Taking inspiration from my favourite announcement at Finsbury Park station: ‘we apologise for the late running of this service, this is due to a problem currently under investigation.’ I promised myself that I would give up pathetic old man tech complaints, (and that I would even stop protesting that knives and forks and back scratchers were technology too) but I’m wondering what you see when you open up one of these posts? I had cheered up considerably when I found that I could after all use the new ‘block editor’ – although it’s inescapably irritating to be always told that a paragraph is ‘the building block of all narrative’ – and could expand photos that were in ‘landscape’ format so that they were no longer dwarfish compared with those in ‘portrait’ format, a reverse of what you usually see on a computer screen. But then when I approached the blog by a different route I saw a different layout, and photos in landscape had been forced into portrait so that my beautiful tortoise had been squashed. Although, and this is new, I found that by clicking on a photo it not only leapt and loomed larger but that its proportions were restored. One day I will consult an expert to help with these technical problems, currently I am keeping the problem under investigation and hoping for the best. Or, if I’m feeling gloomy, giving in to shallow despair.
I apologise for this apology.
To begin again at the beginning with Mount Olympus…..
The front of Olympus.
Mount Olympus rises up from a strip of almost flat land by the sea, so that although it is only 3000 metres high it can seem higher, just as Scottish mountains do which rise up from the sea. This coastal plain is busy: the railway and motorway from Thessaloniki to Athens and the south run along it, giving views of distant cliffs and swirling clouds. Peacefully apart from the motorway is the small town of Litochoro, to Olympus as Chamonix is to Mont Blanc. There the land begins to rise up and the Enipeas river leads towards the heart of the mountains through its deep wooded valley, in places a gorge. This is the way everybody goes, a royal route, a feminine route if you like, to a masculine mountain. Zeus’s after all.
The other day I began to wonder why, in my enthusiasm for the back of Olympus, and in my contorted struggle to write about my experiences there, I had neglected the front. I had flown to Thessaloniki (accent on the fourth syllable, not the third – it seems important when you’ve heard it), picked up a little red hire car and driven 60 or so miles to Litochoro (accent on the second syllable.) While staying there in an airbnb I spent a day in the Enipea gorge, a day walking from Prionia at the end of the road as far as the first refuge, and two days exploring the Papa Rema valley and its rich woods, easily reached by a half hour drive to the north side of the mountain.
You can walk in through the valley, or take the road which runs higher; they both bring you to Prionia, a carpark and a taverna, where the serious climb begins through dense forest. If you don’t want to drive all the way or walk all the way you can combine the two; there are places where you can park the car and walk down to the river, notably at the monastery of St Dionysias. Drive a bit, walk a bit, it suits me these days but I still hypocritically disapprove.
Now read on….
Just arrived in Litochoro, — I went to get some food. Little supermarkets in Greece don’t give you all the protection from having to speak that you might want. You still have to ask for cheese to be cut or olives to be spooned out. Service has not altogether changed to self-service. How nice to meet the woman who corrected me so clearly and smilingly, and responded to my efkaristo with a slow and dramatic parakalo, (you say thankyou, they say please,) giving a just weight to each syllable, in a way which showed the pleasure she took in the music of her language and in meeting someone who wanted to hear it. But the next time I went to the shop she wasn’t there; I was served instead by a young man who spoke good English, and who mocked my efforts to learn Greek – why bother! What’s the point! – in a way which suggested almost a contempt, at least an impatience with his own culture and his own poor country. He was a mountain guide, just helping out in the family shop. He was bored with walking up Olympus. He couldn’t wait for July when he was off to Chamonix again. He’d once spent two months in Sheffield. So sophisticated! And he told me that I shouldn’t buy from the local eggs that were laid out in trays, but take a hygienically presented conventional egg box. The next day I met him again. Late in the afternoon I was coming back down the path which leads to the first refuge, at about 2100 metres, and then on to the summits, the path everybody takes, the path he’d walked a hundred times with a hundred groups of people he wasn’t interested in. People who were going up Mount Olympus because it’s the highest mountain in Greece, because it’s iconic, because of the gods, because it adds variety to a holiday of beaches and ancient monuments, or because they’re Greek and they want to be able to say that they have been up their highest mountain. He was walking at the head of a group of tourists who were evidently going to spend the night in the refuge. He shook my hand warmly but he really did look bored, and couldn’t be bothered with talking to his group. (How different from George in the Peloponnese, always excited by Profitis Ilias, no matter how many times he’s been up it. see Anavriti (in the Peloponnese again)) I told him he looked fed up, but he didn’t seem to understand that term, in spite of his time in Sheffield, so I used his own word, bored, and he agreed wearily. His clients looked inexperienced – you’d have to be to hire a guide for such a straight forward path – but curious and cheerful. I thought they deserved more of his attention. Of course, if he’d been interested in the plants… Then he said to me, who’s the best climber? I said, I don’t know. He said, the person who enjoys the mountain most, and he meant me,which was me, so that was nice.
That evening as I drove back to Litochoro from the end of the road at Pioria the clouds blackened and thunderous rain fell. In the town the drains filled up and water fountained out of them. The mountain has blessed the whole area. It’s a rain maker. And its erosion has created plains and gentle terraces of alluvial soils at its feet. (see the photo of corn cockle in ‘I cried to dream again’, (Caliban in the Tempest): post cards from Olympos
There were flowers I’d never seen before, dense vigorous forest, distant snowy peaks and still, at the end of May and at less than 2000 metres a wide snow field to cross, and avalanche shattered ancient pines, but this image might be the most vivid memory of that day. I need help to interpret it! It is itself like a memory from the previous year, perfectly preserved beneath ice and snow which have just melted. The plant forms are revealed like fossils which appear when stone is split open. But could even those delicate thistle seeds be saved intact beneath snow? Well, the truth probably is that the heads were preserved entire and that after snow melt a stirring breeze has allowed some seeds to break free. So I have to reluctantly give up part, the most beautiful part, of what I imagined. Across the mountain side this little patch, as far as I saw, was unique.
Lovely post Jonathan! What a pleasure to be transported up Olympus, makes a change from Netflix 🙂 x