By Katharine and Eric Fletcher
“You can’t see it but beneath us, right at sea level, is a cave. It’s one of the eight entries to the Underworld.”
The words tumbled from our guide Jonathan Tite, of Trekking Helas, as he strode toward the lighthouse on Cape Tenairon. Surrounded by the azure Mediterranean Sea, with a protected cove behind us, our group of five hikers felt the gods accompanied us.
Our 6-day hiking trip was peppered with such mythological references, for daily life in Greece’s wild Peloponnese still seems intertwined with the life of the gods and goddesses — not to mention ancient heroes like Odysseus and Helen of Troy… We were enjoying a hiking trip called “Greece’s Culture Walk” which promised to introduce us to the central Peloponnese, the peninsula jutting west and south of Athens.
So as we walked to the southernmost tip of Greece, we pondered the Underworld. Vague recollections of Persephone, goddess of this netherworld, swirled in our minds. Wife of Pluto, quixotically she is also the goddess of fertility who supposedly spent eight months of the year on earth, four with Pluto beneath it, in Hades. As we hiked, we struggled to recall Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and mused how mythology served the ancients well, being their explanation of both the natural world and historic events.
Meanwhile, another god had his sport with us: Aolus, god of the wind sent strong gusts to swirl around us. We leant into them, struggling to maintain our balance, only to stagger and almost fall when they abruptly ceased. Now, was that sound the crash of a wave on at the mouth of the cavern, below — or bemused laughter of the gods?
Finally, we reached our goal: the lighthouse. Straining did no good: we couldn’t glimpse the cave’s mouth. Apparently the only way to see it is to hire a fishing boat. But one Englishman, author Patrick Leigh Fermor in his 1954 book “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,” recounts how he hired a fisherman to row him to its entrance. The curious writer swam inside, marveling just as we did almost half a century later, about the deities…
Though we didn’t swim to the entrance to Hades, our week in Greece introduced us to astonishing sites of ancient glory, quiet fishing ports and ruggedly remote mountain villages built in the “Mani” style, resembling square-cut, fortress-like cubes. After landing in Athens and being met by Jonathan, we were whisked off in his air-conditioned van to Kardamili, a small resort and fishing village. Hotel Cardamili overlooked the sea and, before getting horizontal in our basic but comfortable room (with an airy balcony overlooking an olive grove) we returned to the village square for dinner. Greek salad, taramosalata (purée of fish roe and potato), delicious calamari (squid) and other delights awaited us, and we sampled our first taste of ouzo, that clouded, anise-flavoured drink.
Every day we accomplished a different hike and, because it was spring, the blossoms were glorious. Mauve salsify (oyster plant), golden Jerusalem sage, scarlet poppies and anemones, hot-pink cyclamen, deep purple lavender: these and many, many other flowers transformed sage-green olive groves into Renoir-like studies of impressionistic light and colour. It was breathtaking… and fragrant, too, for our legs brushed against herbs, which released their pungent scents.
Our first day’s hike took us up the Viros Gorge, through several remote villages of the Taygetus Mountain Range which form the spine of the Peloponnese. Every village had its Byzantine chapel (at least one) and we soon learned that everywhere we went, we would find their rounded domes. But only here, on this first hike, did we discover a ruined chapel. Perhaps because of its partially collapsed roof and cobwebbed interior, it touched us deeply: there’s a palpable sadness to finding the ruins of a church built by the labours of the faithful.
Undoubtedly, the most stunning cultural site was Mystras, a city-fortress built on a spur of Mount Taigetos, towering above the ancient city of Sparta. A Byzantine wonder whose construction commenced in the 1200s, the site was occupied up to the mid 1800s, though it was sacked numerous times over the centuries by successive waves of invaders.
We explored Mystra’s 980 foot elevation slowly, taking just over three hours. The complex contains homes, churches, an operating monastery and other buildings, all in various states of repair. The sheer antiquity of some of the objects we saw really amazed us: resting against a wall of a courtyard, for instance, was an ancient Roman sarcophagus with splendid figures carved in relief. At either end were winged sphinxes while the sides depicted wild Bacchanalian celebrations. It stood exposed to the elements, outside the doorway to the oldest church at Mystras: St. Demetrios, built around 1270.
After clambering up the rocky footpath to the summit of the fortress, we enjoyed a fantastic view of the plain below, with its orange, mulberry, and olive groves. Our guide told us to look for the Acropolis outside Sparta, but it eluded us.
However, upon leaving Mystras, this was our next stop. Driving toward Sparta, Jonathan spun the tale of Helen of Troy whose husband Menelaus was king of Sparta. The ancient city was most influential in the period from 9 to 4 century BC… when the Spartan way of life came into prominence. The Michelin guide says these famous warriors mostly ate vegetarian food, although “their famous black broth, port stewed in the animal’s blood, was a banquet to them.” Not surprisingly, we didn’t see this on any menu.
Outside the city, we arrived at the Acropolis dating from 1C BC and just above it, a rather graffiti-despoiled but nonetheless peaceful set of ruins, a temple to Athena. The Acropolis’ typical semi-circular theatre left much to the imagination: its multi-tiered seating area was nothing more than a crescent-shaped hill, now used by modern Spartan kids as a mountain-bike ramp. Nonetheless, who could stand there, gazing down to the broken columns and stage, and not “see” mask-clad actors mimicking the gods?
Our first introduction to Greece leaves us longing to return: the hikes, the antiquity, the gods and goddesses call us to return.
Cross Country International offers outstanding value and knowledgeable, helpful guides on their hiking and horseback riding tours. Contact CCI at PO Box 1170, Millbrook, NY 12545, USA. Tel: 1-800-828-8768; e-mail: XCIntl@aol.com Website www.walkingvacations.com
Flights: Unfortunately, Alitalia lost Katharine’s luggage both on the way to Athens and on the way back, too, for over a month. If possible, avoid this carrier.
Tips: Spring (April) offers cool to warm temperatures excellent for hiking, plus the spring rains bring outstanding blossoms amid a green countryside that turns dry and brown come summer. CCI’s April tour also is timed for Easter, an intriguing as well as delicious time to visit Greece, for “every” Greek household appears to barbecue a lamb on Easter Sunday.