Donkeys appear often on Greek picture postcards and tourist bumf, and there are still a few actual donkeys to be seen in rural districts. Our neighbour Niko usually comes down for his routine cup of coffee on his donkey, particularly now that his chest is getting worse and he finds it harder to walk back up the long hill to the village. The donkey stands above the house munching whatever it can find and farting loudly, while Niko drinks his coffee. Until a very few years ago, he and his family used donkeys to bring out the full sacks from the terraces during the olive harvest.
Tiny Kokonas, a spry widow in her eighties, still passes along the opposite side of the valley on her donkey driving her goats before her. It was Kokonas’ donkey which was washed away in a freak flood a while ago and found later in the branches of a tree, still alive.
Eleni also rides a donkey. Eleni has land above the village, a ramshackle stretch of stony hillside, dotted with goat sheds, chicken coops, rusting oil drums and abandoned tractor parts. A spinster of uncertain age with big calloused hands and a loud cackle, she rides side saddle up and back along the road from her house, in her black headscarf and voluminous skirts. Sometimes you see her leading the poor creature loaded with a mountainous pile of forage.
Before the coming of the motor car-and in remoter parts of the country that was not so long ago, the first tarmac road to Megali Mantinia from the coast, for instance, wasn’t built until the nineteen sixties-towns and villages were connected by a network of donkey tracks. Stretches of these tracks were often paved, with stone bridges over stream beds and beautifully engineered dry stone ramps up the steeper sections. Kalderimia, the Greeks call these narrow stone roads, although the word itself is probably Turkish.
There is a fine example a few kilometres from our house, a long series of ramps zigzagging up a beetling declivity, maybe a thousand feet vertically, to the half abandoned village of Altomira in the foothills of Taygetos. Niko remembers it well. When he was a boy, it was the route they took with their flocks of sheep and goats each year to the high summer pastures, returning only in the autumn.
The family, he says, had a house in Altomira, which they used in the Summer months, but as the years passed and the seasonal movement of livestock declined (transhumance, is it called?) the family house fell into ruin and is now no more than a pile of stones.
Last autumn, Linda and I climbed the stone road to Altomira. It is much overgrown now and the fine ramps have collapsed in places although it is still used. At one point we were obliged to hop on to the rocks above the path as a mixed flock of sheep and goats passed down from the heights above, maybe two or three hundred animals. Behind them came a young shepherdess, the music from the earpiece of her walkman clearly audible.