Building in Vassara
The bus dropped us at a remote intersection between two fast roads in the hills, and we wondered if it really was the right place. Squeezing ourselves next to the metal barrier, we awaited our host, Phil, who arrived shortly after. A firm handshake and a strong Essex accent were the first things we noticed about Phil, along with his well-trimmed greyish beard and statuesque persona. We sat in the back of the car as he drove us up to Vassara, a picturesque, mediaeval stone village perched on the gentle slope of a hillside. Beneath the village, miles of olive groves stretched across the gently undulating valley, their trees heavy with ripe olives ready for harvesting.
Their house – one of six derelict properties that they had bought in the village – was a three-story building with a narrow courtyard at its foot and an adjoining two-story building facing it. Local builders had all been keen to destroy much of the original features of the building, leading the family to manage the project themselves. As we walked in, we were immediately greeted by Kurt, a multi-skilled builder from Indiana. Scaffolding, tools, and scraps of building materials were strewn across the courtyard, which had been coated in a thick layer of sawdust from ongoing building work. Kurt’s clothes were likewise coated in a thin dusting of sawdust, which gave them a greyish tinge all over.
The village of Vassara had, for some time, suffered from population decline, as younger generations moved to towns and cities, and the remaining villagers aged. Empty houses dotted the place, and Phil and his Australian wife, Shema, had made it their mission to give a boost to the local community. George, the bilingual President of the village, was a close friend of theirs, and his passion for the place was palpable – between them, there had already been noticeable changes, such as the installation of village wifi.
The couple were self-made, and had run a business in removals before moving into property development. The house in Vassara had, initially been intended as a holiday home, until they decided to make a new life there. Having met travelling through Europe, they had lived in both the UK and Australia, but never felt fully comfortable with either place. Their children, much like the Millingtons in Italy, had been introduced to the Greek school system with little previous knowledge of the language or culture. The older of the two siblings, Charlie, was considering sixth form education in the UK, while Annabel, his younger sister, appeared quite content where she was. An unhealthy reliance on private tuition in the Greek education system, however, frustrated them and concerned their parents, who were encouraging of Charlie’s possible plan to study elsewhere. Despite the dilemmas and difficulties of growing up in a foreign country, the two children were quickly growing sharp minds, and enjoyed discussion and debate with the growing group of adults around them.
Work was hectic and varied. Having had a number of no-shows in the past, Phil and Shema had taken on more helpers than they were able to comfortably accommodate. Their Australian nephew, Jabin, was also visiting, en route through Europe. Nevertheless, there was a great deal to do, and our gardening skills were immediately put into practice in their somewhat overgrown flower beds and herb garden. The room that we were expecting to sleep in was not yet finished, so we relocated to George’s aunt’s house on the other side of the village. Although perfectly liveable, the place was freezing and only a hefty supply of duvets could keep us warm in the cold nights. An important project was therefore to complete the spare room in preparation for future volunteers. Other tasks – carrying and treating beams for studwork walls, domestic tasks, moving rubble, renovating old furniture, helping the kids with their homework – were all part and parcel of the loud and bustling daily life
Another part of daily life, which we had become accustomed to elsewhere, was walking the dogs. The two dogs – Lola and Mele – were glossy-coated, floppy-eared bundles of pure joy. Aged only one and two years, their puppy-like exuberance glowed from them, making everyone around them instantly happy. Early-morning dog-walking involved a careful circumnavigation of the village and several nearby olive groves, and since harvest season had begun, it was necessary to be careful when letting the dogs off the leads. Hunters also prowled the area for birds and boar, and the crucial technique was only to let one of the dogs off the lead at a time in the hope that they would not stray far.
After only a couple of days’ work, a weekend trip saw the family and volunteers pile into their old white minibus and make the slow, winding trip across the mountains to the port town of Neapoli. Neapoli itself was a sleepy coastal town, and in the low season it had a strange emptiness to it much like old coastal resort towns in the UK. The seafront, long and straight, dotted with drooping palm trees, was crammed with bars and cafés, though few had more than a handful of patrons inside. Small groups of elderly men peered out of windows onto the road that separated the seafront from the town, as our noisy gaggle of Anglophones passed by.
The nearby village of Monemvasia was the destination for the following day, after a rather chaotic game of cricket on the beach. Byzantine in origin, Monemvasia perched high atop the cliffs of an island only accessible by a causeway. As we trekked up the side of the cliffs, through little streets lined with beautiful mediaeval houses, the view over the Mediterranean became more and more breathtaking. The calm, blue waters shimmered in the sunlight, as if scattered with thousands of crystals. Looking back towards the mainland, the mountains rose from the little bay across the causeway and cast soft shadows across their rocky faces.
We climbed to the craggy plateau atop the rock, and past a little Byzantine church, before reaching the ruined fortress and Byzantine old village. Although the territory around it has changed hands many times over the 1500 year history of the village, it was notoriously difficult to capture, and its initial settlement served as a refuge for Spartans fleeing barbarian invasions from the north in around 500 AD. The apex of the island offered a dizzying sheer cliff-face at both sides, but a panoramic view unparalleled on our trip so far.
Reluctantly dismounting from our vantage point, one of our group stumbled upon a tantalising hole in the cliff-face. Kurt was the first to climb into the hole barely wider than a man’s shoulders, discovering a larger chamber about ten feet inside the rock. When we arrived, Helen leapt in to explore this little cave, followed by others one-by-one. Further inside, another passage had been closed off with boulders, and we speculated excitedly about what might have lain behind. We returned to the van filthy with the dust from the cave, and wearily headed back to Vassara.
The week or so leading up to our departure was increasingly busy as a new helper and two former helpers arrived in the village. The latter, Aishling and Joan, were undertaking a photography project for George, the village President, and were trying to take portraits of every single villager, but their close friendship with Phil and Shema led them to return to the house with regular updates on their progress. Following their time in the village, they were also considering buying a house there.
Our dry hands were marked with cuts and grazes as the pace of work seemed to increase, but occasional outings to the local tavernas kept the workforce going. The two village tavernas faced one another on the central square, and both were packed out on Sunday mornings with elderly men and women in their black church outfits, their hands resting on their thighs when not gesturing wildly to their friends. In the evenings, the tavernas were much emptier, however, and the sight of a large group of foreigners marching in would have caused surprise to the regulars had we not been accompanied by Phil, who seemed to know everyone. Even in the large town of Sparti, several people greeted him warmly as we headed to a pool hall one evening. His loud and outgoing personality seemed to fit well into society here.
Our final day saw another group visit, this time to the small village of Tsintzina, nestled high in the mountains to the north of Vassara. Much like Monemvasia, the village has a long history, although its past is less well-documented. Perched high above the village is a monastery carved into a cave in the rock face. Our climb to the monastery was long and rocky. Kurt and another helper, Vanessa, had headed up ahead of us, keen to avoid descending as dusk fell. Arriving at the monastery, we looked out over the steep valley below and knew we would miss the raw beauty of the area.
In contrast to Thessaloniki, the financial crisis in Greece seemed to have completely passed this area by – perhaps because the economy is chiefly agriculture and tourism, or because there was little sense that people were fighting back – recession did not seem to be biting as hard here. Sitting atop this mountain it felt like we were a long way from the bustle and turbulence of the cities. Despite this slow pace of life, the light was rapidly dying in the village and we needed to climb down quickly before nightfall. The following morning we would begin our journey to our second olive harvest on the trip so far, and an early start awaited us.