From Kardamyli, heading off up a road away from the bookshop, we began towards the Taygetos. We knew we would not go far; our plan was only for five kilometres, barely traversing the main plateau between sea and mountain’s foot. After a few bends in the road, our walking path climbed up into the terraces of olive trees painted across every hillside in sight. Tumbled stones led up to a zig-zag donkey path of rough-hewn stones raised out of the hard earth like a carefully placed walkway leading us past ancient groves of trees. One tree perhaps planted by Panayioti Troupakis Mourtzinos himself many hundreds of years ago.
The lower side of the path sometimes dropped away with a wall of pock-marked large stones. A wall to support the market-laden loads traipsed up and down daily for centuries. The higher side, hugging the hillside, dissolved into the bushes, brush and thorn scrambling for life amongst the stolid rocks.
Over the crest, we passed quickly a derelict house looking back at the bay of Messinia and the speckle of Kardamyli emerging from the fields of olive trees that flowed down from the Taygetos like a soft, green lava. The path fled the slowly warming sun and shrouded itself in gently bowing eucalypts and cypresses and dove deeper into a cleft between two hills; a fold that caressed between it a tumbling dry stream. Dead grass lay flat over rocks and boulders and suffocated the trunks of leaning trees. Perhaps in the winter one might see a flow of water and the welcoming drenching and painting of fresh grass over the rocks. Moss would quickly carpet all bare stone, glistening with the sprayed water from the tumble of water around crevice and twist amongst the trees and fallen earth. But today we walked through what looked like the dried aftermath of a flash flood.
The heady air was rich with lavender and cypress sap, a potent perfume that came over us in waves as breeze jostled among the leaves and broke through to us below the shading canopy. The path took us onward, out of the cleft, hugging the hill and winding around its flank in slow incline. Treese reduced to shrubs and brush, leaving the white sun to bleach the ground and warm our skin. Higher and slowly higher up the plateau above Kardamyli, more and more of the coast emerging into view to caress the small harbour village in their soft folds of dark green and ochre. A nearby hill’s crest held a red and dusty yellow bricked church. It was a stolid building, built to last atop a harsh outcrop. The central tower stood only a metre or so above the rest of the structure, a short, squat affair with neatly checked bricks lining its corners and forming a fascia below the roof.
Further off in the distance, more squat chapels and churches crested the odd hill and I began to suspect that one might feature on our own hilltop as well. During the ascent I had been too focused on feet and bush to look up at our summit.
The path continued to curl around the hillside, twisting back on itself and traipsing back into the full grunt of late morning sun for the final slope up to the end. Over the top of our final road, the highest part of the inevitable church rose to view. Another checked stone building. Closer to, details came out in the stone: not red, but a pastel marble of red with burnt ochre seams; not dusty yellow but a time-weathered limestone, pockmarked by wind and rain.
The church stood on solid rock that had distinct quarried excavations where stone had been cut and used on site. The large stones in the walls of the church were of the ground around its base and now, almost four hundred years on, the hard cuts had weathered and softened to a globulous ground that seemed to have been carved and smoothed by the sea.
As we sat for lunch, we gazed up at the Taygetos mountains, now only slightly closer than when we had gazed up from the harbour of Kardamyli the other day. Although high and majestic, the peaks were not foreboding or imposing. Softer lines and a smattering of bush across the slopes kept the grandeur beautiful, and as we watched, soft wisps of high white cloud coalesced around the tips, corralling around and merging into cotton balls floating around the peaks. The warm, moist air of the Messinian gulf flooded up and over the West Mani plateau, misting as it hit the Taygetos and performing for us a slow elegant dance of transformation and slow evolution.
We left and scrambled down a rocky path, cutting off the long winding hillside road and plunging us quickly back into the shade of the taller trees deeper in the gorge. Climbing out the other side, we came across a shrine to the hillside. An archway of rough-hewn stone and a small windowed opening framed a glistening overhang of rock. We peered inside, our eyes adjusting to the dark cave inside.
Gentle water droops echoed into a crystal pool. More water trickled out of a dark seam in the rock, glittering over stone and dribbling in a few speckled streams into the small reservoir. The sound of the drips and tinkling trickle sounded as fresh as a glacier and a sweet coolness emanated from the rocks. I dipped a finger into the pearlescent water and let the drop peel off my fingertip and fall almost silently back into the pool. The perfect rings spread silently across the surface, cascading into the circles of other drips and dribbles and casting into myriad pattern of criss-crossing peaks and troughs. The small amount of light filtering past me into the depths shattered on the surface and sent a vibrating web of gleaming lines onto the glistening, damp rock above.
Away from the slight shelter of the archway and the rock overhang, the sun continued its unabated burn of the landscape. We walked on, out of the gorge and back to the top of the long zig-zag donkey path back down into Kardamyli. Shade was sparse with the sun overhead and our attention stolen by the large rough cobbled stones underfoot. The scene of the hills and olive groves carpeting the hillsides and plateaus had taken on a deadened, orange-yellow hue and nothing dared make a sound save for a few crying crickets. All other wildlife hushed for the intense glare of the sun.
Soon we were back in Kardamyli and amongst the crumbling rumbling old cars that puttered along the main street. Life here, too, was slow and subdued in the midday sun.
We hastened for the sea.