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.