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Barran J.N. (1901) In Southern Greece. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 1 Number 3: pp202-212. Leeds: YRC

In Southern Greece.

By J. N. Barran.

Yorkshire and other northern ramblers are drawn first and chiefly, by a natural instinct, to northern rambling grounds. They turn more readily to Norway than to the Pyrenees. Switzerland itself, lying in mid Europe, attracts them by virtue of its northern, rather than its southern qualities.  And for this reason a country wholly and unmistakably southern, such as Greece, must clearly be reckoned among the byways little thought of and little trodden by northern travellers. Yet this journal does not close its pages to places outside its immediate range, and it is the purpose of this paper to invite its readers for a short time to a country five days' journey removed from our own, differing from it in most important features, poor in money, bare in landscape, and yet by very force of contrast rich in its own peculiar and varied charms.

Not that Greece is without claims to be a climbers' country. Taygetus, near Sparta, and Parnassus, each of them some 8,000 feet high, are snow-clad for half the year round, and would certainly repay the time spent on them, which I was not able to give. But its main attractions lie, of course, in its antiquities, its history, and its people. Hoary ruins of all types and ages, some of them dating back to 1500 years B.C. ; scenes and places where, in a fine phrase coined 19 centuries  ago , "you tread upon history at every step"; and a peasantry interesting as a heritage of the past and a study of the present day. Greece is essentially a land of sentiment ; and if you are to enjoy it and enter fully into its spirit you must be sentimental accordingly.

I have said that I had no time for mountain climbing. Travelling is in fact slow enough in Greece without all those artificial difficulties which it is the climber's delight so often to create for his own conquest. There are railways, but they are few, and the trains as a means of getting about slow to a degree. On most lines there are perhaps two trains in a day. Each stops, of course, at every station, and none of your hurried stoppages, but a leisurely four or five, or even ten minutes, during which passengers alight, the wine shop is thrown open, hawkers appear with all sorts of wares from sponges to live turkeys, and the station becomes the parade and conversazione ground of the village. Finally the guard blows a penny trumpet, the engine answers languidly after an interval, and then the train moves off, with a sprinkling of villagers still hanging on to bid their good-bye. All this was most entertaining as a study in life and manners; but it did not tend to quick travelling in a land of single lines, frequent curves, and steep gradients.

There are also roads. These likewise are few and bad: and though new are being made and the old improved, it will be long before Greece is a good driving country. Its very mountainous nature is against this, and throws the traveller back on the last resource of mules (or ponies) and mule-tracks for the greater part of his journeying. The mules and ponies are even more skilled than their fellows in Switzerland and Italy, for the going is mostly far worse : it is a study to see them, shod over the whole hoof with flat metal shoes, picking their way over the rockiest paths at fearful angles, with a load of 2 or 3 cwt. on their backs. One of these little beasts was provided for me. I had not the heart to ride much, but I did so at times to see how he would manage, and also because I found that when I was off my muleteer (a lazy fellow) was nearly always on.

Such are the laws of motion in Greece. The laws of living are no more advanced. Athens alone has hotels which we should regard as first-class. Some four or five other places - the number is increasing - have "Xenodocheia" worthy to be called "inns."  For the rest the traveller depends on his own provision.  At the village where he stops for the night he can probably get the spare room in the house of a village magnate. I say the "spare" room, but he is fortunate if it is really "spare", and if his arrival has not been forestalled by certain other guests who are like him only in that they are carnivorous, and who are as hard to eject as they are unwelcome. But in a southern country he must not be too thin-skinned. He will, if he is wise, take his own truckle-bed and bedding, towels, basins, and anything else which comfort may suggest. There are many monasteries in Greece, and the monks are courteous and friendly, and will provide as a village does: but the quality is much the same, and monastery and village alike are innocent of drains, and their windows innocent of glass. In the matter of food, the absolute necessaries are always to be had, and eggs, bread, and wine are almost uniformly good ; beyond this you are safest when you are independent. Greek wine, by a curious habit, is flavoured more or less strongly with resin ; this makes it healthy and preserves it : at the first blush it is like furniture polish, but it is not difficult to drink it when there is no choice, and even to end, as I did, in liking it very much.

Armed, then, with an equipment suited to the country and its conditions, I started out from Athens in the first week of April. My companion was a Fellow of an Oxford college : and our object was to work round the Peloponnese, or Morea, going the way of the sun. We engaged a cook-courier, Themistocles by name ; we bargained each to pay a certain sum per diem, and he  was to provide all luggage and food, cook our meals, hire our mules, engage our lodgings, and generally do the lighting work in those thousand and one encounters, whether of purse or tongue, which are bound to follow when Greek meets Greek. And of Themistocles I must in justice say that he was a capital cook, and cheated us probably a good deal less than other couriers would have done; we came safely through and parted the best of friends. Our medium of conversation was French, but hardly that of the best Parisian circles.

April is par excellence the month for travelling in Southern Greece. In March the rainy season is hardly over, the streams are in flood, and the weather very fickle. In May the sun has gained too great power, and the valleys are either swept by hot, dusty winds or baked in the burning heat. But in April everything is fresh: the spring-cleaning of the country is done, the little vines are sending out their first vivid shoots, trees, shrubs, and grass all have on their brightest tints of green: and, above all, it is the season of the wild flowers, which provide a feast of colour in a country where cultivated gardens are not to be seen.

 A glance at a map will show the outline of our course: down the east side of the Peloponnese, across the bottom, up the west side, and back along the north coast. From Athens the railway took us winding along the coast, overlooking, and sometimes almost overhanging, the blue waters of the Saronic Gulf, to the Isthmus of Corinth. Everyone who has seen the Mediterranean, knows that blue, and how it melts in indescribable shades, deeper and richer, from the shallows into the open sea. Corinth is a meagre little place some three miles from the old city: an entirely new creation whose days of greatness are perhaps to come, for the Isthmus Canal, begun by the Emperor Nero, has recently been finished after I,800 years by a French Company - a straight cut three miles long from sea to sea. The whole Isthmus is commanded by the Acrocorinthus, the citadel of old Corinth, a line and conspicuous rock-mountain : and under its shadow stand the seven columns of the old Temple, built in the sixth century, B.C., which by the irony of fate have seen the city rise, flourish, and decay, and now survive alone of it all above ground.

From Corinth, again, southwards through high mountain country the train brought us down into the plain of Argolis. In this plain, the earliest settled part of Greece, lie the ruins of Mycenae and Tiryns, fortresses famous in legend, prehistoric in age, and even now commanding our admiring wonder by their rugged and massive walls. Of Tiryns, an old Greek topographer says that two mules could not move the smallest of the stones of which it is built. Here you live in an atmosphere of 1500, B.C., tempered by the train which brings you and the newspaper in which your lunch is wrapped. I sat on the walls of Tiryns, piled by the legendary hand of giants, and round me friendly and inquisitive lizards winked and basked in the sun - a strange contrast of old and new.

Nauplia lies on the coast at the foot of this Argive plain, and makes part of a view which has been widely and justly praised as one of the finest which Europe can boas t- blue sea, green plain, and mountain ranges behind, all in brilliant grouping. Here we slept, and the next day brought us to Tripolitza, the end of the railway and the heart of the most hilly part of the Peloponnese. Tripolitza is a brisk little town, devoted largely to the making of crimson leather shoes, turned up at the toe and tipped with a ball of the same colour. These shoes are part of the national costume which we saw abundantly worn - I am glad to say - by the peasantry in these parts. It is a picturesque dress : a frilled white linen shirt, over this a zouave jacket of blue or buff cloth, sometimes elaborately embroidered, long gaiters of the same stuff rising from these crimson shoes as high as the knee, and, to complete, a white linen kilt which, if fresh and well starched, stands out like the skirts of a ballet dancer. This hardly sounds like a work-a-day costume ; and its wearer will too often blend parts of it, in grotesque and unabashed combination, with the seediest of European clothes, while the costume in its perfection tends rather to be limited to festal occasions. The dress of the women is southern in type and full of colour, but to the layman's eye less distinctive than that of the men.

At Tripolitza we bought snuff - useful to make or cement wayside acquaintances - and leaving it next morning said good-bye to railways and hotels, and came down in a long day's drive to Sparta. The valley of the Eurotas, in which Sparta lies, is rich and beautiful : all the plain is covered with mulberry and olive trees, and behind rises the broken and snowy range of Taygetus. The town is prosperous and shows no sign of the "Spartan" rigour for which it was once famous : the Spartans of old forbad themselves silk, the Spartans of to-day make it. Our sleeping-place was to be an old monastery in the deserted village of Mistra, which , is perched on a flank of Taygetus, 300 feet above the valley. This place was once the principal fortress of the Franks when they held Greece : afterwards the Venetians, then the Turks, held it : and now in consequence it is a perfect wilderness of ruined forts, palaces, and churches in all styles of building, the whole thickly sprinkled with bright wild flowers and creepers, and presenting an entrancing scene as we approached it in the evening light. We would gladly have spent time here ; but must go on next morning at six o'clock, after spending the night in bare but clean quarters, provided by the old priest, who alone carries on the service of the monastery and church; his wife and daughter make the congregation. This old man has the care of two other little shrines, which he showed us with pathetic pride: they are in a state of sad decay, covered with rich and heavily-gilt frescoes, which are in many places peeling from the roof and walls, and lie unswept on the floor.

Our road now lay westward over the Langada Pass, which cuts the range of Taygetus. The air was full of rain and thunder: but we packed our baggage on muleback, and started off. The pass is long, very narrow, and very grand : and the effect was increased by a storm of rain, lightning, and hail, which raged over us for an hour or more. At a "khan " or shepherd's hut near the top we got shelter and a wood fire: here we sat drying while Themistocles cooked us an omelette, and the drivers drank wine and sang comic songs in the minor key - then on in finer weather and down in the evening to a hill-village, where we were unexpectedly to sleep. The house was that of a village magnate, an ex-mayor : he had one principal bedroom, and that not clean. But we were made welcome: the family cock was killed in our honour, and the family itself laid itself out in various ways to make us at home. The daughter was a fine strapping girl, who, after getting through the household work, showed a simple and artless curiosity in, our dressing operations and the contents of our bags.[1]

The next day brought us across the wide Messenian plain, which was burning hot; we passed through Kalamata, the port, and made up westwards to another monastery, Vourkano, which is inhabited and lies in a snug corner under Mount Ithome. It is a pretty spot, and commands a magnificent view: behind the buildings is a little pine wood full of springs, and a green pasture or two - the most English place which I had seen as yet, and pleasant, accordingly, to the eye. These inhabited monasteries have regular guest-rooms, and receive their guests formally; no one may be taken in after sun-down. It was just now the monks' fasting-time before Easter: they must have sniffed wistfully, I think, at the dinner which Themistocles improvised for us, as they sat about smoking cigarettes and munching an occasional onion. I have no space to speak of the religion of the Greeks, but this I must say, that it is absolutely national in spirit: before Easter the whole nation fasts, not individuals only, and at Easter the whole nation rejoices and makes holiday.

Mount Ithome, which rises steep and bare behind the monastery, played a large part in Greek history, and later had a monastery on its summit 2,600 feet high: we climbed it next morning and dropped down on the far side to the ruins of a fourth-century, B.C., fortress town, whose massive walls and gateways are among the finest of their sort now extant. Thence northward to the head of the plain, where we slept before breasting the mountainous highlands again. I was struck here particularly (though everywhere to some extent) by the amount of clothes-washing to be seen: wherever we went, it was washing-day, and the women were busy, bare-footed, at every well and stream. If a rough division of the nations of the earth may be made between those who wash their clothes but not themselves, and those who wash themselves but not their clothes, the Greeks may be placed with confidence in the former class.

Our object now was to see a ruined temple hidden away among the lonely hills: so hard to find that for centuries only the shepherds knew it, but in its day a temple of Apollo and a great religious centre. After five hours' going we were guided to it by a small goatherd boy, over the barest, roughest, and steepest hill sides which I can recall: but the spot well repays the labour of finding it, and the shattered columns are made the more impressive by the solitude and desolation which surround them in their decay. That night we slept at another hill-village, and after one more long and trying day over beautiful upland country we reached Olympia, and so came back to hotels, the railway, and - comparatively speaking  civilisation. The hotel, it is true, was first-class in prices alone, and an earthquake disturbed us at 6 a.m.: but it was a relief to sleep in real beds and to hear soda water corks pop (even at 2 fr. the bottle), and we were both glad of the off day which we spent in exploring Olympia. This place is to some extent disappointing. The scenery is attractive, if not striking, and the ruins, uncovered at vast expense, are a forest of ground-plans and fragments: but earthquakes, floods, and the hand of man have done their work so effectively in the past that it requires some imagination to realise that here, in the very Mecca of Greek religion, took place gatherings which drew the whole Greek-speaking world once in every four years, I and combined many of the features of a Church Congress, a Derby Day, and a Leeds Musical Festival.

At Olympia we said good-bye, on the best of terms, to Themistocles and our ponies, and taking train round by the north coast we soon parted ourselves, for my companion went to Athens to catch his boat, while I started out to take my luck for two or three days alone. First I turned up a valley which runs south from the sea near Aigion, to visit the Monastery of Megaspelaeon, the largest of the 199 still inhabited in Greece. This valley is an extremely narrow, deep, and long gorge, running up into the snowy range of Chelmos and torn by its streams: the little mountain railway, which alone gives access to it, dodges from side to side, and presents the finest views; and the scenery, where the cliffs open out, is Alpine - of the best sort - in its character, and second to nothing which I saw in Greece. I met some monks at the station: we made friends over my barometer, and journeyed up together. Their home looks at a distance like a white patch on the great cliff to which it clings - a bunch of buildings with a kitchen garden in front falling away at an angle of 45°: near at hand it is rather dirty, and eloquent of drains which are not. It was still fastingtime, and the larder was accordingly empty : my supper was poached eggs, bread, and coffee, and my breakfast coffee, bread, and poached eggs; but I had a kindly welcome, and would willingly have fared worse for the sake of seeing this romantic corner.

Delphi lies north of the Gulf of Corinth; and Delphi, the seat of Apollo, and second to Olympia alone as a religious centre, I was bound to see. So I came down to the coast, and found a sailing boat just starting across with a cargo of brigandish-looking shepherds. I made my terms, laid in a supply of oranges, and went on board for Itea, the port of Delphi. I was to be there by 6.30 p.m. But the wind dropped, and by evening we had gone hardly a quarter of the way. We landed the peasants at a headland, put in at a village for supper, and so on through the night, which was moon-lit and perfectly calm, the sailors working two clumsy oars, while I, rolled in a rug, either slept or fought the aborigines (not sailors) of the boat. The Gulf of Corinth can be very treacherous, and so perhaps can Greeks; but on this occasion I committed myself to both with entirely good results.

Delphi is splendidly placed on the side of a steep valley, overlooked by Parnassus on the north, and commanding an incomparable view over the plain of Cirrha and the gulf. It is a long and hot climb. The twin peaks of Parnassus (which seemed to promise some lively rock-work) stand out prominent, and between them is the chasm down which Apollo used to roll his thunders. Delphi itself, like Olympia, a collection of temples, treasuries, and porticoes, was till recently buried beneath the modern village; this has been moved, and all the old town admirably brought to light by the French. You can now read inscriptions on the walls, as sharp as on the day they were cut; you can tread the very same zigzag road up which the cars passed to the temple of Apollo; and in the shrine itself you may see the underground vaults in which (Who knows?) the mechanism of the oracle was worked and the mephitic vapours brewed. There is a sort of inn at Delphi where you are well tended by one Paraskevas, reported to me as "the ugliest man in Greece, and the only honest one". The former title I can vouch for to the best of my knowledge. He has a remarkable visitors' book (for such a spot), and in his roll of fame I saw a King or so and scores of great scholars and politicians.

Next day a steamer took me through the Isthmus and back to Athens, and here my diary must close. I passed in Southern Greece as varied and well-filled a fortnight as I could ever wish to spend; and this is only one aspect of the country, for some of the finest scenery is among the islands, and Athens itself is an almost inexhaustible subject. But the object of a paper should be not only to praise, but to raise hopes which will not be disappointed if put to the test. This, though I write admittedly as a partisan, I hope that I may have achieved. Much, no doubt, in Greece depends for its interest on a certain class of study and book-lore; but the book of Nature is also opened there wide and fair, and if the attractions of a fine climate, a genial and friendly peasant folk, and cheap living [2] be thrown into the scale, Greece may claim to be worth a visit from anyone soever who has four or five weeks to spend on a spring holiday. Greece is very poor, yet very generous, for she is too proud to charge 'a sou' for the sight of her most  precious possessions ; she needs the traveller's money, and will repay all that he spends there in full measure and in her own unique coin.

[1] The two sons of this family are in America, and have taken out a bicycle patent : the document was shown to us with proper pride as a proof of what the Greek can do when he exerts himself.

[2] Greek paper money is much depreciated, and 40 drachmae or so, instead of a nominal 25, are to be had for 361. This is important for all products of the country. "Pension" at an excellent Athens hotel is, at the dearest time, only 8 to 10 fr. a day. A courier, for a tour in the wilds, pays all expenses for 25s. to 30s. a day. The journey from London to Athens and back can be done for £25 or so, sometimes less.