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Alexis Zorbas The real Zorba's Greece:

by Dymphna Byrne,
published in Mail on Sunday (June 17, 2001)

Most of us recognise the music even if we haven't seen the marvellous Sixties film Zorba The Greek, starring Anthony Quinn.

The slow start leading to a whirling crescendo as the dancer twirls ecstatically, oblivious to everything except the music, is a terrific tour de force.

The movie, and the book on which it was based, were set in Crete and the music that so captured the essence of Greece must have delighted the island's tourist authorities.

Zorbas PictureHowever, Giorgos Zorbas, on whom the story is based, danced not in Crete but on a beach on the Peloponnese on mainland Greece. The captivating little beach is at Stoupa, a small, unspoilt resort on the bay of Messinia in the Mani, as this middle prong of the Peloponnese is called.

We knew nothing about the Zorba connection before we went on an impulse late holiday last October, but when we arrived we knew we'd struck gold.

We had persuaded another couple to join us in our sun dash and got what appeared to be the two remaining studio apartments left in town. They were on the second floor of a modest two-storey building with wide balconies facing Kalogria beach a few hundred yards away.

Cafe CreteWe could breakfast on our balconies, be on the beach within minutes and were only half-a-mile's stroll from the centre of town. To our minds that beat staying in town or in one of the newer, grander villas in the quiet streets that rise behind Stoupa.

From an early-morning swim to drinks before dinner on the balcony watching the sun setting over the sea, our lives centred on Kalogria beach. This little gem, bound on one side by cliffs and on the other by low rocks, can't have changed much in the 80 years or so since Zorbas, a volatile engineer from northern Greece, relaxed, drank with his friends and danced on the sand after a hard day's work.

The small taverna on the beach close to where Zorbas had his stone house may well have been there then. And the two unexpected cold springs that bubble just under the surface of the warm Mediterranean water and which so startle first-time swimmers certainly would have been.

It wasn't until the second or third day that we read the inscription on a bronze bust mounted on a pedestal near the steps leading from the path to our apartments. We thought that the name Kazantzakis must refer to a local politician or benefactor.

It was Bob Barrow, an English writer living in Stoupa, who explained all. He told us that Nikos Kazantzakis was the little-known author of Zorba The Greek. He had come to Stoupa from Crete in 1917 to set up a small lignite mining business in the local cliffs.

Zorbas, on whom he based his story, was the loveable, cunning and sometimes volatile engineer who designed and made the cable railway that took the lignite down the cliffs to be transported by boat to Kalamata, the nearest town of any importance.

Today, visitors flying into Kalamata are driven to Stoupa along a mountainous and well-made road, a facility that would have been unthinkable until recently. Alas, the mine failed, but the story that Kazantzakis wrote in 1946 about his mercurial colleague was turned into the film that enjoyed worldwide success.

Cole MineThe mine entrance is now over-grown and the galleries flooded and dangerous. The house on the headland above Kalogria beach where Kazantzakis lived has gone, but maybe the plain white house with the blue door tucked into the rocks near the taverna was built on the spot where Zorbas's small stone house once stood.

The sheltered, sandy cove of Kalogria, just north of the town, is one of Stoupa's three beaches. At the south end of town is the small and insignificant Halikoura beach. But it is the fine, gently curving main beach between them that is the queen.

This wide swathe of sand, with its occasional warm rock pools for exploring and tamarisk trees for shade, its bright umbrellas and pedalos, is backed by a promenade of cheerful tavernas, restaurants, bars, a couple of discreet gift shops and a superb super-market.

Surrounded by olive groves and cypress trees and with the magnificent Taigetos mountains as a dramatic backdrop, Stoupa is as near perfection as you can hope to find. Understandably this uncommercialised little place with its safe bathing is popular with families, many of whom come back year after year.

KazantzakisWe had enticed our friends to come with promises of visits to the many classical and historic sites nearby, such as Sparta and Olympia. But, loath to lose even the couple of hours it would take to get in and out of our perfect retreat, we neither hired a car nor took an organised tour.

We didn't even get to the village of Kardimili, ten minutes' drive away, whose famous old quarter dates to the 13th Century. We did, though, walk one morning, partly through olive groves, partly along the coastal cliff path, the couple of miles to the fishing village of Agios Nikolaos, arriving just as the fishing boats came in. We sipped cool drinks at a quayside café and watched.

The holiday was blissfully simple. A morning walk into town to shop for lunch and watch the passing scene over excellent coffee or a glass of wine at one of the tavernas might be followed by a chat to Maggie, our unobtrusive and helpful rep. She told us that the people of Stoupa couldn't believe their luck when visitors started arriving in the Eighties.

We thanked our lucky stars that the townspeople have resisted the temptation to spoil their paradise with high-rise tourist hotels. Long may it stay the way it is.

 

 

 

 

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24024 Stoupa, Peloponnese - Greece
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