For all those worried about me travelling alone, imagining that I am lonely, I can put your minds at rest. I now have a 4 legged friend…
There is a mountain, flat topped and home to an abandoned monastery and the remains of a temple to Zeus, built some time around the 10th century BC. A place shrouded in history – Homer talks of this mountain in the Iliad, and it takes its name from a Messenian myth about the birth of Zeus. Apparently he was brought up in Messene and nursed by the Nymphs Ithome and Neda; it was from Neda that the name of the river derives, while the other Nymph, Ithomi, gave her name to the mountain.
So writes Pausanias. This is the mountain that I saw from the temple of Apollo Epicurius, and nestled at the base of Ithomi is Ancient Messene, one of the most impressive sights of the Peloponnese.
One perfect evening, as the sunlight cast a misty haze over the mountains, I walked another beautiful mountain road, towards these famous sites. I passed through sleepy villages stuck to the mountainside, and barely inhabited collections of houses, the suns’ rays illuminating the white walls and the tiled terracotta roofs of the houses, setting them aflame in a burst of bright red. It was a balmy evening, and I was in high spirits. I had had one of those incredible meetings, where the kindness of strangers leaves me speechless. I had stopped for a rest in the tiny village of Malthi, where I met Kristina, a smiling laughing Albanian lady dressed in pink sweats. She asked me in wonder about my trip and seemed a little concerned as she sauntered off along the paved road of the village, bidding me farewell. I sat down in a square in the sunshine to have a late lunch and relax. Little by little the square filled up with 4 or 5 curious old men, who came to sit in the shade and talk. Today they had a new topic – me, the stranger in the village. They gave a running commentary as I prepared some food, looking at me with astonished expressions as I pulled various items from my bag. “Now he’s cutting bread” or “what’s that? ah cheese”, nodding their heads in approval. As I was tucking in to my very simple picnic, Kristina suddenly appeared carrying an overflowing plate – pork chops, chips, feta, olives, half a loaf of homemade soughdour bread, and 2 freshly boiled eggs from her chickens. I was completely speechless, and she just smiled hugely and laughed, before sitting down in the shade contentedly to watch me eat. Soon after her children arrived from school. They both spoke good English and I was invited for a coffee at their house, a small bungalow surrounded by orange trees and chickens. Kristina, buzzing around trying to feed me more, told me she had lots of olive trees (and the BEST olive oil), and sheep and lambs. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she told me that the pork had come from her pigs and she had slaughtered it specially in my honour! She is such a wonderful, bubbly character, and when I asked to take a photo with her she giggled like a school girl, ran inside and appeared a few minutes later dressed in smart clothes, wearing earings and make-up! And there was me standing in my sweaty walking clothes!
I walked out of the village with a bag of food from Kristina, and a little while later I was still contemplating this when I saw something on the side of the road….a beach umbrella and a tiny abandoned creature, her green eyes staring at me unblinkingly, as if to say “take me with you”. So that’s just what I did. I am happy to introduce you all to my new travel companion:
It’s a little like a scene out of toy story actually – maybe she comes to life when I sleep. Anyway, I’m pretty sure she’s the only Peloponnesian giraffe in the world. But what to call her? She is by the way quite clearly female, and I thought for a moment I would name her Kristina in honour of my earlier meeting, but somehow it didn’t fit. I tucked her into the side of my bag and contemplated this as I walked. I passed a village where 4 children were playing in the streets and they burst out in a peal of laughter at the sight of me and my new mascot.
And then it came to me, her name was so obvious, so simple…Ithomi!
Together we visited the ruins of Ancient Messene.
Although it has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, the ruins seen today are from 369 BC, when it was refounded as the capital of the independent state of Messenia. It has been preserved exceptionally and many parts have now been restored without losing their magic. It became an important political and cultural centre during Roman times, and the ruins are quite magnificent. A fantastic stadion stands at the furthest reaches, with grassy banks for the spectators on both sides, a semicircle of stone steps and impressive columns at one end which preserve the aesthetic grace of the design. A building in the form of a Doric temple with 4 columns stands at its head – a mausoleum to a powerful Messenian family from Roman times. An impressive restored theatre is used for concerts and performances in the summer months, and the sanctuary of Asklepios is a highlight, functioning as the religious and political heart of the city.
From the modern village of Mavromati, which caters for visiting tourists and overlooks Ancient Messene, a “footpath” (but really just a goat track) climbs the mountain to the summit of Ithomi. With my new companion I set off to watch the sunset, a steep climb up gave exceptional birds-eye views of the ruins below, dwindling ever smaller with every step.
Ithomi stands guard over Ancient Messene (the old walls used to run all the way up) and throughout history was an important defensive sight, a stronghold on top of an unreachable summit, and the Messenians took refuge there whenever they needed to. It was here that the helots (Messenians conquered by the Spartans and then forced to work as slaves) held out for 10 years when they rebelled against their Spartan masters, following an earthquake in 464BC.
After an hour or so we arrived at the summit. The ancient temple foundations of Zeus Ithomatus are still visible, and a quite beautiful monastery sits proudly on the highest point, silently contemplating the 360 panoramic view. You understand why they would have built a temple up there – the peace and tranquility is enhanced by the panorama, encircled by mountains, snow capped to the north and east. I jumped the walls of the monastery to investigate inside and found flowers carpeting the courtyard and beautiful frescoes painted on the crumbling walls inside.
As the sun sank behind the mountains, I sat with Ithomi in awe, feeling the power of nature, and its importance for our own well-being. The sun disappeared to be replaced by the lights of Kalamata on the plain below, which started to pop up and appear out of the inky blackness, their artificial glow contrasting with the stars in the sky. The cool of night descended, and so did I, following the main road back down to the village. There was no moon but the stars were twinkling in the sky with such intensity that they lit my path. Meditatively I contemplated our place in the universe, and felt completely at ease and at peace, in harmony with nature. As I neared Mavromati, the sounds of chanting drifted up from the church, creating a strangely mystic atmosphere and guiding me to the village.