Friday, 20 May 2016

On the green island

The Italian connection has been intense. The olive oil of Corfu lit the capital of the Venetian empire. Corfu defended by Venice was for centuries on a front-line between Christian Europe and expanding Islam, repelling bold Ottoman invasions. The French and English connections, though influential, are brief in comparison to the Venetian. Before enosis with mother Greece, Italian was the language of Ionian government. At a concert in the Old Fort a few weeks back we listened to 'Juditha Triumphans', a Vivaldi Oratorio commissioned to celebrate the repelling by the Republic of Venice of the third Turkish invasion of 1716.


It suppose it started with a family clamber up to Kassiopi Castle in October last year, when my 4-year old grandson Oliver was asking "Why?" - about everything. I invented explanations for the remains of that mighty fortress now in ruins,  inventing yarns about pirates coming in boats from the mainland to attack Corfu.
"Again!" he calls after I try to finish with "and so the pirates were driven away with lots of 'ouchies' and the villagers of Kassiopi lived happily ever after"
"Again granpa!"
I don't mention Turks or barbarians or try to recount how the Ionian Islands, especially Corfu, were, for centuries, the front-line between Christianity and Islam. But - for real - in July 1716 the Ottomans, well aware of the strategic importance of that foreign island fortified by infidels on a western border of their mighty empire, made yet another attempt to capture Corfu. That same August, the Venetian defenders, including many native Corfiots, led by the mercenary general Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg ended the Turkish siege, and drove the 'pirates' - with many 'ouchies' - from the island, never to attempt another invasion.
To celebrate the victory, Antonio Vivaldi was commissioned to write a musical work to be performed in Venice. Last Thursday it was performed in the grounds of the Old Fort in Corfu.
“Remind me of Italian names for women beginning with ‘G’" said Stephi.
We were trying to remember the name of that Renaissance artist who’d painted Judith and her maid-servant struggling to kill General Holofernes. I let the thing roam my brain as we stood, unable to get seats among an overflowing audience inside the church of St George, the old British Military Chapel inside the Old Fort  – venue for Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans. Outside the chapel windows, over the heads of people sitting in niches, I could glimpse the darkening sea ruffled by a wind from the south.
Wesley had asked me, with his friend, Derek, to join him and Stephanie for the evening, collecting me from Democracy Street, driving us to the city.
A name flashed up “Gentilissi?”
“Yes! Something like that”
“I’ll check on Google, my brain sucker, tomorrow. It’s a much more violent illustration than the one on the poster for the concert”
Abra and Judith killing Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi 1614
There was clapping, a few words of introduction by a descendant of the great General Schulenberg “who would surely have sorted out the current crisis of Greece”, more clapping, and then lovely music and singing.

Near the back, standing in growing warmth, I could see just the faces of the lead singers – four women, the tips of violins and dipping bows, and the heads and shoulders of the chorus when they stood. Four faultless voices backed by formal Renaissance melodies spun the grisly apocryphal tale.
Soprano: “A noble lady of the enemy has come to our troops asking after you, mighty Lord Holofernes. And soon, believe me, she will be yours – you have only to set eyes upon her” 
Yes indeed…
Soprano “It is not long now until the rising of the dawn; scattered across the heavens the stars are twinkling; within the tent the a flickering light is dying; the entrance stands open, I can see no-one. But alas, alas, what is this Blood everywhere! Alas, what a hideous sight! The headless body of my Lord lying drained of blood!..."
Chorus: "Hail, Judith, beautiful and undefeated, the glory of our nation and our hope of salvation. You shall forever be the ultimate model of true virtue glorious throughout the world.” 
Sound, in the great roomy cube of the chapel's interior, was sublime - a chance to stretch my attention span, and test the staying power of my legs – though, just before the interval, Stephanie and the others edged through the standing crowd ‘for a breath of air’ and I was glad of the excuse to leave at the interval. Next time I’ll make a point of arriving an hour before a concert starts, but this was the first of its kind for me – a reminder that Corfu has a capital city; that it may be an island but an island with a culture as far as can be from insular.
*** *** ***
Tordorrach Farm, Strathnairn, Inverness-shire
I love cycling. I’m a cyclist of the rambling kind, liking good but not the classiest of bicycles; travelling when I use my folding bike on buses, and all the other public transport where it’s available. I don’t measure my performance. I enjoy covering distances in the easiest way. Thus maps fascinate me, as do hints of new and simpler ways to get from A to B, pondering the means of combining buses, walking, and cycling. At the spanking new Green Bus Station, south west of Corfu's city centre, I collect the latest schedules on single A4 sheets. Richard P, to whom I’d sent a web link to the wicker coffin that Lin bought on eBay for Arthur’s funeral, complains about the new depot – Ο Νέος Σταθμός...
I have forwarded in turn to the daughters who will be in charge of the waste disposal when the time comes. I discovered to my alarm and despair that the bus station moved over the last weekend and one is now deposited in a no-man's-land near the airport. Too too shaming. RP 
Dear R. Is that bus station move a permanent one? Coming into town, there must be a point you can get off earlier with a reasonable walk to the city centre. I hope so as I too rely on the bus. S
It has been planned for years - a real, modern, bus station - fully functional, devoid of humanity, androids serving coffee, miles from anywhere because planners do not take people into account. At present there is no stopping point between Lidl and the terminus but they will surely have to invent one, as it goes everywhere except where one needs to. Bring back the old one - at the Spilia - sez I…  
I’m trying to work out how you get from the new and inconvenient (except for airport tourists) Green bus terminus. No problem where it is for me. I just use my folding bicycle which stores in the luggage compartment. I suppose there’s a shuttle into town, but there might be a convenient stop closer to the city centre. It seems rough on the local people who have no interest in being close to the airport and want to get into town. If you find out anything vaguely positive let me know.  
…there is a shuttle but that is presumably not a long-term solution - the bus into town goes up the long hill past all those shops selling electronics etc, down the other side, out onto the roundabout by the 'other' Lidl and there you are. In the middle of no-mans-land. The return is even more stupid as it goes all round the world, including San Rocco, to come out exactly where it should have started from, but doesn't stop!
I have just been at the new Green Bus Station. It’s as miserable as you’ve observed. But the staff are proud of the place. I strolled in wheeling my little Brompton bike and was ordered out again. I folded it up and was forgiven. But at once two cleaners arrived to wipe the floor where my bicycle wheels, leaving no marks, had passed. I gather there’s a stop on the way out of town by the Old Port – Café Sette Vente - which may make things a little better, but as I cycled into town from the new station up that brief stretch of firmly divided dual carriageway - Ethniki Odos Lefkimis - I passed a single file of tourists negotiating the narrow rough path (I wouldn’t call it a pavement)... 
Passengers from the new Green Bus Station making their way into town up Dinatou Dimolitsa
...that runs up Dinatou Dimolitsa, leading to a longish stroll up Mitropolitou Methodiou into San Rocco Square. A mess! I admit the old bus station was probably not so good on health and safety with people and buses and diesel fumes mixing it in that little space, but it was agreeably located. Like most things people will get used to it, but I cannot say or think anything good about this non-place, its access so unfriendly to anyone on foot.  
The old Green Bus station
"people and buses and diesel fumes mixing it in that little space" are what bus stations are all about. Clinical health and safety is not. R 
I’ve been enjoying an hour fulminating with my neighbours in Democracy Street, leaving as the complaints about the new Green Bus Station became ever more heated...The new location is ‘μακριά from the centre of town; indeed ‘οχληρός’ for everywhere that matters - clinics, pharmacies, shops, offices, the ferries, friends! S
Two days ago. I lose track of time on my own in the village I took the 9.00 Green bus into town from Ano Korakiana - a blue sky day.
Lazaretto Island from the bus into town

Dawdled criss-cross the city, perfect for slow cycling and pretending to get lost; in and out of shadowed alleys and broader promenades, weaving gently among the most un-maddening of crowds; had two long filter coffees in an armchair at a marble table among the many bookshelves inside the panelled dimness of Plous and did my email – which was when I learned that Gill was bringing a new colony of Buckfast bees back to the allotment. I bought two mini-prosciutto rye-bread rolls with small wafers of Parmesan, poppy-seed sprinkled at Artissimo on M.Theotoki just off N.Theotoki. From there I cycled via Vrachlioti to Evgeniou Voulgareos – now nicely pedestrianised with bumpy cobbles – into G.Theotoki mixing it again with motorised traffic as I rounded San Rocco to steer left down one-way Dimoulitsa towards the new bus station.
I couldn’t resist trying out an unmarked diversion down a winding greenery lined road past apartments and gravelly car parks, relying on sense of direction I cycled round the back of the bus station, entered a cul-de-sac, escaped via a narrow footbridge into the car-park of Lidl...
The new Green Bus Station off a dual-carriageway - just beyond the man on the motorbike

...70 metres west of the station, easily approached along a new pavement, and in time to treat myself to a boxed portion of orange cake – portokalopita – from a nice woman at the café (no android) before boarding the 13.15 bus to Sokraki.
On the more familiar part of the journey via Tzavros, Dassia, Ipsos, Pyrgi, I savoured the two rolls. Then we began the long climb up to Spartilas, the view of the Ionian Sea widening, as the driver skilfully took his bus through the 28 hairpin bends into the village. Then we were winding on level road through olive groves and valleys to Sgourades after which the bus turned down the long hill to Zigos amid a visual assault of greenery along roads profusely verged with white, yellow, blue and red wild flowers. A hairpin at Zigos and we head up the even narrower hill to Sokraki.
Up the hill to Sokraki from Zygos

Two other passengers most of the way. The sea in the north appears in the distance, serried green ridges in between, dotted with villages; olive branches now and then brushing the roof of the bus. When we stopped in Sokraki I stepped out to find the driver had already unloaded my bike.
“You live on an island of great loveliness”
I had rehearsed in Greek, even so thinking it was a silly thing to mumble to a bus driver who does the journey every day “You are fortunate”
We shook hands
“Thank you for such a journey! Bye bye. Now I shall cycle down to Ano Korakiana”
“Ah” he smiled “Ano Korakiana”
First I cycled a few yards into the little square of Sokraki where I ordered a bottle of retsina, three souvlakia and chips with tomatoes and bread at Emily’s Taverna. The breeze was cool, the sun going in and out of fluffy white clouds, and I was glad of the waistcoat inside my thin jacket. After the meal I ordered a diplo skirto – a large Greek coffee – and asked if there was anything sweet. Emily’s daughter, whose name I didn’t catch, shook her head.
“Do you mind if I eat my orange cake with your coffee?”
“Of course not”
So I finished mixing coffee, water, sweet cake and the last of the retsina.

Dozy, I cycled happily to the edge of the village where the road snakes homeward – 29 hairpin bends. In a burst of love – and slightly tipsy - I rang my daughter
“Hi darling. Just wanted to say I’m on a mountain at Sokraki looking over the sea to Greece. I was thinking how much I love you”
“Yeah Dad” I could hear Guy and Oliver and Hannah in the background. The phone was on speaker “Hullo grandpa hullo grandpa hullo “
I could swear the last “hullo Grandpa" was Hannah’s voice, far clearer than when I saw her a fortnight ago.
Sokraki - I phoned Amy

The road from Sokraki to Ano Korakiana, from a corner where I can still see the sea on both sides of the island
In no time, though I stopped now and then to sit on a road side wall to gaze at the view below, I was home on Democracy Street, folding my bicycle, getting into small tasks and having ideas, on the next fine day, of my cunning route to the top of Mount Pantokrator, or another low road to the village...
In the heat of the afternoon I like to take the low road through the woods and stop for a picnic on the way





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