When it comes to pets, I have to admit to being a dog-lover first and foremost, but as we tramped up and down the many stepped byways to and from Koroni castle, we met a number of very handsome cats. In fact there were cats and dogs everywhere we went along the coast. Some had more to say for themselves than others. The Koroni cats were particularly self-contained. One definitely had the impression it was THEIR village, and foreign interlopers were thus beneath their regard. They could take us or leave us.
Well he has to be some sort of Greek god, doesn’t he? For one thing I can tell you he wasn’t wearing a stitch beyond the sarong slung round his neck though you will have to take my word on that.
We had walked down to Peroulia Beach in hopes of some good photos. It had been gloomy all afternoon after short sharp showers. Only at sunset did the sky clear and the last light bathe the Messenian Gulf in shades of famille rose. It was all rather astonishing – a pink-blushed azure sea. And if at first the son of the deity was doggedly wading backwards across this seascape, presumably making a video on his phone and thus proving rather irritating to those of us who wished to take a photograph, when he turned to check his creation I decided he very much added to the scene.
It was the quickest way to Peroulia Beach – left down the hill from the Iconpainter’s gateway, with a quick wave and a kalimera to the old lady in the farmhouse opposite, then following the rough track beside the olive grove with the decomposing Volvo, then on through the trees to the pretty house with green shutters, whose owner we met several times out on the lane, clearing the drains in advance of the forecast storm; on into another olive grove, following the overhead power lines, then a dogleg round some more recently planted trees, a scramble down dirt steps in the cliff bottom (minding the little cyclamen) and finally picking our way through mature olive trees, pony droppings, the mish-mash of phragmites canes and onto the shore.
Phew! It really isn’t far, but it has the feeling of uncharted territory, and at least three of us admitted to losing our way on the return trip.
There is anyway something so momentful about olive groves. For one thing there is the complete and utter stillness; the depth of leaf litter that absorbs one’s footfalls and very probably one’s soul if you do not watch out. For then there is the existential sense of earth and weather elements and human hands, conspiring over generations to train and sculpt the trees to encourage the best possible yield; hands whose deftness is doubtless informed by Athena herself, that wise deity whose spear long ago struck the barren scarp of the Attic acropolis and so brought forth the first Greek olive tree.
From fruit and seed, empires were grown and in many Mediterranean lands beyond mainland Greece. Among the earliest, back in the Bronze Age, were the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of Crete. The olive tree was an all-provider. The timber served for tools and shelter, the fruits made good eating, their oil gave food, light, unguents, medicine and formed the basis of extensive trade networks. It is not surprising, then, that the trees were seen as sacred, to be protected on pain of death for those who would dare to destroy them. Athletes used the oil on the bodies to invoke its intrinsic power, and the victors at the Olympian games were crowned with olive leaves.
And so as you walk through a grove, the response is natural reverence. Every tree is its own self; its individual biography wrought in knotty bark and bough. There is more though. I would call it immanence. For if trees have spirits, then they are here. And if I had an olive grove, then I would worship it and none other.
Respect for the sheer potency of these trees is also requisite. For I have read* that you should never fall asleep beneath an olive tree. Its shadow is said to be too heavy, and so may later induce bad dreams and vertigo. I can believe it. With all my heart I can.
* Patrick Leigh Fermor Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
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.