Orange Blossoms and Strawberries: April in Sykia

It’s now been a week since we arrived in Sykia, and we’ve been blessed with beautiful weather since the wheels hit the runway: about 70 every day, overnights in the low 60s, clear most days, calm to light breezes.  Yesterday we got a little skoni, the atmospheric dust that rises over the Sahara and blows north and east in the Spring, and today, about 100 drops of rain.  If this is the worst of it, we’re just delighted.  What a change from last year, when it was cool and wet and windy the first week in April.

Usually, in the spring, the seasonal river that flows under the plateia in front of the apartment runs like liquid mud into the sea.  This year, there’s a trickle of clear water running across the beach, and the sea is as clear as I can remember it at this time of year. Greece is famed for its clear waters, and on still summer days here we enjoy views to the bottom so far below it almost gives one vertigo, but this spring the clarity is remarkable.  I don’t know what that might mean for the reservoir levels in August, or for fire danger that same time of year but for now, it’s just gorgeous.

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We’re also happy to see a new, and popular, taverna has opened here in Sykia.  My guess is that the building held a taverna years before our arrival but now it’s been fixed up, painted, renewed, and reopened as Pyrgos Sykia (Sykia Tower), a reference to the old house of the Turkish bey (ruler) under which stands.  Word has it that the mezzes and tsipouro (grappa) are excellent, and we look forward to giving it our own review.   There’s also a new, stylish cafe in the village in the premises of a seasonal grill house that hasn’t opened in five years.  I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to “review” it but it’s doing good business now, and will likely be jammed in the summer.  After years of watching stores closing, it’s great to see these fresh green shoots of hope emerging from the gloom.

The highway under construction near the house is also enjoying a renaissance, in this case a second renaissance. We left with the near certainty that the work as far as our exit would be completed by the time we came back but this is Greece, and the fiscal paroxysms of last summer halted the work for months.  (And it would have finished years ago but for the original deficit cataclysm.)  Happily it is now proceeding at a fantastic pace and there is at least hope that when we leave we’ll drive out on the new pavement.

Returning here each spring means rediscovering some of the little delights that fade from memory over the winter.  One we’ve particularly enjoyed this year is the scent of orange blossoms.  A couple of property owners here in Sykia have small stands of orange and other citrus, and passing by these trees on our walks always produces sighs and extra-deep breathing.  Another special treat is the strawberry crop. Our greengrocer follows the crop from Crete in the far south to Macedonia in the far north, so we get perfectly ripe strawberries for months.  They’re already incredible, and we are looking forward to this continuing until the peaches start to come in.  Oh, the peaches…

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One of the great pleasures of being here, though, is seeing our friends and family again.  They’ve all told us that they’re doing fine, and they mean it, although it’s understood in the context of 24% unemployment and capital controls.  This time, though, I’m noticing that after 7 years, the recession/depression is beginning to feel like the new normal.  People expect the current catastrophe to continue indefinitely, and improve only very gradually, so they have adjusted their outlook accordingly.  The attitude now is one of making the most of a bad situation.  That’s a sea change from feeling crushed by macro economics, and, to my way of thinking, represents the beginning of the road to recovery.  It seems clear that Greece’s future will be defined not by the IMF, the EU, and ECB, not by the politicians, the bond traders, and the talking heads but by ordinary people doing what they’ve always done; finding a way, adjusting, persevering, and adjusting again.  To be sure, this does not represent the beginning of the end of the misery but, to me, it presents a possibility of a long, difficult climb out of the abyss.  And that’s the most positive I’ve felt about the situation in a long time.

Anyway, it’s a poor spring that’s devoid of promise, and we’re finding hope in its greatest reservoirs — nature and the human spirit.  As always, it’s great to be back.

 

PS: Not directly related, but if you have 6 minutes, you might enjoy this gorgeous video of the night sky of Greece, “Greek Skies.”  The videographer, Panos Filippou, spent a year of nights capturing stop-motion and time-lapse video of the sky, and he’s done a great job editing and laying a music track under it.  Enjoy: Vimeo Greek Skies  or YouTube Greek Skies

Sika!

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Sika means figs in English, and I’m posting this photo of some sika growing nearby because our village, Sykia (or Sikia or Sikya) means fig tree.  In the age of sail, seaside villages often took their names from some distinguishing feature of interest to mariners.  Fresh water was always a concern, so there are villages called good water, lots of water, dry, etc.  Navigation was an equal concern, and being able to locate one’s place on the map required landmarks, so other villages are named for whatever was most visible from the sea — the next village is called Xylokastro for its wooden castle or single castle. I doubt anyone out in the Gulf could spot a fig tree on the shore, so I assume our name promised that, at a minimum, figs could be had here.  The village just east of us, Mellissi, would advertise the availability of honey. During the Ottoman occupation, the local Ottoman chieftan (bey) built a large house on the highest point of our village shore.  The house included a tower, possibly a minaret, and so the village was renamed Pyrgos (tower).  The tower was toppled when independence was won, and the name reverted to Sykia.

 

I’ve learned that our village also has some ancient history, which isn’t too surprising in this part of Greece but all I know is that villagers digging in their gardens have found ancient artifacts. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned recently is that, into the Ottoman era, the sea extended right through the middle of the present village, almost back to Geliniatika, the village  adjoining Sykia to the south.  This revelation suddenly made sense of some landforms in the village that seemed odd but had not inspired any critical thought.  It appears that sediments washing down from the hills above gradually silted in the anchorage, which would have included the site our apartment, and that the Old National Road, running along the beach, serves as a dike to keep the sea from reclaiming the land.

 

I’ve just learned most of this detail about our part-time home from Sykia’s delightful and surprising website, Sykia.gr. Well designed, interesting, and useful, the site includes an excellent, full English translation and some very nice photography.

 

The website notes that, by legend, the fig tree for which the village was named stood on the hill by the bey’s house. There’s now a taverna at the foot of that hill called The Courtyard of the Bey, and I find myself walking the village trying to imagine the outline of the harbor, boats moored out in its center, travelers sitting at tables under the trees, and sailors carrying casks and crates down to a pier. It’s a new dimension of Sykia for me, and it comes thanks to the efforts of some of my approximately 600 neighbors to tell the story of this place.  We’re beginning to feel as if we’re a part of this sweet village.

Wildflowers

One of the major reasons we like to be here in early spring is because wildflowers bloom in virtually every open space, including the beach.  Having only seen the place in high summer — when sun, drought, and heat turn even the weeds to dust — our first spring in Korinthia amazed us with its profusion of greenery and vibrant color.  An early trip to Mani a few years ago delighted us with its even more profuse wildflower display.  In summer, Mani resembles nothing so much as the surface of the moon, so the heady, urgent rush of blooms one sees there this time of year is as startling as it is delightful.

We drove down to Mani last week, and spent our hours there traipsing around as much as our legs would stand, snapping photos to reassure ourselves that we’d actually witnessed the astonishing scenery it offered.  Here, then, are a bunch of those photos.  Sadly, I don’t know the names of any of these plants — a possible area of future research for us.

Our first stop was Kardamyli where we looked up from our parking spot and were treated to this display tumbling down the cliffside before us.

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Driving south from Kardamyli, I stopped along the road to snap this arrangement of rock and floral extravagance.

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We enjoy walking the roads and trails around our b&b outside of Aeropoli.  We shot these in the fading light of our first day.

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This is the road to Aeropoli, the main village of this part of the Mani.  In summer, the road, the shoulder, and the rock walls are just shades of grey.

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The next morning, we set off to walk the Tigani peninsula.  The cliffside plateau at the tip of the peninsula is covered in the ruins of an old Frankish castle.

It took us almost an hour to get out there.

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Looking left (south) on our way down, we had breathtaking views of the Cavo Grosso, the dominant landform in this part of Mani.

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Down the hill, and ready to cross the peninsula…

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These are the ruins of a basilica within the walls of the castle.  Open tombs in the basilica’s floor, and open cisterns scattered across the castle grounds make this a tricky place to walk, especially when the wildflowers cover the footholds.

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These tiny white flowers were growing between the pebbles of the road we walked and drove to access the trailhead.

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The purple flowers growing everywhere have small, curving pedals that give each bloom the appearance of a tiny orchid.

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As much as we’d like to revisit these scenes every couple of weeks, part of what makes them special is their impermanence and rarity.  Early spring in the Mani is a precious, brief interval in the otherworldly, stark beauty of that landscape.

Stormy weather

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After a day of rain and declining temperatures, the clouds parted just enough at sunset to produce this dramatic view of Mt. Helicon, directly across the Gulf.  The sun was setting behind me, completely cloud covered, and the break in the ceiling on the other side of the Gulf was just enough illuminate the south side of the mountain and the clouds roiling above it.

Full Moon in Sikya

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We went out just now to see the first full moon of our time here. We’re used to seeing the moon rise over Mt. Gerania, to the east, so this winter moon rising directly across the Gulf was a sweet surprise.  This is just about where the sun rises in mid-summer.

Not quite visible are the clouds gathering on the horizon.  They are heralding an end to the run of gorgeous weather we’ve enjoyed the last 4 days, and are forecast to bring us cooler, wetter weather through the weekend. Good thing we’re caught up on the laundry.

Sunrise, Sunset

We don’t often see the sun rise and set over the Gulf on the same day. Principally because I try to avoid the obscenely early hours but also because, from our balcony, the sun sets over the mountains behind us. Sunday was an exception because we got up absurdly early (what the coxswain on the ’03-’07 WAC crew team referred to as “the ass-crack of dawn”) so we could run before the heat of day. I grabbed this snap of the sunrise at its northern-most position on the horizon (in a few weeks, it will have moved south again and be hidden behind the building on the right).

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That evening, we went for a beer at a little beach bar in the pine forest near us, and watched clouds blow over the Gulf toward us as the sun settled below the horizon. No post-processing on this one.

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One of the things we love about this place is that we spend a lot of time outside, and on this day, that time extended from before dawn until well after sunset.

Patti Smith at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus

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Last Saturday, we went to Athens to see Patti Smith at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Athenian of the second century AD who built this 5000-seat structure on the southern slope of the Acropolis in 161. An odeon is different from a theatre in that an odeon is used for singing and musical performances, while a theatre is used for drama. Odeons are smaller than theatres, and were built with wood roofs (long gone, in this case). When you visit the Acropolis, you can look down into the odeon and, knowing that it’s used for musical performances during the Athens Festival every summer, it’s been a long-time wish of mine to take in a show there.

Susan made my wish come true with a Fathers Day present that included tickets to see Patti Smith at the odeon. We’d last seen Patti Smith in the mid-70s at the Cellar Door in DC. It was an electrifying show that made me re-think poetry, songwriting, and singing. That night has stayed with me over the subsequent damn-near 40 years, and I’ve followed her music ever since. But I’d never been able to see another concert. So Susan made real two of my dreams with tickets to the performance last Saturday.

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IMG_5026 We went in about 30 minutes before the scheduled show start.  That’s Sue sitting on the left.

The show itself was magical. The setting is beautiful beyond my descriptive abilities. The seats and stage floor were rebuilt with marble from Mt. Pentelis on Athens’ northern border, the source of all the Acropolis marble, in the 1950s. (Yes, seat pads were provided.) But the rest of it dates back more than 1800 years, and entering through those ancient arches is spine-tingling. The millennia of history accrued on the Acropolis and in the Odeon are palpable in that building, and I think most of us were awestruck just to be there. And, as if more portent were needed, the full supermoon rose behind the stage during the show.

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The band is excellent, with Lenny Kaye, the group’s lead guitarist from the beginning, playing as if the guitar were an extension of his consciousness, and Jay Dee Daugherty, also an original, absolutely masterful on the drums — powerful, creative, solid, musical. We were blown away when Patti introduced her two children as members of the band that night — her son Jackson playing guitar and her daughter Jesse on keyboard.

Patti’s performance was jaw-dropping. For me, it was as if those 4 decades had folded up in a time warp. She is 4 years older than me but she prowled around the stage just as she had done at the Cellar Door. At one point, she climbed down to the marble floor in front of the temp stage to dance, and invited the only-too-willing audience to join her. Her voice remains the same and her delivery is just as powerful as it was in the beginning. She fulfilled my wish with the fourth song of the night, Free Money, and went on to perform all of the anthems, including Horses, Ain’t it Strange, Barefoot Dancing, G-l-o-r-i-a, and Because the Night. She released an album last year, Banga, and based on what I heard her sing I’ll be picking up a copy.

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Patti’s commentary during the show made it clear that her imaginative energy is also undiminished. While celebrities are often tone-deaf or informed solely by news media when it comes to current events in Greece, Patti’s prophetic, oblique way of looking at life put her precisely in heart of the struggle with a determination to prevail with celebration, dance, song, and love.

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No one, including us, much wanted to leave after the show but eventually we milled our way across the floor and back through the stone arches. Once outside we found ourselves treated to the rare pleasure of a stroll under the Acropolis on a moon-lit summer’s night, a fair bit of magic in itself.

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Back in Sikia the next night, we sat on the beach and watched the “supermoon” rise again over the cape…

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…music still playing in our heads.