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Friday, January 03, 2003

Travel

The Ways - Part 1


The following is part of a work in progress entitled Freefall.

Spring sprung in mid-February, early, falsely. In my garden, wild grasses grew as high as my knees under the flowering lemon trees. Pomegranate and cherry trees bloomed, and the trees called lefka sprouted, drooping maroon blossoms that hung like fat, bruised caterpillars. The pine and juniper smelled of sap. The verdant mountainsides below the higher reaches of snow-capped Mt. Ohi erupted in riotous colors – in shades of red, violet, ocher, blue, yellow, pink, white, lavender, mauve – as wild anemones, irises, daisies, dandelions, poppies, broom, violets, crocuses, and the many flowers whose names I don’t know, plants bent by the weight of hundreds of rose-hued stars or blooming with what seemed to be feathers, opened. Ah, what kind of weather is this? the women asked, placing their hands on their cheeks, their expressions quizzical; already they’d cleared small patches of garden near their houses and planted lettuce and garlic and scallions and onions. The men of the village were plowing larger patches of land beyond their homes, Panayis with his mule, a few with mechanical tillers, and many others by hand, clearing fields for the potato planting. It hadn’t rained for almost a month, and the women remarked on these malakes meres – soft days – almost in wonder.

Even Maggie seemed confounded by the mild weather; in her 20-odd years of experience here, a cold, snowy winter always presaged a wet spring, but the skies remained clear. I didn’t remind her of the predictions of global-warming experts, in whom she puts no stock, but their calculation that the southern Mediterranean has begun to suffer long periods of drought followed by erratic, destructive downpours and harsh cold seems more actual than oracular. December 2001 in Greece was the coldest on record for 40 years, February 2002 the hottest and driest since records were kept. And despite their verdancy and the pointillist-like swaths of bloom, the mountainsides are covered with more thorn and scrub and succulents – useless for grazing – than ever.

There were no longer any lights on next door in the Bitsikos household, for Stamatis had died while I’d been in Manhattan for a month. The darkness of the evenings was deeper around my house. There was nothing to do but attend the memorial service held for both Stamatis and his wife, Kula, after my return, and to visit their graves at the cemetery. Fat Chrissoula was lighting their oil lamps for them, because Paraskevi’s leg was bothering her; and during those early evenings I realized how much I’d missed Chrissoula, with her sweet laugh and good heart and kindly, if gossipy, way. She and I were almost always alone at that hour, for we went as late as possible, at day’s end. Pai kai aftos, she’d say over Stamatis’s grave, which is what Greeks say of the dead, always in the present tense, as though the dead are passing through on their way to somewhere else: He’s gone, too.

I regret I hadn’t spoken more with Stamatis about the pathways of southern Evia, some of which I’d trekked, and a good number of which I’d stumbled upon by accident while wandering about. Stamatis not only knew them better than anyone, but he was also the only man in Myloi – possibly the only one of his generation on this part of the island – who’d ever walked them for the sheer joy of it; indeed, he continued walking them long after almost no one else used them. He’d had a deep reverence for nature and the natural beauty of his surroundings – which is undoubtedly why he created the hikers’ refuge and brought the first hikers to southern Evia – and now he was gone.

His stories stayed with me. He described going from Myloi to the inner villages and back the same day, loaded with potatoes to trade, the abundance of eagles in the sky and hare on the mountainsides, the hawk-infested wilderness on Yuda, flamingos in the wetlands at a certain time of year (some of Western Europe’s migratory birds flock to southern Evia on their way to and from Africa). Stamatis said that people coming to Karystos from Kallianou, on the other side of the Ohi mountain range, would begin their journey up the Dimosari gorge at three in the morning, carrying oil lamps to light their way until dawn broke (did they cache them? – I never thought to ask); by noon, they’d finished trading in Karystos and begun their return journey over the stone-inlaid paths that led from Myloi back to Petrokanalo (the rock canal) above the gorge, and reached their homes by nightfall – a trek today’s hikers complete in two days, spending a night at the refuge below Ohi’s peak. Stamatis once told me that the hani (from the Turkish han for inn), which sits above the beginning of the gorge and is now a decrepit stone structure whose roof has collapsed, was inhabited by a family until about 35 years ago, and that there was another hani on the way to Andia: in bad weather, these were places of refuge for any traveler, though they offered little more than shelter – a stone bench to lie upon, a roof to keep out the rain, walls to withstand the winds.

Myloi had been the hub, the center where most of southern Evia’s paths converged: from here, people traveled east to Metohi, Mavros, Bouros, and Kastri; to the northeast, to Epanohori and Platanistos, and even more northerly to Andia and Skizali and Evangelismos and beyond, to the island’s end in its most farflung tip, Kavodoros; and to the west, to Mekounidha, Gravia, Aghia Triadha, Kalivia, and Lala. Paths branched off from those paths and led to the inner villages such as Rouklia, Mesohoria, Aghios Dimitris, Paradhisi, and Yiannitsi. Other paths led to forests that were cut for wood, or to charcoal pits, quarries, summer pastures, and places the villagers went to plant barley or harvest mountain tea or wild sage or chestnuts far from their homes. Every peak, ridge, hut, pass, hill, path, and crossroads had its own local name in Stamatis’s time: Litra, Anathema, Portes, Mavropetra, Anemopili, Skales, and Stavros – the names of a particular plateau with a shepherd’s hut, a point above Rouklia where there was once a mound of stones tossed by Greeks on their way to pay tithes (each saying anathema as they tossed a stone), a pass on the old public path leading to Stavros, an outcrop of reddish-black rock where a shepherd still summers, a windy saddle between two cliffs, the kalderimi above the ancient Roman columns, and the crossroads below Mt. Ohi on its easterly side.

The villages were full of people then, in Stamatis’s time. Today, many are deserted: Babadhes has only one house whose roof is yet intact and no residents, Galpidhes has two residents, Rouklia two residents, Sotira only two families. The larger villages emptied out, too: a generation ago, for instance, Myloi had over 600 residents. And the villagers sang, Stamatis said. Stella’s mother, Asimina, had the most wonderful voice in Myloi, which sometimes carried over the village if she were singing on the hillside below the Frankish castle while tending to goats or on her way to the spring, from which each and every household then carried their water; she had, they say, a voice that made people pause, look up from what they were doing, and listen. Even my mother sang, Vangelio told me once, incredulously. Imagine that, with 10 children and despite poverty, illness, and cold, while doing a wash by hand in freezing weather, or planting, or standing barefoot in the snow baking bread, she’d sing.

The girls from Rouklia sang, too, as they came over the mountain and passed through Myloi on their way to Karystos, a four-hour journey. They sometimes rode mules, most often walked, and were – according to everyone – the most beautiful girls on southern Evia, with clear skin and red cheeks and bright eyes. I don’t know whether the girls from Epanohori sang, but I do know from Stamatis that they walked barefoot. They carried their handmade shoes in their hands and put them on when they reached the edge of town, to go to the market or to church; going back, they’d wear their shoes to the edge of town and then carry them home – a three-hour trek, each way, over inlaid stone paths.

Those paths, those ways, are difficult to find today, even more difficult to follow, and most frequently lead to places people left. When this older generation is laid to rest, their knowledge of these paths – created, some of them, by the Ottomans and Byzantines, the Franks and Romans, quite likely atop each other’s roads and perhaps on the same routes used in classical, archaic, and Hellenistic times – will follow them to their graves. Many of the paths that remain partly intact on southern Evia were probably last routinely maintained by the Ottomans, for during their reign taxes on just about everything – as well as the constant deliveries of firewood – had to be brought from all the villages to the pasha’s collectors in Paliohora, near Myloi. (As there were never enough pack animals to carry these loads, girls and women often had to substitute for beasts of burden.) Well into the 1950s and 1960s, however, even after the villages were drained as their men left to find work elsewhere and their women later followed, those left behind continued to go back and forth, to and fro, over these same paths. Since then, there’s been little traffic. Roads were built, and bus routes established; three years ago, the last stretch of dirt road (a one-lane, four-wheel-drive affair) was graded to link all the villages of Kavodoros to Karystos. By that time, there was hardly anyone left to whom it mattered.

So the paths – the ways – lie in pieces. A stretch of perfectly inlaid stone kalderimi can disappear into thorn and brush, end on a crest or at a spring or in a streambed crossing. Herds of goat and sheep have taken their toll; the rains and snow and years of disuse theirs. Nature is incredibly voracious, and it loves a void. There are paths I’ll never find, paths that have disappeared over the last 50 years that bore the footsteps of those who came only a generation or two before, paths that might have been used for a thousand years and more. But I delight in searching out their spidery traces, before they are completely swallowed by time, before all memory of them disappears. Until Sakis Biniaris removed to Edinburgh, I wasn’t alone.

***

The ways mattered to Sakis, who was born in Karystos and was, until recently, a schoolteacher in the village school at Kalivia. He was, I like to think, the Stamatis Bitsikos of his generation: it was Sakis who found the hikers’ refuge created by Stamatis in the early 1960s in complete disrepair in the 1990s – it had been used as a goat shelter for years – and singlehandedly restored it. Sakis was so passionate about hiking and trekking, and about the flora and fauna of southern Evia, that he infected friends and acquaintances with his enthusiasm. He and they believed that the future of the area lay, to some extent, in ecotourism, and they formed a group in Karystos concerned with the environment and land use. For their trouble and care, they were later called – derogatorily – oi oikologoi, the ecologists.

The refuge functioned and attracted hikers. The group held meetings and contacted the European Union’s Natura 2000 program, petitioning for protection of the environment where it is most fragile here – the wetlands, the forests – and managing to get monies from the EU to encourage ecotourism. The funds were used to build a road connecting a village above Karystos to an area above the Dimosari gorge, so that hikers could be driven to the top and walk down in a day; funding was also obtained to restore the uppermost part of the Dimosari kalderimi. Another, smaller refuge was built there; an environmental information center was also built behind the schoolhouse of Kalivia; and a book was published in two editions – Greek and English – on the ecology and places of southern Evia. The group’s activities were known, and its meetings were open; in the end, however, many of the Karystians who attended them did so to voice their opposition to protecting anything. The way they saw things, protection meant that their land in those areas – almost every inch in southern Evia is privately held – would become worthless.

The group had few resources to fight what became a political issue in Karystos. Graffiti reading No to Natura or Out with Natura erupted on the retaining walls of the few major roads. During local elections a few years ago, the anti-Natura faction sent campaigners to the villages and told villagers that a vote for anyone associated with Natura would ensure the ecologists’ victory. The villagers had never heard of ecologists, so they were defined as people who would ensure that villagers could no longer graze their herds, fell their trees, or sell or build on their land.

The villagers never heard the other side of the story. But they did see what we all saw: the road built with Natura funds being used mostly by mining companies, as well as a disastrous restoration of the kalderimi. Rather than restoring the inlaid stone footpath – the work was overseen by the distant prefecture at Halkidha – stairs were laid with cement and flagstone for hundreds of meters, which guaranteed that no mules, horses, donkeys, or flocks could ever be driven up or down that part of the gorge again.

  Sakis’s life was threatened: just try walking alone, he was told. An ornithologist friend was attacked and beaten, and his camera equipment destroyed, on a hike through Dimosari. Another member of the group had his glasses – and almost his nose – broken in a fistfight. The books published were never released, in fear of a public book-burning. The new refuge remains locked. The environmental center never opened. The defense of nature in southern Evia is dead in the water, a fossilized embryo in Natura 2000’s proposal stage: to resurrect it would require a miracle at this point. The environmental group was marginalized, and then fell to pieces. Once he concluded that all was hopeless, Sakis moved to Scotland to study environmental science. He hasn’t looked back.

The paths – we walked many of them together, for he knew more than anyone under the age of 70 here about them – are no longer part of his life. Stamatis Bitsikos lies in his grave. I’ve trekked about abandoned monasteries, learned the Roman quarries and their roads by heart; I know where to find Turkish fountains, a quarry niche inscribed in Latin (dated 132 CE) by one of Hadrian’s officers, and the paths to the very end of Kavodoros; I’ve trekked the seacliff ways to the ruins at Arhaboli; I’ve hiked to Mt. Ohi’s Hellenistic dragonhouse, to Plakoti’s Hellenistic dragonwalls; I know where to find the tubular tiles of Roman water channels, stone Byzantine footbridges, abandoned villages, stone shepherd huts, the ruins of Ottoman inns. I trek, mostly alone, with our dog Sam, and when like-minded friends visit, I take them to some places I’ve been and to some places I first went with Sakis. He says he will never return.

Next: Part 2

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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