An Odyssey in Homer’s stomping ground

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THERE was a reason I put Homer into the title of my latest Greek travel memoir, Homer’s Where The Heart Is.

And it has nothing to do with Homer and Marge Simpson, let’s clear that up right away, much as I love their goofball antics and Marge’s blue beehive hairdo.

Homer, the slightly more venerable, and ancient Greek poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey (who lived in the 8th century BC), had a significant influence on the north Mani region of the southern Peloponnese, where we spent three years from 2010.

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I’m not sure that Homer physically spent any time in the Mani – the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese. There’s no evidence of that, or Homer Simpson for that matter, despite the fact that the third episode of the first TV series in 1990 was called Homer’s Odyssey, when he became a citizens’ safety crusader. But as far as I know he hasn’t trudged the sylvan hills of the Mani.

As for Homer the venerable Greek, he named the area around the present day village of Paleohora, Iri (Ιρή), which is situated on the coastal strip south of Kalamata and it is mentioned in the Iliad as one of the seven cities (including Kardamili further south) that Agamemnon offered to the angry Achilles to appease him. In its time Iri had serious historic cachet.

Paleohora is certainly historic, settled from the Mycenean age, and in the Homeric years it had the important temple of Asclepion (named after the god of healing) built on the high clifftop overlooking the gulf. Ancient relics have been found from this time and it was said that people came from all over southern Greece to be healed at this temple.

On the escarpment over a small pebbled cove is what was known as the Portella, a natural opening in the rock, where the sick could be lowered down to the sea below for treatment, and which later in the 17th and 18th centuries became an escape hatch for those fleeing from Turkish interlopers.

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A castle was built here in the 15th century by the Venetians, though only the north wall remains. The Orthodox Church of the Dormition was built here in 1775 and it is from here that the Epiphany service in January is conducted down on the beach below.

The title of my travel memoir is of course a pun, and for those not familiar with the English expression, it’s a play on “home is where the heart is”.

It seemed a fitting title for me because this spectacular Homeric land, including the hill village of Megali Mantineia – where I, my partner Jim and our mad Jack Russell Wallace – spent our first year, is a place that stole our hearts for the time we lived there, and still does. It’s a place of great natural beauty beneath the towering Taygetos mountains, but is also quite remote and not high yet on the tourist’s bucket list. Not as high as it should be.

Megali Mantineia was the focus of my first memoir Things Can Only Feta and I wrote a lot about it subsequently in articles, but I haven’t written much so far about the coastal area where Paleohora is situated and where we spent our next two years in the Mani.

Modern Paleohora is a small village with a few churches and a cluster of tavernas and kafeneia close to three small pebbly coves, which are unspoilt, with the remains of the Portella still visible above one of them.

The coves here, like those of nearby Archontiko, Mikri Mantineia and Akroyiali, are close to the main road but so splendidly hidden from view that it is mostly Greeks who frequent them in summer. Mikri (Small) Mantineia was once a thriving village but its residents fled during the pirate raids of earlier centuries and moved up to the sister village of (Big) Megali Mantineia. After Greece won the War of Independence against the Turks many of the hillside villagers moved back to the coast. Sometimes the move was more dramatic

A narrow road from here will take you to Palio (Old) Mikri Mantineia, where a small village on the saddle of a hill once sat and which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1940s, after which most villagers fled to the coast. Most of the lovely old houses here, with courtyards and intricate balconies and doorways, lie in ruins and while there was a plan to totally renovate the village a few years back it seems like it’s been shelved due to Greece’s economic crisis.

Paleohora, however, is the place that seems to have the most history on this coastal strip, and many of the archaeological finds are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Kalamata.

Scenes and characters that inspired Homer’s Where the Heart Is

We owe a great deal to the lovely family from whom we rented our house at Paleohora, with its olive groves and fruit trees and spectacular views of the gulf and the mountains. The couple I wrote about in the book, Andreas and Marina, lived in Kalamata but spent a great deal of their spare time fixing up an old spitaki (little house) in the corner of the property.

It was in the yard of the house at the big wooden table, in front of the spitaki, that we shared many celebrations with the family, including Easter Sunday lunch, which became a chapter in the book. It was also where we watched the family making olive soap one year in an ancient kazani (cauldron), and where Marina would fire up the old, domed fournos (oven) and cook various festive biscuits, like kourabiedes.

Most of the time she used dried olive branches and several times she created a fireball, with black smoke belching out of the front of the fournos.

In the winter the family harvested their olives with the help of local harvesters from outlying villages.

Despite the fact that while we lived in Paleohora as the crisis intensified, particular during 2011 and 2012, to a heartbreaking level, our stay was nothing short of inspiring and we owe much to this wonderful area and its people for giving us some of the best years of our lives.

Homer’s Where the Heart IS

TO read more about living in Greece during the crisis in the southern Peloponnese, read my second travel memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is. This is the sequel to the first, Things Can Only Get Feta (first published in 2013) about the start of our long odyssey in the rural Mani.

Both books are available on all Amazon’s international sites and also on the Book Depository www.bookdepository.com (with free overseas postage).
On the website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com you will also find a ‘books’ page with other information about the books.

To buy either of my books please click on the Amazon links below:

Things Can Only Get Feta

Homer’s Where The Heart Is

You can also find me on Twitter @fatgreekodyssey

And Facebook www.facebook.com/ThingsCanOnlyGetFeta

www.facebook.com/HomersWhereTheHeartIs

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marjory McGinn is Scottish-born journalist/writer who grew up in Australia. Her stories have appeared in leading British and Australian newspapers. In 2010, together with her partner Jim and their Jack Russell dog, Wallace, they moved to the Mani, southern Greece, for a year’s mid-life adventure that eventually turned into four. This became the subject of her first two travel memoirs, Things Can Only Get Feta and Homer’s Where the Heart Is. She is currently based in southern England but still spends much of her time in Greece. She is now writing the third book in her Greek memoir series.

She also writes a blog with a Greek theme on her website  www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com

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