Thursday, June 21, 2012

in Sparta

It was my first visit to Greece and I wanted to see Sparta.  For years I had read about the heroic Spartans and I wanted to see what remained of their famous city, so I rented a car in Athens and drove out the Corinth road and across the deep gash of the Canal and into the Peloponnese.  I had with me the very thick (almost 800-page) Blue Guide to Greece, whose information was more timeless than timely  --  which meant that I was well-informed on local conditions two thousand years ago, if rather less so on current accommodations.

I drove over the mountains to Sparta.  I didn't expect much there.  Sparta alone of the great cities had no walls.  Its infantry, it said, were its walls.  An ancient had said that if all Greece were reduced to ruins that people would judge that Athens had been a great city but think that Sparta had been much less important than it actually was.  And I had reminded myself not to expect modern Spartans to be clanking about in armor, a helmet pushed back on their head, or exercising in the nude or being carried back slain on their shield, so I was not disappointed when I found the place pleasant and unremarkable and not particularly warlike.

In a coffee shop across from a park I looked out on a group of Greek men sitting at a table and thought first of a vase painting of Ajax and Achilles leaning forward taking counsel, their helmet pushed back on their head and spear at their side, and then I saw these modern Spartans taking counsel, as present as cats.  Later, in the park, I met a young woman as confident and self-possessed as the ancients had told us that Spartan women famously were.

In Athens, I had not noticed women driving cars, but here, in the socially-conservative Peloponnese, I noticed many of them.  Perhaps social conservatism meant something different here, though this was some years ago and I am sure everywhere we are now more modern.

In a famous story it was told how, at the games at Olympia, an old man was struggling through the crowd of seated spectators and no one offered him a place to sit, but when he came to where the Spartans were sitting everyone jumped up to offer him their seat, which prompted someone to remark that all Greeks knew what was right, but only the Spartans actually did it.  Others have pointed out that what we know about the Spartans is almost entirely based on what other Greeks said about them, as they themselves wrote little, and these others may have projected the virtues they felt absent from their own communities upon the Spartans.  This is fine with me.  I have no problem with Sparta as a construct of our imagination, the receptacle of our longings and our dreams of our better selves.

Monday, June 18, 2012

a short walk from the port

From the port of Korissia on the island of Kea I walked west along the unpaved road that climbed the hill behind the port and crossed into the wind blowing off the mainland of Attica.  The road from there ran south, just below the ridge, passing above small sand and pebbled crescent beaches between fingers of rocky land.  Save for the sea birds and the stray goat, I was alone in the early spring wind, wrapped in a corduroy windbreaker.

From the top of the hill I could look out over strait that I had crossed on the ferry from Lavrio, the ancient Laurion from whose mines the Athenians had gotten the silver for their heavy tetradrahms marked with Athena's owl.  The veins of silver were narrow and worked from tight, constricted crawlways hacked deep into the rock by slaves.  It was, in fact, the only really bad job a slave in Athens was likely get and most who were sent there were criminals.  Otherwise, slavery in Athens seems to have been an easy job, so much so that Spartans, for whom there was no such thing as an easy job  --  except perhaps dying in battle hip-deep in slaughtered Persians  --  complained that in Athens you couldn't tell a slave from a citizen.

The nearest coast across the strait was the long, rocky island of Makroniso  (whose name means simply "long island").  In the time of the Colonels it had been a prison for communists but was now said to be uninhabited, though when I was walking along the beach at Lavrio I had met a young man who told me that his family, who were ethnic Greeks, had fled from Turkey and were living as displaced persons on the island. I remember him as being quite optimistic about his prospects.

On the ferry crossing we had passed close by a wreck sitting upright on the shallow bottom, her hatches open and steel decks awash with water.  There was also a deeper channel: in 1916, the hospital ship Britannic had tried to pass through the straits and been sunk.  There was an explosion, though whether it was a mine or torpedo is unclear.  Britannic, a four-funneled leviathan built for the White Star Line, was the sister ship of Titanic.

I climbed down to a beach and walked along the edge of the glass-clear water.  I noticed a shoe had washed up.  I would, over the years, notice quite a few shoes washed up on Greek beaches, so many in fact as to call for some explanation.  I concluded eventually that there must be a tradition among Greek fishermen of throwing a shoe overboard, though whether this was done in joy or frustration or for some other reason I had no way of knowing.

There had been recent work on the road and in a fresh cut I noticed shards of pottery coming out of the earth.  I first thought it was just a modern trash dump but then I noticed that there were no bottles or cans or broken china or any of the debris you find in a modern midden, but all seemed to be pottery of the old sort, some painted, but most plain.  People don't carry trash far to dump, but there was nothing around that seemed to suggest this had been an ancient site.  No walls or foundations.  Just a few goats, grazing.  There had obvious been something there, or not far off, but it was now all gone.  The Past is thick around us in Greece.

I continued south along the road and saw stone work to my left on the hillside. It was the course of an ancient wall, most of it gone but there remained a short section of large, irregular, worked and fitted polygonal stones in place.  That the stones had been worked and fitted indicated that this was no farmer's wall  --  that there had been something of consequence here  --  but around it I saw nothing but pasture and stray sheep.  I found a place out of the wind and sat to write.  A large sheep dog appeared and inspected me, but decided I was no threat to his charges and went on his way.  (As Odysseus had done, I remained seated during his inspection.)

Farther south, I came upon a ruined tower built of rubble and cement, as the Byzantines had done.  I climbed to the top and looked around for Turks or pirates, but seeing none I climbed back down.  As I did so I noticed debris falling from the steps as they crumbled under my feet and thought I really ought to do something about getting medical insurance which, at the time, I did not have.


A short distance north of the port are the remains of a temple on which there had been some excavation.  It is odd  --  or at least I think it so  --  but some ruins leave me cold, as if I lack the imagination to raise fallen walls and span them with roofs and reassemble the shattered stones and fill the broken pavement with noisy ancients.  My romantic instincts seem to require a bit of surviving architecture to work with.  This temple, though, caught my attention because it has been determined that it is dedicated to Apollo Smintheus, that most curious of the god's epithets.

In the opening pages of The Iliad the Trojan priest Chryses, abused by Agamemnon, prays to Apollo by that name, Smintheus, which my translation rendered "Lord of Mice", and the god heard and clothed in darkness drew near the camp of the Greeks, the arrows rattling in his quiver like thunder, and set himself on his heel and rained arrows of plague into the camp of the long-haired Achaians and slew the men and the fast-running dogs.  What an odd thing that this beautiful, golden god should be praised as the Lord of Mice.

I have since read that "mice" might have been a mistranslation, though the ancients also thought that was what Homer meant and mice were kept in at least one of Apollo's temples.  But a god should have his mysteries and strangenesses and it pleases me that he of the golden lyre and gift of true prophesy, of whom even the swan sings with clear voice to the beating of his wings, should bear such a strange, mysterious title and that the ancient Greeks  --  such estimable people  --  should see fit to build a beautiful temple to him in that inscrutable name.

Friday, June 15, 2012

a walk across Kea

After breakfast at the monastery I took leave of the caretaker and her cat.  (The cat's name was Douli, which I knew from the sometimes archaic vocabulary of my book-learnt Greek to mean "slave girl," a word I had not expected to encounter in conversation.)   I set off across the island south and west toward Ioulis, the main and  --  so far as I could tell, save for the port of Korissia  --  the only town on the island of Kea.  I had by this time figured out that the small, connecting lines on my map were not roads, but footpaths.

I climbed the steps cut into the cliffside to the ridge and then set out on the path that seemed the most direct route to Ioulis.  (I see that there is now a road to the monastery; I have no idea if there were one then: steps cut into a cliffside had seemed to me a wholly appropriate way to reach a monastery.)

It was a beautiful, bright sunny day, warm whenever I was out of the high wind that had been blowing since I had left the mainland almost a week earlier.   I passed sheepfolds built of rough stone with dark, sheltered recesses and circular stone threshing floors, long unused, beside uncultivated fields.  I noticed that one of the upright slabs that formed the low wall of the threshing floor would have a cross cut into it and remembered reading how these remote stone floors were said once to be the site of moonlit magic rites.  The cross may have meant to discourage that, though magic being what it is  --  and Greek folk magic freely invoking Christian symbols  --  it is just as likely that the cross was meant to augment the potency of such rites as might have been practiced there.

(N.B.: I do not believe that travel writing is a branch of anthropology.  I mention folk magic simply because I had read John Cuthbert Lawson's wonderful Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: a Study in Survivals [1911] , and had thought of it when I saw first the threshing floor and then the cross cut in the stone.  I am writing about my own experience with Greece, weighted down with all my peculiar mental baggage.  Your results may differ.)

Walking over high ground, the sea at a little distance to the east and clouds hiding the western horizon, the path crossed pastures and open fields and ran along a low stone wall.  There, in the middle of nowhere, was a tiny chapel, scarcely large enough for one person, whitewashed stone and cement, its door chained shut but inside I could make out an icon and a bottle, whether of oil or spirits I could not tell; built, I assumed, as an act of pious faith, and once a year a priest would be paid to come here to say a service, a form of piety I find completely agreeable, as also those little way-side shrines scarcely larger than a mailbox or as when on a cross-country bus trip the old Greek beside me crossed himself every time a church or chapel came into view, a thing that seemed so much a part of his being that I imagined that it would never have occurred to him to do otherwise.

Near the top of a hill I came upon a plane tree: a broad pavilion of cool shade spread in the midst of a hot country.  I had read in Herodotus how Xerxes, on first encountering a plane tree, had stopped his army and decorated the tree with gold and adored it, and left one of his Immortals to guard it.  (How odd that fellow must have felt: everyone else he knew were marching on to conquer Greece and he was left there in the middle of nowhere guarding a tree that the King had apparently fallen in love with.)   I had thought the story odd (even the ancients had thought the story odd), but now I understood how, coming from an arid land one might be struck with wonder at the broad, sweeping boughs and imagine that such great trees might grow in paradise.  Though, as with everything else I had passed that morning, it grew in a remote, deserted place, a broad area around its base was paved with flat stones, as if it were a place where rites might be observed, though I was by now close enough to Ioulis that it is likely that such moonlit rites as were practiced there were by teenagers and of a less mysterious sort.  I filled my water bottle from a spring not far away.

And then, just a little way on, I rounded a shoulder of a hill and found myself in the presence of the Great Kitty of Kea.

Archaic Greek lions do not look like our modern great cats.  For one thing, they have no pronounced mane and tend to have a peculiar roundish face.  Every archaic lion that I can think of has these features.  I do not know if they had different great cats in those days, or if their lions had become extinct by the time ancient sculptors were called upon to carve them and they modeled their cats on some older, fanciful, stylized depiction.  Whatever the cause, the Great Lion of Kea, resting couchant, cut from the living stone of the hillside, is one of those peculiar, round-faced cats.

It appears to be a complete mystery.  About six meters long and three tall, perched at an odd angle probably dictated by the natural stone, it is of extreme and uncertain age, unconnected with any known temple or structure, nor to any known cult.  It is just an ancient sculpture of a lion sitting on a hillside on a small island near the mainland of Greece.  I am comfortable with mysteries.  I feel the richer for living in a world where some things are hidden from us.  There is always the risk that the truth will turn out to be boring.

The footpath continued on into the town of Ioulis, a high place that in the old days would have been secure from pirates (who in earlier times had been a serious concern in these islands).  There were some remains of a Venetian castle.  The town had narrow, confusing passageways between the walls of the houses.  Finding myself disoriented, I discovered that to escape the walled maze I could follow the donkey droppings; they would either lead me out of town or to where the animals were kept: when I found myself in due course where the animals were kept I needed only turn around and go the other way to find my way out of the maze.  I was told that this arrangement was to confuse the pirates.  I was also told that the sometimes unfriendly attitude of island people was because of the pirates.  For a while I suspected that my not having hot water at the hotel would somehow also be blamed on the pirates.

The people I met in Ioulis seemed more pleasant than those in the port at Korissia.  It was getting toward evening and I found a ride back to the port. I mentioned to the fellow who gave me the ride that I thought the people in Ioulis had been friendlier than they were in Korissia and he said, yes, that was so.

Monday, June 11, 2012

the next morning at the monastery

The next morning at the monastery of Kastriani on the island of Kea . . .

When I opened my window, I could hear the sounds of the caretaker in the kitchen across the courtyard.  I walked downstairs to the bath house to wash for breakfast.  When I attempted to leave the bath house I found that I could not.

The bath house was a separate building at some distance from the rest.  It had walls of stone and cement almost a meter thick and was perched on a ledge, its only window less than a foot wide and facing out over a cliff.  Its only entrance was a solid wooden door firmly secured by a steel latch.  It was this latch, apparently corroded by salt air, that refused to open to allow my escape.

The high wind of the day before continued unabated, making it impossible to be heard across the courtyard where the caretaker, the only other living person for miles around, puttered away behind the thick stone walls of the kitchen.  If I did not appear for breakfast she would probably assume that I had left early and would have no particular reason to check the bath house.

But I am a resourceful traveler and prepared for such things, and with my Swiss Army Knife I quickly took apart the latch and let myself out, confirming my long-held belief that there are few problems in the life of a traveler that cannot be solved  --  or at least considerably ameliorated  --  by a Swiss Army Knife.

I crossed over to the refectory for breakfast.  As I was sure my Greek would be inadequate to the task, I did not attempt to explain to the caretaker what had happened to me since I had last seen her.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

on the Island of Kea

The island of Kea lies to the east of the Attic peninsula, not far from Athens, and is reached by boat from the port of Lavrio.  Like so many of the islands, Kea had been losing population as people moved to the mainland in search of employment, while wealthy Athenians came to the island to buy land cheaply for vacation homes, a circumstance that did nothing to sweeten the disposition of the islanders, who had by the time of my arrival had acquired a reputation for unfriendliness.

After several days of low-level surliness around the port, I took up my backpack and walking stick and set off east, across the rocky island to a monastery I had read about.  In late afternoon, after a long day’s walk, I found myself on a desolate crag jutting out into the Greek Sea, at the Monastery of Kastriani.

I rang the bell at the gate and was admitted by an old Greek woman who was apparently the cook and caretaker, the monks being off on some monkish business.

After showing me to a room she fixed supper for me in the bright, tiled refectory, its thick walls decorated with religious pictures and old copperware, and its windows with cheerful curtains, and I remember thinking that monkish life didn’t look all that bad.  Afterward, she explained to me that she would be returning home for the evening and would be turning off the generator when she left, all of which sounded to me quite charming.

My room was properly monastic, with bare cement walls and a wooden plank door.  The bed was a low cot and there was a kerosene lamp on the table beside it.  I hung my clothes on a peg and sat on the bed with my copy of The Iliad and thought to myself how delightfully Greek the whole thing was.

About nine o’clock the power went off and I heard the heavy iron gate clang shut as the caretaker left for home.  I now had the monastery entirely to my self.

There had been a high wind all day, the weather still being cold and blustery.  People who visit Greece only in the summer think of it as a hot place, but it can be quite cold even into early spring.  The high winds rattled the window panes and shook the thin plank door of my room and made strange noises in the monastery that I had not heard when it was light.  The warm, friendly glow of the kerosene lamp beside my bed seemed to quiver and dim, as if an unseen door had been opened.  From my window I could not see the light of any human habitation.

In this lonely and melodramatic setting I thought of something I probably ought not have thought about.  I thought about vampires.

I knew that vampires were part of Greek folk tradition.  They are called Vrykólakas.  Lawrence Durrell described how, on Crete, he was present at the exhumation of a suspected vampire and how they found the body, though long buried, looked fresh and living, as vampires are well-known to be.

In Crete, I knew, there was a tradition of vampires, but I had read of nothing on these islands so close to Athens.  But sheep and goats do disappear.  Perhaps they fall off a cliff and are carried out to sea, or perhaps not.

It should be no surprise that in the isolated mountains of Greece a belief in werewolves and vampires might take hold and flourish.  With no light but wood fires or the pale glow of oil wicks it is very dark on a moonless Greek night, and even under a full moon the rocks and bushes seem alive with strange shapes and ominous suggestion.  And always one heard of people who had gone out at night onto familiar ground and never seen alive again.

But from my own experience I had concluded that God had often gone to great personal inconvenience to keep me safe, and I was sure that it could not have simply been to bring me to this desolate rock in the Greek Sea, that I might be fed to a vampire.  But if it was, it was a fine joke and I should enjoy it.  So I blew out my lamp and drifted off into untroubled sleep.

I was not unduly surprised to awake alive the next morning.