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.