A House in Corfu A Family's Sojourn in Greece
By Emma Tennant
Holt Paperbacks Copyright © 2003 Emma Tennant
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780805072822
A HOUSE IN CORFU (Chapter One)
Where are you planting this? Is it xorta--weed?' And the old woman laughs up at me, whipping her donkey on down the rocky path ahead before I have time to answer. I hear her call her greeting to the many--and invisible--other occupants of the Greek landscape: 'Herete!' as she wends her way to the sea from her tiny demesne of olive and scrub. Her upright figure in black is like a needle, threading through a patchwork of fiercely owned and tended land that is as intimately known and impossible to ignore as the network of interrelated families in the village of Liapades, above us on the steep hill. All those who call back are owners, brothers, uncles, daughters, grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the land. And here, for the past thirty-five years or more, since my parents bought squares and triangles of this Mediterranean quilt, we have been a part of the landscape too.
What I am carrying is actually a pot of mint, a present for my mother and for the garden she has made under the house on the old terraces that go down to the grove. I'm hoping the mint will join the landscape; surprisingly, given the curly-leafed basil, plentiful chives and small forests of wild thyme, rosemary and sage that guard the flights of stone steps to the bay, there has never been mint here at Rovinia. Everything else is here, one might say. The hill across the narrow valley from our house is covered with one of the few remaining examples of autochthonous wood remaining on the island, a tangle of holm-oak, myrtle, white Mediterranean heath, viburnum, bay, laurel, arbutus and Judas tree; beyond, on the mountains above the Plain of Liapades, every herb of the eastern Mediterranean seems to grow, giving off a summery smell that is both healing and soporific. But neither sign nor scent exists of the iridescent green that proclaims the presence of mint. Of course, I know it's lack of water that deprives us of that sharp taste in the tsatsiki, the local yoghurt mixed with sturdy cucumber from allotments up by the church; and of an unashamedly English mint sauce to go with the shoulder of lamb. It's what you forget, when you walk in the Tuscan lushness of this hidden, untouched land on the west coast of the island of Corfu. Cypresses stand firmly Italian against a Quattrocento sky. Tiles on the roofs of the old houses left behind in the village in the scramble down to the sea are Venetian; crumbling, ochre and sun-baked to brown. It's only too easy to forget, when winter rain is plentiful, the long season of drought. When it comes to comparisons with Italy, the island of Corfu lies across the Ionian Sea from the heel of the country, Calabria, a long way south of Tuscany. Can I really expect my pot of mint to take, in these conditions? Am I trying to do the equivalent of growing strawberries at the North Pole?
Time has a way of eliding here, making a constantly changing pattern of lives and beliefs, light and sombre against the background of an ever-changing sea.
How did we come to be here? Could it really be that a cruise round the Greek islands--a cruise run by Swan Hellenic, with on-board lectures by archaeologists and historians, stop-overs at little-known ports, and the sense of adventure and excitement of the trip--had so enthused my (by then) late middle-aged parents that they decided there and then to throw over everything and live in Corfu? And I? How did I come to be drawn to this place, after my first glimpse down the wooded valley when playing truant on a trip for a glossy magazine, insisting that a group of hot journalists come with me over a boulder-strewn hillside to make a first long appraisal of the spot? Did I sense I was part of a chain, going back millennia to the first inhabitants of a slice of this beautiful coast? Was it a feeling that, despite the Venetian name, 'Rovinia'--meaning (gloomily) ruin, and causing friends to raise eyebrows and throw hands in the air when news broke of the plan to live in Corfu--there had been a great deal more in distant days than the crumbling lime-kiln along the path from the high-water mark and the traces of grey stone on abandoned cultivated land, long ago swallowed by the Mediterranean jungle on the hill? How did the site of the house my father would build, fifty yards above the bay, come to be decided on with such uncanny prescience?
For, as we sit here now, on the stone terrace above the bay, we realise, for the hundredth time, that the choice of site was extraordinary indeed. It's the autumn equinox, 21st September, and the mountain across the sea that unfurls before us--we call the mountain the Monkey's Head, for it is round and brown and intelligent-looking, and guards the entrance to the famous bay of Paleokastritsa--now wears an unusual piece of headgear. It is 7 p.m. and the red sun sets midway over the Monkey's Head--just above, in fact, a parting, a limestone scar, which runs down the centre of the skull. Far below, on rocks where foam shoots up, a white peacock's tail in the backlash of a southerly gale far out to sea, the light from the lighthouse will flash off and on, warning the ships of danger once darkness comes down.
Not now, though: not yet. This is a moment we savour each year at the spring and autumn equinoxes, the few seconds when the sun sinks into the ape's cranium, dead-centre, and we see not the face of a monkey but of a god. We know in those brief moments that the house we have built is, by an inexplicable coincidence, straight in the path of the sun. The sun is, invariably, red as blood when it disappears on those two equinoctial occasions--and, despite all the scepticism and sophistication of our age, we can't help shivering at the thought of sacrifice and ritual, of Greek tragedy and rebirth, and of the secrets that lie buried in the groves and on the shifting stony and sandy beaches of the bay.
Then it's suddenly dark. Scarlet feathers, all that remain of the monkey's hat, stream out across a sky washed with clouds of black and indigo. We're holding our drinks, a little embarrassed perhaps by the sense of having been plunged into the ancient world and then pulled from it again--and we turn to each other, and to the lighted sitting room beyond the verandah. Someone brings out whisky, and ice; and in a twilight going so fast it's barely possible to see the terracotta pot where the mint grows, on the balustrade above the trees and shrubs on the hillside, I pick a sprig and add it to a drink. Yes, the mint has accepted its new home, on the west coast of the island of Corfu. But it will only live here if tended like a precious plant; it refuses to spread and naturalise. And now, as I look down in dusk at the rings and rusty covers of the seven wells we dug when we first came here to live, I wonder that I ever thought this water-craving herb would settle down with us at all.
It's a hot day, and the sun comes in through the long, dusty windows of the estate agent's office and makes a ring of rainbow bubbles around the surface of the tiny cups of metriou coffee on the desk between us. It's an indispensable part of the negotiations, which Pandelios's black-skirted, white-bloused young secretary seems to serve with the same air of solicitude that I remember at a monastery on the pinnacles of Meteora: a thimble of coffee; a loukoumi, pale rose-water Turkish delight powdered with fine sugar; a tall glass and a short one, with water and ouzo respectively. She could be the daughter of the papas I still see in my mind's eye when, with a friend (and refusing the offer of being hauled up in a basket to the summit), we had climbed the hundreds of steps and entered the dark, incense-haunted church and gone through into the high, vaulted library. With her dark eyes and downcast expression, she could be an icon, a Byzantine Madonna captured in a painted haze of gold sunshine. But before I can romanticise any further, Pandelios the estate agent has stretched across me to hand the little white china cups to my mother and father, and the conversation continues where it had broken off with the arrival of the sweet, thick metriou.
'Anna Georgiadis is holding out for more,' Pandelios says. His bushy hair, reddish and receding at the temples, makes him look like a pantomime lion. 'It's a vital part of the property, as you know, so I'm afraid you'll have to take her terms.'
'Very well,' comes my father's answer. 'We don't want anyone to be unhappy there--and her parcel of land does lie right in the middle of the grove. As we said before, we want the right of way down from the village to continue--in fact we wouldn't dream of stopping anyone from bringing their sheep down to graze anywhere on the land'--and he turns to my mother, who nods in confirmation. 'The only way the fishermen can get down to the sea is by going on the path just behind the house we plan to build,' my father goes on. 'And we wouldn't contemplate blocking the path when we own those stremata [acres] at the top of the hill.'
Pandelios scratches his chin and looks business-like, but I can tell he is pleased with our wish to leave undisturbed the way of life of the Corfiots in this remote part of the west coast. There have been stories--we are actually only to hear them later--of the foolhardy foreigner who blocked access to the well on his land, only to find the well blocked up with cement the next time he came to the island to enjoy his property. And stories of hauntings, of the patron saint, St Spiridon, displeased at an incomer's reluctance to share amenities that have belonged to the local people for as long as there has been a St Spiridon in the great gold catafalque in the town's church. But at the time of our meeting with the estate agent, we knew none of this. We just knew it didn't make sense to demand privacy when the seashore belongs to everyone--and is anyway never short of men pushing out their boats or dragging them up the beach again. The landscape, however empty it may look, has as many denizens as a tapestry depicting hidden animals in a forest alive with huntsmen and spears. In Greece, you're never alone, and when I put in my contribution--saying the word for private is idiotikos, and surely there must be a good reason for that--everyone laughs, though the agent and his demure secretary laugh a trifle uncertainly. Will we really leave the local population to their old ways, which involve a 4 a.m. trudge down the rock path and on to the shingle, shouting as the boats are rolled out over logs, voices echoing across the water and ricocheting back to the valley we are about to buy? Do we know what we're letting ourselves in for? Smart folk from Athens would be likely to try and restrict the ways and livelihoods of country and fishing people by building private marinas and swimming pools. Why not us? 'I don't want a fence at the high-tide mark where the beach goes into the grove,' my mother says when Pandelios makes a suggestion that public and private land should be separated by the erection of boards and notices. 'It should all flow--one into the other, not shut off at all.' And the agent looks in amazement and relief at these two xenoi, the foreigners who want all to make use of the land near the sea below Liapades.
Of course, that was then. As I daydream (for I'm not involved in the financial side of this new life-plan of my parents, and at the time--the early 1960s--I had no idea how strong a part the place would play in my own life), I look out of the window on a typical street scene of Corfu town. Tall Venetian houses, in faded watermelon colours, lean like guests at a party, slightly jaded by their long years of civilised enjoyment. The street is narrow, and a woman walks along with a bag of small artichokes and a carrier bursting with minute fish, a kind of whitebait it seems, which glint silver in the spring sunlight. I imagine it's her midday meal, for I know offices close at lunchtime and don't reopen until at least five in the evening, the afternoon idled away in the sacred Greek siesta. I see a table, a balcony, a blind pulled low, as it is already hot at this time of year by one o'clock. A dish is on the table, in a darkened room just inside from the balcony with its ornamental railing. Elegant and curved, this is in all probability a relic of the French occupation of Corfu. In the dish are small artichokes, to be eaten whole, with a side plate of minuscule broad beans, startlingly green due to the removal of the outer skin, the bean being gripped between finger and thumb.
'I will speak to Anna Georgiadis and explain she may also bring her goats to the grove,' says Pandelios, while I feel my parents control their reaction to the prospect: sheep add to the charming rural idyll under the olives, but goats? 'So, unless there are any problems, I believe we have discussed all there is to discuss,' Pandelios concludes. (Of course there will be problems. But, for now, we pretend all is well.) Pandelios glances out of the window, and I see in his eyes the pleasure of anticipating the coming meal. I hope for him that he will have the new season's artichokes, so tender the inner thistle doesn't need to be cut out. And I find myself wishing now for a frittura of the little fish.
'We'll have lunch at the harbour, shall we?' my parents say, after we have said goodbye to Pandelios and arranged to meet again next week, to explore the necessity for a foreign company to be formed in order to buy land in Corfu. I agree, and accompany them, as entranced by this new direction in all our lives as they so clearly are. But before we go I listen to Pandelios's last story--about the tradition of the youngest son of a Greek family inevitably being the recipient of the poorest land as his inheritance: shallow and gravel-choked, with brackish water, away from the good agricultural areas and near the sea. 'Yet this may all change for the youngest sons,' Pandelios says, as if recounting a fairy-tale that he senses is destined for a new ending. 'When people come who want to live by the sea,' he says thoughtfully, looking at us, an English family with no apparent need to uproot and come to live in Corfu, 'then, I think, all may very well change.' And he smiles and waves to us, and we walk down the street. I hadn't liked to ask, in the halting demotic I had learnt a couple of years before, whether our good agent was himself the youngest son in his family.
The island of Corfu is sixty miles long and thirty miles wide at its widest. The mountains--particularly Pantokrator with its Olympian splendour--give an illusion of scale to the island that is quite at odds with the reality. Corfu looks out at Albanian mountains to the east, and across the sea to Italy in the west, with mountain ranges, again, giving the sense of a land of limitless proportions. Giants or trolls must once have lived here, one thinks when morning makes of the mountains a blue-mauve hugeness along the edges of the plain between Liapades and the eastern side of the island, the Plain of Ropa; or when evening pencils the mountains black, as if they had turned to sleeping giants themselves. Space, as well as time, is unreliable here: the prevalence of mountains makes for winding roads, corkscrews that draw the clear air like wine from the necks of valleys and gorges as one goes up and up, and then drops down. It can take longer to travel five miles, in Corfu, than to drive across a prairie or an entire county in England--the Somerset Levels, say, or the East Anglian fens.
So what are the size and scale of the land we have bought, in this land of endless miles and long-distance journeys to the nearest mountain village? How do we measure the depth and width of Rovinia, how do we throw in the unchartable sea? Will we feel cramped or generously accommodated in our new home? Will we have the sense of perching on a ledge, if we hack out rock from the hillside and build there--or will it seem as if the house has always been waiting for us to build it, just as wide and long as it was intended by nature to be?
The most difficult problems, it seems, are these. However meticulous the plan, the finished living space may somehow just be wrong. The landscape has refused you; and the mountains across the big bay at Paleokastritsa, which can disappear into a roof of cloud and rain, will frown across the water at efforts unrewarded by 'rightness' of scale and measurement. It's a responsibility I can see weighs heavily on my father, who is enough of an architect to have built a Georgian doll's house of exquisite proportions for me as a child, a yacht (for my brother) and a Gothic castle for my younger sister. He'll try none of these here in Corfu, obviously; but what exactly is 'right', in this island where the Venetians were succeeded by the French, at the time of the Revolution, and then the French by the British, just as the most deadly Victorian architecture was becoming fashionable? He won't build good Queen Victoria's Osborne on this Mediterranean shore, complete with ramparts to enable John Brown to look out across the sea. He won't be drawn to Italian palazzi or anything too grandly pretentious, that's for sure. But for now, as we make the lengthy trip--the road in those early days across the island has more potholes than the worst of its kind in Ireland or Scotland--we have no ideas about the future appearance of the house at Rovinia. And if he does, he's not letting on.
So what do we own? Or, if Anna Georgiadis consents to sell her strip of land in the grove, what will we own, once the hideous complications of buying land on a Greek island that is a 'borderline' area (in the case of Corfu, a mere mile across Corfu channel to Albania) have been resolved? Is our terrain large or small, confined by steep hills or a wide passageway to the sea? It depends on how you look at it, you could say: to us, as we finally drive down the side road to Liapades and park the car in the plateia between the church and the cafeneon where the old men sit staring at us tortoise-like in the evening sun, it is clearly a place that has always been there, a place of significance once, though when and how we shall probably never know. We haven't just decided to set ourselves down on raw, uncultivated woodland, to hack away at the ground and make a new place to live. We're returning: that's the unmistakable feeling we get, even in these days when we hardly know the land below Liapades by the edge of the sea. And there's just time, before the sun sets, to go at a brisk pace down the boulder-strewn path--twenty minutes down, twenty-five back up--before the sun sets and a primeval darkness seizes land and Liapades alike.
A monopati--a Greek path, that most essential of travel methods of much of Greece in those days, and to this day the only way to go down the length of the roadless west coast from Rovinia to the south of the island--has its quota of obstacles, and we walk warily past the mad white dog (which once chewed off the end of the stick I was carrying). People--always people--inhabit here, and just when you think you're unobserved, alone in this Arcadian paradise, the oddest of the villagers comes at you: the ancient crone who clutches my mother's sleeve and wants her question answered, with the urgency of a seeker after the truth of the Sphinx--but none of us can understand the question. The boy, staring-eyed and jowly, who in the past would have been known as the village idiot in England: he lopes along behind us, until he loses patience and wanders off back up the hill again. The donkey, tethered to a stake at the side of the path, which aims a kick and gives a long, mournful bray at the same time (its owner, previously invisible in the woods, appears in her black clothes to tie bundles of faggots to its back). The birds, jay and golden oriole--and, as we grow nearer the sea, white gulls, circling and diving, always going back to the carpet of blue that spreads out in the gaps between the cypress and olive trees.
Forty-two stremata (about twelve acres) of all this are shortly to be ours.
It wasn't long before we discovered that Rovinia--land over-grown except for, here and there, a small vegetable patch in the deep incline at the end of the valley; or, in the case of the sweep down to the sea, grazed and olive-picked, clearly a part of the jigsaw of Liapades owners--was very probably just where Homer had placed the famous meeting between the shipwrecked and naked Odysseus and the princess, Nausicaa. As anyone fortunate enough to find themselves in these acres--where the west wind blows day and night and the sea turns violent blue, crude as a child's paintbox colour, when it swings to the maestro (surely the wind that brought Odysseus's boat on the rocks)--will know, there must be literally hundreds of origins for this chapter in the Odyssey. Isn't there a scholarly book, anyway, which 'proves' that the historic encounter took place in Sicily? Yet the evidence, as we come to piece it together in the summer of the house being built, does appear to conclude that it really was in 'our' bay, on 'our' beach and in the grove where Anna Georgiadis now frolics with her goats. Rovinia was the scene of the most romantic non-romance of the antique world.
We're sitting at a table, late lunchtime, in (at this time, 1965) the only hotel for miles and discussing the evidence from our different points of view.
'There, after all, is the ship,' says my father, prepared to suspend disbelief on so warm and agreeable a day, when retsina is brought to the table by boys running like deer and xoriatiki salad, as they make it in the village, comes down before us in big shared bowls. He spears a lump of feta, looks less happily at an olive, then overcomes the dislike of a lifetime and pops it in his mouth. He smiles; as long as there's no mention of garlic, he will eat the food at the Tourist Pavilion happily.
'Yes,' agrees Peter, a young actor friend of mine. He is less contented than the rest of us: the Tourist Pavilion--situated in Corfu's most renowned and beautiful bay of Paleokastritsa, and enjoying a position on a piece of land that turns, magically, to beach and then to a wooded isthmus, which joins it with the next inlet of blue water on the coast--has rooms for all of us, but no room for Peter. Another, much smaller hotel has just been completed, about a hundred yards back from the view that Edward Lear, watercolourist and nonsense poet, painted so often: delicate, exact portrayals of the bay and the steep hill at its western tip, where the monastery stands high and white. The new, less view-blessed hotel has daringly been named The Living Lobster. Peter has to share with a dentist, who snores. 'I might join Odysseus's ship,' he jokes. 'At least I might get a cabin to myself.'
The boat is ineluctably there, out in the wide stretch of water beyond Paleokastritsa bay, making what seems at first to be a great lake, guarded by the Monkey's Head with its flashing beacon on one side, and by the curve of the coastline as it plunges south on the other. In the middle, three bays to the south of where we sit, and just the right distance from the rock everyone claims is Odysseus's boat, turned to stone by the gods after it foundered in heavy seas, is Rovinia Bay.
'Odysseus could easily swim to our beach from there,' says my younger sister Catherine, who is seventeen and so obsessed with the sea that she swims with my mother right down the virgin coast to the south of us, clambering out from time to time to lie like a seal on the beaches at Yalli and Iliodoros. 'And then there was the river, where he could wash off all the salt on his back.'
We all fall silent, realising Catherine's schooling has been more recent than ours. But the image of the handsome young man's salt-encrusted back returns, followed by a conversation, increasingly argumentative, on the subject of the riverbed at Rovinia. It is dried-out now, bearer of Judas trees with their bright purple blossoms in spring, and wild quinces and pear. But water is known to rush down in sudden torrents, as if a plug has been let out somewhere up the high hill under Liapades, when the winter rains force the riverbed to revert to river. Then, so we've been told, the water rushes out on to the beach, sculpting new sandbanks, covering the shingle and turning the blue sea to a muddy brown. 'Of course it must have been a river in Homeric times,' says Mark, a friend whose cousin, a dauntingly well-educated cosmopolitan, occupies a house on the east of the island, above Corfu town. 'And Lawrence Durrell states that Homer identifies the bay where Odysseus swam ashore from the wreck as three bays south of Paleokastritsa, which was certainly where King Alcinous, the father of Nausicaa, had his palace. This proves it, surely.'
Fish comes to the table at last, and we all watch as my father, host to this party of his children and their friends, fillets it carefully: sinegrida, a large and succulent fish not unlike a loup de mer; and barbouni, red mullet sharp and tangy, and delicious with lemon and olive oil. Plates of chips--the eternal Greek chips--join the salad with its shredded lettuce and carrot, feta, olives and onion and cucumber. The retsina, so strong you can actually feel under attack from an entire pine forest, slips gold into our tumblers. 'Ighia!'--health!--we say, if a trifle self-consciously.
It is late afternoon by the time we step into the little boat that will take us over the sea from Palcokastritsa to the bay where the foundations of our new house have been laid on the hillside.
The engine of the little fishing caique is uncertain, and midway there we simply stop and sit in the great silence of the distant mountains and the soft whisper of the sea.
This is what it must have been like, I think, when the storm blew away and Odysseus stood on the beach and looked back at his petrified ship under a clear sky. It was like this then.
But before I have time to summon up the picture of King Alcinous's palace--with its bronze walls and great terrace, its four acres of garden with peach and vine, left behind us on the slopes above Paleokastritsa Bay--the engine, responding to a pull on the string from Yannis the fisherman, gives an ear-splitting roar. We lurch forward, over water so clear that we can see small fish down by the white stones on the seabed at least forty feet below. A flying fish leaps from the calm inlet by the mouth of the cave on the southern side of the bay. We seem to dash at the shingle as if we, too, are trying to fly over the sea. There is no time at all to return in time: to think of the tabloid story that the meeting of Odysseus and the daughter of the king from Paleokastritsa would make today. The princess and the naked stranger who comes ashore; her revelations to her confidantes that this man could be a husband for her. The invitation to the palace and the journey there, in the great wagon, over ancient cobbled roads along to Lakones and then down the grove of Athena to the palace, where Alcinous and Arete live happily ever after...
We have to jump out of the boat into the sea. Yannis says tomorrow will be asximos kairos, bad weather, and not a good day for a trip down the coast with a picnic. 'Metavrio,' the day after tomorrow, he insists, as we stand on the shingle, dazed after our long meal, staring up at the beginnings of a new life--for my parents, at least. I wish them all the happiness of the King and Queen, in their three-and-a-half-thousand-years-ago lives at Paleokastritsa. And I walk up the dried-out riverbed, where in this high summer heat there are still poppies growing amongst the stones. Then, with Peter and Mark and my sister, I walk up the olive grove that runs beside the river: surely this wide grove has always been here; surely this is where Nausicaa and Odysseus met and talked?
'Katzikaki, katzikako,' comes a screeching voice at the end of the grove where the olives go up in wide terraces to the tangle of scrub and trees on the hill. 'Ela, ela...!'
The goats stand in the grove, baring their teeth and moving deftly to the middle of the brown carpeting of olive leaves and pine needles that have replaced the green of earlier months. They're getting ready to kick, and they look as if they mean to do it hard.
'Katzikaki,' comes the ugly jay sound again. Then an old woman, so wrapped in black that her face and limbs are barely visible, darts down through the trees. 'Kali spera!' she screams at us, and thus moves the long day into evening, as the Greek greetings invariably do. With one hand she tugs at a leash hidden in the leaves scattered on the floor of the grove, and we see to our further shame that the goats were tethered to the olive trees all along.
This was my first glimpse of Anna Georgiadis.
Collas is the name of the architect who has sited our house. His wife Maria is a grand island lady who doesn't come down the precipice to observe her husband's deliberations. I meet her once--and, despite her pleasant smile and smart town suit, I feel we are all a million miles from her, in attitude and in the way we appreciate this (to her) distinctly too out-of-the-way spot. She's a Corfiot, and we are not; but I've seen enough of the country people round here to know how much easier they are to get on with than the Greek middle class. They ask direct questions, of course, the fisherfolk, and sometimes of the crudest nature--but the Athenian, or Corfu-bourgeois is just as eager to know how much money you have, whether you sleep with your husband/wife, how old you are; and their way of asking tends to be masked by a false good nature. One of the joys of this remote spot, I soon understand, is that it doesn't attract the wearer of court shoes, the carrier of handbags. The path must be taken seriously; and I hear my father, as he paces the land where the walls of Rovinia House will go up, speaking against applying for a road to lead to the property.
To the north of the land that will comprise Rovinia is a steeply shelving set of terraces, these facing out to a landscape so unlike the Homeric grove and wooded hill we have come to see as the most beautiful of the island's bays that it could appear to belong to another country. The cliffs across a small, perfect--but sunless--bay are pink and grey, huge and rugged, a kind of Albania of the imagination. Edward Lear painted and portrayed in watercolour the wildness and roughness of this scene so near to us and yet so distant; and my father soon sketches and paints this operatic scenery.
Yet the possibility of houses going up on these terraces is far from agreeable. We can all see in our mind's eye the steps hewn in rock leading down to the sea, to a platform of rock and a sunny raft out in the water; and my parents, who dread noise at night (and we will come to live with it for several summers, from music floating with the power of sound-over-water across the large bay to us from Paleokastritsa) become determined to ensure a calm and silence that only privacy can bring. The land must be bought, in this outpost of Rovinia: beyond the house is the high hump of the hill; then the monopati, which must be left open to the fisherfolk; then the stremata that go down to the edge of the precipice where (already) a rectangular cement box has been constructed, this the weekend cottage (so we assume) of a dweller in Corfu town. Noise from the cement box won't affect us, as the position is low on the cliff edge (it's a temptation to push it over), but higher up a development of houses would certainly be audible. So, with the same long pauses, acceptances and withdrawals, these pretty, sunbathed terraces are bought; and it's impossible not to think they're a safeguard, too, against a future decision to sell or leave Rovinia. Even with that gone, this cliff garden of scrub and olive facing a majestic ravine will still belong to us.
'But will you not find it difficult here in winter or when the sea is rough and you cannot go round to Alipa [the nearest harbour] by boat?' asks Collas. He is too polite to speak out against my father's wishes, but he looks incredulous. Tall, pale, with the air of an intellectual, our architect has yet to draw up plans for the English, and the way in which my parents are intending to isolate themselves clearly alarms him. Do they know how grim it can be here right through the winter downpours and storms, cold and windy right up to Pasca, the Greek Easter that is the watershed of the year, whenever it falls in the calendar? Then I see his brow--as pale as only a Greek office-dweller's can be, who avoids the national glory, the sun--crease further. He steals a glance at us as we stand on the floor of the room where we will one day sit, eat and watch the swallows make their long calls as they fly back and forth from the verandah outside. Are we perhaps in trouble? In dire financial straits? Are we hiding from the police, even, with our stated desire not to apply for a road? 'Of course, the land up to the village has so many owners,' Collas adds, trying to make sense of it all: he's seen the negotiations, the withdrawals and retracted acceptances of the six who own the pieces of land that form the 'estate' of Rovinia. Not to mention the troubles and demands of Anna Georgiadis, his sympathetic glance seems to say. Little wonder the very idea of making a road doesn't appeal. 'And it would be very expensive,' Collas ends up, diplomatically.
The reaction of the architect to my father's firm rejection of a link with the outside world does, however, lead me to ponder what is being given up and what embraced, in this unexpected move to an island never visited until the occasion of an island cruise a few years back. What had they thought, my parents, when, on deciding to return to Corfu a year after their first vision of the west coast, they found themselves in a small boat, being rowed over from Paleokastritsa to the secret bay at Rovinia--secret because no-one had 'discovered' it yet, and only fishermen frequented the shore? Had they taken into account the challenge that building in so inaccessible a spot would be? Had they decided, there and then, to give up a home in England (or Scotland, as happened to be the case) and settle permanently in the valley by the sea?
As I was to discover years later, the decision to live permanently in Corfu didn't come as a bolt from the Ionian blue. The house was planned as a substitute for the modest farmhouse in the South of France they'd sold in the mid 1960s--a holiday house that could also be let out. It was only in the summer of 1964, while sitting on the neighbouring beach of Stellari and staring out to sea from the great expanse of sand there, that the decision was reached to live at Rovinia all year round. My father, then aged sixty-five and two years from leaving his City job, had a 'why not?' attitude when the idea struck them both simultaneously; the rest is Rovinia's myth and history.
And it doesn't need saying that anyone wanting to up sticks and move a thousand miles, to a country where a foreign language is spoken and the local customs are in need of strict observance, must be so filled with wonder by the place that they are, like Odysseus as he approaches Circe's island, incapable of stopping themselves from anchoring there.
It wasn't hard to see that this valley three bays south of Paleokastritsa had everything.
The cave on the southern extremity of the bay was claimed by some to be Prospero's (but, unlike the ship overturned by waves as it came into view of the Phaeacians, there is no real evidence for this. Unless the Odyssey can be counted as evidence, that is--and why not?). But, even had it not been Prospero's, this was clearly an extraordinary cave. To find, as we did soon after moving there, that a path runs up inside this almost artificial-looking entrance to the Underworld (the proportions are so perfect one half-expects an eighteenth-century party on the Grand Tour to stroll from its delectable grey, black and white mouth) made the cave even more mysterious than before. Where did this path lead? Whom did it serve, so steep and dark, before coming out on to a brambly path, the only way down the coast along the high cliffs? Smugglers, perhaps? Sailors fleeing from the black storm behind them in a raging sea?
The grove was equally enticing: so gracious, wide and prettily flanked by olive trees in their prime. I felt the first time I went there the odd silence that comes down as soon as one walks along the grove towards the woods that go up the hill. It's a place that is both inland and sea-guarded; where the waves come in like the white net skirts of ballerinas, green silk at their back, and just a few paces away from the shore is the interior.
Little wonder, then, that my parents made an instant decision when they stepped from the rowing-boat and stood by the cave and the olive grove and the sea. It didn't seem like a decision, probably--like all the best decisions.
But now, as we turn to Collas the architect in the hope of reassuring him of our sanity, we find it is his turn to demonstrate (though of course we don't recognise this at the time) that he lives in another world to that of the sensible, the wise. 'Oh yes, you will find water without much difficulty here,' Collas says. He glances at his watch; evening in the colonnaded town awaits him. And tomorrow he comes here again, to supervise the building of the walls, which will be of limestone blasted from the quarry on the hill behind the property. 'You shouldn't have a problem finding water at all,' Collas says again, as he picks his way up through the rocks on the long haul back to the village.
It's a strange sensation, seeing the beginnings of a house where none has been dreamt of before. First--and it seemed an act of barbarism--the wood is cut by hand, at least ten men hacking and pulling at bushes and trees that seem to take on human proportions as they are dragged from the ground: an elderly satyr, in the tortured branches of an arbutus tree; nymphs struggling against the rape of the woodcutters, in their bright dresses. Do we really need to destroy so much ancient forest and scrub--and then blow a large portion of the rock beneath sky-high in order to enjoy a fine view and stroll on terraces still impossible to envisage? Are we colons, the new type, who pretend to blend in with the landscape and then, unstoppably, cut swathes through it, bulldozing and wrecking to the end?
At least there won't be bulldozers; and thus, no question of a road. The very thought of the mechanised dinosaurs trying to come down into this Paradise causes a shudder. Of course, it's not just bulldozers that the workmen have to do without--for what can't come down the monopati can't get here by sea either: no drills, no machinery that would make Nikiforos, brave Foreman of the diggers of Rovinia foundations, throw up his hands in relief. We are in an antique past here; and while we may enjoy dreaming of the Iliad and the Odyssey (or of neolithic ancestors: my father, after the first blasting of the rock, has already found some shards of what seems very old pottery: 'Ela,' says Nikiforos, when he's proudly shown it--and he points at the crumbling and disused lime-kiln at the foot of the hill opposite: 'Ela [Come], I show you!' and he skips across the valley at an amazing speed, to return with similar brown crockery, clearly no more than five years old).
Not that the diggers (there are twenty-eight of these altogether) seem unused to the primitive methods forced upon them here at Rovinia. We arrive each day at around 10 a.m. to watch the proceedings and to walk about in the stremata that we still find it hard to believe are ours to wander in. Sometimes I sit in the grove and read, feeling grateful for the shade of the olive trees as it grows deeper with the increasing power of the sun. All goes well at first, but soon, drawn by the incessant labour up the hill, I lay the book down--several novels by Elizabeth Bowen and the works of the Durrell brothers have been abandoned this way--but, as it doesn't rain all summer, they are regularly rescued, their pages slightly baked, from the earthen hollows where they were left at the foot of the trees. I go up the rough paths on the steep slope to the site of the house. And each time I am astonished by the energy of the men, picks in hand, as they dig deep to make the foundations. Sun makes stripes of sweat on their backs and the earth is eaten by their spiked blows. The base of the new building is almost there, thanks to the men from Lakones, the village so high on the mountain across the bay of Paleokastritsa that it is often invisible, in a dark-blue fog that looks as if it's been thrown there by an angry Zeus; and results, too, are due to the men of Doukades, and those from Liapades itself. Marsalas, one of the diggers, comes up to my mother on the last day of the digging of the foundations of Rovinia and hands her what looks like a corn dolly--though maybe the original material is reeds from the reedbeds by a hidden pond on the Plain of Ropa. This is a good sign: Nikiforos has ensured pleasant working conditions (as far as that's possible, in this blazing heat) and everyone laughs at my father's cheerful attempts to communicate without learning a word of Greek.
Now, a week later, the walls are going up. Each day when we come--by boat if the sea permits it, by road if it's rough (we stop always at the one gap in the hills where it's possible to look across at our bay and say 'There it is!', the shore white and crescent-moon shaped, protective cliffs holding it; the cave agape, waiting for our entry to its dark coolness)--each day the walls go higher and the house begins to look as if it will one day be ready for us to live in. Window-frames are ordered from Sotiri, the carpenter, and it's strange to think of these views envisaged by my father--he paces out the distances between them on the newly flattened rock, the future terrace--as one day framed by curtains and crowned with wooden poles.
There's a long way to go, of course. But the fact that the house is coming up vertically from the side of the hill--pale and ghostly, the rooms could be tombs, I can't help thinking morbidly, as the car rattles down over the potholes on the unmade road to Liapades--gives an indication of the efforts that have been made to get this far. There was a blasting of rock in the hill on the northern side of the valley, before the stone could be laid to build out and form a terrace that will run down the side of the house facing south. (The other side of the house is right up against the hill behind.) There will be space for a passage leading from a wood-store at the back; the passage will have a boiler room off it, and an area for drying clothes out of view of the kitchen. The terrace will be three yards wide, and at the western extremity there will be another place to sit--which I can tell already occupies my mother's thoughts as we clamber out of the hired car in the plateia in Liapades and begin the vertiginous descent on foot to Rovinia once more.
I can understand why this particular spot holds a place in my mother's heart before its future beauties can even be discerned. There's the quality of the natural rocky wall--cistus with its pink and white flowers grows down over it, and broom in spring, and rosemary and thyme grow wild in great bushes along the top of the wall, to make a stunning background for the plants she'll want to put in. This terrace will be the first thing a visitor sees when coming in to the sitting room. The sea, too: a long blue swirl straight from the tube marked Ultramarine. This sea-facing part of the house, with her bedroom directly above the long sitting room, has everything she must always have dreamt of: the Mediterranean (only in this case the Ionian Sea); the chance to grow a vine just under her bedroom, which will one day provide shade for eating out on the stone apron; the marriage of olive tree and shrub with cultivated flowers; even (thrown in for good luck) an oblique view of the famous cave.
As we come down the steepest part of the cliff above Rovinia, the part where the path simply gives up and runs off in several directions, like hair that has been prepared for plaiting and then abandoned, we stop for a moment and look down at the first view of the bay from above. The site of the house is clearly visible: the strawberry grapes my mother will grow along the iron framework over the far terrace clearly established in all our minds, as she tells us of the heady scent the little purple grapes give off, enhanced by sudden showers of September rain. 'Hibiscus', my mother is saying as we stand, staring down at what will be Rovinia House, 'Datura...' And to a chorus of 'What's that?' she begins to explain: 'A great white drooping bell of a flower--terribly poisonous but very beautiful. And gardenias, as well as the lovely geranium that's there already, of course...'
'What about the low garden?' someone says. The speaker is Marie Aspioti, who in the space of a few short meetings has become a close friend on the island. Marie is from an old family fallen on hard times, lives with her mother in a large, dilapidated house in the town and is about as far from the 'smart' lady of Corfu as it is possible to get. Marie teaches English now, to earn a living, and her sister teaches folk dance (on my first visit to the island, when I led the hot journalists to inspect the site at Rovinia, I'd been staying in a castellated hotel to the north of the town, and after dinner there a wild, white-haired lady had shown the precision of the Greek dance steps with great aplomb and accuracy). Marie it is who has grown close to us--to these foreigners--but then she has all her life been a friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the author, amongst other extraordinary books, of Mani.
'I thought we might dig out a sunken garden right at the lowest point of the land,' my mother says rather shyly. Although she has a natural affinity with gardens and with plants in the wild, she resists the label of expert or even practised gardener.
'It is a good idea,' Marie pronounces, her elfish face breaking into a smile. She is small, with a determined walk, and even in the height of summer wears brown sweater and jacket and tweed skirt: she is an Anglophile, living in her imagination in an England where this is the right costume all year round, and of course she may well be right. 'You have all those terraces that need repair,' Marie points out as we continue down a deep gorge where the path, having decided to reconstitute itself, plunges us without so much as a zigzag under scrub grown so tall it is as menacing as jungle. 'Then when they are built up again, you may set out flowerbeds on them.'
Neither my mother nor I say anything in reply, but I know we both feel that the crumbling terraces of grey stone that go down the hill behind the house now being built are on no account to be 'modernised' or restored. They'll have irises and plumbago and lemon trees growing on them--they already have the lemons, large and green and knobbly, ripening to an acidic yellow in the spring--and then, never to be omitted, wild flowers, for which this terraced (and presumably once vine-cultivated) land will make a perfect base. We recite the names of the few we can positively look forward to identifying, once we're all back here (we hope) in the spring. 'Marigold, grape hyacinth, speedwell, scarlet pimpernel, anemone, star-of-Bethlehem, bee orchids, honesty...' Our voices tail off: Marie, who teaches us so much about Greece, and about the secrets of Corfu, adds to the list while we all fall uncharacteristically silent. 'Lithospermum,' she says, reminding us of the gentian-blue flower that loves to grow on a bank beside a leaking pipe, and we all start up again: 'Camomile, campanula...'
The litany goes on, as we complete the last tortuous portion of the path and come down on the peninsula, a razor-backed fish of layered stone jutting out to sea, which is where we turn sharply to the left to arrive at Mr Collas and the site of Rovinia House. Continues...
Excerpted from A House in Corfu by Emma Tennant Copyright © 2003 by Emma Tennant. Excerpted by permission.
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