Of monks and men in old Arcadia
Lost in time and space on a trip across the Greek Peloponnese
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.