Near Stoupa in the Mani where we go to swim there’s a beach named Kalogria, which in Greek means “nun”. Local legend has it that almost 1,000 years ago, a novice from the nearby nunnery fell in love with a prince. When the church would not release her from her vows so that she could marry him, the couple took poison and died in each other’s arms on the beach. Their spirits are believed to live on in the sweet-water springs that bubble up from the sea floor in the bay.
The beach is better known today as the place where Zorba the Greek danced – the original for the Anthony Quinn character in the famous film. The book on which it was based, Alexis Zorbas, was written by the Cretan Nikos Karantzakis, who together with his friend Giorgos Zorbas mined lignite in the nearby hills and lived by the beach, where Giorgos really did dance.
The earlier legend of Kalogria was told to us by Ilias, a local taverna owner who stopped for a chat as we strolled by. Like half of Greece he turned out to have relatives in Melbourne. He is much travelled, but always returns to Stoupa and its beautiful bay. People love it, he says. He tells the story of an Englishman who arrived in a wheelchair, having been told by London doctors that he’d never walk again. Within weeks he’d thrown away the wheelchair and was walking everywhere. Why was that, we asked. “He loves it here,” said Ilias. “When you love something very much, it’s stronger than medicine.”
IN THE STEPS OF A COLOSSUS
There had to be a connection between Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose book on this area I’ve been reading, and two of my favourite English-language writers on Greece, Lawrence Durrell and the American Henry Miller. One connection at least is Giorgos Katsimbalis (1899-1978), publisher, poet and critic, a friend to Leigh Fermor and before that an inspiration to the other two. The Colossus of Maroussi, Miller’s book about his travels in Greece on the eve of World War Two, was named for him. A large, expansive character, he was one of those pivotal cultural figures less important for his own literary output than for his visionary ideas and the role he played in stimulating others.
From 1933 to 1939, and again after the war, Katsimbalis published the journal Ta Nea Grammata (“New Letters”), driven by a passion for the renaissance of Greek writing. He understood both the country’s great classical heritage and the way it weighed on his contemporaries. Five years ago, a statue was erected in his memory by the municipal authorities in Athens. Long may he be remembered.
Every few days we call in at the bookshop we spotted on our first visit to Kalamata. It’s a family business and has been going since 1928. The present owner is third generation and when he took over 30 years ago he modernised and reinforced the building, which then withstood the 1986 earthquake. When we arrive he orders in coffee – which appears, as everywhere in Greece, with glasses of deliciously cold water. We talk for a while, often calling on his son for assistance with translation. The son turns out, on learning we are Australian, to be a fan of Mark Webber, Casey Stoner and of motor sports generally. It’s a boy thing, but he patiently answers our questions, and he does have a sense of humour.
This area has historical connections to nearby Sparta, and when I first ask the son’s name he tells me it is Leo, for Leonidas. Leonidas who held the pass at Thermopylae, I ask. Not on my own, he replies – my forefathers had a bit to do with it.
The island of Andros has a renowned Museum of Contemporary Art. For its annual summer exhibition it has chosen a survey entitled Approaching Surrealism, including works by Dali, Man Ray and Magritte and by Greek poet and artist Odysseus Elytis. An interesting choice when, as Athens News says, “we’re the real-life subjects of what appears to be a surrealist experiment”.
Arts reporter Helen Iatrou describes Magritte’s giant 1967 bronze sculpture of a seated figure in hat and cape, with a cage where his torso should be. “It could easily represent the average Greek,” she writes, “whose free spirit feels trapped under socio-political and economic circumstances which have little to do with the actuality of life. Its free self is on the exterior of the cage, peering pityingly at its captive self, who is looking back in envy.”