A Greece to Be Discovered

Not far from the tourist-trammeled ruins of antiquity are monasteries in the sky, pirate coasts, and friendly islands
More

FEW places on earth rival Greece when it comes to numbers of historic sites -- or tourists. Often travelers arriving with lofty expectations of Mediterranean ease and Hellenic splendor depart complaining of indifferent service and of hordes of package-tour vacationers traipsing dusty circles around the ruins, bumping into one another and excusing themselves in a babble of French, German, and English. This disappointment may be traced in part to the crowd-drawing grandeur of Greece's ancient past and its marbled legacy of temples and agoras, and in part to the much-advertised beaches and nightlife of the islands, which in the summer months seem to attract half of northern Europe. As a result, the Greece of rugged mountains, solitary islands, and regal hosts -- though in fact nearby -- can feel as remote as Homer's Troy or as mythical as Atlantis.
Much of the less-trammeled Greece belongs to an era many Westerners know little about: the post-Hellenic Byzantine and Ottoman centuries that gave birth to what has come to be known in Modern Greek as Romiosyne (from reference to Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire's capital, as "the second Rome"). This "Romaic" Greece is historically Orthodox Christian, not pagan, with a heritage of monasteries and barrel-roofed churches, black-garbed widows, a lamb-and-pita cuisine savoring of the Middle East, and a language rich in Turkish and Italian borrowings. Because the Romaic aspect of Greek


The Convent of Saint Varvara RoussanouThe Convent of Saint Varvara Roussanou
 

history is less celebrated than the legacy of the ancients, Romaic sights draw fewer visitors, and the people living near them tend to be unjaded, and even disarmingly hospitable.

When the classical Greece of Athens and the Peloponnese declined, power shifted away from the south and finally found its locus in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Many Romaic sights, therefore, including the cloud-encircled Meteora monasteries, are located in the north of the country. Others dot the peripheries -- the hauntingly desolate Mani peninsula, once the domain of pirates, was, until the digging of the Corinth canal, the southernmost point of mainland Europe. Romiosyne's culture lives on as well, and often does so within a short ferry hop from Aegean tourist meccas -- the Isle of Folegandros, for example, has determinedly preserved its time-honored feasting traditions.

Visits to the Romaic enclaves described below may be the focus of a tour or be combined with travels elsewhere in the Hellenic peninsula. Almost nowhere in Greece is truly remote -- the country is relatively small, about the size of Alabama, and well-established bus and ferry networks cover all destinations. Away from resort areas expect accommodations to be basic but clean. Off-season $50 a day per person will suffice for meals and comfortable lodging in family-run hotels (in-season costs are about 20 percent more). In the smaller towns and villages well-maintained private rooms with bath may be found through local cafés, or by following the ROOMS signs that are often posted on the central square. For maps, prices, and detailed descriptions of what you will encounter off the beaten track, I would recommend or the guide. You may also wish to be in touch with the Greek National Tourist Organization, in New York, to obtain illustrated brochures and more information: the number is 212-421-5777.

IN the central region of Thessaly, about a five-hour drive northwest of Athens, rise the aptly named Meteora -- slate-gray cones and buttelike outcroppings reaching as high as 2,000 feet. They appear in their crookedness to be staggering, as if fatigued from surviving eons of tectonic tumult. The rocks themselves might merit a visit for their curiosity value, but the Byzantine monasteries that top them have made them one of Romaic Greece's most spectacular sights. Though monks seeking respite from temporal woes began establishing themselves in sketes, or retreats, on lesser peaks in the tenth century, legend has it that the first anchorite to reach the highest summit -- that of the Great Meteoron -- to found a proper monastery did so on the back of an eagle in 1340. Within 200 years twenty-four idiorrhythmic, or self-governing, monasteries crowned the Meteora. By that time all of the Byzantine Empire had fallen to the Turks, but in keeping with Islamic tolerance of monotheistic faiths, the sultans permitted these religious communities to thrive. Today six monasteries (including two convents) are still functioning and may be visited, using either the town of Kalambaka or the village of Kastraki as a base. I found the two described below the most impressive.

Although a paved road dips, rises, and loops its way amid the rocks, to taste their renowned solitude I decided to hike the three-mile trail from Kastraki to the Great Meteoron. After passing the Monastery of Saint Nikolaos, the path wended upward into the brush-cluttered crevasse between the Great Meteoron and the rock of Saint Varlaam's Monastery. Wisps of morning mist drifted about the chasm walls, which billowed skyward, convex and lichen-mottled; ravens croaked and falcons screeched as they flitted across the divide above. I sensed the almost empyrean isolation afforded by the rocks, the spiritual treasure sought by the monks.

A half hour later I stood breathless in the loggia of the Monastery of the Great Meteoron (a steep stone staircase now leads from the base of the rock to the top, obviating the dubious rope-and-pulley windlass by which monks, dangling over the chasm, were formerly lifted aboard). Several Montenegrin pilgrims joined me, and we entered the adjacent church together. Fearful of disturbing them, I took a seat in one of the oaken miserere-stalls in the back while they walked to the head of the katholikon, which glowed with the halos of saints on Byzantine frescoes. From the cupola's ceiling a gilt Pandokrator (Christ the Almighty) stared down. Crossing themselves, the pilgrims kissed the three icons beneath the iconostasis. Then they lit tapers for loved ones lost and said a prayer, and we all walked out. After this we visited the charnel house -- a dim vault containing the bones of monks who had served in the Great Meteoron -- and the ancient, soot-blackened kitchen as well. The pilgrims' awe before their Orthodox relics rubbed off on me, and we wandered around the monastery for an hour uttering not a word.

The Convent of Saint Varvara Roussanou (on a lower spindle of rock across the valley from Saint Varlaam's) possesses frescoes of martyrdom that deserve special attention. A peaceable sister there leads visitors into the narthex beside the chapel and leaves them before ceiling-high depictions of Christians suffering death by caning, quartering, stone-crushing, horse-dragging, throat-slitting, and burning. What stands out particularly, however, is the decapitations, which are shown effected by saws, swords, daggers, and axes, with each martyr's gold-nimbused head rolling away from its neck stump, its face serene with the surety of coming beatitude. One can imagine the nuns of the past contemplating the gore and finding it perfectly mundane; in the village below, the Ottomans meted out similar punishments to Greeks fighting for the glory and freedom of Romiosyne.

The monasteries of Meteora constitute some of the greatest attractions of Romiosyne, but keep in mind that they are functioning places of worship and dress accordingly: women should wear long skirts, men long pants, and both sexes should cover their arms at least to the elbows. It is best to visit in the morning, when you may be nearly alone; in the afternoon buses filled with Orthodox pilgrims from the Slavic countries to the north come rolling in.

FAR to the south of Meteora, and seemingly worlds away from fertile Thessaly, lies an arid, windswept finger of land that only in the nineteenth century emerged from the Middle Ages: the peninsula of Mani, in the

Peloponnese. With its jagged mountains, chasms choked with thorn and cactus, and fierce-browed people, Mani little resembles the rest of mainland Greece. There is reason for this: Maniots are descended not from the renowned Hellenes but from their rivals, the grim and martial Spartans. When Greek territory began suffering barbarian incursions in the third century, some Spartans fled to the stony fastnesses of the peninsula to the south, and there they remained, isolated and determined to fend off intruders. Today it is a point of pride with Maniots to deny that their land ever fell to the Turks (Maniot lords kept their autonomy in return for paying tribute to Ottoman authorities), and many enjoy miming, with florid thrusts and handchops, the butchering their ancestors wrought on the sultans' troops during attempted invasions.

The first paved road was laid only in the 1970s. If, since then, Mani has gradually opened up to the world, its architecture, shot through with the spirit of the vendetta, still bespeaks the traditions of medievalism. Tumbledown and sibilant with

Aegean winds, outfitted with windows scarcely wider than a rifle barrel, sentrylike stone towers unique to Mani dominate villages at the roadside and beyond. These towers served as fortifications, and from them families engaged in feuds that often lasted generations.

High above the harbor of Yerolimin, in the village of Keria, I listened to Nikos, a Mani native in his late twenties, talk of his people's past penchant for revenge. We were standing, appropriately, on the lookout platform of his family's 300-year-old tower.

"My grandfather killed a man, and a feud began, and the families took to their towers," Nikos said. "He had to flee -- he made it to Smyrna, where he lived for thirty years. He married there, but finally came back to Mani when things settled."

Later we sat down to a lunch of lamb, fresh feta, and lentil soup in the rose-lined stone sanctuary of the courtyard below.

"Of course, we Maniots never killed women in our feuds," Nikos

said. "Only sons. The idea was to kill off as many sons as possible. But really, the lack of farmland motivated the feuding. Mani's soil is so dry and rocky that it was tough to find plots to grow food on."

Soon Nikos was holding forth on the sources of regional pride and identity: the pure Greek blood of the Maniots, their devotion to the Orthodox faith, and their boundless hospitality to foreigners (in whose numbers he included non-Maniot Greeks). Even Mani's tomatoes, he said, were special, since no pollutants sullied the soil in which they grew. When I remarked that I had seen surprisingly little fish on the restaurant menus of Yerolimin, he laughed and said with a winking hint of disdain, "We Maniots were pirates, not fishermen! What fish we ate we stole from others."

Mani is ideal for those seeking the brooding silence of the towers and former pirate coasts. The castlelike village of Vathia, perched on a crag high above the sea, makes a good place to start to savor both. In addition, Byzantine churches, many of which I was unable to find so much as mentioned in guidebooks, dot the rocky slopes of the Saggias and Taiyettos Mountains, the geological spines of the peninsula. Visitors can hike about and make their own discoveries -- a rare treat in a country so canvassed and excavated.

"THE Isles of Greece! The Isles of Greece!" Byron wrote, apparently certain that this simple exclamatory lead would draw readers into Canto Three of Don Juan. Pentametered by Homer, lyricized by Sappho, promoted by travel agencies the world over, the approximately 1,400 islands bejeweling

Greece's seas compose an airy haven of rock, sunlight, warm tides, and, unfortunately, crowds of tourists that in high season can easily outnumber the locals. Yet Folegandros, in the Cyclades, thanks to its size, has avoided commercialization and retained its own traditions. Between its two main villages, Khora and Ano Meria, it has only 650 people, and should you arrive on Folegandros during a festival, you can expect to be invited to join in the fêting. Daily ferries to the island from Piraeus take about nine hours, but it can be reached in about two from nearby Santorini or Ios. I traveled to Folegandros for peace and quiet, but as my ferry drew into the tiny port of Karavostassi, I heard gunfire. "It's Easter week," the woman next to me on deck explained. "Happy Easter!"

Indeed.

For this one week, she told me, the local people dispense with the serenity that characterizes their lives and participate in rites whose booms and bangs reach every corner of their island.

On Easter Sunday in Khora I found myself the guest of Stratos, a hotelier, and his Polish wife, Anna. In front of us a goat roasted on a spit over a pit of coals. The entire village was buzzing with preparations for the feast, the grandest of the Orthodox calendar, but Stratos's other guest, Achilles, an aged, three-toothed peddler of eggs, had begun honoring the occasion earlier than most with copious paschal doses of ouzo. An hour later we moved to the wooden table in the courtyard and piled our plates high with slabs of roast goat. Achilles gummed a toast to the beauty of Polish women, Stratos topped off my glass with pine-resin retsina wine, and we dug in.

After lunch the priest, a plump figure of pomp in black raiments, accompanied by two aides shouldering the village icon, a sonorous chanter of litanies swinging a thurible, and a coterie of notables, emerged from the church on the mount above Khora to make rounds administering the annual blessing on each household. I followed the procession down into the village's alleys, which were freshly whitewashed and scattered with purple judas blossoms. As the entourage approached a doorway, the youths of the house raced to the roof, raised shotguns, and fired salvos into the sky. The crowd expanded, and as each house irrigated the guests with raki, the revelers grew more and more (religiously) boisterous. This was vintage Romiosyne -- shotgun blasts signaling a defiant zest for life, the scent of gunpowder mingling with incense and the aroma of flowers.

("Christ is risen from the dead"), the chanter intoned in a bass voice as the procession moved along. That evening villagers turned out for the paseo in their Sunday best, and the air rang with "Khristos anesti!"


At every turn I was invited into houses by proud hosts who had laid out pies, nuts, and sweetmeats, and bottles of raki. The feasting lasted all day and late into the night, as did the shotgun fire. Still flushed with holiday cheer, I left Folegandros a few days later feeling resurrected myself. That feeling is the principal joy of discovering Romaic Greece, a Greece that lives on and renews itself still in the long shadow of its classical past.


Jeffrey Tayler is a writer who lives in Moscow.


Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; A Greece to Be Discovered; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 40-45.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In