A Rough Map of Greece: Bassae

A member of the ATLANTIC’S editorial staff, with a love for antiquity, Phoebe Lou Adams conducted a one-woman exploration of the Greek Islands and the mainland in the spring of the year. We published four of her papers in 1963, and this is the beginning of a new series.

I MET a traveler from an antique land who said, “We never got to Bassae, because the road was out. It seems they had a hard winter.” They did, of course, but it is my recollection that the road to Bassae was none too firmly in even before the snow got at it.

Bassae is not a town but a lone Doric temple perched on a ridge about five miles up in the hills behind Andritsana, which is a town — the western metropolis, in fact, of the old province of Arcadia.

The name Arcadia comes to us blurred by two thousand years of pastoral sentimentality and tends to conjure up visions of Daphnis in point de Venise cuffs, and Amaryllis sporting in the shade and gauze petticoats. Greek Arcadia is, and always was, a high, tough, craggy labyrinth of ridges in the central Peloponnese, so completely cut off from the sea that the Arcadians who fought at Troy had to be transported in ships lent by Agamemnon. Before romantic northern poets prettified the place, these highlands were the haunts of satyrs, monsters, evil spirits, bandits, and a notably belligerent and uncooperative citizenry. Satyrs and such are long gone, but the other Arcadian conditions have persisted into modern times despite the efforts of Romans, Byzantines, Franks, and Turks.

Pausanius, circling around Arcadia in the second century, recorded a great number of ruined sanctuaries and deserted towns, for the Arcadians kept changing sides in the various Greek wars, allying themselves now with Athens, now with Thebes, and once, in a small way, with their old enemies from Lacedaemon. Thanks to this feckless trimming, they usually wound up with the short end of the loot when peace set in. Their last great enterprise had been the establishment of the city of Megalopolis, as Pausanius tells it, “with the utmost enthusiasm amidst the highest hopes of the Greeks.” The place was designed to be a consolidation of strength and a bastion against Sparta, and towns were emptied to populate it, and temples denuded to ornament the new city. Then Philip of Macedon came down from the north, flattening Arcadians and Spartans alike. By Pausanius’ time, Megalopolis had “lost all its beauty and its old prosperity, being today for the most part in ruins. I am not in the least surprised,” he goes on, indulging a taste for melancholy moralizing, “for Mycenae, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan war, and Nineveh, where was the royal palace of the Assyrians, are utterly ruined and desolate. . . . At Babylon the sanctuary of Belus still is left, but of the Babylon that was the greatest city of its time under the sun nothing remains but the wall.”

Undeterred by dilapidation, Pausanius made his base in Megalopolis and methodically covered the surrounding country. His system was to start with a market town where several roads met, and work out along each route, describing points of interest by the way. When the road went dead or crossed a frontier, Pausanius returned to town and tried the next one. This star pattern makes his path hard to follow, and I will not argue with anyone who claims I do not know precisely where Pausanius went. He himself says plainly, however, that he went up to the town of Phigalia, “surrounded by mountains,” on one of which “is a place called Bassae. and the temple of Apollo the Helper, which, including the roof, is of stone.”

Pausanius had a high opinion of this temple, considering it the second finest in the entire Peloponnese (the finest was at Tcgea) for the beauty of its stone and the harmony of its proportions. He explains that Apollo the Helper was so named because he had saved the Phigalians from the plague, for which they, in gratitude, had given the god a fine new temple. The architect was Ictinus, who “built for the Athenians what is called the Parthenon.”

Bassae was built, then, in the time of Pericles, and when Pausanius (he must surely have ridden — no man could have come by cart without complaint) jogged by live hundred and fifty years later, it still stood intact. The statue of the god, though, had been carried away to adorn the new, already withering city of Megalopolis.

THE passed, names changed, the old gods died, and Bassae was forgotten until the eighteenth century, when a French architect named Bocher, poking about in the vicinity of the modern town of Andritsana, came upon the battered gray skeleton of a temple. Although earthquakes and weather had twisted some of the columns, and parts of the stonework, with roof slabs and pieces of ornament, lay scattered in the grass, most of the building was quite obviously still there somewhere. Bocher must have been wild with excitement and delight, but it was an unlucky find. He rushed out to report his discovery, and when he came back for another look at it, he was murdered by bandits.

Bocher had been working on the island of Zante, off the northwest corner of the Peloponnese, and presumably he reached Andritsana by traveling southeast, through Olympia, which can still be done. I drove up from Megalopolis, more or less by Pausanius’ route. I met no bandits, but in other respects I believe the road has changed very little since 1765.

Megalopolis, still carrying its grandiose name, is an ordinary Peloponnesian market town, a closepacked huddle of low white buildings and dusty streets, smacked across the main south highway. The road to Andritsana turned off to the northwest, crawled through a street market running heavily to boots and slippers, and quickly left town to become a single-lane gravel track, ft was a good gravel track, level, devoid of large stones, and even graded here and there. The Greek electrical company, with a stubby green truck and a crew of fifteen or twenty men, was stringing wire alongside it. The men wore trousers and mustaches, plus an occasional hat. Their bare shoulders were sunburned to a dark, shimmering amber brown, and they looked extremely industrious, but all stopped work to wave cordially at the car. It was probably the only vehicle they’d seen in hours. Altogether, things seemed quite civilized, and I began to compose the speech I would make to the friends in Athens who had issued hideous warnings about the Bassae road.

“The trouble is,” I was explaining over imaginary ouzo, “you go to the States and travel on superhighways because only a local knows how to get off them. Then you come home with the idea that Americans cannot endure any road except a superhighway. This road here is no worse than dozens of back roads at home” — except, I realized abruptly, that at home one has some idea of the lie of the land. At the moment, I was confronting a junction. One pale gravelly track went left and the other went right, and there was nothing to distinguish them except a sign naming a town that wasn’t on the map.

While I considered this problem, a wild rattling and hooting arose behind me. It was the small, fat electrical truck with what appeared to be the entire wire crew, plus tools, festooned precariously upon it. The men roared in chorus, “Andritsana?", and when I shouted yes, they pointed as one to the left. I thanked them and drove on, and in the mirror saw the truck take the other road. It bounced off toward the unmapped town, rocking uphill in a cloud of silvery dust. I was sorry to see it go. The road ahead looked so empty.

It continued to be a good dirt road, however, rolling discreetly around the edges of empty pastures and cropped grainfields and following along the base of a line of hills with humped spines that suggested a pack of sleeping dinosaurs. The white gravel threw up so many formless, wavering flashes of light in the sun that the first pothole nearly took me by surprise.

Another kilometer, and potholes had become the normal way of life. The soft reptilian hills hardened and sprouted stony crests. A river appeared, and the road began to climb. It went up the side of the gorge in a series of zigzags designed for the convenience of horses. I was too busy with the wheel, the shift, and the horn to pay much attention to scenery, but trees seemed to be sliding away from the right window at an unlikely angle.

At the top of the climb, the road widened, and I pulled over and stopped, avoiding a small crevasse that had eaten its way into the outer edge of the terrace. There was no fence. There rarely is a fence in Greece, but invisible demons do not generally gnaw pieces out of the roadside.

The view from this place was magnificent. On one side of the road, the rock wall rose straight over my head, covered with clumps of flowers and small ferns and flickering with drops of water oozing from the cliff. Above the cut grew round-topped darkgreen trees, and above them bald rock glittered against the sky. Ahead, the whole valley of the Alpheus widened like a great funnel, its sides dropping from light-struck crags to round green trees to the road to gray cliff to little terraced fields like paddies to larger open fields to the narrow ferngreen ribbon of the river looped among gray trees the size of moss tufts. A white farmhouse, as big as a sugar cube, sat under a tree. There was not another building to be seen, not a person nor an animal. The roadside grass rasped in the breeze, and water from the cliff plunked gently on the gravel.

In that high, dustless air every leaf glittered with its own spark of sunlight. I stepped sidewise to get a better view of the house below, which had behind it a round threshing floor covered with yellow straw, and created a terrible racket. A couple of quarts of dirt detached themselves from the edge of the road and went roaring and rattling on their way to the river. It seemed as though they must fall straight into the largest pool, but I did not wait for the splash.

Around the next turn I observed, with pleasure, that repairs were under way. A large machine and two trucks were parked alongside the precipice edge, and the road had been widened to accommodate two cars abreast. This condition lasted around two more turns, and then things shrank back to potholes and ruts, plus a succession of miniature streams that sprang out of the cliffsidc as though from little hydrants, burbled prettily across the road, and fell glittering into the valley. These natural fountains, which account for the famous greenery of Arcadia, are delightful to look at, but they cut cracks in the road and also provided a fine skidding surface, for there was a high percentage of clay in the roadbed. On the valley side, the cracks tended to become gaps and even fissures, and I hugged the cliff with passion. The tracks of previous vehicles indicated that everybody, including the road crew, shared my belief that rocks falling from the cliff above were less likely than total collapse of the outer rim of the road.

The astute reader will realize that none of the road conditions I have described warrants a state of terror, but I was close to it nonetheless. The bad driving was merely a nuisance, preventing me from looking at the swirling kaleidoscope of trees, rock, valley, and fields, but the prospect of meeting another car was a steady torture. Damocles’ sword on a frayed string could be no worse. As far as I could see, there simply was not room to pass another machine except at the official pull-overs. These appeared on every third lap or so, meaning that between the oases one crept blind around a spur of rock, discovered the road clear to the next spur, advanced at the highest possible speed, honked the horn, waited for a reply, and, on not getting one, crept cautiously around the turn and charged down the next stretch of empty single-lane road. What good all these precautions would accomplish if one found a car or, worse, a highway truck already entrenched on the road ahead. I did not know. Once met headlight to headlight, only two solutions would be available. Either somebody backed around a hairpin turn on the edge of outer space, or the cars passed on the spot, one scraping the rock and the other within inches of that motheaten verge, and each scratching the other’s fenders. As the party on the outside of the road, I was not happy with the prospect.

So far, of course. I had met nobody. I had seen no vehicle except the wire truck, a dusty jeep parked by a fountain where there was plenty of room, and a bicycle-powered ice-cream van. which popped out of an invisible path on one side of the road and scooted down a mule track on the other. This state of things was too good to trust, and when I met a traffic problem at the top of a steep turn. I was relieved that it was no worse.

The problem was an old woman, swathed in black from the crown of her head to the heel of her one visible boot, riding sidesaddle on a long-legged, satin-skinned bay horse. The woman’s face was weathered and wrinkled, but her eyes were large and beautiful and focused on the car with an expression of absolute horror. The horse viewed the machine with contemptuous unconcern. Evidently the animal was not car-shy, but the rider most certainly was.

I turned off the engine and waited while the old lady recovered her courage. The horse twitched its ears and waggled its rump, impatient of pointless delay, and was at last permitted to walk slowly past the alien dragon. The rider flicked a quick sidewise glance at me, and the set of her shoulders said as plainly as words, “A woman driving that devilish contraption. Imagine. What can the world be coming to?”

The road got no better. To be fair, it got worse, what with fallen rock, frayed edges, small streams, mudholes, and parked dump trucks, and the horse traffic increased. The horses of Arcadia are quite different from their kin down along the coast. They are handsome, long-boned creatures, groomed to a high gloss and dressed in severely elegant style, and they carry only one rider, also severely elegant. The coastwise horses are cheerful, chunky, cobby little things which plod briskly along covered with dust and a mixed cargo of farmers, children, tools, and baskets. I met or passed nine horses in the next few miles, and discovered that while neither animals, nor men, nor young women were bothered by the car, old ladies invariably panicked.

KARYTENA loomed up across the valley to the north, a clump of houses clinging to the top of a needle-sharp crag, with the castle of the de Bruyères rearing its battlements above the low tile roofs. The extent to which supposed crusaders infested Greece is demonstrated all across the Peloponnese, which these Franks called the Morea and held by militant squatter’s rights for two centuries.

Somewhere beyond Karytena the road rolled into a nameless little place consisting of one house, one gas station, and a chunk of six-lane highway. This improbable pavement rose out of the dust some fifty yards to the right, crossed my cart path, and proceeded regally over a small rise about one hundred yards to the left. I stopped dead and gawked at it, torn between fear for my sanity (it must be hallucination) and the wild hope that all those trucks and rollers and graders I had passed at their Saturday repose had actually wrought a miracle from here into Andritsana.

A good-looking young man ambled out of the filling station, followed by a sleepy hound. He spoke English with assurance. “You’re going to Andritsana?” I said I was and pointed hopefully toward the new macadam. “Is it possible?” He grinned ruefully and shook his head. “Not a chance. There it is — same old goat track. Andritsana.” The hound wheezed and fell into a snooze. I thanked the man and drove on, and he shouted after me, “But we’ll get it fixed yet.” His voice bounced off the hills in a crackle of incoherent echoes.

The road briefly ran parallel to the macadam, up the same little slope and sharply around a clump of trees. There I stamped on the brake and sat looking down a very steep, short incline to the remains of a bridge. It began and ended as an oldfashioned arched stone structure with high side walls, narrow but negotiable. The middle of it, however, was missing and had been replaced with some kind of girders over which were laid railroad ties complete with rails. The rails had been set on the outer edges of the ties and were, I gathered, intended to deter motorists from wandering through the gap where the bridge walls had fallen out. I had an unnecessarily good view of the gorge beneath this affair. It was hardly thirty feet wide, but deep enough to engulf the Empire State Building with all its top-hamper.

At the other end of the bridge, the road shot up another steep slope to a small plateau where a bevy of construction trucks roosted. They must have been driven across that bridge. If it would support large trucks, it would support a small car. Provided that I kept the thing inside the railroad tracks. I aimed the car at the opposite bank and was happily surprised when I reached it. Halfway across, I had remembered the straw and the camel.

The unspeakable bridge had one great merit. Since nothing but death could be worse, I worried no further about the road, and barged along singing, gazing at the view, and calculating that a fiftyfoot drop into the nearest field would be quite comfortable. I caught up with a man on horseback and his friend on foot. The hiker wore a starched white shirt, a neat dark suit, a bowler hat, and shoes that still showed traces of a city shine. The two flagged me down and introduced themselves. Bowler hat was a schoolteacher in Tripolis, on his way to pay a weekend visit to his native village. Would I give him a lift? I could hardly refuse.

Conversation was not exactly easy, but I learned that the teacher worked hard for low pay and was walking thirty miles because the buses run to Andritsana twice a week and never on Saturdays. On Sunday night he would somehow get back down to Megalopolis and pick up a bus for Tripolis. The dream of his life was a motor scooter or, failing that, a post nearer home. He suddenly said, “Stop here, please,” and I was baffled. We seemed to be nowhere. There was a footpath, it turned out, leading up a shallow gully toward the peak of the ridge. It looked like the end of the world, but somewhere on the other side of the rocky peak lurked three or four houses in a circle of narrow terraced fields. My passenger’s mother had never in her life traveled farther than Megalopolis, and the village was naturally without electricity or telephone. But the road, I was told, would change things, “when they get it fixed.” The teacher bowed elaborately, settled his incongruous hat firmly on his head, and strode off into the bush.

The road suddenly improved to a remarkable smoothness, and the next turn revealed Andritsana. It lay strung out along the side of the mountain, following the road. Several layers of buildings edged up the hillside, and a few more hung precariously on the slope below the road. All the red tile roofs overlapped each other like a clump of mushrooms on a tree. Above the town, the hills were thatched with the usual dark-green globe-shaped trees. This Arcadian forest, which Pausanius credited with wild boars and tortoises of inordinate size now looks as neat as a park. The trees are small, little higher than apple trees, and evenly spaced, although whether this is the result of reforestation or nature is problematical. Evidently each requires a circle of ground exactly the size of its widest branch-spread. Virtually nothing else can grow in the circle, although plenty of light comes through the small, widely spaced leaves. Hardly a weed shows on the ground, and the occasional large tree is always surrounded by a ring of empty dirt extending well beyond its shade. The smaller trees stand twig to twig, never encroaching on each other’s territory.

The first building in Andritsana was the government tourist hotel, where the management, being unencumbered with trade, was taking a siesta. I routed out a flustered maid, then a sad waiter, and finally the manager, a most ornamental elderly gentleman with a mildly British accent. He was astounded at the appearance of a customer. It was too early in the season, “and, of course, things are always quiet up here. You drove from Megalopolis? And how did you find our road?”

I snarled, unable to find words for the road. “But I was told it’s worse from Olympia.”

The manager smiled. “A little worse,” he conceded, with a shrug indicating that it couldn’t be much worse and still pass for a road. “But we will have a good road here soon.”

“Eighteen years,” said the waiter, wearily. The manager chuckled and went off to activate his cook, and I heard the waiter’s uncensored opinion of life in Arcady. He had a crackling, machine-gun accent, but his meaning was as clear as glass.

Employees of the government hotel chain have to work where they are posted, and Andritsana is a very tough duty. “Nobody comes here.” mourned the waiter. “You know why. We have this nice hotel — new. clean, good food, fine view, hot water

— but nobody comes. Even in summer we’re empty half the time. This” — he handed over the beer — “is the first bottle I’ve opened in days.”

It struck me that the Andritsanians might patronize the place. “Them.” hissed the waiter, “they never spend a drach’. They sit home and go to bed at sundown. Talk to the girls and you get knifed, and who wants to talk to their brothers? I wish I could go to Athens. There’s some life there

— you can dance and go to the movies, and the streetlights burn all night. Will you give me a lift to Athens?”

I swore, falsely, that I was bound for Kalamata to meet some people with a boat. “I could take the bus,” he reflected, “but it’s slow and comes on the wrong days. Get there just in time to Come back again. You sure you’re not going to Athens?”

I was saved from more perjury by the cook, roaring that the omelet was ready.

The dining room windows looked out over the deep bowl of the valley, mottled with irregular green and yellow fields, and up the main and only street of Andritsana. Everything was deserted under the hot, stinging sunlight, which had driven everybody to cover except a clan of swallows who lived under the dining room windowsills. They whisked back and forth on sharp pointed iridescent wings, carrying on an interminable whistling conversation. A fly whined somewhere against the ceiling. The waiter sighed. The manager, settled on a chair in the breezy veranda over the street (where I should have had lunch and certainly would have dinner), nodded his way into a drowse. My fork clinking on the plate was the loudest noise in all Andritsana.

BASSAE was easy to find. The manager, waking up, told me to drive straight through town and take “the good road.” What good road? “You’ll see. It’s paved. Fourteen kilometers of it.”

Andritsana’s main street is part dirt, part cobblestone, and part some unrecognizable substance which may be the remains of macadam. It is lined with casual little tavernas and shops that serve the district today exactly as they have done for generations. The bootmaker, the blacksmith, and the cooper dozed over their tools. The chairmaker was awake, chatting with friends on his wide doorstep. A fine aromatic wood smell swept from his shop into the street, overpowering dust, wine, and horse. Somewhere in the tangle of houses behind the shops the electrical plant growled and thumped. Except for this twentieth-century racket, the whole town might have been living in the year 1840.

At the end of town, a rutted gravel road turned north for Olympia. The Bassae sign indicated a fine new black road soaring off toward the skyline, It was steep, the turns were sharp, the grading was cruel, and the windy heights were unnerving, for from this point all the world went down and there seemed to be nothing ahead but blue air. But it was unmistakably a good solid road. The two or three boulders sitting on it were accidents that could happen anywhere.

This road ended in a parking lot under a bank on which two frowzy youths and a gypsyish girl sat arguing over a goat. The further side of the lot led into open sky. There was only one other car in the place.

I looked about and found what seemed to be a path, not the well-trodden trail that leads to most Greek ruins but a shy, hardly noticeable break in the carpet of gray grass, thistles, and small yellow flowers that covered the ground. It led me upward through boulders and brush and brought me out, suddenly, on the ridge. Bassae was worth the drive, the climb, the heat, the fright. Bassae was enchanting.

It is a small Doric temple of coarse-grained local stone which has a silvery sparkle in the light and turns greenish-violet in shadow. The outer columns are almost intact, and a considerable part of the architrave is still in position. One badly cracked column has been splinted with heavy bars and metal cable, but nothing has been restored. The sunwarmed paving underfoot, the inner walls, the Ionic half columns that supported the frieze (which is now in London) are all the original stone. The roof is gone, but some carved stone slabs lying in the grass show that it was decorated with a simple, handsome rectangular design.

The building runs north and south instead of east and west, as was proper, but the god’s statue had a door facing correctly east. I doubt that anyone today can be absolutely certain of the reason for this strange orientation, which has been attributed by various authorities to the shape of the ridge or a sentimental alignment with some other building. Bassae is odd in other ways, the most obvious being that the frieze, representing battles between Greeks and Amazons, Centaurs and Lapiths, was placed inside the cella. The temple also contains the oldest known Corinthian column, just one, dividing the cella from the sanctuary of the idol. Despite the mixture of styles, the building is intensely quiet and gentle in effect, and built almost to human scale. One can get up and down the platform steps without feeling that one has gone mountaineering.

Around the temple, short gray-green grass, thistles, yellow flowers, and a few dark-leaved bushes swayed in a cool breeze. The last of the ridge rose up to the west, not very high, with one small building and a couple of oak trees near the summit. Nothing else but sky could be seen, for on three sides of the temple the land folded into narrow, rocky ravines. A goat hell tinkled faintly somewhere down the hill. It was a grand place to do nothing.

Eventually I wandered up to the building on the hill and found a custodian watching over some root slabs and ornaments, plus a small assortment of postcards. He pointed out, in pantomime, that we were on the highest point for miles around, and proved it by indicating, far away down to the west, a barely visible flicker of violet light. This was the sea, and the smudge beside it was Kyparissia. The two Englishwomen who had been taking pictures around the temple in mouselike silence came up, and we exchanged information. They had driven down from Olympia, and hoped to make Pylos that night. How was the road ahead? It was dreadful, but since they had taken six hours, so they claimed, from Olympia, it was better than what they’d been over. Considerably better. I began to feel complacently lucky, and urged them to be off at once, while they had a chance to get past the worst before dark.

The custodian had listened to all this with interest, evidently reading gestures and intonations, for he denied any knowledge at all of English. He now wanted information of his own. Was my car rented? How much? For how long? Did it go well? Did it use much gasoline? Who paid for the gas? All this took some time, but by repetition and counting on fingers we made it. In return, I learned that the twice-a-week bus from Andritsana is very expensive, as Greek buses go, to the disgust of those dependent upon it.

The rocks and tree trunks turned a soft orange color, and the temple glowed neon pink in the sunset light. All these places close at sundown; there was nothing to do but leave. The custodian walked down to the parking lot with me and had a good look at the car. He was struck with sudden alarm. “You locked it?" Relief when I waved the key, and a shrug of apology. “Thieves up here sometimes.”

On the road back to Andritsana I was held up. A ragged brown figure leaped like a deer from the brush above the roadside and lit in front of the car, gesturing furiously. It was stop or run him down. The gesture turned out to be a refined ballet caricature of puffing on a cigarette, and the leaper was a thin, sun-blackened shepherd, a man so old that his eyes were filmed with white. His wife, as thin and old and sunburned as he, stood up out of a bush and called good evening. I held out the package, and the old man took precisely one cigarette. And the lady? He grinned delightedly and put the second one behind his ear. From her bush, the lady bowed and shouted thanks. They both trotted uphill into the dark, agile as their own goats, and indistinguishable, barring their taste for tobacco, from their ancestors a thousand years ago.

Come to think of it, they were the only Arcadians I met.