Tuesday, October 08, 2013
Saturday, March 10, 2012
This has been an extraordinary auspicious stay in a beautiful place. There's trouble beneath the surface, but these are good people and they are as hospitable as they can be. And visitors are their main source of income. In case you’re travelling round that area and happen on this blog, I’m just going to pop in a few recommendations of places that are open in the off-season. They would welcome people at this time of year, even if the tourist machine is not in gear right now.
You’ll need Alpha Car Rental, in Vathi, easy to find behind the road with the 2 banks, if you haven’t brought your own wheels. He’s closed 2-5 every day for siesta and currently only operates 1 car in the off season, so it might be wise to book so he can sort out insurance for more if need be. Nico, a friendly South African expat runs it. Hitchhiking is an option in a pinch, as most of the roads only have 1 destination. I managed it fine for 2 days. But it would stop being an option if everybody did it. The schoolbus leaves Vathi shortly after 7am as I remember, and then again at 2pm for certain. It goes all the way to Kioni stopping along the way. But there is no bus back after it. The driver tends to charge 1.50 no matter how far you’re going. Nobody rents scooters in the off season.
I stayed at Grivas Gerasimos. They were clean rooms, a little way from the centre, overlooking the harbour. I was in half of a twin rather than a double. It was very reasonable though. This website probably has a good number of reasonable ones. At this time of year everyone has rooms that they want to fill, the whole island is full of them. If you want something more plush I reckon go to Kioni, but you’ll need a car if you do that.
There was one easy place for meat in Vathi. There's no menu, so check the prices before you order. In Stavros is a very touristy looking place called Ithaki Grill. It’s not cheap and the food will be from the freezer at this time of year but it's still very good. The guy was surprised to see me, and he and his wife had a massive argument about the fact that he’d given me a discount. Still, the tourist menu is marked up a lot, so it’s worth asking and risking her wrath. But make sure you get an apartment with cooking facilities or you’ll regret it. And there are no menus at this time of year so do ask the price, in bars as well – once you’ve eaten it or drunk it you can’t negotiate if they ask for way too much. The best food suppliers tend to drive around – the fish guy sells his catch in midmorning in Vathi outside the banks, and there’s a vegetable guy I came upon in Kioni who sold me the best orange I’ve ever had, and some good broccoli too.
The language barrier is an issue. English is a school subject, but often people clam up when they have to speak it. They can communicate perfectly well in it, but it’s that thing of trying to get it right rather than just said. I wish that I had boned up on some greek, but it was all too last minute. And being the only foreigner in town meant that any conversations I joined instantly became awkward and stilted as people accommodated to me. Being a tourist is one thing, being the only tourist is another, being a broke tourist? I felt like people were wondering what the heck I was for. Broke tourist? A truck without cargo, taking up space and bringing nothing. Right now, the aesthetic of sharing what a beautiful place they live in is much overtaken by the brass tacks of getting as many euros in the bag as possible. It's right next to Kefalonia, and let's face it, Homer is a good deal better than Louis de Bernieres. I am surprised there were not more people there. I arrived in Athens and the whole place is rammerjammed with Americans.
GETTING THERE: Is pretty easy from the airport. Regular buses run from the airport to Kifissos station - x94 as I remember, but not hard to find. A ticket was 5 euro. I expect there is a cheaper way, but they don't want you to find it. From Kifissos you're looking at around 20 euro and a 3 hour bus journey to Patra, and from there there are 2 ferries a day - or sometimes, like on Saturday, just 1. The ferry is about 4 hours and is anything from 10 to 18 euro depending on who you ask. A lot of it is booked by agents and resold. When you land in Vathi you don't have to be a mule like me and walk up the hill. There are always taxis to meet the ferries. And I expect they're pretty reasonable.
Friday, March 09, 2012
Last night I went to the cultural centre in Ithaca to see the dress rehearsal of an amateur show. The cultural centre is opposite the KKE office, and directly outside the door there is a plaque commemorating Byron’s visit to the island. Byron gave a great deal of money and his life for the Greek revolution that won them Independence from the Ottomans. The story goes that he arrived from the boat in a suit of armour, just for the hell of it, and got himself backlit as he went down the gangplank. His money was certainly welcome, and to give him credit he was passionate about it. He unfortunately fell sick and was bled to death by doctors trying to cure him.
I was not expecting to be able to make much of the play. And my presence in the hall was not entirely welcome – one of the actors bristled aggression towards me as he came on stage to rehearse his opening number. He strode across the stage, leading from his pelvis, mobile knees, fag in his mouth, and made a fist at me. I make out something a bit like “Inglesi” being used a few times in heated muffled discussions with the director. Nobody addressed me directly which is a shame as I would have liked to have let them know that I was not there in any way to make judgements. And that I would have been happy to leave if I was asked to, without questions. Although I wasn’t going to go unless asked. There were a fair few other people in the room watching – Tommy described it as a “general”, and I get the sense that rehearsals are always thrown open for the last week. I think his issue was just that I couldn’t speak Greek.
Some things never change about rehearsals – actors were late, the director was growing more and more frustrated, and an eight o’clock start time slowly melted into 9.30pm once all makeup was applied. The play itself appeared to be a political piece, possibly written in the early 1900’s, and dealing with a country that has got itself into dire straits – with an unlikely love story thrown in for good measure. And lots of great live music and songs – one sad song in particular was terrifically resonant. There is something extraordinary about watching a group like that – about 14 actors of all shapes, sizes, voices and ages – all singing in their own raw voices, right in front of you. To a band that included a brilliant balalaika player. It felt like the company was united in a way of thinking, and not putting this on as tonic for someone’s bad ego, as is often the case of amateur shows in England. It felt like this was motivated by a message, and by passion. And refreshingly, nobody was afraid to speak on stage. I wish I knew the name of the play – all I know is the director’s name – Pericles. It chimed to me with all the KKE stuff that I have been seeing around the island. I am leaving Ithaca thinking that – certainly in this pocket of it – Greece is close to revolution. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the next few years. Perhaps I need to get a suit of armour and reappear in Ithaca to support them. Although keep those bloody leeches away from me.
Thursday, March 08, 2012
The road up was wet and visibility was down to about 3 foot in front of the car, which would have been okay if parts of the road hadn’t fallen off the cliff. Well, and if there weren’t rocks the size of cowheads sitting plum in the middle of the road saying “Hiya!”. And goat-shit generators wandering around in the middle of the road wondering what the hell this idiot is doing in a car, and whether or not they can eat you. But I’m still alive. Exoggi itself is a shell at this time of year. Today it was inside a cloud, all the shutters were closed, many of the houses seemed full of birds, others probably full of goats. I did see one human being. But just one – an old man, walking away from me up the road and into the fog, holding a stick, followed by a white cat.
Above the town are the ruins of an older town, shrouded in mist. I wandered up there. Not much to see. The sad remains of old stepped cultivated gardens, now covered in rocks. Many of the walls seem freshly sprayed with hammer and sickles.
It is really striking how prevalent the KKE (The Communist Party) is at the moment in Ithaca. They have a respectable looking office on the main street, with a hammer and sickle over the door.
I find it odd to see a hammer and sickle again – I haven’t seen one since my childhood. Everywhere is graffiti in support of them. I suppose in a financial crisis that’s blamed on the excesses of capitalism, the obvious backlash is into communism. Especially in a community where the guy that spends his day fishing can’t grow oranges and the guy that grows the oranges can’t catch fish.
Above Exoggi, right at the top, is the Monastery of the Katharon – allegedly built by heretic Cathars, it stands at the top of the island on the original site of a Temple of Athena. I drove up there, expecting to have to climb over a fence as usual. But for the first time, there is someone there. The local Orthodox Priest, in full robes and fuller beard, is up there with a broom and a dustpan and mop, keeping the place clean. He smiles and lets me in. He's cleaning up goatshit. On the main gate there is a sign in 4 languages – “Please keep this gate closed at all times.” It is the only sign in more than one language anywhere on the island. This man is evidently on a one man crusade against the goats. I wish him luck. He’s outnumbered.
Having been to so many places of worship for the old religion for my research, it amuses me to see the priest here having a goat problem. Many contend that the origin of the idea of Satan as a horned God comes from the idea of Pan and the other horned gods, and the need to demonise them in order to prefer the Christian God. And in this place where goat heads pop out of every bush, and there's such tremendous solitude and natural power, it is easy to believe that one of those heads might be Pan. So here on the site of a Temple of Athena, it makes sense that the clergy are at war with goats.
Any trace of Athena has been purged from this site by centuries of devotion, and it’s gorgeous. Man made beauty is often at its richest when made for a deity or collection of them. I light 2 candles to speed my uncle and mother through purgatory. They were catholics. It feels quite special to see theirs as the only two burning here on top of this little world, and in such a shiny and devoted place. I wonder what the place it was built on top of would have been like.
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
“It must be very different with tourists here,” I say, by way of making conversation. “Nah man, fuck that we need the tourists. We need the tourism.” He responds. “Now don’t you crash. And don’t drink drive. Stick to the roads, ok? And don’t park isolated or some fucker will break the window. Pay me in cash. Don’t you dare crash.”
He fails to mention that I should remember to drive on the right as well. One narrow escape later, I am at the site of Odysseus’ Palace. There’s a dilapidated booth, that maybe in season charges a couple of euro and gives you a map of the earthworks. But since the excitement of the discovery it has proved to be way way post Odysseus. In fact, they’ve stopped bothering to tourist it up in any way, slung in a load of corrugated iron, and filled it with goats. The whole palace stinks of goat. And there’s a donkey. I call it Eurymachus. It doesn’t throw anything at me, but I keep out of reach of its legs.
In the afternoon I drive up the mountain to the little path that leads down to Arethusa. It’s a spring, allegedly the one Eumaeus took his swine to drink from. It’s a long way down. Halfway, I stash my laptop in a bush. Too much to carry back up this slope. I’m not worried, there’s nobody for miles. At the bottom, the water trickles from the rock and then spreads and mostly pools back into a reservoir behind the fountain. It’s clear and tastes fine, which is just as well as I didn’t bring a bottle. Down there, with the sound of the spring behind me and the sea in front of me, I feel more isolated than I ever have done. Unfortunately there's recently been a massive rockslide right by the fountain, so there is nowhere to sit but on the rockslide itself.
I sit on the rocks, eat an orange and think about this island, and what I am getting from it. The people are great, the vistas beyond description, the climate unpredictable at this time of year, but pleasant. I bet it's great in summer. Nico says they need tourism. Do they? If everything mechanical were to stop working tomorrow, while corpses build up in the streets of London, the life here would stay more or less the same. They have fruit in abundance, wool, wine, water, fish, salt, meat, eggs, bread. And they've got a pretty well established tradition of storytelling for the long winter nights.This was an important place in the ancient world. Defensible and totally self sufficient. Tourism will bring more money for electricity, petrol and luxury. But not much else besides dependence.
Still, if you’re after a peaceful holiday in a beautiful place you can’t do much better than Ithaca. Although that’s a pretty inefficient recommendation really: "Everyone! Come to Ithaca! There’s no one here!” But you know what I mean.
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
looking out at Arkoudi and mainland Greece.
There’s not a soul to be seen. Behind me on the hill I can hear the bells of goats, and always the birdsong. The calm of this place is beyond description. The whole island seems calm and slow, although everywhere I can see the signs of a tourist machine waiting to click into gear. Signs in English on locked and bolted doors. Advertising pinned to trees with maps to deserted tavernas plastered with slightly wrong Latin alphabet – “Spaghetti Boognese!” “Sandwitch!” “Ramp Stake!” "Lamp Shop!"
I couldn’t hire a car this morning. He’s only insured one of them. He tells me:
“You know how it is? It’s fucked. This whole country is fucked. Nobody came here for Christmas. I lost money on the insurance. So now I only insure one car until the tourist season.”
He’s lent it to a mate of his to take to Kefalonia for the day. He swore consistently in English for about 2 minutes – “Shit shit shit fuck shit fuck fuck shit shit” - went silent for a long minute while he seriously considered letting me have one uninsured, thought better of it and told me to come back tomorrow. I caught a ride into Stavros with a fisherman who sells sardines off the back of his van. He spanked it round precipitous mountain roads as fast as his little van could go. I was calm, knowing he does it every day, and making a mental note of how people drive here for my rental period starting tomorrow.
Down the hill from Stavros is a beach, and next to it is The Cave of Loizos – a much stronger contender for the cave in book 13 of The Odyssey than the one in Vathi. It’ll do for the one in my imagination now. It was a Mycenean “cult” sanctuary for years, and the remains of many votive offerings were dug out of it by Sylvia Benton in the 1930’s. She contended- according to the sign at the cave - that it was the most ancient site of “cult” worship, more so than even Olympus. I am suspicious of this. I also dislike an ancient and massive religion being referred to as a “cult”. But I can’t think what name it had – if any. Maybe it didn’t NEED a name – it just WAS. It does have two entrances – one for mortals and one for The Gods which keys in nicely with book 13. Unfortunately, the interior has completely collapsed now – another victim of the constantly shifting earth round here.
Then I caught the bus to Kioni, which is where I found the beach. I was surprised to see the bus – it came into Stavros just as I was getting to the top of the hill from the cave, and I managed to sprint to it. It was full of schoolchildren, who cheered when I made it through the door – they must have seen me lamming it up the hill. In fact it’s the school bus. It only runs twice a day. When I asked the driver “Do you go back the other way?” He gave me a massive cheese-eating grin: “Yes! Of course! Tomorrow morning, 7.10.”
Monday, March 05, 2012
According to current local wisdom, The Cave of the Nymphs is the same cave that Odysseus and Athena used to conceal all of the treasure given to him by Alcinous and the Phaecians.
Walking round the harbour wall on my way out of town, I was struck by how clear the water was. I stopped to photograph a starfish, and saw something floating near it. “Whoa – it’s some sort of hairy jellyfish!!” was my initial thought. Nope. Freshly drowned goat. Must’ve bolted in there startled by the storm and not been able to get out. Poor thing.
And up the hill I go, guided or occasionally misguided by the eccentric local signposts. I ask the locals for directions – “Why the fuck you want to go up there? It’s closed.”
The Cave of the Nymphs is three kilometres up the hill from the harbour. Now, let’s think practically about this. Odysseus was given a trunk of gold by Arete. And then every single Phaecian nobleman present when he told the tale of his journey home gave him a tripod and a bronze cauldron. So that’s anything in the region of 40 to 100 cauldrons, and a big wooden trunk full of gold. I know he was a hero. I know he was buff. But a trunk of gold and 40 to 100 cauldrons up 3 kilometres of steep hillside? I ain’t buying it. If that cave was open back in the day, it would have been a place of worship, no doubt. But it ain’t the one in the book. The problem is that this region is sitting smack bang on top of a humungous fault line. In 373 BC Helike sank into the water forever. More famous because it was on the tellybox, Pavlopetri sank about 1000 BC. And in Ithaca, on the north east coast, Polis Bay is the hole left where the Byzantine city of Ierosalem sank there in 967 AD. There was a 7.2 quake in 1953 that flattened every building on Ithaca. They don't build high here, for a reason. The earth and the caves in it are going to move around, close, open, collapse and reform all the time here - this area is constantly being moulded by tectonics.
The cave itself has a very narrow opening.
Although there are iron gates, nobody has bothered to lock them, and the last time there has been any successful tourism here is at least 3 years ago, probably more. All of the toll booths and signs are in disrepair and the fuses to the lights are all blown. The cave itself is pitch black, but my phone’s flashlight app got me as far as a rusted and useless old cable lift that would have ferried people into the depths.
To the side of the lift is a rope, loosely strung on iron spikes down the precipitous slope, but only for a while. I went down as far as the rope would allow me, but the rocks were slick with rainwater that was still flowing, and without a rope I could have lost my footing and slid down. Nobody comes up there, so I didn’t fancy the idea of breaking my leg and having to claw myself back up the wet rocks in pain. So I stopped where I was and switched off the light. Profound darkness. As I sat in the darkness I suddenly got shot through with the understanding that I had not brought a sacrifice. If you go to a Cave of the Nymphs, you should bring a sacrifice. No food on me, so I rather clumsily said out loud “Er – there’s this dead goat in the harbour… It’s still fresh.” And then decided it was best not to stick around.
Now I am desperately tempted. It’s probably a good thing I don’t have a van, a load of tarpaulin and an accomplice, or that goat would be coming with me down to a deserted beach somewhere, and I’d be building a pyre and burning it. Not because I believe that it would achieve something, before any Christian friends of mine start getting concerned. Just because it seems like the right thing to do.
I won’t do it though. For something like that there really need to be two people egging each other on. Probably a good thing I’m on my own.
I am linking this very long and difficult essay by Porphyry, not because I even half understand it and recommend it but because I found it while searching for frivolous links to accompany this blog, and on a brief perusal, decided that I needed a bit of time and all of my English degree mojo to make sense of the bastard. But on a swift castover, there's something interesting there. And it's Porphyry so it's interesting to get an ancient Greek philosopher on an even more ancient Greek text...
It’s enough to make a man turn to Zeus. I walked out onto my little balcony overlooking the bay. I just did my finances after shopping for food for the week. 100 euros left after setting aside accommodation, travel back to Athens and 50 for contingency. The car hire man charges 30 euro a day, so I am a little stuck in Vathi, although I will probably blow 60 euros on car hire leaving me with 40 for petrol and nice things with whatever is left. Essentially, I am on a crazy tight budget. So I go out onto the balcony to make a decision in the open air.
“What shall I do today then? Is it a working day or an exploring day?”
No sooner have I finished the sentence, but there is a jagged lash of forked lightning off to the right of the bay, an almighty crack of thunder, the temperature drops about 4 degrees and it starts to shit it down with rain. Then a cloud descends over the hill opposite pretty much completely obscuring it from view. Well, according to Zeus, it’s a working day. This looks like it has set in for the morning, and I’m not renting a car to drive on the right on unfamiliar mountain roads in a fogstorm. In fact, thinking about it, we’re IN the stormcloud. Larding it on a bit thick aren’t you Zeus?
Well – perfect time for me to be getting on with some work.
I have a windy rain thing – what are they called? Lintel? Awning? That thing you get over shops. I wind it down. Now I am typing beneath it. I lucked out with this accommodation.