Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Last day, in Athens

End of our last day, back in Marinos taverna in Old Korinthos after a day in Athens (reached by train). Very sati. I wanted to see if I could find some reproduction figurines to buy, for an exhibition I would like to put together about the Great Goddess in her various incarnations. This has been in fact, one of the main purposes of this whole visit.

We had researched the journey into Athens last night. Corinth station is on what they call the RR Railway, which mostly runs between the two carriageways of the new motorway running straight into the capital. The whole thing is rather smart but sort-of unfinished, and with only one train an hour into the city, and that via a connection in the outer suburbs. However, we caught the 8.39 without difficulty and got into Athens – well, a sort of peripheral grubby suburb which they optimistically label 'Athens' – about an hour later. Waiting for a bus was frustrating. It turned out they were on strike, but the metro proved swift and clean and took us into the centre. We walked up past the parliament building and some evrones on parade, and into the very excellent Cyclades Museum. Here I feasted my eyes on the beautiful neolithic figurines – some in clay, some in marble, one almost life-size. This was the last great fling for the Goddess, because not long afterwards, the discovery of metal (copper and then bronze) co-incided with the discovery of agriculture and and end to the mysteries of growing food and making babies. However, in the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean, artists and devotees spent hundreds of years perfecting their statues and figurines, and they are totally marvellous. I bought two and will have to send for more when I get home. These will be enough to kick-start some interest, I hope!

Unfortunately the Cypriot section was closed for refurbishment, and I particularly wanted to track down any plank figurines they might have had there. I have seen some in Cyprus a few years ago, before I had this idea of an exhibition – I was hoping the Cycladic Museum could help, but maybe we will have to go back to Nicosia or somewhere to track down some photos or replicas. Of course, replicas are always going to be inadequate, but seen in series, along side explanatory notes and photos of 'the real thing', I think people will be amazed and amused by the whole project.

We headed out into the open air, and had a coffee, and then into my favourite museum – the Benaki – the staggeringly rich collection of a Greek cotton merchant of the early 20th century who aggregated anything to do with Hellenistic history and then gave it all to the people of Greece. It is simply stupendous. Again, I bought some replicas – a little Boetian priestess, and a dove, thought to be an aspecat of Aphrodite. Actually in that museum is a mass of tiny, very very ancient fat-bellied neolithic figurines, utterly pregnant and round, about the size of small pebbles, in all sorts of colours and textures of clay. Sadly their appearance in repro is very disappointing, poorly moulded and all the same colour and texture. I am wondering if I have the nerve to write to the museum's exalted directors and ask if they would consider upgrading this artefact (you get a row of 6 on one little plinth) for 62 euros.

Then we walked in the cool of the National Gardens having admired an evzone practicing his extraordinary cockatoo walk, with its stamping and pacing, under the watchful eye of his sergeant who was in ordinary military dress, while the young sentry was in that famous (slightly hilarious) rig of short white skirt, thick cream tights, and pompoms on his nail-studded clogs.

Next we met up with my friend Daphne, who I was hoping to take out to lunch, but she resolutely, absolutely, utterly refused, and instead took us out, to the glorious Dionysos restaurant which under-looks the Acropolis. We sat in the balmy shade, gazing up at the glories of the Parthenon, and ate a simple but fantastically well prepared feast of salads, lamb, veal, then ice-cream, chocolate souffle and crisp brandy-snaps. She says there are at least 365 strikes a year now in Athens, a website called strike.gr so that people can find out what's not going on, and she says she has huge admiration for the people of Athens because life is almost completely impossible. She talked about Patrick Leigh Fermor who she knew when she was young and was interested to hear about our adventures in the Mani.

She dropped us off from her snazzy Mini Cooper near the garden of Zeus, absolutely horrified that we intended to get into a trolleybus to head back to the station. 'No, no!' she said, but I explained they hadn't been running earlier and Andrew dearly wanted to go on one.... So, she sped off into the traffic and we clambered onto a very smelly armpitty crowded carriage and lumped along back towards the centre. In fact, once honour was satisfied, I asked if we could get off and perhaps walk for a way, and that is what we did. Past the beautiful Academy building, past the scary druggy Omonia quarter where a gaggle of ladyboys were out cruising amongst the litter-strewn alleys, past the stalls selling rather snazzy reading glasses in all colours (bought two), through the Metaxourgia area filled with Albanians queuing to get onto buses to go home, clasping their babies and carrying cardboard parcels wrapped up in thick plastic tape, and finally up to Larissa station where we gingerly crossed the local lines and waited for our connection up to the Corinth express.

Now it's about 10pm, we are still too full to think about eating (though our plan had been to eat our last supper here at the taverna, where, just as the guidebook says, the food is delicious, made according to mama Elisabet's recipes. But it is not to be. Tomorrow we have to somehow get all these figurines into our suitcases which are already crammed with too many clothes (the climate being so unpredictable – after all, there has been a heatwave in London while we've been here, the temperatures soaring to 28!!!!! In October!!!!!!!)

There are so many things I meant to mention and have not. In fact, I think I have been pretty tired this week, and I have the slightly uneasy feeling that the blog has been more incoherent than usual.... It has been written without much chance to sit and think before setting everything down, not an ideal pattern. One thing I really enjoyed was spotting the very decorative chimney cowls which adorn the tops of houses. They swing round very freely in the wind, and they are made of bent metal, formed into the shapes of various birds – most often an eagle, or a peacock, or a cormorant. It seems a simple design, but without having seen one at close quarters I am not sure exactly how they are made or how they work. But they are very very attractive, and I should think quite effective.

Someone commenting via email about this blog asked if I would do a summary of the visit – a slightly daunting task as we have seen so much, there are so many things I know I have left un-described, and there has not been enough time to think about it. I have loved reading th guide books we had at our disposal – especially PLFermor, of course, and Peter Greenhalgh, both of whom I have mentioned extensively this week. To that I will add the marvellous Cadogan guide, which I think may be out of print but which is a mine of information and explanation. If there is anything I have said here which makes you think you should come and see for yourself, that would be marvellous. For me, coming and looking has had the effect of changing a 2-D view of history and myth into a 3-D view. Names of places, gods, heroes, heroines and events which were just names are now vivid to me. I can see why and how and where these things happened and these are not remote disconnected stories for us. Greece is where our alphabet and a lot of our vocabulary coalesced into existence, and it is where democracy and medicine and mathematics and science and astronomy and poetry and drama all took on their modern forms, such as we know them today, every day. The present difficulties this beautiful, wild, fascinating, hospitable country face today may seem impossible to overcome, but they have gone through worse than this. I should say, I also found it heady to be reading a completely different book during this trip: The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley, available through Amazon of course. That offered a counterpoint and a set of options which we could all do with in these turbulent times.

Enough! I am going to bed. Flying home tomorrow, and that means no more blogging till our next travels.

Back to Corinth

Back in Old Corinth again, a week after our arrival. Time has zipped past. We're back in the same taverna, different room, enjoying the bonhomie of our host who is pleased to see us back. I remember that time in my life when as a young person I took such familiarity as genuine friendship. Sigh.
We checked out the rail arrangements from here into Athens – with some difficulty, I may say, as the hotel staff knew nothing and the signage on the roads is poor, but we eventually found the brand new station at Eximila with its hourly service (one change) into the capital, free parking and very efficient English-speaking ticketsales girl.
Our day was spent retracing our path across this spectacular part of the world, from the west coast of the Mani up to the isthmus. We used a different route, via Gethio (supposedly the place where Paris and Helen spent their honeymoon night..... very unlikely, considering the distance from Menelaos' palace in the central Peloponnese). A footnote in the excellent Cadogan guide alerts us to the complexities of the character 'Helen'. Far from the simplistic persona described in the Iliad – a young queen of great beauty abducted and stolen away to a far land, causing a whole decade of war between the people.... no, it seems her origins lie much further back, as a tree goddess from pre-Bronze Age times, a fertility deity, who (along with others such as Persephone and Euridyce) disappear for part of the year, causing barren-ness in the land. There is a concept, an idea, of 'the stolen woman' which resonates throughout the history of this region.
The subsequent history of the Peloponnese is that the recovery of Helen required great acts of male bravery and valour, so she became a kind of passive object, something to be redeemed, rather than a powerful life-giver in her own right. Modern archaeology and historical study has shifted things along. In fact, one of our visits this afternoon was to an area which it is now thought could be Menelaos' Palace, near the tiny quiet vilage of Pellana. Just outside Pellana is another interesting archaeological site, with so-called bee-hive tholos tombs, from the Mycenaen age, carefully carved out of a sandstone ridge. Apparently, this small area has produced more gold and other grave goods from its excavations than Mycenae itself, and people are very excited about it.
It had been a bit of a shock to get into Sparti itself.... not that there is anything ancient left there. But I had always imagined it to be bit of a citadel, a high point. Instead, it's in a pleasant, easy, low-lying district, with rich rivers, and then with the shocking and towering range of the Mani mountains right up against it. The approach is through mile after mile of lush, well cultivated, rich farmland...backed in by this colossal mountain range with Taygetes as its peak. The mountains can be seen much more clearly from this eastern side. Where we were in the Mani, we were always too close to see the range as a whole.
You can easily see how, once Sparta was finally beaten, her scorpion-like people would have just turned and fled into the mountains. No-one could ever have got them, there.
One of the things which has settled more clearly in my head is how completely the Hellenistic and Classical ages have been obliterated. I somehow imagined there would be actual temples and pillars and so on, as I saw at Delphi when I went there as a schoolgirl.... but no. It was all plundered, razed to the ground, used as a convenient source of cut stone. Apart from the utility of all this, of course, the subsequent ages were keen to obliterate the pagan places, so all you see now are the churches with odd names, and sometimes incorporating bits of marble in their walls.
The changes in the landscape as we came north were heartening. Whereas in the Mani even the olive groves and terraces look pretty rough, here we saw citrus orchards and dairies and fields of tomatoes and beans. It just looks more civilised. Also, up in the mountains on this side, we drove through real woodland – oaks, and plane trees, with ivy and old man's beard draped through it. We saw pigeons, doves, jackdaws, magpies, little brown jobs. We heard cicadas again, though not in large number. In some of the cottage gardens and in village streets we saw roses and hydrangeas, and cosmos and other decorative flowers, as well as the marvellous wild cyclamen clinging to the dry stone walls and cliffs.
Nowhere, anywhere during this week, have we seen many children. We asked about this during our supper with the nearly-fulltime German residents who said the only children around the Mani now are Albanian. Their parents are Muslim but they have had the children baptised (presumably into the Orthodox church), to fit in. A lot of the Albanians have started or taken over businesses and changed their names accordingly, to look and sound Greek.
Now, tonight, back at Marinos Taverna, we are both very tired. Tomorrow we'll go into Athens on the train and meet my friend Daphne and go to a couple of Museums to see if I can get authenticated copies of ancient female deities for the exhibition I want to put on in Faversham in a year or so. We have a lot to do in a very short space of time, so I will end now and put out the light.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Vathi, Gythio...

Sitting in Gythio, looking at the island where Paris spent his honeymoon night with Helen...
Drinking a fresh orange juice, posting the blog for the last couple of days....

Not much to report from Friday. We spent most of the day by the beach at Kardamyli, waiting for our hosts' car to be repaired. We had a marvellous lunch at Elie's Taverna, swam in crystal clear water (no sign of life anywhere under the waves), went for a walk along the strand, had a relaxing day. Somewhere along the way, Andrew lost a lens from his glasses, but luckily has brought a spare pair.
We sat on the highest terrace watching the spectacular silent sunset across the Messenian Bay. Above us and the mountains behind us, clouds gathered – looking quite black in places, a change from the weather and maybe the start of autumn.
This evening we joined a party of mostly German friends who have – as a group – been coming here for forty years or so on holiday. Mostly retired of course, they all spoke impeccable English and were delightful company, being familiar (it seems) with English literature, politics, drama, tv, etc. Some own their own houses here, some stay in apartments. We ate at the roadside taverna which we'd been to a couple of nights ago. Excellent food. The main instigator of the party was a retired doctor, Elisabeth, who has provided some sort of medication for Frank's torn cartilage, and effected a miraculous change in all our lives as the pain and distress has hugely diminished. Once again during the evening a strong wind blew up, and people put on sweaters, wraps,
Tomorrow we are off to explore more deeply into the Mani, with M&F as our guides.
During the night, the wind started banging and crashing round the tower house, rattling shutters, making dead leaves swirl round in the square outside, so that they scraped and clattered. The temperature dropped quite noticeably, but Margaret says once the sun gets up everything will warm up nicely, and the wind will become a helpful breeze. This our last day in the Mani, as tomorrow we head back north towards Athens, staying there for the last two nights. I am eyeing the contents of the suitcase with a cool eye – will we have enough clean clothes, will we need cool or hot clothing.... I wish I was not such a messy eater. I always manage to spill stuff down my front, and here the food is often oily, so it makes marks which are hard to remove.
Frank is nervous about travelling into the Mani with his bad leg, so they will come with us as far as Areopoli and then we will go on alone.
Just back from our day exploring the cape. I wondered if it was going to worth the effort, being tired and facing a long day in the car, but I am so glad we went. Our first port of call was the stone-mason shop outside Areopoli, where a couple are creating a wide range of modern Maniot stone carvings. We bought a little oil lamp, as simple as could be, something which could have been made in the real stone ages.... a shallow dip in a lump of marbly limestone, where you drip in some oil and use a tiny roll of cotton as a wick. Very simple, very nice. They are on Facebook, and are worrying about the recession and possible collapse of modern life in Greece, so he is building a sturdy chicken shed with a goat-house, so they can have some sort of self-sufficiency. Then we went on to have a coffee and buy some honey (after careful tasting sessions) at Areopoli, where M&F turned back for home, and we went on south.
The power of the landscape to show you how the layers of history unfolded and why is very compelling. We drove down the west coast past the extraordinary little peninsular of Tigani, where there are various sacred sites and (Margaret says) a horrible walking surface made of large, razor-like stones on edge.
We passed a wandering herd of cows, half-hobbled, ambling down the road, beautful and slow.
The mountains ruffle and fill, their dry flanks lined here and there with terraces which must have been created with the utmost toil and labour – how old are they? Some are bone dry and empty, abandoned generations ago or burned in recent fires. Some still have olives growing in regular reassuring lines, or with thorn bushes filling in.
We passed Kitta, one of the extraordinary tower-villages of the region, named perhaps after the Italian word citta...? The influence of Romans, Italians and Venetians over the millennia cannot be overstated. The very towers themselves are perhaps of Italian origin.
We trickled down the gorgeous little port of Geroleminas, and then up again towards Vathi, most famous of the tower villages, and what a place that is. I had not expected to be so desolate. Clustered together on the peak of a high and remote rock, about a kilometre from the sea, and more like Gormenghast than anything else, is this tiny empty village with barely a single resident, but crammed with castle-towers, arches, alleys, dungeons, stone steps, twists and turns. It would make a marvellous film set. One guide book says the National Trust bought it and tried to make it into a resort, but had problems with the lease (in other words, the owners are still fghting). In the space of forty years or so, a hundred local people (men) were murdered .... or was it 40 men over 100 years, can't remember, will have to look it up again, but the place is tiny and to think of so much blood spilled, in a feud between just two families. You cannot get so much as a cup of coffee there, but you are free to wander where you will, and very memorable it is, too.
On down towards the southern cape of Matapa – passing a tiny narrow isthmus or pinch where the final heave of mountains swells out from the mainland, and you get a stupendous view over two bays – one to the west with a calm misty sea, and one to the east with racing white waves over deep clear blue water. Quite different sky, light, appearance, landscape on each side.
A tiny beach with sand (!) looks inviting on the west side, but all access is via another taverna, so we go on. At last we reach the end of the road, on a sunny south-facing slope with beautiful tiny inlets near at hand filled with rapturously blue water. An expensive resto guards the outlook and we duly buy a coffee... and decide to lunch further on. Stupidly I did not keep on reading the little pile of books we had, because if I had we would have gone on by foot to find the cave with bits of temple in it, and other wonders. This place was sacred to Poseidon (not surprisingly, being surrounded by the sea), and was a place of psychopomps, where death could be negotiated in various ways... The is Tenaron, or Taineron, and nearby around the headland there is the main entrance to Hades itself which can only be approached now by boat... where Heracles dragged Cerberus out of Hades as his Twelfth Labour, where Orpheus brought Eurydice up from below the ground, where so many of the really ancient legends are set. We will have to come back and explore it properly.
It has been a bit frustrating trying to locate the old gods, the old history in Mani – so much is overlain by more recent events: the ferocious wars between Turks, Maniots, Venetians, pirates, families, patriots, etc. which are very colourful and have lots of architectural remnants to see. In fact the old temples and sacred placecs were freely plundered for their stone – not for use as carved marble, but to be burnt for lime, so there are only fragments and foundations left, and not enough done to make access easy. Even the signposting is more likely to point you to churches or monasteries than to the Gods I was hoping to find.
However, after a simple lunch at Porto Kaglia (Italian – port of quails), a place described as the most beautiful bay in the whole of Greece, and who am I to argue? - we set off north again up the east coast of the Mani.
Here I found slightly more of the ancient gods in evidence... a temple to Aphrodite here, or to Artemis there. One pass was where the Amazons advanced (described as single-breasted Saggitarians). There are Doric columns on some of the headlands. And it also struck me that the constant repetition of places called Profitis Elias (Prophet Elijah) are in fact 'new' names for places sacred to Apollo, as the man of the fiery chariot would be near-enough for the locals to identify with Phaeton's chariot. So, my original thoughts about all this sunshine being wasted or in some way unacknowledged were quite unfounded and wrong. Sun-worship survived, and in fact, of course, once I started to look, I also found quite few new installations of solar panels, set in the olive groves, all over the place. Not a lot, but some.
Back over the mountains we came, to the west, and riccochetted with shock in the car when a huge (private?) explosion went off behind a wall not far from home. Someone playing with dynamite, presumably. Various villagers in the place rushed out to see what had happened, but we recovered our dignity and drove on. We went back into the stone-carving shop to buy a present for Margaret... a stone oil lamp which we presented to her when we got home. It is burning now, a steady little flame in its beautiful whitish marbley-bowl. She says she'll keep it alight all the time they are here.
We had a text from Lulu in London (how far away that seems), saying the long-expected heatwave has arrived there, and she is sweltering in the park near her flat, while a Christmas cake is baking in her oven.
Now, after a shower in the garden, and Andrew helping to replace a defunct light fitting on the landing, we will go for a drink on the terrace and then out to supper with the friends we met up with at the bouzouki night. Our last night in the Mani. Tomorrow we head back up through the Peloponnese to Athens and eventually on Tuesday, home.