JOHN KITTMER

Walking in Greece

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Through the eyes of a hiker, outgoing British Ambassador John Kittmer looks at the relationship between the landscapes and the narratives, through Lord Byron, the ancient Greek traveler Pausanias and the poet Yiannis Ritsos.

TAGS: Travel, Diplomacy

Outgoing British Ambassador to Greece John Kittmer recently gave a stirring farewell at the premises of the Benaki Museum in downtown Athens on the theme “Walking in Greece: Landscape/Narrative.” Kathimerini has published excerpts of his speech, a poetic and philosophical reading of the country’s landscape, which the philhellene Kittmer read out in Greek.

The British envoy has been traveling around Greece, often on foot, for the past 32 years. As a hiker, he looks at the relationship between the landscapes and the narratives, drawing examples about various places around the country from Lord Byron, the ancient Greek traveler Pausanias and the poet Yiannis Ritsos.

I am approaching the end of four years as British ambassador to Greece. Despite all of Greece’s problems – problems that have often disturbed and worried me, problems that have never, never left me feeling like an indifferent observer – it has been a unique, inspiring and beautiful journey. For me, it has been a multidimensional journey, not like that of a tourist or a businessman or even of a diplomat, but a true pilgrimage, a journey of the body, the mind and the soul.

(…) In September, I went for a hike with friends in Epirus. After flying to Ioannina and driving to Tsepelovo, we set off on a long circuit that included the staircase at Vradeto, the Gorge of Vikos, the ascent to the Astraka Refuge on the col of Mt Tymphe, and a walk to the Dragon Lake, before making our return to Tsepelovo.

We walked for four days. It was a beautiful and dramatic walk, with much to delight the senses. The depth of the canyon is momentous and vertiginous, but its floor is gentle and set in a human scale, with deciduous trees, and a carpet of cyclamen, ferns, fungi. The springs of the Voidomatis are ice-cold and crystalline. High above Papingo the faces of Astraka lose none of the exhilarating terror that the viewer feels from below. The whole experience is majestic, unforgettable. If you haven’t done it, you must!

But no British Philhellene can walk in Epirus without also thinking deeply about the journey there in 1809 of Lord Byron. It was his first visit to Ottoman lands. He was 21. He put into land at Preveza on 29 September. The immediate goal of this part of his travels was Ali Pasha, and he traveled on to Ioannina. The tyrannical “lion of Ioannina” was not in the city, but had left with the British consul an invitation for Byron to join him at his palace at Tepeleni. Undaunted, Byron set off on a long and grueling journey on horseback, across landscapes that terrified and delighted him. He eventually caught up with Ali Pasha in the middle of October and they struck up an unlikely friendship. (…)

In the Peloponnese

(…) Let us move south now, crossing from the lagoons of Mesolongi to the Peloponnese: still, I think, the heart of mainland Greece, and not just because of its role in the war of independence and founding of the Greek state.

I want us at this point to pick up, mentally at least, our copies of Pausanias, a Greek, probably from Lydia in Asia Minor, who wrote a 10-book “Periegesis Hellados” (Description of Greece) in the second century of our era. His second book covers Corinthia and the neighboring Argolid.

Over the past four years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know much better the hinterland of Corinth, known as Corinthia. Here the landscapes are wild and beguiling. Isolated and enfolded valleys, flooded in ancient times by lakes – the Stymphalian Lake, Lake Pheneos, rise higher and higher, one after the other, always under the lengthening shadows of the great peaks Helmos and Zireia. The villages are stubbornly independent, and often of great beauty. Stone-built archontika abound, alongside small, but proud churches. This area is associated with two of the Labors of Herakles: the Stymphalian Birds and the Nemean Lion. From Lake Stymphalia there are fragments of Hadrian’s great aqueduct, which led to Corinth. Around Nemea, which was painted so beautifully by Lear, there are now excellent vineyards. My favorite belongs to the genial and charming Mr Palyvos, who cultivates organic Agiorgitiko. Nearby, the results of Stephen Miller’s great excavations and reconstructions are evident at the Sanctuary of Zeus and the wonderful, wonderful stadium: I had the pleasure and privilege to run there in June of this year.

But I want to entice you gently out of this part of Corinthia, southwards into the neighboring Argolid. Our point of destination is the great Argive Plain, from which the Seven set out against Thebes.

Fringed by mountains and the most northerly bay of the Argolic Gulf, the plain is full now of orange groves, and in the right season you can see the trucks piled high with oranges – so high that the lowest oranges are squeezed by those on top. The walker is caught by a passing drizzle of the freshest, sweetest orange juice.

For me the plain itself and its point of entry from Corinthia are one of the marvels of Greece: both for the majesty of the landscape and for the narratives that saturate the soil. (…)

Monemvasia

(…) I want us now to head south from the Argolid into a southeastern corner of Lacedaemonia. (…) Monemvasia is one of those Aegean jewels through which pass only sunlight and the tramp of human feet and donkeys’ hooves. (…) Like all of you, I have only passed through Monemvasia on foot.So I feel fully entitled to include this grandest and most lovely of Byzantine and Venetian cities in this highly selective walking tour of Greece. (…) Here, the poet Yiannis Ritsos was born on 1 May 1909, in the Julian Calendar. (…) Ritsos captures the topography of this unique place in his collection “Monovasia,” written in the 1970s, when he was in his 60s. In the poem “Geographic Origins,” he recognizes its geographical liminality: suspended somehow between land and sea:

Precipitous rock – all day long drinking the scorching sun,
holding it in its entrails as faces the sea,
and you with your back leaning against the rock, with your breast
bared to the sea (...)


(Yannis Ritsos: Monovasia, XII Geographic origins; trans.: K. Friar, K. Myrsiades)

In his great poem “Romiosini,” Ritsos starts by talking about the stones of Greece as though they are actors in the great drama of Greek history. This wasn’t just a lazy trope. In Greece, every stone upturned by the walker’s foot has its story to tell. Let us take to our feet and continue to turn them up!

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