Return to the Table of Contents.
J A N U A R Y 1 9 9 8
by Jeffrey Tayler
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.
Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post &
More Atlantic articles by Jeffrey Tayler:
"One of the last tourists to take a barge up the Congo River had arrived, but dead of malaria."
"A dispatch from eastern Siberia, a realm of steel-shattering cold, nullifying vastness, and withered hopes, which is sometimes called 'the white hell.'"
"This part of the world isn't just for Dracula buffs."
"In the new Russia making yourself at home is still no easy task."
Atlantic Unbound dispatches by Jeffrey Tayler:
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
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 Greece -- The Rough Guideor the Lonely Planet 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
"Khristos anesti ek nekron" ("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
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; A Greece to Be Discovered; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 40-45.