My head is full of myth and history. I am with Helen and Paris spending the first night of their doomed relationship on the island of Marathonisi (Kranae), bedded down under the pines and amongst the wild fennel not giving a fig for the fury of Menelaus and the precipitation of the Trojan Wars. I am with Odysseus as he watched his fleet destroyed by giant, stone throwing cannibals. I am confronted by impressive mountain ranges, fascinating geology, Frankish Castles, Byzantine architecture and Greek Orthodoxy.
My constant companions over the past few weeks have been Patrick and Edward – oops!, Andy too of course whose muse has been Tim Severin. For anyone travelling in this area I cannot recommend enough ‘Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor and ‘Greece on My Wheels’ by Edward Enfield (father of Harry) Even if you are not travelling here they are a good read. Edward has a particularly charming and humorous way of observing; Patrick diverges from his themes often, creating vivid little vignettes that stick in the mind. He sometimes veers off into history, mythology, etymology, lexicology, ethnology and other ‘ologies ‘ in the learned fashion of those brought up with a classical pre WW2 education. Amusingly he owns up to this trait and congratulates the reader for this patience! Andy has been captivated by the hypothesis offered by Severin who set out to follow Odysseus’ route home from Troy to Ithaca and the ever weaving, ever so understanding Penelope, in a replica galley.
The Peloponnese sits between the Ionian and the Aegean seas and pushes out three tentacles of land into the Cretan Sea. They are all quite different to each other and much of it resembles Scotland, if it wasn’t for the temperature and constant sunshine we could be anchored off Eigg today. But, to begin at the beginning and not get carried away. We start at Pylos in the Bay of Navarino where once (1827) there was a naval battle against the Ottomans with British, Russian and French ships triumphing. Now there is a three faceted memorial with reliefs of the three victorious admirals in the main square at Pylos. There are memorials to the victorious dead of the three countries on little islands and the Russian one is the most memorable. Set amongst fragrant pines in a shady clearing a tiny, rustic dark wooden chapel with onion dome simply covered in carved wood – it took me right back to a place we visited with Tim just outside Moscow. The horseshoe bay is entered through a narrow gap between the mainland and an enormous spit of high rock, it’s dramatic. We stayed here a while, on the harbour wall in what passed as a ‘marina’. Our instructions on entering were, ‘find a place where you can’ and that is the last we heard from anyone official. So for five days – NO CHARGE! In Pylos there is a comprehensive fortress in a dominating position and at the head of the bay yet another.
We hired a car and went to the amazing ruins of Ancient Messini ( Greek overbuilt by the Romans)– extensive and interesting, with stadium, baths, theatre, villas etc all the usual accompaniments to civilised life. It was the setting that was so spectacular, underneath Mount Ithome, monastery on the top of course, and looking down into a green and fertile valley towards the Messinian Gulf. The Arcadian Gate is still there, albeit a little broken. What is surprising is that it frames the modern road to Arcadia. Later we had a meal in a taverna overlooking the site under vines - beer never tasted better.
South to Methoni and yet another castle built out on a spit of rock and guarding this westerly most promontory of the Peloponnese.
Then around the corner coming up the east side to Koroni where we visited the castle there. Unusually there are people living within the walls today, it covers a huge area and included a couple of churches and a convent. Andy was undressed by a nun – in his dreams I hear you say! I had read Edward’s account of visiting a ‘moni’, same word for monastery and convent, and he had to wear a skirt when visiting so we were knowledgeable and well prepared. . At the entrance to Timios Prodromos we found on a rail a variety of garments. I chose one to co-ordinate with my outfit, naturally, and Andy tied a wrap around skirt over his shorts. We entered a beautiful calm lush garden thus attired where sat two black clad nuns. They welcomed us, then tutted and pointed and suddenly made a dive towards Andy and whipped off his skirt – his shorts were deemed seemly! They seemed self sufficient with a farm, animals and crops. It was really lovely.
Kalamata of olive fame was reached just as a thunderstorm was about to strike and we were safely tied up when the rain came – the first of our trip. It gave the boat a much needed wash. The area we found ourselves in was really grotty. I found out later that there had been a particularly devastating earthquake in the ‘80’s and obviously where we were had not yet recovered. On my first foray I passed a huge supermarket building, deserted, empty shelves inside and graffitied exterior. Shanty town shacks built on to the sides of old houses and a group of policemen on walkie talkies talking to a lady - an incident had occurred but I didn’t hang around to find out what.
Restringing my guitar
My high ‘e string’ broke the other night as I was tuning my guitar and so here in this metropolis I went in search of a shop to buy some more strings. Off I went, guitar slung on my back. At a cafe I approached an elderly gentleman (usually a safe bet) to ask if he knew where I could find a music shop. Before I could even get any words out he was looking at me suspiciously – I think he thought I was going to sing to him. He averted his eyes, looked severe and then he shouted ‘Scorates’. I thanked him and set off in the direction he had indicated now on the alert for Socrates Street. I was leaving the dodgy docks area behind me, shops were on the increase. ‘Aristoumenes’ materialised but not Socrates, perhaps he’d muddled his philosophers.
In my best and rehearsed Greek I asked someone who was delivering leaflets (brilliant they are bound to know) I have a problem in that my Greek sounds quite good, the bits that I can prepare and then remember, but then I am stumped when the full flow of answer comes back and I don’t understand a word. I walked on in the direction he had indicated; reassured that it was the same general direction as my other informant. Later, confidence running low again, I asked a lady who was cleaning her shop window – ‘Oh yes, Stollas, over there on the corner’. Hurray! I crossed the road in excited anticipation only to find the shop shut. Nothing daunted I sat in the square opposite staking it out, watching the day go by and having a frappe and a really huge and greasy cheese pie. I didn’t have long to wait and soon my adventure was over. Back to the boat and away from Kalamata which sadly had shown us a very unattractive face although the supermarket had been brilliant and we were like kids in a candy shop sadly having to limit our purchases as there was a 15 minute walk back to the boat and only four arms.
Kalamata is really the start of an area called The Mani. The Mani dominated by The Taygetus mountains, the highest point is 2404m. They stretch in an ever unfolding wave along the spine of the middle prong of the Peloponnese. Incredibly barren and remote, dotted with settlements seemingly built entirely of towers. The Maniot people were feared and revered in the past as a wild and difficult people who liked nothing better than to shoot at and destroy each other hence the need to build ever bigger towers. Land must have been at such a premium and the struggle for control imperative. They feuded with each other, family against family, there were battles in the streets, one family would throw stones down onto another, so the towers had to be built higher so the opposing family could, from, their improved height now be at an advantage. In some villages churches equalled the number of towers because it would have been impossible to worship with a family you were in a blood feud with. People departed this difficult environment in hopes of a better life to Itlay, to Corsica where still there is a town where the Maniot dialect can be heard. It is all fascinating.
Greeks ask questions, they love to find out about you, everything about you and do not hold back. It places you in context, it is a way of gathering information. We may find these questions intrusive. I felt I had gained the status of stranger traveller and therefore, according to Patrick a veritable oracle, when swimming off Kardymilia and having exchanged ‘Yassas, Kalimera’ (it is the strangers place to go first!) I was asked if this was my boat or a rental?, Where have I come from?, Where do I come from? Am I married? Is it just the two of us on the boat? How much do I earn? How much does my husband earn? Is the economy in Scotland better than Greece? We are so secretive about money, it is not ‘the done thing’ is it, to talk about your salary!!! News is also a big thing as when in the 1950’s Patrick was rounding Cape Matapan and the lighthouse keeper, fishing from the point (calm day obviously) called out, ‘Ti nea?’ (what news?) and they answered ‘Good, Ola Kala’ and in Crete during the war on meeting an old shepherd who had seen no one for months got so excited, set out some food and drink and sat them down saying “ ‘Now!, News, tell me some news – any news’ then throwing his hands in the air with a laugh –‘whatever you like – even if it’s lies’”. As he says it is a point of meeting, an exchange, a stimulus to life to hear from other people to hear other points of view and of course you can share food and ouzo at the same time!
Down the coast was Lemoni “A derelict , shadowless little port and a group of empty houses bereft of life appeared at the bottom of steep olive-covered rocks...........we plunged for shelter into a slovenly kapheneion awhirl with flies. Lulled by their buzz.......... we lay on the sticky benches for an hour or two, till the sun should decline a little and declare a truce” Well it couldn’t be more different today! It was like a National Trust village in its sterility and uniformity. It had that swept clean look, buildings had been reconstructed and gentrified. There were a couple of tavernas and an expensive cafe/cocktail bar. Now there were time shares and an exclusive hotel. It all looked very pretty but that was all there was. We left there in the early morning managing to leave the dinghy behind – how could we DO that? We realized it had come loose about 5 minutes on so not too bad.
The caves at Diros were our next stop and they were amazing. I felt I was entering the belly of the whale, in through his jaws, down the oesophagus and on and on, a little vessel being steered through blood vessels and internal organs, an eye on the inside. Then the plash plash of the oars in the water and the occasional tap as the boatman steered by touching the roof. We floated past the jumble of stalactites and mites, red and green lights played on the rocks, creating images of cathedrals, great phallus’, magnificent statues, all in this weird lord of the rings environments. Well if you’ve ever visited a cave you will get the picture.
The next stop was on Odysseus’ route according to Tim Severin. In the bay at Mezapo there is a little horseshoe shaped cut out with steep cliffs rising up all around and it was here that the Laestrygonians, giant cannibals, threw stones down and destroyed eleven of his twelve galleys. Given that we read In the museum at Gytheion, an account of a visitor approaching the Mani village of Yerolimenas by sea in the ‘50’s only to be pelted with stones by the natives and only when he made the sign of the cross and revealed himself as a fellow Christian that they desisted and welcomed him in, we understand that stone throwing in this region was not unusual!
It was a long day and we motored past the looming bulk of Cabo Grosso and toward Cape Matapan wherein lies the cave that is the entry to Hades. We got round without being sucked into the underworld and went into the large bay of Porto Kayo (Quaglio). Quails come through here on their route south and this is where the village got it’s name. We had seen a hunter up on the cliffs, carrying a long barrelled gun as he strode along the summits. And in the early morning Andy heard a shot and silhouetted against the sky on the top of the hill was a man and a gun – the camera was located too late! It would have made a great picture but that’s the way with photography, luck.
At the head of the Lakonikos Gulf lies Gytheion with Marathonisi (Kranae) lying just off it now joined by a mole. We restocked and are now south at Elafonissos Island waiting to round Cape Malea tomorrow. I think of it as malevolent and malicious and hope that I will be surprised it has an awesome reputation. “...the terrible Cape whose storms almost dashed the ships of Menelaus and Ajax, and those of many later seamen, to fragments. The storms of Malea carried Odysseus clean off his course, past Cythera and away for days...”
We will wave to the anchorite in his hermitage and hope for his blessing!
Jinti and Andy
PS - you will have guessed that we have not been dashed to pieces on the rocks or have been blown off track and landed up with the Lotus Eaters in Djerba but have landed somewhere civilized with internet access that allows the web master to update the site!!!
The memorial to Russian sailors
Pylos harbour with the entrance to Navarino Bay behind
Beer never tasted better
The monastery /nunnery with the farm steading to the fore
Messini lecture hall
Methoni - another castle !
Cold War Stories - Andy recalls :
We are anchored tonight within sight of the north Kithira Channel which I patrolled in Shackletons and later in P3s in the surveillance of the Russian Mediterranean Squadron. In my imagination I can hear a P3 closing for what was one of the most intriguing engagements of my cold war. Totally passive we dropped out of the cloud to see a snorkel approaching the Russians – we bungled the datum investigation pattern (finger trouble - we were new in theatre - nothing left the aircraft) and spent the next two hours trying to regain contact - the gambit of visually checking the wakes of passing merchant ships paid off as we found a snorkel in a wake and went active – after an hour of tracking a french voice called us with our call sign and asked us to piss off. Seemingly we had blown the cover of an ally. One day I hope to meet the french skipper.
Our candles in the Nunnery Chapel of Saint Sophia