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Citadelle de Larissa à Argos. Les remparts présentent plusieurs niveaux superposés : antique, byzantin, franc et turc.

Citadel of Larissa, Argos. The ramparts show several overlayed periods: Ancient, Byzantine, Franc, Turk.


The Arcadian shepherd

Une ânière du Péloponèse

A Peloponnesian donkey driver.

One Spring morning in 2009 I found myself, after some kilometers of an unlikely mountain road, in front of a little ancient sanctuary with the mysterious name of «Lykossoura». It was deep in Peloponnese, in other words, at the end of the world.

In this solitude the silence was somewhat broken by the tinkling bells of a little herd. I took up conversation with the guardian, a woman of indeterminate age with a weather-beaten face, amazed that I addressed her in her own language. So this was an Arcadian shepherd, but certainly ignorant of the connotations of this term. She was not playing a double aulos, but listening to music discretely on a transistor radio. I stroked her cowering dog with blue-green eyes and asked her about her goats ; she asked me where I was from and when I told her about my animals, she was immediately anxious to know who was guarding them.

For me, whose contact with Ancient Greece was, for such a long time, only through books, the fact of being able, in such an immutable setting, to communicate with a being who seemed to have come down the centuries, suddenly filled me with joy.

This was the first of what I have called, in the course of my travels, « my magic moments ».

The guardian at Mystra

Monastère de la Périvleptos («Visible de partout») à Mystra.

The Monastery of Perivleptos («Visible from all round») at Mystra.

As I travel low season, it so happens that I find some sites closed. So I have become past-master in the art of finding the inevitable gap in the fencing or scaling the gates. But when it’s a matter of museums or churches and one finds a wooden door, the same is not possible.

At Mystra, the ancient Byzantine city neighbouring Sparta, crowned by the stronghold of Villehardouin, which shelters a dozen or more restored churches and monasteries, I was able to see everything : I was lucky because it is very unusual to have an attendant for each place during low season. The caretaker of the Monastery of Perivleptos seemed happy to see me enter because, that day, he must have had no more than a dozen people. He had a divergeant gaze which made him resemble Sartre ; also he revealed himself as a philosopher during our long conversation. Initially, he drew my attention to the magnificent 14th century frescos, the most beautiful in Mystra, dating from the reign of Manuel Cantacuzene.

Naissance du Christ. Fresque de la Périvleptos.

Birth of Christ. Fresco of Perivleptos.

Before studying modern Greek my knowledge of the Byzantine Empire was extremely patchy, not to say non-existent. I therefore immersed myself in the study of this epoch, having discovered that contemporary Greeks consider it fundamental to their heritage. And among the aspects which still fascinate me, the names of the emperors have an important place : Michael of Amorium, Basil the Bulgaroctone, Constantin Monomaque, Alexis Comnene, Isaac Ange, Andronic Paleologue… here you find more style than Pepin the Short, Charles the Bald or Louis the Large!

As I observed the poor condition of certain frescos, the attendant launched into a long exposition about the Brussels subsidies which often ended up in the pockets of local dignitaries, the descendants of the Spartans having certainly not preserved the frugality of their manners. With these thoughts we parted, after he had virtuously declined my tip.


The Monastery of Leonidion

Demeure Tsikaliotis (1808 ) à Léonidion.

Tsikaliotis mansion (1808) at Leonidion.

For my second trip to the east of Peloponnese, I decided to stop, on the Monemvasia road, in the little town of Leonidion, which mocks the tourists, and vice versa for it is not by the sea. But this modest town with its scarlet roofs, in its circus ring of reddish cliffs, has in my eyes a unique speciality : until recently people spoke Tsakonian, a language originating from the Doric dialect of Antiquity, this region of Sparta having always cultivated its distinctiveness from Athens. I had therefore resolved to make a recording of a speaker of Tsakonian. Alas I was told that the last people who still speak it are very difficult to find. So I had to give up and find some via the Internet on my return.

Monastère St Nicolas Sitzas près de Léonidion

Monastery St Nicolas of Sitzas near Leonidion.

On the other hand I made the acquaintance of Evyenia (Eugenie), a friendly young teacher of Greek ( one says « philologue » in their language ), who allowed me to visit the beautiful town-house Tsikaliotis (1808) which had belonged to a trader in wood who supported the War of Independence. She confided diffidently that she survived with difficulty, during this crisis, by giving personal tuition. She guided me round the town for an hour and introduced me to the priest who advised me to pay a visit to the monastery of St Nicholas of Sitza some five kilometers away. She put me on the road, difficult to find, because it figures in no guide book.

The monastery road, quite vertiginous, is in part cut into the cliff-side in an imposing position. The buildings cling above a void under a cantilever of red-ocre rocks; much renovated, the buildings look better from a distance than from near but the site is magical, with a magnificent view of Leonidion from the terrace. I was welcomed by the sole nun, a very small ageless woman who, duly warned by the priest, opened the heavy door for me, then gave me fruit and sweets. As she was astonished to see me travelling alone, I told her I was not afraid of solitude. She said nor was she, but that she preferred to be locked in : some years earlier, the last two nuns at an isolated monastery in the region had been murdered.

Going back down I thought about the existence of this woman, in this overwhelming landscape where I could not see myself living alone all the year round, in spite of my character. Perhaps it is impossible except with the help of faith?

The black cat of Mani

Vue générale de Vathia

General view of Vathia.

The Mani, the middle peninsular in Southern Peleponnese, the Finistere of mainland Greece, harbours a proud and touchy people, the Maniotes, who were even pirates in former times. During the period of their occupation, the Turks dared not penetrate the region, and the local chiefs payed them tax by brandishing a sword!

Le chat noir de Vathia. Magne.

The black cat of Vathia. Mani.

This treeless and rocky area had known, after Greek Independence, an emigration even more massive than the rest of the country. But in the last few years people have started to restore the abandoned villages : they are occupied in summer by Greeks from Australia or the USA and by a few strangers, seduced by these austere places and their unique architecture.

The village of Vathia is one of the most typical. When I stayed there, it was just the end of March and it was deserted. However I had found a travelling companion, a pretty black cat whose sweetness contrasted with his disturbing colour. He rubbed up against my legs while purring all along the silent streets. The houses, proper towers with little windows, had, in former times, no staircase, only ladders which one could hoist up in case of attack. In fact each quarter was occupied by a clan which confronted the other through ancestral blood feuds.

I returned to the car ; the little cat was sitting on a wall and watched me leave, solitary guardian, black soul of Mani.