IF “aller guten Dinge sind drei,” then our Thessalian party was of the right number. Professor Tarbell, the director of the American Archeological School at Athens, had planned the campaign; Mr. Roddy, a student, and myself made up the other sides of the triangle. Taking a Greek steamer at the Piraeus for Volo on the evening of the sixth of May, we wisely sought our berths before reaching Sunium, where Poseidon loves to rock the ocean cradle. The steamer for Volo avoids the uncertain temper of the AEgean and touches at the principal ports of Eubcea, which are on the west coast of the island, by sailing through the strait which separates it from Attica and Boeotia. This channel is made of two broad gulfs joined by a narrow strait, the Euripus, which is divided by an islet that undoubtedly formed part of a ligament between Eubcea and the mainland. The channel is but seventy feet wide on one side of this rock and thirty on the other. A remarkable natural feature is the strong and variable current which flows through this narrow strait. It was a puzzle to the ancients, and has been a provocation to their descendants. The statement of some of the early Greek and Roman writers that the current sometimes changed seven times a day is outdone by that of Rear-Admiral Mansell of the British navy, who says he has known it to change five times in an hour, and that the water driven north upon the Thessalian coast by strong southern winds will rush down through these straits against the wind at a velocity of eight knots an hour. One of the poisonous legends which sometimes entwine themselves round a great man’s memory had an aquatic origin here. It was to the effect that Aristotle drowned himself because he could not fathom the secrets of these currents, saying, ” Inasmuch as I cannot take thee in, take thou me in.” It seems a literary cruelty to spoil such a well-balanced antithesis even to save a philosopher from drowning, but the story has a fishy odor; and it is the man who swallows it who is taken in.
We arrived at the Euripus at seven A. M., and were obliged to wait three and a half hours on account of the tide. But that was not nearly so long as the Grecian fleet bound for Troy was detained here by adverse winds in the Bay of Aulis. Taking warning by the fate of Agamemnon and Iphigenia, we did not go hunting, but climbed the height to see just where a thousand Greek ships could find anchorage in the harbor. I suspect that they must have stretched out into the gulf, or that some of them found their keel only in Homer’s catalogue, which by floating these hypothetical ships was more easily floated itself.
Leaving Euripus, the channel widens into a gulf, with the fertile fields of Eubcea on the right and the mountains of Boeotia on the left. Though too late to catch a glimpse of Thermopylae, I fancied as we passed it that the atmosphere was a little warmer because the Spartan heroes had there breathed out their lives.
It was dark when we entered the Bay of Volo, and nine o’clock when we arrived at the port of that name at the head of this noble bay. Mount Pelion, 5,300 feet high, towers above the city, its slopes whitened by a score of villages long famous in Greece for their wealth and independence. I regretted that I had not time to visit these villages in detail and study the sources of their thrift. But an iron horse more powerful than the horses of Achilles was ready to rush over the fertile plains where the warrior’s steeds were reared. We had no time to climb Pelion to follow the trail of one-sandalled Jason or to find the ash-tree from which Chiron cut Peleus his famous spear. Eleven miles from Volo we reached Velestino. The smoke of the locomotive was mingled with a cloud of tradition which hung over the ancient Pherae. Apollo, who here served out his sentence as neatherd, King Admetus, Jason, Alcestis, and Hercules, were all floating in the invisible air, but could not be found on the solid earth. A black, snorting locomotive and a train of cars easily chase such apparitions to their graves. At Velestina the road to Larissa runs north over the broad fertile Thessalian plain. We were in no pent-up valley; we found something of the freedom of our prairies, which one gets nowhere else in Greece. Yet lest life here should become too flat and too profitable, Pelion and Mavro Vouni, the mountain wall to the east, and Ossa and Olympus to the north, say “Thus far and no farther.”
Through the Graeco-Turkish War Larissa has become familiar all over the world to people who had never heard of it before. Its reoccupation by the Turks gave them the key to Thessaly and opened the way to Volo. As we sought it in the spring of 1893, it was lying peacefully on the banks of the Peneius, a fine bridge spanning the classic river. The contrast between Larissa and Athens, or any of the larger cities of the Peloponnesus, is at once evident. The Turk has left his signature in mosque and pencilled minaret, in Oriental dwellings, in Turkish porters with capacious trousers, and that most democratic of all head-coverings worn by Sultan, generals, soldiers, gentlemen, bootblacks, porters, and babies, the Turkish fez. The storks were flying about with great liberty, and one of sedentary habits and Mohammedan affinities had built a nest on the top of a mosque and was sitting, upon it with ecclesiastical composure. The medley of dress in Larissa is cosmopolitan, but discordant. Some are half Turk and half European. Some wear the Greek fustanella, others confine their Hellenism to Greek shoes. Water is brought up from the river in large pouches or skins on the backs of mules.
So well have law and order been extended over Greece, that the only place where brigandage is likely to break out is along the northern or Turkish frontier; but we had good assurance that at Tempe no guard was necessary, and did not trouble ourselves to ask for a military escort. It is four and a half hours’ ride to Baba by carriage. We planned to spend the night at that little village at the opening of the Vale of Tempe and to return to Larissa the next day. The first hackman asked sixty drachmas, but by exploring the back streets we finally got one for thirty-five (about five dollars).
We started at half-past twelve. The roads were heavy from the rain of the previous night, the air was fresh, and the fields were green. Thessaly is still famous for its horses; many were grazing in the fields, and there were great flocks of sheep and goats, The broad expanse of plain was dotted here and there with oaks, elms and plane-trees. An industrious peasant was ploughing the field; his one-handled plough was old enough for a museum, but his oxen were well fed and strong. Alas, that this Thessalian grain should be trampled under foot of armed men! Greece had long claimed and needed these fertile fields, and they were long unjustly withheld from her. She has plenty of water, but she has needed more land to make a nation.
The mountains continually say to the traveller, “Lift up thine eyes.” There is Pelion to the right with a touch of snow on its crest. Farther to the north the sharp’ peak of Ossa rises above the mountains and foothills that engird its base. Still farther to the north and grandest of all is many-ridged, snow-covered Olympus. The epithet , “with many ridges,” used in the Iliad, is of striking fitness. It was not a literary conceit, for Nature coined the adjective. Seen from the plain there are five distinct ridges, as if five colossal, long-backed, elephantine mountains had been harnessed side by side and blanketed with snow. The great snow mass was enough to soften but not to obscure the wavy outline of the many ridges, and the clouds gathered above as if enshrouding the aerial palace of Zeus. Soon they floated off and left the upper air clear and the peaks brilliant, recalling the beautiful passage in the Odyssey, ” So saying, gray-eyed Athene passed away to Olympus, where they say the seat of the gods stands fast forever. Not by winds is it shaken, nor ever wet with rain, nor does the snow come near, but cloudless upper air is spread about it, and a bright radiance floats over it.”
There would have been a decided change in the scenery if those lively and precocious youngsters Otus and Ephialtes had had their way in piling Ossa on Olympus and Pelion on Ossa as stepping-stones to higher things. They would have done it, says Homer, with great confidence, if they had grown up; for they were only fifty-four feet high, and the down had just begun to grow on their cheeks when they were nipped in the bud, and went to long but untimely graves.
We reached the little khan of Baba at five o’clock, and after arranging for supper and lodging, had time to take a walk through the Vale of Tempe before sunset. This famous vale is, as its name signifies, a ” cut ” or pass in the mountains. The cliffs which form it belong on one side to the chain of Ossa and on the other side to that of Olympus. The vale is four and a half miles long. The cliffs rise with noble grandeur, and through the gorge the Peneius flows to the sea. Its banks are well wooded with the plane, elm, oak, willow, and wild fig. Some of the plane-trees are of great size. Especially impressive was a pair of twin trunks rising from a gigantic base. The rocks on each side were covered with hardy bushes and clinging vines. We were in the vale just in time for the fresh greenness of the leaves, the spring-tide of the river and the spring carols of the birds. Among them were the clear, fluent, bell-like tones of the nightingale. Is it more shy than most professional singers, or is it only coquettish ? We hid ourselves in the bushes to get a glimpse of the Meistersinger, for I dare. not call a male song-bird a prima donna. I was surprised at the extreme plainness of the nightingale’s dress; its plumage is of a reddish brown with a dull gray breast. In garb it is a sober Quaker among the birds, and if the members of that religious society were to hold a grove meeting in the Vale of Tempe, they would not have the heart to condemn the ravishing music of their feathered Friends. In the distance the horological cuckoo was measuring off his voice. The setting sun shone through the vale. As we advanced, the mountains came nearer together, until there was only room in the defile for the rushing river and the roadway beside it. Far up on the mountain-side was a small village, and, near it, fine cows not very numerous in Greece were grazing in the fields. The village on the terrace is Ambelakia, which, in spite of its remoteness in this vale, was famed in France and Europe for its dyeing and spinning, conducted on a cooperative plan.
We returned to the khan at sundown and had a meal as plain as the plumage of the nightingale. It was made up of brown bread, milk, and boiled eggs. The eggs were fresh, the milk sweet, and the brown bread wholesome. No animals disturbed our sleep except an inquisitive cat, which jumped in the winow and then jumped out again, while cuckoos in the vale conscientiously counted the hours. We adjusted our appetites to a breakfast which was an exact repetition of our supper. Two swallows came in and flew round the room. ” What do you call them?” I asked the proprietor. “Xeanidovi,” he answered, and the Homeric form is also used.
We took a morning stroll in the vale, -the beauties of which grow by acquaintance. The whole valley was vocal with bird songs. For a long distance the road is lined with oaks and plane-trees, whose trunks form a wall or palisade, their roots washed by the rushing river, which sometimes overflows its banks. Neither here nor at Larissa could I see Homer’s silver-eddying river. It was freighted with silt or clay, and in Dakota they would have called it the “Little Muddy.”
For centuries the Vale of Tempe has been famed for its beauty. It has fairly won its reputation. The comparison must be made not with the world as we know it, not with Chamouni or Zermatt or the great canons in the Rockies and Sierras of our own land, but with other parts of Greece. Compared especially with Attica, the Vale of Tempe must have furnished a contrast then as now delightful to the traveller. It is said that Pompey, fleeing through the vale after his defeat at Pharsalus, drank, at the end of a forty-mile ride, of the waters of the Peneius.
We returned to Larissa for the night, and the next morning started for Meteora and the mid-air monasteries. To do this we were obliged to go south by rail clear to Velestino, and thence northwest, over another leg of the triangle, instead of journeying across its base from Larissa to Trikkala. We passed Pharsalus, which Leake thinks must be regarded as the home of Achilles, but firmer historic fame is found here in the battlefield of Caesar and Pompey. Sheep were feeding on the great plain where the battle was held, not dreaming of being startled soon by Greek and Turkish musketry. In the clear atmosphere Olympus, fifty miles away, did not seem half so far, and still maintained its imposing preeminence.
Phanari is rocky enough for the Homeric Ithome with which its site is identified. The village slopes to the plain where horses, cows and sheep were peace-fully grazing.
Trikkala is the second largest town in Thessaly. More picturesque is Kalabaka, at the western end of the road under the shadows of the great cliffs of Meteora. These cliffs are unlike any other formation in Greece. In our own northwest they would be called buttes. They are groups of pillared peaks, rising perpendicularly in lofty isolation on the plain. Seen from a distance, one of these groups might be taken for a vast cathedral with towers and turrets. Another group rises in detached pinnacles on the slope of the foothills. Upon this curious assemblage of peaks were built in the fourteenth century the famous Meteora (“mid-air “) monasteries, originally twenty-four in number. It seems a curious adventure for religion to isolate itself on these lofty and almost inaccessible solitudes. But for the monks of those turbulent times a mid-air monastery served as a fortification as well as a temple. It protected them not only from the temptations of the world, but from the flesh and the devil in the shape of robbers and marauders. Of the twenty-four, but seven are now inhabited; the ruins of the others, like deserted eyries, crown these stern heights. As we stood under some of these perpendicular pinnacles the wonder was not merely that monasteries could be built upon them, but that any human being could have scaled them to begin with.
Procuring a local guide, we made our way to the foot of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity. There are two methods of ascent to several of these monasteries; one is by a rope-ladder with wooden rungs let down over the side of the cliff; the other is by means of a net, rope and windlass. We wished to try both methods, but as the windlass and rope were out of order, we were obliged to climb by the rope-ladder. Ascending first a flight of stairs of no difficulty, we passed along a narrow walk cut in the side of the cliff, the perils of which were only partly reduced by a rickety hand-railing. It showed us how much protection was needed and how little it could furnish. After winding round and up the cliff a considerable distance, we reached a ladder enclosed in a box hanging over the side of a cliff, and, ascending it, emerged into the monastery through a trap-door.
The view from the top was magnificent. Grand rocks rose on the other side of the chasm and grander mountains beyond. Red-roofed Kalabaka lay below, while through the plain wound the Peneius, more worthy of the silver speech into which Homer had coined it. We had seen it rushing through the narrow defile at Tempe, but here it leisurely uncoils its length in an ample bed on the plain. In the clear air above, an eagle was slowly circling, its wings almost motionless, as if deciding which of these deserted monasteries it would choose for its nest. The ten monks in the monastery were courteous and hospitable. When we saw the frayed-out rope and the “general flavor of mild decay” suggested by the windlass, not, like wine, the better for age, we felt that here, at least, the ladder was the lesser risk.
Descending the same way, we started for the Monastery of Saint Stephen, which stands much higher. By an easy bridle-path we climbed to the top of a cliff separated from that on which Saint Stephen stands by a deep abyss, spanned by a wooden draw-bridge. When robbers and brigands threatened the monastery the monks raised the drawbridge and rested in security. It was only after repeated knockings that we managed to make ourselves heard. An attendant opened the door and conducted us through a courtyard and upstairs into the reception-room of the Archimandrite Constantius, who received us warmly. Then we were shown to our rooms. We succeeded in getting a basin of water to wash in, but when I asked for a towel, the attendant smiled at such worldliness, and said they used towels in the village but not in the monastery. He informed me that there were ten monks, who employed forty-five workmen, some in the monastery and some on their farms below. I can easily believe that there were fifteen cats, for I saw eight. The servants set before us a supper of brown bread, fried eggs, cheese and wine. If these monks live high, it is not in their diet. After supper we took a walk round the cliff, and had a superb view of the Thessalian plain be-low, with the winding Peneius, the solemn gigantic masses of Meteora, and the lofty, snow-capped range of Pindus beyond. The abbot and the servant were communicative and not too high in the air to be remote from Greek politics. On these eagle cliffs nothing disturbed our rest, and Basil was not there to wake me for a daybreak service.
After a frugal breakfast, it would not have been possible to get anything else, we descended the cliff for a short distance, then made a sharp ascent, and skirted the edge of a deep ravine, where we had a fine view of the picturesque fantastic buttes which lay between us and the plain. Though we had left our heaviest bag at the railroad station, we still had too much to carry for a warm day; but the view repaid every sacrifice. Reaching at length the base of a cliff nearly two hundred feet high, upon which is perched the Monastery of Saint Barlaam, we shouted vigorously, until by and by a monk’s head appeared at a window above. An attendant who looked small enough for a spider emerged from a hole in the cliff and descended spider-like on a long hanging ladder. He was not encumbered with much clothing, nor was he a devotee of soap; but when he learned that we were Americans, he was cordiality itself. We had had one experience with a ladder; we wanted now to try the net. The young man shouted to the monks above, and presently the rope descended with a heavy net on the hook. The young man spread the net upon the ground. Professor Tarbell courageously offered to try the experiment first. Accordingly, as directed, he sat cross-legged in the net. The meshes were drawn round him and fastened in the hook at the end of the rope. “ready,” shouted the Greek, and the monks above bent to the windlass and slowly lifted their catch. In spite of his constrained position, when he left the ground my friend preserved a semblance of humanity; but when he had gone a hundred and fifty feet, he seemed nothing but a suspended meal-bag, and I snapped my kodak at him with twinkling success. I appeal to the reader, who may trace the rope and the bag in the illustration, if this judgment is harsh.
It was my turn next. I felt something like a condemned criminal as I saw the rope and net descend. We are creatures of association. As a boy, I used to take in my hands the hook of a hoistway chain and swing back and forth from a platform thirty or forty feet from the ground; the exhilaration disguised the danger. Thousands of people every year ascend the Pilatus railroad or the cable road at Murren, or go to the top of the Washington Monument in an elevator, or sleep on a railway train at the rate of fifty miles an hour. One soon becomes accustomed to experiences which are made safe simply because they are so dangerous. But to be bagged in a net, and drawn up on the outside of a cliff by a rope and windlass, rising as slowly and ignominiously as if you were a bale of merchandise, had in it elements of novelty, uncertainty, and unaccustomed danger. The most trying perils are those which lack excitement. From experience I know that to join a cavalry charge is one of the most dramatic and exciting things in the world, and therefore requires but a small amount of courage; but to be suspended for four ‘minutes in mid-air in a net affords unusual opportunity for reflection. A consciousness of your utter helplessness and the ridiculousness of your position alternates with speculations on the strength of the rope and the perfection of the windlass. I found, however, my courage slowly rising with the net. An advantage of ascending by net instead of by ladder is that the beautiful scenery opens gradually before you as you rise. A critical time is when you reach the top and hang poised for a few seconds opposite the door of the monastery. Two monks put out their hands at each side, and shouting “Etotµa to those at the windlass, pull you in and land you in a heap on the floor.
The Monastery of Saint Barlaam takes its name either from the saint of the fourteenth century or some hermit named after him. We had but time for a rapid view of the church. Tozer speaks enthusiastically of the Byzantine frescos and of the artistic grouping of one of the representations of the Virgin. Think of the sanctity of a monastery which no woman has ever entered ! I can imagine what an exorcism, not of evil spirits, but of evil matter the dirt of centuries a few women from Broek might effect with their mops and brooms. We found but six monks and ten servants. All supplies had to be drawn up by the rope, for which there is a separate hoistway. The monastery bell was cracked. Considering the position of the church, one could not expect a, very large number of church-goers, even if the bell had been sound. I saw here for the first time the semantron. This is a large plank suspended in the air and struck with a piece of iron. It is used in Lent instead of the bell. Its use is extremely ancient, and in Byzantine churches and monasteries long preceded the use of the bell.
We had tested the strength of the rope, the wind-lass and the muscle of the monks. There was but one critical moment in the descent. Into that moment seemed to be condensed half the peril of the adventure. The net was spread on the floor near the hoistway and gathered up over my head and fastened in the hook, as before. Then there was a half turn at the windlass and I was pushed out from the landing. I felt the net settle and its cords become taut. It was literally a moment of suspense. My companions taunted me with the uncertainty of my position and wished they could photograph my expression. Fortunately, I had left my kodak below. The single moment was longer than the rest of the four minutes, which were comparatively agreeable. There was no need of distrusting the net. It was strong and big enough to hold two people. The monks do not like to haul up two men at once, but it is easier to let them down, and Professor Tarbell and , Mr. Roddy descended together. Just how they managed to braid their legs and arms I do not know, but they brought them all down with them and were safely disentangled at the bottom.
Wordsworth not inaptly called these monks fishers of men. Insulated in their lofty solitudes, they illustrated a strange conception of religion and life as remote from that of Homeric times or from the religion which built the Parthenon as it is from apostolic Christianity or the advanced spirit of our own age.