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Greece II: ascent/descent


Memories fade and crumple, but my single day’s descent into deep Greek island landscapes lasts strong. It began in a village where even the roads where flagged in white marble, high and cold on a mountain ridge, from which an ancient marble road descended down a long and increasingly deserted valley. Farmed at first – olive, oak, barking dogs, thick scents of thyme, oregano, basil – the valley became increasingly barren, but the path stretched on. After a solid hour it had rounded several bare hills and was approaching a knoll overlooking a deep gulf that led out towards the island-sea; and there, by a farmhouse surrounded by goats, was a tiny bare church, naked of whitewash, camouflaged by age, merely an outcrop, though once clearly just off an important route.

Inside is bare, almost skeletal; the wind moves with quiet warmth. A narthex, an aisle, a nave and apsed chancel seperated by a dome; and fading, barely clinging to the element-open walls, frescoes that date back to the eigth century, aniconic frescos that would have covered the interior in geometric patterning, animals, vegetal motifs, anything that could not be interpreted as a human image.

And then the climb back, and now up, to a knoll of limestone that rose like a sheer knuckle from the island floor; from a distant utterly bare and inaccessible, except for the tiny white pimple of a little church.

In fact a broad road encircles and climbs, suggesting access is required reasonably readily; and the naked limestone close-up is awash with mountain flowers. But the wind beats so hard here I can barely stand up, and corvied nesting below rise and wheel in alarm and the mad approaching Englishman. Chamomile is snatched away as soon as scented.

Finally, barely crawling over the naked stone, the church rears in front of me. The mountain top has been flattened, save a rocky knoll for this chapel to cling to. A bell on a frame. A door of hard gloss blue, a white dome so small and geometrical you could Tardis it away.

A push, and it is open. Tiny icons, tiny iconastasis, candles, wicks, oil and matches. But the wind is shaking the mountain top with near-tectonic force, and this tiny white throat-like interior seems to groan and echo with something from far down and far below. And can these stone walls three feet thick really be vibrating?

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