October comes and we fly out of Kalamata International – one of the smallest airports I have passed through outside upcountry Zambia. It has been too brief a trip, and every day for seven days I have spent much time watching the mountains of the Mani peninsula across the Gulf. They are the southern spine of the Taygetos Massif, a range some 100 kilometres long that runs the length of the third, and easterly finger of the Peloponnese.
With all the looking, I have tried to penetrate this fortress-land of faulted scarps and scattered habitation – at least in some sense. And in hopes of admission to the interior, the provision of a path that I might follow, I’ve been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1950s book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. It was written before the road was built down the peninsula, and much of the excursion involved hard hiking and catching boats from cape to cape.
But sad to say, despite high hopes, the book is not really helping. I am still ploughing through it a good three weeks later in windblown Shropshire, the leaves of ash trees dashing by the windows like fleets of unleashed arrows. Yet it is true the narrative sets off with an actual journey into the far-flung quarters of the Deep Mani. It is true, too, that along the way Leigh Fermor conjures scenes of ravishing detail. And conjures is the only word for it. But the problem is his accounts of meetings with the Maniates in remote and rocky fastnesses – often preternatural in the beauty of their evocation – are too brief and too soon abandoned for lengthy meanders into arcane matters relating to quite other parts of Greece and its history. There is too much mention of obscure tribes, too many catalogues of unfamiliar names detached from context in time or space.
The book, then, rather than admitting me, mostly keeps me at bay. I’m not in the mood for ponderings on how the pantheon of Greek deities, serially dealt with one by one, have been repackaged as Christian saints. This reconfiguration is not an especially Greek phenomenon anyway. Tell me more of the journey through this iron-hard land, Leigh Fermor. Give me more of your magic.
To be fair, near the start of the book there is the extraordinary history of the Mani village blood feuds – a pathological phase wherein the breeding of sons, referred to as ‘guns’, to wield long-barrelled rifles against neighbour-enemies, was a community fixation; this along with the building of ever taller stone towers from which to lay siege across small village squares. Settlements bristled with these structures many storeys high. Rocks and cannon balls were hurled from their parapets on to the roofs of opposing families’ homes, causing the usual activities of village life to be suspended during daylight hours for fear of being shot or flattened.
Sometimes the feuds went on for generations. Even the local priests were involved, and mid-worship kept their rifles to hand. Meanwhile the womenfolk, the breeders of guns, extemporized long poetic dirges for the dead. And if this were not enough, in between the feuding there was piracy and slave trading, and oh yes, some farming, fishing and salt panning.
Then it seems the Maniates got a grip, stopped stoking local enmities and became prime movers in the 1821 Revolution so ending 350 years of Turkish domination of Greece and thereby setting the scene for a unified nation state. But then, having done this, it appears they reverted to bloody-minded type and became a troublesome thorn in the side of the new political entity.
If ever a people were bred of their terrain, then it must surely be the Maniates – tough, unyielding, unforgiving and, in their own particular way, magnificent. They inhabit territory that Homer knew, a land where gods and heroes walked, a place of resort for besieged ancient Mycenaeans, a place of disposal for the classical Spartans who took wrong-doers there to throw them down chasms and left sickly babes to die on hillsides.
And then the Mani boasts not one, but two entrances to the Underworld: in the labyrinthine caves of Diros in the north-west and at the southernmost tip of its tailbone at Cape Matapan where, guided by Athena and Hermes, Heracles descended to capture Cerberus, the monstrous ‘hound of Hades’.
Now that I am on the last lap with Leigh Fermor, I know I should not be too cross with him. In his stride he is a wonderful writer, and I treasure those transient episodes that let me meet the girl Vasilio, dine and sleep atop an old Mani village tower, quaff ouzo all but frozen from a mountain stream, walk into a desolate village and encounter astonishing hospitality. Such moments are breath-taking. Dream-like. But as for the rest…I read recently that the writer admitted to a friend that he did not know much about the Mani, and used the trip and the book as a peg on which to hang several unrelated topics that had long interested him. There is no doubting his deep regard for Greece and its peoples.
But now I am left in rainy, autumnal Shropshire with my outsider views of the western Taygetos. I have learned from other reading that this side of the peninsula is known as the Shadowy or Dark Mani because it receives little of the morning sun.
My photo at the head of this post suggests other singular effects of locality. I was standing in the sea when I took it. Later when I looked at the result on screen I found that the only way to reveal any detail of the mountains was to darken the foreground. The more I did that, the more they emerged. It is a very odd photograph: as if two separate views have been spliced together. It is also hard to fathom the perspective. The mountains are two-dimensional, near and distant views almost occupying a single plane. In the midday light the scene looks like a mirage. Or there again like the film in a soap bubble just before it bursts; a negative not quite developed.
At other times of the day – at dawn and dusk, the peninsula solidifies flatly; a woodcut; or a paper chain of tumbled rhomboids; cardboard cut-outs. Often there is a train of frothy cloud overhead. It looks like whipped meringue.
Another thought then. In my larder cupboard I have a jar of capers bathed in Mani olive oil, yet bought in my sister’s shop in Shropshire. I also have a jar of Mani honey, said to be the best in the region, created by bees who have foraged among the mountain flowers, and bought by G. in a shop on Koroni’s opposing Peloponnesian peninsula. As yet I have opened neither – because another thought is brewing: to go to the Mani. Perhaps in springtime. Find out for myself what lies within.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
The Changing Seasons: Please visit Max to see this month’s fabulous photo gallery