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Kalamata City: Perennial & Provincial

Messenia, Kalamata & EnvironsKalamata City: Perennial & Provincial

Kalamata has not always enjoyed a good press and, indeed, my own reactions to the city in my early days of being that peculiar entity, an Australian immigrant village-dweller, were quite ambivalent. I was dazzled by the summer combination of mountain, sea and light, but was later oppressed in equal measure by the greyness of winter cloud and by the incessant rain, not immediately realizing, ignorant Antipodean me, that it is the latter that makes the Kalamata olive and its almost universal fame possible. Coming from the New World, in which everything has to be spick-and-span, organized, maintained, repaired, or else eliminated, I found it hard to cope with the sight of dish-water colored high-rise buildings which featured many a square foot of peeling paint, and were yards, possibly miles, short of any kind of aesthetic appeal. “The whole of Europe needs a coat of paint,” said an Australian friend of long standing very matter-of-factly after her first European trip, and I could not but agree.

Grey lady in need of paint

Nor was I alone in my reservations about this idiosyncratic place. Travel writer Colin Simpson long ago referred to “the unforthcoming citizens of Kalamata,” while, more recently, the late Oxonian scholar Peter Levi called it “a strange corner of the provinces.” Many other people—especially, it has to be said, Athenians—also comment regularly on the provincial nature of the city, and the rather dour nature of its inhabitants. And yet: Kalamata and its individual charms have grown upon me, albeit slowly. Kazantzakis, as usual, has been a great help. Even though he was writing 70 years ago, he made a valid point then that may well hold true today when he stated that the capitals have lost their innocence, but that the hinterlands give youth the time to desire: hope has taken refuge in the “modest, languid and enchanting” provinces.

And then there was and is the allure and the lure of history.

The settlement of Kalamata dates back to ancient times, as it was supposedly founded by a son of the god Hermes; somewhat later, Homer mentioned Kalamata in song, even though it did not rate as one of the places King Agamemnon offered to the troublesome Achilles. Invasion and occupation by Franks, Turks and Venetians took place later, and Italians and Germans had their turn rather more recently. The city supposedly took its present name during the middle ages from the words kalo mati, “the good eye,” for way back then the town needed protection against the Evil Eye, a blanket term for peril then as now, one covering past threats ranging from pirates, brigands, and imperial invaders, through to famine and the Black Death.

Charms against the Evil Eye

Byzantium and its empire fell to the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, so that it is Tuesday rather than Friday that remains a day of ill-omen in Greece and in its diaspora. The Fall of Constantinople, “The City,” has a hallowed and immovable place in the Greek mindset to this day: my three sons had to learn to eat their vegetables without complaint. (How else, enquired their Yiayia, their paternal grandmother, would they grow up to be pallikaria, fine warriors, who would retake The City?) The length of the Occupation varied from area to area in Greece: Thessaloniki, for example, has been Greek only since 1912. Things, however, were different in the Peloponnese, and the cause of Greek freedom, as is well-known, has a long international and cosmopolitan history.

British Byron saw the cause of Greek Independence from the Turks as one dear to his heart, and Vyronos remains a popular hero to Greeks, who clearly do not wish to know about Lady Caroline Lamb’s judgement that he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Almost every Greek town has its Vyronos Street, and Vyronos remains a popular name for boys. Never mind that Byron died in his bed: it’s the thought and the patriotic poetry that count.

The revolution Byron supported actually had its start in Kalamata, two days ahead of schedule, on March 23, 1821. A sharp-eyed Turk had become suspicious upon seeing a little trail of gunpowder near a popular watering-place for donkeys and people, a well near the 12th-century Church of the Holy Apostles: he set off to warn his masters in Tripolis. Of course, he never arrived: a local lad, whose descendants still live in the area, saw to that. But the Kalamatianoi insurgents realized they had to act quickly, so the banner of revolt was raised in Kalamata.

Church of The Holy Apostles

If you are in town on any March 23, be sure to attend the recreation of stirring events, namely the meeting between revolutionary heroes right there next to the Church of the Holy Apostles. (The well has long gone, but the little stone church still stands, despite the ravages of time and earthquake.) Two days later, the whole Peloponnese rose and initiated a wide-scale revolution that, after long years, was ultimately successful:  Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, has been henceforth Independence Day, celebrated throughout the land, and a public holiday. (Wherever you are in Greece, don’t miss the parades, the dancing, the singing, and the general festivities. And don’t forget to fly the flag.)

One hundred and twenty years later, the Kalamatianoi were in rebellious mood again and, despite the vicious prodding of German enemy rifle-butts, cheered Allied prisoners of war as they were paraded through the main street after being captured on the beach. “They had nothing themselves,” an Australian veteran told me, “but they threw us bits of bread, and never stopped clapping for us.” (Stan was on his very unwilling way to a camp in Austria, where he saw the war out, despite continual efforts to escape. More than 60 years later, he still remembered the Kalamatianoi and their indomitable spirit. Stan no longer recounts those stories having passed away at the age of 86.)

Part of that indomitable spirit, which is an integral part of the Greek psyche, springs from a virtually inseparable attachment to Orthodoxy, that Christian light that guided generations of Greeks through the dark and, apparently endless, years of the Turkish occupation. (All the Greek communists I have ever known still have their children baptized: being Orthodox may not be a religious necessity, but it appears to be a psychological one that ensures a child’s place in the endless flow of history and in his or her specific and wider community.)

Any Westerner spending any time in Greece is made aware of the lack of borders between home, school, and church. My theory is that this blurring makes children feel very secure, and most adults, I think, also seem very secure and consoled in both their culture and their religion. In many places in Greece, there is a church or a shrine on every block, and Kalamata is no exception. One of its claims to fame is the Feast Day of the Cathedral. Ipapandis. or Candlemas. (And Kalamata is the only city in Greece which has a Cathedral associated with Candlemas.) February 2 marks the occasion on which the Panageia, Mary, the All-Holy-One, took the infant Christ to the Temple on the fortieth day of his life. (Village women, to this day, spend 39 days in seclusion after a birth, and take the child to church on the fortieth day for a blessing.)

The Panagheia and Her Son

This Feast Day is the most important day in Kalamata’s year, for it is then that an ancient icon of the All-Holy Mother is paraded through the streets of the whole city, from the old quarter to the beach, with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. For the rest of the year, the icon sits inside in the dim light; strung across the image are rows of wedding rings and little tin replicas—votive offerings—of feet, legs, arms, hearts, whole bodies, all offered in hope and faith of a cure. Should you be in Kalamata on the day, make every effort to be a part of this momentous occasion, which is usually marked by bright, frosty weather. (The procession, the outside action, usually starts at about 10.30 a.m., but it is a good idea to get there somewhat earlier, in order to ensure a good view: crowds are often six-deep.)

The liturgy starts very early in the morning, and is broadcast out into the street, but only the seriously devout and those strong in patience and constitution are there from the beginning and, on this occasion, attendance within the building is strictly by invitation: this is not the case otherwise, for Greek churches are homes away from home, so that on every other day of the year people wander in and out at will, lighting candles and venerating icons as the mood takes them. But, while the priests are chanting on February 2, the various military contingents are assembling in the cathedral forecourt. They stand at ease, waiting for the attendant bishops and famous icon to emerge, gazing down a long street festooned with blue-and-white bunting and crowded with brass bands and eager spectators.

A sudden stir, a restlessness in the expectant crowd, and the soldiers’ snapping to attention mark the important moment when the sacred icon of the Panagia and her Child, swathed in white, emerges. There are usually at least six bishops, moving stiffly in robes of cloth-of-gold embroidered with gilt thread. Shafts of light shoot from ornate crowns. Then there are the long rows of parish priests, each clad in a different glow of satin. Black-clad choristers chant while walking backwards in reverence, and girls wearing white robes and ballet slippers glide rhythmically along, casting roses before the icon.

There is always a feeling of expectancy among the onlookers, for tales abound of miracle-working icons. But, usually, the ancient faces remain frozen in centuries-old immobility. This does not seem to matter. Nothing seems to matter except the moment of hush and veneration as the sacred image passes by.

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