Tuesday, 4 October 2011

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.

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