Monolithos was four fisherman huts along the water,
a miniature villa closed for years, and our farmhouse
a hundred feet behind. Hot fields of barley, grapes,
and tomatoes stretching away three flat miles
to where the rest of the island used to be.
— Not Part of Literature: from Monolithos, by Jack Gilbert (1982)
A cold January in London is always the perfect time to head inside. Sunday finds us at the British Museum, gazing enthralled at a small statue which transports us to a different world entirely.
Inside the case, an acrobat is jumping over the horns of a charging bull — a feat of agility captured in Bronze Age craftsmanship more than three and a half thousand years ago.
The Minoans who made the statue lived around the eastern Mediterranean for well over a thousand years.
Settling from 2600 BC around Knossos, near modern Heraklion on the Greek island of Crete, they built rich palaces which were destroyed and rebuilt several times after 1700 BC, before their sites were taken over by the Myceneans around 1420 BC.
* * * * *
It’s early morning and the sun is already hot across the blackness of the beach. To the south, the road snakes its way up the limestone cliff to Ancient Thera. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but the climb of Mesa Vouno will kill me long before I get there.
I head north along the shore, with the Aegean Sea on my right, and work my way slowly out of Kamari. The strip is quiet at this time of day, with just a few old folks up in search of breakfast. The rest of the resort is sleeping off last night.
The deserted boutique hotels and bars fall swiftly behind me, and soon I reach the end of town and the start of Greece.
The Ionian Sea is shimmering brilliantly beside me as I look across the bay towards Ithaca. Late afternoon in a Greek summer is no time to be running, but it had seemed like a good idea as I lay beside the pool.
Now, half an hour later, the road is rising steeply out of Sámi, climbing up from the harbour through the pine and scattered olive trees. There are no houses here, no villas or hotels, and the landscape presents itself as it always has through history. Since time immemorial.
A cold late summer evening, thirty two years ago now, the failing light still dim across the expanse of time. We’d just left our holiday in Northern Italy behind, and were driving homewards, out of the rush that is Torino into the deep and dark Aosta valley. Dusk found us atop the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, just inside France. Hannibal had passed the other way, with his elephants, from Carthage to Rome two thousand years ago. Another famous general had also clearly stayed here, as the hotel we found perched high in the cooling mountain air advertised itself as Napoleon’s Bivouac.
This young boy, bleary-eyed and assaulted by novel aromas of Alpine cheeses, pizza, and something else I can only now define as essence of mountain hut, sat hungrily down to dinner way past his bed-time. But the overriding impressions came not from the food, nor even the place, but from the scene playing out in front of a rough crowd of locals and tourists.
One and all, we stood or sat, transfixed around the television as a young Olga Korbut changed gymnastics, and the Olympics, for ever.