Friday, 30 July 2010

Excerpts from an Ionian Journal 2 - Saints and more lost beads

From Poetry in the Ionian Islands:

When you have visited the land, [of Corfu] then you can understand why their poetry has long been inspired by the glories of nature. The startling light, the magnificent vegetation, the seas which can be rough or calm, stir the soul into a state of bliss.

So wrote Dora d'Istria in the 1860s.

I take the bus into Corfu/Kerkyra town. At the bus station I ask the driver which way to go to the town centre and follow his directions. After about 10 minutes I think I could do with some tourist information i.e. a map and when I look to my right, I see a little tourist kiosk which has miraculously appeared just when I needed it. Armed with a map I head into the old town. It's pedestrian area is paved with the lovely yellow marble slabs as in Dubrovnik and Berat.

I go into the Church of Saint Spiridion, patron saint of the island and visit the little chapel, following in line behind a stream of recogniscenti, to where his embalmed body lies, in a silver casket. The people in front of me touch the casket and stoop to kiss the image of the saint inlaid on the casket so I do that too. I buy candles but there doesn't seem to be anywhere one can light them, so I bring them home. [On my next visit I notice that there is an area outside the church, for the candles.]

In Prospero's Cell Durrell gives an account of the Saint's life. Apparently buried in Cyprus, he was later taken to Paramythia in Epiros [Durrell gives a wonderful imaginative description of his journey there] and arrived in Corfu in 1456, where he has remained ever since, performing various miracle, such as routing the Turkish ships when they attacked. Apparently in 1944, when the Germans and Italians were fighting for possession of the island, many Cofiotes crowded into Saint Spiridion's church. Advised to shelter in the Italian school, they demurred, preferring the saint's sacred site. The Italian school was demolished and Saint Spiridion's church was not hit by a single shell and everyone in it was safe. Clearly, another miracle.

I visit the Byzantine Museum, which has the shape and aura of a church [and I discover from a notice outside that it is a church, though services are held only twice a year, on special days of Marian celebrations.] It is dimly lit and full of marvellous icons.
The risen Christ and Mary Magdalene.

One with three figures dates from the 15th century. The one of the holy trinity highlights the absurdity of no female presence. One has three figures named as Saints Sergius, Bacchus and Justine which confuses me at first as the middle one clearly seems to be a woman and then I realise that she must be Justine. One again [as with St. George] there is the motif of having conquered something that's being trampled underfoot but at least she isn't actively killing it and it's good to see a woman's presence, which is rare, apart from Madonna icons. But there is actually another woman in one of the icons and it's the same one as I saw in the icon museum at Dubrovnik – Jesus and Mary Magdalene, both of them with haloes. Saint Spiridion looks a little stern. Saint Anthony, the hermit, has various scenes from his life included in his icon, surrounding him. St Dimitri is my favourite.

At the harbour, I look out across the water to vague misty outlines of the mountains of Albania. Up at the north point where the island is closest to Albania, the
y would be nearer and more distinct up there, at the site of the lost pearls that would have strung a bridge across to the separated land which it has been wrested away from, the place where it once belonged. The south of Albania also partakes of the blessed quality of Greece. And it has forty saints at Saranda, while Corfu has just the one, but very mighty and powerful Saint Spiridion is, of course.

I hear the morning roosters, though it doesn't seem to be light. There's two of them. One has a rising celebratory trill at the end, the other ends on a half-choked wheeze.

Yesterday I walked up a series of winding hairpin bends to the village of Lakones. It took a long time going up, past twisting oliviers, honeycomb patterns on their trunks. The cicadas, playing their zig-zag fretwork on the air. Three old people sit outside what could be a shop or cafe, and turns out to be both – the Caffe Olympia says the sign which I hadn't noticed at first. I'm almost out of water so I head towards them. Kalispera I say, and they reply. The spokesman launches forth in English and invites me into the shop which he says has been there since 1944 – there is a sign on the wall saying this. Come in he says, sit down. He invites me to take a photo of the owner – the other man – and the shop. I wonder if it's the same man who opened the shop in 1944. It would make him quite old – but then they are quite old, so it's just about possible. I ask the English-speaking man, saying surely the present owner isn't the one who opened it in 1944, he's too young? And the way he laughs in response to this is as if I've been paying them a compliment.

The shop is crammed – there are little bottles of unidentified sun-coloured liquid, larger bottles of wine which are over 20 years old, I'm told, jars, packets, boxes – it's like a shop from one's childhood, where every jar, packet, tin and earthenware container could be examined, lingered over, touched, fingered.......
In the only available space in the centre there are two small tables with chairs. Both tables and chairs are made of solid, walnut-coloured wood.

Have I mentioned that it is very hot? I wear my wide-brimmed straw hat all the time, and slink along in the shade, scuttling back into it if there are shadeless stretches of road. Sitting out on the balcony – which is in the shade - I notice the arrival of a long-whiskered green creature with six legs, striding haughtily across the tiles, then up the green door-shutter. I'm so excited I breathe carefully, not to disturb it. Its two back legs – greenish, veering into brown, are hinged, jointed, powerful. With one of its front legs it brings down one of its long [about two inches] magnificent antennae, strokes it thoughtfully as a man might his beard or moustaches, releases it and it springs back up again. I look away for a moment and when I turn back, it's gone.

Meanwhile, the figs ripen. The percussive cicadas tune up their instruments – or laugh – or swing their bows, like a trapeze.

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