People say that if you want to see the Greek landscape at its best, then you must come in the spring, and it’s true.
Under the olive trees lie carpets of white marguerites studded with red anemones, and we can find a dozen different species of wild flowers within a few yards, though we don’t necessarily know what they’re called. Linda found bee orchids near the house, and a woman from the village, Giorgia, taught her to recognise horta, the edible greens that grow wild on the land and wild asparagus.
Swifts and swallows arrived at the end of March and a few days later, a gorgeous troupe of hoopoes. The other day we watched a pair of what we took to be eagles rising in great spirals above the house. Owls call in the night from the caves at the end of the valley, where they have their nests. Koukouvalia is the very evocative Greek name for owls.
Though we do get some rain and the sky can still be overcast from time to time, the perfect spring days grow more frequent and little by little the daytime temperatures rise as the sun passes higher across the sky. Through the winter the sun sets invisibly behind the slope of the valley, but as the days grow longer we begin to see the sun setting across the bay. We lose the sunset again at the end of September.
We have started gardening in a halting sort of way, laying water pipes and fitting taps around the outside of the house so that we can keep the place green through the heat of the Summer, and planting flowers and shrubs.
On the terrace below the house there are already young trees, planted by the previous owners three years ago: a lemon tree, orange trees, a mulberry tree and an almond tree, and they are all doing well.
In contrast to this spring optimism, we spent a melancholy afternoon in the ruined village of Mikri Mantineia which lies on a high spur about a mile from where we live. On August the first, 1944, a violent earthquake destroyed much of the village. There were deaths, it seems, and the surviving inhabitants moved down to the coast to build new houses for themselves, so that now there are two villages with the same name. The old village is now little more than overgrown ruins, though the two churches have been repaired.
White lilies grow rank in abandoned gardens and fig trees push through crumbling masonry.One family stayed on after the earthquake, and the last member of that family, an old lady, died just a couple of years ago. We climbed the outside stair of her house and pushed open the door into the dim interior. The windows were shuttered and the slatted light fell across a floor littered with dusty trash: broken crockery, a spilled button box, yellowed letters. In another room, mildewed blankets lay tumbled on a bed and on the wall hung a fading wedding photograph.
We step outside again into the springtime dazzle.
Earthquakes here are common. Sometimes there are several minor tremors a day, and they do give you pause for thought. About six years ago there was a significant quake in and around Kalamata, 5.9 on the Richter scale, which lasted for many seconds. Linda was teaching a class of kids at the time and when the first kid hissed Seismo!, they all shot under their desks, which is the drill.
School kids in Greece do earthquake drill annually, rather like English kids do fire drill. After the event, the whole school trooped outside to wait for the inevitable aftershock. Linda said the atmosphere was very emotional, and noisy with the sound of mobile phones as anxious parents tried to get in touch. No one was hurt and there was no structural damage, though the school was closed the following day while engineers inspected the place. They do say, cynically, that earthquakes never exceed 5.9 because beyond 6.0, the state has an obligation to pay for damage.
Kalamata’s big recent quake came in 1986, after which 60% of the buildings in the city were condemned as unsafe. As I understand, only one family died, under a collapsing ceiling. A few months ago, twenty odd years after the event, an imposing monument to the event was erected in the town centre.
Historically, I guess earthquakes have always been significant in Greece. At Ancient Olympia, during what must have been a very violent seismo sometime during the fourth century, the colossal temple of Zeus went over. The great stone drums of the columns are still lying where they fell. What makes this even more interesting is that the ancient site of Olympia was entirely lost for centuries beneath gravel banks deposited by the river Alpheios and only rediscovered in the nineteenth century by German archaelogists.A cataclysmic moment buried and then found again.