the back of Olympos

Last word on the little dragon from Edward Lear in Crete in 1864: ‘brutal-filthy yet picturesque’. My friends Jay and Tina also saw it in Crete, more recently.

And Jay had a very different experience near Olympus: “In 1966 a friend and I hitchhiking and camping round Europe spent a night in a campsite on the coast under Mount Olympus. We were all woken at dawn by a fleet of landing craft disgorging tanks onto the beach to the south. We all rushed over to watch and someone started taking photos. An American serviceman shouted out. No pictures. And grabbed and smashed his camera. Years later I found out that this was part of the rehearsal for the colonel’s coup. With of course the usual secret US direction.   Plus ca change.” 

After spending a few days based in Litochoro I went east and stayed in Drama; went up two amazingly flowery mountains – not that high – Falakro and Pangeon. The former has views across forests into Bulgaria, the latter looks out across the Aegean (the mountain’s name means pan-aegean). Then I came back to Olympus, to the hidden side, and stayed in a house in the woods just outside the tiny village of Ano Skotina, where cuckoos call all day long in early June. You might have seen the gargantuan trunk of the plane tree by the church in ‘I cried to dream again’, (Caliban in the Tempest): post cards from Olympos.

Notes from Ano Skotina, early June, 2019

I was thinking – in Greece – in the hills – you’re never more than ten minutes away from a cuckoo. Couldn’t they change their tune? Maybe do oo-cuck from time to time. Then this morning I heard one say, three times, oo-oo-cuck. Then silence, as if shocked and guilty.

In the woods early in the morning I stepped on something orange. And my foot turned orange. It was the first bubble of sunlight pushing through the trees.

So peaceful – not even a barking dog – but then a distant stuttering strimmer. Still, at least it means that the countryside is not entirely depopulated. Wherever people are working to establish their space, in olive groves around houses, on the edge of the forest, the strimmer whines, marking out territory with its noise, like a dog.

Thinking again about Lawrence’s: Most of the so-called love of flowers is merely this reaching out of possession and egoism: something I’ve got: something that embellishes me. (see Garden notes number ten, the itch to intervene, a few lines from John Clare, Adam in Eden and DH Lawrence) Maybe, but why is he so hard on everybody? It’s also the desire to be at home, or to be possessed. Adam named everything, we take photos of everything…. Possessing, if you like, but also being possessed by.

I woke at 4 30 this morning and saw a message from Caro saying ‘congratulations’ so I knew we’d won the champions league but it was only Tottenham – and that plus the usual questions and memories… and excitement at being here caused me to get up before 5 and drink coffee and go for a stroll which lasted nearly three hours – on my way back I saw a tortoise so I had to get my camera and go out again and then I thought I’d go and take a picture of the cephalanthera- so I didn’t get back till after 9 – maybe I should sleep now – a guy in a pick-up stopped – luckily I picked out the word ‘volta’ (a walk or a turn) so I could agree and smile and even a cyclist in uniform gave me a warm ‘kalimera’. Now I hear voices calling through the trees from the village below – something technical.

All you need to do in Greece to make a perfect garden is widen a road, or stop using an ancient track. In Kriovrisi the neglected yellow football pitch.

I’ve taken photos of nearly everything except the wild strawberries which I ate.

Some pictures from around Ano Skotina

When I walked off the road and into the forest I began thinking again about margins, edges. The forest is quite young and dense with few openings. But the road that runs though it forms a long clearing allowing light in and the roadside is home to most of the flowers, it’s a herbaceous border. And lower down are little clearings where chestnut trees have recently been planted, there too there is space and sunlight. see At Lamledra for a piece on edges, ribbons, boundaries. Although I loved the house outside Ano Skotina I didn’t hang around there very much. Was it because although I’m happy travelling by myself that house was a place to share with others, a place to cook and eat and drink and sit and watch the forest and the distant sea? A place Sheila would have loved. It was also that when I explored the forest I realised that I wanted to follow the road, the open road, and because I could see on the road map that about fifteen miles further on a minor – even more minor – road branched off to ascend the mountain. It ended at a pace strangely marked KEOAX and from there a track continued higher.

The books and websites all tell you about the front of the Olympus. I had largely followed them. They had taken me also to Falakro and Pangeon, to the east. But the back of Olympus was mine. A tourist-free, botanist-free area. Just an easy drive with stops and strolls, but it felt like an expedition of discovery. When I finally got to KEOAX I realised that I had hurried over the journey, which took me through rich and varied country. The destination wasn’t the point. I’d skimmed the best bits and arrived at a dead end. So I did all over again the next day.

But to begin at the end: the destination turned out to be an army camp, a base where greek soldiers learn to ski. So that they can defend the mountainous borders against bulgarians and albanians and macedonians (or fyromese) or more likely refugees, I suppose. And it’s a cue to interrupt – to interrupt the attempts I’ve been making for a year and a half now to explain how I got lost trying to find the house near Ano Skotina and what it showed me about myself, how I envy yet depend on the experts, how I both cherish and resent my solitude, why I hate that dreadful song My Way so much, my fear of failure, about maps and botanical guides and knowing next to nothing, about being next to nothing – but that’s enough – a cue, I was going to say, for a story.

After the delights of the lower hills and plains the road up the mountain zig zags through increasingly bare, heavily grazed slopes to a height of about 1800 metres and ends, or is barred, at K.E.O.A.X, which turned out to be a small army camp. I parked the car and assumed that I couldn’t walk through, but thought I might be able to scramble around the camp, traversing the steep mountain side thickly covered in box and juniper which conceal rough boulders and the crevices between them, just below the perimeter fence. It was a struggle, brightened by aubrieta and early purple orchids. The fence went on and on, the juniper grew more dense and prickly, underfoot were scatterings of rubbish thrown over the fence over the years, and when an open gate appeared in it there no longer seemed to be any point in keeping outside it so I went through and was encouraged to see on the inside of the gate a little waymark sign with a stick picture of a hiker. It now being quite late I thought I would walk back down the track to the army huts and boldly out through the main gate. I was no longer sure why I had avoided the camp, which seemed very quiet and unmilitary in spite of the little occupied watchtower which had looked down on me from the entrance. I saw no one at first but grew scared at the distant barking of a dog. I came to the huts and just before the gate, when I was nearly out, two soldiers appeared, one pointing what I think they call a semi-automatic weapon at me. I took my woolly hat off so they could see my harmless old man’s white hair, like a flag of surrender. But it was ok, the slim, tall, younger one spoke some English and suited his uniform, you could almost say he was dashing, except that he was labouring under the demands of military bureaucracy: he held in both his hands a ledger, roughly A3 size with many columns for the answers he hoped I would have for him, but I didn’t have my passport, I didn’t have an address in Greece, in my confusion I couldn’t even remember the name Ano Skotina, which seems absurd now that I have written it so many times. I struggled in my nervousness to remember even my mobile number even though it has only three digits in a memorable rhythm. In the end it seemed that everything would be ok if I could just give the soldier some information, anything to write down. Hiking was ok. Of course I could just have walked through in the first place. A big chested middle aged soldier with a swagger and a proper hairy Balkan moustache came out of a hut, ignored us, got into a jeep and zoomed off. He’s a proper soldier I said, having relaxed. And I asked about the dog, is he dangerous, I said. No, said the soldier, he’s scared. Ah, I thought, like me.

ps it’s true about the cuckoo, And since the bare truth isn’t enough these days, I’ll say it’s absolutely true.

I’ll return to the journey which so far has only been skimmed over, the journey round the back of Olympus. In the meantime there are some photos of it in ‘I cried to dream again’, (Caliban in the Tempest): post cards from Olympos

This entry was posted in diary, losing, mountains, flowers, landscapes, my life. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to the back of Olympos

  1. Scott Dee says:

    Goodness, it’s been far too long since I’ve been in Greece. Do the restaurants still have that fantastic breakfast spread (like a buffet, with cheese and cucumbers and tomatoes and many, many pastries)?
    Growing near Mount Olympus in the fall were some strange ‘backwards’ flowers. The flower was maybe an inch long at the largest. I think it had 3 petals (or maybe 5?) in a swept-back pattern, almost like it was opening in the wrong direction. They were so strange-looking, I’m sad I never got the name of them.

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