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Monday, 25 August 2008

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands:Part 2-The Day That Nothing Happened

And now, after five weeks, term time is almost upon me again and so I'll be resuming my normal service of travel blogs interrupted by other more random musings. And to start with, here is part two of my old write up of my trip to Peloponese.

The Day that Nothing Happened

Athens has two bus stations, imaginatively called the 'A' bus station and the 'B' bus station. We were at the 'A' station which is a large, dirty crowded and noisy building in that depressing style of architecture that in Britain we associate with the sixties - all box shaped buildings and lots of concrete. Inside it isn't as bad the outside leads you to fear. We sat in the cafeteria sipping cold drinks and waiting around. We had by now been introduced to the final member of our party, Andy, who was the walk leader for the trekking part of the trip. He was employed not directly by Explore but rather by another company who were contracted to supply the guide. A modern languages graduate in his late twenties he spoke perfect Greek although, as he told me later, that was not one of the modern languages in which he had graduated. He had been in Greece for two years and learned the language 'in the field'. When I had met him he had been reading a local newspaper which is printed in Athens in English. Glancing through it when he had finished I discovered it to be a bizarre affair.


declared the front page headline above a picture of a little old man surrounded by people dressed up as cartoon characters. John O. and I speculated on whether Bugs would be too traumatised to continue with his career. Apparently his father was also the father of Tweety Pie, Sylvester and Elmer Fudd. He must have had a very cosmopolitan taste in partners.
Page two had a story about a woman who had swapped her baby for a car, page three a tale of a group of vampire wannabes on a trip to Transylvania and the centre pages a series of descriptions of some of Athens' night spots.

(".....the common mode of dress is techno-rave but other fashions should not attract too much adverse attention......the decor resembles a sterile bathroom and the ice is kept in a urinal on the bar.)

The bus ride itself started off through Athens city centre, quickly moving out through the suburbs to follow the main road which leads to the Corinth Canal. Greek scenery is an odd mixture. The undoubtedly beautiful landscapes will suddenly be blighted by a partially built house standing stark and skeletal in the middle of a field of empty cement bags. Every corner has at least one shrine on it and every shrine represents an accident, which given the local disregard for rules of the road comes as no surprise to anyone.
After an hour of travel we came to the Corinth Canal which is an impressive bit of engineering, especially as it was originally opened more than a hundred years ago. And then we were on Peloponese which is either an isthmus or an island depending on your opinion of the canal.

At Liato we peeled ourselves from the sticky plastic seats of the bus and transferred to taxis to take us on to Bouzi where we were to begin our trek. I sat in the front of our taxi and was struck on entering it by the number of crosses, rosaries and icons twined round and hanging from the mirror. Given that every time we passed a church, a chapel or a shrine (about every hundred yards or so) the driver let go of the wheel with both hands and fingered the cross that he was holding I can only assume that they were doing some good. I can think of no other explanation than divine intervention for his continued survival. At one point he let go of the wheel and nudged me. He pointed off to a dome shaped building on the horizon and mimed a man looking through a telescope, all without slowing down.

"Observatory," I said through gritted teeth.

He nodded happily and took the wheel again to continue on along a twisting road that led through fields of red soil and groves of olive trees.

At Bouzi, grateful to still be alive, we got out of the taxi and discovered that the next part of our journey was even more down market than the Death Race 2000 taxi driver. We were to be driven up the side of the hill to our starting point on the back of two pick up trucks. We bounced up the hillside, reversing a couple of times to make way for herds of goats and flocks of sheep that provided an unusual road hazard. Half way up was an apparently abandoned car which carefully negotiated our way around although if it was abandoned then Greek car thieves dump their stolen vehicles in some very odd places.
At the top of the hill our lift threw us out and turned to go back the way that it had come. We stood around putting on sun cream and drinking water while Andy explained to us about the optional ascent to a peak that we were all about to do, Andy's definition of 'optional' being somewhat at variance with the accepted one. Leaving the rucksacks in a heap on the ground we walked for about ten minutes up a reasonably steep hillside to come out onto a flat grassy peak affording a magnificent view of Ziria. After Andy had pointed out and named one or two of the mountains we could see and shown those who can tell the difference between a Dandelion and a Daffodil a couple of orchids we descended by more or less the same path and set of on the first part of the trek. This led, for some distance, along a slightly descending red dirt road, with occasional short cuts off the road to avoid lengthy loops. Every now and then Andy would discover another flower and those who were interested, especially Kate, would stop to look at it or take a photograph.
We stopped for lunch in the shade of a stand of trees at the head of the Flamburitsa valley. Lunch, which we had all been carrying scattered through our packs, consisted of large slabs of Feta cheese, tins of Sardines, tomatoes and onions with fresh oranges for desert. It was a delicious picnic and none of could know then how soon the novelty of such food would wear off.

After lunch our path continued through green meadows following the river bed and crossing and re-crossing the river so often that it became a joke that we would go on crossing it until Andy had seen one of us fall in. Eventually we cut away from the river and up the side of the valley with considerable contouring and climbing. Andy said that we would take a brief rest stop at a stream where we could fill our water bottles. When no stream materialised we started to wonder if perhaps we were not quite on the right path. Andy's cheerful response,
"We've come a little higher than I intended - its changed a lot since I was here last. Never mind though it all goes to the same place."

was said with such confidence that it was hard not to have faith in him. After a steep scramble up through some trees, during which my knee, which occasionally gives me some trouble, started sending me little 'take it easy...or else' messages, we came onto a brand new bulldozed dirt road and discovered why it had all changed so much. There had been a fire which had burnt down a lot of the trees and blackened the barks of those that remained standing. Several new roads had been bulldozed through either to get to the fire at the time or to act as fire-breaks in future. Andy explored along the road we were on while we took a break. While we were sitting my knee stiffened up and replaced the 'take it easy' messages with 'OK. you asked for it' messages, so that by the time we had started down again it was all I could do to avoid wincing with pain at every step. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me to strap it up but we aren't always as clever as we ought to be.

The route descended, now mainly on decent quality roads until we came to the small nunnery of Ayiu Viasiu where we went in and looked around for a few minutes. I took the opportunity to sit in the cool shade of the white buildings and rest my leg. I was beginning to think that tomorrow might be a problem. The remaining descent was only about half a mile but by the time that we reached our accommodation my knee was on fire.
The accommodation was in a hotel, a smart looking two storey building with the usual Greek plumbing - which is to say no hot water, no plugs for the sinks and no lock on the shower door. I showered quickly, and then plastered my knee in Ibuprofen gel before going down to dinner.

We ate al fresco and long after the early birds had retired a group of us sat up drinking beer and talking. Anne I found out was a medical sales representative who wanted to train as a chiropodist. As this revelation prompted several people to offer to show her their blisters. it's just as well she didn't want to be a gynaecologist. Eventually we all retired and as I limped painfully up the stairs I reflected that tomorrow could be a difficult day if my knee didn't improve.


I woke from a night of surreal dreams featuring holiday camps and spies and helicopters and dozens of other images that vanished upon waking but always revolving around knees. In one of these dreams I stood at the entrance to a grand white mansion while some sort of combined fireworks display and air show was going on overhead, talking to someone I couldn't see and explaining that I was taking the bus as I couldn't walk.

It was such an obvious solution that I couldn't see why it hadn't occurred to me while I was awake so that half an hour later, washed, dressed and limping I approached Jenni to explain that today I would like to travel down in the truck with the luggage and rest my leg. With Andy's help we organised my lift and soon I was on my way, once again in a battered pick-up but now promoted to the passenger seat. The driver, who turned out to be the man whose house we were to stay in that night, spoke no English and as my Greek was of approximately the same level, we had exhausted the conversational possibilities before he started the engine. He drove, with much more caution than any Greek driver I had seen yet, down the appalling roads and we listened to a Greek radio station which played a mixture of bouzouki music and bland Euro-pop. At one point a string of Greek was interrupted by a jingle announcing in English
"Good Morning from Geronimo Groovy !"
Our route took us along several sections of partially collapsed road and over holes in the ground that were big enough to be considered craters. I tried to make a few notes but it was a forlorn hope in such a bouncing and uneven journey. At one point we passed through a village where a frantic dog was chasing its own tail in circles around a completely unperturbed cat who was asleep in the middle of the road. Somehow we avoided hitting either of them.
About half an hour after we had started we reached our destination and I helped unload the luggage into the front room of one of the village houses.

Feneos, the village, was a tiny place. The main road ran through it for perhaps two hundred yards along which a handful of houses were scattered. In spite of the language problems I deduced that the stout elderly Greek woman who kept wandering in and out probably lived there which meant that it was her home that we would be borrowing for the night.
I sat outside the whitewashed building (which I had the feeling had been whitewashed just because we were coming) and tried to read the book that Caroline had lent me, The Diaries of Kenneth Williams. It was hard going - a mixture of unspeakably mundane observations about his life, anguished whining about how no-one understood him and a kind of snobbish bitching about acquaintances who were naturally not as talented as he was. The impression that I was left with was of a singularly unlikable and arrogant man. It was a relief when we came to the side-show that was lunch.

My hostess brought out a piece of paper on which she had itemised, in Greek naturally, the complete contents of her kitchen. These she proceeded to point at one at a time and incline her head questioningly. When it was obvious that although I understood what was going on I had no idea what any of this food might be she started to explain in mime. She clucked, which could have been a chicken or an egg. I smiled
She frowned and tried to mime some sort of vegetable. I didn't mind what it was I was happy to eat anything.
"OK." I said.
She frowned again and mimed something which could have been anything but was probably a goat and which I assumed meant Feta Cheese.
"OK" I said, and then I realised that whatever I was saying sounded like "no" to her. The next three things she pointed at I said "Ne" instead, hoping it might sound like "yes", and it must have because she suddenly smiled and she went away looking happy.
Lunch consisted of, in spite of all mime to the contrary, Greek Salad (Feta Cheese, Tomato, Cucumber, Onion in about a gallon of olive oil) and two large fried eggs with lots of bread and a bottle of Orangeade. I had managed all of it except for the excess olive oil when she came back from the kitchen and beamed at me. A moment later she came out again with another basket of bread and mimed mopping up the olive oil. I hadn't the heart to refuse her even though the thought of eating half a loaf soaked in oil was fairly repulsive.
Afterwards I sat outside again, still trying to read that book. Briefly I skipped to the end. Kenneth Williams death was probably suicide although officially an open verdict was recorded. I can only believe that the diaries were not presented in evidence. After all of his threats of suicide and his longing for death the diary ends with the words - Oh God what's the point.

I considered carefully and had to admit I agreed with him. There seemed to be no point at all in trying to read any more of his depressing whinging. I closed the book and went for a walk to test out my knee.
Two more incidents struck me as bizarre while I waited. Once, while I was sitting sipping at a cold drink that had just been bought out to me by my ever smiling hostess a strange little old Greek man came out of the building and handed me a piece of Turkish Delight wrapped in paper. He smiled as I unwrapped it and then went away.
Later, as I sat in the same place there was a loud noise that sounded like amplified religious chanting, the sort of thing that high-tech mosques use to call the faithful to prayer. As I sat it got louder and louder and finally a multi-coloured truck came into view with the driver talking into a microphone connected to two very large speakers on the roof. It paused briefly as it passed and then went on to the end of the road where it did a three point turn and came back. Inside it was filled with what appeared to be mattresses and cushions all wrapped up in cellophane. As he passed the woman came out of the house and handed two similarly wrapped cushions to a woman on the truck, receiving two back in exchange. The truck drove on and soon the sound had died down. I could only assume that it was some sort of upholstery cleaning service but I had no way of checking.

Eventually, after I had taken a nice little siesta, all of the others arrived and from the description of their walk which featured a lot of rocky ascent and descent I knew that I had made the right decision. My leg felt greatly improved and I was certain that I could walk tomorrow.

There is a poem that accompanies this which describes much the same incident, or rather lack of incident, that chapter describes. Here, for comparison, it is.

Feneos Afternoon

Imprisoned in the village
I waited for my friends.
Trapped in my monoglot silence
I was a stranger to these people
Trying so hard to be kind
To the injured hiker.

grandmother mimed a chicken
And gave me eggs for lunch

grandfather silently handed me
Bottles of beer
I tried to read my borrowed book
But the heat stole my will
Made me one with the quiet
Still old men of the place.
One of them handed me
A cube of Turkish Delight
Wrapped in paper.
Its sweetness coiled
And writhed in my mouth.

As the sunlight drained from the sky
My friends arrived
And I turned English again
And the villagers withdrew
From our noise and foreign humours.
Tomorrow, healed and rested,
I would move on from here
But for one day I had been
Another figure in a landscape.

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