Tag Archives: Europe

Back to the Mani, and the magic is still there

  • The church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – in the shadows of a Deep Mani cliff. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • The church of Odigitraea or Agritria comes more clearly into view. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • The entrance to a cave can be seen behind the church. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

  • Fresco of the Archangel Michael. The pen and scrap of paper are for recording donations. Photograph by Paul Nettleton

  • A view past the church north towards Tigani and Areopolis. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There’s a moment on the road from Kalamata to Areopolis when you drive round yet another hairpin bend after a seemingly endless climb upwards and then catch your breath at the view ahead.

Laid out before you to the left are the Taygetos mountains, stretching south as far as the eye can see. And below, on the coastal plain where a mountain gorge reaches the sea, is the village of Kardamyli where the war hero and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor made his home.

Beyond, the resort of Stoupa and fishing village of Agios Nikolaos nestle in their respective bays. Other villages cling to the mountain sides or among the olive groves of the foothills.

This is the Mani peninsula in the Greek Peloponnese and I wrote here earlier this year how the place was drawing me back after an absence of two summers. So is this still a magic place? My answer is an unequivocal yes.

The economic and political crisis in the country meant change was inevitable. But there has also been a gradual passing on of family businesses to the next generation. In Stoupa that means the ice cream at the Koumoundouros family-run Gelateria is now made by daughter Katerina in succession to her father Dimitrios. She is also selling locally made preserves and other craft foodstuffs, with an evident pride in the regional produce.

That pride is also in evidence at Elaia, a seafront café bar featuring local specialities which has replaced a jewellery shop after the succession from mother to daughter.

‘The austerity’

In what local people call ‘the austerity’ the main complaint seems, justifiably, to be about spending cuts to refuse collection. Overflowing bins were being cleared, eventually, but fly-tipping of old window frames, builder’s rubble, mattresses and more seems to be a bad habit which the situation has exacerbated. There again, it’s the same at home in Epping Forest.

One discovery of this visit was finally to find the way to a Byzantine church that captures something of the Maniot zeal for mastering the tough natural environment.

For that, thanks to this year’s edition of Inside the Mani magazine. Printed in a smaller format to cut costs and advertising rates, this edition gives directions to the Deep Mani church of Odigitraea – ‘Our Lady who shows the way’ – which is also known as Agitria, I learn from John Chapman’s invaluable web guide to Mani history.

You have to venture south of Areopolis for this trip. The well worn Taygetos range here looks like a good setting for a moussaka western. The main road continues south to Gerolimenas, worth a stop in its own, where the harbour is set against a steep cliff.

But we must turn west at the sign for Stavri and the Tsitsiris Castle hotel on a minor road that can take you on a circuit below the Cavo Grosso escarpment and a possible clifftop site for ancient Hippola. Follow the road through Stavri village and past the hotel towards the Tigani causeway. Ahead you can see and (if the day is not too hot) walk out to a frying pan shaped promontory that was fortified by Guillame de Villehardouin, prince of Achaea, and may be the site of the Castle of Maina, a possible source for the name Mani.

You can take a car much of the way towards the church on a dirt track, though we walked from a road junction closer to Stavri. Instead of heading to Tigani and the castle remnants, turn left at a broken signpost {chances are it will remain broken for now] to reach the coastal path that leads to the church.

The setting is spectacular, though the small church may be hard to spot against the similarly coloured cliff behind. It perches above a sheer drop to the sea, with the Cavo Grosso looming beyond.

The church was built in front of caves said once to have been lived in by hermit monks. I clambered up and found the ceilings of the caves blackened by age-old soot.

The church itself is unlocked and inside there are faded frescoes and the trappings of occasional worship. It’s beautiful, though clearly has been battered by the elements over the years.

The peace of this place and the warmth of the welcome in the Mani was so at odds with what has followed since with the murder in Athens of the anti-fascist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas. Greece is being battered by events, but is still beautiful. If mainstream society is now waking up to the threat of Golden Dawn, then there is hope that it will remain so.

Footnotes

Peter Eastland is a photographer living in the Mani who has captured the land and its people in a way I cannot. His website is at www.manieye.com.

While swimming at Delfini Bay, a favourite beach outside Stoupa, there were more jellyfish than usual. They were Cotylorhiza tuberculata,whose sting, I read , is harmless to humans. Here’s a link to some video of this medusa:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/65892295 ]

 

 

The planners, HS2 and the bonfire of red tape

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There must have been disappointment at the BBC2 when the first programme in its documentary series The Planners drew only 1.3 million viewers, some 5.5m fewer than would be expected for the peak time slot.

 

Days after the controversial announcement of the northern extension route for the HS2 railway, this portrayal of how developers, local authorities and the public are reacting to the government’s stripping away of planning controls  to encourage construction with the aim of kickstarting the economy is both timely and engaging.

 

Who cannot have felt sympathy with householders faced with losing their views of farmland on the edge of Winsford in Cheshire. They even pursued a fruitless hunt for great crested newts, a protected species, in their attempt to bock the building of 540 houses, with all that entails in disruption during construction work, additional traffic and the loss of an open aspect for which they’d doubtless paid a premium in house prices?

 

You might have wondered why a human resources company boss could not have a dropped kerb to facilitate parking in the front garden of her Regency house in Pittville, Cheltenham, “just like her neighbours”, instead of having to manoeuvre round the back as if her car was a horse being led to stables?

 

Solar panels

 

At least Basil and Rachel Thompson, retired GPs nurturing a beautiful garden in a grade two listed house in the shade of Chester’s historic city walls, were allowed to put 17 solar panels on the slate roof of their garage.

 

Conservation officer John Healey objected to concealing wall walking tourists’ views of the slates with large modular reflective panels. Basil pointed out that the office block looming above the far side of the wall looked “just like a panel”.

 

Indeed, redbrick Centurion House, boasted slate grey window frames and acres of glass arranged as if to resemble a fortress – lacking only Roman soldiers peering over the top.

 

Healey said he could not “answer for the sins of those who were here in the 70s”. This failed to answer the Thompsons’ point that solar panels are a response to 21st century needs for sustainable energy.

 

After the elected councillors voted through the installation, Healey was interviewed while looking down from the walls, oblivious to the blooms most tourists would have admired and with his back to the office block monstrosity rising behind him. It even had me jumping from my seat and prodding at the screen in astonishment.

 

Appeal costs

 

Still, even as the nimbys brief their lawyers in attempts to derail HS2 that are likely to delay its construction for years – not in my leafy acreage, please – you have to wonder if the balance has swung too far in favour of private developers.

 

Planning officers and councillors alike must now calculate the likely costs of losing an appeal to the planning inspectors if they reject any application. That’s not treating an application on its merits.

 

Developers who secure outline permission can return time and again, asking for more blocks and more flats. They can build closer to the neighbours than agreed drawings showed, yet not be forced to tear down the timber frames and start again. Both are examples close to my home in South Woodford, north-east London.

 

And while the predicted benefits of HS2 for the North and Midlands are now being questioned by academics and rail experts, such as Christian Wolmar, it is becoming all but impossible to stop a railway or a Thames bridge or a housing estate on a flood plain, all in the name of economic recovery.

 

Dither over HS2

 

The Chinese, we are told to wonder as we were once told to work more like the Japanese, will have built thousands of miles of high speed railway while we dither over HS2. But in the bonfire of red tape, so beloved of Tory politicians at their annual conference, are we ignoring the growing clamour in China for controls to avoid preventable deaths in the breakneck race for growth?

 

Would we accept the pollution-laden air of Beijing, where CNN last month reported an air quality index reading of 700? The World Health Organization regards 25 micrograms as healthy.

 

There’s a telling quote in a People’s Daily Online article after fire killed 53 people in a 28-storey building in Shanghai in 2010. It raised concerns at the lack of fire safety measures and facilities in China’s biggest metropolises. “The drive for modernisation should also include the quest for a greater peace of mind,” the article said.

 

It’s a lesson lost on British politicians engaged in dismantling protections for the public won at Westminster over many years, or seeking in Brussels to negotiate away workers’ rights in some à la carte European Union.

 

The Planners is on BBC2 at 8pm on Tuesday

 

David Cameron and the Costas question

Is Britain sleepwalking towards the exit door from the European Union under David Cameron, as Ed Miliband fears, or will the prime minister wake up and smell the coffee before making his on-again speech about Europe?

As a country we’ve never really got Europe since belatedly arriving at the party. We demand always to be treated as a special case, like the spoiled brat at a sleepover. Westminster politicians bewail their loss of influence while blocking efforts to improve direct EU democracy.

Press coverage driven by owners who prefer to turn nation against nation – usually England v Germany, but any Johnny Foreigner will do for the likes of Simon Heffer – has been another obstacle to understanding that the EU was always about greater economic and political integration for the benefit of its people, not just a free-for-all for big business and the hated Eurocrats.

People are entitled to ask what Brussels has done for us. One answer is that it would have been a lot more without opt-outs from the employment directives intended to give workers some protections in a single market of 500 million, or the Schengen agreement on open borders that enshrines freedom of movement within Europe – giving true meaning to the exhortation to get on your bike to look for work while giving labour the power to seek the highest wages.

There is loose talk of Europeans from poorer countries swamping the nation from Boston to Bognor, as if nary a Brit ever decamped for the Costas or Corfu. No mention of the businesses young Poles and Portugese are setting up in otherwise empty shops on our high streets? They’re hardly a drain on the benefits system – more a reminder to the supermarkets to boost the choice of continental foods on their shelves.

The growing number of UK students taking degrees on the European mainland, to escape ever increasing tuition fees, find their horizons expand beyond the passport control queues at our borders.

Business doesn’t entirely get it, with some in the City backing an in or out referendum, apparently oblivious that quitting the EU will hasten takeover deals that relocate the financial capital of Europe to anywhere but this island Square Mile. But they’re the bankers, the forex and futures dealers with only tougher regulation to anticipate as the Eurozone tries to head off another mauling by speculators and ratings agencies accountable to no-one.

In the real economy should the UK step outside the single market, with no special deals likely, watch the Chinese, Japanese and Indian owners of manufacturing businesses in the Midlands or the North start to shut their factories here and shift across the channel.

The EU is far from perfect but you can’t change the rules of a club from outside. When Tories and Ukip talk about diluting Britain’s membership and repatriating powers, or quitting the EU altogether, they’re proposing to surrender influence over the people with whom we do at least half of our business. That’s not a recipe for the job creation and living wages the UK’s young people need, but for a perpetual cycle of decline in a low-wage economy with a shrinking role on the world stage.

Is that the legacy David Cameron wants? This week we will have part of the answer.