After 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.
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.
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.
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.