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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.