I say start. Bad weather has hampered the workmen with the rains causing walls on the track above Slater slope on the way to the hovel to collapse so making them impassable for lorries and the excavator. But now the work is, as you can see, underway.
Six or seven olive trees have been moved carefully and the rains should help them to bed down at their new homes. And so work has started on what will be an infinity pool, one terrace below the hovel with views out towards Kambos. We aim to have all works finished by some time in May which means that daughter Olaf will agree to honour us with her presence this summer.
It was a hive of activity. The good sergeant at the Kardamili nick who lives in Kambos was there with his harvest. Arresting Brits on suspicion of drink driving – a safe bet – can wait for another day. This is the Elias season. My friend Vangelis, the man in the pink shirt, was there. His deliveries for Dixons can wait another day, not that I imagine there are many these days. He was dropping off a large harvest. Everyone said “yas Tom” and the man in charge, another Vangelis, summonsed his son who speaks a bit more English than I speak Greek. That is to say, not a lot.
Eventually it was understood that I was asking when my cash would be paid into my bank account? As was the case three days ago the answer was the same: avrio. That is to say tomorrow. It will arrive,of that I am sure. But I rather suspect that it will not actually be arriving avrio.
Though they did not know what day of the week it was, they were not so far gone as to be making a deposit. They too wanted their cash out, they just needed help. I was the sole person actually putting money into the bank and for that heroic act, Jim Mellon, rightly, suggested that they should have erected a statue of me in Kalamata next to those of the heroes from 1821.
At some stage I will need 4,000 Euro in that account in order to get Greek residency so I can buy a car and a gun. Please don’t blather on about Brexit. My father’s Canadian friend Peter has had residency for years and Canada is not in the EU. Being a non EU resident just means that you need to pop along to the local cop shop once a year to present your papers. I can handle that.
Pro tem I have not actively deposited cash but the proceeds of the Greek Hovel olive harvest each year are deposited into the account automatically. Wondering how much was in my account and being in Kalamata I wandered into a branch which seemed relatively quiet. I took a tab from the machine and got a number (205) and waited my turn. The big sign showed 193. Though the bank was full of staff shuffling papers there was only one of six counters manned. After 20 minutes the counter showed 194 so I asked a young man if there was a quicker way for me to find out what was in my account. I was shuffled to the special assistance desk and pretty soon was sitting opposite a young lady presenting my account book and passport.
The account book was pushed into a machine and came back with a raft of transactions on it. Blow me down, I have 2057 Euro in the account and will have another 290 shortly. At that point the young lady started suggesting that she’d like to see an electricity bill which I said was not needed, took my passport and account book and left.
The time is coming to risk c1700 Euro of real money, visit the branch again and get my account book to show that I have 4,000 Euro in it. Since the Greek banks are all bust, though we all pretend otherwise, I may well lose the lot but if I act quickly I can secure my residency before that happens. And then, like everyone else in Kambos, I get to own a gun.
I have been sitting on this account of the final day of the 2018 olive harvest for some days as I am rather cross. I know the sums involved are trivial but none the less….
Having thrown four workers at our harvest for a couple of hours the son of George the Albanian dropped nine bags of olives weighing 442kg down at the press in Kambos. So ended day four of the harvest. More than eight of those bags were the results of the labours of team GB: myself, Andrew Bell and ShareProphets reader Bernard from the Grim North of England (c/o Donegal).
On day five, George lead a team of five who pitched up a quarter of an hour late at 8.15. Once again he insisted that they would be finished within a day. Bernard and I helped make up a magnificent seven. It was soon clear that the way they would finish was by tackling only really full trees. We stopped for lunch which George’s Mrs had prepared – a cracking sort of cheese pie and a custard version of the same for pudding. I showed them inside the house which they agreed was splendid but that break was only half an hour.
At about two thirty in the afternoon I had to break to do some work on my computer. I emerged at 3.30 to find that they had “finished” the entire lower terraces on one side of our lands and were packing up to go. Tackling the best trees on the hovel that day had produced just under nine sacks. We had a Greek coffee made by Mrs George on a portable stove and George and I discussed payment with his son translating.
200 Euro he said. That seemed fair. Then he added on 50 for yesterday. And 20 for taking the olive bags to the press in Kambos. Hmmm. I handed over 270 Euro and said that I'd pop into the press later. That I did to find that we had 856 kg in all. I was a bit pissed that the total was so low and really could not be arsed to watch my oil being pressed but left four 5kg cans (one for Bernard, three for me) for my oil and headed off to lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna to write an article or two.
The news when I got back was not good. 146 litres minus my 20. Minus 10 for the press. So that is 116 litres which will be sold at just 2.5 Euro per litre which is 290 Euro. Knock off a 9.46 Euro admin fee and I am left with a profit (ignoring my own oil) of 10 Euro. The price of oil is down because, although it still tastes great, the quality of oil from Kambos is deemed to be lower because of chemicals sprayed all around – though not on my land – to combat the flies.
However, the bottom line is that hiring team Albania was an economic disaster. Had we merely sold the olives produced by team GB in the first two and a half days we would have cleared 140 Euro. Had team GB minus Bell carried on for and done five days we would have netted almost 300 Euro. The way I have to look at this is that I have transferred a portion of wealth from rich GB to an impoverished Greece. But I do feel a bit resentful. Had the yield not been cut by around 40% by the flies, storm Zorba and the strong winds of ten days ago the same trees harvested in the same time would have made me an additional 100 Euro profit. So that is God’s joke on me.
None the less I am a bit cross and George the Albanian has lost a customer. I feel that I contribute enough to the Greek economy already without paying over nearly all my revenues for the pleasure of his company and a great portion of cheese pie. Next year, with or without volunteers from the British Isles, I shall harvest without local help. I have all the equipment I need and if, God plays no jokes on me and I tackle only the better trees in a five or six day hard slog I could easily produce 15-20 bags alone or 30-40 ( depending on God’s jokes) with help from a new team GB.
The point of me harvesting is not to make money. It is about being part of the community here in Kambos. So there is no great bitterness in me. Each year I learn more about pruning and about how to harvest so I should get better returns from my trees. 2019 will be the year to go it alone. Perhaps if God can play his part with no more of his little jokes I might just make a real profit.
Yes I am a rabid Brexiteer. I want the country where, regrettably, I spend most of the year to be free to make its own laws, set its own taxes, control its own waters and chart its own destiny. I have faith that Britain can do that. Yet for sneering metropolitan elitists like the twit who tweeted me last night, as you can see below, that is incompatible with liking your fellow Europeans. Au contraire..
The battle we deplorables, we the 17.4 million, fight is not with other plebs, others outside the rich elites, elsewhere in Europe. The Maillot Jaunes in France, those who voted overwhelmingly Oxi in Greece are those we agree with. Our common enemy are the autocratic elites, the political and media classes, across Europe who take our proud individual nations in a direction which we reject.
I live for part of the year, not enough, in the Mani, a poor but proud region of Greece. My friends and neighbours here know my views on Brexit, for I do not hide them. This was the part of Greece that was the first to raise the flag of revolt 197 years ago against another oppressive empire, that of Turkey. On March 17 1821 the Bishop of Tripoli called for Greeks to rise up and expel the Turks. Four days later the men of the Mani stormed the Turkish garrison at Kalamata and slaughtered every man there. That was the first action of a war for freedom.
The EU has brought misery and poverty to this part of the world. Folks here have a lot more time for someone with my views than with some millionaire ponce from the London liberal elite who insists that everyone who wants freedom for his country must hate folks from other countries.
Such folks should not sneer at me but should try coming to my home village of Kambos and explaining to my hard working, God fearing, gun owning neighbours just why the EU has made their lives better and why anyone who wants out must be a xenophobe. Go on Mr Metropolitan elitist… I dare you.
I rather regretted that third jug of local rose the night before, when my alarm started ringing at 5.20 AM. For Thrasher Bell had to get back to London and that meant getting him to the bust station in Kalamata before 6.30. Feeling a bit groggy I drove him into town and dropped him off. Stopping off at an ATM on the way back to load up with cash to pay my Albanian troops I arrived back in Kambos in time for an early morning coffee at the Kourounis taverna owned by lovely Eleni. The news was bad...
George the Albanian's brother had been hospitalised late last week so he was running half a day behind schedule. I headed back to the hovel with a hot cheese pie for Bernard and as I walked to my car who should I meet but George being driven by his son, an English speaker. I was assured that five Albanians would arrive by one. My next encounter was with the local golden eagle sitting on a fence as I drove down the back track towards the valley floor.
ShareProphets reader Bernard and I laboured manfully all morning. And at two o'clock the Albanians pitched up. As you can see below, they know what they are doing. But we only enjoyed two and a half hours of their work before the dark descended.
My worry is that George reckons he will be done in a day arguing some trees are empty. He has another job to go to. I know that and having walked my land with Bernard I know that there are an awful lot of good trees. That will be a battle for day four. Can we get an extra half day out of the Albanians? So far we have c470kg of olives either down at the press weighed and waiting for pressing or up here bagged at the hovel.
I discussed this with Eleni after supper. This is Greekenomics for you. There is mass youth unemployment in Greece. But as this country;s economy has tanked some Albanians have gone home or to go work in a car wash in Britain. So there is a shortage of Albanians. Thus Eleni has no-one to crop her olives. Everyone is fighting for Albanians meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Greeks sit there not working paid welfare by a country that is bankrupt. Go figure.
And so to day two of the olive harvest. We merry band of three all have our jobs. As you can see below, Shareprophets reader Bernard really is wearing shorts and a T shirt as, during the day it is hot enough to do so. He trained as an engineer and so, naturally, he is the twerker specialist.
Andrew Bell went to Eton and denies that he thrashed little boys when a prefect. But he has a great technique for thrashing the branches we cut down. I have my suspicions. What I need is Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Jacob Rees Mogg to come out and I would have a complete team of Eton thrashers.
Me, well I only went to a minor public school so I do a bit of thrashing but have no great technique. I am allowed charge of the saw with which to cut down branches. Bernard was allowed iit briefly but Thrasher Bell and I turned around and saw that in just minutes he had cut one poor tree almost back to the bone. And so he is no longer allowed the saw.
At the end of day two we were up to seven 50 kg sacks. Yes we are getting faster but it took us until six to finish work by when it was almost completely dark and we could barely see a thing. It was also bitterly cold. And then came the hammer blow, "thrasher" Bell has to return to England and so after a night of three jugs of wine in Kambos I set my alarm for 5.30 AM to take him to the bus. And then we were two..
10 AM Greek Time: We merry band of three are now sitting in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos having a late breakfast but the harvest, is as you can see below, underway. So far two trees have been harvested but we will pick up the pace shortly.
As promised I have a new toy, that is to say an electric twerker (I think that is the right word) and first into action is AIM CEO Andrew Bell who handled it like an expert. While in Kambos I have bought a bit more equipment and when Shareprophets reader B has finished his morning session of trading like a dervish, harvesting will resume.
As I write the sun has just emerged. That is handy as the workers have also emerged and appear to have cut off the power. But for 24 hours the weather has been awful. Thunder kept me awake most of the night and continued well into the morning. And as for the rain.. put it this way, the drive down the mud track towards snake hill and onto Kambos will be a hoot. This is the view from outside of the Bat Room a couple of hours ago.
I have just booked my next flight back to Greece. It was cheaper than a super off peak train ticket to London. By late on 26th November I should be in Kalamata and the next day I shall pick up a car and head up to the Greek Hovel where I sincerely hope all will be ready. For I have a guest, a volunteer to assist myself and George the Albanian with this year’s olive harvest. Step forward a Woodlarks walker, Mr Andrew Bell, chairman of AIM listed Red Rock Resources. I am not sure how skilled Mr Bell is at olive harvesting but we will soon find out.
Bell is due to arrive in Athens later that week and any other volunteer wishing to join us should get in touch right now, there is room for more helpers.
When the olive harvest actually begins is, of course, a bit uncertain. I have to contact lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna in Kambos and she will have to try to pin down George the Albanian and his wife and sister in law on dates. Then there is the rain. Rain does stop play and it rains quite a bit. So maybe, with Comrade Bell pitching in we will be done ion three days. Or maybe it will take ten. Who knows?
But the excitement is mounting… the clock is ticking…I am on my way home.
And so on the final afternoon at the Greek Hovel we invited over the elderly lefties from the village up in the mountains. They were rather scared of the track so I had to go fetch them from Kambos and drive them up.
Almost immediately on arriving they stared into the sky and started shouting "Chrissy, there is Chrissy". I stared up and saw a very large bird of prey. I like the numerous birds of prey that circle the hills above the hovel as they eat snakes and rats. Good job. The more birds the better. But why Chrissy? And the size: this bird was very large indeed, why was that?.
Chrissy was their nickname for a bird based on the Greek word Chrysos (gold). For this magnificent creature was a golden eagle. These birds have large territories so though they may all look the same the odds are this was indeed Chrissy. He or she was truly magnificent.
Later that day as the Mrs said that she had important work to do, preparing a lesson plan to fill the heads of impressionable young folk with left wing nonsense, Joshua and I went for a walk.
Or rather, as you can see below, I walked with my son and heir on my back and we headed up the hill behind the hovel towards the house of my neighbour Charon. It is a jolly steep climb and the track soon turns to grass. The view down to the hovel was a wonderful one as the sun started to set.
Walks with Joshua soon turn into nature lessons. And so we saw a large grasshopper sitting on a wire fence and, real excitement, the skin shed by a snake. I tried to explain that to Joshua but I am not sure he got it, saying "goodbye snake" as we wandered onwards and upwards.
On our last day in Greece, The Mrs, Joshua and I showed the Greek Hovel to an elderly British couple, diehard lefties from a village up in the mountains above Kambos. The highlight of their visit was ornithological of which more later but what I really picked up on was a throw-away comment that the area around the hovel might be one of the “seven Cities.” My father and I discussed this in Shipston on Sunday and have been chatting by phone ever since.
The reference is from the Iliad book nine. Achilles is sulking and refusing to fight in the siege of Troy. Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, sends an emissary to attempt to persuade him to rejoin the battle and offers him numerous bribes including, from a rough precis “Seven well-populated cities he shall have: Cardamyle, Enope, and grassy Hire; holy Pherae and Antheia with its deep meadows; lovely Aepeia, and vine-rich Pedasus. They are all near the sea, on our far border with sandy Pylos, and the men there own great flocks and herds”
There is evidence of Mycenaean civilization in Kambos. There is a Tholos or tomb which you can see HERE on the outskirts of the village and a gold cup was found at some stage. Between the modern village and the Hovel, at the bottom of the valley by the deserted convent, is a natural spring which would have been a pre-requisite for the establishment of any City – think a large village not London or Athens. It is, of course, all rather sketchy.
But my father’s carer Emma has fetched Iliad ix from his study and some old primers and this will keep him busy for the next day or so, seeing if the original offers up any more clues.
On Wednesday evening with it almost dark I stepped outside of the Bat room to see one of the kittens racing past. A few minutes later as I put Joshua into the car to head down to Kambos I could see the kitten sitting on the drive and miaowing and I could hear its mother answering in the distance. I thought no more of it.
On Thursday afternoon after a day spent in the rain in Kardamili we returned home and at the bottom of the drive saw the kitten as you can see below. Rigor Mortis had set in and with a workman’s spade I flipped the body into the bushes so that Joshua would not see it and be upset. The Mrs was traumatised enough, I could not handle both of them blubbering.
Today I saw the cat. No kittens at all now just herself strolling across the hovel in search of prey as is her wont. All alone. I’m sure she is very sad. I certainly am. The incident has brought back memories of poor Oakley and the Mrs and I are starting to think about a replacement.
A quiet day in Kambos and at the Greek Hovel for both the Mrs and I have deadlines and important work to do. Right now Joshua is watching some moronic rubbish on his mother's smart phone up at the hovel while the Mrs and I tap away like dervishes. This morning the Mrs, whose deadline is more pressing than mine, got to work in lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna, while Joshua and i went on a tough walk which he deemed to be "exciting" largely as I kept falling down.
One trouble is that the track, stopped a couple of hundred yards shy of the wall. Thus I had to walk along terraces and then clamber between them which with Joshua on my back, and noticeably heavier than in the summer, and the ground slippy after the recent rains, was not easy, Three or four times I slipped. I ensured that each time it was me landing on the ground and Joshua was protected from any harm and as a result my trouser are now stained with the red Maniot earth. Each time I'd ask Joshua if he was alright and he'd day "yes, daddy are you alright?" I said yes and we continued on, eventually heading back down the road, along which we marched up the hill into Stavropigio.
The joy of that climb is that you can look back at Kambos spread before you and then if you peer closely enough you can see the Hovel as the hills behind the village start to turn into mountain. The other joy was a coffee for me and an ice cream for Joshua at the other end. After such a trek we deserved it.
Walking back to Kambos was all downhill. I sang Molly Malone and one man went to mow, Joshua did not seem to mind. One day Joshua and I will make it up that hill and find a way to the castle.
My best friend in Kambos, bar lovely Eleni, that is to say Nicho the communist said that he would, this weekend, give his verdict on my olives – will the harvest be good, bad or indifferent? He is by nature a pessimistic fellow and so, though I was filled with modest optimism, I was braced for a more downbeat assessment.
It was early afternoon on Sunday when I encountered him. I had finished my writing for the day he was starting his first beer. I asked him how he was and he said that he was tired. Drinking last night? I asked, for Nicho can be a thirsty fellow. Too much work, he assured me. We agreed that he would pop up for an inspection in 15 minutes and sure enough, thirty minutes later, he pitched up in his truck.
I showed him my trees. We agreed that some were better than others. He looked at the sprinkling of olives downed by Zorba or the flies around each tree. He gave one of those hang dog expressions which are so much easier if you sport a large moustache. “Not too bad” he professed. His “not too bad” is my “jolly good” But he believed the crop would be commercial and asked who would be harvesting with me. He seemed reassured that it was not just me and a couple of other Englishmen but that I was bringing in real workers, otherwise known as Albanians. The crop is commercial.
Nicho has an interest in the wild olives on the edge of my land. He wants to harvest them to see what their oil tastes like. But sadly, as per normal, the wild trees bear little fruit. We have made plans to address that in 2020. We always make such plans but this time we are serious.
Nicho the Communist is sitting with me in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos and says that his harvest this year will be so so. Pride comes before a fall but I think mine is, all things considered, looking good. Nicho says he will come and inspect this weekend which may be a reality check.
On the ground there is a good sprinkling of rotten berries killed either by the flies in the summer or knocked off by storm Zorba a few weeks ago. Notwithstanding that, the trees I have inspected so far are pretty laden with berries. Some are turning from green to purple and brown. Others stay green. That means nothing, all get chucked into the same press at the end. But they look big and the trees are fairly heavy with olives as you can see below.
Of course God could still throw in a hailstorm as he did last year or there could be another disaster before the harvest in early December but as things stand it looks good, to my untrained eye at least.
George the Architect has been in touch and has sent more photos of the progress being made in turning the Greek Hovel into an eco palace. Boy I wish I was there rather than in Bristol. I bet Joshua does too. All we need is for Priti Patel to sweep to power, shut down the "university" where the Mrs teaches and another 50 odd joke left wing madrassas for future Tesco shelf stackers, and we could all move right away. Pro tem I can just dream.
As you can see below, the ceiling on the big new wing is now in place. This is the master bedroom. You can access it via the Rat Room or from outside via two floor to ceiling door/windows at either end. But what to do if you are upstairs in the huge new living area and do not fancy a wander in the dark? Simple, there is a trap door and beneath it a ladder running along the wall of the bathroom.
Next up the floors on the new wing and then some shelving, the cooker, freezer, wood-burning stove, washing machine, sofa and bunk beds for the Rat Room have all been ordered and should arrive soon. It is all happening out in Kambos.
Lovely Eleni was the first person the Mrs and I met in Kambos, the village closest, bit not close, to the Greek Hovel. We had landed at Athens at 4 AM and were driving to the Mani before we had even seen the Greek Hovel or thought of the idea. We stopped off at this taverna in a village whose name we did not know and asked if there was anything they could create for breakfast.
The woman was lovely Eleni, the village was Kambos, that was late 2013 or early 2014 and the breakfast was an omelette. The rest is history. Since we bought the hovel Eleni, as a speaker of some English, has been a God send, negotiating with Albanian helpers, advising on everything from snakes to deal with power cuts and just being someone to talk to.
But now I have argued with her and her husband Nicho. My lunchtime bill came to 6.50 Euro. I handed over seven or eight and said keep the change. I always do that at Eleni’s or at Miranda’s next door. I just do not want lots of Euro coins to weigh down my trousers and so just hand over coins to get rid of them.
A few minutes later I realised I needed some milk so headed back in as the taverna is also a general store. I don’t know what a small carton costs. Greek milk is expensive for reasons of Greekenomics that we can cover at another time but I guess the pice is 1-1.5 Euro. No don’t pay said Eleni and her husband. They insisted. So did I. After a bit of too and fro I put a 2 Euro coin on the counter waved and walked out.
Too often I am gifted a free coffee or some other titbit in Kambos. Don’t get me wrong, it is charming and not something you tend to experience in the tourist villages by the sea . But I am aware of my relative wealth and that Kambos is not a rich village, in financial terms anyway. And so I find such generosity, which I cannot imagine enjoying in Britain, a little hard to take in.
Anyhow, that’s the closest I’ve come to an argument with Eleni in more than four years.
George Cawkwell is the greatest living scholar on the subject of ancient Greece. His son, my friend, the philistine Simon, aka Evil Knievil. refuses to come to the Hellenic Republic on the grounds that the wine is all awful. He is wrong and I intend to prove it to him and lure him out here to open up his mind. My father attended George's lectures so it is my duty to educate Simon.
Thus I headed down to Kardamili, Islington-sur-mer, where a German married to the sister-in-law of lovely Eleni and who lives in Kambos, runs a shop selling fine wines and olive oils. The fellow spends a good amount of time in places such as London, which he loves, promoting his wares and thinks I am very peculiar in saying how much I loathe the English capital and also in preferring a simple Kambos life to the elegance of Kardamili. I try to say of the world he craves "been there done it" but he still regards me as odd.
Anyhow I popped in and said that I have a friend who is a total wine snob and thinks all Greek wines taste of piss and what could I buy to start to educate this poor chap. Evil had expressed a preference for a red and so I will, somehow, get to him this full bodied Syrah from the Corinth area. Right now it resides in the Greek Hovel.
So on Sunday as the Mrs sought a few hours to catch up on her important work, Joshua and I set off exploring with my young son on my back. Part two, the climb to Zarnata castle, I have already recorded HERE. part one was to head off around the back streets of Kambos and the pictures pain a mixed picture as you can see below.
The man from whome Joshua gets his middle name, Paddy Leigh Fermor, was not very kind about Kambos, the nearest village to the Greek Hovel, in his classic book, The Mani. I cannot remember if he described it as dull, dreary or boring but whatever word he used it was not flattering. Of course the village has changed a lot since the early fifties but I think Paddy missed a certain charm.
The first photo is of young Joshua who enjoyed our walk. it started in a back street leading off the square bordered by what was Miranda's and lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna. Heading past the, thankfully, deserted creperie the street becomes a narrow one - not that deters locals from driving along it. Balconies from houses that were here a hundred years before Leigh Fermor hang over your head.
Heading further along we discovered what, I count, to be the seventh church in this village of 500 odd souls and it is still in occasional use. thereafter we went past houses old, houses new and a couple of quite dreadful combinations of the two. Some of the older houses in Kambos have been restored well, others maintained carefully but sadly others are ab abandoned, a testimony to Greece's insane inheritance laws, There are new houses too, some tasteful and constructed during the "good times". The odd one, cheap, ugly and deserving of a bulldozer.
At the end of our trip we found ourselves at the big new Church at the top of the village and headed back past the Mrs counting cats on the internet, the main task of all public sector workers, and out towards the castle. I include, at the end, two small abandoned shacks on that road. Folks really did live in such houses kin days gone by. and then the final house in Kambos, a ruined tower house once belonging to our most famous son, an obscure nineteenth century Prime Minister of Greece.
I was trying to think of the most obscure British PM of the nineteenth century. Resorting to Wikipedia I offer you Viscount Goderich who lasted 144 days. maybe I am being unfair on our boy here in Kambos he did distinguish himself by sending troops into the Mani to kill his fellow Maniots so he is not a total nobody. Perhaps the earl of Roseberry is a fairer comparator? But can you imagine in the UK the home of any former PM being allowed to disintegrate in this way? Particularly if it sits next to a Mycenaean Tholos (tomb). It is very odd but still a splendid relic as you walk out of the village.
The Mrs wanted to do some important work on Sunday so I put Joshua on my back as you can see below and endeavoured to trek up the whole way from the Kambos side. The photos below give you some idea of what a climb that is and Joshua is not getting any lighter. sadly there are no signs.
Paths forked, ran out and crossed back on each other. Pretty soon, Joshua fell asleep and offered no guidance. In the end I just could not make it to the outer walls but instead cut around the hill to the upper reaches of Stavropiglio where the outlying houses were old but deserted and crumbling. we found a nice old church but as we wandered on met more and more barking dogs. We retreated back into Stavropiglio for a glass of milk for the lad, woken up by the dogs, and a coke for me. Walking home we stuck to the road.
It is thus an adventure uncompleted, a challenge for another day.
The back road to Kambos starts with a sharp right turn ( if you are heading towards the hovel) at the bottom of monastery hill and is truly terrible. It is narrow and in places the potholes are as large as the road. I have only ever driven up it on a motorbike, including on the occasion when my bike killed a snake. But now and again I drive down it in a car. It starts just past the big modern church at the top of Kambos village and after passing a couple of houses and a small church heads down steeply to the bottom of the valley.
I dread to think what would happen if I met something coming up as there is no room to pass but I think I am the only person who ever uses the track. Anyhow just before the steep descent if you look up towards the Taygetos mountains you can see the Greek hovel. In photo one it is just a speck above the last of the olive trees in the foreground. In the second photo I zoom in.
The big windows you see are floor to ceiling windows in the kitchen. The smaller ones on the same side are in the upper floor of the new wing (not that it actually has a floor yet). The Bat Room where, I am now, is directly beneath the kitchen.
The Mrs and I got married five years ago today. I salute her patience, tolerance and good humour in lasting half a decade. I am a lucky man. And, in fact, very lucky for we are today back up at the Greek Hovel and she took me and Joshua for an anniversary lunch at Miranda's in Kambos as you can see below.
Two beers for me, two glasses of wine for her, a plate of spinach and beans ( amazing) to share, chicken and pasta for her (look at the size of that chicken leg!), oven banked pork and spuds for me. We each gave some to Joshua and had more than enough for ourselves. Total cost - 18 Euro. Quite amazing.
Tonight I pay for a rather more expensive meal at a fish restaurant in Kardamili followed by wine tasting at a fine wines bar run by lovely Eleni's brother in law, a kraut living in Kambos. But I bet the food will not be as good as that at Miranda's.
Right now I am in a luxury hotel organised by the Mrs for daughter Olaf's last night in Greece and for me to recover in after a ten hour road trip to drop Miss W off at Athens airport."Baywatch" has a great view, a lovely pool, ouzo is on tap, the internet works allowing Joshua to sit like a moron watching Thomas the Tank Engine without interruption and the Mrs is lolling happily. And there is no wildlife diversity to report. Not so back at the Greek Hovel. Let us start with the scorpion.
It seems to have got into the house before the windows were installed but the noise of workmen roused it and led it to its death as it tried to crawl on a rapidly drying polished concrete surface. It got stuck and mist have died an unpleasant death. George the Architect whose foot also appears in the picture has only fessed up to this incident a few dates later having removed the corpse when it was found.
Of course I knew there were loads of scorpions up in the area around the Greek Hovel. A bite would not be fatal but would be painful until treated, especially for Joshua. However, in the five years that I have been up here I have not seen a single scorpion. Until now. I guess I shall be “seeing them” everywhere now as I already “see” snakes everywhere. It is not that there are snakes everywhere but as I see shapes dancing in the shadows or in the gleam of a car headlight my imagination races away.
Next up was what caused the Mrs and Olaf to scream. we were driving back late at night from Kambos to the hovel. we had just come down Monastery Hill, the steep slope thick with wood on one side and with the abandoned convent on the other and must have been doing 20 kilometres an hour. just as we reached the bottom out it shot from the field on my left, bursting through a fence, and cantering up the back track into Kambos... a wild boar.
The Mrs screamed as it rocketed across our headlights, not more than a yard or so from the car. Olaf screamed. Joshua was just burbling on about steep hill, Gordon's Hill and carried on burbling. I braked and then drive hurriedly on. I think I was rather brave for not screaming, my father says I was a chicken for not putting my foot to the floor and bagging a week's worth of supper. Yeah dad, like you would have done that? Really?
The boar was not fully grown but it was large enough. a fully grown boar charging at your car as opposed to across it, would cause real damage. I muttered about this was why I should be allowed a gun. Olaf made some elitist comment about Trump supporters and morons. Anyhow that was also the first boar I have seen although I am sure I heard one crashing through the undergrowth around the hovel three years ago but it was at night and I declined to investigate.
The ruined Frankish castle of Zarnata sits on top of the hill overlooking Kambos and on its nearer side the village of Stavropiglio. I often sit staring up at it, in awe at the largely still standing outer wall which threads its way around the hill, when enjoying an ouzo in Miranda's or from the tables outside the Kourounis taverna run by lovely Eleni. In an attempt to inject a bit of culture to the holiday of Godless daughter Olaf, I led the family on a trek up that hill yesterday, with young Joshua on my back.
If you approach from the Stavropiglio side you are much of the way up already. But the final climb is a rough one with the steep track littered with loose stones. With my son and heir on my back, as you can see below, it was a bit of a slog. The castle is very much a ruin but the small church next door is well preserved but locked so, sadly for Olaf, we could not go inside. Heaven only knows which saint it is dedicated to, I could not make out the sign - perhaps a reader can assist?
As you can see, the views down to Kambos are spectacular. In the second panoramic shot you can just about make out the Greek Hovel if you look closely.
As we left the property and headed back to Stavropiglio I noted the prickly pear bush pictured. I did not notice that i had brushed a pear but by the time we were back at the car a cluster of tiny needles had started to press through my shirt and was causing real pain to my right arm. We drove onto Kardamili with me half wearing a shirt and half Stoupa (topless) where the Mrs bought me a replacement T-shirt before I headed out in public.
This church is in the middle of nowhere on the long climb up from the sea at Kitries towards Stavropigio, the next village to my home one of Kambos. We drove up that road today after a day by the shore. I remember driving past this church with my father and late step mother on her last holiday before she passed away. She was clearly very ill at that point. We stopped the car and myself and Helen went inside. There was barely enough room for the two of us and the small lizard we found there.
My step mother had faith which helped her in those last awful weeks. I struggle with faith. But little demonstrations of the dedication of others such as this, what appears, pointless church, fill me with awe. As an indication of its size, godless daughter Olaf (height five foot two) can just about get through the door without stooping as you can see in the second photo.
Inside the walls are covered with icons and three frescoes as you can see below but which were of no interest to the godless child. I find them fascinating. I recognise a few of the figures and can translate most names but not all.
At 4 AM I picked up daughter Olaf at Athens airport and by 5.30 AM we were peering down from a bridge over the Corinth canal, at the isthmus. It was light enough to see that the drop was a mile and while Olaf peered, I, suffering from vertigo, gripped the back rail and pretended to peer.
Olaf had been kept awake on the flight not by a crying baby behind her but by a crying brat behind her. I'd been driving all night and so despite one coffee stop eventually we had to pull in at the side of the road for a power nap. By 10 AM we had enjoyed breakfast in Kambos and were up at the hovel. Olaf had pretty soon occupied the one bed, closed the shutters and has been snoring ever since.
I had to wait until mid afternoon when a bed was installed in the Rat Room for my snooze. Meanwhile the workmen laboured like demons to get things finished before frightening Olaf wakes up. The windows and doors are, as I speak all in. The bubbly stuff you can see in the first photo around the top windows in the new wing holds them in. Photo two shows that when it hardens it is scraped out and replaced, as photo four, of the Bat Room door, demonstrates, with the normal mortar grout.
Just in case you think that I am suffering in 33 degree heat every day...
The clouds gathered yesterday afternoon over the Taygetos mountains behind me. I was hoping for a deluge. My olive trees would love it and there is something truly comforting about sitting inside your nice warm, dry hovel as the rain lashed down outside. Besides which it would have cooled the air making sleep that much easier at night. So what if the mud track to Kambos would become like the Somme? I have navigated it before in such a state.
In the end the rainfall was short and modest. The rain was warm, I'm sure my trees were grateful but it did not exactly live up to its billing as storms go.
If you head to a seaside settlement in the Mani right now whether it be Islington-sur-Mer (kardamili) or the Costa-del-Stoupa they will be packed with people. Head there in the winter and they are semi-deserted. Up here in the lower reaches of the Taygetos mountains, in unfashionable old Kambos, the population barely changes throughout the year. The faces I see when harvesting olives in November are, essentially, those I see now in the burning heat of August.
But most of the folks in Kambos are all year rounders. My first stop in the village was naturally at one of the two hardware stores to stock up on snake repellent canisters and to teat myself to a new saw and axe as my old ones appear to have been lost in the building works.
My olive trees are pretty clean having been thoroughly pruned in May and re-pruned in June but the rain of July has seen new sprouts emerging and so a re-cleaning exercise is called for and is now underway. 250 trees – almost for weeks so ten a day will do me fine. Yesterday I did twelve but even early in the morning it is jolly hot and so I’m not planning to spend that long each day in the snake-fields.
The second person I met was the ageing mother-in-law of lovely Eleni. I was wandering down the back street that leads from the Church and where I park my car, down towards the main street and there was the old lady painting white the pavement outside her house and the kerb.
In Ulster if you are a loyalist you paint the kerb red white and blue, a Fenian paints the kerb orange, white and green and you make a statement. In Greece all kerbs are painted white making the statement “We Greeks may have buggered it all up over the pat decade but we are calm and at peace and by the way we invented democracy, literature and philosophy three thousand years ago when you were all living in trees and caves. PS Glad to see Turkey buggering it up too.”
And so I greeted her and she greeted me. Tikanis, Cala, etc. She asked how old Joshua was and I replied “Theo”. I thought of trying to explain that he and the Mrs would arrive soon but given that my Greek is as non existent as her English thought better of it. Anyhow it was a warm greeting. And so I wandered on. The village square is packed in the evening with families as well as the normal old men chatting, drinking and eating at either Kourounis or at Miranda’s. trade is roaring. They are all familiar faces: the shepherds, the goat herder, Vangelis in his pink shirts, all the other m en who will all be called George, Nicho or Vangelis but whose names I cannot quite remember. It will be one of the three. Tikanis, Cala, Yas, Tom. I shake hands with many of them.
As ever I reflect on how few folks in Bristol I know well enough to greet them with a warm handshake. Come the weekend the Mrs who speaks some Greek pitches up. I’m not sure that will aid the conversation greatly but, of course, Joshua melts all hearts and builds bridges at once.
Up at the hovel after midnight there was another familiar face spotted. You may remember that three or four years ago I befriended a small black and white kitten up here by giving it milk. It has been a periodic pleasure in subsequent years to see my old friend, now a large cat, striding purposefully across the land. Cats eat rats and snakes and as such he, or she, is most welcome here.
My room being a tad stuffy I ventured outside shining my torch ahead of me to ensure that I had no unexpected encounters. There is a slightly cooling breeze and I wanted to catch a bit of it before heading off to sleep. If I hear a noise anywhere I shine my torch in the right direction hoping to spot what approaches. I saw a brief bit of black and white but the cat darted behind a tree. I kept the torch on that tree some 30 yards away and after a short while my friend broke cover and walked, with no sense of panic, off towards the snake fields. Happy hunting comrade cat.
My memories of sleeping at the Greek Hovel are of bedding down in the room above the Bat Room, terrified about what form of wildlife diversity would creep in, twitching at every noise outside and sweating in insufferable heat. as such I approached my first night in the bat Room with some trepidation leaving the light on before I headed into Kambos to guide me back in in case my torch failed.
What with the Bat Room lights, the stars and my torch visibility was good when I got back at around midnight. I locked the door firmly and tapped away on my PC for a while. I have rigged up an internet link and so was able to send my photos back to London to be uploaded here. Finally i could postpone sleep for no longer and so crashed out on the mattress with my torch in one hand and my new olive pruning axe close to the other.
But it really was not that bad. There was the odd sound outside. But walls that are almost two foot thick deaden the impact and it was clear that there was no wildlife diversity inside other than one mosquito. As to the heat, the thick stone walls are meant to keep the place cool in summer and hot in winter. And to a great extent the theory holds up so far. I think that i shall invest in a fan to please the Mrs and Joshua when they arrive but the temperature was a lot more bearable than in many Greek hotels I have stayed in where air conditioning is not on offer.
With hard working Greeks enjoying a Bank Holiday today there were no workmen on site to rouse me and I snoozed happily until ten in the morning local time when a compelling urge to prune my beloved olive trees roused me from my slumber. For we farmers there is no day off.
Like a true imbecile I left the cable i use to connect my camera to my PC back in England so I head back from Kambos into Kalamata in a few minutes to buy a replacement. For I have spent a wonderful hour up at the hovel with George the Architect and it looks magnificent. That is not to say that it actually has any doors and windows bar those in the Bat Room where I shall sleep tonight but...
The good news is that they are almost ready. Tomorrow is a bank holiday here, allowing hard working Greeks to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by eating and drinking in excess. On Thursday or Friday the doors, windows and floorboards arrive at the hovel and will be installed. They are almost ready...here they are at the factory earlier this week being treated and painted.
Fear not daughter Olaf and the Mrs by the time you get here the eco palace, formerly known as the Greek Hovel, will be fully habitable. Okay, no cooker and just one bed and a few other things missing but habitable and secure. George says he is proud of his work and so he should be, the place looks magnificent.
It was my penultimate day in Greece and my last time at the Greek Hovel until I return next month. Driving down my side of the mountain towards the valley floor, I stopped briefly on snake hill to take in the view.
The wider lens shot shows the abandoned convent on one side. Next to it runs the road up to Kambos. But there is a second road, in even worse state, which leads to the very top of Kambos village where the modern church sits. You can see this road winding up the hill, on the left. The second photo just zooms in on the deserted convent, a small oasis of cool and calm.
As is my wont, when in Kambos, I walked into the restaurant formerly known as Miranda’s and headed for the small cooking area at the back. The new supremo, the new Miranda, explained what was on offer and after due consideration I went for small pieces of pork in a wine sauce with a side helping of zucchinis and okra. That will end up costing me six euro.
As I wandered back to my table on the stoop, the step just outside the restaurant but before you get to the tables on the square, a place where an open window leaves you sort of inside while enjoying the breeze, an old man started gabbling at me. He was sitting on a table with a younger man who I did not know and a man my age who I have got drunk with once or twice, who I exchange yassas and a wave with but who I don’t really know. Is his name Georgios? I think it is.
The old man had a vaguely swivel eyed loon look to him and talked faster and in a louder at me keeping me fixed in his gaze and pointing at me. He seemed almost angry. I tried to make him understand that I did not speak Greek and my drinking friend, I think, made the same point. I moved onto my table, one open window away from his. As the new Miranda put water and bread on my table I asked who the old man was. “The village President Stavros”. Aha. I nodded politely at the man who talked even louder and started banging the table, looking at me then at his companions and then at me again.
The young man several times tried intervening as did my drinking friend. Further evidence that I was being discussed came as I heard the word Toumbia mentioned several times. Toumbia is the settlement of two dozen farmsteads spread far and wide where the Greek Hovel is located. I am pretty sure that there are only two residents of Toumbia, me and my mad neighbour Charon.
I asked the new Miranda what the old man was so cross about as she arrived with my ,lunch. “He is just mad” she said and that was it. Perhaps Kambos is following some ancient Athenian model of democracy where the only folks eligible to be village President are those deemed so mad that they are utterly unfit for office?
I ate my lunch. A couple of other folks with whom I have spent an evening on the ouzo headed to the old man’s table, leaned over and exchanged words. The an ger subsided. There was no more table banging. Twenty minutes later I wandered in to pay and as I left the man waved goodbye and smiled a very friendly smile. I have no idea what that was all about.
In Asterix the Gaul there are bouts of frenzied activity, hostilities and then, after the Romans are sent packing, the little Gallic village gets back to normal with everyone eating, drinking and doing nothing much in the way of work. I am reminded of this as I stare out of the restaurant formerly known as Miranda's where I will soon pay six Euro for a superb home cooked lunch. In case you wonder: park in a wine sauce with Okra.
As I stare out at the small square in front of Miranda's with the Kourounis tavern, run by lovely Eleni, on the right, all is quiet. A few men sit around having a drink. The world goes by with folks speeding by on the road to Kardamili. But nothing changes here in Kambos, the village closest to the Greek Hovel. Last summer, of course, it was all different.
Today was the day that my books, a few pieces of furniture and wall hangings as well as four Belfast sinks were meant to arrive at the Greek Hovel after a van journey from Bristol, via Bulgaria. Much to my surprise the Bulgarian chap in London called yesterday and said to expect delivery this afternoon.
It got better still. At 11.30 AM he called and said that the van would be at the Petrol Station in Kambos to meet me in 45 minutes. I got in my car sped up here and waited. And waited.
Eventually I called to be told that the driver was indeed at the petrol station. I assured the chap in London that this was not the case as I was at the petrol station and was alone. It took a while before it was established that the van was waiting at a petrol station back in Kalamata. I gave instructions and killed time by wandering into the hardware store to buy some snake repellent canisters. The man who knows me well, said “do you have snakes?” He smiled. He knows I do and that I am shit scared. It was his little joke and he fetched two canisters which, at 28 Euro, is the best investment I will ever make.
I killed some more time by heading up to the hovel and explaining, via one worker who speaks English, to a crew working incredibly hard, that I might need a bit of help unloading my van. I headed back to the petrol station.
Eventually the van arrived and I explained to a sweaty little Bulgarian who spoke no English that he should follow me up the road to the hovel. He drove slowly along the first half of the track which ends with the slope down past the deserted convent to the valley floor. I made to turn on to the track up towards the hovel but he stopped. He refused to go on.
He insisted that his van – which is exactly the same size as one used by the builders this very day and smaller than some of the heavy machinery we have taken up to the hovel – could not go on. He tried to insist that he was only meant to take the goods to Kalamata even though the docket clearly stated my house name and Toumbia, the widely scattered group of houses. At this point I really started to think of a four letter word beginning with c to describe this sweaty Bulgar who wanted payment for dumping my goods in a deserted valley floor.
I told him to wait, headed back to the hovel and brought down two Greek labourers one driving a jeep the other a truck with a flat bottom. With little help from the tardy and cowardly Bulgar we loaded my possessions into the jeep, my car and the lorry. One chest of drawers belonging to my grandmother appeared to have become slightly damaged. I repaired it up at the hovel but as it was handed over I looked at the sweaty Bulgar who just shrugged his shoulders, it was not his fault. I thought the c word again.
Up at the hovel we unloaded the goods. The sinks have strict elf ‘n safey instructions in English about how they must be lifted by two men. They are very heavy indeed. Greek workers picked them up, slung them on their shoulders and carried them single handedly to the bat room where everything is now stored. I’ll put up pictures later.
The Greeks were heroic. I did my bit. The Bulgar is a pathetic wretch. Over at Kardamili there is a monument to Greek military successes. Suffice to say that nearly all of them were two thousand years ago. The few in modern times were largely against the Bulgarians in the Balkan wars of the early 20th century.
I suggest that most Bulgars who have anything about them are now gainfully employed driving Ubers or selling the Big issue in London. Those left in Bulgaria are clearly a dishonest, feckless, inbred and pathetic bunch. Perhaps to distract the good folk of the Hellenic Republic from his own treachery and incompetence, our loathsome Prime Minister Mr Alex Tspiras might consider invading Bulgaria as a distraction. Judging by today, it would be a walkover for mighty Greece.
The first 5-6 miles were along the mountain road up to Kambos. I kid you not, it is uphill all the way. Having started at c10 feet above sea level I reckon that by the time I left this road I was at least 750 feet above sea level, plausibly quite a bit more. The views down to the gulf of Kalamata were spectacular but that was of little consolation. It was a slog.
Now and again, as I passed a blackberry bush where the berries are now starting to ripen I would pick a berry and think of Joshua. On the way home from his nursery we pass an enormous blackberry bush and while English berries are still green I know they will ripen. At that point Joshua will gorge himself at the bush and we will take more home for supper.
I had been dreading this climb, worrying that I would just find it too tough and be forced back but, although I am still a bit too fat, I seem to be surprisingly fit and by the time the Mrs called me and i stopped for a water and a protein bar break the village of Kouris was in sight. Greece being Greece it remained in sight as the road looped and looped again but before I knew it I was at the turn which saw me heading downhill to Megali Mantineia.
This village is prettier than my own, Kambos, and is also far closer to the sea. And it was made famous by "Things Can Only get Feta" and so it has a genteel feel of Northern European money that Kambos lacks. There is a lovely taverna with views out to the sea where the Mrs and I have eaten as we explored this region. I rather wished she was there and called her to say as much as I stopped for a coffee, for lots of water and to top up my water bottles. I chatted to my father and to his delightfully right wing, Trump loving carer Emma and headed onwards, always downwards to the sea.
As the sea started got closer I left the Greece of old stone houses and entered the Greece I'd rather not think about. there was "Harmony Village" a half finished development of four or five fake stone houses to contemplate. The weeds at Harmony grow long and a sign outside "For sale, investment opportunity" will, I suspect, be there for many years. Worse still are the houses thrown up during the "good years" when cheap money was being thrown at Greece by the EU. A ghastly concrete mansion painted bright pink with its own private modern church was the low-point.
At this point readers may wish to avoid the next two paragraphs. As I headed on to the sea with what the maps describe as the "rema mili" (the dry river which nearer Kambos is the murder gorge) to my left, my problems started. I have a stomach bug which can cause an urgent need to visit a lavatory. it is minor affliction which will, I am sure, go away soon, but at this point it struck. I tried to suck it in, I thought of how Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin would have done a walk like mine in the mountains of the Mani, before an alcohol and nicotine fuelled lunch, and then done another walk afterwards. Somehow I reached the sea.
By now I was really struggling but somehow made it to the next village and to a taverna into which I rushed, found a loo and sat there letting everything go and sweating buckets. After that I felt I deserved another coffee. Frankly i deserved a medal as well. My body was empty and I headed back to Kalamata, stopping now and again to drink water or pour it over my head to cool down. It was with some relief that I made it back to my hotel where, after a quick shower, I feel utterly refreshed.
Could I have done another circuit? The answer is almost certainly "yes." My feet are fine, my legs are okay but in this heat I would have been a wretched specimen by the end of hit. As i write the temperature is well into the mid thirties.
Assuming I shake this bug, I'd like to do one more big walk before heading back to the UK - taking the mountain road another three or four miles onto just before Kambos before heading downhill to the sea and back home. I shall try to fit that walk around the arrival of the van from Bristol.
The Mrs is delighted. Boxes and boxes of my books, my artwork, my Morse and Sweeney DVDs, and furniture is off. Lifting four Belfast sinks was a two man job and the Bulgarian driver sweated heavily. But the van is loaded and starts its journey today. I shall meet it in Kambos a week today, by when the Greek Hovel might have at least part of a roof under which to store the cargo from England.
I have just enjoyed a cracking lunch of beef in tomato sauce and peas at Miranda's in Kambos. Actually it is not called Miranda's any more as it has a new owner but I stick with the old name. The prices have not changed. That will be 5 Euro.
I have also downed two litres of water after pruning twenty more trees up at the hovel.
Skipping, okay I exaggerate a bit, up and down the terraces to the most snake infested long grass, in the far reaches of the hovel's lands, was tiring work in 30+ degree heat. I am shattered and must return to Kalamata soon to wash my trousers which contain ten days of sweat and blood - from when I cut my hands and arms on saw or frigana. I wipe them on my poor trousers which now feel like cardboard and carry on. Anyhow the Mrs suggests I wash them before returning home. I say suggests but it is not in an optional sort of way.
So I have pruned 240 trees and there are, perhaps, a dozen more in the furthest reaches that are un-pruned. I shall tackle them next month. I have far more trees than I thought. Four years agon on prune one it took three days and Foti the Albanian trousered 210 Euro. There are more trees now thanks to the ones that we discovered as we cleansed the frigana forest. Okay it has taken me ten stints of a couple of hours a day but it has not cost me a cent. I feel good about that.
Now its farewell to the folks in Kambos and back to the bloody UK. Next time I come here the hovel will have a roof, ceilings, more doors and windows and a bed in the snake proof bat room. And I shall therefore be staying here not in Kalamata. It is all very exciting.
I am under instructions from David Bick not to complain about the weather here in Kambos. And I should say that it is 30 degrees right now and I am dripping with sweat having pruned another thirty olive trees up at the Greek Hovel. I am on my second litre of water as I enjoy a late lunch at Miranda's in Kambos and recover from my labours. Yesterday I was in the same place at the same time having completed my manual labour for the day and the heavens opened. This was the view....
It may have escaped your attention in the photo below but the external and internal walls are almost complete. Assuming the weather holds - and that is a safe enough bet - snake killer Gregori and his team will have the job done by the end of next week. And thus George the Architect tells me that it is time to install a roof. Cripes, we are ahead of schedule.
Daughter Olaf, who is due to make her debut visit in late August, says that a roof is a good thing to have. She is also keen on toilets and showers. Girly Girly. But she shall have her wish. George reckons that within four weeks we will have not only a roof but also the wooden floors above the master bedroom (new wing) and rat room in place.
At that point Gregori and team will return to take the concrete out from between the stones and regrout the traditional way to bring out the real colour of the hovel/eco palace. When that is complete the polished concrete white floors will go down in the rat room and master bedroom
But first things first. The roof. George had a funny idea that we would keep the old concrete flat roof in the kitchen. I disabused him and it was removed. Instead there will be a vaulted wooden roof across the whole second floor, so giving a feeling of more room as you star up at the timbers. On top of the wood will be tiles.
Below are two photos from Kambos. The first are the newer brighter tiles. The second the older duller tiles. We will, naturally, be using the latter. But it is not just the colour. These days the modern mass produced tiles stick together being laid side by side. Think of a row of Cs facing down. In the old days they interlocked a C facing down links into a C facing up, etc, etc. I hope the pictures make it clearer than my words. Natch we go for the old way. God willing you will see a finished roof within a month.
Damn. It was a near miss but I failed to kill it. The serpent was not in the olive groves where I trod carefully today as, armed with my new axe pruned 20 trees. I start with the highest yielders, the ones nearest the house which have always enjoyed my tender care. Those in the long grass on the further reaches of our land I save to the end as I know what will be lurking in that grass.
But as I headed back to Kambos, to lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna for a diet coke and a most excellent Greek salad, I saw it. I was on the stretch of road leading up from the deserted convent to the village about 1000 yards out of the village outskirts and there on the road ahead of me was a snake which must have been at least two foot long.
I should say that i was in my car but feeling Greek I did as the locals do and put my foot on the accelerator and swerved violently to the edge of the road. sadly the snake was an adult and knew the score so just managed to slither into the long grass and escaped me. I heard no crunch under the wheels. I looked in my rear view mirror - there was no snake, dead or alive. I missed.
I think I am a bit out of practice. Next time my reactions will be faster.I am, after all, a proven snake killer.
With the one room at the Greek Hovel that was used to store goods out of action for re-flooring my possessions - such as they are - are scattered around the plot. After a bit of a search my saw was located. It had been used to stir concrete and so, rather sheepishly, on of the builders did his best to clean it. It is usable. My small axe (about a foot long) which one uses for taking away sprouts of new growth at the base of an olive tree could not be found. I have just bought a new one from Vangelis in Kambos.
But with only a saw I started the task of pruning my 160 trees. Bloody hell. It was as bad as it was in my first year of pruning, some 48 months ago. The trees have sprouted new growth as if they were on steroids. Below you see the carnage from pruning just one tree.
I am not sure what the impact of pruning is. By how much does it increase my yield? I suspect it is pretty marginal but I find it therapeutic if quite tough. Bend down for the new shoots at the base of the tree, stretch up to hack away shoots on the branches. After four years I reckon I know what I am doing although I am willing to stand corrected. I was taught by Foti and George, Albanians whose fitness is er.. a little bit greater than mine. I suspect they do not cut themselves with the saw on on jagged bark as I do buy my blood might act as an added fertilizer for the trees. I donated happily today.
With saw only my progress was limited. Tomorrow I return with axe and saw to put in some hard hours. It is all good training for my 30 mile sponsored walk in late July and it is a time to think and relax. What will the harvest be like this year? God only knows? Certainly the trees have a decent amount of small olives developing as you can see below. My sense is that it will not be great but it should, at least, be worthwhile.
When I am in England I do not think much about snakes. Okay, three times a week I pick Joshua up from his nursery and he says "snakes" so, on the way home, we pop into Pets At Home and go to see the snakes. They are tiny little creatures, corn snakes, which nearly always hide in their houses and only rarely peek out. When they do, Joshua gets very excited. Most of the time we see no snakes so Joshua just says "bye bye snakes" and we head on past the fish where Joshua says "fish," past the hamsters and gerbils where he says "mice", and to the rabbits where he says "By Bye Babbits" and we head home. And I think nothing of it.
But now I am back in Greece and as soon as I started driving out of Kalamata, where there are few snakes, and up into the hills towards Kambos and The Greek Hovel I started thinking of nothing else. Would I see one on the road? Would I swerve and kill it as a Greek driver would? What about up at the hovel? Surely by now the place is crawling with snakes?
And thus I arrived to find snake killer Gregori and his team of ethnic Greek Albanians hard at work. After a brief pleasantry or two "tikanis, cala, etc, etc" I asked the big question. Apparently since they came out of hibernation about eight weeks ago two have been spotted. There was a big one but it was dead. And a smaller one nestling under a T-shirt someone had discarded. After meeting Gregori it was also dead.
Small ones, this year's crop of adders, are the most dangerous since if they bite they have no idea how much venom to inject so just keep on injecting. But this one met its match in the snake killer and he had a photo of the corpse on his phone to prove it.
The workers are making a lot of noise now and have heavy machinery up there. My hope is that the snakes have done the sensible thing and moved away from the house and, I pray, onto the neighbours land. The odds are that as I prune my olive trees over the next ten days in the further reaches of my land, I shall discover otherwise. There were certainly plenty of lizards in evidence and I am sure that my old adage "where there are lizards there are snakes" is not far wrong.
George the Architect has been in touch with an update on progress at the Greek Hovel and, as you can below, see there really has been progress. The rat room extension walls are underway and the new wing of the house which will double the floor space is now also starting to take shape. George says the door to the bat room is on its way and it will be habitable within two weeks. The rest of the hovel is still on track to be finished by September, after just 51 months!
The skies over the Hovel and Kambos look dark in these photos but I see that today it is 17 degrees and sunny in Kambos and tomorrow it hits 19 degrees. Later in the week there will be rain and it will dip to 14 degrees but still why on earth am I sitting here in Bristol at my laptop when I could be pruning olive trees in the Mani?
It was my penultimate day in Kambos, the nearest village to the Greek Hovel. I had parked in the small side street that leads off the main road up and past the newest and biggest of the, at least, five churches in out settlement with a population of 537 (when I am there). I enjoyed a lunch at Miranda's - pork in a wine sauce, oven cooked potatoes and an ouzo for seven Euro. I left eight, headed back to my car and drove up to the turning square opposite the Church.
This is the highest point of the village. The telephone wires spoil the photo a bit but the view up into the Taygetos mountains is spectacular none the less. The pinkness of the rock is not a camera trick it is how it really looked at four thirty that day as the moon started to rise into the sky and the light started to fade
You know that I am a feminist. Child care, nappy changing, shopping, washing, cooking, I dxo more than my fair share. But there are some things that only women can do. Breast feeding for example. And there are some things we men do: snake killing, ouzo drinking and.. lighting fires. My repeated failure to burn off the olive branches and frigana I cut down last year at the Greek Hovel has thus been somewhat emasculating. And it got far worse yesterday before it got better.
After meeting George the Architect I tried again to create a bonfire. Sure, lawyers letters from Roger Lawson went up in smoke but nothing caught. I retreated to my nearest village of Kambos disheartened. On my way down snake hill I saw a roaring blaze in a field by the side of the road. That was bad but worse still was that it was being tended by its author, a fair maiden of the olive groves, a woman. FFS that really was a kick in the gonads.
Thus after lunch at Miranda's - an excellent calamari cooked in a sardine based sauce and some mountain greens boiled and doused in lemon for 7 Euro since you ask - I determined to return to the hovel for another go. Running out of Lawson's letters I started to use empty concrete sacks to set the pyre on fire. Occasionally one took but then spluttered and faltered as you can see below.
Almost despairing as the afternoon wore on and the air started to chill, I resorted to the traditional methods of using a handful of long grass to set the fire going. It was still a bit wet but there seemed hope. But hope turned to despair after several more failures. One last try thought I and picking a huge bundle of grass and adding in some twigs I set it alight and plunged it into the heart of an enormous pile of rather damp branches, twigs and dried frigana leaves.
Alleluliah! The Lord rewards those who persevere and something caught. Very soon I had a real blaze going so big that I am sure my neighbours on hills miles away must have seen it. They won't be laughing at me in Kambos anymore thought I.
As you can see below, pretty soon darkness was closing in but I wanted to stay until the fire was done. Flames reached up into the night sky. And before long I turned around to stare into a pitch black sky. I could see nothing at all, not the hovel not even my car fifteen yards away. But I worked on, not leaving until the whole pile was gone and the flames were starting to turn to embers.
I was not back to my hotel until nine O'clock. I spoke to the Mrs about how I felt that my manliness mojo had been restored and she told me that I was talking complete nonsense. But I am sure that if you are a man you know what I am talking about, don't you?
There are at least five churches in the village of Kambos, the closest settlement to the Greek Hovel and a place with a population of 537. There might be more small churches hidden away somewhere that I have yet to find or have found but forgotten about. But the largest of the lot is the most modern and without a shadow of doubt the least pleasing to the eye.
Situated on top of the hill on which the village sprawls, this is the first thing you see of Kambos as you drive up into the mountains from Kalamata.I can say little in its defence as a building except that it is functional and unlike some of the smaller churches which can hold no more than a dozen and open just twice a year, it could hold most of the village which is a good thing as even the Godless in this part of the world go to Church a few times a year.
The other point in is favour is the view. Man builds ugly buildings which will one day crumble but the Taygetos mountains in the distance will be there forever and, the high reaches, are now fully draped in global warming. What a view...
I turned up as agreed with George the Architect at 11 AM to discuss progress at the Greek Hovel. Twenty four hours of solid rain with more coming down today has left the site a bit of a mudbath and I was not greatly surprised that there were no workers present. But I was rather expecting George. He was not answering his phone so I kicked my heels and tried to start the process of burning off the branches cut down from last year's olive harvest.
In my defence the whole place is sodden. But I noted on other hills nearby that fires were burning away happily. If my neighbours could do it...
With some lawyers letters from Roger Lawson to use to start the blaze I set to work. I knew old Lawson would come in useful one day. But let me tell you that there can be smoke without fire. I managed it several times before giving up and heading back to the village of Kambos.
Sitting in the Kourounis taverna an old man approached me and started babbling away in Greek. He seemed friendly enough and after a while managed to grasp what everyone else in Kambos knows, that is to say my Greek is rudimentary at best. But I did gather two words: spiti (house) and fire (demonstrated by him producing flame from a lighter). He was laughing.
Given that there is no-one for miles around the hovel I do not understand how news of my pyromaniac failings have reached the village already, but it seems to be the way. At last I got hold of George the Architect who was sitting in his nice warm office in Kalamata. Apparently work on making the bat room habitable starts first thing tomorrow. I shall be there. I will not be betting the ranch on anyone else being there too.
I am still a bit confused as to why it was Carnival day all on Sunday but all over Greece folks were celebrating. I watched on TV as in Naxos they paraded through the streets dressed, I think, as ghouls. Somewhere else, a name containing absolutely all those Greek letters I can't pronounce and just give up on - they were dressed as sheep or was it goats, but they had bells on. With the carnival over Lent has now begun which means that the devout will eat no meat although it will still be served everwhere for Godless souls such as me and the Albanians.
In Kambos the kids were all in fancy dress even the two year old daughter of lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna. She has a Greek name with lots of confusing letters too and so I simply refer her to her as the future bride of my young son Joshua. The Mrs has a Greek brother in law and says that is enough bubbles in the family and so is not impressed by my little joke. But then she does not struggle, as I do, with the unprounounceable Greek letters.
Anyhow, Joshua's future wife was dressed up as a rather shy little red riding hood as you can see below.
This being a family website, and since I am such a fecking feminist, I decline to bring you photos of the ladies in bikinis. but as I drove along the Kalamata seafront today they were there, on the beach and heading in to the water for a swim. Not many brave the sea at this time of year and, I grant you, those that do may be out on day release, but it is just about do-able. Down by the shore it is again in the high teens and I wander around in a T-shirt.
As you drive up into the mountains of the Mani it gets a bit colder but I sit now in my office away from home, that is to say the Kourounis taverna in Kambos owned by lovely Eleni and I still wear a T-shirt.
It is a pleasant day. But if one looks up to the high Taygetos behind the village and above the Greek hovel ( photo 3 is looking down the "drive" of the hovel) , the global warming, as you can see, lies thickly.
Driving down snake hill as I headed back from the Greek Hovel towards the village of Kambos all was quiet. I could hear nothing at all. Bliss! Can God please have words with the Mrs about retiring and us living here all year round.
And there was some sound, not humans for there were none about but the tinkling of bells as I encountered a herd of sheep. The grass is lush and green at this time of year and they were feeding greedily, hopping over the rocks in a dedicated quest to fill their bellies.
And at the bottom of the hill there was another sound...that of water. The dry river has filled up after recent heavy rains and now spills over the track before falling off a ledge into a stream on the other side on its way to Susan Shimmin's "lake"
I have been so dog tired during the olive harvest that I have eaten our rarely. Normally supper has been a Greek salad in my hotel room. One Friday night, sensing the end of the harvest was nigh, I ventured out to my favourite restaurant here in Kalamata, the Katelanos which is about 400 yards from my hotel on the seafront.
As ever it was not exactly bustling. This is not a seasonal thing. It can often be found near deserted in summer as it is in winter. I really don't know why. On this night there was a table of eight, four men at one end talking man things and four women at the other end smoking hard and talking women things. Greece is a conservative place but this is progress. Thirty years ago the women would have been left at home. Other than that there was a lonely looking woman sipping a glass of wine in the corner, waiting, it seemed, for Godot. And there was me.
I chatted to my friend the lady who runs the place and for £15 enjoyed a plate of home made tzatziki (garlic infused yogurt with cucumbers) and grilled octopus an d, as the harvest was almost done, two ouzos. You might think that this seems like a bargain, I doubt you'd get much change out of £30 for the same meal in London. The food was good but I have grown mean in my old age now that I know the delights of Miranda's up in Kambos.
Up at Miranda's there are never any fish dishes. In the old days it would have been a three quarter day mule ride up from the sea to bring fish to the village so, even today, it is not on the menu. Instead it is locally grown vegetables and meat: goat, lamb, pork, beef or chicken. The cooking is simple but it tastes all the better for that.
As it is winter so we all sit inside. That one evening I made it 15 at dinner including me, All of us hunched up on four of five tables kept warm by a wood stove. For me it was park in a wine sauce and potatoes cooked in the oven - £5. The faces were all familiar to me: Nicho the Communist chatted to Foti the Albanian, the rather simple assistant chap at the garage laughed away.Naturally none of the diners were women, they all sit at home or occasionally venture into the Kourounis taverna.
Despite the woes of the harvest everyone seem in good form as Fix beers and small bottles of ouzo and raki were opened one after another. I popped in again yesterday for a farewell lunch: two knuckles of stewed beef and some incredible chickpeas in a sauce, drizzled with lemon. The chickpeas really were spectacular. That, an ouzo and a Greek coffee came to just over £8. I bade my farewells to all present, explained to my Communist friend that I'd be back in the spring, and with that it was goodbye to the best little restaurant in Greece.
I have not reported back on the Greek Hovel olive harvest as after each day's labours I have been just too dog tired to do anything. What can I say other than on many of the trees it was hunt the olives so bad had been the storm and it was very hard, boring work. But by Saturday noon I had three sacks filled to a greater or lesser extent with tens of thousands of tiny olives all harvested by myself. Enough is enough thought I, surely this is 80 kg and the 15 litres of oil I'd like to take back to the Mrs.
As they emptied the bags into the hopper at the Kambos press I began to think that maybe I had not harvested that much after all and sure enough the little piece of paper that followed my olives through the various stages of pressing told the stark truth - 54 kg. But that should be at least 9 litres thought I and bought two 5 litre cans from the Kourounis taverna. At least I knew that I would not be troubling the limits on my Easyjet baggage allowance flying back to Britain.
The final scores: seven and a half litres. that is enough for a year's personal use (I'm not David Furnish you know!) and Christmas presents for the usual folks but perhaps in smaller bottles this year. The big fat controller looked at my paper chit as I asked him how much I owed for the pressing. "Good eating Thomas" - for that is my name at the olive press - he said and ripped up the piece of paper.
Though I am knackered I could not have beaten God on this one. Next year I am treating myself to a late 50th birthday present: a second mat and an electric twerker. I want to do a full harvest without paid Albanian labour. Now all I need is a couple of willing volunteers to help me: no pay but free accommodation, what say you all?
If I was Byron, seperated from Hobhouse at Zitsa, i would be dashing off some verse after last night. But I'm not. i sit alone in my Kalamta hotel looking out at roads that look like the infamous Japanese Grand Prix where Lauda retired gifting James Hunt the world championship. It all started last night with loud bangs which I worried might be a bomb or a ship crashing into the harbour next to the hotel.
It was just thunder but the noise was deafening. Then the rain started and five sleepless hours later it continues. There is now a river running down the main road outside into a sea which is grey and boiling as the rain continues to tip down. Normally from here I can see the spine of the Mani, the giant Taygetos mountains standing tall and imposing at a right angle to the seafront. Today the odd mountain peers out from the mist and the cloud but even it is blurred.
There will be no harvesting for anyone today. Working in such rain is not pleasant and the danger of slipping down a terrace is very real. So I have an excuse to just sit and write. But where to write? I know that to get to Kambos will be less than pleasant. On the edge of Kalamata at Verga there will by now be a lake in the road. That is passable but with the fear that my small hire car may be stuck in its midst. After that there is the mountain road where rivers will be flowing down the sleep slopes onto and along my intended path.
It is quite fun sitting in the Kourounis taverna when it rains as - with no work to do in the fields - the whole village seems to stop by. The place gets crowded, the smell of aniseed (from ouzo) is all pervasive. Getting to the Greek Hovel itself maybe a bit trickier. The dry river will not be dry by now but the read perror is the mud for once you get to the top of snake hill, the last half a mile of "road" is just a mud track winding through the olive groves. Right now it will be filling up with deep puddles and as each car, truck or flock of goats passes by it will become more like the Somme becoming ever more slippery.
My best friend in Kambos said it in the nicest possible way and I should admit that i am beginning to doubt my own sanity. After day three of my harvest i now have just over half a 50kg sack of olives. As i wandered into the Kourounis taverna in Kambos, Nicho had asked how I was and i replied that i was a bit tired after harvesting. He said "you are working with the Albanians?"
I replied no. I am doing it alone. There are too few olives to make it worthwhile hiring Albanians. His verdict on me is, I think, fair. At the start of this adventure, as George the Albanian lent me four sacks to fill, I thought "I will show him, I will fill six!". By yesterday I had scaled that back to four. Now my goal is to get to two which will give me 15 litres of oil to take home. But as i try to fill those bags I am starting to question my own sanity as this is back breaking work.
Many of the trees have no or very few olives as a result of the storm. Those which still bear fruit do not have enough to justify moving the mat and beating the olives down with my paddle and so I have a new strategy. The mat stays stationary. Instead I use my trusty hacksaw to chop off any branches with a half decent amount of olives. George the Albanian uses an electric saw for this but I am reliant on the old ways. I then drag the branches to the mat to give them a damn good thrashing. That can be quite therapeutic. The piles of branches are, as you can see, getting bigger.
By the time I finished today it was starting to get dark, it was getting colder and my limbs were starting to ache. As i kneeled to scoop my weedy pile of olives from my mat into the sack I felt just a little pathetic. This is not how a harvest is meant to be. A sane man would call it a day and buy some oil from his neighbours to take home. But as CJ from the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin would have said" I did not get where I am today by being sane."
A sane man would not have bought an uninhabitable hovel half way up a mountain in Greece and a sane man would not be working to renovate it. In that vein I battle on tomorrow...
I carry some photos of Joshua with me and, having met him in the summer, folks here in Kambos always ask after him. I show the photos from the christening and they agree that he is incredibly handsome and has a lovely smile. Natch he takes after his mother. Anyhow, I miss him terribly and, to console me, the Mrs has sent over three photos. As you can see in the third he is already very keen on books although happy, for now , to read like an Australian, that is to say upside down.
Having been told by George the Albanian that it was uneconomic to do a commercial harvest this year after the storms he loaned me four sacks as I said I wanted to go it alone. I had meant to start "avrio" but something made me haed up to the hovel. I think it was frustration with certain aspects of work back in the UK. It has been one of those days when I really just wanted to pack it all in and spend my life writing about life here in Kambos.
Arriving at the hovel I saw George the Architect again chatting to the builders and we discussed a couple of issues regarding the interior of the bat room and the location of a trap door. I explained that there were so few olives left on the trees that I was just going to hand pick enough to produce 15 litres of oil, my annual consumption, including presents.
I spend about an hour hand picking and managed two and a half trees. One did indeed have so few olives on it that hand picking made sense. But the others were not quite as barren as I had feared. As he strolled back to his car George asked why I was not using a paddle and a mat to bring down the olives in the traditional way. I said that there were too few to make it worthwhile and he shrugged his shoulders. But, of course, he is right. The near barren trees can be ignored. The ones with a modest harvest should be attacked in the traditional way.
So far one and a half modest trees and one near barren one have yielded a few kg of olives. A sack will hold 50 kg. After a lengthy discussion lovely Eleni and her husband Nicho agreed that one sack would yield 8-10 litres of oil so I need a sack and a half for my needs, anything else I can sell. for ouzo money.
In for a penny in for 28.5 Euro I have invested in a paddle and a mat. Tomorrow I start work in earnest.
As I wandered into the little square in Kambos which has Miranda's at the top, looking up at Zarnata castle, and the Kourounis taverna on one side, something looked very wrong.
The plastic chairs laid out by the accursed new creperie last summer had gone and it looked very closed. Hooray. Lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna says that it is "closed for winter" but then smiled. And perhaps for summer too I suggested. And she smiled again. Pissing off the locals, having no customers what could possibly go wrong with such a business model?
But there was something else missing. The hardware and garden store where i buy snake repelling (sometimes) sulphur and get my strimmer mended had also disappeared. It used to occupy the building next to the creperie but sprawled out into a side square as well. But no longer, as you can see below.
The good news is that it has merely relocated to the old man's ouzerie opposite the Kourounis taverna on the main street. I popped in to see my friend Vangelis who runs the store and we discussed the olive harvest disaster and then why he had moved. He reckons it will be easier for his customers to park and so is a good move.
Eleni thinks it is a good move too. There are just four tables inside Miranda's and the temperature here as it gets dark is already heading to close to zero. Do not believe what the weather forecasts tell you about Greece being hot. Sure those clear blue skies mean that it is 17 degrees as I write now, at midday. I can sit outside at the Kourounis in just a shirt. But those same clear skies see the temperatures plunge as it gets dark.
And that means that if the 537 residents of Kambos want a drink in the evening, one the 15 seats in Miranda's are gone, they now appear to have a choice of...the Kourounis taverna. Eleni may have seen her olives wiped by the disaster but I sense she has a decent winter ahead.
I rarely used the ouzerie where the the clientele made the House of Lords seem like a bunch of young whippersnappers but now and again I popped in so I regret its passing. That regret is not shared by team Kourounis taverna. But we can, at least, agree in delighting at the closure of the Greco-French creperie. Here's hoping that it is goodbye not au revoir.
It is, perhaps, my favourite "office." Sitting in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos I tap away happily. Lovely Eleni keeps the coffee coming and every now and again I look up to watch the world go by, oh so slowly, on the main street in Kambos,, the village closest to the Greek Hovel.
The main street through Kambos is, of course also the road from Kalamata down into the Mani and in summer it can get busy with tourists heading off to Kardamili, if they are middle class Brits or Norwegians heading to the Jazz festival, or to Stoupa if they are the sort of folks who like to wear football shirts when on holiday in case a game breaks out. In winter the traffic is thin.
But occasionally there was a jam. A tractor pulls a cart full of kit or produce. A horse pulls something else. Or, as yesterday, a flock of sheep or goats is walked along the road with no great urgency with an ever longer line of cars following on behind. But what is there to rish for. Sit back, look up at the mountains on one side or Zarnata castle on the other. Enjoy. This is Greece. You can always wait until "avrio" to do what needs to be done.
And thus as I sat yesterday the sheep were in town...
I wandered up to the Greek Hovel this morning and saw, at once, that something was not quite right. Yes there were olives on the trees as you can see below but not vast numbers.
Instead the floor around each tree was carpeted with leaves and olives. Disaster! What had I done wrong? Heading back to the village of Kambos it was soon clear. It is not just me. The whole village is in mourning for here the trees are like a beautiful woman, they are to be nurtured, protected and loved. In return they give generously. That is the theory. But the Gods have not been kind to us this year.
A few days ago there was a terrible storm. I kind of guessed as much as, in places, the track up to the hovel is reminiscent of the Somme in 1916. And the dry river at the bottom of the valley which one must cross to start the ascent up snake hill and to the hovel is getting fuller by the day.
The storm smashed into the trees hard. Gloomily my neighbours suggest that 60% of the harvest has been lost. Others say it is 80%. What on earth have they done in Kambos to suffer such a fate. Have the Gods not punished this country enough?
For me it is a pain but nothing more. My olive income might, in a good year, pay for a flight and a holiday here. I still hope to do a brief harvest for a day or two to bring back some oil to Britain and perhaps sell a few litres to get enough to pay George the Albanian for his help. But for my neighbours who really do need that olive money this is truly disastrous.
There is a glimmer of light. Lovely Eleni from the Kourounis taverna says that the Government is there to help. Welcome to Greekenomics. The Greek state is, as you know, bankrupt and only exists by borrowing more money from the ECB, the EU and others in return for taking measures to screw its poorest folks even more - real austerity. But the bankrupt Government may, it seems, be prepared to hand out cash to we poor farmers to cushion our losses - can Mrs May agree to up the Brexit divorce bill by a bit more, Kambos needs her to be weak.
All I need to do is head to the Town Hall ( workforce 4 for a population of 637) and ask for my cash? Suddenly a bare and broken olive tree becomes a money tree. What's not to like.
It seems that Easyjet has started direct flights from Bristol to Athens and I am booked in. It is now just over three weeks to D-Day and a trip to the mighty Hellenic Republic. I can't wait.
The Mrs was unaware of this new service and asks if she can come too? Only if you are prepared to work on the olive harvest up at the Greek Hovel say I and that shuts her up. So it is all booked. A return flight with baggage for just £110. Bargain.
All that is needed now is a few calls to lovely Eleni to make sure that my comrade in olive harvesting, George the Albanian, is free and I am set. By the 21st November I shall be sitting in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos relaxing over a morning coffee and all will be well in my world.
With a day to kill before flying back from Greece to what the Mrs calls home but I call Britain, there was time for one last lunch in my "home village" of Kambos. First a brief stop off at Joshua's inheritance, the Greek hovel, where a bulldozer had arrived and great progress has been made. I have photos of that, of my olives and also of my prickley pears but they can wait. For the main event, in a village whose great attraction is that nothing ever happens, was lunch in the main square.
Three of the main four tables at Miranda's were occupied. At two sat local Greeks sipping slowly at cool beers. At a third, Gary Sausage held court. He is a Brit but a permanent resident not of Kambos but of these parts. He is not really called Mr Sausage. I have no idea of his real name and I am not sure if anyone else knows either. But since he makes his living importing pork pies, British bangers and the like for those other ex-pats who - for reasons I cannot fathom - have a yearning for British food, he is Mr Gary Sausage.
The name has a naughtier sub text. Gary arrived here with his wife. In these progressive times I suppose I should make it explicitly clear that his wife was a woman. I say was because she appears to have tired of his charms and returned to Blighty. This information would surprise you as Gary Sausage is both rotund and also just extraordinarily camp. My gaydar is clearly very defective because I just assumed that he was one of life's big fat fairies. Think Christopher Biggins in shorts.
What is more, Gary Sausage always holds court when I see him in Kambos. He is always surrounded by a gaggle of British ladies who, like him, are in their sixties and have seen more than their fair share of Mediterranean sunshine and who seem to hang on his every word. Gary Sausage is the only straight man in the West to have this power over women. Anyhow he was holding Court on a large table strewn with rapidly emptying plates and bottles. Gary Sausage knows who I am, though since I have no cravings for pork pies or marmite, we have never talked.And so as the Mrs and I walked, with Joshua in his pushchair, towards the fourth table there was a fleeting acknowledgement from the great man before he refocused his attentions on his gaggle.
Miranda's was thus pretty full for a late lunch period. It was surrounded by empty plastic chairs ans empty plastic tables from the ghastly new creperie. On one of those tables sat the half French half Greek owner and her Greek father - the interlopers. They talked to themselves for they had no-one else to serve or to chat too. If someone passed by they would smile. The old man caught Joshua's eye and smiled. Joshua smiled back. That looks like a rarity.
The plain fact is that the locals are not using the creperie at all. And the last tourists have all gone, not that there was any sign that they were using it either. You do not need to be Richard Branson to see the gaping hole in the business plan going forward. And everyone in Kambos knows that.
There will come a day this Autumn when the creperie will not bother with the charade of opening its doors and laying out tables for customers who will never come. Perhaps the froggy will have another go next summer. I hope not. But pro tem the excruciating embarrassment goes on. The owner and her Dad sit there because they have to pretend they have a business and have tp keep smiling.
We all know that their fate is sealed and many of us look forward to the demise of the creperie and a return to the old order of the square being "owned" by the Kourounis taverna, Miranda's and the shop where I buy poison for frigana and get my strimmer mended. For now, however, we avoid catching a French eye, avoid having to smile back, avoid the sheer embarrassment of it all.
I am no particular admirer of my Oxford contemporary, the pompous MP for somewhere in Somerset, Jacob Rees Mogg. But my fellow residents of the Hellenic Republic should at once establish a committee to erect statues of the pin stripe suited buffoon in every town square in our great land. The heroes of 1821 should stand shoulder to shoulder with the man who has arrived at a solution to our economic misery and enslavement by the fucking Germans, sorry I meant the EU, and banksters. Jacob Rees Mogg is the new Byron.
This may come as a surprise to Jacob but he raised a very valid point this week on the matter of Brexit which, to his credit, he supports unreservedly. Jacob notes that if the UK as a large net contributor is expected tp pay vast sums as the price of leaving then should a big net gainer wish to leave surely the EU would have to pay it a vast sum as compensation. His logic is impeccable.
The amount that the UK gave the EU in 2016 net of automatic rebate and the amount spent in the UK by the Evil Empire, spent not always wisely it should be said, was £8.6 billion (call it 9.4 billion Euro) and the EU is demanding 100 billion Euro as our exit bill so that is 10.64 times historic net contributions.
In 2015 - the last year for which we have figures - Greece paid E1.206 billion to the Evil Empire but the EU spent E6.210 billion in Greece making a net inflow of E5.004 billion to the Hellenes. As Rees Mogg points out, a consistent and logical EU would force Greece to accept -a cheque if it left the EU which on the UK multiplier formula would be E53.23 billion. There could be no talks about trade or the rights of Germans to relive the joys of the 1940s and move to Greece until the Greeks agreed to receive a cheque for 53 billion Euro.
That works out at a one off windfall equivalent to a 31% boost to GDP or put another way a one off gift of E4,936.51 for every man woman and child resident in Greece. Hmm I make that the cost of 897 meals of a Greek salad and an ouzo at lovely Eleni's Kouronis taverna in my home village of Kambos. Each time I raise my glass I would think of Jacob, the man who made this possible for Greece.
I am sure that my fellow residents would each happily donate 1 Euro of their windfalls towards the committee to erect a statue of Jacob Rees Mogg in every town square in this land.
The way forward is clear. leave the logical EU, pick up a cheque for 53 billion Euro, go straight to Go at which point revert to the drachma and say that all our external debts will be repaid in nice new drachmas. We all know that the drachma will plunge in value every year so the banksters take it up the arse, Greece has solved its debt problems at a stroke and with 53 billion Euros to spend from the EU as our "price of Grexit" it is ouzos all round as we toast the new Bryron, Jacob Rees Mogg.
A meeting with George the Architect at the Greek Hovel went well. Joshua inspected his inheritance. The Mrs fretted about where to put the washing machine. For a house that is half built with no doors windows, roof and, in the case of two and a half rooms, walls, I reckon she may be getting ahead of herself.
After that a visit to our local village of Kambos and for 12 Euros we share two courses and a quarter litre of Rose at Miranda's. Miranda herself has retired but the food is, as ever excellent. Chicken in a lemon sauce with potatoes (not chips) and a Greek salad all made with fresh local ingredients. Perfect. Miranda's was packed out - that is to say all six tables were occupied.
Afterwards coffees at the Kourounis taverna run by lovely Eleni. It is agreed that her two year old daughter will marry Joshua in due course. The dowry, free Greek salads for life. well actually I have not negotiated that bit yet but the wedding has been agreed. The Kourounis taverna is pretty busy and conversation turns to the ghastly creperie which had absolutely zero customers during our time in town.
Eleni is ever the diplomat but she is no fan of the bossy French woman who has parked her tables across the square and intruded on life in a village where nothing is meant to change and rarely does. But the lack of customers has not gone un-noticed and there is a small smile noticeable as she notes that the business plan keeps changing. First it was crepes, then pizzas and now coffee and toasties. And now the summer is over, the tourists who might have stopped in as they drive from Kardamili to Kalamata or vice versa are all gone. And the locals will stay in the four of five long established watering holes of Kambos.
The creperie is, methinks, toast. Eleni's smile tells you it certainly is not hurting her trade though it is an annoying eyesore. I reckon by the time I return for the olive harvest in November the creperie will be shuttered up. Good.
One day the Mrs will learn that me and the seaside really don't mix. She has booked us into a pleasant hotel, the Baywatch, which to her annoyance, is nowhere near the sea. It does, however, have a wonderful view of the bay of Kalamata, a pool which Joshua, the Mrs and I like and is relatively quiet. The guests are nearly all young couples so I am the oldest there and find the music at the bar mildly irritating. That is to say it is all post 1995 and thus, by definition, utterly crap. But the internet works so I can relax by tapping away while Joshua crawls around the floor, licks windows, pulls books apart and does all the other things that make him happy. The Mrs is reading a book on the philosophy of marriage and occasionally draws my attention to a passage which highlights one of my rare failings as a husband.
But today here we are by the sea. Why have a Caribbean themed bar with a range of cheap gin, rum and vodka cocktails here in Greece except to cater to tourists with a limited IQ? Oh for the days of old when the charm of a Greek beach-side village was that it might have just a couple of shacks where you could drink ouzo or perhaps a Fix beer with fishermen and locals. Okay the shacks had no internet but then again I can't get the internet to work here either. That always makes my blood pressure soar.
Of course the shack for the fisherman is not the Greece of my lifetime. When I first came here, the Colonels had already been ousted and with an ever plunging drachma the foreigners were already swarming in for a cheap and cheerful holiday by the sun. But away from the sea, back in the 1970s, the Old Greece still existed. Food was rudimentary and based on sheep or goat, drink was almost always local wines not beer, roads in the mountains were either bad or non-existent and so some places really were preserved from the dreaded tourist. You really were enjoying a glass of local red wine for just a drachma with shepherds and other land workers. Conversation was in German as at least some men in every village had been Gastarbeiten at some point to escape the grinding poverty of rural Greece.
But the battle of the Kambos creperie was the dilemma Paddy pondered. For the natives the creperie and toasties might seem to offer them new choices. It might perhaps bring the possibility of new jobs and income to the village. As such it is a seductive siren just as, many years ago, wall to wall Caribbean themed bars must have been where I sit now . But for those with money and a real love of Greece it just forces us further afield to places that are still Greek. With its giant banners advertising Spanish beer or Swiss coffee this bar could be anywhere. How I wish it was somewhere else. Like Spain.
You will be glad that my camera is still unable to upload photos and so sits idle in my bag. For the view here is of human bodies sweating in the sun. I cover my own rolls of flesh with a T-shirt but most folks here wander around in swimsuits. A few of our species, such as my young wife, look wonderful in partial undress. But far too many of us just expose great rolls of blubber. Others wear all in one outfits into which the blubber is poured. As it desperately fills every inch of swimsuit and tries to escape it leaves nothing to the imagination.
And so I sit here surrounded by vile bodies listening to elevator music, dreadful remixes of tunes re-designed so as not to offend seventy year olds. The meze we are offered could have come from Iceland, the store for chavs, not the Country and, as a coup de grace, the Mrs and I are offered a shot of locally produced cough mixture on the house. That is a way of saying "you are tourists so all you want is to get hammered after paying 20 Euro for some third rate junk food now piss off."
Joshua sleeps soundly through all of this.
This time next year the Greek Hovel will, I believe, be finished. We three will sit by our own pool. I shall have no cause to grumble as the only semi-clad adult body on view will be that of the Mrs, there will be quiet all around, the meze will be made by me of local produce. And if the Kambos creperie has gone bust, all will be well.
I am afraid that I have lost a lead and so cannot upload photos just yet so you will have to bear with me as I describe the scene in the main square of Kambos, my home village here in Greece. I have returned after three months to discover that the creperie run by a French Greek woman has opened. Quelle horreur!
Kambos is on the main road from Kardamili and the lower Mani up to Kalamata at about the half way point. As you drive into Kambos from Kardamili with the ruins of Zarnata castle on the hill behind you, the road turns sharply left at an angle of 90 degrees. Take that turn and you will head to Kalamata. Fail to take that turn and you would head into the small main square of the village which would be regrettable as it is entirely pedestrianised.
In the far right hand corner of the square is the new "creperie." I do not know where to start with my objections. Firstly the menu chalked up in poor English on a board stuck in front of Miranda's shade does not mention crepes but instead has a list of the sort of shite food you get at a Greek seaside resort. Food for pot bellied Brits wearing football tops. It is the sort of think I hoped I'd never see in Kambos.
Worse still the creperie not only has ghastly plastic tables and chairs outside its walls but has put up two rows of tightly packed plastic tables in front of Miranda's tables. You must try to navigate around them to get to Miranda's and the clear intent is to steal any passing trade.
This has all happened in the three months since I was last in Kambos. The creperie was, I am delighted to say, deserted apart from one table of foreigners - that is to say Brits. Mirandas was packed as was the Kourounis taverna. I would hope that as the tourists disappears so too will the creperie. Maybe other folks in Kambos are more tolerant but I wish the place a speedy demise.
PS. If you happen to be passing through Kambos and actually want a crepe, in the summer Eleni gets out a machine and her crepes are just awesome so head straight for the Kourounis taverna and go no further.
It is the 50th birthday party of the sister of the Mrs today. The sister in law is married to a bubble and we are staying in their house in his family village about 90 minutes the other side of Kalamata from the Mani. The party is on a boat so Joshua is not invited and I am showing solidarity with my 11 month old son and we are going on a road trip together.
The destination is the Greek Hovel. The workmen are not on site so it will be just myself, Joshua and the snakes up there as we inspect his inheritance. Joshua does know the animal sound for snake. He waves his hand from side to side in a snake like movement and hisses through his teeth. He has seen a picture of a snake in the Gruffalo but yet to meet a real one. I think he knows that they are bad things and not like Oakley ones where you can pinch them and try to push them around.
Then to the nearest village to the hovel, Kambos, to see my friends and for them to see the son and heir. I am charging my camera tonight for a full photoshoot and will bring you the results over the weekend.
Work continues on remodelling the existing structures at the Greek Hovel as we await final planning permission for adding new structures, including a roof. And so I bring you the new main doorway which is now almost complete as the photos below show.
You may remember that the old door was a rectangular green metal and glass object which was not going to win any prizes in a beauty contest. It kept out the snakes but small lizards could manage to wriggle in around the frame. as the hovel becomes a palace I have grand designs.
George the architect says that the stones used around the door and the arch above will lighten over the next few weeks so blending in with the existing stonework.The white plastic you see below the arch is temporary and there will be another ring of stones on top. The doorway will thus look like one in an old building in the centre of the nearest village, Kambos which is the last photo in the selection.
As for the door, here my pinching of ideas moves down the coast to the house that Paddy Leigh Fermor built just outside Kardimili. A thick wooden door painted a light blue has been ordered. But doors and windows are for the future. For now the wildlife diversity is free to enter at will.
I leave for Greece early next week with the Mrs and Joshua. Sadly, for most of the trip we are booked in to stay with her sister and her husband, the bubble, whose family live about an hour and a half the other side of Kalamata. It is my friends in Kambos who I want to see and the hovel that I wish to photo and admire. Sitting near the sea at the height of the tourist season in the midst of a madding crowd is not MY Greece. That is sitting with the snakes and the quiet up in the foothills of the Taygetos.
I shall try to escape as much as I can and bring you more photos on my rare snatches of freedom.
There is a snag. We have all the demolition permits but the building permit iss er. delayed. Yes that is the one we were promised by June 30. Now it is August so after eleven months of toil and endeavour the Greek State bureaucracy grinds to a halt. So the builders can do nothing until September. I head to Greece shortly and will be popping into the Kalamata planning department for words... However there is good news as you can see below.
The stonework on the existing hovel has been replaced and window spaces made perfect. it looks a bit grey but that is only because the cement used to seal the stone is grey. It will now be scraped out and replaced with a yellower cement which with the light yellow, brown, red and grey stones means the Hovel will be the same colour after completion as it was before. It will just be a place not a hovel.
The roof is off and from September, before the winter rains start , a new pitched wooden roof to be tiled, will start to go up. The end of the rat room has been taken off so that it can be extended out by another two yards to make a great bedroom for Joshua. All in all there is real progress. I shall be back in the Taygetos mountains seeing my friends in Kambos and checking out the hovel in a couple of weeks time but it is heading the right way.
The rat room, at least, should be habitable by the time I head over for the olive harvest in December.
In England life is so clinical and clean and removed from nature. Our food is covered in plastic. Seeing your cat wander through the cat flap counts as a wildlife encounter. How different life is for me in Kambos, Greece.
I wandered out out of Eleni's Kourounis taverna and round the corner to my car which was parked on the road whicfh heads up past the big new Church on top of the Kambos hill and then out through the olive groves and off up into the Taygetos mountains. There is a small right turning one hundred yards past the church. If you did not know it was there you would miss it.
It looks like someone's drive but is the way to another small road which winds its way past yet another tiny old church which can hold a dozen folks no more and on through the olive trees, eventually tumbling down the hill to meet the road to the Greek Hovel just at the bottom of abandoned monastery hill. It was on this road that I killed an adder with my motorbike two years ago.
I digress. I got in my car and there on the windscreen was a cricket. I drive off and it stayed there seemingly enjoying the ride, only departing as we headed down the sharp slope towards monastery hill. The greens and yellows and intricate patterns on its body are not really captured in this photo but, once again, I was left to marvel at how God's design work really is pretty special
For a couple of weeks, the Mrs and I were wondering why the widely advertised event in this part of Bristol was called SPRINGfest. After all it is July. Perhaps it is that unfashionable old Brislington is just a bit behind the times? It turns out that this is the festival of the Sandy Park Road Improvement Neighbourhood Group. It is a bit out a mouthful but the main thoroughfare in this part of the world sure does need improving.
It has one uber dodgy pub, one fairly ordinary restaurant but a proliferation of charity shops, fish and chip shops and low grade Estate agents. I suppose there is a new Deli.. it is improving a bit.
At the top of the road is St Cuthberts where Joshua was christened two weeks ago. It was hosting the sort of "producers" Bristol abounds with. that is to say folks who produce home made jewellery, cards and tea towels. We said hello to the vicar who, once again, was on good behaviour, managing not to mention the oppression of the poor Palestinians, for a whole two minutes. We wandered round. £8 for a tea towel. Bargain. Off we headed to the bottom of Sandy Park for the food festival.
Somerset cider, meat pies from Bath, cheese from the Mendips you get the impression. In among the stands was one selling olive oil from southern Greece, from the Peloponnese to be exact - where the Greek hovel is situated. There was a card with a lot of horse about how the olives head from tree to press within 18 hours making the oil that much better. Horse say I. Pure horse. Olives are harvested and sacked. At the end of the harvest on each piece of land be it one day or several you takes the olives for pressing. It is cool in December in Southern Greece, perhaps a degree below zero at night. There is no rush to get your olives to the press.
For what it is worth, the oil was a pale yellow with no green tinge and utterly bland in taste. So much for all its special qualities. Horse say I and horse again. But what about the price? You could buy 200 ml bottles, 500 mil bottles or - the best value - 2* 500 ml bottles for a mere £20. Twenty fucking quid!!!! In Kambos we sell our oil - which tastes far better - to the co-operative for just under £3 a litre and the local producers make a gross profit margin of around 60%, including labour costs, even at that level! £10 just try and work out the markup on that one? The stand older was avin a giraffe. The sort of margin he is making is right up there with that on heroin importation and his oil is not even that good.
I bit my lip. It does not make me want to go into olive oil in a commercial sense. It just makes me think how silly, pampered and detached from the real world of the soil and the field, the British middle classes have become.
I was driving on the road that heads up into the mountains heading from Kalamata to Kambos. Of course it does not end in Kambos, the nearest village the Greek Hovel. Kambos is just a settlement, of no particular historical significance, beauty or importance, sitting on the road as one heads to Kardamili, the ghastly tourist fleshpot of Stoupa or the regional capital Areopolis. But Kambos is as far as I usually go.
The sun was beating down and 600 yards out of town as the road starts to climb I saw a young woman, laden down with shopping bags and gesticulating wildly. Naturally, being a gent, I stopped and she said she was trying to get back to Stoupa. I said I could take her as far as Kambos and she tried to get into the front seat.
And then she stopped. as you can see lying on my front seat was my axe and 12 inch saw. Worse still I had my frigana chopper sitting there with the shaft running into the back seat. It has a tiny leak in the tank and so the whole car stank of petrol.
In Britain in the current climate that would have seen the girl calling 101 on her cellphone and an armed response unit arriving within minutes. JK Rowling would be on twitter within half an hour, talking about how yet another white supremacist had been nabbed and how Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage were to blame. But here in the Mani I bet many cars are kitted out thus at this time of year. The young lady clambered into the back and we started chatting.
Looking in my rear view mirror I though she polished up well and that confirmed my prejudices. She was a Greek from Stoupa and my shame is that I leapt to the conclusion that she was just another dippy millennial out shopping and now heading back to Stoupa, a cultural desert, to head out to the bars. Shame on me.
Her passion was botany and we talked flowers. She searched for rare orchids up in the high Mani. She had spent the morning talking online to a world famous Irish botanist about a plant she had discovered. Did I know of him she asked? I had not heard of him. I remarked on the flowers up at the Hovel in spring and how I photographed them,. She asked me what flowers they were.
All that I could say is that I thought they were varied, of many colours and very attractive. Who is the bloody airhead now? C'est moi. I did not dare to mention that, as Nicho the Communist and I had purged the snakefields of frigana with poison, I had wiped out most of the flowers at the same time. An airhead and a vandal to boot, I was shamed.
The shock is for any google pervs out there who have alighted on this page and though the photos are wonderful will be rather disappointed by their nature, The Miranda's I refer to is, of course, the restaurant next to the Kourounis taverna on the square where the road through Kambos makes a sharp right angle as it heads off to Kardamili.
Miranda's boasts a wide menu but in fact normally has one dish a day. But the food is awesome and so cheap. And thus for 8 Euro I enjoyed a sort of beef burger containing some cheese and also very sharp and spicy peppers. Okay, that is high on calories but I had done several hours of manual labour up at the Greek Hovel. The point for a type 2 diabetic like myself is that it was carb free. Moreover I shared this with a cat which does not really belong to Miranda's but just wanders around begging as Greek cats do. Aaaah what a sweet pussy.
To accompany that there was a vegetable side dish: peppers, zucchini and a few slices of potato which I ignored all topped with local feta. Just wonderful.
I guess that in England the owner of this dog and this truck would have been locked up by the Health & Safety Executive or prosecuted by the PC nazis at the RSPCA. The poor hound is not muzzled and not on a leash and travels in the back of the truck everywhere. FFS he is not wearing a seat-belt, call the old bill now!
It is a sweet nature if fearsome looking hound. As the truck wends its way along main street Kambos or in the country roads outside sometimes the dog puts its paws on the side standing up to look at what is going on. If it sees a cat or an Albanian it may bark loudly. But it is a loveable creature otherwise perhaps because of the freedom it enjoys. That awful freedom, I can hear the shouts of "animal cruelty" ringing from "animal lovers in Islington, Clifton and Oxford already.
I am meant to test my blood sugars twice daily and be in a range of 5-7 whatever that means.Almost two months ago I was 15.3 but these days an almost zero carb, almost zero alcohol, low stress and modest daily exercise lifestyle plus five pills a day has seen me happily in "normal" territory for someone tackling type 2 diabetes, for some days. But I just tested myself and it was 9.6. WTF!
I have not has any ouzo, though I deserve it today, and have had no carbs or sugars. But I have done a two hour stint of frigana chopping up at the Greek Hovel. I am drenched in sweat and I could feel my heart beating fast. So natch, I checked on google.
Vigorous exercise can, it seems, cause a short term spike in blood sugars. And this has been my most vigorous exercise since last December's olive harvest.But it should unwind within an hour or so and long term doing exercise will cut my blood sugars. Pondering this over a most excellent lettuce salad and numerous big glasses of water at lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna in Kambos I am resolved to take it easy this afternoon.
As I butchered the frigana earlier I found several olive trees that I had neglected to prune and a few large bushes of frigana which might be hiding a you know what. They are in an area of my land where I have had unpleasant encounters before. And thus this afternoon an hour of gentle pruning and somewhat less gentle poisoning beckons. The fight goes on.
You will remember that back in early April my blood sugars measured 15.3 and I was told that my type 2 diabetes was raging out of control. It has been a long slog since then as I have aimed to get into a target range of 5 to 7. Whatever that means.
But I can now say that for three days both in the morning and evening my bloods have come in at between 5.5 and 7.2 with most tests in the 6's. This is normal range. This is where I should be. No booze, no sugars in anything and no carbs is the key with some gentle exercise thrown in. Oh, and no stress.
There is bad news on that front to report from the Greek Hovel. We had to chop a few branches off trees leading up to the hovel to allow heavy machinery in. The neighbours happily agreed. They have now, post chopping, asked for 900 Euro compensation. I am spitting nails. You can buy a new sapling for 8 Euro. You can buy land here planted with trees for 65 Euro a tree and even that is more than the Net Present Value of the olives you will harvest. And we have cut off a few branches.
I know that they are taking the piss. They know they are taking the piss. And I have told George the architect that they are taking the piss. As I say when some crook sues me for libel in the UK "See you in Court bitchez." There are three neighbours involved. I have told George I will see them in Kambos and face them down in front of their fellow villagers so exposing their greed to all. Their assumption must be that I am a rich Brit who will roll over. They are wrong and we have the photos, before and after, to prove it. If needs be I shall go to Court.
I am sure that I will calm down by tomorrow, but stress is not good. maybe I need to just fly back to the UK and calm down. Probably not. I need to stay here and sort this out.
The diabetes is not beaten yet. I am on heavy meds and I am sure that my GP will want me to get back into normal range with ever lower doses. But so far so good. My first goal has been reached and I am starting to think about a return to work in September.
I wonder how long the road up from the bottom of the valley to the Greek Hovel has remained unchanged? The house is 100 years old so there will have been a mud track up to it for a century. In the 1970s, I think, the stretch known as snake hill, was concreted over. The biggest pot hole in that part is so large that you need to partially go off road to avoid your car wheel getting jammed inside. Smaller pot holes litter the road but these days I know how to navigate around them. But from the top of snake hill as one winds through the olive groves it is almost entirely just baked mud.
Since the good folks of Kambos have been tending their olive trees up here for a lot longer than the Greek Hovel has been around perhaps the stretch of track through the groves is even older. But my point is that it has stayed pretty much as is for decades. The sheep use it. The snakes sleep on it without fear of interruption, lizards scuttle across it and now and again myself or my neighbour ( two miles away) Charon might drive or wander along it. At olive picking time folks lay mats across the road knowing that they are unlikely to be disturbed.
But all that has changed and its my fault and I feel a bit of a sense of shame. In order to get the equipment we need up to the hovel it has had to be widened. Some awful machine had just scraped away at the grass on either side of the path. In places, new piles of rocks lire discarded as some ancient wall has been pushed aside. You can tell where the earth has been disturbed as it is red. The photo below contrasts new track with that leading up to hovel, earth bleached white by years of sunlight.
I know that walls will be patched up and that in a few years the grass will have regrown and the track will be back as it was but for now I feel as if I have cuased some ghastly modern intrusion in the groves which have lain tranquil and undisturbed for all of living memory. It is my fault and I do feel a sense of shame.
On the morning of day 5 I am now into a routine of doing enough exercise out at the Greek hovel each day which sees me break into a sweat. Today it was an hour and a half of olive tree pruning. Boy my little babies are vigorous. the ones I prune a month ago have sprouted new shoots to lop off, the ones I have yet to tackle are really hard work. In 30 plus degree heat I have worked up a good sweat and climbing up and down the terraces left me almost breathless by the end. Good news. And I did not see one snake. Even better news.
My hotel has a pool and at 32 degrees down by the sea i am sorely tempted to have a swim. I am taking my medication religiously. I have not had a drink since Sunday nor do I imbibe fruit juice or diet coke. My diet is largely based on Greek salads, although I am allowing myself bacon and eggs for breakfast, and is almost entirely carbohydrate free. I am now enjoying a late lunch of soda water and a salad with no bread at the Kourounis taverna in Kambos.
By blood sugar measurements were 15.3 before I headed to Greece the first time. They were down in the 6, 7 8 range before the mother in law arrived but back in the low mid teens by the time she left. Stress free and back in a routine I tested 10.3 this morning having been 10.5 the day before. That is, of course, far too high. I should be sub 7. But I am heading the right way.
The good thing is that the symptoms of type 2 diabetes, most of which a gentleman does not discuss on the internet, have almost all gone. I feel more alive, more energetic and really looking at new challenges. I did my first podcast for two months today. It is not going to be a daily thing for a good while yet but it was a fun diversion. I have three work projects which I am mulling over. They will not take much time but will be fun and I feel up for a challenge.
There is no plan of going back to normal work any time soon. 10.3 is still shockingly high and unless I get that down to sub 8 by the time I next see my GP in three weeks I shall be getting a right old rollocking. But the trend is my friend and I feel pretty good about the way things are going.
I headed pretty much straight from Kalamata airport up to Kambos for a Greek salad at the Korounis taverna. As i wandered in a couple of old men whose names I do not know raised their hands and said "Yas." Everyone in the village knows about the snake-phobic Englishman who lives surrounded by snakes up in the hills at Toumbia. After that it was up to the snakefields and the Greek Hovel where Gregori and his gang of Greek Albanians have really started to transform the place as you can see below.
The first photo is of the house as you approach it up the garden path. The old tree which used to tower above the hovel and whose roots were gradually undermining it has gone. that exposes the ugly metals windows and the breeze blocks below them to full view but they will be gone too within the next week or so. Imagine that view with old style wooden windows and shutters painted a Greek blue and you can start to see this 100 year old house for the beauty she was once and will be again.
Further along this side of the house all the metal railings have been removed on the stairs up to the front door and the area above the old bread oven. Gregori, who kills snakes with his bare hands, has cleaned out that oven and declared it fit for use. That is a bonus. I must admit that in three years i have not even dared look inside for fear of what members of the wildlife diversity community I might find.
On the other side of the house, an old door which had been replaced with breeze blocks by the vile former owner Athena has been re-opened giving a second entrance to the rat room. That door will in time be filled with a wooden door linking the rat room to the new part of the house which we will add on to double its floor space. The rat room is for Joshua and will link to what will be the master bedroom.
At the back of the house I found Gregori's co-workers. The older guy is actually his father in law. The work they are doing is turning boulders extracted from the digging out of the floor of the bat room into stones that can be used to build the extension. This is done by hand, the old way. It is how the stones were formed when the house was first built more than a century ago. And also when it was rebuilt after the civil war which saw the Commie burn down this place as punishment for its owners supporting, as did nearly all of Mani, the Royalist cause.
The bad news is that yet again planning permission for building as opposed to demolition has not arrived. I was told that it really would come through within four weeks. But i was told the same thing four weeks ago and four weeks before that. I arranged with architect Sofia that we would go to see the planning department in Kalamata first thing tomorrow so find out what is happening. The other bad news is that the timescale for completion has er... lengthened. There is no cost implication, although I brace myself, but instead of being ready by Christmas I am told that it will be ready within a year. I hope that is a British year not a Greek one.
The plants the Mrs and I have planted in our back garden have almost all suffered death by cat defecation. That is to say my fat, though no longer morbidly obese, three legged cat Oakley hads shat them into oblivion. And so during my brief UK visit I have led a drive to re-plant. To complete that task the Mrs, Joshua and I headed to a garden centre here in Bristol today. Before stopping to pick up a few herbs (me0 and some flowers (the Mrs) we sat enjoying an expensive coffee and watched the masses head by.
I could not help but reflect about how in two days time I shall be sitting in the Kourounis Taverna in Kambos, the nearest village to the Greek Hovel, enjoying a coffee at half the price and looking at folks wander in an out of our own garden centre run by Vangelis.
Here in Bristol there is no need for shelves of poison for your frigana or snake repellent or hard tools small farmers use for clearing ground or for some part of the process of caring for, nurturing and harvesting the olives. That is what dominates the shop in Kambos, it is a place for folks doing a real job.
Of course it has plants too which one can buy. But they are mainly vegetables or herbs. There is no money or need in Kambos for vast arrays of colourful weeds, oops I meant flowers. Here in suburbia there were any number of colourful weeds to choose from.
There were even little olive trees for sale at thrice or four times the price of a sapling back in Kambos. Of course the British trees will never generate an economic return, they are mere ornaments. If I told my friends in Kambos that my neighbours in Bristol will pay 30 Euro for an olive tree that would never create oil they would think folks here were very strange indeed. They would be right of course.
The garden centre in Bristol was packed. I guess it is what baby boomers do on a bank holiday weekend in Suburbia. There were probably more folks in that centre during the course of this morning than live in Kambos, and all the British suburbians just buzzed about, picking up things, lining up to hand over more cash than they should really be spending and then crawling home through the traffic with cars laden up with things that are not really needed.
And this is meant to be relaxing? Whatever. I shall be back in Kambos by Tuesday lunchtime.
If you have not spent time in Greece you may not be familiar with the restaurant cats. Every place, bar the smartest establishments in Athens and Salonika has them. In the winter, at the tourist resorts, although not at places such as Miranda's in Kambos, the poor creatures starve as custom disappears.
To survive they must do what they are really there for: catch mice, rats and snakes to eat. In fact they will eat anything. Flies, lizards and insects are all protein. At the start of summer those who have made it through the lean months emerge to sidle up to tourists as they sit and inevitably over-order.
The gullible foreigner at first thinks that the cat has fallen in love with them as it purrs and brushes against a fat sun reddened leg. Aaaaaaah what a poor thin little creature thinks the foreigner who tosses over-priced octopus, souvlaki, calamari from he table. It is all appreciated. Bread, Greek salad, the cat is not choosy - after its winter famine it will feast on any calories going.
As soon as the food is taken from one table the cat flicks its tail indicating "laters" and heads off to the next table to express its undying love to a new stranger. For the cats by the sea we Westerners are a soft touch and the summer months allow them to put on some fat to prepare them for the winter hardship. Up in Kambos there are fewer drippy foreigners to fall for the son story.
The Greeks are no soft touch but still titbits are offered and that will be an all year round offering in those non tourist villages. It is not that the Greeks are great animal lovers. I have noted before how Greek children will often taunt and mistreat restaurant cats with the parents watching on. On occasion I have intervened with a load "Oxi" so horrible are the little brats.
Okay you come to Greece to star at the sea. There is no sea up in Kambos, the village closest to the Greek Hovel where I live. As you sit in Miranda's you stare up at the castle, you see cars, lorries or flocks of sheep wind their way along the road, and you see like in Kambos progress at its slow place.
We sit outside on one of the four tables underneath a wooden shelter. On another table the father of Vangelis from the snake repellent shop was holding court. He was chatting for five other older men, I guess not that much older than I am, as they nibbled some cheese and tomatoes and drank merrily. In due course Vangelis wandered over. He can keep an eye on the store and have a beer at the same time. Im not sure what was being discussed but there was no rush to end the lunch, after all it was only four in the afternoon when we left.
As ever, whatever the menu says about a wide selection there was just one selection - it was pork and peppers today. The choice was whether you wanted it with new boiled potatoes in a sauce or okra in sauce. We went for the latter and some tomatoes for Joshua. The total damage for two portions of pork & peppers and okra and the booze and Joshua's tomatoes was 14 Euro - call it £11.
Not only is that much cheaper than by the sea, the food is fantastic and the pace just so slow. I have won her over, the Mrs is a member of the Miranda's fan club too. As for Miranda herself she picked up Joshua and took him round to introduce him to everyone. He did not quite know what was happening but enjoyed his celebrity status.
I am now, once again, doing regular resting of my blood sugar levels. And after a break of a few days I am again taking my medication. Being by myself since Sunday lunchtime has assisted in a no alcohol diet and a meal schedule which is regular and healthy. I wonder could I spin out a diet based on two Greek Salads a day plus raw oats into a 30,000 word diet best-seller? Probably not.
But the damage done by the previous week and not taking my pills has been profound. I started this campaiagn against type 2 diabetes with an off the scale reading of 15.3. Before the arrival of "the family" I was scoring 7s and 8s in both of my twice daily readings. And heading lower and within sight of being "normal". Yesterday, my first full day back on the pills and with the right lifestyle choices I scored 12s and 13s. I started today at 11.9. I now have 10 days of "family time" here and back in the UK where I do not care who I offend: some things are more important than others. I am furious that three weeks of great work has been undone in such a short space of time.
It may upset all and sundry but I will eat alone during that time. I cannot seem to explain to the Mrs that communal eating since she arrived with her parents has involved wine on the table, over-ordrering of joint dishes and interminable waits for food - as others dither on their choices. When bread lies in front of me, this and the other stresses are just a suicide trip. If I had any self discipline I would not be in this mess right now. I don't. My bloods this morning are 11 point fucking nine. They were sub 8 and trending lower. All this stress is doing me no good at all.
A reader put it this way. You are invited out to a friend's house. His Mrs says that a massive Chinese takeaway has been ordered and will arrive in five minutes. You offend her by saying you cannot eat any of it. But you woud offend her more by barfing over her carpet in reaction to that meal before dropping down dead and sliding into the sick.
When I return here I have been thinking of buying a mountain bike and ditching the rented car. That would get me down to Kambos from the Greek Hovel, where I plan to stay on a camp bed, even in the event of a snake bite. And cutting myself off from the outside world and its temptations is what my body really needs more than anything.
There are two hardware stores in the village of Kambos (pop 537 including me) providing everything that we peasant farmers need: poisons, fertilisers, tools, plants. You name it we can buy it here. There is one store on the Square where Miranda's and lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna provide two of the other borders. It has suffered a grave misfortune.
Run by a nice chap called Vangelis it was where I bought my frigana strimmer. My man toy. That was poor Vangelis' misfortune since he now finds me trouping in every few weeks having broken something or other. He patiently fixes it and I go away for a few more weeks. I also buy Sulphur, to deter snakes, from Vangelis.
But i spread my patronage by buying snake repellent canisters and rat poison from the other store from a man whose name I do not know but who seems to be the greatest living expert on the snakes of the Mani, especially the flocks of vipers that inhabit the fields around the Greek Hovel.
My plan is to move into the hovel in about twelve days time and thus I popped in today to buy some rat sweeties. Men of a certain age might think that they are extra large viagra tablets but I assure you that they are lethal rat killers. And so I bought a bag for two Euros.
Wearing plastic gloves I placed sweeties all around the one habitable room at the hovel where i shall be moving in a bunk bed and sleeping bag very shortly. I shall keep you posted on how the rat killing goes although I am braced for the usual bleatings from mad liberals about what a bastard I am for harming the wildlife diversity. Hmmmmm. If any such folks are reading this page, please imagine you are lying there in the dark, two miles from the nearest human being hearing all sorts of noises in the night-time air. Imagine a nightmare of waking up to find a rat staring down at you.
Hey fucking liberals, are you still on the side of Mr Rat?
While in the shop as the snake expert weighted out 2 Euros' of rat sweeties, the conversation turned, as it usually does, to snakes. I said that I had the repellents he had sold me up and working and that Nicho the Communist had helped me poison the land which the snakes did not like. I explained how the workmen were making big vibrations with their power drills which will drive away the snakes. And I reminded him that I was now part of the brotherhood of proven snake killers. My mixture of English and demonstrating with actions seemed to work and the man nodded but said "still you need a cat, or lots of cats."
For, as lovely Eleni has repeatedly said, cats kill snakes. But I explained that i was not always there to feed the cats. that did not matter, I was assured, just get cats there and when you go if they can find no food they will go too. But where to get such cats I asked?
At this point the snake expert chatted with an old man who sits in his shop doing nothing all day. They were laughing. I think they were laughing at my naivete. Mr snake expert said: "The cats are everywhere, you just pick them up and take them." Well this is indeed true. There are cats everywhere but I sort of assumed that the vaguely belonged to someone. I gather some do but most are just fed by whoever feeds them or by God if they happen upon a nice juicy snake.
Owning a cat in Kambos is a bit like owning a bike used to be when I was a student at Oxford. there is no point getting a pedigree Persian in the Mani or a top of the range mountain bike in the City of Lost Causes. Just accept that your cat/bike will disappear and that you will then "find" another one. It seems that cat-napping is thus perfectly legal.
Maybe this is a project for the summer. I think I need an Albanian to help me but we must go and find some cats in Kambos to relocate to the hovel to deal with the snakes once and for all. What could possibly go wrong with this cunning plan?
I could not sleep for reasons that I shall discuss later so was up at the crack of dawn leaving the Mrs and Joshua snoring loudly in our hotel room. We are in Koroni, a pretty little sea port around the coast from Kalamata, going away from the Mani. The stated reason is to visit the parents of the husband of the sister of the Mrs, Stavros & Stavroula. It is the latter who taught me everything I know about the art of goat milking.
I say that Koroni is pretty. It had old buildings, narrow and winding streets and a charm. It is still a working town as well as a tourist resort. So there are fishing boats in the harbour and this morning I wandered through a market where the local peasantry bring their fruit and vegetables to sell - it was an array of colours and the size of the specimens on offer is stunning. We might almost be in Chernobyl.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy eating out in any place in Greece that has a whiff of tourist. There is the hard sell from the owner as you walk buy, the insistence that all his fish is fresh and local when the octopus and calamari is almost certainly not. And there are the relatively high prices one pays for fairly ordinary food.
Before any remoaners start bleating, the pound is now just 2% down on where it was before Independence Day last year. Tourist Greece used to offer cheap and cheerful food (ie, not terribly good). The standards of cooking in most tourist resorts have not improved but prices went up once the drachma was replaced with the Euro. They need to re-adjust downwards. I resented paying 9.5 Euro for a very tough pork souvlaki with a few greasy chips, which I gave to Joshua.
I thought fondly of Miranda's up in Kambos where there is never any fish on offer. But where the cooking is consistently good - if simple - and where a meat and veg option plus an ouzo & greek coffee will still leave you with change from a ten Euro bill. In Koroni one can watch the sea but the noise of people and tinned music is everywhere. Up in Kambos there are just a few people talking and laughing, you gaze up at the mountains or at the castle on the hill in the other direction. You just ponder as the world goes by.
My family has been writing about Greece for 150 years. Greece is "in the blood" but that Greece is up in Kambos not here by the seaside.
At 8 AM and the tourists are sleeping off last night's ouzo. I found one coffee shop open and it is opposite the main church and so as I tap away on my laptop, smartly dressed little old ladies wander by on their way to praise the Lord. I can hear the priest intoning loudly inside. The people respond in an age old ritual. That would be the same ritual being celebrated by many of the folks back in Kambos right now.
No doubt many people reading this, including my proudly godless daughter Olaf, will deride such faith as just another meaningless relic of the old world. But Daddy what is their stance on LGBT issues? Don't you know who won Eurovision last night?
Which is likely to be more long lasting: the modern cult of celebrity and ephemera or the quiet faith of the little old ladies, even if it fails to condemn Tim Farron for homophobia as all snowflakes and metropolitan elitists must do once a week as their ritual? On that, my almost 16 year old daughter and her ageing father are, as usual, likely to disagree.
An hours olive pruning each day is good for the olives and good for me. For starters it is some exercise to keep the type 2 diabetes at bay. Reach up, saw, reach down, axe, reach up axe, look around to check for snakes, hear a noise, panic, discover its not a snake, stop panicking, walk over the rocks and bushes to the next tree, check there are no snakes. Repeat. Repeat again. If I could do this every day the pounds would roll off.
And when not panicking about a noise in the bushes or thinking which shoots and branches to lop off it is a chance to think. I am not sure I always get the pruning 100% correctly in terms of what to lop and what to leave but locals from Kambos who have inspected my work up in the snake fields at the Greek Hovel nod with some sort of approval. I think I get it more right than wrong.
In terms of the thinking I am not sure I get that all right either. There is an awful lot to think about and you can do so in almost total silence. Sometimes you can hear the bells of the sheep or goats. Now and again it is a rustling in the bushes but mostly it is just silence. Its the best place to clear your head.
Anyhow you wanted a photo. sadly I could not find a snake for you so you will have to make do with a lizard. They are everywhere. This little specimen was scrambling up the wall at the Greek Hovel. He or she, for I am no expert at sexing lizards) is about four inches long and could not get away from me fast enough.
As we walked out of the restuarant last night here in Kardamili, my eight month old son Joshua made eye contact with two ladies who, I guess, were about a decade younger than I am. He started smiling, they started smiling and soon conversation broke out. Joshua is a great ice-breaker whether you want him to be or not.
It turns out that one of the two, who were British, pops over to Kardamili several times a year for four or five day breaks, long weekends. She just loves the place. She asked about us and why we were here. We mentioned the Greek hovel and our family connections with Greece.
The lady knew Kambos. And shared in our joy that after three years we are finally building. It is exciting. But conscious that Joshua needed to get to bed and we needed to keep an eye on the mother in law before she insulted any more of the locals, I attempted a parting gambit "See you in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos, one day maybe". It worked as a way for us to separate and head home but I'm kicking myself this morning.
One of the joys of Kambos is that there are no other Brits in town. A few pop in from neighbouring villages and a couple of them do live up to the stereotype of the gin sozzled, or beer sozzled, ex pat. Lobster red, Daily Mail reading old bores, bleating about how England has gone to the dogs & how the natives out here cannot organise a piss up in an ouzo factory. But generally that sort of person is rarely seen in Kambos. And it is not me!
I rarely drink anything at lovely Eleni's taverna these days. Its coffee and a Greek salad for me. I avoid hanging out with the Brits instead chatting, if I talk at all, with a few worlds of broken Greek on my part and a few words of broken English on theirs, to my fellow residents of Kambos. I am kicking myself for giving the impression that I behave otherwise.
The main road from Kalamata to Kardamili and on into the Mani winds its way through the heart of my local village of Kambos. Once you go past the turning up to the Greek hovel there is a long straight stretch of around 400 yards which takes you to the Kourounis taverna owned by Lovely Eleni and the square in front of Miranda's. At that point the road makes a 90 degree right turn and then heads past the main shop in the village and out on towards the Mycenaean tombs, the Frankish castle and the road to Kardamili.
For as long as I have lived here cars have parked on the kerb in front of Eleni's taverna and the square of Miranda's. Traffic coming in from Kardamili can see such cars very clearly and there is no reason not to park there. And no signs indicating that it is illegal to do so.
And thus, as per normal, I parked my car there yesterday afternoon and headed inside to answer an email or two and have a coffee. All was well for 45 minutes until a man at the par said "police, Police, your car". I looked up and indeed a cop had parked his car next to mine and was starting to write out a ticket. I rushed out. He said something in Greek. I said "I will move it now" in English. He said in English "don't you realise how dangerous this is?" I nodded obediently, moved my car and, I think, dodged a ticket.
Of course it was not dangerous. Cars have been parked in that spot 365 days a year for forty years and there has never been a crash. Traffic hits this bend in the road at sub 30 km/h and anyone travelling on the same side as my car was parked (that is from Kardamili) could have seen my parked car for at least 200 metres. But I am not a man to argue with Greek cops.
As I write there are cars parked where mine was, on the other side of the road, just around the corner. The cop is back in Kalamata or Kardamili. Life in Kambos goes on.
I already knew who she was. Nicho had pointed her out as the French lady. She rather stands out as her mother was from Cameroon. Non white folks rather stand out here. Until recently the Mrs, has on her visits, been 100% of the non white community.
We spoke in a mixture of French and English. Thanks to the chain smoking WW2 tank hero Harry Owen who taught me at Warwick School my French is not that bad. But her English was better. early on in our conversation she asked if I was German. I think my body language made it clear that I took this as a grave insult. Do I look like a fucking Kraut FFS? Apparently i do. The woman blundered on by saying she only said so because I was tall, like a member of the frigging master race. Whatever.
It turns out that her late husband was a bubble and so her daughter lives in Kambos and is going to start a creperie this summer. She pointed at where it will be... about twenty yards from the Kourounis taverna and just next to Miranda's. Now Miranda's limited menu does not include crepes but in the summer Nicho the Magician gets out a special machine and his crepes are most excellent. Naturally, as a good diabetic, i shall not be indulging but the kids love him.
This new entrant to the scene means that with a population of 536 (539 including myself, the Mrs and Joshua), Kambos has two ouzeries where you can get nibbles, coffee and ouzo. Plus three places to eat ( and get ouzo).
Naturally, lovely Eleni will retain my business. Accusing me of being a Kraut is not the way to win me over.
As I tap out a few words on my laptop next to the bright blue sea it is about 27 degrees. It is T-shirt weather and the Mrs is forcing myself and Joshua to go for a swim in an unheated pool a bit later. It is hot here in Kardamili. But as you can see in the two photos below, in the higher points of the taygetos mountains behind us, the last remnants of the winter snow still cling on. These are not the highest points of the range but Al Gore would be mortified to see global warming still on the ground in the sourthnmost part of Europe in May. The computer models, global warming nutjobs like George Monbiot and the entire population of Canada, plus 99% of peer group approved scientists all predicted desertification not this.
It is also Islington by the Sea. Partly because it was home to Paddy Leigh Fermor and partly becuase it is just incredibly pretty, this place is swamped with middle class Brits. You might say "like you" but they are not. Next year they will be in Tuscany. Perhaps Provence thereafter. Or maybe a summer in the Hamptons. I have overheard dinner conversations here about "the Triangulation of New Labour" and comparing the olive oil to that from our place in Tuscany."
Kardamili has only a pebble beach and it is away from the heart of town. So it is not a place for families. And so my fellow visitors tend to be older then me and guardian reading tossers from Islington. Right now, most folks here are actually Norwegian as next week is the Norwegian jazz festival, but, if anything they are even older than the Guardianistas.
Having all these affluent tourists without any kids means that this town has some nice restaurants. But you pay for that through the nose. Yes we can afford it but I am happer with the simpler and much cheaper food up at the Kourounis taverna or Miranda's in Kambos. Kambos is a Greek village with no tourists. Its population is pretty much unchanged at 536 all year round. Kardamili might have three or four times that many people here in July or August but in December it has fewer folks than my home village. It lives for those Guardinista tourists.
Its beauty, the Leigh Fermor link, the food and the views make me happy enough but I'm sure that by the weekend I shall be going stir crazy. I have been given a day release tomorrow to go work up at the Greek Hovel which will be a treat. But my longing is to be back in Kambos full time. Indeed, as the Mrs plans two days with her sister's in laws, the folks who taught me goat milking, I am threatening to stay up at the hovel for a couple of nights just to see what it is like.
The Mrs, myself, Joshua and my parents in law are staying about 15 miles South of the Greek Hovel in a nice hotel by the sea. As I mention here, I have very mixed feelings about Kardamili and would really rather be back in Kambos. But this break is not about me. Today, we escaped the in-laws and took Joshua to see his inheritance, that is to say the Greek Hovel. The Mrs has not visited for almost a year and was keen to see how the building was going. I was just delighted to be out of Kardamili and able to do some manual labour.
The half way point as one goes on the long and winding road/dirt track from Kambos to the hovel is the crossing of the dry river which winds its way along the valey underneath the deserted convent. Get over the river and you are soon climbing snake hill and on your way up our side of the valley.
In winter the river is full enough to spill over the road and after especially heavy storms it can be many inches deep as it crosses the track. As we head into May the river has almost entirely disappeared. As one heads towards the hovel there is just one deep-ish pool of water. It is covered in green algae and must be both the temperature and consistency of soup. I have not investigated first hand for reasons that will become clear.
This last remnant of river is about four yards from where my car door would open if I dared to get out. For the past two or three days I have been aware that there were black "shapes" cutting their way through the algae. They were clearly moving. They were long and thin. I stared at them long and hard and was pretty sure what they were. One day I got out to go have a closer look but then heard a nose in the bushes and quickly got back in my car and wound the window up.
As the water level goes down I guess there is less surface area and a moving shape becomes more visible. And thus as we drive past today I peered past the Mrs in the passenger seat and stopped the car quickly. "Look" said I. The shape was very visibly moving as only a snake would do. And it was not alone. It was a veritable snakefest and the Mrs had not even arrived at the Hovel yet. It is a good job her husband is such a brave snake killer. Notwithstanding that I drive on quickly.
I am back in Kambos and at the Greek Hovel. It is 29 degrees, the world is at peace and I wonder why anyone would choose to be anywhere else on God's planet. Before any more spiritual reflections it was time to inspect the handiwork of Nicho the Communist who has had two sessions poisoning the frigana and anything else which might get in the way of olive oil production.
One session was exactly a week ago. The second four days ago. It takes about two weeks for the poison to kill the plants, to turn them from a bright green to a golden brown. And so below are two sets of frigana bushes. One was sprayed by Nicho a week ago, one four days ago. can you spot the difference? Across the land green is turning brown. Good news.
My friend Nicho did not charge for his labours but as you know he is, like the late Charles Kennedy a "moderate drinker" and thus, as he ambled into the Kourounis taverna I brought him a gift which I am sure he will enjoy.
There was i just dozing off gently as the "Cathedrals Express," which I had caught at Moreton in the Marsh, pulled slowly past Didcot. Then my phone rang. It was a Greek number but not one that I recognised. It was Nicho the Communist on a land line.
So you are in England, he said. I replied that I was. He was calling to say thart he and "The Albanian" were returning to the Greek Hovel this afternoon to finish the frigana poisoning. Thank you very much I said in Greek. We will meet this weekend to sort out a second payment for the Albanian and for me to hand over his favoured currency, whiskey.
The job is done, even without my assistance. In less then ten days what were green fields dotted with green frigana will be a golden brown. And we can start plotting where to plant our new olive trees.
In Kambos, Avrio may not always be tomorrow but it always comes in the end.
I arrived at the Greek Hovel at 9 AM sharp for the delayed day two of the frigana poisoning. I parked outside the gates. I could not be bothered to open them, close them and almost certainly have to open and close them again when my comrade in Labour, Nicho the Communist turned up. For I had a feeling that once again he would not. Yesterday it was God's fault...
Three quarters of an hour spent watching lizards outside the car window was anough for me. I reversed and headed back along the three mile track to Kambos. I passed Nicho's car and his truck parked outside his house and headed to the Kourounis taverna. Lovely Eleni tried calling Nicho but there was no answer.
Lovely Eleni confirmed that Nicho had, as I had suspected, been on the whiskey last night. If there is a a Y in the day it means that it is a "Yamas" day. The suggestion was that he had kept going to 5 AM. In which case his lie in, is understandable. When will we complete our work? Avrio. Avrio.
I arrived at the Greek Hovel bang on time at 9 AM for day two of the frigana poisoning. Not to my great surprise, Nicho the Communist and The Albanian were nowhere to be seen. I sat there watching lizards for three quarters of an hour. I am not sure whether the large number of lizards around the hovel is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, I am pretty sure that my old saying "where there are lizards there are snakes" is valid. The conditions are perfect for all sorts of wildlife diversity. But on the other hand, lizards are not daft.
Lizards eat moths and insects and snakes eat pretty much anything but they are very partial to a spot of lizard. So if the lizards are everywhere around the hovel perhaps that is because my snake repellent cans are working and they have identified it as a safe space? I know what I hope for but I am not sure where the truth lies. Anyhow, they are gorgeous little creatures. Some are a pure pea green, others are a mixture of green, yellow and black. The smallest are a couple of inches long but I have seen peak green monsters of a foot and a half in the past. They all scuttle along always looking around for both things to eat and for er...danger. I like watching lizards.
But there is a limit to my appetite for lizard watching and so in due course I drove out of the hovel, stopping to shut the creaking gates, and headed off to a packed Kourounis taverna in Kambos. The one notable absentee was Nicho the Communist and it soon emerged that he had, last night, been, once again, celebrating International Worker's Day ahead of time. Assisted by the usual suspects it appears that three bottles of whiskey had been downed and it was suggested that Nicho might be having a bit of a lie in. I left my number with lovely Eleni - whose wealth must be boosted materially by Nicho's celebrations - and about an hour later, shortly after I arrived back in Kalamata, I received a call.
I asked if Nicho was feeling a bit tired after last night and he agreed that he was. But that was not the reason for the postponement of the poisoning. "It's the air - the air is wrong - if the air is good we will do it tomorrow" said my Comrade. I accepted him at his word but rather suspected that the whiskey was the real cause of the postponement. I saw nothing wrong with the air, it was a lovely sunny morning.
But, as it happens, I sit here mid afternoon in my hotel looking up at the Taygetos mountains which form the spine of the Mani peninsular and they are clouded in a thick fog. In fact I cannot actually see the mountains at all. It is almost certainly raining heavily up at the Hovel and so Nicho's excuse was valid. There is no point in spraying the frigana if the rain washes it off just a few hours later. You need a clear 24 hours of hot dry weather for all the poison to be sucked down into the roots.
So it was God not the whiskey that postponed the final bit of poisoning.
I must take The Albanian, said Nicho. Great he has hired an Albanian. I felt much happier. No offence but Nicho is getting on a bit and when it comes to hard work here in Greece you can't beat an Albanian. Moreover, since my status has been elevated to that of snake killer, I have sensed a diminution of the previous bravado of my friend when it comes to serpents. I rather feared that if we encountered one he would join me in flight. Say what you like about the Albanians but they are as hard as nails. They will kill snakes with their bare hands.
And thus I set off in my car, Nicho followed behind in a battered truck with the young Albanian, who greeted me like an old friend "Hello Thomas", sitting beside him. That, it turned out, was the full extent of his English but in Nicho we had an able translater. He is the best English speaker in Kambos, not that there is much competition for that title. For what it is worth I like it that way. Coastal villages might lose their character. Kambos stays resolutely Greek.
When I go poisoning by myself I use a 5 litre bottle which is jolly heavy. But what i was about to witness was industrial scale poisoning. It was genocide. No other word is appropriate for the slaughter which was set to unfold. Nicho drove his truck past the hovel, past the ruin where a snake lives to the far end of the fields. I have never seen that done before and as he squeezed past rocks and over stones the truck became that bit more battered.
As you can see the truck contained a cylinder into which we added 20 litres of poison to the 380 litres of water it contained. I saw we, of course I mean Nicho and the Albanian. The Albanian started a motor and a long hose was unwound and Nicho started spraying. It was not just the frigana but all sorts of bushes and flowers. Everything in fact. The poison does not harm olives trees and of course the trees were spared but everything else got the treatment.
After a while Nicho handed the hose to the Albanian. "I am old" he said. "The Albanian is young and faster." I thought both were frighteningly efficient. My role was limited to helping pick up the hose when it snagged on a rock or a plant but three hours traipsing around the hovel was enough to leave me feeling pretty drained. I thought about trying to explain about diabetes and blood sugars and the dangers of them falling too low but thought that this might be lost in translation and just be seen as a sign of being pathetic. So i soldiered on but celebrated greatly when the 400 litre tank ran out.
We start again tomorrow at 9 AM. The job is 80% done. Nicho assures me that the snakes hate the smell of poison and will flee. And also that within ten days everything sprayed will be dead. We will have another session to finish off anything we missed in a couple of weeks but the land will then be clear and so we can mark out cleared spots for planting new trees in October. And the snakes can bugger off to plague my neighbours. What's not to like?
I handed the Albanian some Euros but Nicho refused to take payment. I mentioned bottles of whiskey and that seemed to meet with his approval.
A reader asks how do I ensure that, when the land around the Greek Hovel has been poisoned, the various herds of goats and flocks of sheep that wander the foothills of the Taygetos do not roll on by for a fatal meal. The land will be pretty bad for their health for at least a week. Its a fair question with a three part answer.
Firstly I have told lovely Eleni what I am up to. Since all the shepherds and goatherds frequent the Kourounis taverna she has warned them what is afoot. Secondly word about Nicho the Communist and I going to poison the snakefields has spread throughout Kambos and is the subject of much hilarity. The Englishman from Toumbia - snakes - Nicho - sober - you get the gist. So everyone knows what is happening anyway.
And finally...I have shut the gate. There is a rickety metal structure at the end of what you might term the "drive" but is really just a continuity of the mud track which leads to the hovel. Normally the gate is left wide open as a sign to all shepherds and goatherds that our land is a common resource. But when I am poisoning I shut the gates as a sign. The gates are very much on their last legs and your average sheep could open them with a good shove. I suspect that the gates will not last the year. I have plans, not yet discussed with the Mrs so do not alert her, to build a great wall around our land and with it large new wooden gates.
I have discussed this with a man called George - that would be George the wall builder as opposed to all the other George's in Kambos - and shown him what sort of wall I want. Once, like the Patron Saint of the Old Country, I have purged my land of snakes, the wall will help keep them out. And it will also keep out any unwelcome visitors from Britain who might object to some of the things I write. Like Donald Trump, I like walls.
Pro tem I make do with an old wire fence that keeps nothing out and a gate whose only purpose is to signal that the land will, for the next ten days, be under poison. So readers, no sheep or goats will be harmed by what Nicho and I are up to.
I had agreed to meet Nicho the Communist at 9 AM sharp to poison the frigana at the Greek Hovel. Lovely Eleni had promised to keep him sober on the Friday and although I tarried a bit over my breakfast coffee I arrived at the track leading to the Greek Hovel by 9 AM and was at the house by seven minutes past. No Nicho. Perhaps he was celebrating International Labour Day early with some breakfast tsipero? I contented myself with some gentle olive tree pruning.
Two or three years ago that would have exhausted me but i worked at a good pace for half an hour or more, saw no snakes, but at 9.45 AM really did start to wonder where my friend had got to. I had grave fears that lovely Eleni had not managed to keep him under control last night. There was nothing for it, I started to drive along the long and winding track and road back to the village of Kambos.
I passed the village simpleton, well one of a few, who was wandering through the olive groves with no apparent purpose. I waved, he raised his hand weakly. I passed an aged old crone, with an arched back where black from headscarf to toe. She was aged indeed. her face looked like an old olive tree, lined and wrinkled and with boils where the tree has knots. She was wandering up the mountain as 80 year old crones do here collecting herbs. I got stuck as a shepherdess and her flock marched along the road. But after quarter of an hour I was sitting with a coffee in the Kourounis taverna in the heart of Kambos.
Sure enough in wandered Nicho the Communist. to his credit ( or rather that of Eleni) he did not appear in the slightest bit hungover. He explained he has a problem with his car. He is taking it to the petrol station where he and Spiros, the owner of the garage which is also where the post for outlying houses such as mine is left, will mend it. In half an hour he will be pack and the poisoning can begin.
My strips for my English meter should have arrived by Fedex yesterday. They have not. And so i am still on the Greek meter where my readings are all over the shop. Overall the trend seems down and yesterday post run I scored a reading of 106 which I gather is 5.9 in proper money. Okay vigorous exercise really spoofs the meter but three weeks ago I could have run a marathon and still not got anywhere near that level. Okay that is a lie.
Yesterday i managed 3.1 km in 26 minutes. A new post diabetic personal best but still a bit short of a marathon. And i was a sweaty wreck. Today it will be 3.3km in 27 minutes and I am jolly proud of myself. that pride was a bit punctured by a late night call from soon to be 16 year old daughter Olaf who claims to be able to do 5 km in 25 minutes. "But well done daddy you are starting from a different base" she opined. Patronising little witch. I will show her.
That was not the extent of my exercise. I headed up to Kambos to pick up my poison for a weekend of frigana poisoning with Nicho the Communist. 80 Euro saw me get a massive plastic bottle which weighed a tom. well not quite but it was frigging heavy and I had to put it down several times as I walked back to my car. Lovely Eleni and her husband Nicho (not a communist as far as I know) laughed as they saw me and at that point Nicho the Communist wandered up. So you two are poisoning tomorrow said Eleni and laughed even more. There seemed some doubt as to whether Nicho the Communist would be sober enough to do it but he assured me that he would. 9 AM sharp on Saturday. We will be poisoning hard all weekend.
As I lugged the massive container to my car I walked past three little old ladies dressed in black who just sit around all day. I could hear them chatting. The Englishman from Toumbia is a phrase I recognise. A truck went by with two young workers from the village olive press. They shouted out "Hi Tom" and seemed to be laughing as well. Another lady hooted. I sense that the nicho The Communist/Tom frigana poisoning the snake fields story is all round Kambos and is seen as a potential source of merriment for all.
Olaf and I discussed how I know more folks in Kambos than I do in Bristol. It is true. Other than a couple of folks from the Conservative Club and our neighbours on one side I know no-one other than my wife's mad left wing friends in Bristol. I have more conversations in a tiny Greek village with 536 people - of whom three speak some sort of English - in a day than i do in a week in Bristol. and I live a healthier lifestyle. And its 27 degrees. What is not to like?
I ended the day with a spot of olive pruning at the hovel. The trees are now enjoying their fourth prune with me after years of neglect so they need less and less "cleaning". It is so quiet up there. There was a flock of sheep but they wandered away so it was just me. In a way that is wonderful. The downside is that even a deaf old man like me can hear the smallest twig crack or leaf rustle. And as I hear such sounds, a voice in my head immediately shouts out "snake." I look around. There is nothing visible. I tread even more carefully. After a while I decided that was enough snake panicking for the day and headed off. But three bouts of exercise fuelled by a bowl of raw oats and two salads, is not bad for a man with type 2 diabtes is it?
One day I shall go into all the symptoms although a Gentleman probably should not. But suffice to say they are all in retreat if not gone altogether.
I drove us up to the Greek hovel. We discussed snakes which are all now out of hibernation. "It is their time" he said in a way that reminded me of the Lord of the Rings. Now starts the fourth age of man. Or in Kambos, Gandolph, or Papou, announces Now is the age of snakes. But conversation was a little hard when your companion obviously just wants to go back to bed. He did however note that the Hovel is a lovely place but, as we crawled along the long and winding and very bumpy track looking for snakes to run over, just a bit far from the village. "I like it that way" I assured him. "No-one can find me."
Arriving at the hovel we immediately met a herd of goats. Whose are they asked Nicho. I did not have a clue but said that I did not mind. Nicho was less certain pointing out that they will eat my olives. And indeed that is the case. Sheep walk on the grass and tend to eat only things that lie on the floor. Goats jump on rocks and will eat anything, frigana included, but do have a penchant for olive tree leaves. Nicho went up to an enormous billy goat and told it to bugger off. Which it did. I assured him not to worry. I do not mind losing a few olives if I also lose some frigana. More importantly, snakes do not like goats.
The purpose of our trip was to check out my wild olive trees - trees whose fruit cannot be processed into oil. I seem to have been a little confused on this matter. The two trees I had identified as wild as they produced big black olives which George the Albanian shuns when we harvest, are in fact not wild olives. Those are olives which you need to cure to eat as opposed to pressing for oil. Aha. I told the Mrs later that this was women's work and a job for her. She seemed unconvinced.
But as we wandered to the far reaches of the property, at either end, we did indeed discover at least 20 wild olive trees. Nicho says that he will monitor them this harvest and we will splice on domestic olives for next year so upping my yield. But it gets better still. As we wandered across the land we identified spaces for at least another sixty new trees to be planted this October at a cost of 8 Euro a pop. The net result of this all would be to increase my harvest, ceteris paribus, by at least 50%.
George the architect looks at a non olive tree and says "the Foresty Commision has said we must not chop it down.". I look at these trees and the undergrowth that surrounds them and say "that looks the sort of place snakes like". Nicho looks at that tree and says "I will chop it down so we can plant more olives." I like Nicho's attitude.
So this weekend we are are to poison the frigana which has made a resurgence in certain of the further reaches of the property and will chop down some trees. Nicho has ordered the poison already and he assures me that the areas we deal with will be brown and weed and frigana free within a month. And that the poison will also drive the snakes onto my neighbours' lands. I like the sound of that. We start at 9 AM on Saturday. I cannot wait.
On the first day that Nicho the Communist and I were due to inspect the wild olives at the Greek Hovel to see about turning them into yielding trees he forgot our appointment. Yesterday it was raining so we postponed until 3 PM today. After a morning scribbling away and a good session at the hotel gym, I arrived on time to find my friend, rather worse for wear, at Miranda's the establishment next to the Kourounis taverna of lovely Eleni.
He apologised but explained that he had been drinking with his cousin George and a friend since 10.30. He was, he confessed, rather tired. I asked what had brought this on. Simple. It is St George's Day and his cousin is called George. The man in charge of Miranda's today is also called George. In fact almost every man in Kambos is called either George or Nicho with the odd Vangelis thrown in. It seems that George is an important saint not only in England.
George (the person in charge, not the cousin) offered me a coffee on the house as it was his Saint's Day. And, as Nicho poured himself another glass of wine and more Tsipero arrived, we sat there discussing olive trees and who owns the trees around the hovel. It turns out that some are owned by the brother of the third man at the table who was the cousin of the previous owner of the hovel, the loathsome Athena. Others are, as we already knew, owned by my eccentric neighbour Charon.
We sat there in the sun a bit longer and discussed planting new trees on the land I had cleared of frigana. And we agreed to meet up tomorrow at 4.30 for a site visit. Avrio. As is so often the case in Kambos.
Back in early December when I arrived at the Greek Hovel for the olive harvest, the Taygettos mountains behind me were already covered with thick snow which you might think a bit odd. After all we are at the Southernmost edge of Europe and Al Gore and the global warming loons were telling us twenty years ago that this area would be almost a desert by now. Well guess what?
The snow still lies thick on the higher mountains above the hovel. As I drove down from Kambos towards the nearest harbour at Kitries today I looked up and there it was as you can see in the photos below. The same global warming I saw in December is still there and it is almost May. Give that man Gore another Nobel prize.
This day goes down in history. I am terrified of snakes. Everyone in the village of Kambos knows it and laughs at the idea of the weird Englishman from Toumbia living in a hovel in the snake fields at the top of snake hill. But I need to do manual labour and so this afternoon headed to the hovel. Retrieving my pick axe from the rat room, or spare bat room as it is now known, I went onto the illegally constructed level above it, the snake veranda.
It was there we met a, non poisonous but still terrifying, snake on our first trip to the hovel. And the name stuck. And so I peered nervously over the wall and established that it was snake free zone.
In the middle of the snake veranda is a two sided brick wall. It serves no purpose at all other than being ugly and so I started to attack it with my pick axe. Bang. Bang. Bang it slowly came down and after twenty minutes I had worked up quite a sweat. Some of the bricks have are constructed, for a reason that I fail to understand, with hollowed out tubes running through them.
And from one such tube there emerged... a snake. It was an adder albeit a juvenile one about a foot long. But as you may know, juvenile adders are more dangerous than their parents as they are yet to learn how much poison to deploy when biting. They just bit, hang on and inject their venom. I stood and stared for what seemed like a long time but cannot have been more than twenty seconds as it started to slither. And then I acted. Whack when the pick axe on the long sided blade end. I missed.
The snake had little time to respond because whack went the pick axe again and I scored a direct hit. And then another. The snake was now in two halves but the front end was still moving on a pile of rubble the other side of the now half demolished, so just two foot high, wall. Whack, whack whack I hit it again and again first with the edge and then just clubbing it with the end of the axe. It stopped moving.
I, on the other hand, was shaking like a leaf. I may now be a snake killer but I rather worried that where there was one there may be others. And so leaving the pick axe inside the rat/spare bat room I retreated hastily to my car to phone my father and the Mrs with news of my heroics.
Retreating, again, to Kambos I stopped first at the snake repellent store where my friend the owner had two canisters in stock which I bought eagerly. I told him that I had killed one and, knowing my reputation, he seemed surprised but in a good way. He offered other advice for repelling the snakes. Apparently they do not like the poison one uses to spray frigana. I need to get clearance from the shepherd as I have no desire to poison his sheep but I think some spraying is on the agenda.
As one heads down the Mani towards Kardamili, the village one on from Kambos is Stavropigio. It has just a few more Brits than Kambos as it is, objectively, a bit prettier. I am thus happy to stay in plain old Kambos. As one leaves our neighbouring village a small turning off the main road to the right is the old road to Kardamili. There is now no practical reason at all to use this road and more or less no-one does.
There will be a few souls like me who drive along to go fishing. It is a steep and winding descent as we start our journey at c350 metres above sea level. The road, in its early stages, is littered with shotgun cases so I guess that in the season the locals head here to blast away little birds, a pointless activity I find hard to understand. There are almost no houses on the road after the first half a mile and those that are there lie abandoned. There is evidence that the olive trees here were harvested, last year's branch cuttings and the leaves abandoned after twigs were threshed, lie by the side of the road. But it is hard to see how anyone uses it more than once a week.
It is the sort of place that can be left to the snakes and to nature. But this is Greece which is, as you know, bankrupt. So the photos below offer a lesson in Greekenomics. For most the the five or so miles I travelled my car rode along the old concrete from the days when this was the road to Kardamili, the 1960s. In some places that concrete had disappeared or was never laid down in the first place and I was on the sort of mud and stone track I wind my way up to on the way to the Greek hovel.
But for various stretches I travelled on pristine tarmac. This is not old tarmac but a road that has enjoyed recent investment. For what? For whom? Greece is bankrupt. Our pensioners now live on 9 Euro a day. The hospitals are short of medicines. Yet to "create jobs" or rather maintain the bloated public sector, the Government is spending money it does not have upgrading a road that almost no-one uses. Welcome once again to the world of Greekenomics.
In fact I have only been away for about ten weeks since the February burning & olive fertilising season so it is not exactly long time no see. But even had it been ten years not ten weeks I doubt that much would have changed in Kambos, the village nearest to the Greek hovel.
It is a Bank Holiday of course so, don't laugh, most folks here in Greece are not working. But the guy at the petrol station was on duty and greeted me knowingly as I drove up into the mountains on what is a rather cold and grey day. I am not exactly shivering in my Viva Steyn T-shirt but by Greek standards for late April it is fairly cold up here. The fields are a glorious green as the summer suns are yet to burn the grass to straw brown. The alpine like flowers are everywhere. On the mountains ark clouds gather so it will rain later.
The two snake repellent shops are not open. that means that I will have to buy the canisters tomorrow and lay them down to ward off he serpents at the hovel. I am slightly reluctant to start work there until the canisters have been in place for a few hours and are repelling away.
In the Kourounis taverna a few familiar faces greet me with a knowing nod and a Yas Tom! There is a new young man behind the counter who does not know me but I am welcomed warmly by Poppy the ageing mother in law of lovely Eleni. As ever it takes her just a few minutes to lecture me in Greek about how I really must learn Greek. I do understand what she is saying as this is a lecture which has been given many times before. as normal I assure her avrio, avrio. That means tomorrow, tomorrow but in Southern Europe tomorrow very often never comes.
I can see her explaining to the new young man who I am. she points at me and then points up in the direction of the mountains above the village, to the smattering of , almost all abandoned, homesteads that is Toumbia. I think that only the Greek hovel and the house of my nearest neighbour Charon, a mile and a half away from me, are actually inhabited. The other houses stand, like the old convent, slowly crumbling and home only to ghosts and, probably, large numbers of snakes. Nicho the Communist is not yet here. That means there are no English speakers and also that we cannot finalise our plans for the splicing of domesticated olives onto wild olive trees which we must first cut back. That will, in about three years, turn trees that yield nothing into producers. That is phase one of increasing the yield from the hovel. Phase two will be planting new trees on the areas that two years ago I cleared of the accursed frigana. Phase three will be to buy up my neighbours fields.
But phase three can wait until the hovel is rebuilt something I pray will happen this year. My aim is not to produce enough oil to "turn pro" or become a full time olive farmer. The amount we are paid for our oil is so pitiful ( £3 a litre) that this is not viable. But Id like to think that in a few years I might just be producing enough to pay the land taxes here and for my flights to and from Kalamata. That is for the future. For now it is time to venture up to the hovel to see my friends the snakes.
When my Uncle Chris went on his first of his many honeymoons it was to the Mani where the Greek Hovel stands. Back in the early swinging sixties it took him more than a day to get here from Athens. That has all changed. There is a super fast Motorway linking the capital to this part of the world. But for as long as I can remember it has stopped just short of Kalamata adding another 20% to your travel time as you are forced to wind your way through suburbs and back streets. Yesterday I discovered that this has all changed.
The bus swept straight along the final stretch of highway right to the heart of town. The end of the main road is now just 200 yards from the bus station which lies underneath the old fort, the scene of the first heroics of 1821 when on March 21 the heroic Maniots answered the call of the Bishop of Triploli and stormed the hill to slaughter every Turk inside the citadel.
In a way this new road makes my life easier. Flights direct to Kalamata are infrequent and seasonal and so my journey time from Athens is greatly reduced. I think I can now even get to the Mani without going through Kalamata. So my life is that much simpler. But there is a downside.
There are increasing numbers of flights landing at the airport here. British Airways now flies twice a week in summer as an alternative to Easyjet. It is only a matter of time before my favourite airline, Aegean, joins the party. And with the road also that much faster more folks will come to this region to holiday and, also to buy second homes. More bloody foreigners.
I love my nearest village of Kambos in large part because nearly everyone who lives there is Greek or Albanian. Since it is a good half an hour from the sea it is never going to be fashionable. I suspect it will remain resolutely Greek, or rather Maniot, until long after I have my final encounter with St Peter. But the area will change.
George gathered a bunch of grass a few twigs and then, as you can see, within a few minutes there was a roaring blaze of the olive branches we had cut as part of the harvest before Christmas.
We moved quickly on to one of the terraces on the Mountain side of the hovel. Again within minutes the fire was blazing away.
George's Mrs then arrived and she too was a natural pyromaniac. I having failed so miserably myself I could but watch and throw branches from the terrace above where the fires were running to the fires below.
For George and his Mrs this was about setting fires to burn the branches. My hope with every fire was that it would also "take out" some of the live frigana plants which were once again growing despite three season of cutting and poisoning by myself. I think George sensed this but it was not his agenda.
After a while I decided to start a fire myself, feeling that having watched the master I could do it. I chose a spot where there were a stack of branches nearby and also lost of green frigana poking through the golden leaves of its brethren which I chopped last year. As you can see I too am a pryomaniac. But George wagged his finger. Apparently my blaze was too close to an olive tree and the fact that it was pursuing a scorched earth policy against the frigana was of no interest to me. that fire was left to burn out. But, sod the olives, I reckon that I did some damage against the real enemy!
Later a couple of fires started to move up the slopes away from the original inferno to take out reasonable chunks of young frigana. I thought happy thoughts. George cut a branch off a tree and beat it out. I am just not thinking Greek, thinking of making lift happy for the olive trees. Instead I think of my enemy the frigana.
In two months I shall be back at the hovel near the village of Kambos. My main job is rebuilding it. A secondary job is introducing new trees to the areas I really have cleared of frigana and splicing domestic olives onto wild olive trunks which I shall create with Nicho the Communist. But my third job will be to brave the awakening snakes and wage war for the fourth year with my enemy the accursed frigana. This year it is all out war...the last battle.
As you can see below I started with Dakos. That is a Cretan dish which they also serve quite often here in the Mani. On top of a dried barley rusk is placed generous helpings of a soft sort of creamy feta, chopped tomatoes and the odd olive. At this place there is a generous drizzling of balsamic vinegar and that and the tomato juice drain into the crispy rusk - magnificent.
To follow, for I felt that after a hard day of manual labour I deserved more, I went for a small plate of calamari. In many places here you get large chunks of frozen squid in a clumsy rather fatty batter. It all tastes, pardon the pun, just a bit greasy. That is your cheap and cheerful seaside dish. But I enjoyed small pieces of fresh squid in a ,well made, light batter onto which I squeezed fresh lemon juice. Truly it was wonderful. Natch that called for another celebratory ouzo.
I know that the wine snob Evil is concerned about the quality of booze issue when travelling to the Hellenic Republic but these pictures will again have him salivating badly. I grow confident that I can persuade him to bring a case of Burgundy white inside a large suitcase and come join me here next summer when the Greek Hovel is ready. I shall continue to torture him with photos until then.
I am reluctant to draw a map of the route to the Greek Hovel pointing out all the landmarks that I refer to in my writings. Maybe you want to see exactly how Monastery Hill links to snake hill? Well tough, I enjoy the safety that comes with folks finding it bloody hard to find me.
You may remember that when I explained to my neighbours in Kambos about the death threats I received for exposing the Quindell fraud, Nicho the Communist and Vangelis kindly offered to shoot anyone who came to Kambos and was asking where I lived. Thus I have a belt and braces approach to my safety: it is very hard to find where I live and if you ask, Nicho will kill you. You can't say fairer than that.
And so you will just have to imagine. Monastery hill leads down past what, I now know to be, the abandoned convent. When I first arrived I thought it had once housed monks and as I drove past it in the dark I terrified myself with images of ghostly monks in long black robes trouping past my little auto. Even in the daytime that hill is covered by a canopy of trees and so feels cold and it is often damp. So it used to have terribly negative connotations.
But then I met the most amazing lady who looks after the place with a, I fear misplaced, belief that the nuns will return. And I know it was a convent not a monastery so though the hill retains its name in my mind and in my writings, if nowhere else, I view it in a wholly positive fashion.
On the other side of the dry river is snake hill. My guest in 2015 encountered a live snake there while running up the hill. For me it is too steep to do anything other than walk up the concreted surface. I have only met a dead snake there but numerous times I have heard rustlings in the bushes on either side. Snake hill = negative thoughts.
At the top of snake hill there is a short gently sloping patch where concrete turns to mud as you head into the olive groves owned by the lovely Eleni. This short stretch of track is now officially, in my mind at least, known as Mark Slater hill. It was there at the start of a torrential thunderstorm that I had a long chat with my friend shortly after Brexit. The noise of rain on my car roof was thunderous so I opted to stand outside, getting drenched, to take the call.
It was what happened next that made it a memorable chat I headed back to the hovel in my car and rushed inside to dry off. I sat down in dry clothes and started to record a bearcast. Six minutes in - Bang! Lightening struck the hovel. You can hear that bearcast here. I hope never to be struck again but it was a memorable experience that day. Try everything once apart from incest and folk dancing and all that.
Being a fund manager Mark will know all about finding himself next to snakes. But now Mark Slater Hill lies next to Snake Hill.
I do not normally pay much attention to what folks on neighbouring tables say when watching the world go by in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos, the village closest to the Greek Hovel where I hope to spend most of the rest of my life. I just tap away at my keyboard or think about olives. But today I exploded as a fat and smug German explained to a couple of timorous Brits why hard Brexit would screw England and thus why we should "obey orders" and fall into line with what Germany, sorry the EU, wanted. I exploded.
Seventy years ago folks like him were shooting villagers around here, raping the women and setting fire to the houses. They too were just doing what Germany ordered. They too just thought that there was no other way to behave and that it was all part of creating a united Europe under German leadership. This guy had already opined on all the good stuff the EU had done for Greece to make it the happy place it is today and then he started on Brexit.
If we have a hard Brexit, this man said that the first thing that would happen would be that Scotland would vote for independence and that would really mess up England. Already riled by his comments about Greece I turned round and said " Since the Act of Union in only one year has Scotland subsidised England not the other way round. Do you not know that 88% of Scots are net takers from the State - if the welfare junkies wish to leave England good riddance. Maybe Germany can pay their benefits?"
There was a bit of a stoney silence before the Kraut started blathering on about how Germany was putting Trump in his place, etc, etc ,etc. On every issue he stated opinion as fact. He was always right. Smug bastard.
My friend George the Architect, who was sitting opposite me, was a little surprised as - even when dealing with delay after delay on our planning permit - he had not seen me this angry. But like most Greeks he is not wild about the krauts either and this man's comments on Greece had not impressed him much.
The location is my favourite little restaurant here in Kalamata which is located on the main sea road opposite one entrance to the industrial harbour. Okay not the greatst of views but the food is fantastic. On offer today, as you can see below, was freshly caught octopus ( you can tell that it is not frozen) grilled and laid out on a bed of lettuce with a light vinegarette dressing. On the side is a dash of home made taramasalata. Accompanying this is toasted sour bread witha drizzling of local olive oil, fresh sea salt and mountain herbs.
This place has an extensive wine list so perhaps the old wine snob might now be tempted. I washed this all down with freshly squeezed orange juice. The orange trees are everywhere here. Pure heaven.
The conclusion is that it was built around 1850 but why then and not earlier? Here my father and I are in agreement: it is all down to the accursed Turks. When Greece was under Turkish rule the Mani peninsula was almost autonomous. The war like folks here engaged in protracted blood feuds as they had always done and the Turks saw little reason to unite the Maniots by pulling their beard with a military invasion.
As long as they were not too naughty on the piratical front they were best left alone. They had no great wealth to plunder and the towns and villages were remote and connected by paths and tracks with no roads. The Maniots were happy with this arrangement and thus why bother to construct a bridge across the natural defence of this deep gorge separating the Mani from lands under Turkish rule. When the river flowed it would have been impassable. When it did not defending the Mani rom the steep valley on the Kambos side would still have been a sinch.
The Maniots had no need to head up to Kalamata. They were self sufficient and there were more important things to do like killing your neighbours. Besides which if you really wanted to get to Turkish lands you could always go to a coastal port such as Kitries and sail up the shoreline.
Things changed in 1821 when on March 17 the Bishop of Tripoli in the heart of the Peloponnese called for an uprising across Greece. The first to answer this call to arms were, naturally, the Maniots who decided that it would be better to slaughter Turks than each other. Thus on March 21 the Maniots arrived at Kalamata and slaughtered the Turkish garrison there, without suffering a single casualty themselves.
The Maniots fought bravely in that war including the famous incident, recounted in full by Paddy Leigh Fermour in his book The Mani, when their women slaughtered a Turkish army. The men folk were being beseiged at Verga on the outskirts of Kalamata, defending heroically they repulsed wave after wave of attacks from a much larger Turkish force. So the Turks had a cunning plan: sending a largely Egyptian force down by sea to capture the Maniot capital of Aeropolis which is way down the peninsular and a couple of miles in land. This force arrived and only the very old men and the women working in the fields with their scythes were around. Naturally the women set upon the Turks and beat them back into the sea. As other men arrived with guns and swords the slaughter was complete with Turkish forces drowning and butchered with scythe and bullets en masse. When you view lovely Eleni in the Kourounis taverna remember that she is descended from such women.
When Greece became independent and gained a new king from Bavaria there were attempts, including the use of military force, to include the Maniots in the new order but they met an inevitable conclusion.
The Mani became part of the new Greece but with a certain degree of autonomy agreed. And it is only at that point that there was any point in making the gorge passable at all points. Only then would the Maniots feel any interest in heading off to the fleshpots of Kalamata to trade their sheep and olives for more useful things such as gunpowder and bullets for the blood feuding and other matters that could now continue as normal. Hence the bridge was built and until the 1970s, when the bigger bridge above it was constructed as part of the first road heading into Kambos, it was the link across the gorge.
The path down to the dry river was not to steep but it was not the sort of path I would have walked along in summer. Undisturbed by humans it is exactly the sort of place snakes would seek out for a spot of sunbathing. But they are all asleep are they not? After about fifteen yards I heard a rustle in the bushes behind me. I did not see what it was but, though it is utterly improbable I almost convinced myself that one of the serpents had set his hibernation clock for the wrong time. I was just in that sort of paranoid mood.
Arriving at the river I looked up the gorge having horrible images of flash floods sweeping me away. There is no reason at all why this would happen but as I headed down I looked to see how I could escape if such a flood arrived.
The boulders are large in places and it struck me that, as a boy, might have enjoyed climbing across them and leavering myself along. as an almost fifty year old man my best days of clambering along such rover beds are behind me.
As I moved towards the bridge I thought of the two bodies hurled there in 2014. The men had already been shot but this was their temporary resting place. I thought also of Paddy Leigh Fermor finding a dead body on a dry river bed as he walked to Kambos. At the bottom of this valley it is darker than at the top and it seemed a gloomy sort of place where dead bodies really should be found. Looking upwards you realise how "far down" you are
The bridge is in good enough nick. as you can see I clambered through blackberry bushes up the side of the valley allowing me to walk on the bridge. a few bushes are growing out of the top and it disappears on the other side into thick undergrowth. So I guess that I am unusual in walking across it in 2017.
There was no visible datestone but I shall be asking around about it in Kambos. I realise that the events of 2014 might make this a difficult subject to broach but I am keen to find out when it was built and anything about its history. I shall keep you posted. But it is a link with an older Mani from a time before you could reach the village of Kambos by road and thus it is something I'd like to check out.
As for skeletal remains, there was something. But this dead sheep was doing no savaging.
I hope the picture below conveys the sheer beauty of the taygetos mountains which tower above the Greek Hovel. I caught this shot of the snow capped peaks as I headed up for a spot of olive tree pruning earlier this afternoon.
On the land next to ours the trees have been pruned aggressively with whole branches lopped off. They look naked but ready for action. I am always a touch nervous about what to hack away but armed with my trusty axe and saw below I set to work.
There are two massive advantages of pruning now. The first is that the snakes are asleep and so you just do not hear rustling in the bushes causing you to turn sharply and breathe heavily. I walk across the property with gay abandon. The only sounds one hears are the bells and bleating of the shepherd's sheep and the sound of gunfire. For it is now the time of year when men line the roadside to blast away at little birds.
This is not for food just for the pleasure of killing little birds. Spent shotgun cartridges litter the ground everywhere. It is all so utterly mindless but I guess it is better than shooting each other which is what used to happen in days of old in the Mani when the culture of blood culture held sway.
The second advantage is that the shoots and branches one cuts back are that much smaller than they will be in May when I normally start pruning. I will prune again in the summer but I hope that this work eases that burden. And in theory, this early additional prune, will mean that more of the tree's energy will go towards productive branches so invceasing the yield. We shall see.
More important in terms of increasing my output is going to be planyting new trees on land I have purged of frigana and also splicing domesticated olive shoots onto wild olive trunks of which I have a few so that those trees come into production. Nikko the Communist (Papou) who is to assist me in that task has just wandered into lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna hrere in Kambos and we are agreed that we will do that work in April when I come back to start rebuilding the hovel.
These days there is a brand spanking new (EU funded) bridge that cross the gorge. For 90% of the year there is a dry river at the bottom, the rest of the time it is a gushing torrent. Right now, since the snow on the Taygetos Mountains has not melted it is dry.
The old bridge was built when the road to Kambos - the village nearest to the Greek Hovel - was first constructed in the 1970s. You can still access it via a road strewn with rocks but it is driveable and a simple detour from the main "highway." Hence you can dump bodies there after you have murdered someone.
For no reason at all I took a detour yesterday to the murder bridge and - for the first time - spotted an even older bridge underneath it. It looks very ancient indeed and can only be wide enough for pedestrians and sheep. It must have been used in the pre-road era and has thus been abandoned for years. I have no idea how old it is or who built it but you can see it below.
With the river dry and the snakes asleep now looks like a good time to investigate. When the heroic Paddy Leigh Fermor walked into the Mani and towards his first stop in Kambos - a village he was jolly rude about - he recounts walking along a river valley and discovering the bones of a man killed in the recently ended civil war. Paddy, like the folks in the Mani, fought with the Royalists and one assumes that the skeleton was that of a dead commie as no-one had paid it any attention.
In April the Mrs and I plan to cross the Bridge that is the real killing fields of European drama, that between Denmark and Sweden, as we take Joshua on a road trip. The Mrs used to work in Sweden so will be yakking to her former colleagues in the world of sociology, I plan to go fishing with Joshua, whose second name, for reasons you can guess, is Patrick, or Paddy. But for now it is an old bridge in the Mani that excites me.
Whenever I head to Greece I take delight in calling the larger than life bear raider Evil Knievil to tell him what I am eating and how good it is. You can hear the old bear salivating down the line and he says he is jealous. But then he adds that although his father, George Cawkwell, is the greatest living scholar on the subject of Ancient Greece, Cawky jnr will not come here because the wine is just not up to scratch. Arguing with him on this matter is pointless.
So for lunch today I enjoyed a maginificant Greek salad with herbs, local feta and fresh peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes from the local fields. For about £4 at lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna in Kambos a bargain.
Lovely Eleni also does a nice line in honey based puddings. But trying to take my diabetes seriously I abstained but thought Evil would enjoy a photo of what he, and sadly not only he, is missing.
As I drove up the mountain road to Kambos and the Greek Hovel I could see smoke rising all around me. It is the season when you burn the branches you chopped down in the olive harvest, start pruning your trees and give them a bit of fertilizer. I bought a lighter in Kalamata and, having been trained by George the Albanian on how to start a fire with a few bits of dried grass I was determined to match my neighbours.
As you can see their fires roar away. I must report that I tried for 30 minutes and failed. The piles of branches are the sort of places that snakes might hibernate so I have two reasons to want them to blaze away. But my repeated attempts to set fires going ended in abject failure. Reluctantly I have asked lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna in Kambos - my conduit to Greek speakers - to call George for assistance. Until he is ready I must content myself with a few days of aggressive pruning.
The hovel is changed little. I pray that we start rebuilding it in April and it will be transformed and so for the record here it is as it stands today with one shot from each side. I opted not to venture inside either the main room - which is sort of wildlife diversity proof - or the rat room or bat room which are not. God only knows what is living inside and so I shall save that treat for when George arrives. Fearless George will tackle whatever lies inside.
Yesterday I served up a picture of the snow capped mountains of the Northern Peloponnese to show that it is not just in the far North of Greece that global warming falls each year. I am now in the Southern Peloponnese, in fact the Mani, where the Greek Hovel is located, is the most southerly part of mainland Greece. And guess what?
Firstly the grass is a gorgeous green. Our house is half way between the village of Kambos and the mountains and it is almost alpine. Sadly it is not only the grass that has grown but also the accursed frigana, the thorn bush that is my sworn enemy. I will have to tackle it once again this summer with my strimmer.
But above the hovel lie the Taygetos mountains and as in December when I was here for the olive harvest they too are covered in snow on the higher peaks. Greece and snow are not the images most folks in Britain have in their minds. But from North to South this country sees global warming falling every year.
The Mrs asked me to put the bins out today. According to the complex glossy grid posted to us by cash strapped Bristol City Council, it is a 4 bin day. I am still not sure what the difference is between the green box and the black box but they together with the big black bin and the brown food bin must all go outside by 7 AM and if you are caught putting the wrong stuff in the wrong box you are publicly stoned to death in a multi cultural ceremony to demonstrate Bristol's commitment to diversity as well as saving the planet.
Actually I am not sure what the penalty is but I realise that it is a heinous crime, like owning a Golliwog you were given fifty years ago as a kid, or allowing your infant son to dress up as a soldier rather than as a fairy in pink so that he can view his sexuality objectively.
For some reason I forgot. And so I found myself lying in bed at 7.15 AM ( having already done a one hour early shift on the keyboard) but thinking that it would be nice to hop in next to the Mrs having brought her a cup of tea. I do that chore every morning as part of my atonement for 3000 years of living in a patriarchal society. Clunk, bang, clunk the sound of the environmentally unfriendly garbage truck making its way down the road could be heard.
I leapt out of bed wearing only some rather old boxers which these days contain almost as much hole as boxer and my Hillary for Prison 2016 T shirt. I rushed downstairs and flung open the door and started to put the four trash containers on the street. I could see one burley Environmental Services Operative, or dustman as we used to refer to them in less enlightened times, removing boxes on the house one side of us while a colleague dealt with the ones on the other side.
"Am I too late?" asked, in a pathetic begging manner, the barefoot figure in the old boxers that left little to the imagination and a T-shirt that is deemed a hate crime in this culturally sensitive City. It rained last night and I was aware that my feet were not enjoying this experience nor, one suspects, were any neighbours unlucky enough to be staring out of the window as they ate breakfast.
One Environmental Services Operative growled "you are late". As if it makes any fucking difference that my bins arrived on the pavement at the same time as his noisy lorry rather than before the 7 AM deadline set by the eco-fascists at Bristol City Council. But you do not argue with ESOs. It would be like trying to argue with operatives of the 3rd Reich. These guys are obeying orders and they expect you to be good fucking Germans too. So I just apologised for missing the deadline and hoped that - as the operative was at this point standing just two yards from my bins - he might relent. That he did.
Now, five hours later, another lorry winds its way up the street, belching fumes and making a racket as it has to collect the big bins which contain something different to the black and green boxes or whatever. I am sure it is all very environmentally friendly.
When the Greek hovel is complete I aim to achieve the target set by the guru of self sufficiency John Seymour with whom my mother corresponded at length. John reckoned that you could arrange your life so that 99% of what entered your house never left it. For us that will mean PV cells to power everything, eco-loos, using waste water from the house on the olives, not buying anything wrapped in plastic, recycling any paper that comes in as part of the eco-loss composting system or to light the fire which will heat us with waste wood in the winter, etc, etc.
This may all be Greek to you but this is the Christmas message from myself and my father and my son Joshua to the folks in Kambos in the Mani near which our little house is located. Happy Christmas to everyone in Kambos especially those in the Kourounis taverna
On Christmas Day I chatted to Uncle Chris Booker. A wide ranging chat but we cannot help but conclude that at a geo-political level the world is going ever more badly wrong. Price Charles this populism is a real danger and must be fought. Quite right you unelected hereditary multi millionaire, lets pursue policies that favour the 1% and screw the masses. Let's stick with policies that, for a reason that a patrician fool might not grasp, are not popular in any way. As a life long republican I really do hope that the Queen lives forever.
I tried to say that there were reasons to be joyful. And there are. We have welcomed Joshua into our family. There are events in Syria where the right side is winning and the folly of our leaders is being exposed - a matter I reflect on HERE. Article 50 will be triggered. The EU may well implode. President Trump may stop the global warming bandwagon, a false religion if there ever was one. It is not all bad. But Uncle Chris seemed unconvinced.
Some eighteen hours later I was filled with, almost joy, as the Mrs and I walked with a sleeping Joshua back from Midnight Mass. Of course - as is always the way of the CofE the priest made a couple of political points straight out of the Guardian - but there was no anger in me. The Mrs and I are both from actively Christian families but we are both fairly lapsed, she less so than I am.
But over the past year I have thought more and more about faith, belief and other matters. I do find myself reading the bible now and again and I marvel at those who have genuine faith like the amazing lady in Kambos. At the communion, this year for the first time both the Mrs and I went up to the altar leaving Joshua snoozing and watched over by friend Mu. we did not take communion as that would have been a fraud, neither of us could say we believe. But we asked for a blessing and I felt really like something did happen.
The final carol came with that last verse we only sing on Christmas day.
All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning, O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing O Come let us adore Him, etc
That last verse always tells me that it is Christmas day and this year with Joshua it is a very special celebration of the nativity for this family.
Before we braved the chill night air we headed to the crypt for tea, coffee and mince pies. There was another younger couple there with a tiny baby. It had been due to be born - as was I almost 49 years ago on January 12 but instead joined this world on November 24. This Christmas will be truly special for that family too. The other worshipper were almost all elderly. I suppose our grouping of the unfashionable, the elderly and those of faith will be the sort of folks that the metropolitan elites, the EU loving Godless millennials and almost the entire media will sneer about either covertly in "locker room talk) or, increasingly these days, in the open.
For Christianity is the a barbarous relic that, unlike other faiths, it is now acceptable to mock without fear that you will have your head chopped off or even face mild rebuke. My fifteen year old daughter from Islington has again enjoyed a Christmas without making one appearance at a religious ceremony. For her Christmas has nothing to do with faith, it is one almighty consumerist binge. Santa gave her, inter alia, a book about "Everyday sexism" which she delighted in telling me about. We of the old world are all sexists and lost of other ists and we might go to church.
I felt joyous as I walked home from church from spending an hour with some really good and loving people. My joy - which the Mrs shared - was not born out of knowing that presents and fine cooking awaits. That was just a bonus.
Next year, I hope, we shall celebrate Christmas in a packed church in a place where most people still cling to a faith. A place where consumerism is yet to dominate all. Maybe, just maybe it will be our first Christmas at the Greek Hovel.
What follows shows how the olives from the Greek Hovel (2.681 tonnes) became 450 kg of olive oil. Having revisited ny 2014 results that is a tiny fall in olives but a steep fall in oil. But I got a better price so have walked away with roughly the same cash - 1650 Euro, against labour costs of 770 Euro now that I do my pruning myself.
The photos are from the press in the local village of Kambos where you can see the machines in order of use without olives and with, the strapping lads who lift 50 kg sacks as you and I might lift a 10 kg bag of potatoes, and the little chemistry set that determines the quality of each batch of oil. It is all very high tech. Enjoy.
Each year I take 16 kg of the olive oil from the Greek Hovel back to the UK with me in a big can and sell the rest. But the can is just too big for my rucksack so means I have to pay both to put it in a special box (30 Euro) and also for an extra piece of hold luggage ( 25 Euro). It is still cheap oil but that rankles. But I have a cunning plan.
Exhibit A is one 16 kg can of olive oil.
Exhibit B is three 5kg cans bought last night from lovely Eleni as I said goodbye to the Kourounis taverna and to Kambos. I have borrowed a funnel from my fave restaurant in Kalamata, the Katalenos on Navarino Street where you will taste the best Octopus of your life. And I then achieved a transfer.
What happens to the excess 1 kg of oil you say? Well there was a bit of, er, leakage on the transfer. Holding a 15 kg can and pouring gently into a small funnel is not easy. So I guess there is 0.5 kg left. Tonight I meet George the Architect and it may be coals to Newcastle but I don't think he farms so he can have an early Christmas present.
And I have tested already. All three 5kg cans fit into my rucksack leaving plenty of room for the few books and clothes I brought with me. Cunning eh?
Lunch on Thursday at the Greek Hovel was provided by the wife of George the Albanian. At least I think it was his wife, it was one of his two female assistants. I pondered how much an Islington bistro would have stung me for, offering similar fare.
The lunch was, I admit, simple. A slice of bread, from a freshly baked loaf at the Kambos artisanal bakery, dripping in locally produced virgin olive oil, half a fresh organic tomato from George's garden and a lump of home made feta. The cheese was a tad salty for my liking but genuine artisanal fare. And an orange picked from one of the many trees that are dripping with the fruit right now. The cost to George, with labour, must have been about 20 Eurocents.
But imagine how this appetiser would be dressed up in London. Artisanal, organic, fresh, etc, etc, etc. I cannot imagine getting any change at all from a fiver and suspect it would be more.
Life here in Kambos is cheap but that does not diminish the quality of the food and of one's existence. I know it is a bit of a pipe dream to live here full time and so be able to keep my own goats. But as you may remember, my wife's brother in law comes from a village the other side of Kalamata and there I have learned how to milk the goats belonging to his mother - as you can see in this video.
I reckon I could live here on a couple of Euros a day. Should the world financial system collapse I guess it is always an option.
And so we entered what George the Albanian said would be the final day of the 2016 olive harvest at the Greek Hovel. The final trees were those around the house which had received special care from me in the summer and so I hoped for a good day. But it started badly with George, his women and me trooping off to the far corners of the hovel to collect sacks full of olives.
They were not full at 50 kg but almost full so must have been 40 kg each. Carrying those things slung over your shoulder over 300 yards of rocky terrain was no bundle of laughs. It reminded me of that exercise in rugby training when you used to have to fireman's lift a team mate for half the pitch before he lifted you for half a pitch. Being a forward I always got paired with another hefty fellow. But that was 50 flat yards and then you got carried before doing a gentle 100 yard sprint. And I was 30 then. I am 48 now. Four of five of these runs and even the women were breathing heavily. I was in a bad state and it was not yet 9 AM.
Mid morning came light relief. George had loaded up his truck with 25 bags. And we headed off to Kambos where strapping young men unloaded the truck. as you can see the Kambos press was buzzing with activity. The Cop from Kardamili nick, the shepherd, the whole world was there.
Myself and the two women who work with George the Albanian finished work at 5 PM today, having started at 8 AM. It was dark at the end. I could not see what was an olive and what was a leaf as I worked the separating machine. I just bashed the twigs and leaves hard with a plastic paddle and pushed anything that felt like a olive through the grill. My hands are stained with olives and feel raw from pushing those twigs and olives across that grill all day.
George was off to see a bloke about another job. But the ladies and I did high fives at the end. It is all over.
The weigh in at the Kambos press is complete. 2.681 tonnes. Had George not bunked off early we could have tackled a few more marginal trees. But what do I care? It is over and I survived without bunking off early once. That is an achievement and I feel rather proud of myself.
I have photos of the press and of olives from the hovel but will put them up in the morning before returning to Kambos for pressing. For now I have bought Nicho and the shepherd a drink and myself my first ouzo for many days. A quick coffee and then it is back to Kalamata and bed without having to set an alarm in the morning. Bliss.
Adam Reynolds and the Mrs are in my good books for returning phone calls and thus giving me phone breaks today. Peter Greensmith of Peterhouse did not and so ensured more toil and torture for me. Bad man Peter. Anyhow the sun shone all day and we toiled away as ever.
I am now getting so quick at my main (old ladies) job of seperating leaves from olives on a big metal grill that I found myself under-employed and so promoted myself to the job of thrashing branches, chopped down by George the Albanian, to cleanse them of olives.
Needless to say I clean one branch in the time it takes the ladies to clean three but I hope that every little helps. The end result is that we have finished the terraces on the mountain side and George thinks we have finished the top main level although I think there are a few tress in the far, snake infested, corner that we have missed. So we just have the short terraces ( two of them) on the Monastery side, the best trees in the area either side of the house and the poor trees in the other snake sanctuary, rocky ground by the entrance to the property, to go.
George ended today with the words "avrio, Kambos, ferma" which means he thinks we will be done tomorrow evening. He is the expert but I think he's missed out the main snake area which, as they are sleeping, and as I risked life and limb to clear it of frigana and prune the trees in the summer, is not on. If I am right it may be a Saturday finish. We shall see.
If it is tomorrow there will be no afternoon writing for me as it will be to Kambos to watch the press and have an ouzo and a settle up with George with lovely Eleni translating. Bring it on. The torture is almost over.
Arriving at the Greek Hovel this morning it was damp underfoot. There had been overnight rain and the puddles in the dry river are growing and threatening to link up to form a vibrant stream, but the skies looked clear enough. I wandered down to the other side of the ruin, the lair of the snake, to trees that have gone from zeros to heros in the space of a year. George the Albanian was hard at work as was one of his women. But only one. Hell's teeth: what could have gone wrong?
These Albanians they are not like snowflake millennials in Britain who throw sickies at least once a fortnight because it is a basic human right to do so. My comrades in labour could be bitten by a snake, be running a fever and have a broken leg and they'd still turn up for work. What on earth could have gone wrong?
I speculated that lady two might have been bought by a rival team. In football terms she would be a bargain. Valued as an "old lady" she has been playing as a valuable mid-fielder given the arrival of a new old lady in the team (me). But this is the Mani, the land of the blood feud. Any attempt to pinch one of his team, who might actually be his wife, would see George heading off with his shotgun to ensure honour was satisfied. Maybe George had sent his son to do the honour killing while he cracked on with the harvest?
I should not have worried. In due course she too wandered into the fields and we all cracked on. Well some more than others. Though I am only doing the old ladies tasks I was soon shattered and any interruption from a phone call was most welcome. Anyone who wants to phone me tomorrow feel free, any time after 6.30 GMT I am keen to talk.
Actually I am getting quicker at my jobs. I am still very slow by Albanian standards but less slow than I was a few days ago. But by 2.30 PM I was in deep trouble. I had passed on lunch to do a bit of catching up but then it started to rain. Vreki thought I, with joy, and looked at where George the Albanian was labouring away. He too had noticed and so electrical machinery was covered in plastic. Goodie goodie thought I, we can all bunk off early. But George and the ladies simply started thrashing branches the old fashioned way, by hand. My heart sank. The Greeks on the terraces on the other side of the valley had packed up why weren't we heading home?
By 3.15 PM it really was starting to tip it down. I was tempted to wander over to George to point at an increasingly sodden T-shirt and suggest that I was going to Kambos. But that would be wimping out. It is day five and I have lasted the pace (sort of) so far. Just as I prepared to capitulate, George wandered over. "Vreki. Avrio" said our great leader. Naturally I did my best to look disappointed but reluctantly agreed that we would try again in the morning.
Looking out of my hotel window in Kalamata it is sheeting it down. My guess is that the dry river is now flowing across the track up to the hovel and that tomorrow morning, as the track turns to an earth path through the olive groves at the top of snake hill on my side of the valley, it will be covered in puddles and slippery mud. If we do harvest tomorrow I very much doubt that we will finish the job. I reckon we need two more days and that we are still looking at between two and two and half metric tonnes - a record result. Naturally that is is a testament to my pruning of this summer.
Do I want clear weather tomorrow? Naturally I do. But if it is raining? Every cloud has silver lining.
Greek is one of those languages where folks sound animated even if they discussing the weather or when the next bus arrives. But the conversations that break out between George the Albanian and his two female assistants, as we harvest the olives up at the Greek hovel, seem very animated indeed. I have no idea what they are on about.
The paranoid view is that the women are complaining about how slow I am and George is placating them.It could be that they are discussing the impact of the Italian referendum on the price of southern european olives though I doubt it. My guess it is about where to lay down the next set of mats to catch olives that are twerked. I can see that there are various routes across the terraces, which are not in straight lines and in places end and become half terraces. Perhaps mapping out the strategy for completing the harvest is sowing discord. I have no idea at all.
But after each discussion quiet resumes. The only noises you can hear are chainsaws being used on groves across the hills, the clock from the Church in Kambos, the sound of the threshing machine, the pitter patter of olives on the mats as someone twerks away and George singing some strange Greek or Albanian song. It seems a happy little number for he is a man who appears content with life. He still speaks to me in Greek though we are both aware that I have no idea what he is talking about but in year three of our business relationship all seems going well.
Rested, after a very hot bath which has left my limbs only hurting rather than in agony, I look forward to hearing more discussions about God knows what in the morning.
You find me sitting in the Kourounis taverna of lovely Eleni in my Greek "home village" of Kambos. Idle bastard, I hear you say, it is only 9.30 AM Greek time why isn't the slacker off harvesting olives. Au contraire mes amis, I have completed my second day of harvesting without injuries and honour intact. The truth is that rain (vreki) has stopped play for all of us hardworking labourers.
Almost from the moment I arrived I could hear the thunder claps. They were loud but, having survived a lightning strike direct on my roof while recording a bearcast in the summer (it is about six minutes in HERE) I know the score. George the Albanian said vreki but as it started to tip down we carried on working for a while.
But the thunder grew louder and the rain grew heavier and at about nine George started packing up. as we are on top of a hill we are, I guess, a bit lightning exposed.I can see the logic of not wishing to hold onto a long metal twerker or paddle and stick it up into the trees. we will try again tomorrow (avrio). Since my body aches all over I must admit that my disappointment at not adding to yesterday's triumph was slightly mitigated by the thought of spending a day in a warm room relaxing and catching up on my other work.
The thunder clouds are rolling in not from the mountains above but from South, the road down the Mani towards Kardamili. The photo is the view from the front of the hovel towards the Frankish castle of Zarnata which overlooks Kambos.
Meanwhile the Kourounis taverna is filling up as my fellow labourers also retire from the front line until avrio. At least one has already started on the ouzo. Even for me, I reckon that it is a little bit early for that,
In 2014 we harvested 1.65 metric tonnes (1650 kg) at the Greek hovel which yielded 566 litres of olive oil. Last year was a disaster - 550 kg and I fell and ended up in hospital. So far 2016 has been a triumph. I did not fall. Albeit with a few breaks I lasted the full working day and we have already harvested 550 kg with only a fraction of the trees finished. It is a triumph but I am shattered.
The first thing of note is that we have new technology. No longer are the trees only hit with plastic paddles but there is now an electric device - is it called a twerker? This is a sort of vibrating rake and it is a pleasure watching my colleagues wield it. My colleagues are, of course, George the Albanian and two women who, I think, are his wife and sister in law. After three years I should know but am too embarrassed to ask. Not that I speak Greek or Albanian or they speak English.
George is our leader so his main job is chopping branches off trees with his chainsaw.
These branches are then taken to a threshing machine where they are expertly flailed. This is skilled work so, naturally, I am not allowed to do it either. My first job is to carry the branches from where they fall to where the flailing machine, operated by lady 1, is wheeled to.
All the time we walk across the mats which are laid down by the ladies. This too is quite a skilled job and so naturally I am not party to it. Most of the branches are not cut from the tree but sit there to be attacked by the twerker or, now and again, by George wielding an old style long plastic paddle. But the twerker is king. Naturally it is a skilled job and so I am not allowed anywhere near it although I really do want a go and might ask to use it on the last tree so that if I break anything the harvest is in the bag.
Watching lady 2 or George wield the twerker is watching an artist at work and, as I take an occassional breather, I do just that.
In due course the mats are rolled up and the olives plus small twigs and leaves are poured into another machine. This is a skilled job and so is left to the ladies. But at this point my second job comes into play.
This machine has no moving parts and is very simple to operate. I think that normally it is what the old women do. But in this case I am the old woman and the old women have been promoted. Using the wooden stick one beats the leaves and twigs and the loose olives until all olives are loose and fall through the mesh on this tray and then slide into a sack. Even I cannot screw up on this. It is quite tiring but really satisfying as you see your bags fill up.
At the close of play George summonsed me and we wandered around the half filled bags with me holding one as another was emptied into it by George so making one full 50 kg bag. George can lift them easily. I rather struggled, straining muscles I had forgotten that I had. The bag below is two thirds full. By close of play we had 11 utterly full 50 kg bags.
I now invite you to consider a before and after photo. The first is of a tree dripping with olives and thick with leaves. It is the BEFORE photo
And below is what a tree looks like after it has been twerked. Can you see the difference AFTER? The sun shines through a tree that really has been stripped back, shaved and cleansed.
We started work at 8 AM sharp. That is 6 AM UK time which is the time zone I am still operating on. By 2 PM Greek time I was aching all over and it started to rain. Normally rain stops play and indeed on the neighbouring patch of land a team lead by my neighbour Charon and including the goat-herd and several others did stop for a while. I was at that stage thanking God that I might get an early break but George and his ladies just carried on. These Albanians are made of sterner stuff.
In one of my short breaks I went over to say hello to the heavily moustachioed goat-herd (not to be confused with the Shepherd) who, as ever, spoke to me in Greek knowing that I do not understand a word of it. But he had heard about Joshua and, having four children of his own, the Old Goat, kissed me on both cheeks to say well done before kissing the photo of my baby son on my camera. It seems that the whole village of Kambos knows of Joshua's arrival which is touching.
Now I am back in Kalamata. Tomorrow we start again. 8 AM sharp. No rest for the wicked. A long hot bath is greatly needed.
I noted yesterday that the rain clouds were so thick that from the Kalamata sea front I could not see the start of the taygetus mountain range which winds its way down the Mani peninsula. Later in the day as I drove east towards the mountains the cloud had lifted and I could see clearly that there was already a good covering of global warming directly ahead of me in the higher reaches. It got better.
The Greek hovel lies in the lower reaches of the mountains up from the village of Kambos which is itself pretty high up. As you can see the view from the hovel is of snow clad mountains. I sense that it has fallen earlier this year and in greater quantities which is, of course, all down to global warming.
Up in Kambos there was a definite chill in the air and everyone was wrapped up warm.
I should say that today in Kalamata the sun shines, I have seen a few brave souls swimming in the sea and I am wearing a T-shirt and feel quite warm. But up in the mountains the snow is not melting - the dry river in between Kambos and the Hovel is still dry. The snow in the mountains merely waits for more to fall.
I know the area at the bottom end of Fleet Street, where it turns into Ludgate Hill and you wander up to St Pauls, like the back of my hand. Twenty years ago I worked around there at the Chronic Investor and used to walk home Eastwards. For two decades, at Christmas I would go to midnight mass at the journalists' church, St Brides. The area has changed a lot over the twenty five years that we have been acquainted. Unlike me, it has smartened itself up. But it is still familiar territory.
Eleni would have been sitting in her taverna in the heart of the village ( population 538) with the place packed with the regulars, all local folks. At this time of year, very few foreigners venture to the Mani. Indeed in Kambos, since it is more than half an hour from the sea, tourists only ever pass through even in summer. They don't stay.
In London folks earn far more, rushing between meetings and shuffling bits of paper. Is there really any point to it or are most folks just playing a game and making money? But everyone bustles hither and thither from meetings to smart restaurants and back again. The cost of a meal for two where I was last night would keep me in food and drink in the tavernas of Kambos for a week.
The buildings as Ludgate Hill heads towards St Pauls are a mixture of old and new. A Wren church nestles next to a 1960s block. But then pretty soon you are at Paternoster Square a modern and impressive construct. They all sit side by side but the district is smart and contains many impressive buildings. There is a buzz and excitement as folks rush around London like the ants in our fields back at the hovel on a day when they are set to swarm. In Kambos there is no such buzz, no drive to make money and no vast choice of over-priced and pointless goods and services on which to waste your cash. There are no new buildings and in fact very little of note.
I am perhaps a bit hard on London in saying that I loathe it. I can see the point in visiting twice a year to see the ants rushing around. But it is not my world any more. More than a few days in London leaves me drained, exhausted and vaguely angry at the pointlessness and crass consumerism of the place. Bring on Kambos.
Last year the olive harvest at the Greek Hovel was dire and I fell and ended up in hospital. I am hoping that things got far better on both counts in 2016. And thus yesterday I found myself calling the Kourounis Taverna, owned by lovely Eleni one of the two English speakers in Kambos, the nearest village to our place. Sadly it was her husband Nicko who answered and thus I struggled in Greek. Is it calinichta or calispera? God only knows. I tried both and then said "Its Tom". Aha cala? he said. Cala said I. And he called Eleni for our conversation had just about reached its limits.
I told her about Joshua and she said that she was chatting about me to George the Albanian only that day. She will make sure George is ready for my arrival to assist with the harvest. By assist I mean that George and his family will do it and I will try to assist without falling over or collapsing in a heap. But we are underway. Two weeks to Greece to file our planning application and to pick the olives: surely this year it will be more than two tonnes.
I sit here now in Shipston with my father, trying to persuade him to come to Greece for the olive harvest in December. It is not that he would be much good in terms of picking olives. I suppose he might lean against a tree up at the Greek Hovel and bash the branches with his walking stick. But I think his role should be more concerned with drinking ouzo with the older men of Kambos so that my liver is preserved and I can play a full part in the harvest working with George the Albanian and his family.
The Greek Hovel seems a long way away. As does the house of all round superhero Paddy Leigh Fermor which I visited with my wife and my father and step mother. on June 8 It was only five weeks ago but things moved fast for my step mother on her return. She enjoyed this last Greek trip as you can see.
There are a couple of internal photos in an earlier article HERE. Below are photos of the dining area, the courtyard, the steps down to the sea and the sea itself and of myself, my father and step mother sitting inside the main entrance.
It was my last evening in Greece. I felt sad both to be returning to Britain and because of the reason that I was returning early. having been blown out on my hot date with the amazing woman, I drove from the abandoned monastery not back to the hovel but to the village one last time for supper. Having problems parking in the Centre of kambos I continued on the main road out of the village seeking a place to turn.
As one leaves the village you start to climb the base of a hill on whose top stands the Frankish castle of Zarnata. As the road heads round a bend there is a parking and turning spot where I stopped the motor. Looking back below us is a ruined tower house which sits just above the Mycenaean tombs, the real hidden gems of Kambos. Behind them lies the village and on a clear day from this spot you can even see the hovel in the very far distance.
It is one of the charms of Greece that if one makes an appointment for 7.30 PM on Friday in really means any time between Wednesday and Sunday afternoon. It was in that spirit that I prepared for my date with the most amazing woman to be shown around the deserted monastery, actually a convent, which sits on the other side of the valley from the Greek Hovel. As the crow flies it is actually my nearest neighbour and, as you can see, it is a pretty impressive building.
It was my last evening at the hovel and so, to show respect to the woman but also ahead of seeing the Mrs for the first time in three weeks, I tried to shave but with no mirror I removed not only three weeks growth but also good chunks of flesh. As I stepped into my shower, that is to say under the hosepipe, I was bleeding profusely and the water stung. Notwithstanding the still bleeding cheek and jawbone, I looked reasonably smart as I drove down my side of the valley across the dry river and up from the valley floor to the top of monastery hill. Instead of carrying on for another mile or so into Kambos I swung right to where one can enter the convent. It was 7 PM and I thought I should be early.
I waited patiently until 8.30 PM at which point I conceded that I had been blown out and untied the string that keeps the front gate closed. Feeling rather nervous ,as I was an intruder, I entered a small courtyard. It is maintained well with neat flowers and on one side of the path there was a gravestone. It was the last resting place of the last nun to live at the convent a woman who must have been fairly old when she died.
Her death was about eight weeks before The Mrs and I first visited the hovel and the village of Kambos. I still do not know whether this little old lady of faith died alone at the convent where she must have lived by herself for many years or whether she was elsewhere at the end or with others. Whatever faith she had to sustain her in her final years out in this isolated place I hope that at the end she also had human company.
The Courtyard was only about six yards long and at the end was another wall and another iron gate. This one was locked with a padlock and chain. As such I could only peer through to another small courtyard. On one side is a small house where perhaps two or three nuns could have lived. On the other side the accommodation building with another 15-18 cells and at the end a small church.
At one stage those cells would have been bustling. This would have been a vibrant community. With water at the spring that lies at the bottom of the valley, into which the dry river flows creating a large pond in winter, and surrounded by fields for the nuns to tend this was once a real self sustaining community. Now the area around the convent grows wild. Only the amazing lady from Kambos keeps nature at bay from the inner sanctuaries of the site and one wonders if there is another generation to act as the convent's defender in this way? I fear there won't be.
The amazing lady has faith that there will be nuns there again one day. If there are I would beg to assist them with their olives or in hacking back the frigana which is advancing upon the buildings. But I do not expect to get that chance for I have no faith that the nuns will return. I suspect that the last nun of Kambos is the one lying in the grave in the courtyard.
Sorry it is a poor quality video and yes that is Abba in the background. I shot it on the penepenultimate evening at the Greek Hovel. I was travelling down from Kambos to the sea at Kitries for a last meal of octopus. About two miles from where, just outside my home village, one leaves the main Kambos to Kalamata road, there is a small hamlet.
I stood above this hamlet looking down on its church in the sunset. Then I panned the camera around. I hope you can make out the 180 degree view starting at the Frankish castle above Kambos, moving down to the bay at Kitries and onwards to the church. And so why would one live anywhere else?
Meanwhile I have solved another mystery. As one heads up my side of the valley just past snake hill there is a turning off the mud track to the right. This turning is clearly a road but a road to where?
On my way down to Miranda's I stopped the car and started to walk up this road. Given that it is used even less frequently than the road to snake hill I trod rather nervously as I climbed up the hill and round the corner. And what was around the corner? Nothing. The road, deliberately created by man just stopped after less than one hundred yards.
On one side a path headed off into the olive trees. Naturally I followed this path, treading even more deliberately and slowly than I had on the road lest I encounter a member of the wildlife diversity community. And after about one hundred yards the path passed two large trees and I reached...nowhere. It stopped.
There was a gap in the bushes to a field which looked better manicured and greener than all the other fields. But was this the lush pasture of a green and pleasant land or just very long grass for snakes to hide in. At this point my nosiness was overwhelmed by cowardice and I carefully retraced my steps along the road to nowhere.
As I headed back to the car I was struck by the view, a view towards the abandoned monastery. Enjoy.
Lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna has still not reopened. But the hardcore clientele led by Nicho the communist and Vangelis in his pink shirt still sit resolutely on its outside tables, using its internet link and chatting with the wider Eleni family. Rather naughtily I have discovered that I can use the Kourounis wi-fi while sitting in Miranda's next door and did that as i tucked into a last meal of Mani sausage and courgettes.
And then I said farewell to Miranda explaining, in Greek, that I was going to England tomorrow. Yes you heard that correctly I spoke a few words of fucking Greek. And then back to Elenis where I explained why I was leaving. I showed them all the picture of the Mrs at Mistras and they understood...
Vangelis talked of drinking. Yes we shall all drink together again my friend. And you can again drive me back to the hovel at 3 AM 15 ouzos later.
Elias! I shall be back at the Greek Hovel for the olive harvest in December. Nicho can try out his wild olive experiments on my land and we can talk together of snakes and other matters. And yes my friends, we shall all drink some ouzo.
I shall be back in December to harvest with my friend George the Albanian, but also to look out on olive groves and towering mountains and to hear nothing for most of the day bar the bells on the sheep. To speak to no-one except the Shepherd unless I make a conscious decision to do so. To write with a sense of freedom and to think thoughts one dares not think back in Airstrip One.
Oh well, its now time to start packing, to clean the eco-loo I built with wood I found at the hovel; to slash frigana one last time and to head back to a grey Bristol suburb.
I know I must return to bloody England for all sorts of reasons but to say that I am heading "home" would be an untruth. The population of Bristol is 428,100 and I can't say that I have a single friend in the City. I like some of the friends of the Mrs but they are her friends and my personal social circle is zero.
In Kambos there are 538 people including me. For some reason, everyone here knows who I am - the English guy from Toumbia up in the snake infested mountains who is terrified of snakes, who writes all day and falls off his bike and who wants to be an olive pruner. And though very few folks speak English I have more conversations with people I like and respect here in a week than I do in a season of Bristol life. The shepherd speaks Greek to me. I speak English to him. Neither of us understands a word but we become better friends as every day goes by.
As I drive back from the village down monastery hill, across the dry river, up snake hill and through the olive groves the car bumps from side to side and the songs playing on local radio Live FM are two songs I hear out here all the time but rarely back in England. In my mind they are summer songs. Winter starts tomorrow night.
It is my last full day at the Greek Hovel until December and I shall miss my life here badly. It is just after three in the afternoon and I sit in the shade in the centre of Kambos typping away with a glass of ouzo to hand (celebrating vengeance after eleven years) watching the world go by. As ever the A Board on the main street of Kambos advertises all sorts of delight at Miranda's little taverna. Fish, grilled meats, toasted kangaroo, the list goes on. Actually I made up that bit about the kangaroo but it might as well have been on the public menu because the actual menu is...what is on top the oven today which is chicken and spaghetti.
Miranda gets me to taste the chicken and says something in Greek including the word "spiti" which is one of the few words I actually know. Until this morning what i am about to devour was fluttering around at her house. spiti = house. Now it is covered in a superb sauce and part of it will be my lunch.
And so I order what is on the actual menu but it seems that patronage is now rewarded with an upgrade in that I am trusted to lay my own table in the little square outside the taverna. Miranda hands me one of the paper sheets that are clipped to tables in Greek restaurants, a glass and a bottle of iced nero (water) and off I toddle.
I guess some of the Bulletin Board morons back home who just hate it when I expose as frauds the companies that have invested in will be delighted by this news. It is evidence that once again I am really just a waiter in a restaurant. One such moron was again abusing me today "and your pizza is shit."
I suppose in the tiny addled little mind of such a total fucktard buying a loss making restaurant, turning it round and selling it on at a profit is the same as being a pizza waiter. Such folks will no doubt now also define me as being Miranda's waiter. What a silly world I inhabit back in Britain.
Postscript: the chicken was really fantastic. I am not a big fan of spaghetti but this was thicker than the Italian version and coated in crumbly local cheese it was not bad at all. A thin cat sat next to my table as soon as the food arrived and started begging loudly. I gave it some spaghetti which it devoured.
Some people are just good at languages. The Mrs speaks perfect English (for a Northerner), very good Swedish and very acceptable Greek. Some of us are bad at languages. Other than English I speak poor French and a smattering of Greek, Latin and German - all poorly. And some of us are bad at languages but think we are rather better than bad. I think of my father.
For I am sitting in Miranda's taverna in Kambos enjoying a lunch of chicken and peas before returning to the Greek Hovel for some frigana slashing. The roast chicken is not bad, the peas are amazing. And I laugh as I think of my father and the chicken.
Many years ago, as he travelled around rural Greece, some villagers asked him what animals he kept. Since my parents were into self sufficiency there was a good choice and my father announced loudly that he owned twenty five chickens. There was a stunned silence as he had plucked the wrong word from the ether. The assembled crowd looked at him in a strange way. Did he really have 25 penises? Someone explained.
Perhaps my father shoukd have remembered his French oral exam aged 13. He was asked "quelle profession a ton pere?" Unable to remember the word for civil servant, he replied "mon pere est mort" and looked sad. Straight A. Nailed it.
The meeting with the most amazing woman from last week is still something I am thinking about almost daily. Prompted by a couple of let-downs, I almost sent an email firing nearly all of those working with me today. That was a direct result of that meeting.
I have known for a while that my working life was in many ways pointless, rushing round a hamster wheel spending most of my time doing things that bring no happiness to me and do nothing at all for the wider world. What is the point of busting your guts off to try and run a business when you can have a simple life writing what you wish to write about and still make more than enough to get by? Empire building is surely for fools.
I didn't send the email but I am thinking hard about my life. I thought a lot as I spent two hard sessions today slashing frigana in the fields at the Greek hovel. I was in the far reaches of the land here and this is frigana that has not been cut for at least five years. How on earth did we miss it two years ago? So it is woody and the stems are up to six foot tall and where I slash at the base an inch in diameter. It was very hard work but I slashed away, sweating hard and thinking harder. Why go on as I am, in vain pursuit of added wealth but at the expense of personal happiness? Why, why, why? What am I achieving?
At the end of it all I felt I deserved a meal by the sea in Kitries and headed off to enjoy the same meal I always have: octopus, tzatziki and a couple of ouzos while staring out at the waves a few feet in front of me. I did not need to order, the waiter at this small place just brought what he knew I wanted. I chatted to British Airways booking an early flight home and had another ouzo.
With it now dark, I drove home up the steep road towards the neighbouring village to Kambos. On the way up there is a church which is so tiny that it cannot possibly fit more than four people at any one time. I wonder if it too has a mass at any point but it is open all year and I remember well how last summer my step mother and I wandered in after we had enjoyed a meal with my father at Kitries. It was just her, me and some lizards who called the place home.
As I drove through Kambos tonight, I hoped as I had hoped every night since last week to see that amazing woman again. It was around eleven by the time I approached the church and there was light inside. I stopped the car and bounded up the three steps to the Church, I am sure the excitement was written all over my face. Inside was the woman, this time dressed not only in a black head scarf but in a shawl covering her arms and top half.
She beamed widely "hello Tom, how are you?" I did not even bother with Cala ( Greek for good) but in English explained a few matters and asked if, although I was a man, I could gain entry to what I thought was an abandoned monastery but is, in fact, a convent of which she appears to be the guardian. I think it is possible. We have a date on Friday at 7.30 PM. I gather there are two churches inside, one small one hewn from a rock and a larger structure. I look at the buildings looming over the valley, each day as I drive down snake hill on my side. Now I may just gain entrance.
But this is Greece. Nothing always goes according to plan. But I am truly excited.
With some sadness I contacted British Airways today to move my flight forward and by Saturday evening I shall be back in the UK. I don't say back home because I feel more and more that my home will be out here at the Greek Hovel. I leave a lot of thoughts and ideas behind here in the mountains above Kambos. But I also leave something more tangible. It is with great regret that I shall not be here in mid August when the grapes below which trail from vines either side of the hovel, are large, ripe and tasting fantastic. Drat!
I mentioned earlier that the weather was turning for the worse at the Greek Hovel. I should cocoa. As I drove back from a very late lunch in Kambos, Mark Slater called. I parked almost at the top of Snake Hill and we talked but then it started raining. After a good chat I had to hang up as the rain was hitting the car roof so hard that I could barely hear a word. I made it home and saw a small man holding an umbrella walking towards me from the side of my house and waving.
Who on earth could be up here in this weather - what a lunatic. The rain was so heavy I could not see who it was until we were just yards apart. Vreki said the shepherd, for it was he. I said ne for it was indeed raining. He then started speaking Greek again but mentioned the word elias (olives). Of course the rain is good for them and so I said ne again.
By the time I reached my house twenty five yards away I was semi drenched so heavy was the rain and I decided to record a podcast quickly. Half way through - as you can hear HERE - there was a massive bang, the lights flickered and plaster fell from the ceiling. There is a first time for everything and that was my first experience of a lightning strike. The storm continued and I soon lost all power. The clouds on the mountains told me this was not going to get better tonight.
As it was getting dark and as I feared I might at some stage get cut off by flooding I made the decision to evacuate. Call me a big girl's blouse if you wish. It might just be the fusebox but I really do not fancy a night without power, without the internet and cut off by floods in the middle of a violent thunderstorm in the middle of nowhere. Already the puddles on my land are getting large. How my olives must be loving it. The top one is just by the bat room, the larger one - about twenty yards long - is at the end of my land as, an increasingly muddy and slippy, track heads through the olive groves towards snake hill.
At the bottom of the valley the dry river was springing into life but on the other side as I swung right onto deserted monastery hill it was already a river. I pressed on
On the road to Kalamata traffic was - understandably - light and so at the gorge where the double murder took place a couple of years ago I stopped my car and took this picture of the view up towards the mountains. What a place to live, eh?
The rain kept on beating down ever more heavily as I made it into Kalamata. At one point on the mountain road all the cars stopped as the lighting crashed around us. Gradually a small convoy plucked up courage and I tagged along as tail end Charlie at 20 kmh all the way down to the sea and Kalamata. Sometimes we drove on the right, sometimes on the left to dodge the biggest puddles and at some times we drove in the middle.
Even here in Kalamata, one of the larger towns in Greece, the roads are in places a foot deep in water. At times I worried that my small hire car would not make it through but we made it. In a nice warm and dry hotel room, the thunder and lightning continues outside. It is still raining heavily.
Heaven only knows how the poor snakes and rats are coping back at the Greek Hovel up in the mountains.
It was the night of referendum day and, having enjoyed a relatively late meal at Miranda's I drove slowly home to the Greek Hovel at well after ten, a time when it is pitch dark. Three hundred yards along the main street that winds through Kambos and I turned right into the small road that leads out of the village towards the abandoned monastery, then onto snake hill and the track through the olive groves to the hovel
That small road hits a tiny church after about fifty yards before turning sharply left and within another 100 yards it is out of the village and away from any form of street lighting. Even the area around this tiny church is poorly lit. With a big new modern church elsewhere and an older main church in the centre of Kambos I imagined that this one, plus two or three other tiny churches in the village, had been long abandoned.
But inside I saw light. I stopped my car and wandered up and there was a woman, an elderly lady of perhaps sixty with a thin drawn face and wearing a shawl over her head. That would be the sort of shawl I remember Greek women wearing, out of respect when in churches, from my youth, from years gone by in the Pindus mountains of Northern Greece.
I asked in English if I might come in. There is no reason why she would understand for in this village very few folks speak anything other than Greek but she answered "you are English, come in". Filling one side of the church were eleven wooden chairs and a plastic beach chair. All around the church were paintings, icons. The lady was lighting candles at a small make-shift alter on the other side.
I asked if the church was used? She said that it was, for mass twice a year on the days of the two Saints that it is named after. So if you are in town on July 29 and November 9 this is where to go for a most unusual mass. I am sad that I shall miss both of these masses this year. The lady goes to the church to clean, to light a candle and to ensure that it is safe every week.
But I knew that I had seen her before, walking through the dark up to the deserted monastery and so asked her about that building which looms over the valley floor. It will keep the name "deserted monastery" but was, in fact, a convent. The last nun died two years ago and this lady goes there to keep it clean, light candles and to ensure that it is ready should another nun arrive. I fear none will but I just do not have her faith.
The lady asked where I lived. I explained. It is peaceful up there she said. Yes, just me and the snakes I replied and we laughed. I left and I continue, two days later, to marvel at her faith and devotion. She keeps the convent ready for new nuns who - everything tells me as a rational analyst - will never arrive. She maintains a church used just twice a year. She walks along dark roads, surrounded by wildlife diversity, in the service of God seeking no reward, her faith driving her on without apparent fear. She smiles, laughs and seems more than content with her lot, her duties and her life. Maybe she is not but, to me, she radiated happiness and contentment.
As we struggle with our complicated and messy existences shuffling papers back in Britain do we glow as this woman did? Do we give off that impression? Could we even feign contentment? You may say that what she does has no purpose but she believes that it does. Do we believe that what we do achieves anything other than funding our consumerist existence? Does we achieve anything of real import?
One day, of course, this woman will go to a better place. Will there be a replacement from the next generation to maintain the Church, to keep the convent ready for another nun who will never arrive? Maybe there might be in this part of Greece. but the generation after that? Somehow I doubt it. The era when pious Christian devotion was such a central part of our lives here in the West is, sadly, I fear, drawing to a close.
No doubt those on the progressive left who snear and dismiss the Christian religion above all other religions as a barbarous relic followed by the old and the stupid, like Euroscepticism and other discredited value sets, will welcome the end of this era after two thousand years. If I am around, I shall not. I may not have faith and in my actions I know that I shall be found wanting but it is a value set that one can aspire to. And those who do have the faith are so often folks one can admire. The value set of modernity and post religious consumerism does not attract me and its icons are not folks I can admire.
I shall think more of this amazing woman as, all too soon, I find myself heading back to England.
last night I met an amazing woman here in Kambos. More on that later but I am in awe. Then it was watching the Brexit results on the BBC on the internet as the smug biased lefties had to come to terms with how the great unwashed had given them and the rest of the elite a total kicking. I tried to get two hours sleep but a drunk comrade from the Eurosceptic trenches, Lucian Miers, woke me up. So I worked a bit and then slept. By 2.30 PM it was ouzo o'clock. So I headed to Miranda's as you can see below and raised a class to Boris, Priti, Nigel, Michael et al but also to my late grandfather Sir John Winnifrith and my Uncle, Chris Booker, who was in a fine mood today. Cheers to you all.
After a long hard day at my desk and labouring in the olive groves I left the Greek Hovel as it was already getting dark and headed through the olive groves, down snake hill to the valley floor and then up past the deserted monastery and into the bright lights of Kambos. I could not wait for another excellent healthy Greek salad from Miranda, whose offerings I had sampled for the first time just eight hours previously.
I parked my car at by the snake repellent/frigana cutter tweaking store as the main road makes a 90 degree turn in the centre of Kambos. Lovely Eleni and her family sat outside her Kourounis taverna which is still undergoing a totally un-needed upgrade and so is out of action. Still feeling like I was being a tad unfaithful I sloped past and waved. Can I ever admit to lovely Eleni just how good Miranda's Greek salad tasted?
But it was only a Greek salad, nothing more, I would stammer. And it was only because you were not there for me. I walked up the small square and sat at a table outside Miranda's as the woman herself toiled at the stove inside. So a small man beckoned and escorted me in. Miranda gave me a small piece of pork she had cooked. It was so tender. She pointed to a big pan with peas inside cooked ina thin herb-packed sauce. My attempts to order a salad were to no avail.
Between myself, the old man and Miranda we might speak 40 words of each other's languages. Trying to explain that I was trying to shock my body into weight loss and to cut my blood sugar levels as part of a plan to tackle my diabetes following interesting articles I had read in the Daily Mail was just not an option. And so I succumbed. No salad it was pork and peas and it was absolutely magnificent. Just brilliant.The best 5 Euro meal on this planet. Cala? said Miranda, Ne said I , cala, cala, cala, ne, ne ne!
I walked back to the car past lovely Eleni and her family still enjoying an evening meal outside a half finished Kourounis taverna. I waved but the guilt is getting worse. Its not just a Greek salad now but full on pork and peas and it was just so good
I was feeling a little weak. It is just so bloody hot and this one meal a day regime is not helping. My pruning is done and my frigana chopper needed a tweak down in Kambos and so I left the Greek Hovel and, being brave, made my first visit to Miranda's, the taverna in between the Kourounis taverna and the snake repellent/frigana chopper ,mending store.
I think that this is Miranda's. I have translated the sign from Greek lettering so I would not bet the ranch on that but henceforth I shall refer to it as Miranda's. The taverna itself is set back 25 yards from the road in a small square. It is dark and dingy inside but no-one eats inside - that is reserved for a few very old men who look as gnarled as the olive trees and are almost fixtures, smoking and drinking. But for the rest of us there are six tables outside under wooden and canvas protection. There is, of course, no internet I just type and save, I shall load this later.
Miranda's has an A Board on the street but that is just for tourists passing through the village in that it offers a wide and varied menu. Once they leave their car they are ushered inside and shown a few pots on the stove. That is the menu. Suckers! We Northern Europeans are, at that point, too polite to leave and so make a choice of goat or goat, for it is often just one dish on offer.
At that point they are happy as this is a great place to sit and watch the world go by. There are two very sweet little cats that pester you for food. In terms of what I watch go by, I admit that not a lot happens here. Right now the renovation of lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna is THE hot news in Kambos. Oh, and our cash strapped village council ( 4 employees, 538 citizens including me) has invested in painting two zebra crossings on the main road, one by the taverna for old men and one by the fourth taverna, which is a less polished rival to Kourounis and which I am yet to visit.
I did not go for the goat. My healthy living regime continues and its Greek salad and water for me and it is a very fine Greek salad indeed. I am almost tempted to compare it favourably to that of lovely Eleni but that would be disloyal. Even the cats are begging for a bit of it.
A few men loiter by the entrance. I am not sure if they are customers or staff but I am served by the one woman present who, I assume, is Miranda. She is a very friendly old soul but as oil paintings go not perhaps quite as lovely as Eleni. I could be a fecking diplomat, don't you think, for the way I phrased that?
Being two hours ahead of London means that I had much of what i wanted to write today penned before you chaps and Mr stockmarket were awake. So just a couple more things to pen this afternoon and then it is back to frigana chopping.Big time. Tonight it will be Miranda's again. it is a day for the two salad diet
It was eight days ago that my father and I popped over to Kambos to visit the Greek Hovel and to meet a friend of mine from the neighbouring village. We will come to him and his village, the Feta village, in due course. He did not show up. Perhaps, as we had both had vast amounts of ouzo when we made this plan, he had forghotten. Worse was to come, we arrived to see that the Kourounis taverna was shut. Eleni's husband Nicho said "ten days, no coffee, no Greek Salad, no ouzo" And with that Dad & I sloped off to the ouzerie opposite, a place frequented only by very old men.
It was my first visit there and we had a couple of ouzos. The owner - with whom I crossed swords regarding parking a couple of years ago - brought tiny plates of cheese, bread and olives with each round. It is the real deal old style ouzerie. My father left a good tip and the owner now waves at me like a long lost friend. My presence will reduce the average age of the clientele materially and now that I am "in" I may go again.
Last night I popped into Kambos after some good olive pruning and there was lovely Eleni sitting outside the taverna with Vangelis, wearing his trademark pink shirt. She explained to me why she was upgrading the taverna which joins her general store which is not changing. I am not sure I see the point as Kourounis is already the smartest gaffe in town by a long chalk. I should say that the competition is poor but it is Eleni's place so she can do as she wishes. I shall remain a loyal customer. But when will it be ready?
Eleni says 7 days. Vangelis smiled and though he speaks not a word of English he knew what was being discussed and so said a few words of Greek which I understood "August, September, October" and laughed. I laughed. Eleni laughed but rather less convincingly. Doing renovations at a time when tourists pass through the village every day on their way to Kardamili or Stoupa seems a bit daft to me but heck I'm not in the restaurant business anymore.
But I do like a Greek salad. There is a place next door to Kourounis which is rumoured to sell them but I am not sure of the etiquette. Will they mind that I am a sweaty smelly wreck after a day in the fields? Do they sell diet coke? Or, more importantly, ouzo? I am nervous. And so I bought four fresh oranges from Eleni for my supper and headed back to the hovel. The Mrs says this is not a balanced diet. She has a point.
And so I am moving to a one meal a day set up. That should help with the weight loss and justifies a trip tonight down to Kitries by the sea for my salad and maybe a bit of Octopus. As for Eleni, seven days, er...if I had to bet on how many English days seven Greek days would be I think I'd be looking at ten or more.
Winnifrith males have loud voices and we like to tease each other and also anyone unfortunate enough to join us, in the case of supper last night that meant my dear wife. And thus as the wine flowed we found ourselves discussing the output of our various universities.
My father is, of course, a full on elitist but knowing that his deluded lefty wife who forces him to read the Guardian may disapprove sometimes finds himself having to pretend otherwise. And thus as we discuss the Brexit vote, I note that John Stuart Mill raised in "On Democracy" the idea that more intelligent folks should get more votes. Why not, I suggest give 10 votes to those of us who went to Oxbridge (my father and I), 5 to Russell Group graduates, 2 to those who attended other old universities, 1 to those with no degree and minus 1 to those who attended the former Polytechnics. Thus my wife would get 5 votes and her students would all get minus 1 votes. On reflection having lectured to them, make that minus five votes.
I am joking but with this wheeze get a double tease. My wife is naturally appalled at every level but after a while twigs that I am joking and her indignation about posh white male Tories subsides. My father secretly agrees with my absurd proposition but cant bring himself to admit it so must counter that University degrees are not a very good way to test intelligence. He asks " who is to say that he is more intelligent than, er...."
I helpfully complete the sentence with, Sam, the ex husband of my youngest step sister Flea who is almost certainly the stupidest and most feckless individual known to us both. My father - who has never defended this hopeless worm before thus finds himself having to suggest that he has hidden talents and depths. As I ask my father how this man - who makes the students of my wife seem like Einstein and Socrates combined - would have fared when studying for my father's Oxford degree he rather gives up on this one.
I note that the couple at the next table are smirking. They appear to have encountered two Brits who hold rather extreme views. Well one in me - they are not sure about my father. Of course they actually have it the wrong way round, it is my father who is the closet elitist, I just enjoy seeing him squirming in an ever straightjacket created by his refusal to "come out" as an elitist, while annoying the Mrs for a few seconds until she realises that I am joking.
Kardamili is the Mani destination of choice for middle class Brits without kids and so I'm sure that on may tables here there are intense discussions based on the works of John Stuart Mill. It is that sort of place. Tonight we done in Kambos after visiting the Greek Hovel. John Stuart Mill is rarely discussed there.
I am sure that many of you reading this believe that olives like all other food come from Tesco wrapped in clean plastic packets and therefore may scream "yuk" as you read what follows. Yes, my dear sweet wife I am thinking about you and all the other latte drinking townies out there. Those of us who grew up in the boonies know that producing food is a hell of a lot easier if you have loads of shit ( i.e manure) to boost the process. I have no manure yet although my first batch of humanure from the eco-loo should be ready next year. But I have something even better...wee wee.
Urine contains not only stacks of nitrogen but also potassium and phosphorus which, essentially, are the key ingredients of those plastic bags of sanitised fertiliser folks buy at the garden centres. And thus, as a man, I am in a position to do what a woman might find harder and provide daily doses of loving fertiliser to my trees.
I can see right now some of the City dwellers among you making cheap jokes about the peppery taste of the oil from our olives here at the Greek Hovel in Kambos.Thank god you don't know how many of the organic vegetables you eat at your fancy, twee, restaurants are grown in organic material. That is to say manure.
The problem is that while I might occassionally treat a tree on the far edge of the property if I am caught short while pruning, most of the times when I am in a position to dispense treats I am sitting in the hovel. As such the trees in the immediate vicinity have been very well blessed. Those further away will be lucky to be blessed once a summer in this manner. But it all helps.
When the Mrs bought the Greek Hovel we were told that there were around 120-150 olive trees here. A few are wild so bear no fruit but still we had a lot of trees. I am now convinced that the number is far greater as I navigate the far reaches of the land. I do so more conscious than ever, after yesterday, that I am not alone as I work.
There is 16,000 square metres of land here. Okay knock off 500 square metres for the house, the ruin and the "drive" but that is still a lot of land. Looking out at the immediate garden which is olive tree rich and, roughly, 100 square metres contains eight trees. Elsewhere on the property the intensity of tress is far less but a bit of basic maths suggests that we must have well over 150 trees here.
What also convinces me that we do have more trees than previously thought is that I have now been pruning at between 8 and 15 trees a day pretty much every day for at least 20 days. And I still have a stack of trees to go. The trees I tackle now appear not to have been pruned for many a year indeed I somewhat doubt that they were harvested in the past given how deep they were buried in frigana bushes. But that frigana was hacked back big time two years ago and poisoned and chopped aggressively last year. Now I am wading into what must be the last redoubts of the frigana, the last bits of this land which it clings to and, in doing so, I am exposing yet more trees.
The problem - as I am sure you have guessed - with a foray into land which has not seen human visits for many a year is that I am very much not alone. I tread heavily, carefully and slowly but the grass, frigana and other bushes are thick and hide many things. I hear creatures moving around me more often than I care to consider and I find myself thinking what happens if I do meet a you know what? How brave will I be? Will I stand my ground, armed with axe, saw or frigana chopping machine or will I run away screaming. And then suddenly it was not exactly a hypothetical question.
There I was yesterday and after about two hours in the fields I was tired, my limbs ached and I was almost ready to call it a day when I heard something. I spun around and the grass and bushes were moving in a clear S-shape pattern. They were at least moving away from me. I stared transfixed at where the snake appeared to have come to rest. I could not see it but was acutely aware that it was blocking my path back to the Greek Hovel. A dilemma indeed.
And thus I found myself swinging right - that happens a lot as one gets older and grows up - and clambering up a wall to take an indirect route home. That saw me discover three more trees that have not felt man's tender love for many a year. They were duly pruned before I heard another noise. Enough is enough, time to head back to the hovel.
However, as I push on to the far reaches of the land here, there will inevitably be other encounters. I am now on the lowest terrace that surrounds the property on both sides, I find trees up against iron fencing that marks our boundary and which are protected by thick bushes.The work must go on. Not only do the olives deserve a prune but the land here must be cleared for only then can myself and George the Albanian undertake the replanting programme we plan for the spring.
My sense is that around 40 of the 200+ trees here are either wild or in such bad nick, for whatever reason, that they need to be replaced as they will never yield us anything. Moreover there are now vast stretches of land which two years ago wre covered with frigana but which are now clear and where olive tree density is perhaps only 1 per 100 square metres or less. I had calculated, from experience, that this property would generate 600 Euro ( bad year) to 1800 Euro (good year) revenues from oil.
I can see that my maths was all wrong.Not only can we almost double the number of yielding trees but with a bit more care of the whole estate, pruning, watering and fertilising it should easily start to yield 1500 Euro (bad year) to 4500 Euro (good year). And then when I buy another field.... Bear in mind that I could live on well under 800 Euro a month out here and I am sure you can see where I am heading. That sort of maths would allow me to spend all my literary time writing not terribly commercial articles about life in Kambos and up here at the hovel. Sod the stockmarket. What fun!
Okay, I am getting ahead of myself. I still have another ten days of olive tree pruning and frigana clearing, perhaps more. But at least I shall have company at all times.
It is now 30 degrees or more day in and day out at the Greek Hovel. And I am up in the mountains, down by the sea it is warmer still. But that constant sunshine now leaves the fields and hills looking ever browner as you can see below.
The poor sheep must be struggling to find green grass to eat as the wander the mountainside with my friend the Shepherd. But at least they are now getting a summer shear from a fierce looking lady with electric clippers. She looks like the sort of woman who used to represent East Germany in the shot put and so she needs no help in wrestling a sheep to the ground and pinning it down as she removes its coat.
She is now plying her trade in the rather overgrown field just past the bottom of the valley at the side of Deserted Monastery hill on the way up to Kambos. I would like to stop and take a photo of her in action but she owns a very fierce and large dog. Even as I drive past, the Hound of the Baskevilles starts to chase my car, barking fiercely and eyeing me up. His jaws are salivating. Sorry reader, but my devotion to you is not that great that I will leave my car and face Cerberus in order to capture an image of the sheep sheering female shot-putter at work.
Back at the hovel the sunshine seems to be doing wonder for my olives. I think it was two weeks ago that I posted a photo of little fruit the size of pin heads covering the trees.
Today I furnish you with a new photo suggesting that we will be drowning in olive oil this winter.
I am not sure that this demonstrates how the little olives have grown in the past fortnight but they have. What were green pips the size of a pin head are now the sizre of four or five pin heads. You may think that I am becoming slightly obsessive but I just keep looking at the trees, checking their load, it is all so terribly exciting.
I've been nicotine clean now for three months and three weeks exactly and the urge to have "just one" cigarette is now really pretty rare. But I must admit to having such an urge just now.
I do not feel the desire to smoke when drunk or when stressed. Indeed quite the opposite. Just now I have completed more than 90 minutes of hard manual labour, that is to say olive tree pruning on some of the rockier, wildlife friendly and TW unfriendly terrain at the Greek Hovel. Returning covered in sweat and with sun tan lotion dripping into my eyes I turned on the shower, that is to say hosepipe, and ...well... gosh it was brilliant.
The sea yesterday was an inviting and sparkling blue. I plunged in because I was very smelly not because it was enjoyable. It was cold. Not Whitby or Margate cold but too cold for my liking. My shower, on the other hand, has its water heated in the metal pipe that climbs the mountain, linking the Hovel to civilization. The shower was, as ever, better than sex - to quote my guest of two years ago. It was blissful.
And so I sit here after a hard afternoon's work and the best shower a man can ask for with most of my work done for the day and what could be better than to enjoy just one cigarette, sitting on the steps leading up to the snake veranda watching the world go by? Or, given where I am, watching it not go by.
The desire is passing already. There are no fags stashed at the hovel and Kambos with its 4.5 Euro packs of twenty is two miles away. I know that one fag will lead to two and to twenty and I really don't want that to happen. I may have put on the odd pound but as I labour in the fields I am conscious that I am fitter than I have been for ages. There's no going back.
I have somehow lost the only torch that actually works. And that means that the eight yard walk from where I park my car to the front door of the Greek Hovel must be made in complete darkness. Well almost. I always leave the light on at the hovel to guide me. Except that last night I also forgot to do that.
And so, after a long phone call from a fellow member of the Banstead Athletic supporters club, taken in Kambos last night I made it back to the hovel just after midnight and the skies were black. I shone my car headlights at the bat room and had the music blaring from the car radio. I hoped that the wildlife diversity was listening and fleeing.
In theory the path to the house should be safe from you know whats as it is inside the zone protected by Herpotex snake repellent canistsers. Indeed there is one canister right by where the car is parked at the start of the path. But I always worry that some snake might not get the hint and thus I trod slowly with heavy footsteps getting a small amount of blue light from my battered old mobile.
Crunch went my feet on the brown leaves. I heard no noises. I made it home safely and locked the door from inside. After several days of 30 degree heat the hovel is steaming inside but I dare not open the windows for obvious reasons. A secure wildlife diversity free room is more important than personal comfort.
I swapped emails with Uncle Chris (Booker). I said that I will be buying a torch this morning. He said "buy two...you never know when the lights will go out all over Europe". Two it will be. That will make a collection of five and at this rate I shall be opening a broken Torch museum before too long.
Ten days ago I was, via lovely Eleni, telling the shepherd about the lush green grass up at the hovel and urging him to bring his flock up to graze lest they miss out. When I see him next I shall be begging him to bring his sheep up out of pity. The green grass has almost gone. Almost everything is brown.
Driving up the grass track to the house I was horrified. It was as if the whole area had been affected by a great heat. But as it happens that is exactly what has happened. Down by the sea at Kalamata today it is 33 degrees. Up at the hovel it is over thirty. It is wonderful weather to work in but the grass is burning away.
The purple flowers, a sort of lavender, survive but the dominant colour is now brown. The only green patches are the leaves on the olive trees and, of course, the accursed frigana bushes. I have retrieved my frigana cutter from the farm equipment shop in Kambos and this afternoon waded into the few remaining bushes with gusto. Those bushes are are the very edge of our land, they are thick and I dread to think what might lurk inside. But I wade in anyway.
The more central frigana that has somehow survived tow years of attacks from me was dealt with on the first part of my trip. The bushes I slashes now lie on the ground a golden brown. The odd green stalk I missed pokes through the mass of dead branches in a defiant way. Its defiance is its downfall for as I pass I "take it out""
The Mrs arrives on the afternoon of the seventh. I want to ensure that by then the last 40 olive trees are pruned and the frigana gone. At that point the fields will be even more brown and it will be time to start digging out the earth floor of the bat room in preparation for the eventual rebuilding of the hovel.
A final farewell to Kambos...well for a week only. Having escorted my father back to Kalamata next Thursday I shall be back at the Greek Hovel in a week's time. A final farewell means popping into the Kourounis taverna for an ouzo with the owner Nicho, the husband of lovely Eleni. Farewell, say I to Eleni who wishes me "good travels." I remind you that she is the best English speaker in the village. In her arms, as you can see below, the only person in Kambos whose Greek is worse than mine.
I had seen them earlier as I had driven in. They were dressed in walking clothes so I knew they were westerners and were, for some reason, trekking along the road from Kambos to the Greek hovel, a road to pretty much nowhere. Whatever.
I guess I have picked up a bit of a tan since I arrived but the Brits wandered up to me and speaking very slowly in English tried to order a fanta from me. Nicho the owner stood a couple of yards away looking a little confused but smiling. His English is somewhere between pretty dire when he likes you to non existent when he does not.
There was a temptation to accept their order and help out but instead I shrugged my shoulders in a "I don't speak English" sort of way and gestured towards Nicho who took their order.
The couple has just left. As she paid her bill, the lady tried to explain to Nicho that doing all this walking was hot work. He said "yes" which in translation means "I have no idea what you are on about lady, FFS I am Greek why do you assume I speak English?"
As she wanderted out, she smiled at me in a sort of "poor foreigner, if only you spoke English" way.
There is a reason that the Greeks, or rather the Albanians the Greeks hire to do manual labour, start at 8 AM and finish at 3 PM. The reason, I think, is snakes. That is to say the snakes are at their least active in the morning. During the day they sunbathe and so by dusk they are really quite frisky. I have hitherto been working to a different schedule. Silly me.
You see when I awake I start writing articles for you my dear readers. By the time you open up your PC at seven I have already been generating golden prose for at least ninety minutes. As such by the time I had finished generating golden prose and had my lunch (Greek salad) in Kambos today and got back for olive pruning it was 4.40 PM.
And so I headed straight for that part of the property which, when I first arrived, was a thick frigana jungle. I was convinced then that it was the sort of place that snakes really would want to hang out in but two years ago cleared it none the less, wading into the bushes in a fearless manner and, as it happened, encountering not a single snake.
It is not an area where the olive trees yield much. I think that is because for years they have never been pruned or fertlised as they were simply immersed in frigana, in dense jungle. That, I have determined is all to change and so I started work. On one tree a wild olive, non fruit bearing specimen, had attached itself to the trunk and I sawed away, eventually dragging the parasite trunk in three cleanly cut pieces onto what will be a huge bonfire at Christmas but is for now just a huge pile of branches, a sort of sanctuary for the wildlife diversity.
As the evening light started to fade my limbs started to tire. It is hard work olive pruning. One must bend down to remove little shoots of olive at the base of the tree with your axe and also reach up into the highest branches to axe and saw away new growth that cannot yield fruit this year. I was sweating and tired and on my penultimate tree. And then I heard a rustle and looked around to see something shoot off into a bush.
Lizards shoot off in a straight line. Their back legs propel them like a bullet straight to safety. Snakes slither so you can see the S shaped movement as the tail disappears. This was a snake. It must have been a small one which suggests it was poisonous but it headed away from me and must have been sitting in a bush two yards from my feet as I heard no more noise.
"Fuck me" I said rather loudly although the only creature that could hear me was the snake. I chopped a last few branches from the tree and decided that maybe the Greeks were right not to prune as dusk approaches. I decided to walk the "safe" way back to the hovel, that is to say along the goat path that runs between our land and that of our neighbour and onto the main track. It is rarely used but surely safer than walking back through the bushes. It goes without saying that within thirty yards I heard a very loud noise and something slithering off into the bushes.
As I wander I carry my pruning axe in one hand and my pruning hand saw in the other. So the snakes should be aware that I might be a hard Albanian who will go for them, not a Western pansy who is fecking terrified. Anyhow, I shall write late tonight so that I have a clear morning of pruning tomorrow. When in Rome do as the Romans do.
When in Greece do as the Albanians do because the Greeks are too lazy.
I was on the phone to the Mrs who had some good news to relay when I heard the unmistakable voice of my neighbour Charon outside. Then he banged on the door saying "Tom, Tom." I had no choice. He knew I was there. I could not hide. I opened the door.
When I say neighbour it is not as if he is just round the corner. As the crow flies his place is about another mile up the mountain. By road it is a two mile trek and Charon had walked over and was there on my doorstep topless and sweating.
It is not that I don't like him, it is just that he insists on speaking English to me. His English is better than my Greek but not a lot better. And so we have long exchanges of words which really cant be described as conversations. Sometimes I get out my Greek English dictionary and try speaking Greek words. However we go about it it is painful.
The one bond we used to have was the common language of cigarettes. The poor man was out of fags and so asked me if I had one. He was clearly in great need of a fix. I said "stopped" and waved my arms to express finality. He asked "why?" Trying to explain about playing soccer with my nephews and nieces on St Valentine's day and feeling like shit after five minutes would have been tough so I made a coughing noise.
"Oh no!" he cried and looked alarmed. I tried to say just to stop me coughing but I think he now worries that I have been diagnosed with cancer. Looking a bit shaken by my bad news he trudged off in the direction of Kambos. Another two mile walk for him to pick up fags at 4 Euro a packet.
Cheap fags have not tempted me back. Nor has the fact that everyone in the Kourounis taverna smokes away like there is no tomorrow. If I can quit smoking I can do anything..maybe even learn Greek.
I have two sets of keys with me and both lie on the table here at the Greek Hovel. One is my English keys, my house and the restaurant. The other a set of Greek keys, one of which opens the hovel's door the rest of which are there for decoration - God only knows what they open.
For once I left my laptop in the hovel last night having worked solidly all day. I took just a bit of cash, my phone, my passport and credit card down to the village for supper. Really that is all I need to get anywhere in the world so I always carry those things with me. I grabbed a set of keys, locked up and headed off for a Greek salad.
There was an almost full moon but on my return it was still very dark. I hope that the snake repellent canisters make the area around the hovel a safe zone but I always flash my torch nervously as I walk, slowly and with a deliberately heavy step, up the path. I reached in my pocket and all I could find were my English keys. Feck. I must have dropped the Greek keys somewhere.
I headed back to Kambos to the Kourounis taverna and checked where I had been sitting. Nothing. It was by now almost eleven and I was panicking. I established that I had not - as I thought I had - given lovely Eleni a spare key. Where the feck was that spare key?
There is a way into the hovel clambering up a back wall and through a window. But at night. the snakes.... perhaps not
And so I gave up. I drove to Kalamata to the most excellent Messenian Bay hotel where they recognised me from 15 months ago when - for 10 days - I was their only guest and i was greeted like a long lost friend. An ouzo on the house and a luxury suite at a single room rate was provided. Luxury. Sleeping in clean sheets. Having a proper shower.It was almost worth the hassle.
This morning I returned to the hovel. You know what? A thought crossed my mind. Maybe somehow a Greek key has slipped onto my English ring? Indeed it has. Inside on the table lay my Greek keys. I feel a little foolish and am not sure how I shall explain my stupidity to lovely Eleni later today. I have already been out for one session of frigana slashing to punish myself for my stupidity.
Everyone here in Kambos, the little Mani village in which I am resident, is agreed. Our trees are drowning in flowers and come late November we are going to have a great olive harvest. As is our way in this part of Greece will turn our olives into oil and we will have simply vast amounts to sell and so all the talk is of who we can get to promote our olive oil to help rescue the village from austerity. I know what we need.
Can anyone think of a celebrity who is well known for using vast amounts of olive oil? Preferably we would want a good family man or woman, known for their single minded commitment and integrity and who might perhaps help promote alternative uses for our oil? Can anyone think of a suitable person?
I was hoping that the canisters which are meant to keep the snakes away would have arrived in Kambos today. I was told they would. Naturally they have not. This is Greece. "They will be here on Wednesday" means "There is no chance at all that they will be here on Wednesday". I am bloody well not moving up to the hovel without them.
My friend Nicho the communist asked why I was not yet resident in the the village and I explained. "You really are frightened of them aren't you" he said while laughing loudly. Fecking hell isn't everybody? Nicho then explained to a gaggle of Greek old men sipping ouzos what was happening and they all laughed too. Ha bloody ha. They all live in the village where there are no snakes, I dare them to wander up snake hill in the dark to see me.
Tonight I head to a store in Kalamata which is meant to sell the magical canisters. If I install tomorrow I might move in later that day or perhaps Friday. It is not that the hovel is uninhabited. I was up there today laying down rat poison, just in case a new colony had arrived to replace the ones I killed last summer, when I heard a noise on the window sill behind my bed. I jumped. I really do not like hearing noises whether in the house or from the bushes as I wander through the fields.
Upon closer examination it was two mice. They were quite sweet and being a pansy Westerner I delayed going after them with my small spade just long enough for them to escape through a small hole in the window frame. I have left them some poison too and taped up that window. I really do not mind mice. Yes, like PR people they are filthy little vermin but they harmless enough. They are not rats. Rats fill me with dread. As of course do snakes.
So far I have yet to encounter one of the 29 species of snake resident in Greece on this trip, but it is only a matter of time. I am now working hard in the fields every day and I know what is out there. There are plenty of lizards already evident. The biggest one I saw was nine inches long and a stunning fluorescent green. It just stood there in the road at the bottom of the hill beneath the deserted, and I am convinced haunted, monastery, seemingly daring me to drive over it. Again, I was a Western pansy and so got out of the car and ushered it into the bushes. A Greek would just have driven over it. The other lizards are less beautiful but they are everywhere. And where there are lizards there are always snakes.
I carry a camera at all times so when I do meet a snake I will do my best to capture that moment for you all, dear readers, before I run as fast as I can away from the serpent, shouting "fucking hell its a snake" forgetting that there will be nobody listening.
Since most of us visit Greece only at the height of summer, the pictures we have in our mind are of a country with grass burned brown by days of seemingly endless sunshine. But as we move into mid may the land around the Greek Hovel here in the Mani is almost Alpine, a lush green dotted with the pinks, whites, yellows and purples of a sea of flowers.
And the sun is not shining. As you prepare for summer barbecues back in Britain, pity me here dodging the rain showers. The skies are grey except over the Taegessus mountains where black storm clouds gather. It is not exactly T-shirt weather and the waters in the deeper parts of the dry river that lies between the hovel and the village of Kambos, tell a take of recent storms as well as the melting of the final snows on the mountains behind us.
I am not sure if this means that the snakes are still hibernating. There is no point asking the people in village since they know my fears and delight in them in a friendly sort of way. They will thus be full of tales of how it has been a record snake harvest and how the fields are teeming with them. Whether the snakes are out to play or not, I am taking no chances and shall not be moving in until I have bought and deployed cans of snake repellent as well as rat poison and given them a day or so to take effect.
My preliminary inspection of the hovel today showed little in the way of wildlife diversity but you never know. As I strolled through the olive groves up at the hovel the only brown was the frigana I poisoned last summer. Here and there the accursed plant is making a comeback but not for long. Into battle I go tomorrow on a regime of hard manual labour designed to ready the house and land for rebuilding and to shed a few pounds as well.
Having checked out the hovel on Sunday I drove back into the village of Kambos. There have been a few more potholes mended on the two or three mile track from the house into the village. But for every one mended another has appeared including a quite giant crater at the base of snake hill. Somehow I manage to wiggle past it and am soon sitting in on a quiet lunchtime in the Kourounis taverna owned by lovely Eleni.
I wander in with my laptop and sit in my normal seat. At the bar are Vangelis, the man in the pink shirt, and Nicho the communist, the chap with whom I had a bit of a disagreement over football on my first night in Kambos but who is now my firm friend. The two men sit in the same seats they were in the day I left last time, next to the bar tapping away at their PCs. The only change is that one of them, Nicho, has swapped fags for vaping. Or so I thought. On my next visit on the Monday he was back on the fags leaving me feeling extremely smug as I now approach my three month anniversary of being clean.
Cala? Vangelis asks. I reply Ne and that one word seems to encourage him in the idea that I have learned Greek and off he goes. I stare blankly and Nicho, one of the rare English speakers in Kambos wades in to assist. We are back where we left off. Lovely Eleni is there, holding the daughter that was born when I was here for the olive harvest in December. I shake her hand but she leans over for the European kiss on both cheeks. I know men do that here, a reason I very firmly push out my arm when meeting anyone male. But a man and a woman? I thought that was not what happened. I really do not understand the etiquette here at all. Eleni explains the Greek name for her baby which is one of those names that is so long and so Greek that I have not got a hope of remembering or pronouncing it but I smile at the infant and it smiles back. I tell Eleni that I am glad to meet someone in Kambos who speaks less Greek than me.
The baby is named after the mother in law of lovely Eleni who potters over and as ever opens with Cala? Ne I reply. It is groundhog day as she too seems to think that I have learned Greek. Now there is no-one to rescue me and I just smile like an idiot and shrug my shoulders. As I tap away various other folks wander in and greet me warmly. They arrivals include the man who helps harvest my olives, George the Albanian, and his English speaking son. I now make that three English speakers in the village plus half a speaker for Vangelis in the snake repellent store.
On the subject of which, I ask Nicho if the snakes are awake yet. Rather predictably he responds that they are and says that he has seen many snakes already. It is apparently a very good snake season on the mountains behind Kambos where the Greek Hovel lies. I can tell that he is taking great pleasure in relaying this to me. My fear of snakes is well known to all and the fact that I live in a snake infested patch of the countryside is seen as a bit of a local joke.
The snake repellent shop is out of the canisters which I use to protect the hovel. I am told that new stock will arrive on Wednesday. Hmmmm. That means that if I install Wednesday I can move in on Thursday. Until then I can enjoy the luxury of Kalamata where there seem to be no snakes.
For most of my early December stay in Greece I was wearing a T-shirt all day although at night I needed a sweat shirt and coat as the temperatures plunged towards zero. But on the penultimate day it started to rain heavily both in Kalamata, where I was staying, and up in the village of Kambos in the foothills of the Taegessus Mountains. The photos below show what happened next.
Photo one is of an orange tree just off the main street in Kambos. As we worked in the fields picking olives in quite warm weather oranges were handed out by my friend George. They are just ripening for picking now.
The next two photos are from the Greek Hovel another 50 metres or so higher up into the Teagessus and three miles away from Kambos. Those who have seen the hovel in the summer will associate it with grass burned brown by hot sun. But, as you can see, it is now a lush green - this is the view looking back along the drive. The rains of October and November have left the place looking very much alive. The second photo shows a front lawn strewn with olive branches post harvest. Come February I shall return to burn them off.
But now look up into the mountains, into the Taegessus. What fell as rain in Kambos fell as snow higher up. Those peaks will remain snow covered until March or even into April.
Elsewhere in Greece in places such as Metsovo in the Pindus or in Pelion folks go skiing. I described driving through the snow in between Athens and the Mani in the snow last Febuary. But the Taegessus are wild and rugged. There will be no skiing.
My Uncle Chris (Booker) who turns 79 next year says that we must climb these mountains together. In the summer that means incredible heat and snakes. From now until April that means treacherous snow. I think, dear Uncle that it must be October. The heat will have lessened but it will still be warm anough. The snakes will be asleep. And there will be no snow.
Today I was posting bottles of olive oil brought back from the Greek hovel to a few lucky folks like PR bird foxy Bex.It was a poor harves - 179 litres of oil this year - last year it was 574 litres. You always have a bad year followed by a good year and so on. You can mitigate that greatly if you are around in the summer to water the trees.
Indeed I "water" the four trees closest to the house personally several times a day. Urine is a great fertiliser and I note that those trees were amongst the most productive on the farm.
No doubt some urban sophisticates will go ugh. Where do you folks think that agricultural fertiliser comes from? The hardware store?
Photo one shows the sacks that get stacked up in the Kambos olive press and photo two shows them being emptied into the great press.
Photo three shows them washed and ready for pressing, little green little black, little purple and some larger black olives looking like sweeties, and photo four is my olive oil as it arrives.
Finally here it is. I lugged 16 litres back to BRistol and the Mrs and I have decanted some of that into bottles. Dark green. Peppery, it is awesome.
If you do not speak Greek you might just struggle with this. It would be all Greek to you. But this card is for the folks in the small village of Kambos in the Mani, Greece, the nearest settlement to where the Mrs has a property needing, er, one or two repairs. And so from both Tom Winnifrith's here is a few words for Christmas.
Even without my, pretty pathetic, assistance, George and his team completed the olive harvest today as I sat in the hospital. Last year it took us 5-6 days, this year it was just three. The sacks now lie at the village press whose boss greeted me like an old friend, forgetting that my Greek is somewhat weak but gabbling away happily. Tomorrow afternoon we press.
I shall take 16 litres in a can back to England for Christmas presents (Foxy Bex I have not forgotten) and personal use for the next 12 months. The rest I shall sell and that will cover George's wages, a bus fare back to Athens and maybe my flights. That is not really the point. Unless you are here to water your trees in the summer you know you will have one good year followed by one bad year and this is a bad year. I'm in this for the long run and so it is important to me that I pop in to see my gun toting friends in Kambos regularly. This is where the Mrs and I plan to retire, it will be our community.
Anyhow, I am in Greece to attend to a number of matters. There is a meeting tomorrow with the architect. We finally have a forestry permit, now we need a building permit and then the Greek Hovel can be rebuilt so that it meets the sanitaery requirements of the Mrs and my daughter. And so that Paul Scott, Andrew Bell, Thierry Laduguie, the Pizza Hardman, Richard Poulden, Matt Suttcliffe, Paul Atherley, Harry Adams and others can pop over for holidays as we have oft discussed. The Hovel will be renamed Write Minds (in Greek). Its a pun - geddit? When it is rebuilt, the Mrs and I can stay here every summer to tend the olives.
There is also a meeting tomorrow on global shorting conspiracy matters and I plan to spend Saturday in Athens filming a video outside the headquarters of an AIM listed company. I wonder if you can guess which one? From Athens with Love - the sequel.
After a whole day spent at the Kourounis taverna in Kambos I have finally met up with George, the sprightly 60+ Albanian who leads our olive harvest. I called lovely Eleni at the hospital to see if she had any idea how to track him down. She gave birth to a baby girl yesterday and admitted to being a bit tired but knows she will be back in the kitchen by Sunday and so is gearing herself up. She offered up an idea of where to find George's number.
Lovely Eleni's younger sister, who is really very, very lovely too, called and at about seven tonight in wandered George. In great relief I hugged the man for I was starting to panic. As ever, I bought him a Tsipero and myself an ouzo. And we sat in silence as he speaks not a word of English and my Greek is er...rather weak. But lovely Eleni's very, very lovely younger sister stepped into the breach. We start harvesting at 8 AM Monday. With that arranged, George and I sat in silence once more.
So on Sunday I move up to the Greek hovel. The power works, the internet does not. It will be bloody cold at night and with no shower - the hosepipe option does not appeal at this time of year - it will be fairly tough and I may be rather smelly by this time next week. I guess it gives me an insight into hiow life is in the grim Northern welfare safaris back in England.
Others will have to lead the effort on ShareProphets next week for I am committed to playing a full part in the harvest and so completing it in less than five days this time so that I can get back to the Mrs and the cats as soon as possible. Of course vreki can stop play. But at last I feel we are ready to go.
With that to celebrate I am back in Kalamata at a nice little restaurant for some tzatziki followed by calamari washed down with a large ouzo or three. The place is the best little eating house on the winter seafront even if it does not allow smoking. Perhaps that rather un-Greek health fascism explains why last night I was 100% of the customers and on a Friday night am 33% of the clientele.
I take it all back. The waiter has just rushed outside to tell me that, notwithstanding the no smoking signs everywhere, I can smoke inside. Okay the restaurant Katalenos on Navarino Street is perfect.
I fly tomorrow morning and will arrive in Kalamata so late that I shall enjoy one night of luxury in a hotel before heading off to the Greek Hovel for the olive harvest. George the sprightly 60 year old Albanian and his Mrs are ready to lead the harvest from Wednesday or Thursday and we are off. But there is a bit of a problem. I still speak no Greek and have hitherto relied on the lovely Eleni from the Kourounis taverana to assist. It is either her or Nikko the commie, no-one else speaks more English than I speak Greek in the village of Kambos.
In May I wondered if Eleni had put on a couple of pounds but did not like to say anything. By the time I arrived in August I was fairly sure that she was with child but being a gentleman and not wishing to offend I dared not ask. Aha. I speak to Eleni tonight and she is going into hospital tomorrow. Don't worry she says, she will be back at work by Sunday.
Well that is very good, none of this maternity leave nonsense of the West, back in the kitchen with you young lady. But pro tem I must now work out how to communicate with George - who speaks not a word of English - as well as to the rest of the village.
Nikko the commie will be hard at work on his own olives and so his presence cannot be guaranteed. This could be an uncomfortable few days as I struggle to heat the hovel, deal with the rats and communicate with absolutely anybody.
The owner of one of the two hardware stores in Kambos sold me another bag of rat sweeties, the blue pills which he promises will kill Roland within a day. These supplemented my existing stocks and they were duly placed between the windows and the shutters around the house with a particular concentration on the one window where rats have been spotted every day.
The initial six in that window disappeared within a day and instead when I returned to the house I was greeted by a large rat grinning at me from behind that window. Thus I carefully remove two or three sweeties from other locations to ensure that the rat window is fully stocked each time I leave the Greek Hovel.
And coming back today, as has been the case every day the sweeties are gone. I reckon that the rat or rat family must have taken at least 14 sweeties by now and given that one sweetie kills a rat within 24 hours something is just not right.
I have a horrible feeing that the rats are simply storing the sweeties for the winter and so genocide is being delayed. The other alternative seems to be that there are just rather a lot of rats. Either way, tomorrow I shall buy another bag of rat sweeties and restock. I am not giving up in this fight.
And so yesterday lunchtime I drove back into Kambos and first stop was the hardware store number 1 where I buy canisters of snake repellent. “I am sorry we are out of stock” said my friend the owner who then assured me that the snakes season is well over and that they are all starting to hibernate. He always does that, promising me that whenever I turn up there are no snakes around as he explians his lack of stock.
I was not born yesterday and with the temperature now in the mid-thirties I was fully aware that the land around the hovel is crawling with serpents. I bought a can of chippings which my friend swore would form a protective ring around my house and headed off to see lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna who reassured me that the area around the hovel – where she owns some olive trees – is indeed crawling with snakes. How they must laugh in Kambos, the man who is terrified of snakes is heading back to the serpents paradise.
Rather gingerly I headed up to the hovel and was delighted to see no snakes and no signs of rats. There were however bats in both the rat room and the bat room which I have now chased away. Having happily surrounded the place with the snake magic dust I headed back to a hotel in Kalamata with a swimming pool for one last night of decadence.
Returning today there was no sign of snakes. Good news. But on entering the house I saw a most enormous rat (4 inches excluding its tail) in the space between a window and the shutter. I grabbed a spade but as I tried to open the window the rat scuttled off. I left him five rat sweeties which I am delighted to say had all, by my return this evening after supper in Kambos, been devoured. I do hope they were taken back to a nest for a treat for the entire family.
Sadly the wildlife diversity had one last treat for me inside the hovel – a swarm of flying ants. They were in my hair, jumping on my arms and climbing down my shirt. No ants in my pants but they were most everywhere else. Two hours of stamping, swatting and laying strips of sellotape across the floor and dangling from the ceiling has seen a genocide. There ae still too many but the ranks have been massively thinned.
Just to add to my woes I have just seen a spider on the ceiling which looked fearsome. I had thought that there were no poisonous spiders in Greece but a quick google search shows that – rather predictably – I was wrong and that three venomous species live in poor Hellas. And I am fairly sure that one venomous species was on my ceiling. But they don’t call me “killer” for nothing. It is now on the bottom of my fireplace spade – the same device that has despatched a couple of rats.
As I write there are six customers in the Kourounis taverna in Kambos. Including me four are English. This is a little unusual. Normally Kambos is a haven of Greeks but as summer approaches a few Brits arrive. It is all very middle class. We are all using the wifi and naturally not saying a word to each other. The only noise comes from a couple of noisy children who have wandered in.
Anyhow after a hard day in the fields poisoning frigana I am too tired to talk anyway.
Its just a Greek salad a glass of wine and home I go to the Greek hovel. Okay maybe two glasses. Like the late Charles Kennedy, I describe myself as a moderate drinker.
So how is the sabbatical going? Hmmmm. Not quite so restful. when at the Greek hovel I live on English time so I work late and get up not quite at the crack of dawn. Other than today when my nearest neighbour - he lives a mile and a half away - Charon knocked on my door at 6 am GMT. I answered in my underpants in a rather sleepy fashion but that did not phase him.
As ever Charon speaks a mixture of a little English and a lot of Greek. The former is so bad that I do not understand it. The latter I still do not understand at all. Our common languages are cigarettes and coffee and I provided both.
A text from London's top tech analyst arrived "fuck me, you are on Zero Hedge". Sadly I was not online at the hovel for reasons I cant quite fathom and so I said "sto Kambos" and bundled Charon into my tiny motor to head off to the Kourounis taverna in the village. Lovely Eleni is also not yet up but her husband and mother in law were and yup, my Greek Bank Run story is indeed right up at the top of the front page of the top US website, getting rather a lot of reads. I am flattered.
It is a double flattery day as checking my email I discover that I have been asked to speak at a top conference on financial fraud held eack yeart in London on "market abuse on AIM." I am told that on October 1 I will be speaking at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners shindig with delegates drawn from the legal profession, forensic accountants, law enforcement and fraud investigators . I wont be short of things to say.
Now that I have fully woken up it is off to the fields. The sun is blazing. It is a bank holiday here in Greece so no-one is doing any work. No cheap jokes now! But I shall be frigana poisoning all day.
I sit with my back to the door at the Kourounis taverna typing away, writing almost anything to avoid the torture of completing the subbing of Zak Mir's book. Is it too early for an ouzo to stiffen my resolve to face the torture that awaits?
But I am trying to get Greek residency so that I can buy a car, a motorbike and a gun for the Greek Hovel. And that means that I had to go to Kardamili police station to present my papers. I took my Greek speaking wife with me for protection. Would I meet the bent cop who incarcerated me last year? Would I meet his goon of an assistant who looks like the nasty gay character in Coronation Street? I was rather nervous.
But as luck would have it it was the cop from Kambos who was in charge. He greeted me with a very friendly "yas, Tom!" The downside to him being in charge is that he does not speak a word of English. But eventually a younger policeman arrived and the Kambos cop explained that I lived in Toumbia - the area in the hills above Kambos and that he knew me well - I understood what he was saying. Between the English of the younger cop and the Greek of the Mrs we established that this time I had all the documentation bar one minor item.
In order to show that I will not be a drain on the Greek state I need a bank account with a bank in Greece showing that I have 4,000 Euro in it. As every single person in the whole of Greece rushes to empty their bak account I have to open one and put cash in. Jim Mellon says that if I do this they should build a statue in my honour. Hmmm. And so on Friday I headed to the bank in Kalamata to do my duty...
But we left the Kadamili Police station with handshakes all round. I have noted before the observation of Paddy Leigh Fermor that 99 in 100 Greeks are the most generous, kindest and welcoming folk you can meet. The other one is a complete prize shit who will screw you at every opportunity. Our time in Kardamili last year was marred by meeting two of those prize shits - the bent cop and the hotelier. But that wound has now healed. Even the Kardamili Police station is now somewhere I can view in a positive light.
I invested in another big can of frigana poison this morning but also in a new boy toy, a 12 Euro olive axe. It is about 18 inches long and used for pruning becuase I must prune all 150 trees before I leave. Cripes it is hard work.
On days like today, when dark clouds hover on the Taegessus mountains above the Greek hovel it is an olive pruning day. The last thing you want is the rain washing the poison off the frigana plants and so your choice is made. In one hand I carry my hand saw in the other my sharp new axe (the blunt old one I found on the property broke yesterday).
Like most of you reading, I am not used to manual labour, still less work that involves you cutting and hacking with your arms above head height. I managed about twenty trees this afternoon and my arms ache. Vangelis - the man in the pink shirt - thinks I should get a power saw and that it is ather funny that I do it the old way.
Though I was taught how to prune by Foti the Albanian last summer, I sense that my work is not quite up to scratch. The axe does not always hit its target. The villagers in Kambos regard their trees as like beautiful women, to be cherished and treasured. They prune with a skill that I shall only learn with time. I rather hope that my handiwork is not inspected as it may be viewed as the olive tree equivalent of wife beating. Anyhow I am on a learning curve, things can only get better. Meanwhile, my arms feel like they are falling off.
In other news, the shepherd who grazes his sheep on snake mountain where the hovel sits has asked lovely Eleni to ask me if he can use my land. I am sort of touched that he asked since he could have wandered in at any time without asking, and have tried to explian that he never need ask again. Right now he cannot graze his flock there for a couple of weeks until the frigana poison has worked its way through the system. Thereafter it is full sheep ahead.
Reason one: the sheep will eat the long grass so meaning that snakes have less scope to hide and spring a nasty surprise on me. Reason two: snakes do not like sheep - and a shepherd - wandering around and will head onto somene else's land. The more sheep the merrier, that is what I say.
Besides which, and please do not think that I am becoming a soft lefty, I am not using the land. Yes the Mrs owns it but why not allow communal grazing right?. The folks in Kambos have been very kind to me, my guest last summer, my wife and my father. It is only right to give back what I can.
Kardamili has no sandy beaches and so is not a family resort. It has no bars and cafes serving fish and chips, burgers and cheap lager. Folks seeking sun, sea, sand and burgers and a pint of Fosters head to Stoupa down the road. Kardamili is an oasis of gentility which the Mrs rather prefers - for reasons I cannot understand - to The Greek Hovel and life in Kambos. And so last week I swapped the hovel for six days in a luxury hotel. It's a hard life.
A fortnight ago Kardamili hosted a Norwegian jazz festival. All year round it attracts Paddly Leigh Fermor pilgrims. The tourists it sucks in are generally very middle class, generally a bit older than me and largely English. As a journalist I am always nosily eavesdropping in on conversations at neighbouring tables and so I bring you these delightful snippets from a few days in Kardamili:
"of course it was just a construct of New Labour triangulation."
No I am not sure what that means either.
"I am not sure that the olive oil is as good that that we enjoyed in Tuscany last summer"
Whatever. By now you should have twigged that with its Venetian and quiet charm, Kardamili in the early summer becomes Islington abroad, Tuscany by the Greek Med. I guess they are not really my sort of people but I'd raher be there than with the soccer shirt wearing Brits at Stoupa.Folks who are, let;s face it, simply Non-U. Does that make me a snob? Ok. I plead guilty as charged.
After a hard day at the PC and in the field, braving the snakes to poison frigana, I plan to spend a relaxing evening at the Kourounis taverna in my home village of Kambos. Lovely Eleni has made me a Greek salad covered with herbs and drizzled with home produced olive oil and so far it is just coke zeros but I may allow myself an ouzo later. In the village where we have no tourists it is just me and the regulars. They chat. I tap away on my PC and say Yassas and Kale-nichta as required.
But an English couple has just walked in. As I heard them struggling to order a shared baclava and a glass of wine from lovely Eleni it was clear where they came from. Rather older than me they are now siutting on the far side of the room. Being on the road from Kalamata to Kardamili and the hell hole that is Stoupa we get visitors here who just pop in on a daily basis. Sometimes I encounter Brits who live in the various villages around here as they too pop in.
After my solitary existence at the Greek Hovel a bit of me sometimes thinks I would like to chat to my compatriots. But I am not sure Id have much to say. Do they know about poisoning frigana, about pruning olive trees or about dealing with rats and bats? Probably not. Do I want to chat about events "back home?" Certainly not.
One of the joys of being here is that I just do not have to think about all of that nonsense. I chat to folks and scour the internet to write about things on the AIM casino but fill my head with things that really matter such as which patch of frigana I shall clear tomorrow or how on earth I shall manage to prune all the olive trees in just six days.
And so I say "yas" to George the builder, as opposed to George the architect, and sit in my corner tapping away at my computer. I say nothing more lest my countrymen rumble that I am one of them and try to talk to me.
I am sitting happily tapping away at my computer loading a bit of blockbusting copy for ShareProphets in the morning. The Kourounis taverna in Kambos is pretty full with little groups here and there chatting away happily. The doors are flung wide open as it is a warm night. Outside at one of the tables my friend Nicho the Communist is holding Court. Behind me I can hear lovely Eleni chatting and laughing loudly. How do I know it is her? Well there are only four women in the taverna and the other three are sitting in front of me.
As I tapped away an old man reminding me of the Asterix character Geriatrix hobbled over propped up by a stick and stared at my screen. He looked hard for a couple of minutes. I am not sure of he has ever seen a content management system before, I know he can't read or speak English. Indeed it is far from certain that he can read Greek.
But it clearly fascinated him and he peered intensely for a good two minutes before muttering something in Greek and tottering off. Perhaps like my father he refers to all PCs as Beelzebub and that is what he said.
Around me the smell of ouzo is everywhere. It is what all the older men drink. I have resisted the lure for almost two weeks now but, what the heck, one for the road before heading back to the wildlife diversity at the Greek Hovel.
On the way back through the olive groves at the top of snake hill tonight I found myself tracking a fox. It did not seem too scared and eventually trotted off into the bushes. But that was not the real wildlife diversity news today - I met a snake.
I was travelling into the village in the early evening for a salad. Roadworks yesterday on abandoned monastery hill meant that I have been forced to discover a new way to get from the bottom of the valley into Kambos. It is a side track, not in that bad a condition, which winds its way all the way up to the top of the village past a little abandoned church coming out above our new big church. So from the top of that track you actually go downhill again to the Kourounis taverna. One day I shall draw a map for you all.
I was biking along thinking about nothing in particular when I heard a crunch under the wheels. I pulled up and looked back and about five yards behind me was a small snake. It is the small snakes that are the dangerous ones, the nine poisonous types of adder here in Greece.
There were three scenarios. It was dead before I crunched it. It was alive before I crunched it but now dead. Or it was alive before I crunched it but not yet dead. I thought about it and took one step towards the viper and could see enough to know that I did not wish to conduct a post mortem in case it turned out to be a pre-mortem.
Instead I got back on the bike and sped off as fast as possible to the village. At the taveran they all thought it rather funny. The bloke who is terrified of snakes now actually meeting one as well as the rats, bats, tortoise and crab. Lovely Eleni suggests that the hovel is now officially the Kambos zoo. Very funny.
It goes without saying that I took the other route home but each time I saw a strange line in the road you know what was going through my mind. Twigs, breaks in the concrete, they all suddenly became - in my mind at least - snakes.
Two more nights here and then the Mrs arrives She has one or two issues with the hovel as it stands and so it is off to a luxury hote in Kardamili, funded by the greatful taxpayer (that is to say my public sector employed wife) we go. After tonight I think I can manage to suffer a few nights of wildlife diversity free luxury.
There was I motor biking from the Greek Hovel into Kambos when suddenly I saw it. I had just turned left after the dry river and started the climb up the hill next to the abandoned monastery (or was it a convent, one day I shall find out) when it appeared just sitting in the middle of the road.. a crab, potamon potiamos to give it its full name.
You and I might think that crabs live in the sea but there are in fact three varieties of land crab here in Greece, to go with the 27 varieties of snake. The little creature was about three inches wide and stood there as I fumbled in my bag trying - unsuccessfully - to find my camera. And then it headed off into the bushes.
Folks asked why my Bearcast of 9th May sounded so poor. The truth is that my headphones had completely fallen aopart and the microphone was swinging wildly. But inspired by the way the folks of Kambos patched up my bike with sellotape, I applied the same magic to my headphones. Hey presto. It may not look pretty but it works.
In the end I could not get my head around a 200 cc bike with gears and so chickened out and hired another 150 cc automatic. But it felt great being on two wheels again as I whizzed up the mountain road from Kalamata to my home village of Kambos. It was warm but the wind was in my hair and as I swept down towards Kambos with the ruined castle looming in the background I just felt content and happy.
After dealing with the rat at the Greek hovel I headed into Kambos to do some work at my office, aka the Kourounis tavern. But for some reason they key in the bike was jammed and then broke. I could start the machine but not turn it off so I knew it had to be fixed or I’d have a dead battery by morning. Feeling really pissed off I headed back to Kalamata. I was so pissed off that I drove on the left hand side of the road.
Prang! At the corner by the petrol station I hit a van head on at about 20 km an hour. It all happened terribly fast but I sort of protected myself and ended up sprawling on the floor with my bike several yards down the road.
The driver was initially jolly good about it but the citizens of Kambos rushed out. The man from the snake repellent/hardware store, a chap whose name I cannot remember who drinks at Kourounis a little old lady were all at my side. I was told to sit down, given water to drink and the folks could not have been kinder.
After a while the the man whose name I cannot remember stick various bits of bike back on with sellotape I called the bike shop in Kalamata and John the bike man said he’d be there with a new bike in 30 minutes. I headed back to the Kourounis tavern where once again all sorts of folks fretted over me and waited with the driver of the van and his girlfriend. John was late. The chap got a bit testy and said we should head to see the Police at Kardamili police station, a building of which I do not have the happiest memories. I refused to budge knowing full well that the Kardamili Sergeant who lives in Kambos would be along soon. I’d rather play with a home referee.
After about ninety minutes the Police arrived. Despite all my neighbours saying that I was good to pay the 100-150 Euro it will need to mend the small issue his van has with its bumper, the van driver had called in the filth. Luckily at that point John the bike man turned up and showing diplomatic skills worthy of Kofi Annan managed to get the Police to leave and the van man to put a sock in it. By this time I was not exactly feeling warm feelings towards him given that the deal he agreed with John was the same as agreed with my neighbours ninety minutes previously.
I feel daft for driving on the wrong side. My father had a prang in Greece 35 years ago and ended up in Court where the Judge said “the professor was driving beautifully but just on the wrong side” as he let him off. I guess it runs in the family.
My leg is a bit bruised as is my arm. I imagine both will be stiff as a rod in the morning. But above all I just feel a bit stupid but also very much at home with the folks of Kambos who were again so kind and who have all shouted “Yass Tom” as they have wandered into the Kourounis taverna tonight. Thanks also to the kind folks who have wteeted their best wishes.
PS Before you ask. No I have not had a drink for two days!
When I left in February I tried to buy two cans of snake repellent to keep the 27 varieties of Greek serpent away from the Greek hovel. The man at the hardware store said “there is no point as they are asleep, when are you back?” I said May. He said, do not worry they do not wake up till June. What he meant was “I have none in stock.”
And so I wandered in yesterday and bought two of the cans which you position 10 yards away from two corners of the house and which emit a scent which scares away snakes. Except when like the one I met on my front doorstep last summer they do not scare them away. I asked if the snakes were awake yet, rather fearing that I knew the answer.
“Yes, the sun is bright they are everywhere” said my friend cheerfully. Great. As I drive up the long and winding road and track to the hovel I saw no snakes but stacks of very large and very small lizards. Winnifrith’s Rule No 1 of reptiles “when you see lizards on the road, snakes are lurking in the long grass”. My heart sank.
I approached the hovel nervously. I made load noises as I approached. The grass is now turning from green to brown but is long enough to be an ideal hiding ground for snakes. I will not be wandering barefoot across the lawn until I have put the strimmer to work. But there were no snakes. As I unlocked the door a lizard scuttle across my feet but as I looked inside nothing moved.
A dead rat lay on the floor. The vast amounts of poison I had left in February had worked although I cannot figure how the critter got in to start with. I tossed the rodent into the bushes hoping that a snake would gobble its poison filled body up greedily and grabbed some masking tape to attach the snake repellent to two trees. I sprinkled sulphur all around the house – my inner snake free redoubt and left. Give it 24 hours, thought I and I shall have a wildlife diversity free hovel.
Returning today I checked the bedding and disturbed a live rat. Seriously, Brokerman Dan you must come over to catch some treats for your kids in the Manchester slums. I do not fear rats during the day it is just the thought of them crawling close to my face at night that freaks me out. I wondered why it had resisted the temptation of the rat sweeties but chased it into a crack in the chimney. I quickly lit a fire and he/she is now roasted or well smoked or has wriggled to freedom. I kind of sense that he/she will not be coming back.
And now I sit in lovely Eleni’s Kourounis taverna in Kambos contemplating my first night in the hovel with darkness all around and the wildlife diversity making strange noises at all times. I think I shall “sleep” with the light on and a heavy spade next to the bed tonight.
Gone are the days when I could start my working day at 3.30 AM on Monday, down two bottles of wine during the day, work through the night and a full day Tuesday, stay up all night fretting about a Court case, suffer a High Court ordeal, down a pint of champagne and feel totally on top form on the Wednesday evening. I guess I am getting old. And so by the time I arrived at Paddington for the 7 PM to Bristol Temple Meads I felt like death warmed up and just wanted to get home to the cats and my bed. The Mrs is still with her mother.
I sat in my seat, wrapped up warm and tried to sleep. But life is not always easy and the first part of my journey just made me feel like even more of a grumpy old man who wants to leave this rotten country and sit on my Greek mountain away from everything that is ghastly abut Britain today.
Being the first off peak train it was crammed and the vague smell of cheap fast food wafted through the corridors since many of my fellow passengers had grabbed some junk to gorge upon as they rushed to get home.
In the seats behind me a kid was doing maths with his mum. 19 + 19 is 28 he insisted. The generation that will look after mine in retirement is not only thick as two short planks but also shows no deference or respect to its parents. The mother was simply wrong, the kid insisted as his voice rose. But I guess like all the other morons he will grow up to be a wannebee celeb so his stupidity won’t be an issue.
A drunk gave me a long gaze as our eyes met. I’m a nice drunk. He was not a nice drunk. I shifted my eyes rather glad that there was an older gentleman sitting between me and the drunk who promptly collapsed and spent most of the time between London and Swindon lying prostrate in the aisle or trying to do the sort of pointless exercises that only the totally inebriated consider demonstrate that they are half sober. I and the other passengers exchanged embarrassed smiles at his antics.
First Great Western apologised in a blundering, we really do not give a fuck, but pretend we care way as the fast train turned out to be a very slow train indeed, all the way to Reading. As we crawled into the City where Wilde was jailed I thought lovingly of life at the Greek Hovel and my friends in Kambos and contemplated booking a flight next week and just not coming back.
Pulling into Didcot I saw that the older gentleman next to me was interested in shares. His mobile thingy device had messages from Hargreaves Lansdowne and so I piped up “I see you are interested in shares”. We started talking. We will gloss over his ownership of Afren which I warned him was not perhaps the wisest investment, something 100% vindicated today. He has a very prudent and sensible approach to creating a balanced portfolio weighted towards collectives. He knew his onions.
The chap is a social worker but not, I think, the sort that steals your kids if you vote UKIP, but what was truly fascinating is that he was and is a real punk rocker. He was the lead singer with the Stingrays, a band once described as the Bristol equivalent of the Ramones. I had not heard of them but just as we could talk a common language in shares music was also a common language.
The Stingrays never made it big although John Peel loved them. But perhaps we should not really talk about everything Pee loved back in the 1970s these days as this is a family website. Not. But they played support to the Pretenders. I once bumped into Chrissie Hynde in an upmarket kitchen equipment shop in Swiss Cottage but that’s not really sex, drugs and rock n roll is it? The Stingrays were also support on the first UK tour of U2. “They were rubbish” back then I was told. I guess Saint Bono of Smugness is therefore getting back to his roots these days.
One member of the band went on to play with Jo Boxer and made real dosh (remember The Boxer beat?). Was my new friend jealous? He smiled and said “of course” but admitted that the fellow was far more talented than he was and seemed really quite happy for him.
What is amazingly is that the band is still touring but just for fun. Rarely do they play in the UK although they did a couple of years ago on a SLF reunion bash. What would I have given to have heard this SLF number live back in the days? Music is a common language, my friend says SLF and I say “alternative Ulster” – I know what he is talking about.
The Stingrays tour only in Japan. Apparently the kids there know all their songs. My friends says the band can’t actually remember the numbers themselves so have to re-learn them each year before touring, something they will be doing this April and – “according to our business plan” every April until 2017 when they turn 60.
I’ll say this for the UK. It throws up some real characters. Meeting this chap made my day and really reminded me why I sometimes like living here. Next time he gigs in Bristol he can drop me a note and I’ll be there.
As an aside, I shared with him that the best gig I ever attended was on the Lower East Side. in New York in the early eighties. Not the Bristol Ramones but the real Ramones. Continuing the video theme, I share with my pal, if he is reading, a gig that I'd also have given anything to attend: The Go Go's playing a Ramones classic from a set in Central Park in 2001. I wanna be sedated. That Belinda Carlisle: sex drugs and rock n'roll ( especually the drugs) - she knew how to party.
The man at the hardware store in Kambos said there was no need to buy snake repellent canisters as they will not wake up till June and I’m back in May. I am not so sure about that as I distinctly remember meeting a snake on what is known as the snake veranda on my first visit to the hovel in April. But I did not argue, I said efharisto and shook his hand warmly.
I worked at the Kourounis taverna in the afternoon and headed up to the hovel to lay out sweeties for the rats. But on arrival I found myself staring at one patch of rocks where I had hacked down a particularly loathsome frigana bush in the summer. There was still some dead frigana branches by the fence which George had overlooked,
And so, having learned how to light a fire with dried grass and a cigarette lighter I set to work. As the skies darkened the flames took out not only the dead branches but also the old stumps on the ground and some of the new green shoots that had appeared. I love the idea of old frigana providing the blaze that burns new frigana. The rocks are now black. The rain will clean them up and wash the ashes away.
There was a time when the dark at the hovel frightened me. But no more. As I stood by the dying fire I took three pictures – maybe you can see the hovel in the background in the first and the mountains in the second and third. I laid out the rat sweeties, locked up and now sit back in the Kourounis tavern planning a farewell Metaxa and my goodbyes. I will be up at 5 AM your time as I start the trek back to the UK.
It is back to the UK not back home. The Mrs, the cats, my family are in the UK and so that is in a way home. That is where I pay tax. But this is also my home. Slowly I am learning Greek. In the summer I shall start work on preparing for the rebuilding of the hovel, sort out my residency, and buy a gun, a motorbike and a truck. A few tweaks to the way I run my work and I could live here all year. Of course I can’t yet. The Mrs has her career and Oakley needs looking after. My father is old.
But I am sitting here at the Kourounis tavern. At the bar Vangelis – the man in the pink shirt – is playing on his computer. Lovely Eleni’s mother in law is watching more bad news on the TV. A rather hungover Nikko the communist may recover from an all-day ouzo session to pop in later. And I sit in the corner tapping away as part of the furniture.
I start counting down the days to my return to the Mani in May on Wednesday morning.
From morning through to night you can hear gunfire everywhere in the Mani right now. Yes it is the Albanian hunting season. Only kidding. What the folks shoot are little birds – anything with wings. In the old days Thrush was considered a delicacy and at least some of the carnage was eaten. These days the dead birds are just left to rot. This is all done in the name of “fun”
The area around the Greek Hovel is deemed a good killing field and so twice now I have been forced to reverse either up or down a steep hill as a convoy of pick-up trucks travels the other way. Normally quiet tracks are now humming.
Up on the mountain roads one comes across stretches where every 200 yards for a mile there is a parked truck on one side of the road and a – usually old – man on the other with his heavy gun.
I know the Mani has a gun culture. I am considered a total weirdo for not having one. In the old days of blood feuds (19th century and before) when a boy was born he was known as “a gun” and by twelve was expected to be fighting.
I am a tremendous supporter of the right to carry firearms. Houses in Kambos do not suffer burglaries because a) there is not a lot to steal and b) the robber would get his head blown off. So the burglars focus on foreign owned houses by the Coast as the foreigners are richer and being woolly minded liberals would not dream of getting a gun.
I shall be getting a gun this summer for rabbits and to let it be known that I am no woolly minded liberal should any burglars find their way up to Kambos. But I shall not take part on the bird shoot. It is senseless and pointless. Besides which, unlike the old men, I have work to do.
I shall try to drive up to the snow covered peaks of the high Taygetus at the weekend. For now I just gaze up at them from the Greek Hovel. While we enjoy bouts of heavy rain and intermittent sunshine in the foothills of the Taygetus the high peaks are covered in snow.
The first photo is from the Greek Hovel itself and the far peaks are a bit covered in cloud but you can just make out the snow.
The second two shots are taken from the back of Kambos village near the main Church ( we have three) and give a rather better view of what lies ahead on my weekend field trip. I very rarely snows in Kambos itself. The only effect of that snow is that when it finally melts the dry river will stop being a stream as it is now but will be a gushing little river, if only for a few days.
As predicted, by Monday mornng as the heavy rains on Sunday washed down from the Taygetus mountains, the dry river at the bottom of the valley that lies between the Greek Hovel and the village of Kambos was, er, not so dry.
Two photos, one upstream and one showing where the river flows over the road and downstream show what I mean. It is not exactly life threatening but having driven over a parched and dry river bed all summer it makes an interesting change.
I am greatly confused. I record from the Greek Hovel and the noise outside is a storm blowing. There is a large statue in the centre of Kambos. Tonight we celebrate the start of lent. Is it no more meat or the start of cheese week? Why dont we have paper phalluses in the Mani? I try to explain all.
In five days time I shall be landing in mighty Hellas. Within six days I should be back among my friends in the little village of Kambos. The weather forecast says that it will be minus 7 tonight at the Greek Hovel. I imagine that the Taygetus mountains that stetch out behind the Hovel are capped with snow.
On the bright side, I spoke to lovely Eleni from the Kourounis taverna yesterday. I called and said in my best Greek "kale-nichta" at which point she laughed and said "oh, hello Tom." I guess there are not many folks who call who speak Greek as badly as I do. Anyhow plans are underway for frigana burning with George the olive picker.
Also on the bright side, at minus seven the snakes are still going to be very much asleep.
On the minus side I sense that the hovel might be a little on the nippy side. We shall brush over the matter of my Greek lessons, I have promised the Mrs I will do some revision before she returns from the Grim North tomorrow. So don't call me in the morning even if you are Quindell whistleblower. Meanwhile I am doing a spot of revision with Despina.
I have no pictures of Charon. That is because he always pops up by surprise. If you arrange to meet he is never there. He just turns up and then disappears.
His house is the nearest one to the Greek Hovel. The long and winding road from Kambos does not end at the hovel but turns back on itself and up the next hill. I really had no idea where it headed but one day curiosity got the better of me and I turned my bike around and headed on up. After about a mile and a half you arrive at a ramshackle but clearly inhabited set of buildings, the house of Charon. He is one hill higher up than me. The next range of hills behind him leads straight into the mountains.
Charon is not his real name. It is Nikko but since half the village is called Nikko I stick with the name I gave him when we first met. The poor man was returning from a walk into the village to buy cigarettes. It was a blazing hot day and not being the fittest fellow on this planet he was dripping with sweat. His greying hair is longer than mine and with the sweat pouring off him my mind sprang to Virgil’s description of the ferryman to the underworld. Nikko’s rather long face always looks a little sad even when he is smiling.
There is only one thing worse that trying to chat to someone who speaks only Greek when you speak only English. And that is trying to chat to someone who speaks just enough English to think that he can communicate but in fact cannot. And thus when Charon and I chat it is a truly painful experience. He says a few words in English which are in fact the wrong words and intersperses that with Greek which I cannot understand at all.
So for cold Nikko uses the word hot. After a while I figured that out when we drank some “hot” water straight from the fridge. When Charon is around I grab my Greek English dictionary to dull the pain of non-comprehension but our conversations are still monumentally hard going.
The man appears from nowhere for our chats. I am standing there holding my strimmer hacking away at the frigana thinking about Bulletin Board Morons and suddenly I am conscious that there is someone behind me. If I turn too quickly leaving the strimmer on I’d cut his testicles off but I have learned to live with the appearance of the apparition. I am sitting tapping away at my PC with my back to the door and I hear no sound of anyone approaching but there he is standing behind me gazing into my screen.
Charon is a big music fan and tells me that he has four stereo systems at his hovel - that might in facr mean anything between 1 and five. But there is at least one because just occasionally the night time silence is broken by the sound of music blaring from the next range of hills up towards the mountain. It is as if there is a party but while there will be plenty of music and drinking there is only one man partying on all night.
Charon’s catch phrase is “English cigarettes good" at which point I hand over a few of my Greek fags as he appears to have run out. But it is not all one way trade. He brings almonds from a tree near his house and figs, not that the latter is in short supply at our Hovel. And it was he who showed me how to pick and eat prickly pears without taking in a mouthful of prickles. For that I am truly grateful.
How will our relationship develop? I have no idea. Occasionally I give him a lift into Kambos on my bike and we swear to meet up a day later for a drink. Of course he does not turn up although I am always there expecting for some reason that he will be. Perhaps as my Greek improves our conversations might progress a little further.
After spending a total of four months at the Greek Hovel and holidaying in mighty Hellas perhaps twenty times in my life I still speak almost no Greek. It is shameful. But that ends tomorrow.
For my birthday the Mrs, who speaks good Greek and fluent Swedish as well as Northern English, has bought me five lessons. The teacher is recommended by none other than the ex wife of Red Trousers, the buffoonish money treee worshipping Mayor of Bristol. Lesson one is on skype and starts at 10.30 AM.
To the folks in Kambos...I am going to shock you all on my return on 18 Febuary.
The normal routine at the Greek Hovel this summer was that I would go for a short run first. Not being the fittest of fellows the run would indeed be short. At best I would make it to the bottom of snake hill, have a brief rest staring at the pond at the bottom of the valley and then walk back up snake hill – bitterly regretting having gone down the steep slope in the first place as I looked our carefully for wildlife diversity. I would then jog back along the olive groves and arrive back at the hovel a sweaty and topless wreck.
My guest would make no comment on the brevity of my run in distance terms. For I had been away a good while and so she naturally assumed that I had managed a reasonable distance. She would then trot off spending about the same time away but managing to make it to the village of Kambos and back. That means climbing two steep hills and covering twice the distance. By the time she returned I would have had time for a restorative cigarette or three and for a naked shower. I would then hide inside the hovel while she showered.
You will remember that my shower at the Greek Hovel is a hosepipe draped over the vine. The water has come up the hill in metal pipes and so is just the right temperature. It is the best shower in the world in summer. My guest said that the shower is “better than sex”. Well it is good but not that good. I suppose that it depends with whom you are having sex with.
But one day my guest went running first. As she arrived back I trotted off but on snake hill on the descent I felt a muscle pull. I tried to limp on but could not. And so – feeling quite relieved that I had only a bit of snake hill to reclimb - I jogged slowly back to the house. As I approached the entrance to the drive I distinctly saw a pink shape underneath the shower. What is a gentleman to do?
As luck would have it my glasses which had cracked earlier that year were still cracked. Indeed they remain cracked to this day as I never seem to find the time to go into an optician. They are also usually dirty and on this occasion were tinged with sweat. As such the pink object was sufficiently blurred that I have no graphic details to relay. But there was no doubt about it, my guest was enjoying the best naked shower one can ever enjoy which she was thinking was better than sex.
Should I call out “Cooeeee, I’m back and I can see you are starkers” which might for a reticent well brought up Englishman be a bit embarrassing? Or should I hide round the corner and wait. Naturally it was the latter. After a few minutes I popped my head around but boy was she enjoying the shower. It was clearly going to be an endless shower. And so I waited another ten minutes and the pink blurry shape had disappeared and I wandered in, not mentioning that my run had been a little truncated.
Being too much of a bumbling shy Englishman I have not mentioned this little incident until now. But I guess with the passage of time it is better to fess up.
In the summer I used to drive past this old shed on the main street of Kambos every day. I was told that it was the olive oil factory but it looked deserted as if, like so much of Greece, it was a relic of times gone by when folks actually had jobs. But how wrong I was. By mid-November this place is a hive of activity. It is positively humming.
From late morning until well into the evening there is a constant queue outside of pick up tracks, of trailers pulled by tractors or just of ordinary vans and cars each bringing in bag after back of olives for pressing. Some folks deposit just a couple of bags, a trailer behind a tractor might disgorge fifty or sixty.
My seventy five bags arrived in three trips made by George the chief olive picker at the Greek Hovel in his battered blue pickup.
Each time strapping young men wearing military trousers grabbed the bags and loaded them onto trollies. They tossed the bags on into need stacks as if they were lifting a bag of groceries. I attempted to help, almost collapsed into the pile, so heavy were the bags, and thus just decided to watch while trying to look sort of managerial. No-one was fooled. They all knew that I did not have the faintest idea what was going on but none the less humoured me.
My bags were weighed and the charming factory manager, pictured below, gave me a yellow slip with their weight.
All in all, George and his team with some help from myself had harvested 2.7 tonnes (2,700 kg) of lives. Eventually some hours after our final bags were dropped off it was time to press my olives and as pre-arranged with the manager (with Nikko and the lovely Eleni interpreting) I was there as the sacks were emptied into a hopper.
As you can see my olives are green, purple and black…they look like sweeties but the great machinery does not discriminate on the basis of colour and the lives slip gradually into the hole in the hopper before emerging going up a conveyer belt which allows a young man in combats to take time off from texting to to remove some of the more obvious leaves and twigs.
The olives are washed and then rattle across rolling bars which remove the last of the leaves and then it is into a great big whirring machine.
Inside this machine are separate chambers allowing olives from separate farmers to be multi-crushed. My olives filled three of the six chambers where giant blades turn olives into a sort of sludgy tapenade but already you can see oil oozing to the surface.
The tapenade heads through anther machine which separates the oil from the sludge which is sent off elsewhere for what I do not know. And after heading through a few more pipes a bright green liquid starts to gush out into huge vats.
From one vat we extracted 16 litres of oil. This can headed back to England with me in my rucksack and was exceptionally heavy. It has dug into my back from Kambos to Bristol, hurting every step of the way. But the first bottle from that can will today be handed out as a Christmas present.
The rest of the oil was just sucked away into a communal vat, another 336 litres. After lovely Eleni sorted out the paperwork I was presented with a chit allowing me to claim a cheque for 1779 Euro from the big Olive Oil factory in Kalamata. That factory is, you see, fed by the little presses in each of the villages of the Mani.
As the oil poured into the tank the young man in combat trousers in charge of the whirring machines took a quick break from checking the machines while at the same time smoking sixty a day to stick his little finger into the green fluid. He tasted and pronounced it to be of the highest quality. I followed suit and naturally agreed. You really can taste the olive in this oil and there is an afterkick in your throat. It is quite amazing stuff.
It is far too good for salad dressing or certainly for cooking. back in Bristol we just dip bread in it and dream of Kambos.. Meanwhile small bottles of he stuff have been handed out this Christmas to the chosen few and a few more NewYear gifts are on the way.
By the end of the summer we were firm friends. He speaks English and is the life and soul of the Kourounis tavern run by the lovely Eleni. The young men call him Papou (grandfather) but respect him as a chap who can drink them under the table, happily do a Greek dance – after half a bottle of whisky – but also be deadly serious.
As the only English speaker bar Eleni he is a conduit for me to wider world. His main job is with an organic food form headquartered in Athens. But he can work remotely and one imagines that business is not exactly booming and so he has plenty of time for more important things such as growing olives.
You will remember that an olive tree is viewed as a being like a beautiful woman who must be treasured and cared for. And Nicho owns a 500 year old specimen which in Kambos terms is like saying that you have Cheryl Cole waiting for you at home lying in a state of undress on your bed.
The Mani has always been staunchly Royalist and so will vote heavily for New Democracy in the forthcoming election although I am sad to say that Golden Dawn – the Nazis - has prominent headquarters in the centre of Kalamata and will attract some support. But Nicho is a communist. He knows that I am not.
Greek communists, supporters of KKE, are not quite like the Marxists of Islington we might know. I’d say on the left of the UK Labour party but with a heavy dose of loathing the Americans thrown in. And the Germans of Course. The British are not to be trusted. Being Greek they obviously hate the Turks as well. In fact Greek Communists mistrust or hare pretty much everybody except other Greek Communists. But generally in a fairly charming manner.
And as Nicho knows well there are far more important things in life such as …olives. And as such meet papou beaming with pride at the olive factory as he brings in the first part of his harvest – his crop will be at least five times the size of mine, including the yield from the Cheryl Cole tree.
Nicho says that it is vital that I am back in February for the manuring of the trees as well as frigana burning. The departure date has now been agreed with the Mrs…seven weeks to go. And I have a mental note: take some Irish whiskey with me… a belated 59th Birthday present for the old leftie.
We all celebrate Christmas in different ways. For the Mrs and I it is a traditional day. Midnight Mass here in Bristol, perhaps with a swift sherry at the Conservative Club beforehand. It is on the way to Church after all!
And then stockings in the morning. Well I know she is getting one as she has been well behaved all year. I cook the duck and trimmings, presents, calls around the world to family and friends and then a collapse as we await Downton Abbey. It is on Boxing Day that the travel nightmare of family days starts with a Greek Christmas with the wife’s sister and Greek Husband in Hertfordshire. Goat followed by Christmas pudding.
For Oakley & Tara it is just even more food than usual and, yes, they have both been fairly well behaved and so get a stocking too.
Whatever you do, we all send you are best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
I do not speak Greek. And I cannot understand it. But given that virtually no-one in my home village of Kambos speaks English, I am exposed to it whenever I wander into town and I am now starting to “hear it.”
I was sitting opposite the olive factory with George the chief olive picker at the Greek Hovel as we waited out turn to drop off some olives. A little old lady, her back arched and curved and dressed in widows black opened the front door of her tiny house opposite, pulled out a chair and just watched the bags go in and out. She asked a question of George while looking at me and George replied. She nodded knowingly.
Whilst I did not understand the question I can guess what it was since the answer was “He is the Englishman who lives in Toumbia.” The lady’s response indicates that folks in Kambos know that there is an Englishman in Toumbia, that is to say me.
Toumbia is not actually a place. It is the name for the area behind Kambos up in the snake friendly hills on the way to the mountain where there are perhaps 20 houses of which, maybe, three or four are inhabited. My nearest neighbours may be two miles away on either side but we are all in Toumbia. So Toumbia is not really a place just an area which contains the odd farm-house, of which are few are not abandoned. It is a place where folks in Kambos may own olive trees, where the goats and sheep can graze and, of course, where the snakes can go unmolested.
And I am the man who speaks no Greek but can spend all day at lovely Eleni’s tavern writing and looking out at life passing by; the man who fell off his bike at 5 MPH outside Eleni’s providing the incident of the summer (until the double murder) in sleepy Kambos, the man who is terrified of snakes but lives at the top of snake hill. Ho, ho, ho…the fool! That is the Englishman from Toumbia.
I digress. My point is that I am starting now to hear Greek. Next up is learning to speak it. But that is for avrio (tomorrow)
I posted videos earlier showing the dreadful weather here in Kambos. That delayed the completion of the olive harvest as did the very Greek way we settle up accounts and so my return from the Greek hovel to England has been postponed. I should now be flying first thing Wednesday which means leaving Kambos tomorrow. Taking a bus from Kalamata to Athens and sleeping at a hotel by the airport for a crack of dawn flight.
I will leave Kambos with a cheque for 1779 Euro in my pocket thanks to the olive harvest. Obtaining the cheque was a bit of a kerfuffle. I fished out my Greek tax number – I am a loyal supporter of the Greek state in its hour of need – and wandered into the olive factory. Easy…
Hmmm. There then followed a long debate about how you spell my third Christian name – Zaccheus – in Greek. I had to fetch lovely Eleni and within minutes the click of her fingers saw the problem solved: Zaxios. Hmmm. Then to Kalamata to drop off my bike with John the bike man and to Olive pressing central HQ to pick up my cheque. Tomorrow I present it at the National Bank in Kalamata and I will head back to the UK with my pockets stuffed full of Euros.
And so there is one more night in Kambos. In need of a power source I find myself sitting at the bar next to the man in the pinkpolo shirt Vangelis. His name is actually Vagelis but I cannot go back and alter all my historic errors so he remains Vangelis.
On Saturday he showed me his hands, horny handed son of toil hands, brushed tough by years of tending to olives. “An olive tree is like a beautiful woman” he said in Greek and Nikko translated. Vangelis is concerned that my olive trees might get lonely and neglected in my absence. The Mrs says that I am neglecting her and the cats looking at my olive trees. Given that she works in the public sector I am sure that there is a compromise.
Pro tem the man in the pink shirt, now wearing his olive harvesting fatigues, and I work on. And then, sans bike, I walk home one last time in the dark, preparing to wade the, now not dry, river and clamber up snake hill for the last time until....
Last night the mud track from the top of snake hill to the Greek Hovel was almost entirely flooded. The dry river is flowing strongly. Somehow my bike made it through all the water and I did not fall off at any point. I then sat in the hovel with a fire blazing listening to the rain hammering down all night, to the thunder and to a stiff gale blowing through the trees. And the vreki continues today. Looking up at the mountains behind me and listening to the loud thunder claps and seeing the sheet lightening flash across the sky, I suspect there will be little olive harvesting going on today in Kambos.
To give you an idea of what it looks like I have shot you three videos, one yesterday and two today.
I look back on three weeks at the Greek Hovel, on life in Kambos and on the conclusion of the olive harvest. Rain stopped me recording since I need light to film and the vreki is heavy - so my thoughts are by audio
There was a certain confusion about what to do with it. Do I put it in the oven said lovely Eleni? But with help from a truly bilingual member of the community we are underway. One of the Christmas puddings brought from Real Man Pizza in Clerkenwell is now steaming away in the private kitchen of the lovely Eleni at Kourounis taverna. In about an hour it will be ready. I hope. My friend Nikko finished his harvest and pressed his oil today. I now have 2.1 tonnes of olives at the factory. The last bags will come down tomorrow morning and then we press.
I shall take home a couple of cans to rebottle and use as Christmas presents for the chosen few as The Greek Hovel olive oil. The rest we sell and Eleni will pick up the cheque and repay me in the summer. So we celebrate the (almost) end of the harvest with something no-one else here in Kambos has ever tasted before. Fingers crossed.
As you may remember my experiences of the Police Station at Kardamili have not been universally enjoyable. But there is one friendly face, the Sergeant who lives here in Kambos the village closest to the Greek hovel. He sits in the Kourounis taverna with the rest of us. He enjoys a drink like the rest of us and he does not bat an eyelid as I drive off sans helmet or as folks reach for their car keys having had one, two or twelve too many. Rules are for tourists. Otherwise this is a libertarian paradise.
He is our policeman. He bought me a drink the other day and it is now a regular Yassas Tom.
Apart from the odd double murder there is not much going on to concern the law here in Kambos. It is the foreigners who get burgled (as they have possessions worth stealing and don’t have guns). Up here – other than the murders - life is crime free.
As I ride towards the deserted monastery/convent on my way back from Kambos to the Greek Hovel I can normally see lights twinkling on the far side of the valley where I live. On my hill there is the hovel. On the hill behind it and one fold higher as you get into the mountains is my neighbour Charon. And there are a few other houses on the next ridge along. But as I rode tonight there were no lights. I rather feared that for once lovely Eleni was wrong and that the electricity had not been fixed.
But at least it was a clear night. There is a full moon and so riding up snake hill and through the olive groves it was far lighter than in recent days when this part of the journey has been managed in pitch darkness with only the light on my bike to guide me.
As I arrived at the hovel I imagined a night stumbling around with only a torch to guide me. Inevitably the battery would have died. But the moonlight lit the path making my torch almost academic and I strode up the steps in a way that I would have not considered this summer when the wildlife diversity was not in hibernation. Flinging open the door, I flicked the switch and…
How could I have ever doubted Eleni? What a fool I was. The lights were on revealing the sort of mess a Mrs free existence generates.
The timing of my ride was fortuitous. For the vreki has started again and is now heavy. The dry river will no doubt be gushing in the morning. Looking up towards the mountains I can see that Charon now has his lights on but so heavy is the rain that they are blurred. Say what you like about the hovel but the roof - touch wood – is solid. Outside I can hear the rain beating down on the snake veranda but inside, it is dry and – with the fire started up – surprisingly warm.
However what this means for a ride into Kalamata tomorrow, for the last day of the olive harvest and for frigana burning is a matter of some concern.
I am rather dreading heading back to the Greek Hovel tonight. I left at 3 PM as the electricity had gone again. I fled naturally to the Kourounis taverna where lovely Eleni assured me at 4 that it was back on. I sha;l find out shortly but have my torch ready just in case. But I postpone the trip back with another ouzo.
I hung around in Kambos because at 5 PM George the head olive picker arrived with the first 25 sacks from the Greek Hovel. We deposited them at the Olive Oil factory in the centre of the village and I now have a yellow slip saying that I have deposited 1033 kg ( just over a tonne) of olives. There is at least another half a tonne to arrive tomorrow as we finish up the harvest. Bags are stacked at the hovel and the only trees left to harvest are on the flat area next to the house. We are almost done.
So tomorrow we finish. It is Christmas pudding with Nikko, Vangelis and the others, steamed by Eleni. And we are done. And I had a Quindell whistleblower on the phone as a bonus. That job is almost done too. More on that tomorrow.
The river bed, at the bottom of the valley between the deserted monastery/convent and the start of the climb up snake hill to the Greek Hovel, sits dry all summer. It is parched and it is hard to think that it ever sees water. Even as I arrived in Kambos two weeks ago it was dry as a bone. Puddles formed on the track but the river bed was like dust. That all changed with the storm.
The ford is a ford for a good reason. The ground had been raised with concrete and across it the water was perhaps only an inch deep. Pas de problem for my magnificent motorbike.
But looking upstream the water was rather deeper, perhaps a foot or two. From nothing in just 24 hours. Even as I rode home last night there was nothing there but I guess that in the mountains the rain was heavier and gathered and the, whoosh, it hurtled towards Kambos. And this is just the sort of winter. I rather wonder if I came here at Christmas might I not get cut off.
The dry river runs into a pond lying at the foot of the land belonging to the deserted monastery/convent. In the summer this sits as a small pool supported by a little spring. The wildlife diversity come here for much needed water. I remember seeing a fox drinking at the edge as I headed off fig gathering in the summer. But now…
The water from the river gushes into what is now an ever larger pond. It may be muddy brown but it is far from stagnant. The green algae of summer has been swept away and it looks alive. It is all change in the Mani.
I now have my power back. The olive harvest is almost done and my thoughts are of returning back to the UK, of burning off the frigana, a last meal with my friends here and of a reunion with the cats and the Mrs. Not in that order.
As I biked home last night the puddles on the mud track were alarmingly deep. Somehow I ploughed through. At least it was not that dark thanks to a constant backdrop of sheet lightening. As I reached the hovel I was greeted by a thunderclap which made me think that a massive bomb had just gone off in the olive groves. I gathered some firewood and was jolly glad to light a fire lock the door and go to sleep. Now it is the morning after….
The sky is a clear blue and it is almost hot. My olive pickers are making good progress but …I have no power. No light. No coffee. My phone is dead and cannot recharge. And so naturally I have to abandon the harvest and head off to Kambos to seek the assistance of the lovely Eleni.
The ground is so wet that my bike has slipped over but it works. Thank heavens for small mercies and I head off down the track. Now the puddles are ginormous but the heroic machine ploughs through them. By the time I reach snake hill which is gravel and concrete the sun is doing its best to dry the slope and I speed off towards the bottom of the valley. Cripes!
The dry river is not dry anymore. At the ford it is about an inch deep but that is why it is a ford. Either sire we now have a full river several foot deep. On the other side I turn right up the valley rather than left past the deserted monastery/convent and into Kambos to go have a look at the spring. In the summer this is a small stagnant pool providing at least some water for the wildlife diversity. Now a waterfall from the river gushes forth and the pool is large and vibrant. The spring is now a large pond.
Sadly my camera battery is dead and so no photos for now. I’ll oblige you all later as I have headed to the Kourounis taverna where all machines are now recharging. Lovely Eleni (pictured) holds court and makes a couple of phone calls for me. The whole village lost power as I slumbered but men are now working on it and Eleni assures me that my power will be reconnected shortly. And as it happens I shall be heading up to the hovel soon with a new (rather braver than the wuss Jamie) architect who is coming to visit.
Occasionally I have fallen off the motorbikes I use when in Kambos as a result of Nikko and Vangelis leading me astray at the Kourounis taverna owned by lovely Eleni. It is hard enough getting back up the track from the village to the hovel in the dark when sober but after a refreshing evening it is very hard. But today I had a bit of a tumble at a bit of speed (15 kmh) and when stone cold sober.
This time around I have moved up from a 50 cc machine to a 150 cc bike. It is not a lust for speed or a desire to impress the birds, simply the knowledge that in winter getting up the track to the Greek hovel was always going to be tough. This machine has power and normally I feel pretty much in control.
But it rained heavily overnight and the mud track section of the track once you have climbed snake hill and meander through the olive groves belonging to lovely Eleni on the way to the hovel, is ridden with puddles. The puddles are not so bad it is the mud around them that causes you to slip and slide. I was in a bit of a hurry as I had an appointment with Susan Shimmin of the Real Mani in Kambos. I was perhaps going a little bit too fast and I slid onto the grass between the trees.
It happened so quickly that I just did not have time to think about it. I just found myself with mud across my trousers and coat and my foot trapped underneath a heavy bike with the engine still turning. And of course there was no-one around. I managed to extricate my foot dusted myself down and carried on rather gingerly.
Tonight there was a monumental thunderstorm. It felt as if the thunder was on the snake veranda. The lights flickered. I waited for it to pass and headed down the track once again at a sensible, pedestrian pace. No thrills, no spills. You live and learn.
An email today from Jamie the architect, business partner of the daughter of lovely Susan Shimmin of The Real Mani. - still to collect her Christmas pudding I brought out for her.jamie has seen the weather forecast (vreki – rain) for tomorrow and thinks it may be “safer” to visit the Greek Hovel on Thursday rather than tomorrow. Jeepers – this bloke is from Scotland so a bit of rain?
It goes without saying that I shall be on my motorbike up and down the two mile track from the Greek Hovel, down snake hill, over the dry (or not so dry) river and past the abandoned ghost filled monastery/convent and into Kambos tomorrow. I live in the hovel. I have assured him that it is all perfectly safe. What a Jessie.
You think Greeks are lazy. That is because all you see is folks in Athens sipping coffees all day. Out here in the Mani life is hard and folks do both a main job but also work the land. So my pal Vangelis is a delivery driver for Dixons but has – I think – 600 olive trees. Nikko and Eleni at the Kourounis taverna also own trees up near the Greek Hovel – they start their harvest tomorrow. And so do I!
The lovely Eleni has put me in touch with a new group of workers. Another chap called Foti, George and his son. I met up again with George today and we start on the olive harvest at 8 AM. So no ouzo for me tonight. To give you an idea of what lies in store for me here are some photos I took last week of a man harvesting trees on the road/track up to the Greek Hovel, just above snake hill. It seems to me that it looks like rather hard work.
Indeed Kambos is a hive of activity as folks gather in what they can ahead of the winter. The other day I heard voices on the land at the edge of the hovel. Given that I am in the middle of nowhere I wandered down to see what was going on. There was an old man and an even older woman picking what looked like weeds from the hillside. I asked if I could look and it seemed that the leaves looked a bit like rocket. The two pickers must have had a combined age of 150 but they were clambering up and down the rocks like young goats. They are a hardy lot here in the Mani, knowing how to extract all that they can from the land.
Remember that even 60 years ago you reached Kambos only by Donkey path up from the sea or by donkey path across the mountains. The road through here is a recent development. The folks here have been surviving for 3000 years (there is, you may remember, a Mycenaean tomb in the village) by living off what they can extract from the land. Greece can go bust (well it is bust) but Kambos will go on. There is no tourist trade here – this remains a working village. And tomorrow I start work.
Olives are my first challenge. In time I plan to grow vegetables here but also to learn about what nature offers us all. I see plants that look like rocket and mushrooms growing on my land but I dare not touch. I guess I have to learn Greek and to learn from the old folk what to look for. There’s plenty of time for that.
You may remember that my shower arrangements at the Greek Hovel are somewhat rudimentary. I attach a picture of the shower, aka a hose pipe dropping down from the vine on the "snake terrace."
In the summer it is great. The water comes up the hill in metal pipes and so arrives at a perfect temperature and showering is real pleasure. But now it is winter. It is almost zero at night. So what to do?
Well it brings back memories of Warwich School for boys. After rugby it was a compulsory shower watched over by an unmarried master who paid close attention to ensuring we all showered. The less said abiut that the better. But the showers were always freezing and you just sort of ran in at one end and out at the far end as soon as you could.
And so it is at the Greek hovel. Put it this way, with the Mrs not here I feel no compulsion to shower every day. But after a few days needs must. This morning, nursing a stinking hangover, it was almost therapeutic. That is not to say that it was enjoyable.
As to the hangover, well it was my friends in Kambos who led me astray again: Nikko, George and Vangelis. All three felt some concern about my ability to bike home and so it was agreed that Vangelis - who had only had about 12 ouzos - would give me a lift in his car up the winding mud track to the hovel. Fear not...I am not drink driving!
First up or rather not up, Foti. Despite all the promises my Albanian olive harvesters did not show up yet again. The lovely Eleni has a replacement team and we start work Monday, possibly Sunday. I am assured that they are reliable. Fingers crossed.
Second up my Internet is down. And third up my motorbike has a flat battery as well as a punctured tyre. And so at 9 AM I strolled from the Greek hovel into Kambos to spend the day working at the Kourounis taverna run by the lovely Eleni. So far not so bad.
Mid-morning I called John the bike man to see if he could pop over to assist. “I am in Athens my friend – I will come over on Saturday morning.” Yikes. In case this happened I brought a torch but now face a 30 minute down dale up dale walk back to the hovel in pitch darkness. It is not a prospect that I relish greatly and am putting off the grim moment as long as I can. But that only makes it worse.
My main Albanian Foti is playing cards in the taverna across the street from that of the lovely Eleni. It is a bit of an old man’s dive unlike the Kourounis taverna where women and young folks are welcome and which has wi-fi. Anyhow I wandered across and was told that today’s no show was down to the vreki (rain) and that he’d come on a rain free day, perhaps Saturday. Hmmmm.
I went back to Eleni’s and together we checked the 10 day weather forecast. Yikes tomorrow is rain free. So I pick up the laptop and stormed across the road. I think that it is the first time that the Old man’s taverna of Kambos has seen a laptop. I might as well have wandered in wearing a space suit. But I showed Foti and his friends the weather forecast and we agreed “Ohki vreki avrio – elias octo ore! (excuse the phonetic Greek). He nodded. Maybe the great harvest will finally get underway at the Greek hovel!
Watch this space.
PS. My Greek is improving. I now must know at least 25 words although avrio (tomorrow) seems to be the one I find myself using and hearing most often
It was Nikko who was celebrating his Birthday in lovely Eleni's Kourounis taverna in Kambos on Saturday. That led to an interesting ride back to the Greek Hovel. My harvest may not have started but my friend is already well progressed and what you see if some of the first oil off the press. It will be heading back to Bristol for the Mrs along with rather larger volumes of my own oil after we start harvesting later this week.
The Albanians led by Foti did not show up at 8 AM as promised. Bad news for me and bad news for Quindell, Fitbug, etc as I had more time to write and record a sizzling Bearcast (sense the anger). Actually it is jolly cold up on the mountain at the Greek Hovel so a bit of me is relieved to have postponed the outdoor manual labour – I plan to work alongside my team as part of my learning curve.
And so I find myself sitting in lovely Eleni’s Kourounis taverna which is a bit warmer than the hovel, catching up on work. We have racked down Foti and the harvest now starts on Thursday. By when it is bound to be even colder. But for now, warmth, writing and Eleni’s home cooking beckon here in Kambos.
As I was wandering in a semi sober manner out of the Kourouni's taverna owned by the lovely Eleni in Kambos tonight this song came on to play. I sort of view this as the song of The Greek Hovel. Even though it is French.
Indila hit No 2 in Frogland with this amazing track. In the UK it was off the radar but in Greece 2013 it went straight to No 1. Greeks have taste. I spent happy times in Paris a few years ago and so the video brings back memories but for me this song is Greece 2013. Enjoy
I arrived at Athens airport at midnight Greek time on Tuesday. 24 hours after the Real Man Christmas party I was still feeling a little fragile and so walked zombie like to the hotel airport and wet to my room to crash. The bed swallowed me up and I was asleep. So far so good.
I made it to Athens bus station the next day and caught my bus to Kalamata where I went to the best hotel overlooking the sea front. In summer all the hotels in town are booked out months in advance. But it is November, and the town is dead. 50 Euros including breakfast and I was ready to get back to work and immediately called John the bike man, a venerable source of information on local brothels and much else.
A deal was struck. I have a new bike of which more later but it has real power! The next morning as agreed I met up with John and I drive the bike to Kambos. He was to follow in a car to meet me at The Greek Hovel with my bags and coats. Easy, 1.30 at the hovel.
Driving up into the mountains my head was simply flooded with happiness. In summer the fields were a straw brown. Today they are the sort of green you associate with a water meadow in Oxfordshire. The flowers popping up are almost alpine. I wore a shirt but felt warm as the sun bore down. As I climbed higher and higher old familiar sights came into view. Pretty soon I could see the Kambos church in the distance and before I knew it I had swept into the village.
I waved at the man at the garage and at the man at the first snake repellent/rat poison/hardware store. And then pulled up by the Kourounis taverna home to lovely Eleni. I shook hands and chatted to Vangelis owner of the second snake repellent/rat poison/hardware store. Nikko, the husband of lovely Eleni welcomed me back and I had a coffee on the house and then headed back to the hovel to meet John the bike man.
1.30 came and I called. “I will be there at 2.30”. By 3.30 there was still no John. He had my PC, my phone charger and my phone was now out of battery and indeed he had everything including my keys to the hovel. The keys are actually a bit of an irrelevancy since if you know how you can clamber onto the front balcony which I had done to make myself a coffee. But WTF was going on? Even by Greek standards this was poor form. And so I thought I’d walk towards the village hoping to meet John but failing all else to borrow a phone from the man at the garage to call him. 25 minutes down dale, up dale I arrived and the garage man said “in post room.”
Hmmm. A letter from my father delayed by the Greek Post? A utility bill? Er..no it was my bags and coats. Deadweight 20 kg. There was no choice. As I climbed up snake hill the sweat poured off. This was like rugby training at London Irish. But I am an older man now. I cursed John with every step.
As I marched up snake hill I wondered about snakes. Were they in hibernation or had some of them forgotten that November is beddy byes time? I heard the odd rustle in the bushes and was conscious that it was still pretty warm but tried just to think about how needed to get home. I marched on. And at last I arrived. The keys worked, the door opened. As I had already established by my break in there were no rats there. No snakes. My sanctuary at the Greek Hovel was wildlife diversity free.
Greece and Greeks are, by English standards, unreliable. C’est la vie. I get frustrated and occasionally I get angry. John and I spoke. I had no anger. That is the way here. Think of the plus points.
It is a Saturday night and the Mrs is out on the lash in Bristol and I am here in lovely Eleni’s Kourounis taverna in Kambos. My neighbour Charon popped up at the Greek Hovel earlier and so with him sitting behind me we drove slowly into the village on my new bike. Charon is not his real name but we will come to that another time.
The place is buzzing. My friend Nikko – who has promised to kill anyone who comes to the village asking for me – is 59. And so the drinking has started. Vangelis, the Police Sergeant from Kardamili who lives in Kambos and all the others are here. We have already exchanged a “round of drinks”. I think you all know what happens next and it will not be the Sergeant warning us all about the dangers of drink driving.
A lot has happened since I came back to what I increasingly view as my home. More on that tomorrow..perhaps not right at the crack of dawn
On Monday I head off to London for the 3rd Real Man Christmas party. I reflect upon those who attended two years ago and how the list has grown. And then I am off to Greece to return to the Greek Hovel and I think about my hopes, my concerns, my worries and my excitement about that trip: snakes, motorbikes, the lovely Eleni and all that lies in Kambos.
In my weekly financial video postcard I forgive the Quindell shareholders who have threatened and abused me during the past six months. They have my sympathies as they face wipeout and I have a few words of advice, even for the folks who sent me death threats. That video can be watched HERE
The Bristol vine harvest was completed last weekend. About enough liquid for ten to fifteen bottles now sits fermenting in a bucket. We have added sugar and yeast and must just wait for a week before straining and decanting into a demi-john. I may try to make grappa with what’s left as an experiment.
Our Bristol grapes were red but small and of varying degrees of sweetness. They were not the lush bunches of grapes you’d expect at a Roman orgy. Nor the lush bunches of sweet grapes that hang around the Greek Hovel.
My guest this summer gave me firm instructions as to how I must assist the vine for next year by pissing against it. As a woman she was not able to assist but urine is a great source of nitrogen and so I followed her instructions every day. I am not sure that I saw any immediate response from the gnarled trunk. But I guess we will find out next summer.
It is the end of my first working week back in the UK. Right now my friends in Kambos are gathering at lovely Eleni’s Kourounis taverna. It is starting to get dark. I would at this point be tapping away for another couple of hours before Vangelis – the man in the pink polo shirt – said in Greek, it is not if you are drinking but what are you drinking. And we’d be off. Back in Bristol I prepare to cook supper for the Mrs instead and to learn more about life in the Grim North by catching up on this week’s episodes of Coronation Street. It is a life of contrasts.
I preface this all with some comments of Paddy Leigh Fermor in his book the Mani. Paddy has just been ripped off by a mule owner who had acted like a total bastard. Paddy reflects that this happens just now and again in Greece but is made all the more memorable because 99% of the time the hospitality of the people of Greece, their honesty and generosity is unmatched. Paddy puts it rather more eloquently but is correct. And with that preface…
The Mrs decided that during her stay with me this summer we should take some time out from the Greek hovel and enjoy a bit of luxury in Kardamili. We could not leave my guest alone at the hovel with the snakes and so she was booked into one hotel in the centre of town while the Mrs and I stayed at a wonderful place the Meletsina Village at the far end of the beach road which leads away north from the town
I cannot speak too highly of the Canadian Greek family who ran our place. It was there that Julie Despy and Ethan Hawke had stayed while filming “Before Midnight” in the town and it gets a thumbs up on all counts.
My guest was not so lucky. On the first night in town she took her laptop out to work in a restaurant and was promptly followed back to where she was staying, the Papanestoras Apartments run by the loathsome Valia Papanestoros.
After waiting for her to start snoring (which she does), those who had followed her entered her room – she had unwisely not locked her door – and stole her computer and wallet (later retrieved minus 70 euro in cash).
By 5 AM my guest was reporting this to Kardamili police who at once pointed the finger at their usual suspects…Albanians. Whilst this might seem a bit unfair I am afraid that 99% of burglaries in the Mani happen in the tourist towns and are indeed perpetrated by Albanian criminal gangs. In the non-tourist villages, burglaries are less common as the Maniots have less to steal and will have guns with which they will shoot you.
In the days that followed my guest, understandably felt angry – having lost much of the book she was writing – and violated. I wish I could say that the Old Bill bust a gut for her but I cannot.
At first the owner of the hotel was sympathetic and said that my guest could leave early and pay only for the days she had stayed. My guest took her up on that and flew back to London but because the hotel had no working credit card machine had to assure her that I would pay her in cash.
And so just a few hours after my guest left, I heard a loud knock and opened the door of my hotel room. The Mrs was sunning herself on the beach. Standing in front of me was the hotelier and an enormous and menacing looking man. She instantly demanded the full week’s payment in cash. I explained that she was not entitled to that, that she had agreed to accept 5 days payment and that I would pay later. The man stepped forward a bit. “Alright I shall come up to town later and pay, said I”
That evening I went to the Police and reported her for demanding money to which she was not entitled. They called her and she came in. She admitted that the booking had only been for six days but insisted that my guest was lying in saying she only had to pay for five. Let us not forget this woman ran an establishment where burglars can just walk around stealing and shows no contrition for that.
I agreed – simply for the sake of a quiet life – to pay the six days and said I would pay tomorrow evening. The Policeman told her to agree and she did.
As I was preparing to head into town the next evening to go to an ATM and collect the cash to pay this woman a policeman arrived at our hotel. Before I knew what was happening I was being bundled into a Police car and taken to the Station. I was not allowed to go collect my cigarettes or phone but the Mrs ran and got them and passed them to me as the Policeman pushed me into the car.
While my wife managed to get lift into town to get cash, I was driven off in the Police car. On the way the Sergeant stopped for a chat with his mate. He then passed the vile hotelier Valia who was stuffing her over-tanned face at a restaurant with her old crone of a mother and two kids. The policeman pulled the car over and they joked and laughed with her in Greek. I sat in the back feeling rather despondent and a bit humiliated as folks walked past looking at the “criminal” being led away.
I was bundled out of the car and pushed into the station. There was one other cop here, a man looking a bit like the nasty gay character on Corrie (Tod), who looked hugely embarrassed as the Sergeant interrogated me and demanded I get documentation to him to prove who I was,. My passport was with John the bike man in Kalamata but he faxed over a copy and the Mrs arrived with 360 Euro. At that point the vile Valia was phoned on her mobile by her pal the Sergeant. She trotted up took her money and said “have a nice trip home”
“Oh no, I’m not a tourist, I am a Greek resident” I piped up. “You will be seeing me again.” That did not seem to make her terribly happy at all and she stormed off. She wants to rip off tourists, demanding cash to which she is not entitle, with menace, and to use her pal in the Police to enforce her actions in the knowledge that she will never see her victims again and there are always new folks to rip off next year. I guess that I don’t fit the bill.
Eventually the Sergeant said to me “Get out!! And so the Mrs and I walked the one mile back to our hotel contemplating how events had unfolded. Paddy Leigh Fermor was right about the Greeks. This one bad experience of the summer only served as a reminder of how wonderful everyone else is.
For my guest and I, this experience has tainted our feelings towards Kardamili. I now effectively boycott the town, preferring to go to the ATM in Kalamata and everything else I can do in Kambos. I know this is a bit unfair and also self-destructive. For Kardamili is a lovely town as tourist towns go.. The buildings are wonderful. As you head up the hill towards Stoupa the first restaurant on your right is the best “ordinary fish restaurant” in the region and has amazing views over the sea and a little harbour.
The Mrs, who is nicer and more forgiving than I, insists that we must visit again to purge our bad memories. I have no gripe with the people of the town who are overwhelmingly great folk. Even the Police station is staffed largely by good men, notably the chap who looks like the nasty gay in Corrie and also another Sergeant who is a Kambos resident, a regular at the Kourounis taverna and a good man. Had he been around that evening I am in no doubt that stern words would have been had with his colleague. Bullying tourists is one thing, but your neighbours? That is a whole different ball game.
Go to Kardamili. Have a wonderful time. However be warned, do not under any circumstances do business with Valia or stay at the Papanestoras Apartments. The Mani has a tradition of blood feuds, quarrels that can go on for generations. Valia you have started such a feud. You will regret it as your infamy spreads across the internet.
I write this on the train from Reading to Bristol. A journey of bike, car, plane, train, train is almost over. I am back in the UK. I am back in a land of folks with horrible tattoos, of fat people swilling beer in concreted pub gardens, of nasty, smelly and expensive takeaway food. I am back in a land of surveillance cameras where there are far too many people jostling each other to get ahead. I am back in a Country that is just emerging on another illegal war, where jingoism and English or Scottish patriotism combine for a poisonous mix.
On the other hand I cannot wait to see the Mrs who will pick me up at Temple Meads, to give the cats an enormous hug and to catch up on last week’s Downton Abbey. I am really looking forward to a mug of tea, to sitting in my back garden looking at the grapes which we will harvest tomorrow to turn into wine. The Mrs has videod the start of the new season of Dallas and the episode of Corrie when Ken returned to the Street. I am sure the Mrs will cook me a wonderful supper. But I can’t but help think about my friends in Kambos who will be gathering right now at the Korounis taverna, run by lovely Eleni, to chat, watch the football and look out on the stars in a clear sky.
As I rode into Kambos on Friday night it was one of those splendid Greek evenings. The sun was going down but it was warm and as I headed down snake hill the valley opened up before me. The – I think – deserted monastery or convent stood solid in front of me, up the hill above the spring. Further along the valley is a small house where the village baker lives. Why would anyone leave?
To Eleni’s to load videos and upload articles and to enjoy one last portion of her meatballs. Knowing that it was my last night Vangelis (the man in the pink short, not the man from the frigana chopper/snake repellent shop or the Vangelis who will win an Olympic gold in frigana chopping) bought me an ouzo. Naturally I reciprocated and I was soon sitting there with both George’s, Nikos (the football man) and a new pal Dimitris.
I showed a reasonable amount of common sense and left by midnight wishing them all, and Nikos the magician, a fond farewell.
Up at the crack of dawn I readied the Greek hovel for my departure. The eco-loo was emptied one last time, sulphur applied on all doorsteps and window ledges to keep the snakes away and all doors were locked. The gate on the drive/track was closed so that the shepherd can allow his sheep to graze at will on my land and then I somehow managed to drive down to the bottom of the valley on my bike while gripping a rucksack between my feet and with a bag on my back.
John the bike man, of whom more later, was happy to get me to the airport but reluctant to drive past the spring in his car so bad is the road. And so at the spring he took my bags and my helmet which I have kept all summer but never worn. He headed off for Kalamata in his car I headed into Kambos one last time.
I shook hands and said goodbye to the man from the other snake poison/rat poison shop and then to the Kourounis taverna to see lovely Eleni who I had missed on my last night. It was not yet nine but Nikos the football man was on his first coffee of the day and Nikos the Magician, his mother Poppy an Eleni were sitting around. Poppy wished me a safe journey in Greek and I understood. “Catalvemo?” “Ne. Efharisto”.
To Eleni I offered my thanks for all her help this summer and she said thank you for being there smiling and laughing. It was a bit of an awkward how do you say goodbye moment all round. If she was a man I know it would have been acceptable to kiss her on the cheek. But a young woman? I stuck out my hand to break the deadlock and we shook hands. And then scuttled off to my bike quickly. It promptly failed to start. “Okay I am staying” I said to the assembled group and the English speakers among them, Eleni and Nikos (the football man), laughed before I kick-started the bike and headed off not allowing myself to look back.
There are a few more tales from my summer at the Greek Hovel I aim to write them up this week. My time with John the bike man, Charon (my neighbour (not his real name), the three shepherds and the tiny village behind Kambos all deserve a mention.
There is one episode that I have felt unable to write until my return to England, the tale of Kardamili, of how I was dragged to the Police Station by the filth and of the nastiest woman in the Mani. It would have been disloyal to the wonderful folks of my home village to recount that story while living there. But now, as we head towards Chippenham I can begin.
Why do I trek down from the Greek Hovel to the Kourounis taverna in Kambos? Cheap and well prepared food? Cheap booze or diet coke of café frappes? The folks here? It’s a combination of all three. The clientele is overwhelmingly male as Greek women know that their place is in the home - please note The Mrs, none of your strident feminism here. So maybe it is the charm of lovely Eleni that draws us here. This place is known as “Eleni’s.”
But this is the evening, during the day there is a different clientele and for some of them it is not Eleni but the magician of Kambos they come to visit. I refer to Eleni’s husband Nicho. For while Eleni (or her mother-in-law Poppy) make the four dishes one chooses from as a main course, Nicho is the crepes man.
As he pours the batter on a circular cooker in an even and thin way that you and I could not manage in a month of Sundays, the kids just stare in amazement. They sit at stools watching the magician at work. The gaze up in awe.
And then he adds on chocolate (not Nutella) or ice cream or both. As a diabetic it is sheer torture to watch but the kids love it and adore Nicho who then adds to his popularity by watching the mind-rot cartoons that the kids love on the TV set. To hell with the news let’s watch Captain America. In Greek.
His command of English is marginally better than my Greek that is to say pretty much non-existent. We can get by on a routine basis: me ordering meatballs or Greek salad but if it gets complicated (adding back in last night’s bill which I forgot to pay) then he shouts “Eleni” and his lovely Mrs arrives, grabs a calculator and all is sorted.
Dominating Kambos on the other side of the Village from the Greek Hovel, is a once great fortress. As you head towards Stavropoula (home to the lovely Susan Shimmin of Real Mani) it is at the top of a steep climb to your right. Naturally I am too lazy to climb up that hill so I take the easy road to Zarnata Castle, by heading through the village of Stavropoula.
As with Kambos, the tourist passing through will see modern buildings on a main road and probably speed on towards Kardamili. But as with Kambos the back streets contain some gorgeous old stone Mani houses. There are also a couple of old churches of note. At this point I got totally lost and found myself way down a dusty track but an old man gave me directions in Greek in response to the question “pu eni castro?”
Having asked the question in Greek I then tried to explain that I did not speak any Greek at all. And so he waved his hands and “catalaveno” – I understood. A few minutes later I found myself by the sort of truly hideous modern house that only the Greeks could contemplate building next to an architectural treasure. Beside it was the sort of path where you watch rather carefully where you tread. There were no signs and so I was soon off the official path and just scrambling up a hill of rocks and frigana.
But it was worth it. Zarnata was a Frankish castle during the period before the Turks failed to dominate the Mani. It would have dominated the donkey path out of Kambos towards Kardamili. Next to the castle ruins is tiny church of the same period. The views, not least of my home village of Kambos (which is included below), are splendid. This must have been a powerful fortress five hundred years ago. Today it rather resembles the Greek economy.
But as I say there it is easy to imagine what it once was. On the ground you can pick up pieces of stone, tiles and pottery. This place has not been combed by archaeologists. Nor is it troubled by tourists. It is a place to sit, touch the past and just imagine. A few shots of the castle and of the view follow…
It was my last afternoon and so, having done my washing and tidied up the Greek Hovel (I do hope the Mrs is reading) it was time for a bit of sightseeing in the cultural quarter of Kambos. Quarter…I exaggerate a bit. However.
As one drives out of Kambos on the looping toad up the hill towards Stavropoula ( home to the lovely Susan Shimmin of Real Mani) on your right there are two monuments of note, one visible, the other hidden in olive groves.
From the road you can see a ruined Tower House. In the Mani of old the local gentry would build these constructions as they prepared for blood feuds, war, with other families of a similar status. Those in the lower orders were roped in to serve their local gentry. In some villages there are numerous Tower Houses as they were blessed with several families vying for power in that village.
There was always a race to build higher and higher towers so that you could dominate and shoot down on your enemies. Blood feuding was only halted when the Maniots joined together to fight the common enemy, i.e. the evil Turks.
In Kambos there is just one tower house and it is ruined. I am not sure when or why it was destroyed. The statue at the front is clearly of a Maniot with the traditional village people style bushy moustache. His dates are given as 1813-1877 which means that he missed the war of Independence but I guess he was the last owner.
Below the tower house is a much older constriction, a Tholos (a tomb from the Mycenaean era. It’s not as big or as impressive as the great structures at Mycenae itself but it was clearly large and shows that this area has been inhabited for an awfully long time. And I suspect that I will have been its only visitor all year, hidden as it is in a village that tourists just drive through.
The Mrs no doubt expects me to arrive back in Bristol with a rucksack full of dirty washing. Au contraire…here at the Greek Hovel I maintain high standards and my full range of shorts, T-shirts and socks enjoyed a though hand wash today. So there! And here is the evidence. NB I have also swept the floor and will dump the rubbish down in Kambos at the tip shortly. Brownie points for the Sheriff!
I am conscious that when I return to the Greek Hovel for the Olive harvest and frigana burning in late November it will be a tad nippy at night. Luckily the main room has an open fire with its own little tripod should I wish to cook my own baked beans rather than trek down to see the lovely Eleni at the Kourounis taverna in Kambos. For when the rains start the track to the hovel will be a tough ride even though I shall be hiring a more powerful motorbike.
As such I spent a happy afternoon collecting firewood and storing it in the rat room. The old owners had left all sorts of trash and the planks, broken tables etc. will burn nicely, There are plenty of old olive branches pruned and discarded years ago that were collected and – as a real treat – some of the thicker frigana branches will give me enormous pleasure to send up in smoke.
Mindful that snakes will be looking for a winter home, you will note the thick yellow ring around the woodpile. That is sulphur which snakes are not meant to cross. Before I go I shall be sprinkling it liberally around the place. It is not my job to provide a winter residence for the wildlife diversity.
It is now a couple of weeks since I visited the magnificent Town Hall in Kambos to ask if the road to the Greek Hovel could be repaired. Unfamiliar with Greekonomics I feared that the three full time staff there serving our village (population c500) might be a little over-stretched.
I should not have worried. I turned up to day to find that the three ladies had a male colleague who had been on holiday last time. Now that they are fully staffed they have looked into the matter and said that the steamroller needed to flatten out the road is broken.
But fear not. It should be mended in a few weeks and I am right at the top of the list. We shall see.
Back in the 1960s my uncle visited the Mani on his first honeymoon. Oddly he and his wife were joined by another couple and within months his wife had run off with the other man. That is an aside. It took my uncle more than two days to get from Athens to the Mani so remote and cut off was the region.
Here in Kambos the dirt track to Kardamili became a road back in 1965 (two years after that fateful honeymoon), roads south from there were built later. The man who brought this peninsular to the attention of the wider world was Paddy Leigh Fermor, a truly amazing man once described as a mixture of Indiana Jones, James Bond and Gerald Durrell.
Though incredibly clever, Paddy was no academic and so after being expelled from school (issues with a young lady) in 1933 he walked through Europe to Greece. Along the way he noticed that something was not quite right in Germany. When war broken out he signed up immediately and was sent into Greece since he spoke the language fluently. His most heroic exploit was in Crete where – with the partisans – he captured a German general on the North of the island and transported him across Crete to the South where he was lifted off by British Destroyer. The film, based on the episode, has Leigh Fermor played by Dirk Bogarde
In the war Paddy’s code name was Michalis. After the war he stayed on in Greece fighting with the Royalists in the Civil war. He refers to this in his two classic books on Greece The Mani and Roumeli. The latter is about Northern Greece, the area about which my father writes and so on the only Winnifrith family holiday to Greece which I did not go on, there was a long visit to Paddy’s house.
The Mani is part history but draws on a walk that Paddy and his wife undertook through the peninsular in the early 1950s. At that stage walking was what you did. There were no roads. To get down the peninsular it was simpler to travel by boat.
Paddy was rather rude about Kambos, the second village on his trek. He cannot hide how dull he finds it and how glad he is to leave. On the other hand he cannot hide how he falls in love with Kardamili the moment he spots it and it was there that he built a house. The locals all knew him as Michalis. A social fellow he smoked 80 a day, drank more than his fair share of ouzo and though married retained a lifelong interest in les femmes.
The Mrs and I fell in love with Kardamili too, as we arrived there one late summer evening. Having no real beach it has been spared the tourist plague and ribbon development of Stoupa a few miles down the coast. But it is a town and for reasons that I will discuss later our experience there was not entirely happy. Its buildings, Venetian and onwards are stunning and it has a charm of its own. If I had to live in a town here it would be Kardamili.
But it has tourists and that changes the nature of any place. Kambos has no tourists. We are just a village in the road between Kalamata and Kardamili. There are some charming old stone houses on the back streets but no-one could say that Kambos is picturesque. But it is Greek. Or rather it is Maniot. Life here has not changed in the way that it has in the towns and villages by the sea. There is no crime – other than the murders – folks all own olives and will be working at least some of the time on the land. There is no need to learn English and they look after their own. In the hills around Kambos there are wonderful places to visit, to walk to for there is no other way to get there.
The Mrs and I first met lovely Susan Shimmin from the Real Mani in Kambos – at Eleni’s taverna – as it was a half-way point between Kalamata and Kardamili. Susan lives one village away in Stavrapoula. Whilst we were charmed from the first moment by the friendliness of Eleni and her husband Nikos, we were simply passing through as Paddy did back in 1952. Kambos did not grab us. We did not fall in love with it on sight.
We fell in love with the Greek Hovel, notwithstanding meeting a snake on our first visit. But Kambos has grown on the Mrs. It entranced my guest this summer who is keen to return to a place where she is remembered fondly. And I feel at home here. It took a while. Falling off my bike at 3 MPH in front of the Korounis taverna helped. Struggling, but publicly succeeding in tackling the frigana has demonstrated that I am not just a tourist. My commitment to come back for the Olive harvest and to work on it rather than just supervise Foti is clear.
Next Spring, work starts on formally rebuilding the Greek hovel. I had a good meeting with Eleni (that is Eleni the architect daughter of lovely Susan and a woman who has to be the biggest snake coward in the whole of Greece, not lovely Eleni from Kambos) on Monday. By next summer there should be at least one room that the Mrs deems habitable and she too has fallen in love with this place. So as soon as UK-Investor show is out of the way….
For any number of reasons I have to regard Paddy Leigh Fermor as a total superstar. But I wonder if he was around today might he take a rather more charitable view of my home village of Kambos.
I saved the last of the frigana for after lunch. Two sessions in the morning left me with one last patch to clear. But first a major problem: My bike was leaking oil. The man at the garage said “go to Kalamata tomorrow” as I bought my second bottle of the day. But I am a changed man.
Three months ago I would have phoned John the bike man in a panic. Today once back at the hovel I got underneath the bike and diagnosed the problem. Tubing had come loose. And I fixed it. Triumph one.
Triumph two came just before dusk as I finally removed the last frigana bush on the property. 2000 square metres of this appalling plant now lies, dead and browning on the killing fields. The last bushes climbed up a wall but these days I have real muscles in my arms. With just one arm I can now lift and wield with some accuracy a heavy strimmer above my head or to swing below my feet as I stand on a wall. These last two bushes are no more.
I have not had such muscular arms since my London Irish days. And my waist has only been this thin once since those happy times. But enough on my weight, the triumph was the frigana. I retreated from the mass of tangled branches and stood on the road, dripping with sweat but triumphant. I raised the strimmer above my head as a victory salute over the enemy. It has been a tough opponent. But this summer it has been the frigana, not Quindell or its moronic shareholders or other Bulletin Board Morons which I have fought and defeated.
What shall I do tomorrow with no frigana to cut? For starters I shall do a photo shoot around the property so that you can appreciate the scale of what has been achieved. And then ahead of my return to Britain I want to relax for a couple of days, to visit Kitries for a sea swim and last meal of Octopus and to mentally prepare for the adjustment of going home to a UK work routine. Tonight, I celebrate my triumphs with a glass of the excellent local rose at lovely Eleni’s Kourounis taverna in my home village of Kambos.
I have slightly cheated and brought in an local, Vangelis, to assist me with the frigana cutting. He has a few advantages over me. He is fit and young. He is fearless, wading into bushes not worrying about what wildlife diversity might be hiding there. His big advantage is that he has an ultra-powerful frigana cutter. In motorbike terms he has a 500 cc cutter, I have a 125 cc cutter. But he is also an artist. Watching him weld his frigana cutter is a pleasure, he twists and turns, stabs and swipes and the evil bushes just disappear.
My guess is that by Thursday at noon, 2000 square metres of frigana will be no more. His last patch is in the far corner of the property and is dense and old. Some of the frigana bushes have become trees and for them a saw is needed.
My last patches are one half terrace on the Kambos facing side, a small patch next to the entrance the sheep use to get on the land and then the outside fences on the two tracks either side of the land. I managed five forty-five minute sessions today, after each one I was drenched in sweat and breathless. Even my 125 cc type frigana cutter is heavy and to tackle the plant at floor level and then on walls above head height uses every muscle in your arms. Five more sessions tomorrow and my bit is done.
The whole property is now covered in cut frigana branches. The oldest are golden brown, today’s cuttings are still a deep green, those from a few days ago are now turning light green. Walls, terraces and steps that have not seen the sunlight for years are now exposed in all their beauty. Two stone circles (threshing circles perhaps?) have emerged.
I shall post some videos when we are done to show you what I mean. But I feel very satisfied now as I can survey the land to its far extent. We are almost there.
Frigana cutting should be an Olympic Sport. You could design a standard course with bushes, rocks to climb and a sprinkling of snakes dispersed throughout and then the competitors would be judged as in ice dancing on technical merit (how many bushes cut right back to the root in an allotted time) and artistic impression, how skilfully the blade is weeded. Killing a snake should earn bonus points.
I reckon my Greek pal is a shoe-in for the gold medal. I see myself as an Eddie the Eagle Edwards competitor for team GB. I think the view in Kambos is that I have some idea what to do but everyone knows that it is a bit of a struggle and that the snakes are an issue, but applauds the effort anyway.
I had planned to stay sober until my return but I fear that I have been led astray. I blame OTE Telecom. I still cannot get on the interwebby at The Greek Hovel so spent all Sunday working from the Kouronis taverna in Kambos, run by lovely Eleni. At about 10 O’clock Greek Time I was done writing and asked for my bill. But instead I was summoned to the bar and asked to sit with four men.
Either side of me were two Gentlemen who spoke English. The younger (George) was a relative newcomer to the area, the elder (Nikos) is a greying stocky man with a walrus moustache. It was he who had cross words with me on my second day here when I supported the Krauts rather than the Argies in the football. Since then we have exchanged nothing but pleasantries. Behind Nikos was the man in the pink polo shirt (Vangelis) and behind George was another George, a Greek only speaking builder.
I was told “it is not will you have a drink but what are you drinking”. They were on the hard stuff and so I opted for ouzo. Nikos told me that they had decided they needed to know me better as I was now their neighbour.
They refused to let me pay and four hours later I was rather the worse for wear. Nikos was concerned about me biking home. He offered to drive me several times but since he was also a tad unsteady on his feet I declined and made it back to the hovel falling off only once as my bike meandered across the track at five miles an hour.
Poor Niko (husband of Eleni) had to pour round after round, happy in the knowledge that he had to get up at 5.30 AM to go to the fruit market in Kalamata.
The conversation was wide ranging. I told them my father wrote books on Greece, spoke Greek and drank more than me. They said they wanted him to come next summer not me. They asked how they could help and what I did. So I explained about the writing and mentioned the death threats. Not a problem. If any strangers come to Kambos and ask for me “We will shoot them..but only if you want us to.”
We talked olives. Nikos recollected planting trees with his father when he was ten and now they stand at the heart of his fields. Actually he is marketing manager for a Cretan organic food company headquartered in Athens. But since the downturn there is not much demand so he is back in Kambos with his friends and his olives, doing a bit of work by phone and on the web.
The four men will be the winter crew. In the summer all sorts of folks come here to visit friends and relatives. As winter draws in they disappear. And so by the time of the Olive harvest this will be the hard core drinking crew at Eleni’s. Vangelis will cook a celebrator meal of wild birds with his own wine when my harvest is done. I said that I’d bring a Christmas pudding as my contribution and started to try to explain but in the end just said it tastes great and has lots of alcohol in it. That seemed to convince them all.
We talked snakes. Apparently the answer is to get a cat as cats eat snakes. I tried to picture my fat three legged cat Oakley engaged in mortal combat with a snake and found it hard to imagine. Oakley regards having to walk downstairs as strenuous exercise but apparently his Greek cousins are made of sterner stuff. And so maybe the Hovel, when completely renovated will need a cat. Oakley, do you have your passport ready?
I felt dreadful this morning and on arriving at the Kouronis taverna was met with a knowing smile by a laughing Eleni and her mother in law Poppy. “Crazy Greek men” she said as I ordered eggs and toast and started mainlining orange juice.
Three of the e crazy Greek men are again at Kouronis tonight as I write. They are not drinking. Just to show them that I’m not a total pansy I am struggling to down a glass f the local cheeky rose.
Tomorrow I go back on the wagon and will make amends for a poor 24 hours on the diet front with a full day in the fields frigana cutting. Writing will be limited.
Every evening and most days a rather large man sits at the bar of the Kourounis taverna in Kambos run by lovely Eleni. He always wears a pink polo shirt. I am not sure if he has a large collection of such shirts or if he has been wearing the same one all summer. He laughs, he smiles, he drinks and smokes and taps away at his laptop. What on earth is he doing?
This has been bugging me all summer. Is he gambling? Or running a Money laundering operation? Or working for some dodgy dating site pretending to be a stunning 23 year old woman who is desperate for sex, if you join the premium site. Just I case he was some violent criminal I have not dared look at his screen for ten weeks.
Last night the truth emerged. Vangelis, for that is his name, is a delivery driver for Dixons. But because of the crisis there are not that many er…deliveries. And so he is now becoming an expert player of computer games. He also owns 2,000 olive trees which makes him a bit of an olive oil baron. And as an aside he is a crack shot and will be shooting a raft of small birds for a celebration supper when I return for the Olive harvest. Mystery solved.
It was just after the turning by the petrol station/post office in Kambos where one leaves the main road and starts up the road/track to the Greek Hovel where I met the nun. This has been bugging, if not haunting, me for two days.
The first fifty yards of the track to the hovel is well lit as you head towards a tiny little church which, as far as I can see, is never used. Thereafter the street lights disappear and all around you it is black. You can see the stars and eventually as you hit the brow of the hill you can see twinkling lights of a few isolated houses (mine included) on the other site of the valley. But otherwise it is just dark. You can hear the wildlife diversity in the bushes and trees around you but can see nothing.
And so as I rode back in the dark just before the church a small figure stepped out of the dark. She was dressed head to toe in black, all that one could see was her little white face. She was a nun and as far as I could make out a fairly young one wandering along the road swinging a small bag but with no torch. She seemed to smile and said Kale-nichta and I replied in the same way and she strolled off towards the village swinging her bag.
Where was she going? I have no idea. More importantly where had she come from? There is nothing out there in the dark except the odd isolated house, a Feta cheese factory and the monastery. Now I have heard it said that the monastery is actually a convent and some folk say that it has one inhabitant. It seems deserted to me. I have not seen a sign of life or a light on at all. Perhaps the nun is the resident? I have no idea.
I recounted in an earlier missive how when driving back past the monastery at night I used to fantasise in a deranged manner, designed to torture myself, about how the area was plagued with ghosts of long dead monks who would appear suddenly in front of me. I have got over that now, it is just another building to pass. But who was the nun and where had she come from? My mind is wandering again.
My shorts are packed away, the (just 33 inch!) jeans and a fleece are now the daily norm. There is a chill in the air. The skies over the mountains behind the Greek Hovel are now dark with cloud pregnant with rain. There have been spits and spots periodically for two days but no downpour. It is only a matter of time.
The daily shower at the hovel is less of a laugh these days. You may remember that it is simply a hosepipe draped from the frame on which our vine trails. Just a few weeks ago the water arrived heated by the sun burning down on the metal pipes which connect my house to the village. The water is rather less hot these days and though I am drenched in sweat from labouring in the fields the temptation to skip the odd shower is very real. The Mrs is no longer here, no one is going to mind if I am a bit smelly are they?
In the village the preparations for winter are being made. Biking in to Kambos through the olive groves above snake hill the other day I was thinking about nothing in particular and so was rather startled when a woman’s voice shouted out “Hello Tom”. Which nymph of the woods, was calling?
It was lovely Eleni from the Kouronis taverna (pictured above), the only semi-fluent English speaker in Kambos. A few other folk speak enough for me to make a transaction. The chaps at both stores selling snake repellent and frigana poison know me well and we can talk about snakes. But Eleni is the only person with whom I could discuss, for instance, Scottish Independence.
I digress. Eleni was up in the patch of olive grove that she owns with her husband and two boys gathering wood, or as she says “woods.” Even I have started to make a little store of the stuff in the rat room. Part of me fears that this will provide an ideal winter home for a variety of snakes. But another part of me knows that when I come back for the Olive harvest I will need a fire to keep warm and I’d rather not be picking up sticks in November given what may be falling asleep underneath them. And so every day I add to my little store.
As I sit now in the Kouronis taverna, trucks pass by laden with water melons and other fruits of the field, Meanwhile I weigh up the odds of me getting a drenching when I bike home. It does not matter when I leave. The downpour will start just after I leave the main road at the petrol station/post office and start up the winding track to the hovel. Such is life.
I was sitting in lovely Eleni’s Kourounis tavern in Kambos when on the screen I suddenly see pictures of a bunch of loons waving Saltire’s and some other loons waving Union flags. Eleni looks a bit puzzled as the commentator tries to explain to a Greek audience what is going on.
Eleni asks me about Scotland. I tell her that it is a bit like Greece. Very high unemployment, the Government spends more than it takes and the politicians are all corrupt. But it is a lot colder. She says she understands why Scotland is the Greece of the North and we return to serious matters of discussing Greekeconomics – the Kambos Town Hall.
I am one of perhaps 500 people in our village of Kambos where The Greek Hovel is located. But we have a Town Hall and a Mayor. We also have three full time employees who work in one of the largest buildings in Kambos. Doing what? I have no idea.
The village of Kambos is obliged to mend my road by law. But it has no money to do so. I have another meeting there tomorrow to discuss. That’s Greekeconomics for you.
In my weekly video postcard HERE I revealed how I obsess about snakes while at the Greek Hovel but had not actually seen one. Bloody hell that was a bit of a jinx. Snakes were very much on my mind today as the section of frigana I am attacking right now is the densest on the property on a rocky hill near the gate on our drive. For drive read mud track. Put it this way, if I was a snake I’d hang out there.
I had mentally preserved this section for my brave Albanian pal Foti who is coming up to assist me next week. Foti is fearless and if he saw a snake would grab whatever was nearest to hand and smash it on the head. But I decided to man up and head into the bushes anyway.
Luckily I encountered no snakes and so, dripping in sweat after an hour’s solid cutting in the midday heat, I ambled back to the house and started to wander up the front steps and – fuck me – there was a snake, slithering over the snake veranda towards my front door. Naturally I retreated rapidly shouting to no-one in particular “it’s a fucking snake”.
Maybe it is my Irish genes? St Patrick rid our blessed land of snakes and so the thought of encountering one fills me with dread. What is more the bloody thing had slithered straight past my snake repellent canister and was inside the yellow sulphur line that surrounds my house because snakes won’t cross sulphur! Did no-one tell this bloody snake about that?
On reflection I thought it better to have another look and by my reckoning the snake was an Aeschylus snake, the same variety that we saw on our first visit here and which lead to the snake veranda getting its name. I may have got this wrong but it was not that long was brown and very thin so I reckon it was a relatively young Aeschylus and having checked it out on the internet last time I know that it might bite me but was not poisonous.
Emboldened by this identification – which may well have been completely wrong and this creature could well have been one of the nine varieties of adder that lives in Greece - I scuttled off to grab a spade and then advanced on the serpent banging the floor loudly. It slithered away rapidly. It was not to know that I was not a brave Albanian who would smash in its head without second thought. Who knows, had I got the chance I might have done just that.
I have now blocked the hole that makes access to the snake veranda that much easier and through which this serpent escaped. I had an early lunch/supper at wonderful Eleni’s taverna in Kambos so ensuring that I got back while it was still light. I very much doubt that I shall be venturing outside to use the eco-loo which sits on the snake veranda tonight. It is legs crossed time. Tomorrow morning I shall be stocking up on sulphur and adding to the outer defences while creating a new inner redoubt.
I told Eleni about the snake. In the village there are no snakes. They know to stay away. Eleni seemed sympathetic and sucked her teeth accordingly. Quite possibly she was thinking “this moron is terrified of snakes so buys a house not in the village but on Snake Mountain. All my other customers kill snakes with their bare hands. This guy is a total wuss.” But she did not let on, she too said that she was not very keen on snakes.
Suddenly the thought of returning to a nice terraced house on the edge of Bristol seems that little bit more attractive.
This is my penultimate video postcard from Greece until I return November for the olive harvest. Forgive my lack of writing, I have been busy preparing for UK Investor Show on April 18 2015 and also obsessing about snakes and frigana.
I discuss both snakes and frigana in great detail.
I then go on to say why I disagree with Paddy Leigh Fermour and have fallen in love with Kambos, the village nearest to the Greek Hovel.
The summer is drawing to a close at the Greek Hovel. My summer lasts for just another three weeks and then I must return to Britain. I shall miss this place badly. But the physical summer is also drawing to its close. Nature is changing.
The grapes that used to sit in great bunches hanging from the vines that surround this house are all gone. I had my fair share but so too did some incredibly large wasps who after a day’s gorging would buzz around inebriated and stuffed. The wasps have gone and are now preparing, unknowingly, for death.
Meanwhile I start to gather firewood whenever I find it. Not in an organised fashion but on an ad hoc basis. There is plenty kicking around and it is now being stored in the rat room. I will need it for the fire when I come back in November and December for the olive harvest and frigana burning. By then it will be only 22 degrees during the day and at night it will be a tad chilly.
In the evenings as I head down to Eleni’s most excellent Kourounis taverna in Kambos for a Greek salad I now wear jeans and a shirt. By the time I head back there is a chill in the air. The weather is slowly turning. Do not get me wrong, it is 3 PM now and I sit in shorts only - the afternoon heat is still intense, just not quite what it was.
And so with no grapes to snack on I am now onto prickly pears which grow on two giant cactus like plants just behind the hovel.
Prickly is the word. Not only are here the very obvious spins but the whole pear is covered in tiny needles. In picking the bunch below I now have spindles that look like tiny hairs on most of my fingertips. I am slowly brushing them away and removing them but they sting. Nature has a clever way of protecting herself.
To eat. You cut both ends off and then peel away the remainder of the barrel with a knife. I have not quite got the hang of it yet but I am getting there. The pips are digestible and the taste great. Other than the almonds – of which I am no great fan – and the figs, they are all that is left of the summer harvest 2014 here at the hovel
It is a twenty five minute walk from the Greek Hovel down snake hill to the spring and up past the deserted monastery and a stretch of olive groves to the village of Kambos. But it is where my nearest neighbours live and I now know enough folks to say yassas to many of them as I bike in, although no-one other than wonderful Eleni, the taverna owner speaks any English. One of the joys of Kambos is that absolutely nothing ever happens there. Me falling off my motorbike at 3 MPH in front of Eleni’s taverna was the big news of the summer. That was until we had the murders.
The first I heard about was when I was walking back from Kambos one day having carried my strimmer into town to get it mended. Eight foot long and weighing more than a bit I was unusually sweaty when I arrived. And a bit irked as well as embarrassed when the nice man at the Garden shop – where I buy my snake repellent kit - fixed what I had thought was a terminal problem in about ten seconds.
And so I started to wander home towards the monastery, shifting the strimmer from side to side as it bit into my shoulders. I felt a bit like the fat guy in WW2 movies who is always made to carry the heavy machine gun. Why me? And then suddenly a car pulled up sharply alongside my heaving sweating body. The window rolled down and a woman with too much make up on who looked like she drank and smoke too much gabbled at me in Greek. Her driver, an unshaven man, who also looked as if he had been out on the lash the night before, stared at me. “I am sorry I do not speak Greek” I said, hoping that they understood.
The woman answered in good English “we are journalists from Athens do you know where the bodies are?” My mind flashed back to the 50th Birthday Party of Paul Raymond’s son Howard when a thoroughly hammered tabloid hackette who Howard had shagged many years previously told me with enormous pride her greatest tales of door stepping the relatives of those who had just died. She was Glenda Slag of Private Eye fame. And now I was meeting her Greek equivalent.
I directed her to wonderful Eleni who knows everything and wandered on pondering who these bodies were.
That evening I was naturally enough sitting in Eleni’s tavern and oddly enough the news (in Greek) was showing pictures of Kambos. I seems that two body builders from Kalamata had been lured into the mountains for failing to deliver 800 Euro of steroids and shot. Their bodies had been dumped over an old bridge across a ravine a few miles outside of town.
The murderers were a young man from Kalamata and his mate from Kambos. Indeed the mate lived two doors down from Eleni’s and no doubt I had brushed past him on many occasions.
Since you need to show your passport to get a mobile phone in Greece and since the Government shows an efficiency not normally associated with Greece in tracking all calls it had taken the Police only a few hours to check the last texts received by the dead men and to arrest the assailants. The murderers were generally agreed not to be the brightest sparks in the Universe had left their bloodied clothes in the garbage waiting for the dustmen. They did not cover their tracks well and had quickly ‘fessed up to their crimes.
In the old days of the Mani a boy when born was known as “ a gun” because by the time he was 12 he was able to fight in the blood feuds that dominated this region. The only time blood feuds were halted was when the Maniots joined together to fight someone they hated even more than their neighbours, that is to say the evil Turks.
In a sense the gun culture survives but only for hunting and just in case the Turks try it on again. I am considered a little eccentric in that I do not own one. Yet. More or less everybody else has one and often two in case of emergencies. That is normal. But the murderer from Kambos appeared to own twenty guns. It is generally agreed that this was a sign that he was not quite “all there.”
Guns do not kill people. People kill people. Here in the Mani murders are incredibly rare. Until a few weeks ago, Kambos has not seen a violent death since the Civil war in the 1940s. Robberies are also very rare in truly Greek villages since if you break into a house owned by a Greek you might get shot. If you are a member of the burgling community – or as they call them here, an Albanian – you rob a summer home owned by a Northern European in somewhere like Stoupa as they will be richer than a Greek and will not own a gun.
After about a day the excitement died down. We do not speak about the incident in Kambos. For all the bloody history of this region the folks here are rather embarrassed that one of their own has gone so badly off the rails, has got mixed up in drugs and murder and will not be leaving prison until he is an old man. I suppose when the trial happens folks will talk again but generally it is something the people want to forget.
Snakes aside, I have never felt safer or more secure than I do here. Kambos is a haven where folks look after each other and look out for each other. The double murder does not change that.
Firstly the garden is within the outer redoubt, the area protected by two snake repellent cans which emit a smell that snakes are meant to dislike. The locals swear by them and I hope that their faith is well placed.
Secondly I saw a foot long lizard in the garden the other day. It darted off to catch some poor bug and raised its head to digest. Its colour and head were on reflection identical to that of the “snake”. Perhaps most conclusively what I saw in my garden shot off in a straight line as would a lizard. Snakes can move rapidly but do so in S-shapes. I think I was so startled by my encounter with the wildlife diversity that I overlooked that little point.
And so I conclude that I have yet to see a snake but as I wade deeper and deeper into the frigana bushes with my strimmer, slashing madly, I sense that it is only a matter of time. For there are clearly snakes around. How do I now? Well for starters my guest saw one.
She was out running (silly girl) and started down from the hovel past where the track is muddy and flat and winds through olive trees and onto where it is stony - or in a few places concrete - but steep and surrounded by rocks and bushes. It is the steep part of the track as you head towards the spring on the valley floor. And there she almost tripped over the serpent. That was enough for me, I have retired from running.
On what has now been rechristened “snake hill” the adder ( it was short and adder length) seemed more scared of a yuppie storming down the hill listening to nasty young people’s music than the yuppie was of it. Hence it slithered (in S-shape fashion) off into the bushes at a rate of knots.
Secondly it seems that in the village of Kambos the folks find it terribly amusing that a man who keeps buying various snake repellent devices and powders and who is clearly shit scared of snakes is living where I do. For in the village there are no snakes. But up in the hills? The locals make S-shaped patterns with their hands and tell me that the hills are crawling with them. “Why I killed two just last week” said the man from the Garden Centre as helped fix my strimmer.
That news did not make my day.
I fear my snake free run may be about to end any day.
The Mrs is back in Bristol already sending me photos of our cats Oakley (three legs) and Tara (four) who she is no doubt hugging to death and spoiling quite outrageously. I am sure that I shall do the same when I head back in a few weeks’ time.
I was delighted when the Mrs was here but it had two drawbacks. Without her I have slipped once again into my no alcohol and one or two Greek salads a day diet. With her I was drinking and eating rather more. And so my weight loss was arrested, in fact reversed a bit. Now I am in overdrive as I have just over three weeks to finish the frigana cutting and so am upping my manual labour rate accordingly.
The other drawback is that whilst my commercial writings (shares) continued almost every day, with the Mrs here I have no time for my personal writings. I enjoy my musings on life at The Greek Hovel far more than financial writing but know that those articles don’t pay the bills. And so I have an awful lot to catch up including two murders in our village of Kambos and my own detention at Kardimili police station. And much more. It is all in my head and so I pledge three articles every two days on that catch up until my flight home on the 27th or 28th - I still have not decided how to get home yet in light of my concerns about Jihadis and Ebola).
The catch up starts tomorrow with the murders.
Meanwhile the Mrs will be delighted to know that the Greek Hovel seems to have suffered an invasion of giant millipedes in her absence. Some seem to be two inches long. Being a nice guy I am not killing them but do not fancy them crawling up the sheets as I try to sleep tonight so one by one they are being scooped up onto an increasingly battered copy of The Mani by Paddy Leigh Fermour and deposited outside with the rest of the wildlife diversity.
My weekend encounter with a snake has sparked me into action at the Greek Hovel. I scuttled off yesterday to buy more snake repellent canisters although the weekend evidence suggested that they were not that effective. Sadly my friend at the plant store had none in stock but pushed a bag of yellow powder my way and swore by it stating happily that there were lots of snakes up where I live. That seems to be a constant and cheering message for me in the village of Kambos.
It is sulphur and snakes will apparently not cross it. How much is that I said? 1 Euro. In that case I shall have two please.
There now exists a yellow line round the edge of the garden and encircling the house. It is, an outer redoubt, against the wildlife diversity (of the snake variety). Fingers crossed it holds. However tomorrow the bush cutting machine arrives and my guest and I sally forth outside the redoubt to start bush clearance. We move into enemy territory…
After almost one month I had yet to see a snake at the Greek Hovel…until yesterday. I arrived back at the Hovel at 9 AM feeling rather tired after a night at Athens Airport and as we got out of the car my guest says “so where are the snakes then?”
As I entered the garden I was about to reply “not seen one yet” when I heard a whoosh and something shot through the grass, starting about three yards from where I stood rooted to the spot. I peered closely at where it was now resting, five yards away. Er….”over there” I said.
In defence of the snake it was a gorgeous shade of green and it seemed more scared of me than I was of it – in that it rushed to leave while I stood my ground.
I have not searched on the interweb but that colour and that size indicates that it is almost certainly poisonous. We have decided to buy more canisters of snake repellent. And we have agreed that if either of us is bitten the victim will cling onto the other on the back of a bike to get to Kambos to seek assistance.
Heck I knew they were there, this should not be a shock. I am actually quite relaxed about it.
I think that with hindsight it was a mistake to try to ride back from Kambos carrying two pots of lavender on the motorbike. But I did, I tried to turn in the main road and I fell of my bike. At 5 miles an hour it was not too painful. Folks rushed from Eleni’s taverna to help pick me and the lavender pots up. I got back on an increasingly battered bike and moved off gingerly.
Biking back along the dirt track to the Greek Hovel is never easy but carrying two lavender pots (in plastic bags), with my confidence dented and with blood trickling from my knee and elbow it was harder than usual.
On the plus side I have given them something to talk about in Eleni’s Kouronis taverna – not a lot happens in Kambos. My reputation as a bit of an odd and clumsy stranger will be enhanced and I suppose seeping blood has to be good for weight loss? Please tell me that is true.
At my shameful 19 stone 6 pounds peak my waist was a disgraceful 44 inches. At my fighting weight (hooker for London Irish Wild Geese) I was a 32 inch waist. Two years ago in Greece I almost got down to 32 inches. I was within spitting distance.
Back in the UK – and blaming the Mrs for leading me astray - my waist expanded again. On leaving I was in 36 inch jeans and they felt tight. Within a few days my Ireland rugby shorts (from a post London Irish age) were so obviously falling down that they had to be retired. But they do not really count – they come from a plump (Clontarf veterans) era.
However, as their replacement – red swimming shorts - went from tight to comfortably loose I tried the trouser test. The 36 inch jeans are now not comfortable they are actually loose enough to pull down without unbuttoning. This is a triumph born of doing manual labour and living for two weeks on a diet of one or two Greek salads a day plus coffee (no sugar), diet coke and water. No alcohol has passed my lips for two weeks.
Today I had meat to celebrate being Steve McQueen. The utterly splendid in every respect Eleni at the Kambos taverna served me up a small plate of meatballs and some utterly incredible focaccia style bread. It was a rare treat and a reminder of why I shall never become a full time vegetarian. Tomorrow, however, it is back to the Greek salads and a hard day of manual labour is planned.
I can see that by next weekend the 36 inch jeans will have been retired and the 34s – which I could not squeeze into – will be comfortable. On the 10th a UK Investor Show Speaker who claims they wish to lose 15 lbs in three weeks at the Greek Hovel arrives and has suggested that our daily regime should start with a “quick” jog to the village and back. Hmmmm. I am not so sure that sounds like my idea of paradise but if that is to be the way then by 10th August I shall be at 32 inch waist fighting weight ( at which point incidentally my Body Mass Index should be in what is terms “normal”) category.
So far I reckon I am just under half way there. Now remember when you are watching my next video….
I had planned to be the owner of a 24 year old jeep today. I thought I had my paperwork in order as I trotted along to Kardimili police station to get my residents permit. Sadly not. I did not have that blue card which means that I am entitled to go into the execution rooms – that is to say Greek hospitals – should I fall sick.
If I do fall sick I am heading back to London. I may be ill but I do not want a minor sickness o turn into automatic death – I will take my chances with the NHS thank you. And as such I saw no reason to have this EI imposed commie state health care civil liberties infringing ID card. But now I do. One has been ordered in the UK and will be fedexed out.
And that left me sans transport. Being stuck in the hovel three miles from the nearest human being without transport struck me as imprudent but horror of all horrors there was not one car to rent in the whole of Kalamata. Hmmmm. Aged 46 ½ I have never ridden a motorbike in my life. But what better place to learn than here.
Hairpin bends, mountain roads, every driver either insane (Greek) or drunk (Northern European). What could be better?
And so I have rented a 100 cc machine (above) and my first ride was from Kalamata back to the hovel. You think of the wind blowing through your hair in beating sun. Think again. I am the only person in Greece wearing a helmet. And as it happened about three miles outside Kalamata a thunderstorm started.
By the time I reached the long and winding road to the hovel it was almost a river. Luckily it seems that I am Steve McQueen from The Great Escape and I managed it almost perfectly.
This three months was meant to be about challenging myself to do things I have never done before. To refresh and recharge and stretch myself. As such I regard today as a bit of a frigging triumph. I may not be the greatest cyclist in the world but I shall get better.
As I head off to Kambos for a celebratory Greek salad and diet coke I am after two weeks, two inches thinner around the waste, I have made the hovel habitable and I have done something I never planned on doing.
Tomorrow, I finish the eco-loo, start on creating the humanure system and catch up on some writing. After a bit of a down day yesterday, it is game on!
Below pictures of the snake veranda and the Mountains behind showing, I hope, how hard it was raining. It is now bright and sunny and the roads will be drying ready for me to venture out once more.
I popped into Kambos to meet a nice couple from Somerset who first bought here seven years ago and who had a few handy hints on dealing with our Greek friends. We chatted about the locals about olive grove tending – to water or not to water and about other matters. As I was in the village I thought I’d use the Kourouni taverna wi-fi to send videos back to London. But it seems as if a storm is brewing.
The sky is dark and it is just five O’Clock. The air feels fresher having been stifling all day and the thunder is rolling in. I can see flashes of lightening. How long before it breaks and we are deluged with rain? How will that affect the track back to the hovel? But will the roof leak if I am inside the Greek hovel? I guess the conversation about watering the olives is now a little redundant. On balance I shall sit it out in the taverna as I have a stonking new Quindell piece to complete before tomorrow.
Darren you would be proud of me. I have tonight managed to get the Mi-Fi system working. That means that at any one time I can now run four computers at The Greek Hovel. Not only that but I have signed up to Skype and am now waiting for the Mrs to awake from her early evening slumber after a hard way watching her students graduate so that we can chat.
As I wait I hear a noise at the door and per through the glass and grill to see that it is a small lizard seeking entry to the wildlife diversity free redoubt. Piss off critter in here wildlife gets killed. As two (no make that three) bugs have found out to their cost in the past twenty minutes.
The arrival of the World Wide Web at The Hovel will be a body blow to Eleni's lovely Kouronis Taverna in Kambos. My eco-loo should be constructed by Sunday and thus at that point I shall then have no need at all for its services although I shall still pop in now and again for old time’s sake. And when I have heavy data like a video to send back to the UK. I sense that a profits warning for the Taverna is on the way.
To celebrate this landmark I today bought some shaving foam. I was becoming conscious that I was looking increasingly like Grizzly Adams in my lonely retreat. More to the point, nine days growth shows a lot of unflattering gray and itches like hell. Tomorrow I shave. This is real progress.
PS. As I was clearing detritus from around the hovel today I saw two lizards copulating. I cannot say that it was a great thrill but I suppose you should see everything once.
As I was leaving the Greek Hovel this morning at around 9.30 the gardeners arrived. Before Dan Levi tweets out abuse from the Manchester slums about how I am outsourcing hard work, let me explain.
I refer, of course, to the flock of sheep which have now spent two days grazing on the land. I now that snakes do not like sheep and I know that trimming the grass will reduce the habitat options for the local wildlife diversity. And so this was my cunning plan, all I needed was a shepherd to play ball and a translator and Foti did the business on Tuesday.
Sadly, I am told that sheep prefer luscious green grass and not my dry and brown offering and so the gardeners may not be coming that much more. Bloody hell. I prefer a delicately grilled fresh trout in a lemon sauce washed down with a chilled Burgundy white to Greek salad and a can of diet coke but there do not happen to be that any 4 * restaurants in the ‘hood. And for that matter I cannot see a blade of green grass anywhere near Kambos – the whole area is scorched and dry. How fussy can a sheep be?
It seems as if the grass cutting will be down to me. Foti has a machine and says he will teach me to use it. But he says that I must be careful of the snakes. He is a wily old goat, he knows how to yank my chain.
5 Euro an hour and Foti cuts the grass and meets the snakes or zero cost and I cut the grass and meet the snakes. Hmmmm, I shall sleep on it but apparently trade is brisk at Real Man and so I might duck out of this one. I am sure I can persuade myself that it is all about opportunity cost.
Anyhow, especially for Paul Roberts and my other readers from Wales, here are my gardeners.
I am pondering what to name the Greek Hovel. It really does not matter as all post in Kambos is left at the garage for us to collect, but I was pondering putting up a name board in Greek “Write Minds” – it’s a pun geddit?
Lovely Susan Shimmin from The Real Mani is not perfect. She is, I fear, a bit of a deluded lefty like The Mrs and has already twigged that I see the world in a rather different way to her. And so she was delighted to reveal to me that The Hovel, although more than a century old, was – according to our sales contract largely burned down in the 1940s during the Greek Civil war.
It seems that the inhabitants of The Hovel at the time were Royalists while the arsonists were Communists. How appropriate, Susan thought, that I should now be living in a home once owed by such steadfast right-wingers.
I am not sure whether owners subsequent to the brave Royalists were clear thinking believers in freedom, meritocracy and personal choice as opposed to a political philosophy proven to be an abject failure and creator of widespread misery and poverty. But the new owner? Oh, hang on that is the Mrs and er…..
What in nature scared me a few days ago? Snakes? Yes big time. But also rats, bats. scorpions and the dark. I also have a great fear of heights but that has not been an issue to date as I settle into the Greek hovel. But the rest of my phobias have come in spades.
I know there are snakes on the land here. I saw one on what is known as the snake veranda the first time that the Mrs and I visited. And Foti says he has seen plenty of them in the olive groves. Cheers mate. So far I have not seen one. Perhaps my snake repellent system is working? I touch wood. I awoke early today and spent a couple of hours clearing some of the leaves and detritus that lie on the path to my door, the snake patio next to it and the entrance to the room below the snake veranda. The path is now clear and as I returned tonight for the first time I could not hear “crunch, crunch” and was not wondering what lay beneath my feet ready to spring out and bite.
The rest of the detritus, which snakes love, goes tomorrow and later on this week I shall be spraying the immediate vicinity with snake repellent. I am not taking chances.
After a third load of junk disappeared tonight with Foti and his pal, both lower floor rooms are now almost empty. The bat room still needs a bit of clearance before I tackle digging out its earthen floor but the paradise for rats that existed a week ago has gone. Now the almost clean floors have a few “rat sweeties” on them. Rats are becoming less of an issue and, while I would not want to wake up at night to find myself staring one in the face, I am actually less scared than I was. If I met one in daytime I would now like Foti seize a broom or a spade and go for it.
The bats seem really very harmless and small. There is no rabies in this part of the world and I was happy to chase the last bat resident here away today.
To be honest I had not thought about scorpions until today. I popped into the local garden centre/poison store for a chat and the chap there mentioned them asking how many I’d seen. Cheers pal. Lovely Susan Shimmin from Real Mani reassured me this evening that scorpions are at their most poisonous after hibernation in the spring but by now are only vaguely poisonous. She advises me just to hit them with a broom in the way that I smash any bug that is foolish enough to venture inside my almost perfectly enclosed bedroom.
The dark I cannot avoid. The village of Kambos is well lit. I linger there at night (as I still have no internet at the hovel) in the taverna which is open until 1 AM or later. I delay the drive back to the hovel by swapping emails or writing something I need not write. But eventually I must face the dark.
Leaving Kambos the road is unlit and I am the only car on the winding and rough track. As I drive down to the old and large monastery with just one monk left in it I find myself imagining ghostly processions of long dead monks dressed head to toe in black. Do I believe in ghosts? My mother swore that she saw the “Grey Lady” at the gates of Portman Lodge on the edge of Bryanston in Dorset when she was young. I think that I do not believe but driving past the monastery in the dark my mind runs riot.
After I reach the valley floor the road gets far worse as I start the long climb to the hovel. I saw a rabbit yesterday but I am conscious that I am alone. I dread finding an obstacle in the road and having to get out of my locked car to clear it but when I reach the hovel I have no choice.
It is ten yards from my car door to my front door. I leave the light on before I go but they are still ten dark yards as the shutters are closed to keep the wildlife away. As I reach the front door I fumble nervously with the keys desperate to get inside and to shut out the dark. Having checked for signs of wildlife I lock the door and am, I think, safe from nature until the dawn.
But outside the dark is everywhere. And there are the noises. There are still cicadas clicking away, you can hear dogs bark across the valley but there are other sounds that you cannot quite explain. With my shutters firmly drawn I cannot see the dark but it is out there. However much I want a pee I simply cross my legs until dawn – I dare not wander outside and round the house in the dark to use the (very smelly) facility. I really must build my portable eco-loo!
I am now man enough to sleep with the light off. I am sure that I will get used to the dark and conquer my fear but I greet the morning as my friend and with enthusiasm.
I have yet to fix up my hosepipe based shower – that is a job for this evening. And as such after three days in the hovel I arrived at the conclusion that I must be rather dirty, not to say smelly. As such, noting that a sign just outside Kambos says beach 5.5 kilometres I ventured off for an early morning swim.
A Greek kilometre is rather different to a standard kilometre, that is to say 1000 metres. When the sign says 5.5 kilometres that means anything between 3 kilometres and nine kilometres. Just treat what the sign says as a very rough guide. And thus after about nine kilometres I hit the sea and removed my West Ham 2005-2006 “We are Premiership” T-shirt, celebrating Bobby Zamora’s magnificent 57th minute winner against Preston in the play-off final. I then dipped my toes in.
The Mediterranean is a lot colder than I remember and I found myself standing in no—man’s land up to my trunks in water but not brave enough to make the plunge. Had I not been feeling quite so smelly I think I would have stepped back but needs must, I took the plunge. Well it was refreshing. And I do now feel clean and find myself sitting in a restaurant by the sea in the tiny and unspoilt village of Kitries. It is almost 10 AM and the only living beings here are myself, an adorable cat and its incredibly adorable kitten which is currently trying and failing to get onto a chair.
Sadly the cats do not know the Wi-Fi password and so I must move on to Kalamata to write and to try and get assistance on getting the Mi-Fi box for the hovel to work. Jeepers – Mimi’s fish restaurant has opened its doors. Coffee and Wi-Fi please!
I snuck out last night to watch the World Cup. The longer it lasted the more I could put off driving back along the long and windy road in the dark to the Greek Hovel. And even worse, to getting out of the car, walking ten yards through the grass to the Greek Hovel wondering what wildlife was lurking in the grass or inside the hovel. As it happens it was a wildlife free experience. Even Mr Rat seems to have “taken his medicine” and disappeared.
The taverna was packed and it soon became clear that I was the only person not supporting the Argies. As the Argies “scored” the taverna rose as one. As the linesman raised his flag for offside one fist punched the air. It was then that the dirty looks started.
How I wished I spoke Greek and could have explained that I too loathe the krauts but that the Argies are for Falkland’s related reasons even worse. But I spoke no Greek and so the loud cheers and increasingly timid punches from me continued. And then the Belgrano moment…The Argies sunk by a sub. The Taverna was not happy. I was rather hoping that it would go to penalties so postponing my encounter with wildlife diversity back at the hovel but on balance was delighted.
Watching Germans celebrate and Angela Merkel smile and clap with joy caused me no great pleasure but by this time I was getting truly filthy looks from one man in particular. And so I broke the silence and via an interpreter explained how I had no love for Germany either. He then spoke in English and started with the war and how the Germans killed lots of Greeks (true), stole their gold (probably true but not unique to Greece) and did not return it and how Greece’s economic woes are all down to the EU and Germany in particular.
Hmmmm, my Great Uncle died fighting the Germans. I did not mention that. Nor did I mention the fate of almost the entire family of two of my daughter’s godparents (i.e. Auschwitz). It was Greece’s call to join the Euro and to stay in. Greece received vast amounts of cash from the EU and pissed it away/allowed rich men to steal it. It is a particular facet of the Greek personality that the woes of this country are everybody’s fault but their own. But these were points I did not fancy tackling with the old man and the other 45 people in the taverna. I agreed that the Germans are ghastly but mentioned the Falklands. To their credit the entire table appreciated this point and accepted that the Argies were pretty frightful too.
Next time Germany is playing football I shall naturally be cheering on whoever they are playing if I am at the Kambos taverna. Unless it is Argentina of course.
By now you might have wondered quite what possessed the Mrs to snap up falling down our Greek hovel in the middle of nowhere and which is teaming with rats and snakes. Hmmm. Good question. And I have not even started on the works I need to do on the grounds or of the sanitation, er…..issue. But let me show you the view.
I start with the view from the back. The hovel sits on 15,500 square metres of olive groves. It might actually be 16,000 – non-one is exactly sure…this is Greece. From the back one looks over at the other side of the next valley, our land slopes half way down this side. There are a couple of houses there and behind them the mountains where in winter there will be snow.
And then to the front…in this direction lies the sea but it is a good ten miles away. I am not sure that I captured the monastery in these two shots, it is about half way up the other side of the valley, over the top of the brow of the hill is the village of Kambos. The second picture is our land to the side of the house on top of our hill At the far end is a ruin...that is a project for another summer.
And thus as you can see I am surrounded by olives trees, peace and quiet. The odd goatherd wanders by now and again but that is it as far as human contact goes. It is just me, the olives, the goats and …er, I’d rather not think about that.
I had forgotten just how remote our new Greek hovel was. Leaving the small village of Kambos (three tavernas, three food stores and a place that sells snake repellent) myself and Susan Shimmin from the Real Mani drive our respective cars past a small church. The road as we head downhill is, at first, pretty good. That is because the first building on it – and my nearest neighbour – is a monastery. At this point there are only a few potholes to deal with.
I shall return to the subject of my neighbour, the monk, later. And also to the relationship between State and Church here in Greece. Suffice to say that in an enormous building there is now just one resident. I plan to pop in and say hello at some stage next week.
As we pass the monastery the road deteriorates rapidly. While the Greek State must ensure that the Church is not put out in any way, caring for the needs of its ordinary citizens is no longer affordable. At this point the pot holes become cavernous and the tarmac disappears as we head to the bottom of the valley. I am in first gear and driving at five miles an hour.
At the bottom of the valley there is a river in winter which flows over the road. It is now totally dry but a pond still exists hidden behind the trees. I guess there must be a spring there. That is something else for me to investigate at some point. But now we start the steep climb up the other side of the valley.
Susan pushes on in her battered van. I rather worry about how much I am damaging the underside of my small hire car as the track – it can no longer be called a road at this point twists and turns and we climb, in first gear, slowly towards the house. After about six or seven minutes the steep climb turns to a gentle rise. The stone walls occasionally crumble in the face of goat attack and I know that getting out to clear away the stones is par for the course. We pass an abandoned well and about twelve minutes after leaving Kambos the olive groves clear a bit and the hovel is in sight.
The gates are padlocked. Naturally everyone in the Mani seems to know where the keys are “hidden.” Since the gates are actually off their hinges and could be pushed over by anyone who cared this process of padlocking is all a bit of a game but we all play it anyway. And we have arrived at the hovel. The enormity of the task ahead is starting to sink in.
— Tom Winnifrith
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