To Greece of Yore

Driving around Greece's Peloponnese region, one learns to distinguish its ruin-rich history from the popular imagery of white seaside houses.  
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For the writer and her friends, the Piraeus port’s large parking lot doubled as an ad-hoc photo session zone. Photo by: Tejal Pandey

It had been a little over a month for me on Paros, a Cycladic island in Greece, in the November of 2011.

By then, I had become quite accustomed to the rhythms of island life. Or so I thought. I realised the extent of my affinity for this new environment only after spending a week away. It was mid-term break at The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, where I was pursuing a course in art and photography, and four of us students were invited to spend the holiday at a friend’s ancestral home in Karyes. Greece so far for me meant the islands around Paros, Athens and the Aegean Sea. So the mention of her village conjured up an image of yet another sleepy little seaside hamlet.

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Karyes is known for its cheese, olives, and olive oil—but the writer’s favourite was the fresh blueberry jam, gifted by a local friend. Photo by: Tejal Pandey

After a four-hour ferry ride to Piraeus in Athens, we were greeted by my friend’s uncle who was kind enough to lend us his car for our road adventures. We set out a little after noon, on what I was told would be a three-hour road trip up to Karyes, a picturesque village located at the foothills of the Parnon mountain range in the Laconia prefecture. The ferries that ply between the Cycladic islands and Athens are usually well-rigged with a full pantry service, so the only pit-stop we really made was for fuel and a certain Bailey’s milkshake that my friend had been eagerly looking forward to. As we pulled away from Athens into mainland Greece, the landscape transformed. I sensed the sea recede into the distance as we headed south towards the Peloponnese—a region I had never heard of, until then. More a peninsula, the area is significant for being home to the ancient towns of Sparta and Mycenae—birthplace of the Mycenaean civilisation which lasted from 1600-1100 B.C., and was Europe’s first major civilisation. Karyes itself is located just an hour’s drive away from Sparti, the town where Sparta once stood, and another major town, Tripoli.

We had no smart phones and GPS and worked our way out old-style, with a real paper map and my friend’s memory. By the time we entered Karyes, it was too dark to tell land from sea. Chips, fruits and other edibles depleted, we gorged on all the available Greek fare at Ardamis, a diner outside the village. The saganaki, a fried cheese appetizer with a squeeze of lemon, and the meaty gyros, I recall in fond memory. By the time we turned in for the night, Karyes had turned eerily quiet. I remember feeling the fatigue of travel and yet being unable to sleep. The stillness and the silence, accentuated by the biting cold, took some getting used to. A deceptive sun gave temporary respite the next morning, taking away the gloom of a wintry night. Looking out at the village from the wooden verandah of my friend’s house, I felt like I could very well have been in an Alpine village somewhere in Switzerland.

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Amid the medieval ruins of Mystras lie remains of homes inhabited through centuries and across empires (left). Mystras is exemplary for its Byzantine church architecture, and is also speckled with Romanesque and Gothic art (right). Photos by: Tejal Pandey (landscape), Violeta Meleti/shutterstock (ruins)

Karyes looked postcard-perfect with its winding roads and red-roofed homes. It was different from Paros in every way. The mountains here felt intimidating as opposed to the island’s hills that looked accessible enough to traverse on foot. Unlike the salty island breeze, the air here carried the heady, sweet scent of walnut and chestnut trees. They also gave Karyes its other name—Arachova or Megali Arachova, meaning place or grand place of walnuts, as it was referred to in Byzantine times. We spent all of one morning climbing these massive plane trees, many of which have trunks hollow enough for you to hide inside of them.

Walking around the village, one understands the peculiar calm of Karyes. There is no denying its pristine aura, a world untouched by modernity. Not surprisingly, it was also said to be home to the Hellenic goddess Artemis, protector of young girls, in whose honour the Caryatids—mythical maidens from Caryae or Karyai, an ancient Greek name for present day Karyes-—performed chorus dances. But today, the village is populated largely by the elderly as the younger lot has migrated to either other cities in Greece or to other states across Europe and America. A lot of homes lie abandoned, languishing away. Summer though is a livelier time to visit the village as cafés and squares buzz with people late into the evenings. But if one is looking for the quintessential lonesome, silent mountain town experience, Karyes in the winters it must be. Even layers of woollens might fall short if you plan to step out after sunset during the season. An evening walk, however short, up the steep slopes in the punishing cold seemed like a Herculean task. We would often find ourselves running to our destination to keep warm. Some evenings when we felt less brave, we simply stayed in, snacking on fresh chestnuts that we roasted ourselves in the fireside.

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Mystras’s stone walls hold multiple portals for natural light to pour in from all directions, highlighting its architectural nuances (left). Mycenae, a Bronze Age city, holds archaeological treasure troves, such as The Tomb of Agamemnon, who led the seige of Helen (top right). The Peloponnese region is significant in Greek history for being home to the ancient towns of Sparta and Mycenae (bottom right). Photos by: Tejal Pandey (stone walls), Jan Wlodarczyk/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (tomb), MIXA/ Dinodia Photo Library (ruins)

Thankful to have a car to drive around in, we tried our best to make the most of our short daylight hours. One cannot, if on this side of the Pelopponese, miss visiting the ruins at Mystras. Barely a 10-minute ride by road from Sparti lies what was once the fortified capital town of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea (Morea being what the Peloponnese was called in the Middle Ages). Home to the Palaiologos family—the last of Byzantine Greek royalty, the town became an important center for culture as well as politics. It remained inhabited right up to 1832, through the Ottoman reign and was deserted only when the new town of Sparti sprang up around 1834. Even today, walking through the ruins that offer breathtaking views of the sprawling civilisation below, one can feel the narrow lanes echo with its rich history. Mystras, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the “lost treasure” that our friend’s granddad would take her to visit as a child. We could see why.

Driving back to Athens, we spent a while at the town square in Sparti, eating spanakopitas (traditional Greek spinach pies) by our car and recreating in our minds the ancient town of Sparta that once stood in the very spot. Be it Mycenae to the north of the peninsula, or Sparta and Mystras to the south, one cannot separate the overwhelming sense of history that washes over you while you travel through the Peloponnese. Our minds full of all that we had seen and felt in the past six days, we returned to the warmth and open seas of Paros. This time around, it was the Peloponnese that was receding into the distance, as was our trip, like a fantastical voyage into a great big book of history, legends and mythology.

Essentials

Getting There There are no direct flights between India and Greece. Flights to Athens from major Indian metro cities usually include one or more layovers at a Middle Eastern or European gateway such as Dubai, Doha, Frankfurt and Rome.

The best time to visit Greece is in spring (Apr-mid-Jun) and autumn (Sep-Oct), when the weather is mild, and the crowd less.

VISA Indian travellers to Greece need a Schengen visa. Applications can be made to the Embassy of Greece in New Delhi or one of the VFS Application centres around the country (www.vfsglobal.com; single entry visa Rs4,860, free for children under 12)

Getting Around Karyes is about 220 km/3 hr from Athens airport by road. Take a bus, train, or taxi to Piraeus, which is Athens’s main port (50 km/1 hr) or to Karaiskaki Square (40 km/45 min). Intercity public transport, or KTEL of Laconia, have regular buses plying from Piraeus port and Karaiskaki Square to Karyes. These journey also include the Tripoli-Sparta and Sparta-Korinth routes.

Should you too choose to use Karyes as your travel base, Sparti is about an hour away by road; Karyes to Mystras is 40 min; and Karyes to Mycenae is about an hour-and-a-half.

Eat Do not forget to sample sumptous staples like saganaki, a fried cheese appetizer, the meaty gyros, and spanakopita, the traditional spinach pie.

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Catching the evening ferry back to Paros from Piraeus affords views of an Aegean sunset, and dusk settling upon lit-up islands (top). The cemetery in Karyes offers a spectacular view of the village located at the foothills of the Parnonmountains (bottom left). The writer climbed ancient plane trees (bottom right), believed to have been planted by the Mycenaean king Menelaus in 1100 B.C. Photos by: Tejal Pandey

  • Tejal Pandey is an independent photographer and writer. She loves travelling without fixed itineraries. She believes art, food and wine have healing properties and is endlessly drawn to places by the sea.

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