Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Somatiana

Somationa

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.

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