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Volos, historical and elusive

 An author finds inspiration in the port city of Thessaly, the site of ancient Iolkos

By Kostas Akrivos

A few months ago I had gone running in the foothills of Mount Pilio, near Volos in central Greece, when I came across Fotis. Fotis is said to live in a cave somewhere in the area – driven to the hermetic life by heartbreak – though no one knows exactly where. I waved at him from afar but was ashamed that I had not thought to take some change with me, a tithe to give to this impoverished dervish in exchange for what would certainly be a good tale – he has a reputation for storytelling.

The last time I had shared my change with him was a Sunday. I remember that Olympikos Volou had drawn against Niki Volou on the soccer pitch and we had just learned that the towns of Volos and Larissa had been named as candidates to host the Mediterranean Games – even though the crisis later made it impossible. Strange as it seemed, the two neighboring towns, traditionally torn by the usual regional rivalries, seemed to have worked things out.

It was still early in the early spring morning. The villages of Makrinitsa and Portaria on Mount Pilio were lost in the clouds and down below I could see the leaden waters of the Pagasetic Gulf on the horizon. I don’t know why, but I suddenly decided to shadow Fotis, to see how he spent his days. Then again, maybe I was thinking about Jacques Lacarriere and his classical work “Maria of Egypt,” where he says that if you really want to get to know a place, follow the first innocent who crosses your path.

Fotis greeted the men at the Yacht Club and then turned toward the Anavros River, which flows down from Pilio. I smiled at the thought that he may get lucky and find the sandal lost by the mythical Jason, son of the king of Iolcos. Jason had helped Hera, disguised as an old woman, cross the river but lost a sandal in the process – which of course helped him take the throne from Peleas by appearing before him half-shod as the oracle had predicted. When Fotis passed under the bridge which used to be crossed by the train to Milies, I mused that had he been in the same spot a century earlier, he could have been one of the odd figures in a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian artist who was born in Volos.

Lost in my musings, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t see Fotis anywhere. I headed toward the park outside the Archaeological Museum of Volos and peeked into the huts fashioned to look like the Neolithic dwellings found in Dimini and Sesklo just in case he was hiding there, but there was no sign of him. I headed toward Cassavetes Street and remembered an article I had read online the previous day. It was about a murder committed in 1901 in Athens on Angchesmou Street, today’s Voukourestiou. Theodoros Cassavetes was murdered by a member of another wealthy Volos family, the Kartali clan, over a broken engagement. The trial that followed made headlines for several weeks, enthralling the Greek public.

Down on the coast, the cafes were brimming with young people, while at the port Egyptian fishermen mended their nets while exchanging banter and jokes with their renowned seafaring colleagues from the village of Trikeri.

I had often seen Fotis hanging around near the Tsalapatas Brickworks Museum, so I headed that way. I passed the dilapidated house where the late director Theo Angelopoulos shot one of the most emblematic scenes of his 1975 film “The Traveling Players” and then headed uphill to the city’s old quarter. Archaeology Professor Giorgos Hourmouziadis believed that this is where the ancient city of Iolcos was located. In his seminal 1975 work “The Double Book,” meanwhile, Dimitris Hatzis described the tobacco workshops in this area during the great wave of Greek emigration in the post-World War II years, while earlier, in Ottoman times, the city’s mosque had served as a major landmark before it was torn down. Fotis remained elusive.

On the banks of the Kravsidonas River, flanked by plane trees and the Nea Ionia neighborhood, consisting of small houses built for migrants from Asia Minor that are huddled around the Evangelistria Church, an elderly woman invited me in for a glass of potent tsipouro. I thanked her and continued on my way. But I was getting peckish. At Doloma, a fish taverna near the old cemetery, I saw the usual crowd having the usual discussions. I was lost in my own thoughts when, after my third or fourth glass of tsipouro, I caught a movement on the sidewalk across the street. I saw Fotis, with a sack flung over one shoulder and some wildflowers clasped in his hand, hurrying toward the Panthessaliko Stadium. I paid the bill and started after him, suspecting that he was probably going to meet with a love interest.

I saw him duck into Xiria, an area that has become a Roma encampment. He was instantly surrounded by a gaggle of children. And Fotis, with the innocence of his penury, began passing out the flowers to the brown-skinned boys and girls, and I was elated.

* Kostas Akrivos is a writer. His latest novel, “Allazei poukamiso to fidi” (The Snake Changes Shirts), was recently published by Metaixmio.

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