Sunday, 24 April 2016
From the Mani
Not least the butterflies, which were flying in abundance wherever we went: blues, whites and browns of all kinds, many beyond my powers of identification (the 60-odd British species provide enough challenges for me; Greece has four times as many). Swallowtails were everywhere, gliding from flowerhead to flowerhead and even around the village streets. Brimstones were flying, along with Clouded Yellows and Cleopatras, and I saw my first Red Admirals of the year.
As for the wild flowers - the great spring flowering was, our host told us, already past its best, so warm and dry had been the early spring, but there were still wonderful things to be seen, including several species of orchids I had never seen before, glorious scarlet-and-black anemones, intense blue pimpernels, the lovely Venus' Looking Glass, and drifts of wild cyclamens. The air was full of smells of sage and oregano and blossom, and the only sounds were of sheep bells and bees, many of them wild black bees in quest of mud for their nests. Twice we came across wild tortoises lumbering across our path...
And then there were the churches - an astonishing abundance of tiny Byzantine churches and chapels (one village we visited had a total of 60). Many are in completely out-of-the-way locations, some built into caves or cliff faces, others standing quite alone with nothing but olive groves and pastures for miles around. A pleasing number of churches were open, and most of them in a greater or lesser state of decay, though still in occasional use. Several had colonies of bats hanging from the roof, and one was loud with wild bees coming and going to their sanctified nest.
All the churches were of the same pattern (cruciform, with an apse and, quite often, a westward extension) and all were, or had been, covered all over - walls, dome, arches, window surrounds - with paintings of Christ and his mother, the apostles, favourite Greek saints, and scenes from the Bible. Most of these paintings are badly decayed, peeling and fading away, the remnants of their golden brightness, once-rich colours and stylised faces glimmering faintly through the gloom of invariably dark interiors. Often a face or detail has survived in good condition (or been restored) and you can feel something of the chastening numinous force it must once have had.