It was a family celebration that brought the six of us to the Peloponnese in late September. Thoughts of Greek sunshine lured us too – after a lacklustre English summer. But as the departure date drew near, and the scanning of world weather forecasts stepped up in the hopes of better news, it was clear that the weather in Messenia was set to change. With the equinox, daily temperatures were to drop by several degrees. Now there would be cloud, rain and storm along with the sunshine. Ah, well. Better pack the waterproofs.
Yet when we came into land at Kalamata airport on Sunday lunchtime all was blue. The plane banked over the Gulf of Messenia heading out to the Mediterranean before flying back up the Mani peninsula, following the Taygetos Mountains into the airport. Blue sea. Blue mountains. Blue sky.
We stepped off the plane into high-summer warmth to be met by Dimitri, who whisked us off in his smart Mercedes people carrier. You have chosen a good time to visit, he said; not too hot.
And so it proved.
Hinterland Messenia is not pretty. It is a rugged, crumpled upland with deep valleys and winding roads, the vegetation parched from summer heat. Grass burned brown, bare earth between the trees and vines; wherever you look, the grey-green haze of olive groves spreading up and down hillsides and gullies, the dun colour palette spiked here and there: white-walled farmhouses, red tiled roofs, the odd designer villa, black spires of cypress and, at the roadside, soaring clumps of phragmites grasses with their parchment coloured plumes. There is stuff and clutter among the trees – old tyres, beach loungers, broken down farm machinery, dead cars and stranded boats. Ramshackle stalls offer pumpkins and oranges. And then the road bends towards the Gulf and you glimpse the sea, glinting like jewels, the woodcut frieze of the Mani mountains beyond.
The road south from the airport to Koroni follows the coast – we pass by Messini, Velika, Petalidi, Hrani, Nea Koroni, Vounaria – more work-a-day farming communities than high-profile tourist territory. We know that when we reach Harakopio we must leave the main road and wend up the hillside above Peroulia Beach. Michael and Maria, our hosts at the Iconpainter’s Villas, have provided a map, but in real life nothing looks straightforward. I’m relieved when it turns out that Dimitri mostly knows where he’s going.
The turn is not obvious despite the clutch of signs on the fence, and almost at once we are ‘off the beaten track’ and seemingly in someone’s front yard. The road narrows so quickly I breathe in, and next we’re zigzagging round house ends, nudging round blind corners, Dimitri tooting the horn (not too loudly), then climbing up beside a whitewashed church, then on through olive groves.
The road is single track, mostly concrete, but in places broken down to rubble. It undulates with bold intention.There are small ravines and gullies. At one point there’s a frisson of alarm from Dimitri as he fears for his Mercedes. This is no game, he says, and we agree. But he is a game lad, and he presses on.
And suddenly we are turning into a smart gateway, pulling up the drive to a tall white house, and there is Michael to greet us and show us to three lovely little houses that will be home for the next seven days.
The bright turquoise doors are a good start. In our respective kitchens we find welcome boxes for lunch and the following day’s breakfast – tomatoes, oranges and figs from the garden, Maria’s home-made lemonade and bottled baby oranges, fig jam and chutney. In the fridge there are mini bottles of Ouzo, the Iconpainter’s own white wine, local yogurt, feta cheese and honey. There is also bread, milk, butter, ground coffee and tea, iced water, brown eggs, little fruit pastries, sesame biscuits, plums and bunches of grapes. It seems we have flown straight to heaven.We put out of our minds the fact that on Thursday there will be a big storm, and side line Michael’s apologies that the likelihood of rain is high. We have been longing for it, he tells us. All the olive farmers are waiting. I know it’s not what you want.
We shrug. For now the sun is shining and it is time to eat our picnic lunch under the terrace awning hung with grapes. And then…And then it is time to throw off our travelling clothes, put on something looser and cooler and so take the path to Peroulia Beach…copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
PS I know I said I’d take you walking to Koroni. But that little trek will have to wait till the weather is cooler.