354 days ago
I have grossly underestimated the number of olive trees that sit on the land at the Greek Hovel. Yesterday and today I upped my quota to thirty so I have now pruned 160 which is what I thought we had. I was very wrong. But i now enter what I deem the land of the snake.
The top level of the land is almost done. I have pruned almost down to the far end. That is an area which was once a frigana forest. I was blissfully unaware of what lay beyond our land so thick was the accursed thorn bush. Thanks to months of hard sweat and labour in summers gone by it is now all gone and that has unearthed new olive trees which we can now harvest.
In one or two cases the remnants of the taller frigana trees, piles of logs surround an olive tree as you can see in the bottom photo. We Gruffalo readers know what lives in the tree log house and I prune such trees extremely carefully approaching with loud footsteps and trading carefully.
On the flanks of the top land are the terraces and as you head down to the lower terraces the grass gets longer and longer as you can see below. In years gone by I have seen shapes swishing through that grass which can only be one thing. I have done some work on the terraces but more remains - I reckon ten or fifteen trees on the monastery side and thirty or more on the mountain side.
Finally there are is the rocky area on the left of the track as one approaches the hovel. It too was once a frigana forest. I was over this that I clambered with lovely Susan Shimmin of the Real Mani when I first visited the house with the Mrs and it was absolutely crawling with snakes. But again, I have cleared the frigana, it is a bit less snake friendly but I have had encounters there before. I probably holds another 20 or so trees.
The bottom line is that the total is well over 200, I must up my work rate to forty tomorrow but I enter the badlands as I do so.
Yesterday my toils were interrupted by a rather portly young man who wanted me to move my car so he could deliver cement. As he strolled over to see me and explain he said in broken English "you know there are snakes here?" What is the Greek for "Do you know bears shit in the woods?"
451 days ago
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.
Both streams now pour into Susan Shimmin's "lake" - more on that tomorrow.
455 days ago
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"
543 days ago
Shortly after the Mrs agreed to buy the Greek Hovel we got an email from the most excellent estate agent Susan Shimmin of the Real Mani suggesting that there was a small lake at the bottom of the valley which one must cross before climbing snake hill. At once I had visions of stocking it with trout like the one from Metsovo I enjoyed with the amazing baker of Zitsa. Then reality kicked in.
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.
917 days ago
You are meant to make your Christmas puddings six weeks before Christmas to allow them to age and mature and so, leaving it to the last possible moment I have now just done that. The recipe is from a cookbook from the Queen of Irish cooking the amazing Darina Allen although she says that it is from her mother in law Myrtle, the founder of Ballymaloe. I think that Myrtle is still with us though she must be 92 by now and I am lucky enough to have visited the famed cooking school near Cork several times.
I say that I used Myrtle's recipe but I am sure that she and Darina would agree that you are allowed to play around with recipes a bit. Thus while I stayed true to the baked apples and most of the fruit I felt compelled to add in some nutmeg, mixed spice and cinnamon. And instead of Irish whiskey it was the remnant of some old Scotch but also some rum which was lying around and which no-one here drinks in any great quantities.
I think that I may have overdone the rum a touch but as of now I have steamed for 6 hours each of four two pint puddings. As a divorced Dad I get two Christmas meals to prepare and the remains from the second ( the Mrs and myself) will head up to Shipston for my father on boxing day.
Then there is one for the sister of the Mrs and her crazy Greek husband and finally one for Susan Shimmin of the Real Mani which I shall drop off in a couple of weeks when I head off to the Greek Hovel for the olive harvest. I can't see Susan compalianing that there is too much alcohol in her pudding.
1628 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.
1629 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.
1696 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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…
1696 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.
1698 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.
1767 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
My new best friend Foti and I had a temporary falling out today. He asked to be paid for five days work at the hovel – 350 Euro for him and his assistant. Hmmmm. It seems as if his hourly rate has doubled and hang on…that is five days…he has only worked two for me.
It seems as if the old owner Athena told Foti that I had asked him to do three days’ work and that I would pay. This was of course a total lie. I have told my lawyer and lovely Susan Shimmin from Real Mani who explained this all to Foti and it is agreed that everyone, including the local Notary, will harass the bitch Athena and make her pay.
The doubling of the hourly rate ( albeit to only 5 Euro per hour per man) is because Foti has decided that he will be my business partner from January – i.e. for next year’s olive cycle when the yield will double thanks to our TLC, and until the he will charge me. Part of me thinks this is rather sharp and I should find another Albanian and get a better deal.
However, I know no-one else in this village. Foti is very good at killing rats. And I actually rather like him so I agreed to his terms on the strict understanding that he will find someone to lend me a crappy old pickup truck for the summer for a small fee.
Besides which I discovered that the Greek Government will give me 500 Euro tax free as a grant in March because I am an olive farmer. It matters little that I run a tiny grove. The Greek Government apparently has money to spare…whatever. That is a bonus and I’d like to thank the people of Germany for paying it.
However Athena is in the doghouse. She does not live in the village and so we can all agree that she has behaved like a prize rotter and that we will all go after her. She still owes Susan a few Euro for settling here three years of arrears on her water bill and she is behaving exactly like the rather unfair stereotype of an untrustworthy Greek. I’d rather just think of her as a terribly untrustworthy woman, ensure that she pays Foti and Susan and celebrate the fact that she is no longer in this village.
Let’s move on…
1767 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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…..
1767 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.
1772 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
And so we arrive at the Greek hovel that the Mrs has snapped up. Before I can contemplate the enormity of the task at hand there is the little matter of the rats and snakes to deal with. We have visited the village hardware store where – rather worryingly – about 40% of the product lines seem to be associated with dealing with, er…rats and snakes. Susan Shimmin and I are now armed.
To the snakes first. I have bought two pots of snake repellent which I am assured will deter the creatures from visiting the hovel any more. I lodge one firmly ten yards from one corner of the hovel, surround it with stones to ensure that it stays firm emitting whatever it emits to keep the snakes away. The other I lodge diagonally opposite it at the far edge of what we term the snake veranda.
On my first visit to the hovel it was on this piece of the property that we all encountered a snake. Having researched it hard on the internet I discover that this type of snake bites and can stand its ground but is not poisonous. At the time I just thought “Shit!!!! – how do I escape”
The snake veranda is not actually a veranda. It is an illegally constructed platform above the second “bedroom”. One of my jobs this summer is to knock it down. We will be building up this section of the house both properly and legally in due course but right now its only purpose in life is as an ideal habitat for lizards and snakes. Though I am an ardent supporter of wildlife diversity there are limits. It has to go.
Then to the rats in my “bedroom.” Poison has been laid. Sticky boards have been set. If a rat ventures onto them it will find itself trapped. I will then have to finish the job.
The hovel has thus been transformed from vermin heaven to vermin hell. It is time to retreat to a hotel for the night and to see what we find waiting for us in the morning. As a statement of intent I leave my axe and saw at the hovel. Into battle tomorrow when I move in.
1772 days ago
— Tom Winnifrith
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.