Backpacking Reblog Week Two: Deep into the Pelopennese

Here’s what I wrote in my diary on the evening of January 16th, in Kalamata.

Today started off brilliantly. I slept predictably awfully, but got up feeling happy and strong. I breakfasted cheaply, got some dough, mailed some letters and set off for the site.
Along the way I trod on a rock and went arse over turkey. My left knee is grazed and a little swollen. Predictably, my right ankle is dudded. My Reeboks seem to be sweating, too.

I’m surprised by this diary entry, because I remember the fall I took that bright morning as being rather more serious. I had indeed slept badly, but cannot remember the breakfast or the money changing.

But I do recall walking towards the site of Olympia, which involved taking the main road out of town back the same way I had come. The road sweeps around to the left.

I walked on the shoulder and didn’t see the rock coming. I planted my right foot and went over. Splat.

I was carrying all my kit at the time. I’d bought a travel pack for the trip and at the time it was fashionable to include a zip-off day pack. I bought the pack months before I left and experimented with it a lot. I eventually decided the zip-off day pack was too small to be useful, so acquired another day pack. The zip-off pack became my toilet bag.

So as I walked towards Olympia I had on a rather full pack and a day pack on my front. I was buoyant and excited to visit the site, so between euphoria and a heavy load I can see why I fell.

The diary mentions a knee and a “buggered” ankle. My ankles troubled me all the way through my later teenage years. They just ached a bit, without ever really stopping me from doing anything. But this fall made the right one really hurt. I recall lots of swelling and to this day there is a small lump near that ankle that I’ve been told is a Ganglion (maybe a Ganglion Cyst) caused by the fact that when I fell my joint hyper-extended and some bits of my ankle’s innards got squirted out into a new location.

I remember limping about Olympia and deciding, as it stiffened and the pain dulled, that I would not seek medical attention. I imagined returning to Athens to find an English-speaking doctor and being told not to walk on the ankle. That wasn’t an outcome I was willing to accept, so I limped on in no real pain but worrying discomfort.

Olympia itself didn’t impress me. Some ruins retain a powerful sense of how the site was used or the minds of the makers. Olympia’s not one of those.

My diary mentions the temple of Olympian Zeus as impressive for the massive size of its masonry and laments the lack of signs describing the other ruins. My entry also notes that I decided not to visit the local museum as “After my spill, I just wanted out.”

Out was a town called Pyrgos whose only interest was that it lay on a train line. I hoped to reach Sparta, but settled for Kalamata. I remember dozing happily on the journey, which took me through flat country covered in Orange orchards. It was all very idyllic until some local kids threw oranges at the train, striking the windows and waking me suddenly and unpleasantly.

I’ve two regrets about Kalamata.

The first is that I was ignorant of its status as the home of the world’s finest olives. Had I known, I would have indulged.

The second involves a jacket I’d bought in Athens.

I left Australia without a winter jacket. I think I had decided that nothing suitable could be acquired in Sydney, given the difference between its climate and that of Europe in winter, so I planned to buy one in Athens. In 1992 Athens was not a good shopping destination. I eventually bought a padded cloth jacket which looked alright but was not very warm. I discovered that the hard way in Nafplion and Olympia. Neither were very cold, but I had not been very warm.

Kalamata, I discovered, was home to a Levis factory. Every kid I spotted had a nice jacket. I’d blown my dough on a dud in Athens :-(

The next day I decided to go to Sparta, via. Megalopolis. This modestly named town was founded by slaves after they threw off their Spartan oppressors. I wanted to visit it because it had been pointed out to me a in a classics lecture that its agora (town square and marketplace) was probably covered due to high rainfall. I remember the town having a broad, treeless square that I crossed feeling a little odd – there were local eyes on me. The site was unattended, guarded by just a gate and a single signpost.

The agora was barely distinguishable but the earthworks of the theatre were obvious. My diary notes with disappointment that only six rows of stone seating remained.

Various other buses, through loathsome Tripolis again, led to Sparta where budget hotels were closed for winter. My diary notes I had to pay 3000 drachmae a night – about twenty budget-blowing dollars – a night for a proper hotel.

I arrived in the evening and was quickly struck by Sparta’s beauty:

“As the bus arrived it was the very end of dusk. Only grays were left of the day’s light and clouds were scattered through the sky, some hanging over snow-capped mountains. In the dim light it became possible to seperate the mountains, the snow, the snowline and the shadows in the clouds.”

That’s the first piece writing in the diary I am proud of. The entry for Sparta also mentions finding a souvlaki bar run by Americans and says I hoped to interview them. Reading that reminded me of the fact that before I left, friends had won the election to edit the University of Technology student newspaper, Vertigo. But for my trip I would have been part of the team, although I had discussed sending back stories. Apparently my naive news values imagined the souvlaki guys could be a story! I didn’t pursue it – the idea of sending home stories never got going. The diary says I asked for an interview but was gently rebuffed. The next day I met another Spartan American, in the bakery where I bought what I recorded as “today’s bread” – an insight into my diet. The diary says “my journalistic nerves tingled, but I feel short on chutzpah right now.” I felt short for the rest of the trip, actually. Looking back, I cringe at my lack of application! I wonder if someone had written a story about the expat Americans of Sparta since or if the idea is and was madness.

For some reason I did not visit Sparta’s ruins next. Instead I went to a Byzantine ruin called Mystras about which I remember nothing (my diary says the views were great) before retiring to my hotel room and reading for three hours. “My ankle certainly felt better for the rest,” says my diary entry.

What was I reading?

Writing this reblog ha jogged my memory and I think it was Pausanias, a roman who wrote an extensive guide to greece.

The next day Sparta was stunning. The ruins are free. Main street drains out to the north into an olive grove littered with ruins. Sparta famously didn’t build monuments, so most of what’s left is Roman. The same lecturer who told me about Megalopolis told a story about the Spartan Cheese Festival which involved Spartan youth attempting to steel cheese under the gaze of whip-wielding elders. Originally a part of passage from youth to manhood, my lecturer explained that the Romans built a theatre for it and turned it into a tourist attraction. I saw the theatre!

Witnessing this kind of site was important to me back then – I liked to consolidate my study. Even though by 1922 I was on the cusp of finishing a degree in Communications, Classics was my academic love.

It seems I left Sparta after visiting the site bound for Monemvassia, a town notable for a colossal rock just offshore. The rock was of course fortified by various civilisations.

I recall the rock as dull – being winter it was mostly closed so I got in a quick walk through the old town built beneath the fortress. The highlight of the trip was a winding bus ride through ancient olive groves. I’m not hyping it up when I say ancient – these trees were obviously very, very old. I could see how they had grown in and around themselves over many years. I can picture those trees still today.

I think by this stage I realised that being off the beaten track in the Pelopennese in winter wasn’t very fruitful. So much was obviously closed. What was left wasn’t very interesting. Athens beckoned because:

“I hope to be able to spend a day in a laundrette, a day in a museum and a day or two at Delphi. After that, it looks like Crete.”

I remember feeling a little let down. The Pelopennese was the only part of the trip I had planned. It had gone well, but not super-well.

At least on my return to Athens I found better lodgings. “Festos” was a downtown budget hotel with dorm rooms and lots of young travellers. I wrote that it was “more expensive, but worth it for the vibe. The bar is good and it’s a good meeting place.”

I called home, read a newspaper to get the cricket score and met Dave and Veronica, a pair of honeymooning Americans who were also keen on visiting Delphi. I bet none of us imagined we’ sleep together the next night … as I will explain in my next post.

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