Of monks and men in old Ar­ca­dia

Lost in time and space on a trip across the Greek Pelo­pon­nese

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - I AN ROBERT SMITH

THE clam­our of water di­min­ishes as the gorge walls open and the path leaves the river. I fol­low it down­hill, across a meadow and past a chapel into an olive grove.

The red cliffs are be­hind me now. Wooded hills enfold. Look­ing about, I find my sur­round­ings both novel and eerily fa­mil­iar. I have never been here be­fore but I seem to know the place as if I have vis­ited it, long ago, in a dream.

Ar­guably it is a dream land­scape, the cre­ation of po­ets. Since clas­si­cal times, these whim­si­cal stir­rers of souls have de­picted Ar­ca­dia as a care­free idyll, a wilder­ness of flocks and forests ruled by goat-legged Pan, old­est of gods, whose melo­di­ous pip­ing drove nymphs to dis­trac­tion.

Pre­dictably, be­ing po­ets, these fel­lows sel­dom both­ered to lo­cate their par­adise in the real world. So it comes al­most as a sur­prise to learn that Ar­ca­dia ex­ists, iso­lated by moun­tains, at the heart of the Greek Pelo­pon­nese. Nor was the re­gion ever quite so con­ge­nial as pop­u­lar leg­end sug­gests. On the con­trary, were­wolves and hu­man sac­ri­fice were once com­mon­place, while Pan was apt to ap­pear, in the hot still­ness of noon­day, as a med­dle­some devil fig­ure.

It is mid­day, and broil­ing, when I reach the Lousios. It is Ar­ca­dia’s short­est river, un­wind­ing for only 26km af­ter ris­ing in the hills north of Dim­it­sana. Con­sid­ered by the early trav­eller Pau­sa­nias to be among the cold­est rivers in Greece, for much of its length the Lousios ne­go­ti­ates a rugged gorge rich in his­tory and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance. Ac­cord­ing to mythol­ogy, the in­fant Zeus was bathed by nymphs in its wa­ters. The mod­ern trav­eller can tackle it on foot.

Be­fore do­ing so I visit the Open-air Water Power Mu­seum. The main at­trac­tion of this re­stored mill com­plex is its take on pre-in­dus­trial Greece. But it is also pleas­ant to es­cape the heat and pass some hours be­neath the wal­nut trees along­side a mill­race that fills the air with spray and a deaf­en­ing roar. Threaded along this tor­rent, a grain mill, a fulling tub and a tan­ning fac­tory re­call when life here was de­pen­dent on run­ning water and 91 mills daubed the Lousios’s banks. More dra­mat­i­cally, a stamp mill, for mak­ing gun­pow­der, harks back to the Greek War of In­de­pen­dence against Ot­toman rule and the vi­tal role played by the mills in manu- fac­tur­ing the volatile mat­ter that primed the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’ guns.

Fore­most in the strug­gle was Dim­it­sana. Once a pros­per­ous en­clave of millers and mer­chants, the town un­der­went a long de­cline be­fore rein­vent­ing it­self more re­cently as a pop­u­lar win­ter des­ti­na­tion. Dim­it­sana looks the part with its el­e­gant stone build­ings, three and four storeys high, sprawled across a lime­stone spur sus­pended like a bal­cony above the up­per reaches of the gorge.

Cam­paniles break the monotony of rooftops; sun­light glints off a bul­bous cop­per dome.

Wan­der­ing among its cob­bled lanes, the fine stonework, airy vis­tas and a hint of dere­lic­tion re­mind me of a me­dieval Ital­ian hill town.

In an open church, Agia Kyr­i­aki, I meet a gar­ru­lous young priest who bus­tles me to­wards the lo­cal li­brary. A se­cu­rity guard is sum­moned to un­lock the door.

Within, all is hushed and ven­er­a­ble. Leather-bound books, cen­turies old, oc­cupy glass­fronted cab­i­nets. There is an an­tique loom, old farm­ing im­ple­ments, sepia-tinted pho­to­graphs of rev­o­lu­tion­ary he­roes on the walls. As the guard re­cites names, the priest, pos­si­bly anx­ious to demon­strate that the fire still burns, draws a sword from its scab­bard and lays about. The guard and I step back as the blade slices the air.

‘ ‘ For 400 years we had the Turks,’’ the priest says. ‘‘Then, tok, tok, tok . . .’’

On this up­beat note I en­ter the gorge armed with the Walk­ers’ Map of the River Lousios Val­ley with Cul­tural In­for­ma­tion, pur­chased at the mu­seum. This handy book­let leads me straight into im­pen­e­tra­ble jun­gle, strewn with mossy ru­ins and aban­doned mill­wheels stran­gled by creep­ers.

I back­track, curs­ing and wield­ing my stick, mind­ful that it’s an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to en­counter one of the tree snakes said to be lurk­ing.

In­stead there are lizards, birds that refuse to stop and be iden­ti­fied, and tiny green frogs. At the bot­tom of the gorge a bridge fords the river and the path as­cends through oak, Cre­tan maple, lau­rel and fragrant pine.

I gain height quickly and am soon able to look down on the river, 100m be­low, surging be­tween rust-coloured cliffs tufted with veg­e­ta­tion.

I also no­tice sev­eral caves in the cliffs. Ver­tig­i­nously lo­cated, roughly walled across their mouths, these are the for­mer bolt­holes of the her­mits and spir­i­tual ath­letes who be­gan se­cret­ing them­selves in the gorge in me­dieval times.

Ded­i­cated to soli­tude, over the cen­turies some of these un­com­pro­mis­ing folk nonethe­less banded to­gether and up­graded to monas­ter­ies, which be­came im­por­tant repos­i­to­ries of tra­di­tion and hot­beds of na­tion­al­ist thought dur­ing the Ot­toman pe­riod. In their echo­ing depths Greek cul­ture and iden­tity were as­sid­u­ously fos­tered and handed down via so­called se­cret schools, which of­ten op­er­ated un­der the cover of night.

Life is qui­eter nowa­days at the clifftop New Philosophou Monastery, home to only two monks. One is a cherub-faced young man with dark liq­uid eyes and a speech im­ped­i­ment. He wel­comes me with glasses of spring water and Turk­ish de­light, be­fore show­ing me into a 17th- cen­tury church with a carved iconos­ta­sis and smoul­der­ing fres­coes.

Age has dark­ened the paint­ings, though they re­main alive and vi­brant, and their mere ex­is­tence seems mirac­u­lous in this lonely place. I gaze avidly and de­part feel­ing oddly elated, stop­ping to in­ves­ti­gate the Old Philosophou Monastery — a bat-haunted ruin — be­fore plung­ing to­wards the river.

The sun dips be­hind the moun­tains, cast­ing me into shadow while leav­ing the op­po­site slopes aglow. Elo­quently cap­tured in this light is the Monastery of St John the Bap­tist, whose found­ing fa­thers went one bet­ter than their brethren at Philosophou and hung their es­tab­lish­ment di­rectly from the cliff-face. Lop­sided gal­leries painted muddy yel­low, equipped with rudi­men­tary plumb­ing and propped on wooden stays, can­tilever into a void through which black choughs, large and sin­is­ter, silently wheel.

Out­side the monastery gates, I en­counter a cin­der-eyed monk wrestling with an unco-op­er­a­tive mule. When the monk sees me, he drops the hal­ter with a chuckle and the an­i­mal charges.

I’ve heard that monks can be sen­si­tive fol­low­ing their af­ter­noon si­esta, but this seems ex­ces­sive. Nor do mat­ters im­prove when I en­ter the court­yard and dis­cover, be­side the spring, a rack of washed-out clothes await­ing vis­i­tors who ar­rive in­ap­pro­pri­ately dressed. In­ad­mis­si­ble in shorts, I don trousers that would have com­fort­ably fit­ted Lu­ciano Pavarotti and pro­ceed.

My ap­pear­ance star­tles a gloomy young acolyte who, glar­ing in­cred­u­lously, shows me a smoke-black­ened cave chapel, then aban­dons me in a gue­stroom boast­ing colour­ful di­vans, monk­ish pho­to­graphs on the walls and out­stand­ing views from the win­dows.

Get­ting grief from monks is not the worst thing. The episode does, how­ever, con­vince me to tem­po­rar­ily by­pass the lovely town of Stem­nitsa and re­main in the gorge, which I fol­low to its con­clu­sion. Emerg­ing at dusk, I de­scend into the meadow with the chapel and the olive grove and dis­cover, be­yond the trees, the ru­ined asklepieion of an­cient Gortys: un­fenced, un­tended and thrillingly de­serted.

In this bu­colic spot I overnight, my sleep in­fil­trated by age­less voices, the sky over­head a black slate of stars that mul­ti­ply crazily fol­low­ing the set­ting of a bright young moon.

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