6th Dec, 2016

Favourites Places: Walking in Greece

Solihull Editorial 2nd Jan, 2016 Updated: 21st Oct, 2016

IT‘S about this time of year many of us start dreaming of distant shores and summer holidays.

In recent years the ‘staycation’ has become popular with many opting to forgo jetting off abroad in favour of a destination closer to home.

They say travel broadens the mind. True – but you don’t necessarily need to travel thousands of miles to find that special somewhere. All of us have been to a place which has struck a chord for one reason or another, the memory of which stays with us for a variety of reasons – as our reporting team discovered when they pondered on a place which meant something to them.

THE TRAVELLER and writer Bruce Chatwin always admired the Greeks because they “reserved the best building sites for God”.

It is hard to disagree with him on visiting the tenth century Byzantine church nestled in the foothills of the Tagetus Mountains in the Peloponnese, where Chatwin’s travels finally ended when his widow laid his ashes in an unmarked grave underneath an olive tree, after Aids claimed his life in 1989.

Chatwin was just 48, but had packed more into those years than many manage who live twice as long.

The small church in the village of Chora has become something of a pilgrimage for those who regard Chatwin as one of the great writers of the late 20th century.  His reputation was cemented by just five full length books – which are neither pure novels, travelogues or histories; but often a combination of all and more. None of them are particularly long, but all are highly original.

Chatwin spent most of his childhood in Warwickshire after the family moved from Birmingham to a farm at Tanworth. He would also spend long summers with two great aunts who lived in Stratford close to Holy Trinty, and the young Chatwin appointed himself the guardian and guide of Shakespeare’s tomb at the church, charging GIs threepence a tour.

He would also often take a stroll with his Aunt Ruth and her cocker spaniel Amber along the river on what she said was Mr Shakespeare’s favourite walk.

His brother Hugh, a chartered surveyor and committed environmentalist, also lived in Stratford’s Old Town before his death three years ago.

The big wide world was calling Chatwin from a young age. After leaving school he worked for the auctioneers Sotheby’s – quickly establishing himself with some bluff the firm’s expert on modern paintings – and later as a journalist on The Sunday Times’ Magazine.

But he gave up both promising careers to satisfy his itch to travel and to become a writer in the same way as his heroes, the travel writer Robert Byron, the French poet Rimbaud, and the great American novellist Ernest Hemingway – sharing the latter’s brevity of style.

His own fascination with nomads, and an inherent belief that man was naturally nomadic, saw him regularly pack his rucksack and set off to often far flung corners of the world. From the wilds of Patagonia to the burning heart of Australia to the then terrorist free mountains of Afghanistan – he was forever on the move, and on foot by choice. Movement was his life-driving force.

As Chatwin himself said: “Man’s real home is not a house, but the road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.”

It was while staying with the great late English traveller, war hero and man of letters Patrick Leigh Fermor, who for many years lived on on the coast in the pretty village of Kardamili, that Chatwin discovered the church at Chora. Some four miles up the mountain – a short stroll for Chatwin – he came upon it.

On visiting it is easy to understand why Chatwin instantly fell in love with the setting and requested his ashes were buried there. It retains a true sense of peace, one which much have very much appealed to Chatwin.

While his acquantancies were wide and varied – everyone from goatherds (from his travels) to Jackie Onassis (from his days working for Sotheby’s) – he always treasured time alone.

What he found at Chora was perfect.  Little has changed in the years since he first stumbled along the overgrown path and into the grove of olive trees. He was met by a tiny crumbling church – which the Greeks in their inimitable way seem to have maintained just enough over the last thousand years to stop it falling down – looking out across the Viros Gorge and the southern Mediterranean. It is a place with a real sense of timelessness.

It could have partly been the discovery of this church which led Chatwin to convert to the Greek Orthodox faith shortly before his untimely death.

Chatwin was not a greatly religious man. He once said “My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.”

That said he was certainly no atheist. In his mould-breaking debut work In Patagonia he refers to the 19th century writer WH Hudson who for many years lived in that remote region at the tip of South America. He once concluded that desert wanderers discovered in themselves a primaeval calmness which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

It would be nice to think that Chatwin the restless wanderer found such peace when he came upon the Church of St Nicholas on that Greek mountainside.