Sunday, 13 April 2014

Byron Between the Lakes

In Messolonghi's Museum of History and Art, Delacroix's 's painting of Elefteria (freedom) mourning the fall of Messolonghi, after the long Turkish siege of 1826

The area was called Mezzo Langhi by the Italians, a phrase meaning "between the lakes". 

Messolongi surprises me, though what did I expect? Some run down village, a meagre scattering of houses, where people kept chickens and a goat or two, in their back yards? Perhaps I was remembering a description I'd read of Messolonghi of almost two centuries ago, when Byron spent his last days there, a remote place where people scratched a living from the soil. A place of revolution, for the Greeks were fighting for their independence, under attack by the Turkish fleet. A besieged place, of unimaginable privations, where Byron himself succumbed to fever, close to the blue waters of the lagoon.

But this bright and vivid town is nothing like that, it has something of France about it, of a southern small town by the sea like Le Grau du Roi, a bit like that, but also a liveliness that's more Italian and a good pinch of Balkan energy too. The main central square, named after Markos Botsaris, one of the great heroes of the  Greek War of Independence, has a sunlit fountain playing in the middle, and cafés on every side.

I am welcomed by V, the Director of the Messolonghi College, and we are later joined by G, a journalist friend of his. We tour the lakes, the Museum, the Byron Library and an ouzo shop whose patron is a friend of G's, before having coffee in a cafe off Botzaris Square, where I meet Rosa Florou, President of the Messolonghi Byron Society

Ouzo Palace

One thing that has changed little or so I imagine, is the sea, the lagoon, and the fishing. G takes V and I on a tour of the lake area which is very like la petite camargue only smaller. Lots of birds nest and live there among the reeds.

You can see flamingoes here too, G says, but if 

there's a wind as today, they go to the other side of 

the lake.

Then we see some – a little distant and I might not 

have known what birds they are, they look white to 

me but G says they are flamingoes. They're not 

standing in the water, showing off their long pink   

legs but floating on the surface, the way birds do, the 

way they can, their closeness to the water, balanced, 

moving up and down among the waves, like foamy 

wave crests, like a tangled frond of seaweed, like a 

piece of flotsam, a spar of wood, smoothed and 

rounded by its passage, softened with salty ocean 

travel, don't you envy the birds this intimacy with the 


This is the old salt works, says G and we touch 

the pyramid, coarse and white and patchy like old 

snow and because it has been damp, the salt's grown 

hard, it has a crust like toffee and G digs into it and 

scoops me out a handful.



Fishermen's huts rise up on stilts above the glassy 

surface of the water.

They are wooden and elegant, festooned with nets, 

and a narrow wooden walkway leads to the built-up 

tracks and surfaced roads, the veins that carry 

fishermen and sight-seers gazing through binoculars 

at the aloof flamingoes. For the water does not carry 

us, the way that birds can float and settle, can dream 

and dip as sunlight flashes and the slim boats with 

their long arching lines, they too float and no wild 

weather seems to touch the jetties and the stilts or 

rock these boats, crafted it would seem, of thinnest 

shaving from some long tree trunk, curling at the 

end, encrusted like lichen on bark, with tiny clinging 



G shows us this landscape he belongs to, which 

has long scores and echoes of a constant dialogue of 

time with light, with air and scented marsh reeds, 

flowers, the sourness of dried mud and salt, the 

constant currents of sea breezes, and the narrow 

streets of this small town as precise, defined and 

delicate as a raised pattern on a shell. Streets with 

the wide, sand-coloured awnings pulled across the 



the flour and dough and seed colours of the bench 

outside the bakery, these arresting colours of black 

seeds and olive grey green, pumpkin dark green and 

russet honey, cream colours of dried stalks and of 

beaten egg whites and coffee-coloured foam left 

round a cup's rim.


Dialogue of colour, sunlight, marsh water and birds 

fabricating secret nests behind a screen of reeds.


And V and I follow in his wake, he is guide and 
recorder, he is native in this place, born out of it and 

into it, as native means, threaded in its grasses, 

bleached by the same light as stones and plants, 

burnt by the same sun, and by the moisture lifting off 

the surface of the sea.


Most of the old buildings from two centuries ago were 

destroyed during the Greek war of independence. 

G shows us one which still survives.

It's just across the road from the site of the house 

where Byron lived when he was here. A memorial 

marks the spot.


The modern building below is home to the  

Messolonghi Byron Society & Research Centre and 



 Byron statue outside the Byron library.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Day Return to Delphi

The Centre of the Earth

The story goes that Zeus sent out two eagles from each end of the earth, east and west, and Delphi was the place where they met, marking it out as the centre of the world. You can reach the centre of the world by public transport, it is possible, once you have hazarded a plan and surrendered your will to that of the gods.

The day begins early, even earlier than anticipated, as I discover the first flaw in my calculations. The 8 am bus turns out to be 8.05 and, given that the times are never rigidly adhered to, and buses are often late, I suddenly fear that I might not have enough time to dash across the road from the last stop, past the Balkan Crossroads where the men in black leather jackets hang out at the To Mesaio café, zip past the Sanctuary of Asklepios into the Ktel Fokidas office, and make the necessary negotiations, full of potential pitfalls, to secure a ticket before the bus left at 8.45. So I decide to get the earlier bus to Nafpaktos which, thanks to the fact that I was awake early, and got up in plenty of time, is possible. I leave the house at 7.40 and discover that I'm getting the bus that all the schoolchildren get. I've never seen the bus so crowded, and lots of people have to stand. More people get on at every stop, and we shuffle further up the bus until it starts to remind me of a Paris metro train. The driver is brilliant though, never a hint that he might turn anyone away.

The bus takes forever as people mount the steps slowly, validate their ticket, look in disbelief at the crowd and move reluctantly into it; the bus then wheezes away from each stop with its newly increased passenger load. At the school, all the students pile out, and for the last few stops the bus is almost empty. I have plenty of time at the KTEL office to buy my ticket, which all goes smoothly. The bus times have not changed since the day before, though the ticket seller has, it is now a fair haired woman who looks slightly cross at having to go through the procedure of selling me a ticket and indignant that I should ask if it's possible to buy a return (no, it's not). But in the morning sunshine the office looks less seedy and sombre than it did the day before, and even if it had not, its empty, down-at-heel aspect held a singular charm for me, inciting a private upwelling of joy. The sun shines on the green garden of Asklepios where a man is walking his dog, and on the bronze bust of the god which gleams in the morning light.

KTEL Fokidas bus station with Sanctuary behind it

Unusually, the day continues sunny, not a hint of rain. The bus follows the coast road, dipping down to small seeming deserted villages, with faded taverna signs, long promenades adorned with skeletal awnings, and bay after bay of blue sea. We change at Itea for the Athens bus, and I am the only person to alight at Delphi.

Valley below Delphi

The land tumbles down into the valley and the air is scented. I make my way to the ruins of the temples of Apollo and Athena, pay the entrance fee, and start up the path.

The Temple of Apollo (where the priestess pronounced her oracles)

The ruins – of temples, altars, treasuries, theatre – lie on the mountain slope, facing the sun. Apollo was after all, a sun god. As you climb the path through the ruins, you look out onto the mountain opposite. At some places, at some bends in the path, you can see right down into the valley. But for most of the ascent, it is hidden from view, so you are as if suspended in air, not truly part of the human world, with its bargains and conditions, its trade and compromises, its sense of incompleteness, its search for what will make it whole.

Altar of Apollo

Another view of Apollo's Temple

Looking down on the Theatre

My run of luck (or Asclepios) that has made this visit possible stays with me, as, despite the cloudy weather and heavy rainfalls of the past few days, I am able to see this place on a morning of clear sunlight, the mountains surrounded by a cupola of blue sky. The warmth and slight breeze carries changing scents of flowers and herbs. But by the time I leave, and walk the short distance from Apollo's temple to the narrow streets of present day Delphi, with its houses and shops, its cafés and restaurants, the clouds have already moved in.

Back in Nafpaktos, waiting to board the sixth and last bus of the day, a ferocious downpour forces me to shelter under a shop awning and I decide that the next morning, I would have to buy an umbrella.

But as I wait in the downpour for the bus, I think about the Sanctuary of Asclepios, just a few minutes walk away. The setting of the ruins at Delphi is truly magnificent and the columns of Apollo's temple indicate the grandeur of the architecture. But it was his son Asclepios who was the kindly and compassionate god.

In offering dreams, he is never didactic, in contrast to the Oracle's messages which were always, apparently, interpreted by Apollo's priests. So Asclepios encourages independence rather than subservience to unpredictable gods, who might choose to wish us well or act against us according to some whim of their own, despite all the offerings and prayers we might make to them. He reminds us too that the healing of an illness is not only to do with the treating of symptoms but also involves understanding the meaning of it.

And Asklepios feels accessible in time as well as place. He is just a few metres up the road and he is also a constellation in the sky, Ophiuchus, which depicts a man encircled by a large snake. People may not go to his temples any more to request healing dreams, but his symbol of staff and snake is still visible outside pharmacies and he will still assist you today if you ask him.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Asclepios Points the Way

Nafpaktos town centre

I was exploring the eastern boundaries of Nafpaktos, following the bus route, to see where it goes. I find what is probably the last stop, where the roads converge (prior to that, they were in a separate one way system). This meeting point of the roads is only a few metres from the elegant shops and polished paving stones, but has quite a different atmosphere. The café's awning is a slightly stained beige, the chairs and tables are dark brown. On the corner there's a kiosk and next to it, two phone booths and a yellow post box with empty cigarette packets lying beside them, and a group of men in dark leather jackets standing between kiosk and café, talking, gesticulating, calling out a greeting to another one who walks past. These men don't look as though they are passing by, they are not on their way to somewhere else, this is their place, their territory, this is where they gather, communicate, pass on information, do business.

I've called this area the Balkan Crossroads because of its slightly unkempt and unpolished look and atmosphere, a kind of authenticity which always makes me feel at home when I come across it, whether it's in Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria or other parts of Greece. And this area turns out to have a magnetism all of its own as, when I look across the road I can hardly believe my eyes. A clear sign in both Greek and English declares that right here is a Sanctuary of Asclepios.

Now Asclepios is my most favourite ever god or demi-god. He's the god of healing dreams and he's often represented holding a staff with a single snake curled round it. This symbol, only slightly modified, can be seen outside almost every chemist in Greece and in other parts of Europe too. 

and, not changed at all it can be seen outside hospitals here in Greece,

and I even found it on the tube of the brand of toothpaste which I regularly use (which just shows how healing it must be). And since I've been fascinated by dreams for almost as long as I can remember, it's not surprising that I should love the god (or demi-god) who is helpful in bringing them to you.

I like the way that dreams are your own in a sense, even if belonging to the larger psyche rather than the rational everyday mind, and so encourage independence rather than dependence on any external god, especially those unpredictable beings who might choose to wish you well or act against you according to some whim of their own, despite all the offerings and prayers you might make to them. So in that way, Asclepios is very modern, he is helpful but he also says now it's up to you, he hands you responsibility. And he is modern also in that he is flexible, he can move through space and time he is not confined to an era of the past, or any particular place, even though he was a true child of Greece, he has never been stuck or rooted there. A great book to read that describes the workings of Asclepios in the present day is Edward Tick's The Practice of Dream Healing.

The Sanctuary is a small square of green garden with a rocky promontory on the left, olive trees and cacti growing between the rocks of an uphill path. And by the garden entrance, a bust of the god of healing dreams himself.

Another reason I like Asclepios is that he is down here on the ground, among us, not perched on some ridiculous pedestal that sets him on high so you have to crane your neck to see anything at all of him, the suggestion being that he is superior to mortals and we will never ascend to his heights. But that's not Asclepios' plan at all.  He is here, in the marketplace of human life, he is accessible, and his aim is to be helpful to human beings.

I follow the path up from the flat green square and only a few steps up, tufts of grass appear between uneven rocks, and there's the first level, a square of stones showing, I presume, the layout of his ancient temple or Asclepion.

The path ascends steeply between spiny grasses, bushes and cacti.

A fence marks the boundary between sanctuary and people's gardens but up at the top, beside the big rocks at the summit, the ground falls away abruptly, shrub covered but cliff steep. No boundary fence is needed here.

Emerging from the sanctuary I look left and see another sign. 
It's in the background at the right in the picture below

There is somewhere I very much want to visit (a dream of mine you could say) but getting hold of the information has been problematical. It appears that there is no centralised system for transport information in Greece if you want to travel from one district to another (which, apparently, I do). Unless of course you want to go to major cities like Athens and Thessaloniki (which I do not).  I'd been given contact numbers for the relevant offices but my lack of Greek proved an insurmountable barrier.  But I couldn't help thinking that if I could just speak to someone face to face, I could surely get my meaning across, times can be written down after all and figures, thankfully, are the same in all languages. And here, right next to the sanctuary of the god of healing dreams, there is this sign, which seems to be the coach company office (KTEL) for the region I wish to travel to (Fokidas), rather than the one I am in. Could it be possible that someone there might be able to give me the information I'm looking for?

 It's a small building on two floors and the office is on the ground floor. Its doors are almost full length glass and when I push the door open I enter a small room. The counter on the right is made of panelled wood, the walls painted  pale yellow and slightly scuffed with use. A couple of posters, depicting the glories of Greece – scenery and statues – are pinned on the walls, their colours faded, their edges curling slightly.  The room is bare of furniture apart from an oversized box, also a pale cream yellow, serving as a table, its only adornment a crumpled tin ashtray stuffed with dark brown cigarette ends. A young man is behind the wooden counter, gazing at a laptop.  I tell him that I would like to take a bus to Delphi, and it becomes clear that I have found the secret source of that most elusive of information – bus times to the oracle. Buses are not frequent, but they do exist, and he writes down the figures on a very small piece of fragile paper, makes a phone call to another source, to check the time of the last bus back, adds this to the tiny digits, and hands it to me with a flourish. I thank him, put it carefully into my wallet and make a mental note to copy it onto something more robust as soon as I get home.