walls, especially in wet weather. Apparently when squashed they make a horrendous smell, and in fact nothing will eat them. We scoop them up with dustpan and brush and throw them outside as far as possible.
We sleep inside magnificent mosquito nets hanging from square racks – on the second night we didn't and lots of small bites was the result, luckily these have not risen up into huge welts. There is at least one kind of mosquito here with a very loud whine, but it is either very fast or invisible as we have not been able to see it.
Eveywhere we have been, there are cats. Greece ie overrun with cats (and in my fantasy perhaps actually run by cats). They are very beautiful and mostly savvy enough to find enough to eat, but they are also mostly terrified of any close approach and are ready at all time to vanish from sight. At the bouzouki night last night, there were three or four kittens apparently living up in one of the trees giving shade to the terrace. They crept about on the branches and then made their way across the terrace roof to the far corner to take a grandstand seat on top of a huge barrel, and gaze down at the dancing below.
Dogs seem to me to have something of a cowpoke life. They swagger around in the middle of the street and seem to be saying “Howdie, pardner... How's it going?' It's hard to say if they 'belong' to anyone, and they look pretty grubby, but on the other hand they are content and confident in a way that the cats are not.
Perhaps because of the lack of birds, the insect life is astonishing – so many kinds of bees, butterfliers, hoverflies, and so on. You can hear them all over the place, and some are so beautiful it makes you want to be able to whip a microscope out of your pocket to look at them more closely.
The water systems in the house are very interesting. Rainwater is collected from the roof and goes down into a huge cistern under the main entry room. This tank is 8 feet deep and fills the footprint of that part of the building, viz. c12' x 15'. From there it used to be raised in buckets and taken upstairs for cooking and washing, but F&M have a pump installed which pushes it up to two large tanks at the garden level at the back. One supplies the garden loo&shower room, and one feeds into the kitchen.
They have had fun cleaning the main cistern out. When they first came, it was easy to find strong agile workmen who could slide down into the tank on a rope, but now the young have gone, and the original men have grown more rotund.... Thus F&M bought a rope ladder from the ships' chandlers at Seven Dials in London, which makes it easier to get down and up again.
We went off exploring on our own today, calling in to two of the many astonishing little byzantine churches which are scattered like croutons over the landscape. Inside they have these radiant but crumbling frescoes, some held up with scaffolding, some just abandoned to swallows and wasps. There doesn't seem to be any easy way to put any money down to help these buildings. One has a wild assemblage of constituent parts, bits of column and carving which seem to have been left over from somewhere else, but these include a very strange carving of a baby (?) or a bear ?) clinging to one of the pillars on the ikonostasis, beside the door leading into the Holy of Holies. The baby is about life-size. It must surely be a metaphorical thing, the worshipper clinging to the church, or Jesus clinging to his mother, but there is no explanation of it.
Then we went back down to Calliope's Taverna on the beach, to send the blog off and try to do emails, and then along a coastal road to Trachina. This road is about halfway up a huge cliff overlooking the sea, and has many caves in it. Some were evidently occupied in Neolithic times, but they have been used since then for many purposes, including housing for the local people in recent times. Trachina has a tiny port and a headland, and a sad story. There was a woman called Eleni who ran a marvellous little taverna, making home-cooked food much appreciated by everyone around. When her son grew up and left, she carried on. A new cafe opened nearer to the centre of the village, and the owners there noticed that Eleni did better trade than they did - because she was a great cook, despite being unable to read or write. This was her undoing. She could not issue receipts, as required by a new (EU) law. The owners of the new taverna shopped her to the police and she was arrested. She actually was sent to prison for breaking the law.... not for long, but humiliating enough. She had to close down her taverna, but theirs is still in business. We did not stop there.
Instead, we went back to Aghios Nikolaos and sat by the clear waters of the little harbour there, and ate stonkingly good garlicky mashed potatoes and a tomato salad and some fried whitebait.
Then we drove up into the golden mountains which stand guard over the sea – passing tiny monasteries and immaculate olive groves and abandoned stone towers and spinked up villas with foreign cars outside them, and tiny squares with groups of old ladies (probably about 50 but looking 85) wearing black and helping make the world go round.
Now we are back at base again, waiting for some sort of bouzouki music thing tonight. It may go on late, so a siesta is recommended.
(Next morning).....
The music night last evning was loud and seemed pretty authentic, with at least one elderly shepherd taking the floor to perform an elegant lilting dance with full attention from the audience which included a busload of Norwegians and bouzouki dance-class group from Kalamata. Our waiter and his brother also did solos, or took part in small group performances in which a man dances with several others kneeling round him as a token of support or admiration. The musicians played pretty-well nonstop for four hours of more. The dancing includes Zorba-like lines or circles but plenty of more free-form stuff. However, correctness of movement is highly prized and amateur attempts do not gain the support of the crowd in the same way. With careful, elegant, circling movements, arms outstretched, and courteous bows or nods, the dancer creates a kind of story (I have no idea if his or her dance matches the words of the song, unfortunately). The dance seems to embody all things – life death, love, hope, joy, time passing. It is both highly sexual and completely asexual, and the whole room is involved by watching, or occcasionally flinging a large wadge of paper napkins over the dancing, like confetti. It went on till way after midnight, by which time we were all very tired. Now this being Wednesday we are going off to explore and Frank and Margaret are going to Kalamata to get his knee x-rayed. He is in great pain.

Posted late on Thursday afternoon.Not sure when I can post tomorrow.... we spent today further south towards the deep Mani - explored villages, coves, Areopolis, the Caves of Dinos, and more...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Officially, it's winter here now, because the kids have gone back to school. It's still blisteringly hot during the day, snakes bask on the dried out donkey-paths, and the sea is as warm as a bath to swim in, but there it is. Winter has arrived. Newspapers are no longer available till the afternoon, and the locals put on sweaters and boots.

It's a place with huge attractions, but very confusing – this business with the used lav paper having to be carefully stowed in little bins beside each toilet, presumably because it might clog up the drains.... although as we know modern bogroll is very soft and falls apart in water. Meanwhile tons of other rubbish is liberally bestowed along the verges of each road. Huge sums of European money poured into the infrastructure (motorways, road improvements) but never quite reaching completion, so that the final stretches of road are inaccessible and end nowhere. Under present economic restrictions, the visionary railway which ran round the coast, and other regional railway, were mothballed despite whole new town developments depending on them, and already they have been ripped apart by metal thieves and will presumably never be reconstructed. They have all this sunshine, but very little solar-powered contraptions... someone (foreign) has set up an array to harness the sun's energy but exporting the electricity is taxed so highly that it's not economic.... this could be a way to help Greece out of its difficulties but not, apparently, yet.

Margaret who learned Classcal Greek at Cambridge and is studying Modern Greek now says a lot of the problems in running this country stem from the language itself..... horribly complex, ambiguous, very difficult to get to the point of any sentence. She says it's very difficult to think in Greek, unlike English where you can be very succinct and state things very simply. She'd been reading (in Greek) a newspaper interview with Victoria Hislop – VH having written a book about the leper colony island in Crete which became a hugely successful TV series in Greece, so her views are listened to. VH said, crisply, that the only way out of this mess is for the people to support the government they have voted for. Voting is compulsory here, but as soon as elections are over, everyone does what they can to ignore or topple the government. Ironically, in the home of democracy, democracy is not really working.

It was our first full day doing nothing yesterday.... This includes the process of fitting in with our hosts' way of doing things, their timing and habits. So, we had a very leisurely quiet morning making barely a sound, with private breakfasts being taken on different terraces and quiet phone calls and admin being carried out. Eventually we set off to the beach and taverna which M&F call Calliope's beach, though it has some real names of its own. I misunderstood Frank when he said it had wifi, assuming it meant I could plug into a PC there as in an internet cafe, and had to use his laptop when we got there, to load up the first two days' blogs. He got a bit agitated as it took longer than I thought it would, but in fact all was well... I posted those bits of writing, he did his banking, and all under a magnificent vine-covered pergola, cool and shady. Outside in the baking (winter) sun, Margaret swam and then I joined her, envying the more practiced swimmers with their pebble-hardened feet on that tortuous journey from beach-camp to weight-bearing water. Frank has injured his knee, and went off with Margaret to try to get a diagnosis, leaving Andrew and I to explore the tiny little village of Agios Nikolaos, half a mile further along.

The story here is that a tour operator once dumped a coachload of very unhappy holidaymakers here when he ran out of space at the much more posh and sophisticated Kardamyli a bit further north. Kardamyli is where PLF set up house, you remember, and is very nice. Agios Nicolaos had nothing more than a tiny port behind an ugly concrete harbour wall, and few humble houses along the front. Nothing to amuse tourists, anyway. This was just a few years ago... Anyway it prompted the people of the town to do something about it and now it has a line of tavernas and restos, cafes, chairs along the sea wall, etc. and is very pretty. We couldn't get into the church, sadly. But we admired a roofing crew at the top of one of the biggest buildings replacing all the tiles.... no scaffolding, no safety gear, cutting the tiles with chain saws, scrambling about in the heat of the day like baboons on the Rock of Gibraltar only more precarious.

Back for lunch – salad on the terrace under the vines. Laughs – the magic thread which knits friendships together.... Then Andrew and I went for a walk along the donkey track behind the house. These ancient paths between the fields are in a parlous state, so quickly overgrown with thorns and weeds, and some with fallen trees across them from the terrible fires of last summer. Our objective was to reach the little church along the way, dedicated to Prophitis Ilias (Prophet Elijah). Someone had recently cleared the path, so all we had to do was step over fallen rubble and roots... in fact the path was perfectly ok, unlike so many others which will presumably disappear with great speed into the landscape, after having served the land for hundreds of years. No cars can get along them, they lead mostly to fields and abandoned houses, no-one wants to use them. With the internet, cars, cheap travel, recession at home, the land is abandoned and these pathways are among the casualties.

Another casualty of modernity... in the wall to our right we found an old spring, beautifully built into the stonework, with a deep recess and a cistern to hold the water which has flowed from the mountain since mountains began. The outflow of the well gives out onto two lovely stone dishes or sinks – lustral bowls, Margaret calls them – one broken in two, the other in immaculate condition. She thinks they date from neolithic times. However, since the town below recently set up a new supply to provide everyone with water for modern living, this spring has been left dry. It seems almost sacrilegious to have spoiled this marvellous place. In Italy it would be whitewashed and revered and garlanded with flowers, and people would come and admire it....

We reached the little church, half white-washed, with a key in the door. Tiny, with various images on the walls ranging from cut-outs from magazines to post cards to written icons to magnificent frescos, these mostly crumbling to powder. The tiny tall deep dome over the main body of the church has in its apex a fantastic Pantocrator, the eyes of God looking straight down at you in a marvellous rich calm expressiveness. Beside the church is the village cemetery, very neat, with bright blue gates. Walking back, we met a neighbour of F&M's, an architect called Gilbert, arriving with his suitcase for a short visit. Then we took a shower on the garden terrace, out in the open, screened by a nifty curtain and the whole thing very economical with precious water.

Our evening entertainment was a poetry reading in swanky Kardamyli, in a pretty courtyard, and the poet Brenda Tai Layton reading her latest work to an audience of twenty or so northern Europeans. These were very good indeed, touching, funny, personal. Some were in Jamaican Creole. One was about a woman bringing up a little girl, a distant relative... this child wants to go to the Carnival as a crocodile, but Aunty says, no, all the children she has reared have gone to the Carnival as a Devil's Imp. On the great day, Aunty cannot find her 'best teet'' (teeth), so in shame she has to go along with a hankie over her face. Then to her horror, she sees the child Hortense in the parade, dressed as a crocodile and wearing the lost teeth. There was a strong international flavour to the evening, as some of Brenda's friends had translated one of the poems into Greek, Swedish and German, and they read these out to us too. Very pleasing.

In the shop I bought a replica statuette of Demeter, from near Thebes. My project is to create an exhibition back home, using these rather excellent reproductions, to illustrate the history of the great female deity in her various forms. It was very frustrating at the museum shop in Mycenae being unable to purchase any from there, because they were repricing them. Maybe I can get some from the Benaki Museum in Kalamata.... They have them in the main museum in Athens.

We ate at a hilltop taverna on the way home, with slinky cats prowling and waiting for titbits.
A great wind blew through the terrace, sending leaves and napkins flying. A man drove up in a huge black 4x4, revving and reversing and making it prance about like a Lippizaner horse, with the men in the taverna shouting back at him... eventually he roared away, having shown off his new toy.

Today we have a quiet day to help Frank rest his knee. But there is a plan for a musical evening at the taverna just down the hill. Friends will gather and we will make merry. For now, Andrew is prowling round trying to pick figs, and I can hear the droning of hundreds of bees in the great mass of ivy beside the house.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011



To start with, I have to say I am completely seduced by the house we are in. It is hidden up a steep unprepossessing lane leading out of Thalames, in a cluster of similar ancient stone dwellings, and as close to the little church as it could be. It is the remnant of one of those extraordinary Nyklian towers which I have read about in Patrick Leigh Fermor's book on the Mani, the description of which had me howling with laughter though it is an accurate and serious historical and architectural account.
The house was built perhaps in the 18th century, set amidst others of its kind, a fortified and pugnacious edifice, both defensive (against attack from any neighbour) and aggressive (against those same neighbours). Now it has lost its top one or two stories, has had almost normal door and window openings made in the walls, and terraces created around the sides. To walk in is like stepping back several hundred years, with vaulted whitewashed ceilings, irregular thick stone steps, tiny shelf-spaces inside the walls, tiny doors giving the only access into (say) our bedroom which was once an almost subterranean hole or workshop. Into this extraordinary awkward charming building, Frank and Margaret have inserted a perfectly viable home – electricity, vine-shaded gardens, cosy kitchen, a grand drawing room with books and couches and drawings on the walls, a new shower room built as an apse at one end (called a 'crapse' by the builder).
The showers and loos are all idiosyncratic to say the least, all with the usual Greek proviso that no paper should be flushed, of course, but we have the immense privilege and luxury of a little portaloo just beside our bedroom. The main shower or bathroom for the house is in fact outside on another terrace – I will try this when a) no-one else is around and b) the new thermostat works properly.
At this precise moment, having watched the sun setting from the highest terrace, we are on the level below drinking a local white wine decanted into an ouzo bottle, eating local olives. Frank, beside me, is doing a grand job luring the mosquitoes to his tender American skin, so I am feeling relaxed. We heard a lttle owl just now. It was sitting on the roof of the house next door. The owl is sacred to Athena, of course, and appears on various ceramics from many different periods, including the present day, where they sit in saucy modernity, looking trinkety but unmistakably owlish.
No birds otherwise – they are mostly blasted to bits by hunters. We can hear a dog barking, (and I will say more about dogs in due course), and the tinkling of goatbells on the mountain. It is a blessing and astonishment that from here, there is no real sign of any change during the last hundred years or more. There are new roofs on some of the houses in the next village further down the slope, but no new buildings. We saw three military planes go over a while ago – after all, Greece still glares at Turkey across an EU border, so the skies reflect that painful and ancient divide.
Frank has just told me, they once drove home here, and found they had been followed by a car all the way up from near Areopolis to the little car parking space outside. The couple in the car were English from Abu Dhabi who were looking for a property to buy and thought an English car plate would lead them to the right place. Frank and Margaret invited them in, of course, and they looked around. The man said, 'Do you have AC here?' and Frank, thinking he meant 'alternating current' said yes.... but queried it.... 'No', said the man. 'I meant air conditioning......”
'What, here?!??!?!?' said Frank. 'Here?!??!?'
Now that I have given you some of the present marvels I should recount some of the day's doings... starting with our breakfast at the taverna in Old Corint. Breakfast seems to be pretty universally white bread, some slices of sort-of cheese, some slices of sort-of meat, and packs of sort-of jam. The tea or coffee comes from a DIY pack offered alongside not-really-hot-enough water. It's fairly dismal. Can't we do anything about this? Grumble over. So we move on to our visit to the Corith Canal (six kilometres or more cut straight through the narrow isthmus joining the Pelopponese to the mainland). The ancient people tried and failed, and hauled their boats across it. Nero lined up 1000 slaves to cut through the rock, but died before it was done, so that was no good. It took a couple of Hungarian engineers in 1886 to manage it – and what a stupendous feat it is. Modern shipping, huge cruise-ships and the like, disdain to go through, but I did it once on the school ship Dunera, and I remember it very well indeed. The ship was only a few inches less wide than the cutting which towered far above us as we crept through. It saved about two hundred miles getting from the Ionian Sea through to Athens.

We also went up to the Acrocorinth fortress.... difficult to describe with such a complex history, but in fact a vast impregnable rock, a baby mountain, with a succession of medieval gateways guarding the only possible ingress on the west. During the day we saw so many of these fortified rocky outcrops. In such a martial and deadly landscape, control of any high point gave you supremacy over all the surrounding territory. For thousands and thousands of years.

South we went, stopping for coffee at a roadside place, and to buy a huge bag of grapes from a little farm (2 euros) where the farmer looked like Cary Grant in a bad mood (was he ever in a bad mood?). On down to Mycenae. Oh, what a place.

You have all read or know about Homer, the lliad, how Agamemnon went to fight in Troy, and you have heard of Electra and Clytemnestra and Orestes.... ancient myths and stories which have continued to inspire artiists and composers and film-makers and operatic producers.... But here, on this particular rocky outcrop, Mycenae, it all happened. There is nothing like going to see a place for yourself. My interest in the Minoans, or the Hellenes, the Greeks.... well, it was all in books, or school-lessons. But to come and see exactly why the Mycenaens (sp?) came to such prominence, to see how they chose this amazing place... a little hllltop set between two magnifient mountains, protected by a deep rocky ravine on each side, but with its own supply of fresh water and a magnificent commanding view and the chance to control the trade routes from all the great regions around. This is all well into the Bronze Age. The Stone Age people had already been there, done that.

There are great stories about who and what there, but essentially this was the place of the House of Atreus and it has that colossal Lion Gate, and I felt completely overwhelmed walking through it. All my life, I have steered away from the Atreus story, too violent, too bloody, too cursed, to austere. But today, it was mine. Schliemann and the rest have excavated the whole place to death, but it's still impressive to walk round it and see where it was that they found the Warrior Vase or the Gold Mask, or whatever. They say on the noticeboards that a catastrophic fire in 1300BC destroyed so much of it. I should also say, there were lots of Dutch tourists there (bohunks), and lots of Japanese. Only one other English couple that I heard, but coachloads of Greek and Americans.

We sped across country on the new EU-funded motorway through Tripoli and Megalopolis and then onto smaller roads which should by now have been replaced by the motorway (EU money which trickled away into the countryside, so that the motorway is neither long enough nor finished). On all the smaller roads, national roads, there is so much rubbish and litter that any enterprising Chinese person or Kenyan would have scooped it all up and recycled it... there is tons and tons and tons of plastic scattered the length and breadth of Greece, a horrible adjunct to the experience of driving through magnificent and deeply historic landscape..... However, we eventually cruised into Kalamata, which is gorgeous and sunny. The buildings round here are noticeably more Italianate than further north, but a few of the grand ornate town houses are in ruins and very sad. Probably the result of the earthquake in the 1980s. We stopped for a fruitjuice by the quay and saw some filming going on by the smart fishing boats.

Then, encouraged by Margaret's hand-written instructions and Frank's occasional texts, we set off on the last leg along the coast road. Sitting in our kitchen in Kent a few weeks ago, she had written out in great detail in her lovely handwriting the whole of our route, and I had the roadmap as a guide. Here to our left was the great spine of the mountains running down into the Mani, Mount Taygetos towering above them all. To our right a smooth bronzey bight of sea between our finger of land and the next great cape to the west. Margaret's notes brought us up to Kampos several miles up into the mountains through miles and miles of lonely hairpin bends.... P L Fermor described a conversation he had there with a man in a taverna who called it a miserable place, nothing more than a suburb of Kalamata....

Then down across the plain, and up again from swanky Kardamyli where PLF set up home, and very nice it is too.... into Thalames (hoorah!) and oh dear, misled by Margaret's directions we go straight through the village, looking for the turning. We have to ring up and she says, 'Oh dear, did I say go right? I'm always doing that. I meant turn left!' so we retrace our path and find the little lane which I told you about at the beginning of this post. I am finishing this account on Tuesday morning. Each of the four of us in silent breakfastlike contemplation of the day. The air is cooler than last night. I can still hear those goat bells. The sea is about a mile away looking soft and fading into a milky non-horizon. There are various kinds of figs and olives on the trees overhanging this terrace. Bees are working in the huge mass of ivy which is smothering the ruined house next door. The sun is shining on the roof of the next door house.


Driving to Gatwick, a strange thing..... at the top of Detling Hill, just by the garage, an abandoned car slewed across the fast lane, almost invisible in the dawn. It takes an agonisingly long time to explain to the 999 police what the situation is. He wants to know my address, where I am, my name... I say, we are in another car, have just driven past this dangerous situation, are heading to the airport.... At the bottom of the hill, down by the M20, there is thick mist. If that was the same at the top, no doubt there would be a huge pile-up as the abandoned car would be invisible, sideways on and silver coloured.
The new checkin at Gatwick is very good, with the added piquancy of a policeman carrying an automatic rifle, watching you as you come through. The experience of 'heaven' (the departure lounge) is also pleasant if you know what you want... in our case, straight to Dixons to buy a camera, and to Boots to get sandwiches for the flight. All very smooth. Extra pleasure for me as I found a nice pair of shorts in Next reduced from 22 to 8 (and I can tell you, finding anything which fits is remarkable, let alone anything I'd want to walk around in).
However, the nasty sneaky management of the flight once you get to the departure gate is another matter. We knew, we knew, that the Greek air traffic controllers were or had been on strike but on the other hand we were told that this flight was on time, no troubles. In fact, through a series of slippery half-truths and disappointing admissions, we graually discovered there was 'no crew', and then 'no captain', and then 'no slot for us to leave in'. We had to wait in the little departure hall for three hours, lulled into patience by a series of announcements that the delay would be just a little while more, without easy access to lavs or refreshments, without enough seats, and without knowing how long it was going to go on. Another passenger told me this was deliberate, so that Squeezy didn't have to give us all a free coffee and in fact when we got on the plane, a peeved apology from the flight crew confirmed this... the nancy voice said they too had been ready to leave on time at 9.30. So we had been told a pack of lies. I noticed that all through this rather small inconvenience, the passengers were mildly united in annoyance or groans as we heard each successive apology, but when it finally came to boarding, there was no unity and just a mad rush for the gate. Those on crutches or with children or in a wheelchair were barely given space, and some were given none. Poorly done.
I should also say, the Pret sushi and sandwiches etc do look much nicer than the Boots ones, but you have to go upstairs to food heaven to get them. On the other hand, the Pret Upper Class Superior Hot Bacon Baguette or whatever they call it doesn't seem to have bacon in it, but some sort of ham, which is a shame as good bacon is so gorgeous.
Flight fine. Alps stupendous. Coastlines always interesting to look down on. Squeezy leg room – gah!
On the plane we get the new camera going... it has a small amount of battery power left. I am about to compare it with the old Fuji camera, but discover that that's gone completely dead. I thought it was fine when we left home, but it seems to 'know' we have moved on to another one, and decided to die. Wierd. Maybe only the battery is flat. Can't tell. It looks very grubby and bashed compared to new Mr Nikon.
Warm air on arrival. Car pick-up v exciting.... we queued for a short time behind one other person, and then got our keys. The car (booked as a Corsa) was in fact a new BMW 116, and sparkling white. Very glam. As we leave, the man who had been in the queue in front of us drives up and asks if we are ok. I hear a Welsh accent and ask if he is from Swansea. Yes! I say, my dad was from Swansea, from Pontardawe. He says, that is a very sad place now (4 coal miners recently died there, of course, in an underground flood). He asks where we're going and when we say we were heading to Corinth he says that's where he's going. 'Do you know how to get out of here?' he says kindly. In fact we follow him a long way along the motorway, a friendly pilot along a road which was a nightmare last (and first) time I drove along it, in a huge thunderstorm, during a power cut, during road works, during rush hour, and with one of my three passengers a ghastly woman who did nothing but complain, scream, back-seat-drive and generally make me want to kill her.
On that occasion I had bought a satnav (which is called a Destinator). It had taken me through the Peloponnese to Portoheli without any problems and so we were relying on it for this journey too. However, in the rush and anxiety to get to the west of Athens before nightfall, we don't have time to sit and fiddle with it, so all I can get it do is give us a map-like overview of our journey. I can't blame it for not knowing about the new motorway, I suppose, but it is very irritating to see it suggesting we do a series of tiny left-and-right turns, to get to some unknown destination about quarter of a mile away. My thoughts turn to a short story I have been (not) writing, about how a solar flare wipes out all computers on earth, and in the space of three hours reduces us to the stone age again.
Luckily the road signage for the most part is excellent, Korinthos is easy to follow and we sweep along, with a dazzling appearance of the huge oil refinery sparkling and shining like a celestial city as night falls. Andrew drily reminds me I like the appearance of le Grand Synth in Belgium too, one of Europe's ecological hell-holes I suppose, but always exciting to look at with its strange buildings and towers, its retorts and flares and gantries, and plumes of vile-coloured smoke and steam. This oil refinery and depot is very similar, huge and filled with domes and cylinders and stacks, everything adorned with safety lights like jewellery. The sun had set thirty minutes before so the light was soft and pearly, with dusk draping over all the land, and this bejewelled, sparkling, highly-designed palace sitting there like a Hollywood moment... I know, I know..... it's pollution and despoilation, etc. but you know, while we were in the horrible departure gate at Gatwick I saw that almost everything I could see had come from the petrochemical industry... the panelling, lighting, seating, flooring, signage, security gadgets, and of course most of what we were all wearing. So, these oil places are the sources of so many things in our lives and we barely notice it. I liked seeing it.
Getting from the simplicity of the motorway to our taverna was not easy... Our hosts in the Mani had found a room for us in Ancient Corinth, and this is where the aberrant behaviour of the Destinator (or my management of it) was slightly alarming. I could see on a map where Ancient Corinth was but not how to get there, and now it was dark. Road signs off the motorway are less reliable than on it.
But, clever us, and thank you Gods of Fortune, we navigate our way around the sprawl of modern Corinth and find the older city. Marinos seems to be a taverna in a brightly-lit tourist street, but the owner says we are at the wrong Marinos – we need his cousin's place a short way away. That turns out to be a large rambling house in a suburban hilly street, and a girl takes us to our room on the first floor. How lovely. How safe. 50 euros a night including breakfast. We haul the cases up, read the notice saying not to put toilet paper in the toilet, go down and eat.
The meal is stupendous – soup with toast, then a spread of: feta cheese, minutely chopped fresh salad, stuffed peppers, chick-pea fritters, spinach and cheese rolls, yoghurt with cucumber, and a wonderful languid ratatouille sort of summer-vegetable stew. I drink some red wine, tasting like fig juice... fantastic. I leave half the little carafe, I am too tired to drink more. The owner brings pudding – ice-cream on top of a sponge cake soused in honey. Andrew is happy (ice cream = holiday), but I give my pudding to the little boy who comes to help serve it. I am filled to the brim.
We go for a walk round Ancient Corinth, see the massive archaeological sites laid out, wander past the tourist centre again, where all the cafes have big TV screens showing the same football match, the sound echoing round and round with short delays between all the different cafes. It's all peaceful. We pass kiosks which appear to be totally unsecurable, full of stuff (cards, sweets, teddies, etc). Andrew says they make them safe at night by winding a bit of string round them.
Corinth, the ancient Corinth, was a powerful city, fighting Athens and Sparta, joining in the war against the Persians, finally overtaken by Athens in the naval game, sacked by the Romans and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Its citadel was used from the earliest times through the middle ages, with Crusaders and Turks and who else making gateways and defences. After fire and earthquake it disappeared, to be discovered and explored in the nineteenth century by German and subsequently mostly American archaeologists.
Today after breakfast we will go to the top of this remarkable mountain to view the land. We had a good night's sleep and the morning looks a bit misty but warm. Lorries are growling past outside. We will probably get down to the Mani by tonight, unless we stop along the way to explore other treasures.
I feel pleased to have been able to get this written on the first morning. I do not know how easy it will be to get to the internet during this adventure, so I am reverting to the old pattern of writing the blog and putting it onto a flashstick in hopes of finding an internet cafe somewhere along the route.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Kollection of Klaviers

Today I am going through all the usual pre-flight panic. Was irritated to learn my dh had arranged for us to go and see the Colt collection of pianos first thing this morning (we fly at 9.30am tomorrow and I have too much to do as usual).
Two friends arrived to share the visit and we drove through the lazy green English countryside, over the Downs and along towards Bethersden. There, on the edge of the village is a small wooded area and hanging from one of the branches an old noticeboard.... Colt Houses.
We had been year about 20 years ago to view the amazing modular wooden homes built by Mr Colt and displayed here like an empty village. Each house had at least one old keyboard instrument in it, a quirky feature. The house-building business has long gone, sad to say, but the Mr Colt's passion for pianos lives on, in the form of a range of rooms (all made to his 4' panel design), stuffed to the rafters with musical treasures.
Our small party was led (and met) by David Willison, the famous accompanist and (till recently) the Director of the Rye Festival. He and he curator, Mr Spiers, jostled a bit for command of the tour, but we fell in behind David while Mr S stayed at a distance, issuing jokes and wisecracks like Derek Guyler, and longing to be allowed to speak.
The instruments are so closely packed in these huge halls that you can only just squeeze between some of them. Spinets, clavichords, harpsichords, forte-pianos, box pianos, upright grands, boudoir pianos, a giraffe, organs, pianolas, push-up piano-players.... they are all here. Amazingly, there is no catalogue to hand. David explained how some of them worked, tried out various kinds of sustaining pedals or levers, opened various mechanical swells, compared Austrian and English actions, and played something appropriate on various instruments as we passed along in awe. Some of these things are two hundred and sixty years old or more. Some were made for royalty or (very ornately) for Rothschilds. Nearly all remained unlacquered with beautiful natural wooden cases, as Mr Colt loved wood so much, I imagine. It was quite cool in the collection, kept at 50 degrees, and some of the instruments were in quite good tune. We were allowed to play what we liked, under Mr Spiers' watchful eye.
My favourite was a small Wornum, made in London in the early 19th century. It was not very grand at all, but had such a wonderful voice. I really wanted to pick it up and take it away. It was not the grandest at all, sitting there beside a Steinway and not far from a lovely Bosendorfer, and amidst all those French and English splendours. But I loved it.
This is a marvellous thing to see (by appointment only). It is probably of international significance and should be catalogued and promoted. Mr Spiers cannot do it on his own, even with his Trustees keeping an eye on him. He has troubles with his eyes, and is quite deaf, but has a wicked sense of humour and understands everything as well as being a fount of knowledge about each instrument. He started as an office boy in the house-building company in 1970 when he left the army.
It calmed me and cheered me terrifically to go and see this place, even though I am feeling rushed. How utterly remarkable to find this extraordinary assemblage of sonorous instruments all laid out in rows in a range of 1950s designer barns in the middle of nowhere, 25 minutes from home. The last group to visit before we went today was there in July. The pianos are all silent (as far as we know) unless someone comes to fondle them and play them. Then their voices call out, jangling, or soft, or warm, or loud, or enticing, as they are able to speak. Their wooden cases, some quite tiny and some really big and show-off, some very square or humble, some embellished with gold and brass inlays, or marquetry, are shining in the veiled light. When they eventually get out into the world again, I imagine no-one will be allowed to touch them again. They will be regarded as too precious. Which they are.

We are heading tomorrow to Somatianá, near Thalames, south of Kalamata in the Mani, in Greece. We hope the disgruntled air-traffic controllers of Athens will take pity on us and allow us through. It is a remote place, with very limited access to the internet, so I shall revert to compiling my blog on a tiny notebook and feeding it to the world when I get the chance. Thus the flow of information during the next ten days will be slightly irregular, but I hope that will not put you off. Please follow our adventures and if you want to know something about where we are, I recommend Patrick Leigh Fermor's 'Mani' which was published in 1958 and remains a classic of English literature, very funny, full of history and description, and vivid so you feel you are there. Unfortunately I have not managed to get hold of Peter Greenhalgh's 'Deep Mani' before we leave. I hope they have a copy there waiting for us.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Great excitements last night. We reached Cazdad, a pretty little bay and village south of Dubrovnik, very conveniently close to the airport. A swim in the warm sea and a cup of tea gave us a leisurely start but in what seemed like the twinkling of an eye, the wind got up and the bay was transformed from a hot, lazy, glassy-topped splashabout playground into a seriously spikey and rough threat. Our plan to go ashore in the rubber duck for a cocktail, and then again for a last night supper, were abandoned. We spent five hours bucking about, watching the scenery spin about us as the wind pushed the boat this way and that. It’s only a hundred or so yards to the quay and we could see people strolling about under the pretty palm trees, and even sitting in the café where we had planned to be…. but however close, it was too far. Kate created a risotto supper for us on board, and we ate on deck with the world rocking wildly about.
We looked anxiously, or at least considerately, at the rubber duck with its little engine, waiting patiently to take us to shore. It seemed prudent to add a second painter to keep it secure and we wondered if the rocking waters might flip it over (and thus the motor would go to the bottom), but it was not possible to get onto it and take the motor off.
Then it seemed to us that we were not where we had started. Our anchor was secure enough, but is held on a long chain and we were drifting closer and closer to another boat left unattended in the bay – it was impossible to say quite how this was happening, but the decision was made to move our hook and get further out into the open.
We watched another of the huge pointy fuck-me ships slink into the bay in the dark, and then make its way to the quay, backing in and out a few times before settling beside its six bully sisters.
At midnight a boat came in from the sea and started to drop its anchor inexplicably right beside us – far too close and certain to bash into us when the wind swung us round – but Andy shouted at them and they removed to a clearer space.
Overhead, planes roar into and out of the airport. It’s now 6.40am and we will be on one of those planes very soon. We are about to pack and get into the grey rubber dinghy for the last time, clutching our soft bags and bits and bobs. The end of a tour round some of the Dalmatian Islands, thanks to the generosity and skill of our kind hosts.

Monday, 5 September 2011

A fishy prisoner

Last full day. Yesterday we tacked our way up to Ston – a tiny place of immense strategic importance for hundreds of years. The long Peljesac peninsular sticks out of the coastline some way north of Dubrovnik, pointing out to the north west, and it is attached to the main land by a low, narrow spit of land. Control over this little isthmus therefore gave power over a much greater area than its actual size, and the maritime city of Dubrovnik had such an interest in the place that they built a mighty wall on the mountains overlooking the isthmus, to keep out anyone wanting to attack their city from the north. This wall is like a baby version of the great wall of China, and although it suffered damage in the earthquakes of 1996, it still presents a stupendous obstacle and sight. Ston has more treasure… in particular, down by the sea’s edge, a wide flat area of saltpans. These have been managed for at least 4000 years, making them the oldest in Europe, and the equivalent of a goldmine or oilfield in terms of wealth. The saltpans are enclosed now by a battered wall and railings, with each pan or field divided from the next by a narrow bank, and with a tiny railway track along each bank. In the distance we saw a gang of workers sitting in exhaustion in the sun, while a tiny engine hauled a row of salt-laden wagons off to a depot at the far end of the site. Later we bought one little bag of salt – about 100 grams for 5 euros. I think we will have a salt-party when we get back, tasting various kinds of natural salt we have gathered from round the world. I know we have pink rock salt from the Himalayas, brown sea-salt from France, and more..
Ston itself is a little grid-town with cafes and an execrable art gallery, and access to the might wall which rears up above it in a terrifying swoop. How on earth did anyone manage to build such a thing? Slave labour, it looks like. The other three elected to walk along the top of the wall and thus over the mountain and I stayed on the flatter ground, to walk to Mali Ston – the little settlement on the other side of the isthmus. It’s less than a mile by land, but would several miles by water to the north and perhaps five round the southern end of the peninsular. In my 15 minute stroll I got sunburned and hot, and the others were even more sunburned and hot going over the hill, but they descended in triumph at the other side. There we admired the tiny little village with its split pepper-pot fortress and shaky looking walls (more earthquake damage), and had a lunch of mussels etc overlooking the bay. The setting there is almost Roman – very little to show the trappings of the 21st century. The resto is called Bota Sare – Bota meaning ‘vault’ and Sare the family name. The building, right on the quay, is a finely constructed military stronghold with a huge barrel-vaulted room, very reminiscent of the little castles in Cyprus – the fortress of the Knights of St John, or the castle in Limassol where Richard I married Berengaria.
We strolled back over the flatter path to Ston, took the boat off its scarily shallow berth beside the saltpans, and tacked for three hours down to Sipan. (When I write these place names, I am omitting lots of accents and diacriticals as I have no idea how to create them on this computer). Tacking is a marvellous thing, time-consuming but rewarding, allowing you to progress into the very teeth of the wind which wants to blow you in the opposite direction. The landscape changes all the time on either side in this complicated seascape, with the mountains achieving various heights of ambition and the greenery more or less dense, depending on the soils, the depredations, the aspect. Once again we had the place almost to ourselves… ‘Who would sail in the Solent when you could come and sail here?’ asked Andrew. Occasionally, a massive great Goldfinger-like fuck me vessel goes past, with layers of deck and unknown sybaritic pleasures ranged around inside. These always have very pointy front ends which are very attention-seeking and waspy looking. Andrew has been giving us lessons in the rules of the sea – who should give way to whom, how to see what tack someone else is on (that has a bearing on who has precedence if it looks like there could be a collision). In practice, these neat rules are undermined by the fact that so many of the other yachts are chartered and of course you have no idea whether their skippers know any of the rules at all. The best tactic is to assume they know nothing and keep well clear. When the huge pleasure ships go past, they are (for the most part) crewed by professionals who take them slowly enough not to create too much wake, but that is not always the case either.
Sipan nestles in a northward facing bay in yet another island, served by ferries from Dubrovnik. The bay is about 300 yards across, and the hills slope back quite gently, with some very old Italianate houses overlooking the water and some new ones scattered about, with pinkish terracotta roofs and stone or stucco fronts. One ferry, called Nona Ana, we have seen at various ports of call – a tall, ugly looking catamaran which chugs peacefully around. Another is called Postira, a fantastic old rustbucket from the old days, made of hand-rivetted steel plates, and not part of the ubiquitous Jadrolina company. It is evidently controlled by a dreadful grumpy old man who spends his hours between sailings in the bars – the suspicion is that he is sometimes quite drunk.
(Wierdly as I sit and write this, our captain is sitting beside me reading earlier postings on his iPhone, and has corrected a mistake… Vrboska is known as the Venice of Hvar, not Brac. I got the wrong island).
We’re anchored on the hook here in Sipan bay, outside Marka’s restaurant where last night we ate one of the finest meals I have ever had – a present from our kind hosts who were not able to come to our recent 30th wedding anniversary party and took us out for a meal here instead. This was cooking and service of the highest quality, in a fantastically beautiful setting, as the reflection of all the lights around the harbour slid magically across the water towards us, and Gino (the owner’s son) brought us dish after dish of fishy perfection. This place has jumped to the top of my lifetime list of best places to eat – if you ever get a chance to come here, you must do it…. Oh dear, I have given away a precious secret.
At the back of the restaurant, on the way to the immaculate loos, is an aquarium which is home to various fish including a big old grouper called Maria. She is about six or seven years old. Groupers are the most extraordinary fish, with faces perfectly suited to London lawyers or bank managers. They look at you so meaningfully. This one rose to the surface of her tank and I rubbed the back of her head with my finger, feeling very sympathetic to her and all her kind. But she very courageously opened her great mouth and bit at the air beside me, a rebellious prisoner, prepared to fight despite her predicament. She may be there for many years to come.
We strolled right round the harbour after supper, to the moorings of the Postira and some very pretty fish-picnic boats on a nice stone jetty on the far side. Cats and their kittens sat eating little feasts of fish sneaked from café tables, and took no notice of dogs running past them. Huddles of men sat on cool shadowy doorsteps, smoking and talking. There were plenty of bikes propped up nonchalantly on trees and walls, no sign of a lock anywhere. I took some pictures of the ferry and the fishing-trip boats – with their mixture of handmade and modern plastic mooring ropes, washing lines, gangways and the like. It was all done on available light some some have blurred, unfortunately, but I will post up what I can when I get home. That will be tomorrow evening.


NB had a really poor signal all day so this is being posted a bit late.
V exciting – I was helmsman for the last run of the day yesterday, tacking us across towards the Ston Channel, and then through the teeny tiny gap at the eastern end of the peninsular. The miracle of sailing a boat as nearly as possible into the direction of the wind blowing against it is apparently a fairly modern discovery. Before that presumably boats had to wait till the wind blew in the direction they wanted to go. Can that be true? The wind twitches about, so you have to keep a constant eye on the sails, to keep them filled with air. I had vaguely imagined it is the wind pushing on the sails which pushes the boat along, and that is true with the wind behind you, but when you are sailing into the wind, it’s more complicated – it’s the creation of a curved surface, like the wings of a bird or a plane, which creates differing air pressures on either side of the fabric, and it’s that which makes a kind of ‘lift’ and thus the forward motion. It is also the foresail which does most of the work. I thought, sailing boats could only have been invented once women were involved, because it would be women who spun the threads to make the cloth to make the sails.
It was another quiet day with the sun brilliantly constant, a mist to calm the heat down, a warm wind to soothe us, and hardly another boat in sight. Where are they all? The gang of schoolkids we saw sploshing in the little bay near Vrboska seem like a distant memory – their hilarity and high spirits were perhaps an end-of-holiday party spirit, and now most people have returned to work.
The landscape changes subtly as we move southwards. The island of Mljet is a National Park and so its bony flanks are quite luxuriantly clad in brush and forest, with trees clustered in the valleys where soil has managed to accumulate. In contrast most of the hillsides are pretty rocky and bare, with thin striated scrapes of greenery clinging on at the lower levels where the layers of karst rock have allowed enough soil or moisture to give them a footing. One of the books on board says all these slopes were finely wooded in ancient days till the Venetians plundered them for timber. Once the trees had gone, the soil washed away. I am slightly surprised by the general lack of wildlife – the cicadas in the woods, the little gulls in the some of the ports, a few bats at Korcula, the dozen or so varieties of fish we have seen, some butterflies and a couple of very large bees… but that’s it.
The sea itself has been wonderfully well-behaved – especially considering how vile it was last time we were aboard this boat, when the waves came right over the cockpit and I thought we were going to drown. Most of the voyage yesterday was across calm quiet blueness, with a few white horses, and the depth sounder showed about 50 metres. The amazing thing – yet again – was how one moment we were going quietly along a broad empty channel, with these sloping pine-covered rocky slopes on either side, and then, on the port side, reaching a little point, we could see an angular little bay crammed with big white plastic boats, a cluster of caiques and dinghies, and three or four houses/restaurants down at the water’s edge. This is where we backed in, with a chaotic set of instructions from a man on the quay. Our skipper took us in so neatly into the tiny space reserved for us – not once, but twice, as the capitano on shore told us to go away the first time, so we leapt smartly out again, and then when other people shouted at him that we had reserved our space, he beckoned us in again. The Chermans on their huge white plastic box to one side were full of admiration for our captain. Another interesting/useless fact… it is the Chermans and French who make the best sailing boats nowadays, while the English and Italians make these ugly great pleasure palaces - the white plastic boxes styled like trainer-shoes. All of our neighbours here are English-built and horrible they are… probably v comfortable etc but I will just stay boat-snobby and say they are horrible. One of them has a crew dancing attendance on the three owners or leasers. I think our sailing boat is vastly superior.
We ate at one of the restos – it’s called Gastro Mare and the owner, a Croat, spent some time in Norway perfecting his art before coming home to open up his own place. We had a little bonne bouche including slivers of fine local mountain ham, then a scallop, then a sliver of foie gras, then the delicious local dentex fish with vegetables, and then a doublet of desserts: one being a constructed apfel strudel with pan-fried pastry, the other being a chocolate and almond biscuit topped with whipped cream and finely grated pecorino cheese, with local sage honey to pour over it. Nice.
During the hot night, I woke up to try to look at the stars, but it was difficult with the quayside lights so near. Across the little bay, some young people were arguing in one of the other houses – in Cherman, I think… again the sounds carry so clearly across water. This was 4am.
Cumulative tiredness is catching up with me. Sleep is always a bit fitful on a boat. The air is quite humid and very hot at night, esp when you have to have the hatches closed against the showers of rain which can arrive very suddenly. Dreams are vivid. I sometimes plan what I want to write and then tiredness washes my great ideas away. Ho hum. Today we will go up the channel into Ston itself and after that I have no idea of the plans except we are booked into a really grand resto for the evening. Only two days left. Time is moving past, all the time, like the waves around us, rocking the boat one way or the other. Kate rang her family yesterday and reported that the weather in England is autumnal. When I was trying to pack to come here, as usual I found it really hard to imagine hot weather. Bah!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

We are moored in a secret bay off Mljet, a hiding place for pirates since Roman times. Since time immemorial, people have been hacking each other to pieces along these shores. It’s part of the charm of visiting new places that you can compare today with the olden days – though of course war and violence here on a grand scale was not all that long ago – the Serb/Croat/Bosnian atrocities of the 90s have barely faded into the past. Yet here we are, sunning ourselves, going ashore to visit a little Benedictine monastery sequestered away on an island in a secret salt lake just over the hill, having a coffee by the quay, as if nothing had happened.
The troubles are not all buried though. In Korcula yesterday, when I was buying my new pantaloonos and pretty little skirt, the doleful young shopkeeper kept me in conversation to practice his (very broken) English, and bewail his fate. He asked about life in England, and said tax in Croatia was very bad – 23! - and corruption even worse. Running a little tourist shop was not enough. His dad had run it for 35 years, but there were 3 sons, and then his dad had 2 car crashes and was now using crutches. He himself has two sons, and he’s worried about how to support them. I asked if he could use the internet and he said no, it was too expensive. I said, Hotmail is free, but he shook his head, and expressively pushed imaginary cash behind one hip with a cupped hand. Nothing free here, he said. Is very bad. He was inconsolable and I left, wondering if he was describing just his own life or something wider. I was reminded of our recent trip to Nairobi – the shocking contrast between the rich and poor. Here, on our smooth white yacht, we are like millionaires, sailing past with smiling faces. The lives of local people, supplying us with our bread and shopping, our tourist trips, our moorings, etc., are very different. To them, our passage is like a visit from Martians, something from the future perhaps. So our holiday is like a trip in time in quite complicated ways. We are visiting the past and living in the future.
We certainly have some wonderful gadgets on board. I bought that Kindle at the airport as we left, and have downloaded a few bits onto it while we’ve been on the boat. We have a free trial of The Times for our hostess, and I’m particularly pleased with PLFermor’s book about the Mani in Greece, which I have been meaning to read for years but now have the time to get to grips with. We are going to stay with our friends Frank and Margaret near Kalamata in a few weeks’ time, so this is in preparation. What a book! What a writer! If you have not read it, I urge you to do it straight away. How gutsy! How funny. I feel weightily encouraged in my travel writing by his examples. Of course Greece is not Croatia but they are not far distant and share a similar history of violence and management – Greek factions, Romans, Franks, Turks, Venetians, Austrians, French, Russians, Italians, etc etc. all piling in, looking for loot, slaves, land, power, etc. His account of the Nyklian towers – where rival clans sought to smash each other to bits by building ever-higher structures from which to hurl rocks down onto the houses of their enemies is genius and hilarious. He flips from past to present so smoothly, waking up imaginary hosts from the past to people the hillsides and then letting them fade away to dust in order to continue his journey. I am thrilled with it. He is awake to light and sound, and earlier this morning, while the stars were still dazzling above us, and listening to one demented cockerel crowing in the dark, I was reading about his concept that this sound could go right round the whole world, one bird wakening and energising the next, and the sound leaping across continents. I cannot do it justice in précis, and you really must read it. It is marvellous.
We heard that cock crowing when we arrived yesterday morning, and then all through the day. It’s a thin solitary expression of defiance against the orchestral background of the cicadas, which are the loudest I have ever heard. You can’t see them, but they populate the higher parts of all the trees, and they are so loud you can only imagine the force with which they scrape their legs together to make such a terrific rasping sound. We wondered why on earth they do it. We agreed we have been told they are looking for mates, but this seems crazy… They might do better by just walking around and looking. There are millions of them. They might be telling jokes to each other, passing on the news. Who really knows. They only stop when it’s dark. Sound carries across water very clearly. Our menfolk have just gone off in the rubber dinghy to get bread and though they are about quarter of a mile away we can still hear them talking. If a neighbouring skipper is manoeuvring to get into or out of moorings, you have to be very careful how you comment, as every word can be heard. In a marina, if someone’s boat begins to swing towards your own, everyone is on the alert, as it can take just a few seconds for several tons of vessel to slide across in the wind and bash into you. Captain and crew are ready to push the intruder away, using fenders if possible. Hands and wrists can easily be damaged in such encounters. Bad mooring skills are bad news for other boats. When we anchor we have to make sure we cannot hit any other boat even if we turn in a full circle round our anchor chain, if the wind changes.
Some things do not change – the crowing of a cockerel, the management of a boat at anchor… some things have changed completely, just in the last few years. For instance, all this comms technology. To download a whole book in a second, to get texts and emails from one’s distant family on a momentary basis, this is just magic. We would have had no Odyssey with satnav. The very foundations of our society would have been completely different – literature, poetry, politics, war, nationhood – everything would have been different. Now we have these powerful new toys in our hands and the future is being created out of them, though we are still playing by the old rules. People who are left out can say so, more volubly…. We read about the disruption to the Israeli concert last week at the Proms. I thought the BBC should have left the concert + disruptions on the air because it is impossible to smother these protests, which are a kind of artform in their own right. The others aboard did not agree, but conceded that it might have been better if the programme had included work and performance by Palestinian artists. Being here, in one of the crucibles of our civilisation, it’s easy to slip into pondering about these things. But now, with the cicadas providing a deafening background, and the water warm and still, I shall go for my naked plunge and then wait for the boys to bring back breakfast.

Ha! Well I did swim, and fish in loose shoals came swimming about me, and I was in an elemental condition such as the first woman in the world was when she swam in warm water. Below me the fish spiralled and spun, and the water was blue and clear down to maybe ten or fifteen feet, though we were in a deeper place than that. The fish were of that kind we saw on the first day, with the large black spots by their tails, and they had needle fish with them, threading along near the surface.

Now we are off to go down to Ston, a town which was near-levelled in an earthquake a few years ago. Restaurants have been booked in advance for the next couple of nights. It's all so strange, this mixture of ancient experience and dead modern convenience. At home, the Hop Festival is under way with morrismen and beery music filling the streets. Lucie's hair has been wrecked by a grotesque masquerading as a hairdresser in Forest Hill, and we have seen a photo of her zebra stripes sent by phone. We know about it but cannot do anything. Sheila has set off to France with Chris in their 'new' Peugeot Partner. We have all this news. And we are just setting off, so I will get this posted up now.

Friday, 2 September 2011


We are so disconnected from the world and from ourselves. Even a sailing holiday presents numerous ways in which we can choose to detach from nature. Here we are, surrounded by the sea, and relying on our own resources for everything at a fairly basic level, and yet we can be tempted all the time to stay detached from it all and this seems to be an English characteristic.

In yesterday’s posting I mentioned the FKK – the nudist beaches. Many different peoples come to Croatia for holidays and bring with them their holiday attitudes to nakedness, and so we have Germans, Croatians, Finns, Danes, Austrians etc. all quite ready to swim in the nude. Not that we have been very close, but we have seen lots and lots of people happily wandering along the beaches and islands with pale bottoms. Here on the boat, our hosts Kate and Andy have encouraged us to shed clothing – and just writing this makes me squirm slightly, as if you will take this to mean something smutty or nudge-nudge. Believe me, I have had to think about this….. and I have wanted to describe the feelings because this discomfort usually means something interesting is going on.

The idea is that when we are far enough away from snoopers, it’s ok to swim or shower on the deck in the nude. That is what I did yesterday as we motored quietly along the coast of Hvar, on a stunningly beautiful quiet morning. There was no wind at all, so the diesel was pushing us along through the calms. We could see for miles. We had the seas to ourselves for at least a couple of hours. The light was soft and everything was quiet. The arrangement is that the diesel is heating the water ‘for free’ so to speak, and so I could take a lovely shower in fresh water by standing at the back of the boat and using a hand-nozzle. Nonetheless this means being naked in front of friends. We are all around about 60 and not anywhere near the glamorous end of things - in fact, I am painfully aware of the sags and bags, the wrinkles and scars, the disfigurements - not that these are particularly dreadful but somehow I am a bit ashamed of it.... Why? I am not vain, nor am I particularly exhibitionist, but I had to really think whether I wanted to be nude in front of friends at my ripe age…. I was wondering why do we wear clothes anyway? Obviously for warmth and physical protection, and for adornment, and for dignity, and these last two reasons have got so overblown and magnified that we English have lost our sense of proportion about it all. Being nude is somehow wrong, or dangerous.

Now, I loved my shower, which was refreshing and elemental, and even better I loved my own decision to strip off and just be myself. Something else to notch up as a little achievement. I wanted to record it here because if there are ways in which we can relax the terrible list of tensions which govern our every day lives, then maybe this could be one of them. Nakedness is not wickedness. It’s natural and normal and how we really are. Nakedness brings us closer to nature, and humility. The things we have created in our society – the exploitation of sex and sexuality for profit on an eye-watering scale alongside the erection of pretty nasty ‘standards of behaviour’, laws, and customs about what is proper and allowable – all this could be undone and relaxed if we chose to do it. Isn’t there a man at the moment who is being sent to prison all the time for taking his clothes off? Why? Here they obviously have ‘time and place’ arrangements, so that it’s ok to be nude on the beach and in the sea. I do not see nude people in the towns or cafes, for instance. There was a nearly-nude man supervising the moorings of boats at Vrboska – just a tiny black cozzie to protect his manhood and a fabulous back and legs, but a massive gut in front. Kate said ‘He’s probably Italian’. He was definitely showing off. La bella figura.

So, a shower in the calm morning, then a long push down to the end of Hvar and into the tiny little ferry-port village of Sucuraj. This is one of those perfect little places which it is hard not to fall in love with. The houses built of shining golden-white stone cluster round the port. The port is filled with small boats and caiques tied up in seemly lines. The water is crystal clear. Shoals of whitebait play hide and seek in the shadows. A ferry boat arrives from the mainland and few cars bang over the gangway onto the sideroad. Cafes are shaded by grapevine canopies. Two little supermarkets sell everything you could possibly need. Lanes and alleys lead you round and through and round again. Families are setting out their lunch tables in the gardens. Perfect.

We bought a few bits and bobs, had a coffee. In the ladies loo I saw a hand-painted sign on the wall which said ‘You are beatuyfull’, the ‘u’ being added in as an afterthought in the wrong place. Croatian is quite a difficult language, I fear, in the Slavic group, but most people we have met speak enough English to get by.

Back to the boat, and out to the bay round the corner, where we dropped anchor and then had a swim… The water is so clear. I could see the sea-cucumbers at the bottom. But I have to report I was wearing my costume this time, and I’m not sure why. It would have been a good place to swim nude which I will do next time.

After lunch as the air heated up, the wind got up too and at last we could get the sails up for the beat back westwards along the southern side of Hvar and around the western point of the Peljesac peninsular. The wind was about 15 knots and we were making about 7 knots, tacking over the dark blue sea with its white horses and sizzling hiss of approval as we swept along. We were heeling over quite a bit, and Andy the skipper reefed to bring us more upright. All these manoeuvres are straightforward enough, but bring me close to my fears again… so that although I am just a passenger, I have to think about my anxieties and calm myself. We are doing what we can, being in nature, with the waves and the wind and the sails to sweep along. It is so exhilarating!

I acquired a bit of a tan too, of course, and was applying various sun blockers to avoid getting burned. ‘My’ Andrew was helmsman for most of the way. At once magic moment, I saw a curving fin break out of the water and there was a dolphin, maybe two of them, lazily showing themselves to us as we passed. Their nakedness has a touch of the divine. It was so easy, so simple. I thought of what we have lost with our clothing….

But everything stayed simple and we made it finally round the shallows of the Peljesac point, and then turned east to the ancient little city of Korcula. Here there are fortresses and more stories of war and attack. The town is built on a rock and is slightly (very slightly) reminiscent of Mont St Michel or Rye, with stone-paved streets and little churches and guardian gateways, now all turned over to the lascivious trades of tourism. So, we wandered, had a drink, peered into churches (precious few icons, no iconostases, lots of Catholic saints), found a lovely place for a meal, wandered around again, listened to the men singing their klapa music in one of the fortified gateways, bought ice creams, and came back to the marina. Here, the air was stifling hot and we were tired. Sleep was difficult, as we were so humid and sticky and rain spatters meant we had to keep the hatches closed…. aaaagh…
Today we are heading south to Mljet across the Lastovski Kanal… so now I will end and we can head off into the town for breakfast. Lucky us.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


We have had two nights of stupendous stargazing. The air is so clear overhead we can see the Milky Way in detail, and even a few shooting stars within a few moments of gazing upwards. The night air is so warm there is no reason not to lie back and think of heaven. No wonder astronomy started in Greece or Babylon or Egypt. People had thousands of years of warm starry nights and not much else to do except look and worship, and start to think.
The map of Croatia’s coast is wonderfully complicated, with scrumpled mountains on the mainland and thousands of their puppies scattered as islands into the blue blue sea. At this time of year, the rocks show through as golden bones, but there are enough trees to dress it overall in a luxurious looking green. Brac is one of these islands, offering beautiful stone for building – the White House is perhaps the most famous of its outliers, and nearer to home, Diocletian’s palace in Split. We coasted along the south side of Brac (pron. Bratch) to the popular little port of Bol, where we strolled along and had coffee, bought some fruit and veg, and then headed back to the boat. These transfers from ship to shore and back again are in the rubber dinghy… oh dear, all my anxieties come flooding back. I share them with you because for most of my life, all such fears were firmly squashed. ‘Of course it’s easy, get on with it!’ Now, being on the way to old age, I find it’s rather remarkable to experience these ‘silly’ feelings. There is this worry – what if????? What if I fall in? What if it tips over? What if it gets a puncture? What if we are too heavy for it? What if a shark comes up from underneath and bites it, and then us? I am sorry for all the times I chid my children and told them to buck up.
We went to a place our hosts call Carrot Bay. It has an FKK designation, which is apparently German for ‘Nudist Beach’. Indeed we could see quite a few bottoms on the shore. And to emphasise the metaphor, some modern art in the form of two tree stumps painted like slightly creepy fingers pointing upwards, like a pair of hopeful cocks ganging together and on the lookout.
Swimming in the bay was delightful – under the boat and all around us were scatterings of pretty little fish which each had a marking like a big black eye just in front of the tail, presumably acting as a kind of decoy or confusion system to deflect attacks from bigger fish. They sparkled and flipped about all around us as we swam, looking like living rainbows in the clear water. We could see our anchor chain going right down the 40 feet or so to the bottom.
Off again, this time towing my husband in the rubber dinghy behind the yacht. He looked as merry and delighted as any child, and indeed this whole trip is like playtime, in the care of kind and knowledgeable hosts who have the whole thing in hand.
We moored up on the hook in a broad bay leading to the two little towns of Vrboska and (across on the far side) Jelsa. Once again, into that scary dinghy and off across the water to find somewhere to go ashore. The little harbour in the bay was full of schoolchildren larking about, so we went on a bit further and tied up to a stone promontory with a harbour light on it. Walking into the town under the pine trees, we found people picnicking along the rocky shore to our left. Vrboska has canalised its little stream, and has three or four ancient bridges crossing this tiny waterway, and is thus known as ‘the Venice of Brac’. There is also a truly remarkable fortified church on top the town, built to withstand attacks from the Turks and other pirates, during the 16th century. It must be pretty dark inside… we couldn’t get in because the opening times printed in the guidebook turn out to be completely wrong. But it is quite a building.
War has smashed and burned across this place over and over again, and not so long ago. We have been talking about how lucky we are, as a generation, not to have been sent to war ourselves, or to have lived through it as our parents have done. We watched a dozen or so large white yachts backing into the quay, with near-naked men supervising the mooring up while showing off their tans…. This is a fragile thing but it is better than war.
The guys walked back to the dinghy and then came to get Kate and me from the Vrboska quay, and we tootled out across the water back to the Lady Olivia. It was about a mile and a half up the bay back to the yacht. The wash from bigger faster boats was sometimes bigger than the dinghy but we bounced and bucked through all that, and got back. Supper, music from an iPhone, those stars, laughter…. Then sleep.
This morning (Thursday) we have set off early to get south. On our starboard is the long island of Hvar, to port is Brac and behind that the mainland. We have the sea to ourselves. There is not one single other boat in sight, and we can see for miles. The air is soft and misty, the waters as benign-looking and calm as a garden pond. The mountains are shining.