Under The Ditch

Under The Ditch

We sailed right through the streets of Poros, as I knew we would. I was ready for it. I’d taken up position on top of the bridge of the ship and watched as we chugged along the roadside of Poros: keeping pace with the walkers below, the old men on their mopeds, a dog trotting alongside our huge boat. The cafes were just opening up, women sluicing water over the streets outside. I raised a hand in morning greeting as we soundlessly drifted by. It was as if the ship was travelling down the road, past Poros’ clocktower sat high above everything. The hulk of the Peloponnese mainland was just a short distance away, on the other side of the boat. The tiny distance between the coast and Poros island made it feel almost as if this was just a wide river we were on, not the open sea. At one time, so I was told, you could even wade from the island to the Greek mainland.
We didn’t disembark in Poros though. We stayed on to the next island, Hydra.
“Eh, Giorgos,” called the captain to the man down on the quay tying up the ropes as we landed in Hydra town. “No packages for you from Athens… And…” He regarded us up and down. “Just these two today…” He shrugged and pulled an apologetic face.

Hydra expects people, expects tourists. But not now. Not the day after Christmas. The island felt quiet, like a theatre stage left empty, nobody on it. Hydra is a rock. Despite its name suggesting water, it doesn’t look there’s a single drop on the island. The town is the only thing here, looking like a stage set emerging out from this vast rock. Rising spirals of houses climbing the backcloth. We walked through the streets. Writhing cats in the early morning sun, donkeys waited on every corner – no cars allowed on the island, donkeys the only way to travel. They stood around, idling, like taxis with their engines on. I felt sorry imagining them sweating in the heat of the summer with the fat tourists on their back. But not now. Everything was quiet now.
Hundreds of stone steps climb through the town. We walked up and down and around to find somewhere to stay. Many of the houses and shops were shut, the owners having made their summer money had all gone back to the capital. Clean sheets of canvas covered the doorways of the closed houses, like sheets placed over the faces of incredibly attractive corpses.

We had left a deafening Athens at Christmas. Kids in the streets, outside every shop, coming to our door, singing their kalanda – the tuneless Christmas songs that are always accompanied by a metal triangle being manically rattled and clacked, usually by the smallest member of the group, the expectant hands stretched out for a coin. A mother and a daughter had passed us, Christmas shopping on Aiolou Street. The daughter stopped dead, looking panicked. “Mana mou, mana mou… Have we got next year’s kazamias?” she asked her mother. The mother reassured her, pulling out the magazine almanac that will have the horoscopes, stories and predictions for the year ahead.
“April the 15th – a VIP will have a terrible car crash”.
The periodical also full of bizarre dream interpretations:
“If you have untidy hair in your dream, someone cares about you”… “If you see cutlery in your dream, you will have family problems”…“If you’re drinking milk, you’re going to have an accident”.
The Greeks can be madly superstitious at times.
We had left Athens before New Year too, where we would have been sat indoors playing cards as tradition dictates. Watching my mother-in-law cheat, as every year. Midnight would have seen us cutting the Vasilopita cake, hoping to get the money left in there for good luck. St Vasilios started all this, back when the Greeks were being overtaxed by the Turks. He worked one of those useful miracles that stopped had the taxation robberies, and then to avoid any embarrassment the saint made sure all the money got back to the Greeks hidden in their New Year cakes on his name day. I would rake through my slice every year. Not once had I ever found the lucky coin.
Greek Christmas is decorated not by the tree or the angel or any of those western emblems, the Greek Christmas’ emblem is always a boat. Agios Nikolas – the saint of Christmas and of sailors. So we are on the right island, Hydra is inordinately proud of its naval history. The island was famed for having the most skilled captains, they say the Ottoman Empire was defeated by these great sea dogs. These famous men of history, so proud, with their statues littering the island – puffed chested men up on their plinths, who the Hydra people now swarm and jostle by, only ever pausing to stop to strike matches on their arses. Model boats covered in winking lights hanging off the ship’s masts decorate each Greek Christmas window as we walked through the town.
We called in to an old bar on the front for a glass of Metaxa. It was overly expensive. The men in the bar were unfriendly. Photos of Leonard Cohen – famously resident on the island in the 60s – drinking in the bar hung on the walls. A dirty man came in, selling mushrooms from an old bag.
Ah…stin iyia sas hartopektes!” – health to the card players! – he said cheerfully as he entered. They soon chased him out again.
Katarameni na eiste hartokleftes!” – a curse to the card cheats! – he spat as he was pushed out through the door.
He clutched at the door frame and leant his contorted face back in as he was pushed by the men.
“You know, when God made Greece, he knew he’d made a terrible mistake.” he said to me, as he struggled.
“‘I’ve made this too beautiful’, God said to himself. ‘What can I do? It’s too beautiful! I know,’ He thought…” the old man surveyed the Hydra card players in the bar with a nasty leer. “…I’ll put Greek people here!”
With a final shove, the old man was out again on the cobbled harbour side.
We went back to the room we’d found to rent and sat in bed with the moon outside bright enough to read by outside. We fell asleep to the sound of donkeys’ hoofs occasionally clopping by on the stones.

Hydra looks like brightly coloured children’s bricks have been pushed into the huge lump of grey-brown plasticine rock. Giristroula and I took a walk up from the town on the paths on these hills. Greece’s great artist Nikos Ghikas had lived on Hydra – his art appears like it is Hyda: circling cubist buildings, climbing up and round and round in dizzying fractured colours. Giristroula and I walked along the high lanes that Ghikas had painted, above Hydra town, to his house. A grand acropolis of a place, 40 rooms or so, built on several levels on the rocky hillside. But ruined now. Ghika’s Greek housemaid set fire to it when Ghika left his first wife for the ex-wife of Lord Rothschild as the housemaid was so disgusted at all the bohemian shenanigans going on. The artists and writers that had all stayed here. Hydra’s lascivious libertine world that seemed a sad old spectre on the island now. Like the later 60s beatniks on Hydra with their inherited money, waiting for creative inspiration to strike while the women did the daily grind. All a little dismal and ridiculous.
As Giristroula and I gazed at the charred white stone walls of this gutted mansion – an owl sat in an empty hole of a window frame – an old man approached.
“You’re interested in Ghika’s house eh? Ah, it was the jewellery of Hydra…” he looked up at the wreck and smiled at the thought. “You’re English?” he said to me. “I remember your Paddy being here…”
Paddy? I guessed he meant Patrick Leigh Fermor. The man whose legacy had loomed large while we were in Crete.
“Yes, yes I remember him. We all laughed at him in his English khaki shorts. Oh, they had such parties here…”
We left the man to his memories and started on the path up the long climb to the very top tip of Hydra, Mount Elias.  There is a dedication to Elias at the top of pretty much every high point in Greece of course. He was the saint who had been sailor and was almost drowned so many times he eventually moved to spend his days on the furthest point away from the sea that he could find. Giristroula and I looked down on this island from the top here, down at the white houses and blue window frames and the outside tables and the donkeys and the lounging cats and the sunlit paths. It looks more Greek than anywhere I can ever remember seeing in Greece. But is any of this real? Is any of it true? Or is it all just make-believe postcard stuff?
The boat was leaving for the mainland.

*

We drove along the green, thick, peaceful hills of the north eastern Peloponnese. We were heading towards Epidaurus. The old bus juddered along the road, people piled in the seats, the cargo pure confusion. A woman over the aisle was busy cutting and stripping cabbages, a great pile of them by her feet and up on the seat. She handed a few of them over for me to hold for her, so I sat happily for the few hours on the grunting and chuntering bus as it passed through the county of Argolida, looking out the window, a heap of cabbages on my lap. The bus stopped at points all along the road, at every small collection of houses, as people ran out of houses with a tin of olive oil, a headless chicken, to pass along to someone in the next village. An old man walking along the side of a field decided very late that he wanted a ride and jutted out his stick. The driver slammed the brakes of the bus. A cabbage rolled down the aisle and out the door as the old man climbed onboard.

The great amphitheatre of Epidaurus was bathed in a smooth stone light as we approached on foot. It opened up from the stage in a huge curve in front of us, like a great sigh from antiquity. For 2,500 years the ancient theatre has sat in this place of peace and healing with the encircling hills beyond. It looks like it has curled into the hillside itself, like an enormous fossil. There were a few splattered clouds above and the sun’s beam forcing through like a spotlight. We sat up on the stepped stones – 55 rows of toppling seats – high in the auditorium and looked down on the theatre’s bowl. People stood on the sandy stone stage and spoke to each other in this place of utter acoustic perfection – where even a stage whisper can be heard in the very furthest seats. I could hear all the conversations up here, clear as a pin. Although what I could hear from the families down on the stage seemed a long way from Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides and their actors in their white robes and sandals.
“Gianni! Come here Gianni. Ela tho, agapi mou. Eat something, Gianni. Gianni! Eat something agapi mou….
The sounds rose and flowed over the seats, over us and out, disappearing somewhere over the hills behind. Like all of man’s architectural feats – the pyramids or the great cathedrals – Epidaurus is about mathematical perfection as well as aesthetic beauty. Here in Greece, where beauty is still existence, knowledge was of course once thought of as just as great a virtue.

Nafplio. We walked through the town of tight lanes of stone buildings, under the vast pink Palamidi fortress high on the hill above. After the revolution against Ottoman rule, when Greece became a free land, Nafplio was chosen as the first capital of the new modern country. It seemed a strange choice as we walked through the lanes of traditional architecture and pretty roofs of round tiles, the quiet main square with its sleeping churches. It wasn’t until the mid-1830s that the nostalgia for Athens’ place in ancient history took the capital away from this small but powerfully fortified town.
Every café we passed here had the sound of the clack of worry beads being spun and caught by old men. This is the town of the koboloi. There’s even a museum dedicated to this loop of cord with the threaded row of beads – always an odd number – that are spun and whirled round fingers throughout Greece. The ancient eastern practice – koboloi hanging from the hand, turned like a clock, counting off the long hours whiled away during the day. Or used just like a rosary, flicking the beads one by one, counting out all life’s problems.

Mycenae, a few kilometres north of Nafplio was once the very centre of civilization. For 500 years from around 1600BC, Greek preeminence and prestige was collected at this palace coiled up high on its rock. The seed of civilization having been blown from Crete and the Minoan empire to this royal residence crouching on its rock under a sharp pyramid of a mountain. Agamemnon had sat in the throne room here, and terrible Greek tragedy had played out all around the columned palace…
Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother, was stolen by Paris of Troy and it was at Mycenae that Agamemnon declared his 10-year war against Troy to get her back. However, because of a lack of good ship-blowing wind Agamemnon couldn’t initially get his ships to sail towards Troy and so a sacrifice was needed to be made to the gods to let them conjure the winds to set them on their course. Agamemnon sacrificed his very own daughter, Iphigenia, on the alter here. On Agamemnon’s victorious return from Troy he was slain in his bathtub by the new lover of his wife Clytemnestra who had, unsurprisingly, held a bitter hated of Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter. Clytemnestra was later slain by her son, Orestis, to avenge Agamemnon’s death. Orestis would then become insane for a time, the throne of Mycenae going to Aletes, Orestes’ half-brother. But not for long – recovering, Orestis returned to Mycenae and killed Aletes and took the cursed throne back. Orestis died here later from a snake bite and, less than 50 years after the great victory in Troy, the palace of Mycenae fell into ruin.
We turned the last bend and there it was before us, the huge blocks of Mycenae. Blocks so large it was thought they could only have been set down by Cyclopes. We crossed the bridge over Clytemnestra’s resting place, through the graveyards and passed through the massive Lion Gate: 10 foot high, 10 foot wide, the two huge carved lions still there three and a half thousand years since they first stretched and posed up on their plinth.
Giristroula and I walked the rooms of the palace and looked down the slimy well in one of its dark rooms. A couple stood next to us, peering into the dark crypt.
“Agamemnon…?” called the man into the gloom “Agamemnon eisai ekei?” – are you there?
He looked over his shoulder, grinned at his wife, pleased with himself. The wife roared with laughter, gripped hold of her belly, thwacked at her husband’s shoulder in painful mirth.
Agamemnon’s tomb is a short way down the hill. A high bee-hive tomb. His famous golden death mask, which now sat watching the visitors enter the Archaeological Museum in heaving Athens, was found here. People were running down the hill to get in to visit before six pm and the old guard on the gate enjoyed his power with the barrier, bring it down slowly as they ran. We walked out past him, folded-armed, closed-eyed, unmoved by the pleas of those wanting to come in and see Agamemnon’s final dark resting place as we left. Mycenae’s palace looked down on us all, up on the sun-lit rocky hill.
Giristroula and I drove off, heading north through the Peloponnese. As we left we passed a shepherd stood looking out across his flock and his field. I watched him shadowed in the evening sun and thought how could have been stood in the very same spot as Homer’s heroes passed by on their way to Troy.

To Be Continued….