During the last five summers, I had visited and spent time on more than a dozen Greek islands, including Crete, Corfu, Mykonos, and Santorini. Last year, I was on the islands again, but I wanted to experience Greece in a totally new way during the last four days of my visit. Friends of mine who were born in the Peloponessos urged me to visit their villages. I did. Four days were not enough and I am going back. I want to experience once again the soft murmurings of placid streams in an enchanted land lost in time, smell the salty sea, thyme-covered mountains, grapes and currants, and I want to look upon the love nest that started the Trojan War.
Traveling by bus from Athens to Sparti in late July, I knew I wanted to visit the mountain village of Tsintzina, the seaport of Githio, the Diros Caves, and as much of the Mani as I could manage. But I had no plan. Many taxis were parked in front of my hotel, but I was either not making myself understood in Greek or the drivers chose not to understand that I wanted to go Tsintzina, a 1,900-meter elevation northeast of Sparti.
A female driver named Helen pulled up, observed the scene, and then approached me and asked me where I wanted to go. “Tsintzina,” I said, “do you know it?” “Yes, my mother was born in Zoupena, the village below it. Come, I will take you.”
I checked out of my hotel and we set off. Helen, a divorced mother of two, was thirty-two, lean but strong, and very confident. I told her what I wanted to do and she quickly took over my life. I loved it. We arranged that she would be my driver, guide, and companion during my four-day stay.
“Stay just one night in Tsintzina,” Helen advised. As we drove straight up the narrow, precarious, winding roads. I wanted to visit Tsintzina in the province of Laconia because of its historical significance and because a friend of mine who was born in Laconia described it as “an enchanted land, lost in time.”
It is a summer village populated by residents from Zoupena and Goritsa who come to Tsintzina to escape the summer heat. There are no stores or shops, just summer homes, a few tavernas and kafeneia, and the Hostel of Polythroso, a former schoolhouse. Few people are seen during the day, but the village comes alive at night as mothers and daughters parade about and the men sit outside sipping coffee, beer, or ouzo.
Historians credit a resident of Zoupena, Christos Tsakonas, as encouraging the first Greek immigration to America in the late 1800’s. Born in 1848, he left his village as a young man and became a successful merchant. He is said to have brought more than 1,000 young Lakonians to America between 1873 and 1890. Before 1900, almost one-third of all Greeks in America were from Tsintzina.
The land was celebrated by the poets as well. The ancient pastoral poets, Theocritus and Virgil, sang of shepherds and herdsmen who lived as free men in harmony with nature far from the corruption of the city. They wrote of an idyllic land without time or precise place ruled by the goat-god Pan, king of the woods and hills. And they called the land “Arcadia.” Arcadia was more a state of mind than a geographic location, and for me, the village of Tsintzina could have been Arcadia. I found the placid, limpid streams of water described by the pastoral poets. They called these streams “life-giving” and immortalized them as “sacred…symbolizing life, vitality, and the powers of nature.”
I walked through the pine forest and through the village paths and I saw villagers scooping water with cups at the springs of Kamaraki, Psito, and Soumou. They filled their urns from springs where the poets said “goddesses refreshed themselves.” It was a magical experience.
The next morning Helen arrived as promised and in the sweet coolness of the day, we set out for Mani. I wanted to visit Kardamili, home of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Philhellene who as a young man of eighteen walked across Germany to Constantinople and who, as an adult, joined the Greek resistance as a commando against the Germans in Crete in World War II while living as a shepherd. I had heard that sometimes Fermor could be seen at a pub. We headed back to Sparti, stopped for a frappe and water, and set off. Driving deep into Mani, I smelled thyme, rosemary, grapes, and currants. Towers appeared on the torn, barren land then disappeared just as suddenly. Helen asked me what I thought of the land. “It is wild,” was all I could manage. “Yes,” Helen said, “wild and naked, and the people are wild and strong. Never been defeated. They are Spartans.”
Night was slowly falling as we drove through the inhospitable, rugged roads. I wondered what would happen if we became lost, because the stone buildings we saw (that Helen said were houses) looked like formidable fortresses, not to be approached. But when we arrived in Kardamali I was charmed. Profitis Ilias, a mountain said to exceed 2000 meters, dominated the scene, but unlike the unforgiving territory we had just traversed, Kardamali was verdant with lovely flowers, olive groves and cypress trees.
We stopped at a very pleasant taverna and I looked about to discover what seemed to be walking paths. I asked Helen about these, she asked the owner, and we learned a number of paths leading from the taverna are marked for hikers. I made a note that when I returned to Mani I would use Kardamali as a base for further exploration.
Some locals began talking to Helen and before long we were drinking wine the taverna owner said was “Hercules Blood.” Strong and delicious. After two glasses, it was with reluctant mellowness that we left.
In Limeni Helen found me a simple room by the harbor and the next day we toured by flat-bottom boat the many-splendored Diros caverns. The caves date to Paleolithic and Neolithic times and one theory holds that they were sacred places of worship. Archaeologists say they were inhabited in 4,000 to 3,000 BC and human bones and evidence of houses, warehouses, workshops, and a cemetery have been found that support his claim. It is said that an earthquake struck in 3,200 BC, closing the caves until they were rediscovered in 1895. According to Panos Koumoutsides in his tourist guide, From the Oasis of Laconia, a hunter’s dog chased a fox and fell into a passageway that led to the caves; the dog reappeared from the hole he had entered, covered by multi-hued mud. The hunter explored the passageway and discovered the caves.
The Doris Caves are famous for their stalactites and stalagmites and for the narrow, but beautiful, crystal clear lake that extends as far north as Sparta. To enter the caves, one must walk down a steep hill towards the entrance, which is next to a small pebble beach where you can take a dip before the tour if you choose. A small ferry boat holding eight people will take you on a 45-minute, gentle, meandering ride that is magical. Halogen lights shine on dazzling colors, and intricate textures, and shapes created by nature over thousands of year. The underground caves were just a bit wider than our boat and even though our guide cautioned us to keep our hands inside, I could not resist a quick touch of the golden walls. The caves are awesome and truly one of the wonders of the world.
Exhilarated, we drove northeast to the lovely port of Githio where I found a room with a balcony. Helen and I said goodbye reluctantly and I explored the small town with its Turkish style houses and numerous fish tavernas. I had delicious grilled red mullets at a sea-side taverna, saw a beautiful, abstract painting of the nine muses on the taverna wall, and the next morning, rosy fingered Dawn greeted me as I sat on my balcony before packing. I looked to the right toward Marathonisi, the spot where Paris and Helen spent the night after he abducted her from King Menelaus, starting the Trojan War. Dawn spread her rosy fingers wide, but they lingered over Marathonisi and seemed to close in a caress over this ancient love nest.
Aurelia is a contributing writer to Hellenic News of America. She is also the author of two novels, A Lone Red Apple and Labyrinthine Ways. They can be purchased from Amazon or by contacting Cosmos Publishing at [email protected]