Monday, 26 March 2012

Portrait of a Village

Karyes, Laconia

I am disappointed that I haven't learned Greek in my five months in our lovely Greek village,. But just like it takes a village to raise a child, it would take more than that to help me learn this language.
Despite that, I have been very grateful for the welcome I have had, for the friendship I have been offered and for the neighbours who have graced my life this winter long.

I would like to introduce them to you.

the beautiful one and the black one
First off, our daily visitors. Although we feed half a dozen cats each day, these two are our favourites and seem to be the most faithful.  Minas calls them the black one and the beautiful one. They are very skittish and although the beautiful one will now occasionally let me touch her, the black one, even after daily visits over six months, won't let us near her. But just let the car pull up and the black one comes running. Our neighbour, George, tells me they are both pregnant. I hope they manage when we are gone.

turkeys and hens are our neighbours
Then there are the noisy neighbours right next door. They crow and gobble and make a racket whenever someone walks by and looks into their below ground level abode. Lately we have been enjoying the turkeys who fan out their tail feathers like a peacock. With their blue heads and necks,  they strut waving their red wattles to and fro, gobbling all the while. The old lady who keeps them in this ramshackle abandoned house comes faithfully each morning to let them out and  just as faithfully each evening to close them in for the night.

Maria and Demosthenes
Our landlords are Maria and Demosthenes.  She is energetic and round with a quick laugh and a ready greeting. She loves to talk - very fast and with many many words and I don't have a clue what she is saying. He is lean and a little dour. But it was Demosthenes who introduced me to the" before lunch" drink of Cheepero (phonetic of course). If you think ouzo is strong, you should take a slug of this. Dear Demosthenes, who wears a perpetual frown, is a real sweetie and brought me a box of firewood on many occasions over the course of the cold winter.

Panos and Anna

Here is Demosthenes' brother, Panos, with his Rumanian wife, Anna. They generously invited us for Christmas dinner. I took tourtiere and lemon squares as the "Canadian food" contribution. Anna is my inspiration as it only took her ten years to perfect her command of the Greek Language.  These two are completely self-sustaining with goats, sheep, chickens and a huge vegetable garden. No worries about the economic crisis for them.

Aphrodite and Costas
Aphrodite and Costas run the general store. He gets on to Minas for not helping me learn Greek. He has a fair bit of English himself and he told Minas that if he had just helped me for half an hour a day, I would have learned a lot more of the language by now. Costas always taught me something when I went in to the store. I probably should have spent half an hour in their shop every day and I would have been better off. Unfortunately, Aphrodite natters a mile a minute, I understand nothing and she expects an answer too.

Anastasia, the best baker

The best baker for miles around is Anastasia. I cannot tell you how many kourabyedhes that Minas enjoyed this past winter. And dear Anastasia... you can't walk into her shop without her pressing some free gift on you. As a result of our Greek eating habits, we are both heavier than we were last Fall. We'll roll out of here and hopefully, two months of biking will correct the situation. But Minas will miss the Greek treats of his childhood.

Sophia, the hostess with the mostest and Georgis

Sophia and her husband, Georgis, run one of the cafenions and Calliope the other. Sophia has quite a bit of English and I think she is a little disappointed that I didn't learn more.Calliope is a workaholic and very generous with her time. She loves her flowers and always has a fresh arrangement on the bar. It is to Calliope that I bequeath the lovely orchid that Minas bought me with 35 blooms.
They both make excellent Greek coffee and "chai douvenou" but Georgis make the best 'cafe frappee'. 
Calliope, the flower lover

Sometimes people just take to you and you to them for no apparent reason. Such was the case with Panayota who, when she met us, immediately offered a guided walk into the hills to see a tiny church. We have had lunch at her house twice and afternoon coffee once. Her husband, Vassilis, has a huge vegetable garden and makes very good wine. Between the two of them there are always invites flying our way along with fresh eggs, excellent potatoes and the occasional bottle of wonderful wine.

Panayota and Vasilis

Ya Y
And everybody needs a yaya. Here is my adopted one. She is Panayota's mother. Yaya calls me Katerina moo (my Katerina) and she is always urging me to sit down, have some more to eat, enjoy! She admonishes Minas for not taking the time to teach me Greek and it is for her that I most want to know this language. Yaya has her bed in the kitchen-dining room area of the house. The first time we went for lunch, she stayed up and didn't have her afternoon nap. When we went for coffee, we were in the living room and she was supposed to be napping but there is nothing wrong with her hearing and she kept interrupting the conversation to add her own two cents. The last time we had lunch, Panayota escorted her to their room for her nap but after ten minutes she was back. She just had to be part of the social occasion even it if was from her bed. I just love her! I regret that I had to refuse the hand made quilt she wanted me to take home. There just isn't space in the luggage.

Andreas on Greek Independence Day

The kids of the neighbourhood are not numerous but they make themselves heard. Andreas has the most colourful personality and is the one we know the best. On Greek Independence Day, he was not only the best speaker in the children's performance of the story of independence in the church, he looked terrific in his 200 year old costume. Do you know why those men wore skirts with 1000 pleats? It was so the arrows and knives would not penetrate the folds of material and reach their bodies.

On March 25th ,Greek Independence Day, we invited all of these friends to come to Sunday lunch at the taverna - I don't cook here. We had the traditional meal for this holiday with salt cod, calamari, salads and horta and copious amounts of wine. Our guests brought desserts so we rounded out the meal with galacta buriko, sweet pastries and good old Canadian lemon bars. We retired to Sophia's cafenion for coffees on the house. We started at 2pm and finished at 5pm and that's a proper lunch time around here.

But I would be remiss if I didn't introduce you to Barba Thanasis. He is close to 101 years of age and he gets around on his own steam, walking to the cafenion twice a day, to play cards with his cronies and home where his 96 year old second wife has his meals ready. Minas adores him and I think it is mutual.

Barba Thanasis at 100 and Minas at ???

And so I say good-bye to some special people who have shared their lives with me this past winter.
Efharisto kai tha mee lee soo may ksana sai merica chronia.

In Search of the Perfect Greek Village

An early morning glimpse of the village of Vamvakou

We have spent many hours in the car these past six months travelling the roads of the Peleponnese, visiting villages and finding the hidden gems among them.  I am hard -pressed to choose my favourites but I have been thinking about what makes one village more impressive than the next.

the mountain road to Kalamata

We have found some villages along impossibly difficult roads through the mountains where the hairpin turns are enough to put the fright into anyone. As a passenger I have often closed my eyes and prayed that lunch would not embarrass me by coming up.

encountering sheep on the road

In the mountain valleys you can hear the bells of the sheep and the goats and you sometimes find yourself in the middle of a herd of them before you know it.

goats milling about on the road

Gerolimanis, in Mani, the wild middle finger of the Peleponnese

The coastal villages stretch lazily along a strip of sandy beach.  Small fishing boats bob just offshore  and a taverna with a covered verandah beckons you to stop, to sit, to eat and to drink for at least a while.

But the good ones have a few things in common. I like a village with a central platia - not one that is strung along the main highway. I like to see life in the village with cafes and tavernas open and busy in the central square, and a pedestrian area of shops or houses where cars do not venture. My favourite villages have a certain aesthetic with cared for houses and shops, trees and flowers planted in many places, signs and statues, colour and ..... it has to be really Greek - not too touristy and not bought up by foreigners.

Minas and "that store" with the honey  in Aghios Petras

And the best villages have something unique to offer - something special - something that the others don't have: so that you can easily recall them with ' "Oh that was the village with........."

Stoupa beach from the taverna

 I could easily choose Stoupa, with its sliver of sand, its trees hanging over the water and its lively taverna but no..... it is swarming with the Brits that have bought up all the houses.

the large and elegant platia of Napflion

Then there is Napflion with its old buildings, its gracious and huge central platia, its well defined pedestrian area with hundreds of tiny shops but no --- it is really more of a town and besides there are too many tourists.

What about Monemvasia?
inside the upper walls of Monemvasia

Who can resist its cobbled streets, the s-shaped entrance that lets only humans and horses pass through - definitely no cars here. And you can walk for miles up to the very top of the ruined medieval town and castle, feeling the ghosts of citizens long gone. At the top you can see for miles in all directions and realize how very much of an island was this old town. But no..... the tiny main street is lined with souvenir shops to catch the hordes of tourists that descend from the buses.

the entrance to a home in Kastanits

For me, Kastanitsa is my favourite mountain village to date. Its peculiar charm lies in its white-washed walls, blue woodwork and authentic slate roofs. The main village has its central road along a narrow ridge that falls away on either side. The ridge runs to a mountain peak upon which sits the ruins of a castle and a well-preserved Byzantine church. From the peak there is a severe drop off to the valley below.  Kastanitsa has always been able to protect itself  from its enemies!

narrow streets and white-washed walls of Kastanitsa

Luckily,  visitors are welcomed on the tiny narrow streets of Kastanitsa that are accessible only to pedestrians. Of course there may be the occasional crazy local who drives their truck through the central platia when you are having lunch at the outdoor restaurant, forcing you to move your chair, but that just adds to the story.

Kastanitsa has the aesthetic, the central platia and the taverna. There is a ruined castle and a Byzantine church. The cars are kept out of its tiny streets both by edict and by circumstance and it is so far off the beaten path that there are few tourists.

the old style slate roofs of Kastanitsa
It is the only village I have seen where every house has the old style slate roofs. This could be its unique feature. But more importantly, it sits amid forests of chestnut (KASTANA) trees from whence it gets its name. Kastanitsa's best feature is the chestnut pudding cake made and sold in late fall when the chestnuts are picked and celebrated at the village Chestnut Festival. That is a sweet treat like no other!

Kastanitsa, Peleponnese

So there you have it, the most perfect Greek village in the Peleponnese by my book!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

These Old Stones - Part Two

the old path beckons upward in the ruined fortress town of Mystra

The ancient stones of Olympia, Mycenae and Epidavros are joined in the middle ages by another set of fortress towns built by northern knights returning from the Crusades. One such was Geoffrey de Villehardouin, a Frenchman, who took a liking to the Peleponnese, set about conquering it and founded a dynasty which lasted from 1204 to 1460. Besides currying favour with the ladies, the Villehardouins were inveterate castle builders and three important ruins remain.

the ruined buildings of the town from the castle atop Mystra
The first is Mystra, built on a high hlll, a spur of the Taygetos, near the modern town of Sparti, just about an hour from our house. Here remains the ruins of an entire city, founded by Villehardouin and his son, William, and inhabited, in the lower regions until the 1950s. Although the site is now visited by many tour buses, it is large enough to get lost in and the steep slope up to the ruins of the fortress castle keep the hordes at bay.

a Byzantine church in Mystra
There is an entrance fee to the site to see the ruins, the museum and the still intact Byzantine churches of which they are a few. Even after the Villehardouins were ousted from the Peleponnese, Mystra continued to flourish in Byzantine times and was an important trading site for many centuries throughout Turkish and Venetian rule. In 1700, there were 40,000 people living on this mountain site.

Monemvasia, the second Villehardouin stronghold, is a great rock, rising up out of the sea at the south-eastern tip of the Peleponnese and joined to the mainland by a narrow, man-made causeway. The younger Villehardouin built the fortress castle at the very top but the site had been occupied since 580 AD. Unlike, Mystra, the lower area of Monemvasia is inhabited to this day.

the old Byzantine church in the ruins at the top of Monemvasia
an alley tempts you through its curves
feeding the cats - 57 of them

Monemvasia is so charming!  The small entrance into the walled town is a zig-zag configuration which allows the passage of a human or a horse but no cars or motorcycles. That makes the whole town very special - it is a "people only" place - unless you count the cats!

And Monemvasia is the ultimate in romantic villages. Its cobbled streets, its stone buildings, its planters and its shops are so well cared for. The little stone village draws you in: you love to linger and linger to love.

lingering in romantic Monemvasia

While the Villehardouin strongholds of yesteryear, Monemvasia and Mystra, attract many tourists, there is one more Byzantine town topped with another Villehardouin castle. This is Geraki, the poorer, smaller sister of Mystra and Monemvasia, but for me, all the more mysterious.

The ruined Frankish castle at the top of Geraki
Celtic knots in the wall of a church in Geraki
the crusaders have left their mark
There is no entrance fee in Geraki, there is no life in the ancient hill-top town, the small Byzantine churches are locked and who knows who has the keys; but in the ruins you find frescoes, paintings and carvings all braving the elements in this severe mountain place. In a way that is sad and you want to get the town of Geraki in the valley prodded into action to share this treasure and make a little money for themselves. On the other hand, the morning we spent climbing up to the top, enjoying the views, finding little treasures here and there, was pure magic.

a painting in a niche over the door of a locked church
frescoes of the crusaders exposed to the elements

I don't know if I should feel happy that crusader knights from the north were so arrogant that they felt justified in conquering a people just because they liked the land. Perhaps I should just be grateful that some vestiges of their presence remain and that I get to tell the story and witness the marks they left.

But why are these treasures not protected from the weather in some way?
the topmost Byzantine church in the ruins of Geraki
But still my favourite inspirational stones are those in the ruined buildings in so many Greek villages including our own. I like to look at them and think, "What if I bought it ... and renovated it..... and wrote about it? Could I be another Peter Mayle? So I always have a look when I see the For Sale sign.

For Sale

Monday, 19 March 2012

A Birthday Blog

the uninhabited back of Spetses island

the ferry to Spetses
Ever since I arrived in Greece last October, I have been harping at Minas to spend my 65th birthday on a Greek island. Amazingly, all that nagging paid off and I spent a lovely birthday on Spetses, a tiny island just ten minutes off the mainland and south of Athens. ( see location at bottom) We decided to take our bikes and the first clue I had that it was going to be a sensational time was the ferry. It was named Katerina Star!
a caleche on Spetses
The only people who are allowed cars on Spetses are the residents which makes for nice pedestrian areas. The traditional way for tourists to get around is by horse-drawn caleche. Scooters and motorcycles are everywhere in the main town and seem to most families' only means of transportation.
Mum Dad and dog on a scooter

yachts moored in the old harbour
Of course the wealthy have their yachts....
and we have our bikes!

the cannon on our balcony in Spetses
But don't go to Spetses until after Easter because that is when the season really begins. We stayed in the only hotel open at this time but fortunately it was a gem. The Economou Mansion, right on the water, slightly out of the town, was built in the 1800s by a sea captain and has been  made into a charming boutique hotel. Our balcony sported a cannon pointed out to sea.

On the morning of my birthday I woke up to this view

the view from the balcony of the Economou Mansion
Along with my tea in bed, Minas gave me an elaborately wrapped box, inside a box ,inside a box. When I got to the last slip of paper it was a promise of an iphone when we get home. So there you go, girls, we can always be connected now. When we went down to breakfast, I could hear a Welsh accent - sure enough, the other guests in the hotel were Welsh and not just Welsh but living in the Mumbles, Swansea, my home town. We had a lovely chat. It was shaping up to be a stellar day.

The birthday outing was to tour the island on our bikes. The recently asphalted road ran for 25 kilometres of beautiful sea views, and a fair number of substantial climbs. Two cars and one scooter passed us on the back of the island. Basically, we had the place to ourselves and it was glorious.
Minas ahead as usual
yes there are some wealthy Greeks
and then there are some who bicycle
 It took us just over two hours on the bikes but we added our picnic and several photo stops and arrived back in Spetses town in time to find a sunny spot for coffee overlooking the main harbour. 
coffee overlooking the harbour ad another cannon
To Lazarus restaurant, Spetses
 A nap in the sun on the balcony, a wander around the shopping streets, a nice glass of white wine, a lovely dinner of fresh fish and I pronounced it a perfect day.

All in all it was a wonderful birthday and I think I am happy to be an old age pensioner, with all the perks that this stage brings. And I don't think it's wrong to try to hold onto some vestige of youth as well. Spetses and Minas made me feel like a star and very special.
a lone poppy complements the wild flowers of Spetses