Thursday, 3 February 2011

Sunshine on St Brigit's Day

>Right on cue, on St. Brigit's Day, the sun comes out and shines in a flawless blue sky. I take the bus to Paleokastritza - the supermarkets, shops, restaurants and hotels are all closed and shuttered. Spiros' taverna is shown to be a flimsy wooden affair, with some kind of marquee roof, stained and shabby-looking. The signs are faded and the swimming pools are filled with dark green opaque liquid. Of course it will all be cleaned, tidied, painted, spruced up, the swimming pools drained, cleaned, and filled with clear water before the holiday season starts. But it looks odd, as if a whole town has closed doors and shutters, put up metal grilled gates with padlocks in front of shop doors, and moved out. Which in a way I suppose they have. There are no shops open at all, not one, despite the plethora of 'supermarket' signs. Yet there are definitely still people living there. I saw someone lean over a balcony, after two cats screamed and yelled and fought in the middle of the road, before scampering up a bank – then heard her say something to someone else. Another woman was trimming dead wood off vines that would serve as a protective roof over a yard, once the leaves came out. A man was drilling, working on the façade of one of the big hotels that's built into the side of a rocky hill.

I walked up to the monastery and on along a path that ended in a tiny promontory overlooking the sea. It was so small I felt vertiginous, and moved very carefully around it. It is odd the way this dizzy feeling moves up your body, from your feet. Astonishing to think that we need to see ground stretching out in front of us, not just to feel secure but to be able to move with balance at all. When you see nothingness a couple of meters away, the body wobbles like a top running out of spin. Or mine does. There were upright poles round the rim of this tiny look-out and some bags on the ground filled with what looked like sand. I imagine that a low wall of some kind or even a fence linked to the poles will be built, to prevent the foreigners falling off and plunging to their deaths on the rocks far below. I shuffled close to the edge, holding onto a pole, looking out over the bay.

There's a restaurant just beyond the monastery, which is closed of course. But when I was on the promontory and looked back I saw a man standing on the terrasse, watching me. When I came back up the path to the road, he walked out of the restaurant and spoke to me. He had a severe limp and one side of his face drooped a little. He pointed to another path and said there was a good view there, a panorama, he insisted I go and have a look. I felt I could hardly refuse but as I suspected, it was no better than the one I'd already seen. A newly-made wall lined the edge.

When I came back he invited me into the restaurant. The chairs and tables were all stacked in one corner, and there was just a bare aluminium sink and counter with nothing on it but a glass of ouzo and an ashtray with a burning cigarette, underneath a no smoking sign. He offered me a drink of ouzo but I said no thanks. Metaxa? No thanks, nothing at all. When he stood still, his hands on both sides of the steel counters, his whole body trembled. I guessed he was a caretaker and wondered if he was lonely here, in this empty outpost of natural power, with just the sheer rocks and the deep breathing of the sea for company. And the monastery across the road. Twin outposts on this rocky outcrop, representing the spiritual and the temporal. The guardian of the temporal asked me where I was from and if this was my first time here and I said I'd been in the summer, last year. The tourists would start arriving the week before Easter he said. He asked where I was staying now and I told him, in Corfu town. I congratulated him on his English and told him that since I'd been here, I'd only learned a few words of Greek. I asked him if there was a path up the cliffs on the other side of the bay. He said no. So I have to go to Lakones and take the road from there? Yes, he said. His name was Christo he said, as we shook hands before I left him in his solitary refuge high above the sunlit turquoise sea.

I thought I remembered from last year seeing a sign for a path to Lakones, rather than going by the road, which was the way I had discovered. Sure enough, after a short walk back up the hill, there was a small and indistinct sign. It wound initially up past a few houses. A dog barked from one of them. Then it went steeply uphill, among olive groves planted in layered terraces so that the fallen olives would not roll away downhill. Long black snakes of netting were rolled up around the bases of the trees, netting that would be spread out when the olives ripened, to catch them when they fell.

The path became steeper. The sound of the waves could still be heard. I stopped to rest. The sun was high in the sky and the air was motionless. Sunlight painted the green foliage, the olive trees, the orange trees, and there was complete silence apart from the distant breathing of the ocean, one buzzing insect and an occasional rooster call. Yet there was that almost- sound that trees and plants give off, when the sunlight touches them and they drink it in and respond to it. Like the trees I rested in this warmth, my jacket off and sleeves rolled up, wrapped in this perfection of light and shade, this stirring of life, this wave of peace.

The path eventually came out onto the road, by a little wayside shrine and a magnificent view over the bay. This was the road I'd walked up last year and the going was easier now. I followed the road for a while and turned off another path that passed through level olive groves, and dotted with orange trees. I picked up a couple of oranges that had fallen from a tree and ate them. They were sweet and tangy with a faint trace of blossom scent that I'd never tasted before in oranges.

I turned back just before reaching the village, as I had to get the last bus back from Paleokastritza. I followed a different path, less steep, that came out further down the road. I caught the scent of roasting meat and of wood smoke. A trail of smoke came from a chimney. I reached the road end, where it joins the main street if it can be called this, a ghost street, dotted with empty buildings, some set back from the road, others lining it. Passing some litter bins, my footsteps startled a cat who jumped out of the depths of the bin onto the rim, gazing at me with a penetrating look as if to fathom my next move. I walked all the way back to the bay and sat on the sand, with the whole bay to myself, listening to the deep roar and hiss of the water hitting rocks and sand. The sun hovered above the trees on the road up to the monastery and the restaurant and the bay view promontory. I watched the ice-green waves rise and fall. Sometimes the sunlight shone through the rising water so it was a thin translucent film of pale green. When the sun

touched the tree tops, long shadows raced across the little bay. I got up and walked to the bus stop and a few minutes later the bus came, a huge green creature glinting in the sunlight, negotiating the narrow road.

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