Kindly contributed by Marjory McGinn, author of Things Can Only Get Feta, an insightful journey through one of the last unspoiled regions of southern Greece, where two journalists and their dog lived in a hillside village as Greece slid into economic crisis.
On the outskirts of a remote village in the southern Peloponnese, fate came loping into view in the shape of inimitable goat farmer Foteini, riding side-saddle on a small donkey. Not that it struck me as a life-changing moment when I first encountered this rather eccentric woman in an oversized straw hat who, curiously, had the looks of an aging Ingrid Bergman. How could I have known then that she would set the course for our adventure in this wild Mani region, the middle peninsula of the three jagged prongs that hang from the southern mainland like pulled roots?
My partner Jim and I were walking out of the village of Megali Mantineia with our small dog Wallace after having looked at a stone house we were thinking of renting. On either side of the dusty road we passed carob trees and clumps of wild thyme and sage. Beyond the road lay olive and orange orchards and tiny farms. When the wind swirled up from the Messinian gulf below, we could hear the sweet melodic tinkling of goat bells. Rising above this stretch of pastureland were the jagged peaks of the Taygetos mountains. The location had already tugged at our hearts. Foteini leapt off her donkey to check out these two odd foreigners with what looked like a small goat with a black face, as she’d never seen a Jack Russell terrier before. It was an amusing encounter that stretched my rusty language skills to the limit. Within 10 minutes, however, she had cajoled us into renting the village house. “Why not?” she bellowed. Why not indeed! Sometimes adventure can start with this much simple Greek logic.
So we signed up for a year in a rural village that had changed little in centuries, a scramble of houses along the edge of the deep Rindomo Gorge. It was a working village with 250 people, mostly stoical farmers coping with Greece’s economic cutbacks. It had one general store, but 25 churches and only two overworked priests! It wasn’t a typical Greek village, a cubist vision of white-washed houses and alleyways, but it had vibrant authenticity. With Foteini to guide us we met all the locals, took part in their lives and customs and even helped with a traditional olive harvest in this region famous for its black Kalamata olives. The village proved to be an ideal base to explore nearby settlements as well. On cobbled kalderimia (donkey tracks) we meandered between old and nearly deserted villages, hard to reach by car. In the Taygetos foothills we found remnants of the stone towers, famous in the Mani, and secluded Byzantine churches, their frescos undimmed by time.
Megali Mantineia is still thriving, but with its secluded hill position it is not yet familiar to most tourists. Had it not been for the persuasive Foteini, the life of this village would sadly have remained unknown to us as well. One of the reasons I decided to write this book was to capture a way of life I felt couldn’t last forever especially after the social upheaval following the economic crisis. Things Can Only Get Feta tells the story of how two British journalists left a Scottish village for a year’s adventure in Greece that turned into three. Their first year in Megali Mantineia and their friendship with local characters forms the basis for this book.
For more information about Marjory’s travels in Greece visit http://www.bigfatgreekodyssey.com/.