The Temple of Apollo Epikoureios at Vassai

Prodromou Monastery, Lousios Gorge

Prodromou Monastery, Lousios Gorge

After Dimitsana we set off on a roundabout route to Vassai, stopping off at the Lousios Gorge and Ancient Gortys.

Ancient Gortys is on a raised piece of ground before the gorge starts to narrow. There’s not much to see there now, mainly an Asklepeion which looks as though it had a sunken circular bath with stone seats for ritual bathing; and another building though impossible to tell what it might have been.

As the gorge narrows the first of the three monasteries, the Prodromou (named after John the Baptist) that are located along it stands perched impossibly on the edge of the opposite cliff. It is fierce early afternoon heat and we soon realise that we are not properly equipped to explore the gorge. There is supposed to be a stone bridge across the raging torrent of the River Lousios in the gorge and a path across it that takes you up to the Prodromou monastery. I can only think that rather than a walk it must involve a proper rock climb as the cliff wall is sheer. The other two monasteries which we don’t see are called Palaia and Nea Filosofou. The exploration of the gorge will need a separate trip on another occasion, either earlier or later in the year when it is cooler.

Near the site of Ancient Gortys there is a very small Byzantine Church dedicated to Agios Andreas. It has been restored and unfortunately is locked, but it is interesting to see a column from the nearby ruins of Ancient Gortys being used as a doorstop.

Agios Andreas, Ancient Gortys

Agios Andreas, Ancient Gortys

The sleepy old village of Andritsaina back up in the mountains has seen better days. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it thrived on the supply of mules to take curious travellers up the 11km to the Temple of Apollo Epikoureios at Vassai. The Cadogan guide mentions the old shops with wooden shop fronts dating back to the 20s and 30s in the main square. Now all the old shops are closed and neglected.

But Vassai itself does not disappoint. It is notable for two reasons. It is set in what has been described as ‘the wildest, most remote and god-haunted areas of Greece’. It is also, after the Temple of Ifaistos in Athens, one of the best preserved ancient temples in the country. The setting for it is superb, looking out over a bare scrub landscape with no sign of human habitation.

Vassai - view from the temple

Vassai – view from the temple

Vassia - view from the temple

Vassia – view from the temple

The Temple was built by the people of Ancient Figaleia on Mount Kotilio at a height of 1130 metres. Vassai means ‘ravines’ and the people of Figaleia had already built a temple to Apollo there back in the seventh century BC. The Temple of Vassai we know today was built on this ancient site between 420-400 BC out of local limestone. It was dedicated to Apollo Epikoureios (supporter in war or illness) for sparing them from plague in 429 BC and, according to Pausanias, was designed by Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon.

The Temple has been undergoing restoration since the 1980s and is not due to be finished until 2020. Personally I think that that is vastly over-optimistic, given the scale of the project and the rate at which it is progressing. Today the temple lies under a protective marquee-style structure, so you can’t see it in the landscape as it was meant to be seen.

The protective covering over the temple

The protective covering over the temple

Once inside the marquee though, even in its current state, it is a breath-taking structure. There stands a 2,400 year old temple with most of its columns still standing, though some at rather odd angles.

The Temple of Vassai - inside the marquee

The Temple of Vassai – inside the marquee

The Temple of Vassai - inside the marquee

The Temple of Vassai – inside the marquee

The inner wall of the cella has been re-built with the original stones and one by one the huge stone columns are being lifted, reinforced and re-seated on firmer footings.

The Temple at Vassai - foundations

The Temple at Vassai – foundations

It is painstakingly slow work involving archaeologists, architects and engineers: the process is very well illustrated by a 23 minute film on the preservation work that plays on a loop. The beginning of the film includes a haunting hymn to Apollo sung in Ancient Greek with lyre accompaniment which adds enormously to the atmosphere, reminding us that this was once a place of worship and focus of belief for the local people, and not lifeless ruins.

The Temple of Vassai -inner and outer columns

The Temple of Vassai -inner and outer columns

The Temple of Vassai

The Temple of Vassai

The limestone columns are badly pitted and worn by the extremes of weather experienced at this height and it oftens snows up here in winter.

The Temple at Vassai - state of the columns

The Temple at Vassai – state of the columns

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The whole site has a great sense of atmosphere. The weather up here is very changeable and, as we approached the marquee, it suddenly came over cloudy and cold, as if the god was making clear his feelings about strangers coming to his sanctuary. Around the site are scattered the ruins of other buildings, but unfortunately their purpose is not clear and not explained by the leaflet available on site.

Ruins on the site of the Temple at Vassai

Ruins on the site of the Temple at Vassai

I discovered after returning to England that Vassai also suffered from the English obsession with acquiring antiquities, often by dubious means. In this case an English architect, Charles Robert Cockerell removed the 23 frieze metopes around the cella, with the permission of the local Ottoman governor in Megalopoli. He then shipped them to Zante and sold them in 1815 to the British Museum. The frieze, now in its own gallery in the BM, illustrates two classic subjects: the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons and battle between the Lapiths and centaurs.

There are several things which puzzle me about this temple. It must have cost a lot of money to build such a splendid sanctuary, using one of the greatest Greek architects of the day. How did the people of Ancient Figaleia afford it? How did they get all the materials to the site (Ancient Figaleia is about 10km away)? Did all the manpower come from Figaleia? And why did they build it so far away from Figaleia when it would have involved quite a long journey up the mountains to get to it? Vassia is not even visible from Figaleia and you can only see it when you are quite close to it.

In fact Ancient Figaleia was once a city which made its money from being a transit point on the River Nedha between Arcadia and the sea. Also it was not known for its piety, but had a reputation as a hard drinking place with a liking for sorcery. So even more strange that they should expend such effort and money in building the temple.

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Exploring the Mainalo mountains of Arkadia

DimitsanaAfter Olympia we set off to explore the Mainalo mountains in the north-west of Arkadia, so we head for the village of Dimitsana, at the head of the Lousios Gorge. Following the main road from Pyrgos to Langhada, we see a sign to Dimitsana showing it is only 43km. Of course, mountain distances are deceptive: 43km on the flat bear no comparison to driving 43km along winding mountain roads – and these roads do twist and turn constantly as they follow the contours of the mountains.

There is very little traffic, mainly local by the look of it. Just as well as the roads are in a poor state of repair: lots of pot holes, rocks and small boulders strewn across them and grass growing through the tarmac too in places. But the scenery is stunning and it feels remote and wild. Passing through the occasional tiny village with its taverna we hardly see a soul.

As the light begins to fade and we despair of ever reaching Dimitsana, the road starts to dip down hill and almost immediately there is a sign in the road saying ‘Road Closed’. Dimitsana is tantalisingly visible somewhere lower down the hill, nestling in a fold in the mountains. Fortunately there is a cafe/bar at the top of the hill and the owner tells me that it’s an old sign and that we can get through if we drive carefully. I am not totally convinced but the thought of driving back along the road we have just come in the dark is not very attractive. We drive round the sign in the road and, after a few more bends, realise why the road has been closed. A big boulder ringed with cones blocks half the road. We edge cautiously round it and hit the road beneath Dimitsana. Above us now the mass of the main village clings to the side of the mountain.

Our first impressions aren’t great. The village is one long street with a left bend in it as it reaches the top of the hill. Groups of elderly men sitting outside the bars look at us curiously as we pass. In a spirit of adventure we haven’t booked anywhere to stay, relying on a couple of guide books for suggestions. Trying two or three of their recommendations, we are surprised to find them closed. It slowly dawns on us that this is because Dimitsana is a winter resort and this is their off-season.

Noticing an illuminated sign for a guest house on a building somewhere up high off the main street, we set off up a side alley to track it down. The guest house itself turns out to be in darkness, but as we start to turn back down we notice a man sitting on a high balcony of the house next door. He tells us to wait while he makes a phone call. Lights are suddenly switched on in the guest house and its owner appears. The guest house has only recently been modernised to a high level of finish. We choose a room on the second floor with an emperor bed covered in a mosquito net, a wood burning stove, a desk and chair and a fabulous bathroom finished in brown marble tiles. After thinking we might have to spend the night in the car, we sink gratefully into this little piece of luxury in the mountains.

Following the guest house’s recommendation for dinner, we eat at Sto Kioupi (In the Jar) which looks more modern and sophisticated than some of the other tavernas in the village. The food certainly lives up to the look of the place: my wife has khorta and mousaka. I have a dish described as scrambled eggs with tomatoes and spring onions. It is light, not overdone and the tomatoes have a strong, slightly sweet flavour. Much to the disappointment of our waiter who has been extolling the exceptional cookery skills of the chef and the fine local dishes, I choose chicken souvlaki for my main course. We both opt for the karidopita (walnut cake), lovely and light with a honey-soaked base and a strong cinnamon flavour. The wine is a dry and flowery organic white. We agree that this is one of the best meals we have ever eaten in Greece and certainly at 30€ one of the best value ones.

The next morning, opening the doors onto our small balcony, we can tell that we are in the mountains. It’s a lovely sunny morning with a cloudless blue sky but the air has a cool edge.

Alley in Dimitsana

Alley in Dimitsana

Breakfast is one of the most extensive we’ve ever had. It starts with a small plain omelette which is already waiting for us on the table. This is followed by: yoghurt with honey, nuts and two halves of a pear poached in red wine; toasted ham sandwiches; and small round pieces of fried flat dough soaked in honey. On a sidetable there’s muesli, different types of jam, tiropita and a couple of different cakes.    

In the main street there is a small market selling some lovely fruit and veg, and in the morning light and fresh mountain air Dimitsana is a delightful place.

Honey, veg and herb seller in the market at Dimitsana

Honey, veg and herb seller in the market at Dimitsana

In our eagerness to explore the mountains, we miss out on a visit to the water mill museum (at one time there were about 90 watermills in the village) and to the secret Greek school. These schools were run by the Orthodox Church during the Ottoman period and helped keep alive Greek language and culture.

Old house in Dimitsana

Old house in Dimitsana

More recently, back in England, I came across a documentary film called The Other Town which features Dimitsana and Birgi in western Turkey. Made by a young Turkish film-maker (Nefin Dinc) and a Greek academic (Iraklis Millas) working on Greek-Turkish rapprochement, it looks at the views, attitudes feelings and prejudices that the inhabitants of the two towns have towards past history and relationships between the two communities today. There’s  a trailer with English subtitles and more information about the film here: http://www.theothertown.com

Dimitsana has a special place in the history of Greek independence. It was the birthplace of Metropolitan Germanos III who on 25 March 25 1821 blessed the Greek flag at the monastery of Agia Lavra in Kalavrita which signalled the start of the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule. I haven’t yet seen the film, but I would love to go back to Dimitsana when I have seen it and spend more time exploring the village and the local area and finding out more about the local people.

Looking from Dimitsana towards Megalopoli and along the line of the Lousios Gorge

Looking from Dimitsana towards Megalopoli and along the line of the Lousios Gorge