Friday, 15 October 2010

Meganisi: an enchanting spot

In Spartakhori, there is a crowd outside the little church. The people mill around the courtyard, a polished, black coffin lid propped up against the whitewashed wall.

We walk along the road, joined by a small cat, and look out across the bay.

Rod Heikell, in his Ionian pilot book, describes the place where we are moored as an enchanting spot.

‘Deep cobalt blue water, steep slopes planted with olives or covered in maquis, and the winding road shaded by cypress and pine leading to the village.’

From here you can see the Onassis island, Skorpios, with its flat-top helipad and the little Cyclades-style beach house where Jackie O found solitude away from prying eyes.

We walk on, the daemon cat that was once at our heels now in a stand-off with a large black feline guarding a plot of land on which there are some olive trees, three motor boats, an old shack, a dozen hens and three arrogant cockerels.

After the rain, the sun comes out and tinkling bells of sheep and goats sound like a babbling stream.

The melon man, usually announcing his wares on the loudspeaker at the front of his van, drives slowly by, a coffin in the back and groups of mourners walking slowly behind, chatting in groups and flicking their rosary beads and smoking, on their way to cemetery.

The cockerels in their enclosures call out across Meganisi, their cries echoing across the valley to the next bay.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Journey to the centre of the earth: a hymn to Delphi, ancient and modern

Photo: Chucknado, Flickr
I am in Delphi, the centre of the world for ancient Greeks, where the god Apollo slew the Python as she guarded the earth's navel.

This is the land of the gods, Greek heroes, the famed oracle, Homeric poetry, athletes partaking in the Pythian Games, philosophers, Plutarch, Nero. There are columns from all the classical orders, inscriptions on marble slabs and, in the museum, friezes showing scenes from the Trojan War. There is the world's first written musical melody, a huge statue of the all-seeing, all-knowing Delphic sphinx, three graceful dancing girls at the top of a column decorated with acanthus leaves carved out of stone, the fixed gaze of a charioteer, intricate votive offerings and the remnants of a silver bull.

In ancient times, this was the most important place in the whole world. The centre of civilisation.

Down at our hotel in modern Delphi, Mr Grigg is in deep conversation with the proprietor, Nick, as the latter flicks languidly through the television channels in the lobby. He hovers on the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Paul Newman and Robert Redford are about to jump into the river.

'All the politicans are corrupt. They steal money. The Greeks, the English. The politicians, they are all the same,' he tells Mr Grigg, as he flicks to an inane game show with a hostess wearing a skirt no longer than a charioteer's loin cloth.

And then he plunges in the knife and twists it. 'Your Queen, she steal money,' Nick says, jabbing his finger into Mr Grigg's shoulder.

Mr Grigg, that defender of the British monarchy, protests. (One day, his devotion to the Royal family will earn him a knighthood. Me, I make a point of not standing up for God Save the Queen).

'What about the Chinese?' Mr Grigg says, in a deft piece of distractive debate worthy of Plato. He is referring to the latest development in the Greek economic crisis. The Chinese, it seems, are to be the country's saviour, overcoming the Python and working with the new government and investing in hotels and casinos near Athens.

'Aren't you suspicious of their motives?' he asks old Nick, who has a face like Rumpole of the Bailey.

Nick shrugs. 'They bring money. They bring jobs.'

As we sign out of the hotel, on which a Visa sign can be seen clearly on the front door, Nick shakes his head as Mr Grigg proffers his debit card.

'No, no card. Only cash.' Nick licks his lips. I see a flicker of the Python's forked tongue and glimpse a pile of banknotes in the back office (and no offer of a receipt) as we drive off into the wilderness.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Monday, 11 October 2010

The games people play

As the rain and wind head towards us from the south, Mr Grigg has become the solitaire champion of the South Ionian. In stormy weather, no-one can see you cheat.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Friday, 8 October 2010

Hark, Odysseus is calling

There is a place in the Mediterranean that I love. It’s called Ithaca, and I’m not the first person to have fallen under its spell.

‘If this island belonged to me,’ said the romantic poet Lord Byron, ‘I would bury all my books here and never go away.’

I get the same feeling every time I come back. Why would I ever want to leave?

In the October sun, Vathi, the island’s capital, sprawls out to catch the autumn rays. A dog barks continually, a scooter skims by, and in a little house with a ‘ban the bomb’ sign painted on the wall, a middle-aged man and a middle aged woman unpack a supermarket bag full of fruit on to the patio table.

There is the smell of woodsmoke, the aromatic scent of moussaka gently bubbling and the sound of builders lazily drilling in a house way up on the hillside.

I am waiting inside the boat, lying inside the aft cabin like Penelope longing for her Odysseus.

But he is up in the cockpit, glass of wine in hand and snoring sweetly.

He wakes as another boat pulls in alongside, the skipper yelling: 'Wolfgang, put more anchor chain out.'

My Odysseus bids good day to our new neighbours. I can hear cordiality in the air. Mr Grigg being nice to a German. This magical island has that kind of effect.

That’s about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

To get ahead, get a hat

After high winds in Ithaca, where we are marooned in Vathi harbour for two days, on the third day all is calm.

With us are our crew, Mr and Mrs Champagne-Charlie, our neighbours from The Enchanted Village. Earlier in the week he stepped out from the Easy Jet plane at Corfu airport in blazer and panama hat and carrying two bottles of champagne.

'Is he royalty?' we heard a woman with a faded tattoo ask her husband in cropped trousers and fake Crocs.

Now, five days into the voyage, we still keep hearing cheerful mutters of 'bugger', 'bollocks' and worse as Champagne-Charlie hits his head on bits that protrude in the cockpit. The panama is not much use on board a boat.

Today we are off to explore the island on scooters. The boys arrive at the quayside on their newly-collected bikes and are wearing rather fetching crash helmets.

'These must be our dates for the day,' Mrs Champagne-Charlie says, confiding in me her terror at the prospect of riding pillion around hairpin bends.

'He hasn't ridden a scooter for at least forty years,' she says through gritted teeth.

Champagne-Charlie comes aboard with black crash helmet, like the policeman in Terminator II, and turns to Mr Grigg and says: 'I could wear this all day, chap.'

And so he should. Much more protection than a panama.


Onwards and upwards to the lovely village of Stavros, overlooking the bay at Polis, before heading across to Keffalonia where it's back to the airport for me. Until the next time.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 8 July 2010

When the wind blows

I am sitting alone in the stuffy cabin of our boat in the wind-tossed bay of Vathi in Ithaca. I want to get to shore but cannot reach it - Mr Grigg and the Champagne-Charlies are in a bar somewhere and they've got the dinghy.

I also keeping getting Mr Grigg's answerphone message when I try his mobile to tell him to please come back and get me, I'm feeling as sick as a dog.

But like Odysseus, I am facing my own challenges before being able to set foot on dry land. Namely a 2,000-word Open University essay on the role of black slavery in the modernisation of the Atlantic world. I am nauseous, bobbing around and a little bit frightened - although not half as sick as those poor slaves must have felt. The essay has to be emailed by noon tomorrow and I've still got 1,400 words to go.

And yesterday, as we were trying to anchor in a harbour full of white caps, Mr Grigg fell in the seated position on my neck. All 16-stone of him.

It sorted the crick out. But now I've got a headache.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 4 July 2010

To hell and back

Just in the Thessaly region of Greece, I get closer to God as I climb with Mr Grigg to Agia Triada (Holy Trinity), one of the many monasteries that perch on the ancient pinnacles of Meteora.

It is a strange place, like something from the set of a science fiction film. I am also reminded of Black Narcissus. Any moment now I expect a crazed nun to jump out on me thinking I am Deborah Kerr.

But I am not and I make it to the top and back to the bottom again in the baking heat, just as storm clouds descend and forked lightning rattles through the mountains.

Then to Ionianna and the tomb of the decapitated Ali Pasha. Down at the coast, we make our way from an overnight stay in Sivota to the Necromanteion of Ephyra, the ancient Greek oracle of the dead. We pass azaleas, hollyhocks, wild thyme and olive groves along the roadside.

This is somewhere I have been wanting to visit properly for several years. On our first visit, the place was closed but Mr Grigg found a hole in the fence where I climbed through. It was too small for him, so he and a solitary tortoise stood guard on the outside.

Back then, I wandered around the ruins of this eerie place on my own. I tried to picture it when the ancient Greeks came to communicate with the dead. Odysseus stopped here for a chat with Teiresias. Stupefied visitors were lowered down by windlass to the chamber below, the palace of Hades and Persephone. In my head was a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but a silent version.

I found a metal stairway going down into a hole in the floor. Down below it was dark, dank and I had no idea how deep it went. I pictured myself in a thriller, at the point where the viewer thinks 'don't go down there you idiot', so I didn't. I decided to wait another day.

The day has come. We take a boat ride up the lazy River Acheron, which in mythology was one of the four rivers including the Styx that converged at the centrerof Hades on a great marsh. Our bony skipper could be Charon, who ferried the dead across the river to the underworld.

At the Necromanteion, we wander around until we find the hole in the floor. Mr Grigg goes first down the stairs and I follow, clutching the cold metal rail in my clammy hand. The temperature drops, the subterranean room smells earthy and it feels claustrophobic. Not as large as I imagined Hades to be, but other wordly just the same.

And we emerge into the sunlight again, to see a mother stork and a nest of youngsters high up on a lamp post.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Friday, 2 July 2010

A Greek chorus

High above Metsovo, the sky darkens. A thunderclap breaks the gloom, crackingly loud as if the gods are playing bowls overhead. We drive towards the 1,705 metre Katara Pass, once the only route through these lonely mountains.

The sun comes out in a flash that is almost blinding. Pine trees cling to the sides of the mountains, holding on for dear life, while campanula, yellow yarrow and thistle pause for breath.

In the town square of Metsovo, the old men sit in the long shelter in front of the gardens. They are all wearing suit jackets and an assortment of hats including flat caps and baseball caps and black berets. They gabble, flicking their rosary beads and clacking their shepherd crooks. One of them stands up, gazing at the black-edged obituaries on the notice board.

'You next,' says one of them with a laugh.

A haze of woodsmoke hits the cold air and the kokoretsi on the grill turns slowly, its ribbons dripping fat on the embers below.

An old man comes around the corner, taps with his stick on one of the posts supporting the shelter and shouts to his friends: 'Anyone at home?'

'No, we left long ago,' say the ghosts of old men past.

They come alive as a group of young women in short dresses bend over to pack the boot of a nearby car. An old woman in traditional costume picks her way down the cobbled street and the men turn to ghosts once more, clasping their hands over the ends of their walking sticks as if in a combined act of prayer.

In the courtyard of a house where truffles dry out in the sun, a little old man and woman stoke up a cauldron and make some butter.

Up in the mountains, where grizzly shepherds roam with gravel-voiced dogs and the occasional brown bear, the Katara Pass beckons us. We are off to Meteora, with its myriad of monasteries perched high on mounds of stone rising up from the earth.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

He saw the whole of the moon

High in the Epirus mountains, Mr Grigg is regaining his joie de vivre after England were well and truly routed by Germany in the World Cup.
Spoons at Gatwick
Our holiday starts at the airport and the timing of our flight means that soccer-mad Mr Grigg watches the match in Gatwick's Wetherspoons. This gives me plenty of time to shop for books and shoes - two things I like very much. When I go back to the bar, the less than beautiful game is still going on and I am able to announce I have bought four books and three pairs of shoes with Mr Grigg's credit card without him taking any notice at all.
Standing room only
With a heavy heart after a 4-1 defeat, he boards the Easy Jet flight before anyone else, not caring how many old ladies or disabled people he knocks over in his haste to get plenty of legroom.

Two days in to our trip and things have improved. We are exploring the mainland, based for the first couple of nights in the old walled Kastro near the lake in Ioannina. This university town nestles on the shores of a beautiful but polluted lake.

Up in the mountains near the Vikos Gorge and the villages of the Zagorohoria, the hillsides are strewn with salvia, clary of pink, purple and blue, acanthus, moon daisies, mallow and wild clematis. These are some of the sights we see:
I gvneka tis Pindou - the tribute to the Pindos women who helped the soldiers
A lonely goatherd
A couple of old goats
A bridge too far
In the Pindos mountains, we make our way through the grassy cobbles of Monodendri, get lost and then double back. Mr Grigg marches on ahead, only to be confronted by an elderly woman who has been caught short and is crouching on the ground, just about to pull up her knickers.
This is the spot where it happened
It is a sight I miss and, I think, something Mr Grigg has probably imagined. All I see are her feet scuttling around the corner, clattering like an old goat.

However, he is insistent.

'As the song goes: you saw the crescent, I saw the whole of the moon,' he sighs.

Serves him right for pushing his way on to the plane and knocking out everything in his path.

That's it - for now. Next stop Metsovo and the devine Meteora.

Love Maddie x