|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|
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
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
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
Byron statue outside the Byron library.