21 April 2024

Marylee’s House in
Rethymnon has come
to symbolise how time
changes and moves on

Time moves on at Marylee’s House beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I have been saying on social media posts over the past week how much I have missed Greece for the past 2½ years.

Friends I have met in Rethymnon, Platanias, Piskopiano and Iraklion over the past few days have reminded me how they expected to see me back in Crete at Easter 2022, and how they remembered how this had been part of my plans.

But events caught up with me. I caught Covid, not once but twice; I had a stroke; I decided to bring forward my planned date for retiring from parish ministry; my marriage at the time came to an end; and then, after moving to Stony Stratford, Charlotte and I got married last November.

For almost 40 years, Rethymnon has been like a second home to me. There are a few places I feel at home – Wexford, Cappoquin and Lichfield – and Rethymnon is certainly one of them. For half my life, I have felt at ease and at home here, and I have been in Crete nine times within the past ten years.

Over the past two years or more, I have missed Greece, I have missed Crete, and I have missed Rethymnon. I have missed the colours, the smells and the sounds; I have missed the tastes, the flowers, the Bougainvillea and hibiscus; I have missed the scents, the sunsets, the sunrises, the blue skies and the blue seas; I have missed the food and the wine; I have missed the music and the poetry; I have missed the olive groves; and I have missed the people.

Year-by-year, I hardly notice the changes in Rethymnon and suburban Platanias and Tsesmes, or in Piskopiano and Koutouloufari. They have been natural, organic changes, and I realise and accept that life usually changes gradually and gently rather than forcibly.

But during this week I have noticed how many of the shops, bars and restaurants I have known over the years have changed hands or even closed: a friend’s icon studio in Rethymnon; Julia Apartments and the Taverna Garden Restaurant in Platanias; Lychnos retaurant in Piskopiano. I can remember fondly and quite sharply each place I have stayed in, so it jolts my mind to see how many of those places have closed too.

Time moves on at Marylee’s House beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As I was strolling through the side streets and back streets of Rethymnon during these few days, I found myself once again photographing a colourful house that in many ways tells the stories of how life moves on in Rethymnon over the years, and how life moves on in Greece.

For the umpteenth time, I climbed the steep hills up to the old Venetian Fortezza to enjoy the views across the town and out to the sea. Clustered around the base of the Fortezza, there are labyrinthine back streets with houses, each pretty and charming in its own self-contained way.

Over the years, one attractive house on a corner of Cheimarras Street, with its colourful façade, flowerpots and window has come to represent or symbolise for me what I find typical of the charm of the back streets on the slopes tumbling down from the Fortezza.

Time moves on at Marylee’s House beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

When I first noticed Marylee’s House back in 2012, a colourful but punctured bicycle stood outside, and it seemed then like a metaphor for the Greek economy – punctured and jaded, and waiting for someone to see that it could roll on once again.

The house provided one of my favourite images from Rethymnon that year. I had the photograph printed on canvas and mounted for a wall in the house in Knocklyon I was then living in.

A year later, the bicycle that had been outside Marylee’s house had given way to a motorbike in 2013. I suppose time just moves on at a speed we never understand.

Then, in 2019, there was no bicycle or motor bike outside the house … once again, perhaps, a metaphor for the Greek economy and politics, as things stood still waiting to see whether the European elections results that month were going to influence the choice of a date for a general election in Greece later that year.

Today, the house is colourful, there are plants and flowerpots on the window ledges, the steps and on the street outside. The door was ajar, almost half-open, as I walked by last week, a metaphor, I suppose, that Greece has always been open to me, and that I feel Greece is part of me and that I am part of Greece.

Time moves on at Marylee’s House beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Marylee’s House stands on the corner of Cheimarras Street, a narrow street leading down from the Fortezza that takes its name from Himara or Himarë in southern Albania, known in Greek as Χειμάρρας, Cheimarras.

Since antiquity, the region of Himara has been predominantly populated by people who are ethnically Greek. Despite all the changes over time, that part of Albania has remained an important centre of Greek culture and politics in Albania, and the majority of people are Greek-speaking.

In classical antiquity, Himara was part of the Kingdom of Epirus, whose rulers included King Pyrrhus, who was a second cousin of Alexander the Great and who has given us the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory.’

Following the fall of Rome, Himara, along with the rest of the southern Balkans, passed into the hands of the Byzantine Empire.

When the Ottoman Empire overran northern Epirus from the late 14th century on, Himara was the only region that did not fall to Ottoman rule.

During the First Balkan War, the town revolted under Spyros Spyromilios in 1912 and expelled the Ottoman force in order to join Greece. The Protocol of Corfu, signed in March 1914, established the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus, which included Himara. During World War I, Himara was under Greek administration from October 1914 until September 1916, when it was occupied by Italy.

The region came under the control of the Albanian state in 1921, but there were revolts throughout the 1920s demanding respect for Greek culture and autonomy. During World War II, the town was captured briefly by the Greek army in December 1940.

Today, the people of Himara remain a majority-Greek population, but fear their culture, language and religion are constantly under threat.

An interesting Greek cultural figure from Himara was Pyrros Spyromilios (1913-1962). As a navy officer during World War II, he took part in Greek capture of his home town by the Greek military. After World War II, he became director of the Greek Radio Orchestra. In that role, many new music celebrities emerged in Greece with his support, including Nana Mouskouri, who was born in Chania and who sang for Luxembourg in the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest.

Spyromilios also agreed to allow the composer Mikis Theodorakis to use his ensemble, along with the popular bouzouki instrumentalist, Manolis Chiotis, and singer Grigoris Bithikotsis, in the Greek radio premiere of the Epitaphios, a setting to music by Theodorakis of the epic poem by the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos. It was an innovative move at the time, and so had a lasting influence on modern Greek culture.

Each time I return to Rethymnon and walk down Cheimarras Street from the Fortezza, I watch out for Marylee’s House, but also find myself listening in my mind to the melody of Epitaphios and thinking of the naval officer from Himara who played an innovative role in modern Greek culture.

And when I come back agaun, hopefully sooner rather than later, Marylee’s House beneath the Fortezza is still there to photograph yet again.

Time moves on at Marylee’s House beneath the Fortezza in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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