Since last summer I’ve trampled bracken in a couple of new places, in Torridon and in the Peloponnese. By the shore of Loch Torridon Aran, a crofter (and our landlord) has burnt off the heather scrub and some young birches, presumably to stimulate growth for his sheep to graze, but all that was coming up at the beginning of June was bracken, no grazing. I walked to and fro over that, wandering along above the low sandstone cliffs. At the end of May the skinny new fronds of bracken snap like asparagus. The colour of the rock in the sun is a rich reddish brown, and the fine sedimentary layers make the zig zag cliffs like an ancient library. I didn’t get a chance to ask Aran about the burning and the bracken.
here’s a link – I hope – to John Chapman’s remarkable website which explores in detail the churches and to a lesser extent the landscape of the Mani, this area of the Peloponnese http://www.maniguide.info/proastio.html
On the west coast of the central finger of the Peloponnese is Kardamili, a nice place which trades on its reputation as the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It’s also associated with Bruce Chatwin, whose ashes were scattered by a church nearby. Up a winding road for about six kilometres and you arrive at Exochori, at about 800 metres, above the long Viros gorge, the first of a string of villages along the lower slopes of the Taygetos mountains. The road to the next one, Saidona, takes you close to the monastery of Vaidenitsa.
A strange approach to Vaidenitsa. Driving along the narrow road from Exochori you come surprisingly to a section which has recently been widened; it follows the contours at about 800 metres. But they didn’t properly secure the very steep rocky bank above the new road, and now one carriageway is completely blocked so that the road has become one lane again. In places larger rocks have allowed smaller ones and grit and some soil washed down in winter rains to gather, and you can see a new habitat developing on the broken surface of the tarmac.
I stopped to have a look; a man driving by stopped to warn me about the danger of falling rocks. It seems that the road is more dangerous than the mountains it passes through. On this section of it is a sign, to motorway scale, indicating a fork in the road: right, along the hillside, to Saidona; left, up the wooded valley into the hills, to the monastery of Vaidenitsa. On the sign the roads appear to have almost equal value. But at the bend is a steel barrier, the road swings round towards Saidona, and if you step over the steel barrier you find that the bold left fork is simply a path through the trees.
You suddenly step from blinding limestone, every watercourse and every gully and stony stream bed dry, (brilliant callicotome, the gorse of wide areas of the mediterranean; big bold euphorbias; masses of phlomis fruticosa, all those yellow but there’s a distant flash of pink from a Judas tree; sometimes banks of white Cistus salvifolia or Cistus creticus, a powerful acid purple-pink; the lavender we strangely call French lavender; occasional patches of olive trees, at their limit here, some neglected, a few newly planted or tended,) you step as if in a fairy tale into a different world. It’s shady, cool, green and a quiet stream flows. Under the trees are groups of cyclamen, I’d seen a few before, here and there, they’re common, but I’d never seen such perfect crowds of them before. Some white ones. Oak, chestnut, hop hornbeam, walnut and I can’t remember what else. Beautiful patches of grazing, untouched, with scarlet anemones dotted about them. Star of Bethlehem in stony, mossy corners. All along the rocky banks of the little river were saxifrages, nodding in the cool breeze which flowed up into the valley from the west frustrating photographs.
On a rocky spur above the trees, just a few minutes walk from the road, is the monastery church and behind it, a little higher, a castle tower:
You come upon many, many, churches in that part of the Peloponnese. Some you could walk right past thinking them just little stone farm buildings among olive groves. But in fact there are almost no buildings outside the villages except for churches and the occasional ruined tower. It seems only monks and nuns dared live out in the wilds; the people clustered together in tight little villages often up high in the hills, away from pirates, Venetians, Franks, Ottomans. So it’s possible to respond to the whole countryside as a place of pilgrimage; you’re always looking for something: sanctuary, oasis, Eden, Paradiso; though sometimes you find yourself in Inferno.
I felt the sentimental old longing. Vaidenitsa immediately suggested itself as a place to live, as Anavriti did a few days later.
(These are just notes. I’ve been toying/struggling with this for a while now, not got very far, and I just want to ‘post’ it before it becomes more stale. I shall go on working on it….)
Advertised so loudly by that absurd road sign, yet almost unknown, and when you reach it there are no labels or descriptions, no welcomes or prohibitions, no history, no health and safety. Just the odd bucket. (see little orange blob in photo.) The door which opens unexpectedly, like at Peniarth Uchaf.
The magic of places like this has to do with discovery, and sometimes meeting somebody else who maybe made that discovery years before, and keeps coming back, like the lady in that little bend in the river in a sylvan valley high above Kandersteg, who told me she had been working in Omagh, in a children’s home, at the time of the bombing.
So the landscape lends itself to adventure and to moral stories. If paradise is evoked, then the Inferno is also. In Greece the perfect place was often close to burned out forest, and in that magical spot in Switzerland, the bend in the stream above Kandersteg, the German woman’s story led to the inferno of Omagh.) In the walnut orchard near Tsintsina, the pollen beetle crawled slowly in the heart of the tulip like a little devil. The sort of mock monster you might find carved in a medieval church.
The perfect place will often feature ruins. They encourage fantasies. Ruins are becoming much rarer with us. And much more common everywhere to the east. We used to feast here on ruins. When I was a teenager we could wander in and out of Stonehenge any time we pleased, it was under the Ministry of Works, but unfenced, and apparently the man who gave the land to the nation specified that residents of Amesbury be allowed free access, until one day we were challenged, by the man who absurdly said, ‘Stonehenge is closed.’ as if it were a shop or a theatre. And in Ireland, ivy covered the walls of old castles which over here had been cleaned and pointed, and farm carts were leant against monastery walls. But Britain then filled up with new ruins. There was a goods station in Liverpool, by the docks, where cotton was loaded up and sent off to the mill towns. When we moved there in 1970 it had just closed down, but it wasn’t locked up. We helped ourselves to a couple of little wooden chairs from an office and the last bale of cotton: we used it as a bolster. We had the right to roam through industrial dereliction. Later, you had to go further afield, further south, to find ruins. Now, even in deep France, in Tuscany, the houses are restored, tastefully rebuilt, and ruins are preserved in the correct, unchanging state of ruination.
Some of the little old churches in the Peloponnese don’t have a door any more, some doors are held shut just with a bit of string tied to an old nail, others, usually the smarter ones, cared for, restored, are locked, but you never know till you try the door. The church at Vaidenitsa is carefully restored, with a new roof like many others, but unlike the others it is whitewashed. I turned the handle of the door expecting it to be locked, but it opened, inside candles were laid out on a table, ready to be lit, tears sprang straight away to my eyes, I wanted to light one for Sheila, but though there were all sorts of things on the table with the candles, including a visitor’s book, there was no lighter. The late afternoon sun shone through a little window in the west wall and lit up a golden patch on the big carved altar piece, such a vast, crazy, battered, elaborate, bestial thing, patched up with iron to prevent collapse. I had no idea of its iconographic business, and I couldn’t begin to describe it. I set to to take photos of it, but none of seem much good. But here they are anyway:
And there’s a bell. As at the monastery church of Sotiros hidden among the trees in the Viros gorge near Exochori. Not hidden away in a bell tower, but out in the open, with a rope hanging invitingly from it. It’s a beauty, after the first staccato shock its diminuendo hum sings all around the valley for at least fifteen seconds and disappears into the trees.
And hawthorn! The scent of it took me to another country, a few weeks later.
I know I’ve forgotten a lot, can’t remember many of the shrubs and trees. Or the birds. Some people look for the birds. I just see spots of colour. Now I think about it, I wonder, what was growing between the red anemones which took all my attention? And of course I time my trips for those spots of colour. How would it look during the dust of August, when the flowers were withered and the stream had run dry? The more I think about it, the more ignorant I feel. If you’re into skiing the Alps become alive when snow covers most of the things which I find interesting. For me this is a good arrangement because nearly everybody else has gone home by the time I arrive in spring to see flowers spring from the melting snow. But my perspective is narrow.
When I walked back down to the road in the evening I saw a herd of goats being driven from the Saidona direction along the road towards the valley, and I hoped they wouldn’t turn off up the path by the river to the monastery, though it seemed the obvious place to go. But they didn’t. They carried on along the road, followed by two guys in an old pick up truck. I nodded to them, they scowled at me. They both had shoulder length hair tied in place with bandanas, they looked like Mexican movie bandits. Later, in World Fire, by Stephen Pyne, I came across a devastating, yes a fiery account of Greece’s almost outlaw pastoral economy, where fire is sometimes used as a personal and political weapon, in which he refers to some of the goatherds as ‘Banditti’ who will use fire as a weapon against villagers with whom they are in dispute or to extend their grazing. Does he simply share my prejudice?
In a graph he shows dramatic spikes in the incidence of wildfires at the time of general elections.
So I wondered, and was annoyed by my ignorance: is the Vaidenitsa valley protected? Who by? Are the people in agreement? Do the goat herds always take their flocks away from it? But it wasn’t as if the goats had to be prevented from leaving the road and heading up the valley. They carried on, and the guys in the pick up truck followed behind.
Actually they preferred above the road, and were no doubt responsible for some of the rocks which fell upon it
.I haven’t got to the bracken yet.
I had read that above the monastery the path following the stream up into the mountains becomes so overgrown that it’s impassable. But work has been done, whom do we thank for the splashes of paint on the rocks, scrub cleared back? A rough path leads up the valley, sometimes from boulder to boulder in the stream bed, and the stream still flows. After ten minutes or an hour you come to another path that cuts across the valley and runs along quite a broad ledge, maybe an old mule track, heading gently for the open hills. Here the bracken was about a foot high, lush and easy to snap underfoot. I didn’t stop to get into actual weeding, like I sometimes do in Cornwall, just went out of my way to tread to the sides of the path, lurching a bit from one side to the other to get a few more of them, to help keep the path open. Just before you leave the valley and are hit by the glaring sun you look back down on the monastery in its hidden oasis.
here is a link to an excellent guide to the Mani by John Chapman. He’s fascinated in particular by the hundreds of churches, but covers the whole area in fascinating detail.