Friday, 1 November 2019

The shaded back road and a change in the weather

Ferryboat in the storm

The other day I decided to try to find the road that links up (according to the map) with the small road to Afra. So I head up the Afra road, from the roundabout and the local taverna (which is closed for a few days for renovations) and its garden and outside tables, which form a shady green area away from the main road with its revving traffic (and no shade).

I walk up, but I don't see any turn-off. I reach Afra (but the map says it is clearly before the village) and walk through it, still no road off to the right. The silence in the village is profound. I see only one person, an old lady, sweeping a few dead leaves from her step. So I head back. I still would not have spotted the road I don't think, except a car came up it just as I was passing. A wall divides the two roads, and obscures the other one, which goes sharply downhill, so it was very hard to see. I walked down, but still wasn't sure. It is a very narrow road, it could have been a driveway to someone's house. But no, it turned out to be the road!

It's bordered by all kinds of trees – oak, olive, quince, pine, cypress, and giant bamboo. In places, it's completely shaded. Only one car passed me the whole time I walked along it. Even the dogs seemed too somnolent to bark.


The road comes out onto the main one opposite the Toyota garage, and the turn-off to Kastania. There is a shiny new sign at the turn-off, indicating one way to Kastania and to Potamos in the other direction. The old one lies in a ditch at the junction. Then it's back along the main road, past two bakeries and cafes, the stationer's on the other side, and the garage with its wood pile.

On the main road I meet the man-who-walks for the second time. The first time was on the Afra road. He walks this way every day (or every day that I have been out, either walking or on the bus) at the same time. He walks very slowly, and carries plastic bags in both hands. (I've gone in a circular route, from my road end and the roundabout, uphill to Afra, then downhill along the back road, returning along the level main road, which is how I have managed to see him twice.) I don't know where he begins his walk, or where it ends. For all I know he walks the same circular route as I did today. Over and over.
The forecast warmed that the weather would change. So I headed to Agios Gordios for what I imagine will be my last swim of the year. First the local bus into town, then a walk to the Green Bus station. The huge bus clambers up the narrow twisting roads to mountainous villages, with views of whole valleys of cypress trees and a mountain beyond. The bus eases itself between the narrow gaps between buildings, then heaves its bulk slowly back down again, to the village resort of Agios Gordios, by the sea. 

Looking down on Agios Gordios from the bus

It's quiet now, but there are still a few tourists, a few people swimming. 

The sea is warm, as ever, and I'm now so practised I find it easy to slide into the water and swim. There are some slight waves and they lift me up and down. As always I wonder where this magnificent force comes from that can lift everything so easily, like the beating of the ocean's heart. 

Then the weather changes, as the forecast said it would. Heavy rain, loud thunder overhead and frequent flashes of lightning. The buildings and paving stones of Corfu town gleam in the rain, and there are few people on the streets.


Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Coastal Path from Agios Stefanos, Corfu

There's a path that goes from the village of  Agios Stefanos in the north east of Corfu, to another village just beyond Avlaki beach, south of Kassiopi. At first the path follows the coastline, then it cuts across country, missing out the headland of Cape Varvaro.

On the first part, from Agios Stefanos, there are few trees and little shelter from the hot sun. The path then drops down to a small bay, part of it surrounded by shade-giving trees, and so an ideal place to stop for a swim. The beach is pebbles and stones, and heaped with driftwood, long branches like basking snakes.  

Dried stalks of bamboo rustle behind a horse-head tree. 

The waves gulp and hiss in the small bay.
Across the channel of water, Saranda, in Albania, is clearly visible. 


Just south of Saranda, on the first bank of hills, I can see a path winding up the hilltop – perhaps to the remains of some castle, maybe one of Ali Pasha's own (he had several) or it could be the remnants of a monastery (some of the 40 saints that circle the town). The next layer of mountains are more distant and much higher. Some of their peaks pierce the clouds (they do today) and the shadows of the clouds fall on their peaks and slopes and nothing moves, not clouds or shadows, all is still except (back here in the bay) a fussing flutter on the water surface. I am sitting on a log of driftwood, by the hissing sea.

Continuing on the path the next bay, Akoli, is bigger and also deserted.
Swimming here, I see lots of fishes underwater. Shoals of tiny silver ones, moving as one, like a swarm of starlings. Other ones are bigger, round, plump and solitary fish, with flashes of gold on their sides. They come up close but never close enough for me to touch them.

The outcrop of rock that forms one curve of the bay looks like a bird's head with hooked beak looking sternly out over the water.

 A lagoon just behind the beach has several birds on its surface, at the far end, keeping their distance.

From here, some areas of the path are exposed to the hot sunlight, but often it is shaded by tall bushes or small trees.  Sometimes the trees arch over the path providing a cool canopy, with just a few spears of sunlight slipping through.

All along the path there are many markers to show you the way, all in a bright terracotta colour (as you find on ancient Greek vases). Sometimes they are splashed on large stones, 

sometimes on thick tree roots, with arrows if there are bends or forks in the path. Sometimes on a stone or boulder there's the customary sign of a leaping figure in black against a terracotta background. 


Different scents pervade the path: at times sharp like pine at others perfumed with jasmine.

(Thank you to all the unknown people who have created and marked and maintain this trail. Such a delight to discover it and to walk it.)

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Cape Drastis and parking lot, Corfu

Cliffs at Cape Drastis, Corfu

From Cape Drastis in the north west of Corfu. We stop in Sidari.

We pull up behind the kiosk that's on the edge of the parking area. It's almost empty, a brown gravelly space and a couple of tall and graceful eucalyptus trees. The kiosk is pale cream, its windows lined with the usual packets and tubes of sweets, bags of crisps and biscuits, packets of tobacco...

The heat bounces off the gravel in the parking lot, reverberates, so the air quivers like the surface of the sea, where small fish dart underneath. Near the entrance to the lot,  two men are pouring water into a depression in the ground, (a mixture of small stones, earth and dust). The leaves of the eucalyptus trees hang limp, like plants needing water.

A breeze would blow away neglect, swell the leaves and branches with movement, and the rustling (eucalyptus leaves make the lightest, the most musical of sounds), it would stop me in my tracks. There is no sound and no wind. Even the men watering the ground make no noise. Even the man walking slowly across the lot, with an enormous piece, a triangular piece of what looks like a monstrously large plastic float or lilo, even he (and I can only see his ankles and feet emerging from underneath the triangular plastic burden he carries on his back) as he walks slowly, (possibly because the large load is awkward – and it looks as if his back has turned into a giant manta ray) walks noiselessly across the dry and dusty parking lot, until he disappears behind a wall at the other side.

The sun beats down, R sits in the car and J goes to a shop to buy some water. The men hosing the muddy puddles don't look up. The car radio is playing, an Orthodox chant, like a dirge from some memory so distant it feels located in your body's rhythm, in the pulse of it, the way you swing your legs while walking. Maybe it was from a first memory of sunlight, then its removal, of cold and dark and night.

The puddle in the parking lot has been filled up – the men with hoses move on.

House in village near Cape Drastis

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Walking the Fife Coast Path

This moment-in-time
(lemon yellow sunlight)
pauses, stands back
from its creations, ripening
into fruits and berries, orange and red

this moment may not have a name
but it sees the puffs of down
floating from the rosebay willowherb
and smoke signals drift
from the horizon


from the airfield, a plane arcs
speared by sunlight
seagulls glide across the water
and the moment slides so slowly
you feel it hesitate – and almost halt


it strikes you just below the sternum
where the body holds a map of time and landscape,
flicks open a page – 
one memory overlays another
another fold of fabric (mountain, stone)


pressing into pine and willow trees –
the rocks at shoreline and the sea,
willowherb down sticks on the damp paint
of the canvas
as you draw a sharp line of horizon

try to scrub the estuary from memory
before the floating down turns time
into nostalgia and a failure
of the flower-seed to sink
into new ground


with a sigh (you can almost hear it)
time becomes again – something you move into
and leave behind, like walking
through a garden gate, hearing it close.
In front of you, the red rock cliff

and an old jetty, remnants of weathered wood,
a sketch that time’s undone.
Now it’s train schedules,
a railway bridge across the estuary –
you could blink and it would not be there.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Images of Bucharest

Street reflection in a hat shop window, Bucharest

Today it’s pouring rain and I don’t feel like going out. I’ve finished (well, almost) a long-term project. So when the Scottish Book Trust sends me an email to say they’ve updated their author profile pages, I spend some time looking through the profiles of various authors, some are friends, others I don’t know and I’m curious about. 

The rain batters on the skylight and I’ve been up to a neighbour’s to feed their cat while they’re away. I was worried because she did not turn up last night. I whiled away an hour hoping she would appear, by watching on catch up Mary Beard’s excellent programme on Rome and the Romans. I got nostalgic when she went to Greece. This morning I’m relieved to see that the cat must have turned up later, as the food has been eaten. 

I’ve been so involved in writing and editing and rewriting and re-editing that I haven’t put up anything on the blog about Bucharest. An article will appear elsewhere later this month, but in the meantime, here’s a few pictures of the amazing architecture of Bucharest.

Ornate facade

George Enescu Museum

Covered passage in Bucharest old town - Passajul Vilacrosse

In the garden of the Museum of Romanian Literature - Cioran, Eliade & Ionescu

Thursday, 18 July 2019

From Switzerland to Romania – Journal Excerpts

Rain falls on the Limmat, Zurich

Marin Sorescu says in his poem The Traveller that because he’s stuffed his suitcases ‘full of useless things’ he didn’t have room for ‘the only /Useful object: an umbrella.’

I’d almost brought an umbrella with me but at the last moment, left it behind. Such an encumbrance! And besides – I was going south…
As soon as I got to Zurich, it started to rain. Bahnhofstrasse is all lovely trams and grand expensive shops. Except in the old town, the pedestrian zone, with its drooping red flags with white crosses, and shiny cobblestones. 

Augustinergasse, small shops and large buildings with restaurants on the ground floor. Between showers, I clambered up to the Lindenplatz with its vista over the Limmat, and rooftops. 

On the coach heading south
Over the border into Austria  the sun comes out. So do the mountains, the sharp ones, the steel-tipped ones, the ones wreathed with mist like a crown of jewels. The ones with bare patches like old scar tissue and the ones covered with the green fur of their forests but have pointed peaks that are white with snow. These are always the distant ones. They hide their very topmost secrets in low-travelling cloud. One looks as if there’s a whole castle up there, hidden by cloud curtains. As if the visible part which everyone thinks is the mountain is just a flight of steps leading up – to that part that’s obscured from view. The mountain spirits would be astonished to know that we think that the ladder is the real thing – that the scaffolding is the building, is the work of art. 

It was almost dark at the German border, when they took our passports away to look at them. My seat companion says they always check passports here (he does this journey frequently) sometimes they search all luggage, this is a route for smuggling (I presume drugs) and they check the young people because, he says, they (the border control) are not stupid. They don’t look it either. They look as if they would defend you against anything – a bit like the Austrian mountains we have left behind. Returning the passports, they call out people’s names. As usual, on coaches in central and southern Europe, I am the only Brit.
Early morning, somewhere in Hungary
So – you begin to get a taste for it, this travelling life. For the pale grey clumps and dots and punctuation marks of clouds, bushes of marsh grasses on the edges of the pale blue of sky. Early morning is always where the sky is special, newly-woken, threads of gold low down near the horizon, and my seat companion says we are close to Romania and the road runs between the mountains – only it’s not a continuous motorway, because of corruption. I imagine stepping-stones of road, through valleys, between protruding mountains, and the way we have to go – now slim and stretched, now thick and fat, in the places where corruption could not reach.


The Hungarian plain is so flat you can see every tree for miles and miles and every pimple on the land, each flicker of a rabbit's whiskers, each shift of the hare from its haunches to its back legs as it prepares to lope across the field.
You can see on and on until the light fizzles everything out into golden, which must be the entrance to God's fireplace.

Romania. Arad. Bucharest 425 kilometres says the sign.
Roadside houses all have roses, red, yellow, white. In their grounds they have vegetables or fruit trees or both. The gardens are not fiercely tended and laid out. Sometimes the ground is simply bare with some long grass more like a diminutive farmyard than garden. Some vines as well, vegetable patch, vine patch or trellis or both. Fruit and shade.

Hills and hills and all covered with trees, all kinds of trees, acacia, elm, poplar, oak and some olives too. Grainfields some golden already, some maize corn. Fallow land marshy by rivers, bamboo. Hay stooks around a pole.


Settle into the evening, after the whole long day with distant hills always green and the flat plains so flat and red roofs so few and scattered and even the small towns deserted looking. Now the hills have crept closer, thickly forested, mainly pines but others as well and they are turning into mountains. And few buildings, and look there's a river curving beside the road. Such fertility and luxury. The tree-covered mountains go on and on. Now the road climbs up, curving right and right, now left, in hairpin bends, and everything on either side is thick with green. So huge, tree-swept and so unpeopled a country.

Braşov, Southern Carpathians or Transylvanian Alps

Now there are big buildings many of them old with long sloping roofs, an alpine look, a high resort in the mountains and there's a train running alongside. My eyes latch onto it, clunky, square and appealing, its carriages of pale blue and pinkish brown all washed out and worn-looking. 

Something about this land that I feel should uplift, instead feels so big – mountains on both sides – with trails of thin cloud running down the green pine branches like down wrenched from the heart of the sky. These are not like the Swiss or Austrian mountains, their character feels very different. So high, I almost feel vertigo. A sense of relief as we descend back into the plain on the other side of the mountains and head for Bucharest. 

View of the Piatra Craiului mountains from Zărneşti, Romania, in winter.
Photo credit: Agent-garak