George the architect has made it up to the Greek Hovel for the start of the spring campaign to completion. He will take a few days out in March to come to England/Wales to help draw up plans for the Welsh hovel. But for now it is full steam ahead in Greece. Or rather not.
As you can see below, the skies are now blue but it has been raining solidly for almost two months. Some of the dry stone walls that stand next tol the mud track, as it wends through the olive groves at the top of snake hill and Slater slope, have fallen down. Cars can get through, lorries cannot and so that will delay work on the swimming pool that daughter Olaf demands as a condition of her honourings us with her presence.
The house itself has survived the winter relatively unscathed. The chimneypot was blown off and will be replaced and there are still a few small jobs for the carpenter and the electrician to complete but they are on the case. Next week George will start to transplant seven olive trees and then work can start on the pool.
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.
As you may remember, there is a dry river bed at the bottom of the valley beneath the abandoned convent and before the climb up snake hill and on to the Greek Hovel. It has been raining here for several days and is still raining heavily. So the dry river is filling up rapidly and will soon start to cross the track. The photo below is of the growing pool and after that the view up to the convent.
I am in a short sleeved short. Tomorrow it will be a T-shirt. I am not trying to make you jealous but though it is mid October it is jolly hot. As I drove along the Kalamata sea front earlier the beaches were well populated. Folks were swimming. It is lovely.
there are lizards everywhere. My old saying is that where there are lizards there are snakes. But from memory, and fingers crossed, the snakes start to hibernate well before the lizards and you do sometimes see lizards even in the winter. Anyhow, here is one chirpy fellow I spotted sun bathing on a wall on the way from the Hovel down towards snake hill.
I am beginning to think that God is not pleased with my restoration work at the Greek Hovel and is punishing me with an annual plague of my poor olives. Last year it was the hail storm ten days before harvest that destroyed the crop almost entirely, leaving my field carpeted with rotting berries and my neighbours crying into their ouzo and facing economic misery.
This year it started with the flies which destroyed, maybe, 20% of the crop. Then last week storm Zorba hit southern Greece. Winds of up to 100 kmh were reported. Waves on the seafront hit five metres and the rains caused flash floods. Up at the hovel the sea is ten miles away and so not an issue but e wind and the rain?
I called George the Architect this morning to check on progress and to warn him that I’d be there in less than three weeks. Such warnings tend to accelerate work. I was assured that the planks for the second floor would arrive avrio, that is to say tomorrow. Most things in Greece are scheduled to happen avrio. But George insists that the flooring will be completed by the start of next week. We discussed the Range Cooker on its way from Austria, fridges, wood burning stoves, balconies and sofas and then it was the olives.
George had headed up to the hovel specifically to inspect them. That will have been some trek. From the top of snake hill as one winds through other folks trees up to the hovel the mud track will, thanks to Zorba, be reminiscent of the Somme battlefield 102 years ago. But he made it and as he has his own trees he knows his olives and reckons that the storm has taken another 10% of the berries the flies did not get.
However, before God intervened twice, this was set to be a bumper harvest so – assuming no further interventions from the Almighty – it will still be a pretty decent year. I am negotiating with the Mrs as to when I head out, treat myself to a new electric machine for harvesting and start what will be my fifth harvest. I am already excited by the prospect. To those who have volunteered to join me as replacement Albanians I should have dates soon for the great undertaking.
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 I discussed here, on Monday, a sweaty and inbred Bulgar refused to drive his ford transit van from the valley floor up snake hill and onto the Greek Hovel. The road, the lying xxxx, was not good enough. On Tuesday a lorry twice the size of his van and many time heavier brought, as you can see below, the wood for my roof right to the front door.
The wood was winched onto the house where some of it lay on the balcony created on the Taygetos mountain side and other long logs were left on the ground below. And as soon as it was offloaded the workers started to give the hovel its first proper roof in years.
I was woken this morning by the most almighty explosion of noise. For a moment I wondered if a ship had crashed into the quayside for my hotel in Kalamata is right on the harbourside. It had not. It was thunder. Yet again it was sheeting it down, making three days of torrential rain on the trot. Now the sun is shining but the effects of the downpour were evident as I made my way up to the Greek Hovel.
The first three photos below are of the dry river that heads across the valley underneath the deserted convent on the way to snake hill and on to the hovel. As you can see it is anything but dry and now runs several inches deep across the track.
Indeed the rains have been so heavy that another stream has appeared at the bottom of the hill by the side of the convent, which I incorrectly labelled deserted monastery hill when I first pitched up here almost four years ago. What is in summer, a muddy ditch, no doubt home to numerous snakes, is now a stream so swollen with rainwater that it spills out onto the road.
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"
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.
Sure there is a pond of sorts directly underneath the abandoned convent. It is fed by a spring which spews out water all year. In winter and spring as the dry river gushes into action it also flows into the pond and it can grow quite large. But as summer arrives the river is dry once again and the scorching heat more than matches the output of the spring and the pond shrinks to a small sink hole.
But that water is still a treat for wildlife. I have seen foxes drinking there. I can only imagine what other members of the wildlife diversity community use it. I say that I can only imagine because I do imagine and have no desire to confirm my worst fears. We know what lives in the dry river during summer storms and I am sure the same creatures use Susan Shimmin's "lake".
For now, the snakes are hibernating and, as you can see, the "lake" is filling up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who would believe that the fine cat below is the same species as my morbidly obese three legged moggie Oakley. The latter, for some reason, has a deep aversion to the working classes and so when middle class folk arrive he is uber-friendly. When tradesman arrive it is rather different. Right now plumbers are installing a new bathroom for the Mrs and Oakley is spending his entire working day cowering under the duvet in the top bedroom.
Back here in the Greek mountains I was driving down from the hovel last evening and towards the end of the track through the olive groves about 200 yards before snake hill I spotted this cat.
Though domestic in terms of gene pool, he or she lives totally in the wild up here in the area around the hovel. They are afraid of humans but not of snakes, rats, mice, lizards or indeed more or less any other member of the wildlife diversity community. All are considered fair prey for supper.
Oakley, who could not catch a cold, would not last up here for more than a day. Like the Mrs he is not cut out for hovel dwelling and would be demanding a move to a posh hotel by the sea, very quickly. His cousins are in their element and the more members of the wildlife diversity community they devour, the better.
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.
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
Snake hill is a stretch of, very rough and multi-potholed, concrete that tracks down from the quiet olive groves on my side of the valley to the valley floor. It ends at the dry river where the track once again turns to mud for a couple of hundred yards before one takes a sharp left to head up the concreted track next to the deserted monastery where, when driving at night, I still imagine the presence of ghostly phantom monks.
Snake hill got its name two years ago when my guest that summer made the grave mistake of going for a run in the midday heat and encountered a serpent sitting on the hill. She sidestepped the viper but the hill got its name.
Ever since then I have been waiting to see another snake there. I have seen plenty of lizards and heard lots of rustling in the bushes on either side of the road but not seen a snake. But today: two!
I tend to think that a more likely snake killer would be one of the feral cats that roam the hillsides around here. They are, apparently, perfectly capable of taking on a snake, even a poisonous one. I noted that one of the two serpents looked half eaten so maybe it was a cat that can claim these "kills".
Somehow I cannot see my morbidly obese three legged cat Oakley coming out well in a one-to-one match up with a viper, but these Greek feral cats are made of sterner stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.