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.
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.
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.
And so daughter Olaf has survived her first night at the Greek Hovel. She slept in the Rat Room, I slept in the Bat Room. She is even using the eco-loo without complaint. Meanwhile building work continues at pace as you can see below.
first up is a small stone seat that Gregori the snake killer has constructed on what was once known as the snake patio. It will be pointed in due course and surrounded by terracotta tiles by the end of next week. On the roof tiling is almost complete while the windows team has now finished its work. You will note that in accessing the second floor the scaffolding is rudimentary, there are no high viz jackets or hard hats here either. Elf 'n' safey is swapped for the idea of personal responsibility.
You will see that many of the workmen wear not baseball caps but straw hats. I wonder about these. Are they just straw hats as any tourist might buy or a a hat doff to the past. In his book, the Mani, Paddy Leigh Fermour talks of how in the 1950s when this region was largely cut off from the rest of Greece, folks all wore wide brimmed straw hats. I ponder this matter. Today more progress is promised and so Olaf and I have headed out to go pick up the Mrs and Joshua and leave the workers to get on with it.
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.
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 headline really does reflect the photos so if you are squeamish do not look any further. This trio of pictorial horrors arrived this morning in an email from George the Architect. Chief builder Gregori the snake killer has been at work.
Most snakes of this type of adder, the most poisonous of the nine Greek species that are poisonous, are 20-30 centimetres long. This one was forty centimetres in length. You may wonder what it is hanging out of its mouth…
That is the tail of a large rat which it had just killed and was digesting. The act of digestion slowed it up greatly so allowing Gregori – who came across this on the building site – to act. The snake killer needed no invitation.
That the serpent was hanging around in the vicinity of the Greek Hovel is a bit of a shock. I was rather hoping that all the noise made by Gregori and his crew of Albanians had persuaded the wildlife diversity to head elsewhere, preferably to land owned by other folks but at least to the further reaches of the hovel’s fields. I was mistaken. As I plan my next trip to the Mani in three weeks: Yikes!
Daughter Olaf has agreed to join me at the Greek Hovel in late August but only after making detailed enquiries about sanitation. As you can seem the bat room now has a ceiling, a door to keep out the snakes and a shower! What more could a young Lady want? I shall be in The Mani by next weekend so more photos soon.
As you can see there is real progress at the Greek Hovel. The new extension is now up to two floors and in the bat room the walls are plastered and the floor installed. All we need now is the shower, eco-loo, sink and a bed and I am off. I hope to be in the Mani within two and a bit weeks and at this rate I might actually be sleeping on site.
As you can see below, the Greek hovel sits beneath blue skies and te sun is shining in the taygetos mountains of the Mani. And real progress is being made. The first photos are of the bat room where a new floor is being laid and which will be ready for habitation by the Greek Easter in two weeks time. Elswhere you can see that the lengthward extension of the rat room is complete and the new wing which will help to double the size of the hovel is now being built up to above the first floor. Real progress is being made, as the hovel becomes an eco-palace.
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?
I realise that it is colder in the UK than here in this part of Greece, the Mani is the most Southern part of the mainland. But to those who keep saying that I hope I am enjoying the sun here are a few photos from Kalamata this afternoon.
The first is of a river flowing into the sea. Nothing odd about that you say. Except that in summer the bed is drry and folks park their cars on it. Now it is in full flow. The photos that follow are of that placid sea, the Med and looking up into the Taygetos mountains that dominate Kalamata and then run into and along the centre of the Mani. Though I saw a few folks swimming earlier this week they were obviously prize loons. Suffice to say no-one is swimming today as the rain starts to get heavier and with a very strong wind whipping up the waves and making it feel a lot colder than the nominal 10 degrees.
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.
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...
The first is of David from his days at Oxford. My first cousin once removed Henry, whose mother was a Cochrane, reckons that both he and I shared a Cochrane nose and other facial features with David. I have never seen that myself but cannot help but think how handsome David looks in a picture done by another distant relative. And within a year he had fallen thousands of feet to his death. How sad.
The second picture is a rather sentimental offering. The Cochrane's hailed originally from Co Donegal. At the time of David's death one branch of the family had repurchased the family home - residences of the old Protestant squirearchy in the new Free State were, for obvious reasons, going cheap at that time. But I am sure that David himself never visited Ireland. The picture is of Mount Muckish, one of the Seven Sisters chain. On the back it says that it is painted from the settlement at Glock. I guess the painting is from the late 1890s but can find no reference today to Glock. Perhaps a reader with local knowledge might enlighten me.
The Mrs thinks these two paintings and two others are to be hung in the garage, that is to say stored. I fight for David to stay the house if not for Muckish. But when the Greek Hovel becomes a mansion both will hang with pride there, a little bit of Ireland in the Mani.
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.
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 olive trees are owned by a father and son. The young man reckons 500 to 600 Euros is about right. It is his father who wanted more - 1500 Euro. So they settled in the middle. It is the father who goes to show that, as ever, Paddy Leigh Fermor has the Greeks nailed. 99% of Greeks are the nicest, most fair and generous folks you can meet. My neighbour Charon wants no compensation and neither does the sister in law of lovely Eleni. But, as Paddy noted in his classic book The Mani, just now and again you meet a Greek who is just such a complete and utter bastard that he will serve as a reminder of how great everyone else is.
I have inspected the thirty trees which we have "pruned". In some cases the branches cut are the sort you would cut at harvest time to flail across a machine to clean off olives. They are that small and they will have regrown by the time of the 2019 harvest. So it is one year's harvest lost. In other cases the branches are bigger and it will take three years for them to re-grow.
George and I did our maths and we cannot see how the loss of income over three years is anything more than 400 Euro and that is generous. So I said I would pay 500 Euro and if the old bastard does not accept he can take me to court. Moreover I shall tell the entire village what a bastard he has been and shame him in public. It is his call and I am very relaxed either way.
Meanwhile at the hovel work continues apace. I cut frigana and the Greek Albanians work on the building and on killing snakes. As you can see the ugly concrete blocks beneath the old ugly windows have now gone as well and the one window into the bat room has been extended so that it will get more natural light. The upstairs room will be flooded with light as the windows will be be almost floor to the current ceiling. Of course when it is finished that room - which will lead into the new room above the rat room and the new wing, will have a pitched wooden roof so it should feel very spacious indeed.
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.
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?
So I find myself in London for two days. The reason I am here is surreal and I shall tell you all about it when I am allowed to. I lived in this City for about twenty years. I suppose I was younger then and its attractions were of interest to me at that point in my life: places to drink, lots of single women, a chance of to make money. I can't say that I am interested in any of the above right now and in fact London fills me with dread and horror and I do all that I can to avoid it.
Most Londoners run like a gerbil on a work treadmill to fund a lifestyle which is frankly not that brilliant anyway. A good few want to chop my head off and the rest of them just seem, in various ways, mad. The prices they pay for utter tuch just baffle me.
Lunch today was a hummus bowl from a company called Hummus Bros which is currently seeking crowdfunding to expand. I ordered my chicken and hummus salad and saw that for an extra £1 I could have feta on top. Greatly missing Greece,
I went for this and was presented with a circular plastic pot of feta which at its widest point has a diameter of less than half my credit card. The feta was crumbled - that is to say it had gone through an electric grater - and tested unpleasant and not like the feta I was enjoying in the Mani just two days ago. And will be enjoying again by Friday lunchtime.
If I told someone back in Greece that for a few grammes of low grade faux feta I had just paid one euro 20 cents they would think I was barking mad. Yet Londoners line up to transact with Hummus Bros in this way. Get me back to Greece Lord, take me from this hell hole.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2017 starts off, following the theme of the second half of 2016. It is another related party obituary from the rapidly thinning ranks of my father's generation. They are now the front line. I stand in the second. There is still one Great Aunt who stands in front of my father's peers but she stands alone, her line has all gone.
The gaps in the front line seem to grow larger by the day which is rather disconcerting for those in my row. It can't be too long before we too are called to head over the top and to start to charge towards the grim reaper in our final assault.
Today's obit in The Times is that of the writer Emma Tennant who was the first wife of my uncle Chris Booker. It was not a long marriage and is described in Tennant's biography in the chapter "I married a satirist" for at that time Chris was co-founding Private Eye. They honeymooned with another couple in the Mani, taking almost a day to travel from Athens to the the area where I now live, in the Greek Hovel.It now takes less than three hours if you beat the early morning traffic in Athens.
A reminder to Uncle Chris if he is reading this. I know that you turn 80 this October but we are set to climb the mountains behind the hovel this year. How about mid November?
I am lead to believe that Tennant ditched Chris for the bloke who joined them on that trip. That was the swinging sixties after all. Back in the day, folks who are, now almost in their eighties were enjoying the sexual revolution to the full. We all move on. The front row thins again. I contemplate the gaps once more.
PS My father will I am sure want it noted that he managed to avoid taking part in the swinging sixties almost completely.
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.
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,
Back in the UK I sit at my desk looking out on a quiet surburban road. It is all very different to the view from the rough table at which I write at the Greek Hovel. I see people, cars and neat brick walls rather than olive trees, sheep, the abandoned monastery and the wild of the Mani countryside. Here in Bristol, I also spot in a magazine rack next to my desk a copy of Grazia magazine.
On the front cover is Harry Potter star Emma Watson offering her opinions on things I don't care about plus pictures of other celebs whose names I do not recognise. Grazia is an inane magazine for women.
I ask the Mrs "surely you did not buy this?" because spending cash on such matters is surely grounds for divorce. Last time such a publication entered the house, the Mrs claimed to have found it on a train. This time she claims that her friend Katie brought it with her when she trekked down from the Grim North for a visit the other day.
I detect a pattern here. Surely catching your Mrs reading such piffle, however it came to enter the house, is a valid reason for divorce?
I have written before about the war hero and writer Paddy Leigh Fermor. He was an all round superhero and also Mr Mani, not just for writing the book "Mani" but because he built his house here in Kardamili. There are plans to turn it into some sort of writers retreat. Those who have seen the Before Sunset trilogy with the lovely Julie Delpy will know Paddy's house well from the final film set here in Kardamili, Before Midnight. The scene below sees Paddy ( played by an actor not the man himself) holding court.
Paddy's walk to Greece which started his remarkable life was prompted by him being booted out of King's Canterbury for seducing the daughter of a local greengrocer. My sister was at that lunch and had been head girl at Kings. Paddy told her "if there had been girls like you at Kings in my time, I should never have encountered the greengrocer's daughter". What a charmer he was. The comparisons made with James Bond were not only prompted by his heroic war record.
Getting access to the house required me to engage in some negotiations with Greek officialdom. Such is life, as our existence at the Greek Hovel teaches us on a daily basis. I am sure it will be worth it and will report back later.
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?
War hero, author, all round superhero Paddy Leigh Fermor lived down the road from where I am in the Mani and is the man who made this area famous with his book "The Mani". Today in my email in box I receive a copy of issue 5 of The Philhellene, the newsletter of the Paddy Leigh Fermor Society and there is an article in it by Tom Winnifrith - not me but my father. Just to prove that one member of the family can write properly and without swearing here you are...
Leigh Fermor, P could and should have written more about the Vlachs than he does in Mani and Roumeli. He would have written more amusingly and eloquently than Winnifrith, T does in TheVlachs and Shattered Eagles: Balkan Fragments. I begin with this school report, because it is at schools in Kent that the paths of these two travellers begin to diverge.
There were no greengrocers’ daughters to lead me astray at Tonbridge and to push me out to wander between woods and water down to the Balkans. Instead I pursued a conventional if old fashioned education in Greek, Latin and Ancient History at school and university before embarking on a career teaching these subjects and English Literature at the University ofWarwick.This institution was very kind in allowing me time and even money to travel around the Balkans when I should have been writing boring books about the Brontës. It also awarded Paddy an honorary degree, and at the ceremony we spoke to each other in Vlach.
This conversation amazed the local dignitaries, but, alas, my spoken Vlach is very poor, unlike Paddy’s. He was helped by a long stay in Romania where they speak a language very similar to various kinds of Vlach, and by his interest in and ability at all kinds of languages. Almost all Vlachs in Greece, and a number of Vlachs in other Balkan countries, speak Greek. A training in Homer and Herodotus, although useful in testing the truth of tall travellers’ tales, is of little practical help in a crowded Greek bus station or when lost in the mountains where Vlach villages are to be found. Crede experto, as they would say in Latin, but not Vlach.
So who are the Vlachs? In the first few pages of Mani Paddy draws attention to two difficulties about finding a definition, namely that the Vlachs are to be found with different names, and that many people are called Vlachs but do not speak the language close to Romanian which I have mentioned.Thus in the villages of Kampos near Kardamyli the inhabitants are called Vlachs, but this is just a term of abuse for people not like us. My son has just bought a battered house near Kampos, and says that the inhabitants are very nice. Alternatively Vlach can just mean a shepherd. I have heard a Greek bus driver swearing at a goatherd leading his flock along a main road with the imprecation “Blachos”, and I don’t think he was making a philological statement, although the shepherd was in the Pindus mountains and might have been a Vlach.
But he might not have called himself one. Right at the beginning of Mani Paddy has a long list of fringe groups associated with Greece. I am proud to say I have met in the past Greek speakers in Calabria, the Tsakonians of the Eastern Peloponnese and even Tartars in the Crimea. Propriety prohibited me from meeting the Loubinistika speakers of the brothels, chronology from meeting the Anglo-Saxon members of the Varangian Guard. But disappointingly there is only a brief mention of the Koutzovlachs of Metsovo. Metsovo in the Pindus mountains is the largest Vlach settlement, but there are many other Vlachs in Greece, other parts of the Balkans and in America, Canada and Australia.
Sometimes these call themselves Arumanians or some variant of this name, sometimes Tsintzars, a reference probably, like the addition of Koutzo to Vlach, to their sibilant speech. Some scholars call them Macedo-Romanians, adding to the confusion of one name another that is contested. In Albania I found many Vlachs who tend to call themselves by the district in which they sometimes live: Gramosteani from Mount Grammos, Farsharoti from Frasher in central Albania. The American Vlachs near Bridgeport founded a society called The Society Farsarotul, which published a very useful newsletter. Another American produced a newspaper called Frandza Vlacha, a French group a periodical called Tra Ar manami and a German group Zborlu Nostru, our word, a somewhat ambiguous title since there seem so many words for what was regarded as ours.
In his allusions to Vlach history in Roumeli Paddy mischievously mentions the theory that the Farsharots derive their name from the battle of Pharsalus where Caesar defeated Pompey in 48BC. A Latin presence in the Balkans is apparent more than a century before this date, but under the Roman Empire Greek was generally the language of administration in the East, as opposed to Latin in the West. In the West, Latin gradually replaced native languages and was even adopted by the German invaders; hence we have languages like French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. In the East things worked out differently. Slav invaders kept their own language except in Greece, Albanian survived the competing claims of Slav and Greek, while mysteriously in Romania and scattered pockets in the central Balkans people preserved a form of Latin.
In the West, Roman authority collapsed in the fifth century, but the Danube frontier was held until the beginning of the seventh, and although the administration of the Eastern Roman Empire was largely Greek there was still a Latin presence in the northern Balkans. The Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565 was a Latin speaker. His efforts to conquer Italy and North Africa, though temporarily successful, left the Balkans an easy prey for Slav invaders.We have very few records of Balkan history in the four centuries following this invasion. Justinian’s historian Procopius gives an account of forts that the emperor had built.These forts are difficult to locate, but some of them have Latin names, and it is probably from them that the ancestors of the Vlachs emerged. We get our first mention of Vlachs in 976AD when some Vlach hoditai murdered the brother of the Bulgarian emperor Samuel between Kastoria and Prespa, an area still peopled by Vlachs today.
Hodos means road, and hoditai could indicate travellers or highwaymen or people appointed to guard the roads.The last meaning suggests a degree of organization not present in the Balkans at this time, although it appeals to those who like to think of the Vlachs as descendants of Roman legionaries and forefathers of the well disciplined baggage trains of the nineteenth century. Byzantine historians after the Kastoria incident tend to give the Vlachs a bad name, suggesting the second meaning. A strong Vlach presence in Thessaly, especially after the fourth crusade of 1204, led to the province being called Vlachia. Previously the Asen family had established a powerful empire further north.The inhabitants of this empire are confusingly sometimes called Vlachs, sometimes Bulgars and even more confusingly, since the empire extended to the Danube and beyond, we cannot be sure whether we have a reference to Romanians or Vlachs or both.
The Ottomans had conquered the whole of the Balkans by the beginning of the sixteenth century. They get a bad press, not deservedly so. With strong central rule the Vlachs seem to have prospered as muleteers and merchants travelling the length and breadth of the Balkans and as shepherds making long journeys from summer pastures in the mountains to winter quarters on the coastal plains.We do not have many mentions of the Vlachs in the period from 1500 to 1800 but, as Gibbon teaches us, happy is the land which has no history.
The Ottomans were tolerant to the Orthodox faith, leaving persecutions to Catholics and Protestants in the West.There are records of churches dating from the seventeenth century and stories about the foundation of villages even earlier. Samarina north of Metsovo had four churches in 1913 and, in Southern Albania,Voskopoje or Moschopolis had many more. But at the end of the eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire like its Byzantine predecessor began to decline and fall. Voskopoje was frequently sacked by marauding Albanian brigands, although it still stands as a monument to a great city greatly fallen, and is still inhabited by Vlachs as well as Albanians. Many of the Vlachs moved from Voskopoje to other Vlach villages in the Balkans.
During the last chaotic century of Ottoman rule there were two important studies by Western scholars of the Vlachs. A German professor, Gustav Weigand, meticulously in Die Aromunen recorded in 1888 his journeys, including some stories and folk songs. A copy of his ethnological map hangs in my study. It is still very useful for locating Vlachs, although the fortunes of other races have waxed and waned. I heard some of his songs almost a hundred years later. In 1914 two English scholars, A.J.B. Wace and M.S. Thomson, produced another book with more maps, songs and a useful grammar and vocabulary.They were in the Samarina area conducting archaeological work, and The Nomads of the Balkans is a tribute to the ability of classical scholars to turn their hand to anything.
I met Wace when I was a schoolboy interested in Cretan archaeology, but between his book and my first sight of a Vlach in 1974 two generations had elapsed, during which there had been two Balkan wars, two world wars and two civil wars, one in Greece and one in Yugoslavia.The front line in many of these conflicts was very often in Vlach territory, as gnarled old veterans used to tell me, making me rather glad that I was not one of the excellent German scholars who have worked on this subject. In addition to actual battles, war and subsequent boundary changes played havoc with the rhythms of the transhumant Vlach shepherd, although mechanical transport altered the pattern of long marches on foot or with mules. Boundaries which did not exist in 1914 became a slight obstacle for Vlachs after 1918, and a real barrier after the Iron Curtain came down in 1945. Paddy was lucky to travel in the 1930s.
Poverty and Balkan wars led to emigration. Pro-Romanian Vlachs went to Romania while others were driven to the New World where they prospered more than in Romania. I have attended Vlach dances in this country and in Australia and America, all extremely respectable affairs, reminding me of suburban Surrey in the 1950s. I am sure Paddy would have displayed more agility on the dance floor while I courteously enquired about the ancestry of my partners. On another occasion after missing my train at Skopje station I lay down to sleep and woke to find myself neatly sandwiched between two beautiful gypsy ladies, often, probably unfairly, accused of having loose morals and light fingers. A proper traveller like Paddy would have made enquiries about the ethnic origins of these ladies. Gypsies, because of their wandering habits, are often confused with Vlachs. Their language like the Vlach language is rarely written and is really a medley of different dialects. They call themselves Roma, a word which has four letters in common with Aromanian. But at five o’clock in the morning with my purse and person intact I made my excuses and left.
Since 1990 travel in the formerYugoslavia has been made much more difficult, although it has become much easier to visit other countries beyond the Iron Curtain. For a time there was a great interest in minorities, and I was invited to speak on the Vlachs, being better at speaking than dancing. In these travels I did note especially in Albania and America that there was a division, as there had been in the time of Wace and Thomson, between a pro- Romanian and a pro-Greek party.The former maintain that theVlachs are descendants of people who at some stage in the middle ages moved from the plains of the Danube to the rugged Pindus mountains. Greeks suggest that Roman legionaries were stationed in these mountains, married Greek girls and begot Latin speakers with Greek ethnicity. Neither of these paths seems very promising, although I have not been able to come up with a plausible via media.
I am now too old to do much work on the Vlachs. A younger successor, more like Paddy at ease with the easy world of travellers’ tales, is needed but the world of the traveller has become much harder. Thousands of migrants from the Near East pass through Skopje station leaving little room for the odd gypsy or Vlach. Gevgelja station on the border between Greece and Macedonia has become an important staging post on the terrifying road from Damascus. I can remember waiting for a train there in the 1980s, reading Hard Times and thinking that times were not so hard as in Dickens’s day. “Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis.” I have not changed much and have not learnt to translate this useful Latin phrase into Vlach, although I know that the Vlach for I change is mutu. A phrase, less useful, but easier to remember is “are mare nare” which means “he has a big nose”.
Paddy and I did not exchange these words when we greeted each other at the degree ceremony. I think we said “Ghinevinis = well come”. Even this may have been a protest against the pomposity of the occasion. This would turn Vlach into a language like Boliaric, the secret argot of thieves recorded in Roumeli, and there is some attraction in the idea that Vlach was used as a kind of code to keep outsiders in the dark. Alternatively, at the other end of the scale, Vlach might have been a lingua franca used by travellers in difficult situations.
It is after all fairly easy to learn a little bad Latin in the same way that refugees from Syria learn broken English with which they can communicate with Hungarian frontier guards. Fortuna favet fortibus, fortune favours the brave. The refugees have to be brave. I have been very fortunate. Paddy was both.
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.
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.
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.
In the summer, notwithstanding the little issues that Greece faces, Kalamata is bustling. Getting a hotel by the seafront can be something of a challenge. The beaches are packed and the restaurants bustling. God knows why. The regional capital is not exactly what you'd call pretty. For me it is where the Airport is before I head out to the joys of the Mani.
In winter it all changes in Kalamata. There is still the odd hardy soul who one sees venturing into the sea. I suppose its probably warmer than Whitby in summer but rather them than me. The hotels are mostly empty and I am paying less than 40 quid a night including breakfast to stay at one of the best places in town.
The seafront restaurants are shut for the winter. I dont particularly like them in summer as they are relatively expensive but at least they serve - sort of Greek - food. And so the choice now is the ubiquitous fast food chain Goody's, numerous places serving either pizza or burgers and er...that is it. There is a Chinese place on a back street but it never seems to be open and there is the little gaffe I frequent where the food is Greek and where the smoking policy is somewhat confused. The little gaffe wins by a country mile.
A bit of a difference this week as I explain the numerous reasons to book a holiday in Greece in 2015. I am serious. I then take you through two or three suggested trips which are not mainstream but offer you Greece with a difference. There is a Northern trip taking in Albania, Meteora, Arta and one entrance to the underworld. And a trip in the South taking in Napfio, Mycenae, Corinth, Delphi, Olympia and the mani. I neglected to say that the main entrance to Hades is at the foot of the Mani. And there is an offbeat island near Athens I recommend - Agistri. This is the year to see Greece on the cheap and there is so much to enjoy.
For some reason I forgot to mention Monemvasia, the Mont St Michel of Greece - part of your Southern tour. Spemd two nights in the new town and wander across the causeway to check out the delights of the Old Venetian settlement and the fortress at its peak. Cool off with a sea swim.
I used to use AutoUnion at Athens airport but for some reason switched to Europcar a couple of years ago. It is very cheap and they pick you up at the airport and take you to a compound in the middle of nowhere. And they let you drive away however hammered you may be so all in all it seems like a fair deal. The drawback? The compound is in the middle of nowhere so when you try to return the car you have to allow an hour for getting lost.
Natch when I picked the car up on my last trip to the Greek hovel it had a few scratches but I did not care. It was 4.15 AM and I wanted to get through Athens and off to the Mani before rush hour. Anyhow it was snowing and I was not going to hang around freezing my nuts off arguing about the odd scratch.
Wind forward 12 days and I returned the car and having duly spent an hour getting lost was getting a little flustered about checking in. The man looked at the car and detected some small new scratches in four places. Driving up to the Greek hovel you go through bushes and other fauna and so I imagined he’d get a spray can and fill in the small scratches.
That will be an extra 400 Euro said the man. I should charge you 480 Euro, 120 Euro to respray each panel but I can offer you a bulk discount. WTF!
a) Such a respray would not cost 480 Euro even in England when you have a bulk deal with your local shop as Europcar must do.
b) Was the bloke who used the car before me leaving it with various scratches also charged for a total respray? Knowing what Greece is like do they honestly respray whole panels every time they get a small scratch?
Whether it is a or b I felt ripped off but they knew and I knew that I had no time to argue. And so I paid and stated that one good turn deserved another. And on that basis might I encourage you to pass this article on to anyone heading for Athens and looking to rent a car with the clear advice that Europcar are complete and utter bastards and should be avoided at all costs.
Next time? Next time I go to Greece I am finally sorting out my residency and that means I can buy a pick-up truck, my own motorbike and a gun. Never again will I have to go anywhere near Europcar. Have I made it clear that Europcar are complete and utter bastards and should be avoided at all costs?
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.
I was meaning to devote this postcard to what a banana republic the UK is becoming but Nigel Somerville writes about that well enough on ShareProphets HERE and so instead I discuss my drive into the clouds of the high Taygetus of the Mani and bring you a few photos. Of the Church where I said thanks having almost driven off a cliff next door and of the cliff and the view DOWN into the clouds from the other side of the church, of the past (a monastery) and of the future, the ghost village. I reflect on why there will be more places like that going forward.
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.
Not only is it freezing cold but it is pissing it down in the Mani today. So in a rather cowardly fashion I have extended my stay in my nice warm hotel in Kalamata rather than catching pneumonia at the Greek Hovel. But I have popped over to make sure that I can work online here as tomorrow I am multi-tasking: writing and burning frigana. But boy is it wet.
Photo one is of a puddle – one of many I drove through – this one is at the bottom of the valley.
The next two photos look upstream and downstream at the dry river. As you can see it is not so dry and is now starting to flow across the track. Heaven knows what it will be like by tomorrow.
Because looking up to the Taygetus mountains behind the hovel it looks wet, wet, wet indeed. The rain that falls there today will be hitting the dry river tomorrow morning just as I try to cross it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As one leaves the small Mani town of Kardamili the road starts to climb steeply. On the edge of town there are a couple of fish restaurants, some slightly newer housing including the house that Paddy Leigh Fermor built for himself. My family stayed there once as my father knew Paddy – it just happened that this was the one family break to Greece that I did not go on.
Paddy left his house to the Greek State to turn into some sort of writing school. You would have thought that after a lifetime here he would have known better. It is slowly decaying, neglected by a State that although bankrupt can still afford to give anyone with a couple of olive trees an annual grant of 500 Euro.
The first of the fish restaurants as one heads up the hill is the favourite of the Mrs and I. The food is great, the wine flows, the waiters are friendly and efficient and the view over the cove below is magnificent.
On one side of the cove is a small working harbour used by fisherman. At night you can see the lights on the boats as they chug slowly home. A jetty provides a breakwater for the waves although nothing much happens o it other than bridal parties posing for photos. At the far end of the cove is a concrete jetty which is totally empty. If you have seen the film Before Midnight the final scene was filmed there as it became a seaside bar for just one night.
And so the other day we wandered down to the cove along a small road with not a human in sight. At the bottom we were greeted by a white goose, a white duck and a rather fat mallard male. The goose stared at us rather stupidly. The white duck ignored us. But the mallard started to follow me in a gentle ambling sort of fashion.
The Mrs thought this rather sweet and cried out “pudding” which is her pet name for my cat Oakley whom she adores. But while Oakley is sweet the duck was not. Encouraged by the thought that it might be, I leant over to touch it at which point t moved swiftly forward and bit my leg. The Mrs thought this very funny. I moved off at a swift pace but the duck pursued me keen to have another go.
“Bloody hell I am six foot tall and eat duck. You are a duck” I said to myself, turned, faced the enemy and kicked the air in front of it. The duck beat a hasty retreat, the Mrs was still laughing. The duck should consider itself lucky to have escaped so lightly – seven weeks of Greek salads might make a man think of suitable accompaniments to Orange sauce.
I am very proud of myself. Not only have I constructed an eco-loo but I have been uber- environmentally friendly in using 80% recycled materials. For a man who came 127 out of 127 with 27% in the U4 Warwick School woodwork exam I think I have done well.
The box case is an old trunk. I took off the top with my early Christmas present to myself (an electric screwdriver) and cut a piece of hardboard (not recycled into shape). That was then reattached to the hinges and thus to the chest.
The bucket is kept in place with some scrap wood I picked up and sawed to jam it in. That leaves a distinct compartment either side for loo paper and for herbs & flowers which will make it smell more pleasant and which you chuck a handful of into the bucket after usage.
The whole thing can now sit on the snake veranda at the Greek Hovel. This means I do not have a trek through the dark to the smelly, lizard infested outside loo which I can now demolish. That thing like all Greek loos fails for me as
a) It uses far too much water which the Mani is a bit short of
b) The Greek system sees piss and pooh allowed to seep into the ground. By the time it hits the next water channel it is clean. For this to work loo paper must be not flushed away but put in a bucket by the loo which once every few days you take to the bins at the end of your road in a plastic bag for collection. This is both environmentally unfriendly and also very unpleasant.
c) The bucket from my eco-loo will every two or three days be emptied into my – soon to be built – humanure system. One bucket of “waste” plus herbs and loo paper is covered by some fibrous material (grass, leaves, etc.) and then the process repeats. A new humanure pen will be built in 2015 and by January 2016 given the heat here and winter rains, the 2014 “crop” will have burned up all of the harmful bacteria and will be black earth. That can then be used as free and very high quality mature for the olive trees in the manuring season (January) of 2016. That pit is then freed up again for 2016 usage while 2015 “matures”
The Mrs is not quite so keen on my environmental zealotry. Heck I only want to help the planet… Anyhow I am proud of my efforts, now onto the humanure pit.
There are different forms of guilt that I feel as I sit in the Greek Hovel. The worst is as I peer outside and see the sun shining on a glorious day. Yet I will be heading back inside soon to finish another article on shares, on Quindell or whatever.
In side of me something associate sun and the smell of a Greek hillside with holidays. What on earth am I doing spending holiday time hammering away at my PC? The Mrs makes that point every time we go on holiday and it is a fair one.
I have not fully made the mental leap that this is not a holiday. The Mrs has bought a house which is one of our two homes. The nature of my work means that sometimes I will live in Bristol and sometimes I live here in the Mani, Greece. This is my home and just as in Bristol I am working from home. And so gradually the feelings of guilt about now being down at the beach or just lazing around doing nothing are going.
As it happens I am not a great one for the beach and sitting around doing nothing does not make me relaxed. I hate it!
Here are other feelings of guilt. Work on the house is a bit behind schedule. Do not get me wrong, enormous progress has been made but just not as much as I would have liked. The wildlife are excluded from the redoubt and it is cooled by my fan. I have a shower and the internet. And gradually the wildlife exclusion zone around the house is expanding. But I am behind my self-imposed schedule. I feel guilt on that front. But then I feel guilty about Ben Turney, Steve Moore, Darren Atwater and Princess Leia if I do not pull my weight for ShareProphets. They are working in far less pleasant surroundings I cannot abandon them can I?
It’s a lose lose situation. However I spend my time there is guilt. But if I have to be somewhere feeling guilty, there are far worse places to be. And I am now accepted almost entirely that this is my home, this is not a holiday.
It is that time when I have to hope that I have not lost my passport, boarding pass and other documents. And by a stroke of luck I rummage away in my computer bag and they are all there. I have even been efficient enough to book a ticket for a bus back from Gatwick and all being well I shall be in my bed in Bristol by 3.30 AM on Sunday Morning. But it will not be a long stay in England.
All being well I shall be back in Greece on July 1st preparing to spend three months working both online with my writing (tough luck Bulletin Board Morons if you thought I was retiring) but also on a building site. That is to say, the Mrs appears to have bought a property in the Mani which er..needs a bit of work. In fact it needs a total overhaul.
Taking advice from an Irish pal, working on a building site in the summer heat is a great way to lose weight. And I need a new challenge and learning how to rebuild a house seems like a good one. Greece being Greece nothing is done until it is done but, fingers crossed, the retirement home in the olive groves half way up a mountain has been located. There is a good amount of land with the hovel and a local worker (Albanian natch) and I have done a deal on the numerous olives it produces: He picks and the Mrs gets enough of a cut to pay Greek property taxes and for a few flights.
Anyhow that is all for the future. For now I can think of installing eco-loos ( more on that later) and on grand redesigns, the hard work – I hope – starts in July.
This week’s video postcard comes from the Mani, the region which is at the southernmost point of mainland Greece. But do not be fooled into thinking I am lounging by a swimming pool it is frigging friezing here.
It is however gorgeous. Everywhere one goes the mountains stare down at you. Some still have snow on them, most seem to be covered in rain bearing clouds.
The history of the Mani is fascinating. It was here that the flag of revolt was first raised at the start of the Greek war of independence from the Turks. The Maniots, like the fellow below, are a fierce lot.
My video postcard covers some of the history of the Mani but then moves onto how the local and wider Greek economy is "recovering". I think any recovery is illusory and explain why as a long term bet Greece is buggered.
In our wicked English way we always have a little fun at how the foreigners mangle our language. In that vein I bring you a sign from outside what brands itself as one of the top cake shops in the Mani region thanks to its superb cook. Well he is clearly the boss anyway.
In a couple of days I shall be on the road again, picking up the Mrs at Athens airport and heading off to the Mani. It is three hours to Athens, an hour to get lost in the City and then five more to the Mani. The Mrs will, no doubt bring CDs so for the last five hours it will be a mix of Nashville with the odd George Michael track (her choice not mine). But until we meet up I will listen to the radio as I love Greek pop.
The beat and some of the strains clearly have a Turkish influence (I hope no-one here is reading this) but there are also very European themes and so I am a big fan. Perhaps that is in part because I do not understand very much of what is being sung.
With English pop I know that 99% of the lyrics are inane piffle. With Greek pop I am sure that the same is true but I can kid myself that the pained lyrics are about the struggles of the War of Independence, the misery of 58% youth unemployment or the tragedy that has been joining the Euro. I know I kid myself but it makes for great listening. Sadly as I start to learn Greek the cost will be that I can no longer kid myself.
The track below from the High Queen of Greek pop Despina Vandi was one that the Mrs and I had on our wedding play list last year.
A little bit of a misunderstanding with the Mrs and the alarm clock saw me still soundly asleep as the 4.47 AM pulled out of Bristol today. In the end I had a pleasant lie-in, worked in the morning and just after lunch (an apple) kissed goodbye to the cats and the Mrs and headed off. Now in London I will not see Bristol, or the cats, again for more than a month.
The Mrs is heading up later in the week for her Birthday and the UK Investor Show on Saturday where she will be personfully ( you see dearest, I can be PC if I try) looking after speakers in one of the breakout rooms and then wandering around with her parents who are also attending. Tes, the mother-in-law is coming to the show. Be very afraid. I am. I guess I won’t be swearing all day just in case she hears and gives me a scary and dirty look.
And then a few farewells and it is off to Greece on my own at first as I try to find the grave of my great uncle David. Thereafter the Mrs joins me as we spend a couple of weeks in the Mani where – I warn you – the internet connection can be patchy. It will be early May before I get back to Bristol, the cats, a new kitchen sort of designed by me with a lovely new Range Cooker. It seems like a long time away but I am sure that time will fly.
Anyhow my battered and well-travelled rucksack is packed and with me as we prepare to go hill walking in Greece once again. I really cannot wait.
— Tom Winnifrith
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