The plain of Messenia is the richest part of the Morea. Altho its groves of orange and olive, fig and mulberry, were entirely destroyed during the Egyptian occupation, new and more vigorous shoots have sprung up from the old stumps and the desolated country is a garden again, apparently as fair and fruitful as when it excited the covetousness of the Spartan thieves. Sloping to the gulf on the south, and protected from the winds on all other sides by lofty mountains, it enjoys an almost Egyptian warmth of climate. Here it was already summer, while at Sparta, on the other side of Taygetus, spring had but just arrived, and the central plain of Arcadia was still bleak and gray as in winter. As it was market-day, we met hundreds of the country people going to Kalamata with laden asses.
We crossed the rapid Pamisos with some difficulty, and ascended its right bank, to the foot of Mount Evan, which we climbed, by rough paths through thickets of mastic and furze, to the monastery of Vurkano. The building has a magnificent situation, on a terrace between Mount Evan and Mount Ithome, overlooking both the upper and lower plains of the Pamisosa glorious spread of landscape, green with spring, and touched by the sun with the airiest prismatic tints through breaks of heavy rain-clouds. Inside the courts is an old Byzantine chapel, with fleurs-de-lis on the decorations, showing that it dates from the time of the Latin princes. The monks received us very cordially, gave us a clean, spacious room, and sent us a bottle of excellent wine for dinner.
We ascended Ithome and visited the massive ruins of Messene the same day. The great gate of the city, a portion of the wall, and four of the towers of defense, are in tolerable condition.
The name of Epaminondas hallows these remains, which otherwise, grand as they are, do not impress one like the cyclopean walls of Tiryns. The wonder is, that they could have been built in so short a timeeighty-five days, says history, which would appear incredible, had not still more marvelous things of the kind been done in Russia.
The next day, we rode across the head of the Messenian plain, crossed the Mount Lycaeus and the gorge of the Neda, and lodged at the little village of Tragoge, on the frontiers of Arcadia.. Our experience of Grecian highways was pleasantly increased by finding fields plowed directly across our road, fences of dried furze built over it, and ditches cutting it at all angles. Sometimes all trace of it would be lost for half a mile, and we were obliged to ride over the growing crops until we could find a bit of fresh trail.
The bridle-path over Mount Lycaeus was steep and bad, but led us through the heart’ of a beautiful region. The broad back of the mountain is covered with a grove of superb oaks, centuries old, their long arms muffled in golden moss, and adorned with a plumage of ferns. The turf at their feet was studded with violets, filling the air with delicious odors. This sylvan retreat was the birthplace of Pan, and no more fitting home for the universal god can be imagined. On the northern side we descended for some time through a forest of immense ilex trees, which sprang from a floor of green moss and covered our pathway with summer shade.
We were now in the heart of the wild mountain region of Messenia, in whose fastnesses Aristomenes, the epic hero of the state, maintained himself so long against the Spartans. ‘The tremendous gorge below us was the bed of the Neda, which we crossed in order to enter the lateral valley of Phigalia, where lay Tragoge. The path was not only difficult but dangerousin some places a mere hand’s-breath of gravel, on the edge of a plane so steep that a single slip of a horse’s foot would have sent him head-long to the bottom.
In the morning, a terrible sirocco levante was blowing, with an almost freezing cold. The fury of the wind was so great that in crossing the exposed ridges it was difficult to keep one’s seat upon the horse. We climbed toward the central peak of the Lyman Hills, through a wild dell between two ridges, which were covered to the summit with magnificent groves of oak. Starry blue flowers, violets and pink crocuses spangled the banks as we wound onward, between the great trunks. The temple of Apollo Epicurius stands on a little platform between the two highest peaks, about 3,500 feet above the sea.
On the day of our visit, its pillars of pale bluish-gray limestone rose against a wintry sky, its guardian oaks were leafless, and the wind whistled over its heaps of ruin; yet its symmetry was like that of a perfect statue, wherein you do not notice the absence of color, and I felt that no sky and no season could make it more beautiful. For its builder was Ictinus, who created the Parthenon. It was erected by the Phigalians, out of gratitude to Apollo the Helper, who kept from their city a plague which ravaged the rest of the Peloponnesus. Owing to its secluded position, it has escaped the fate of other temples, and might be restored from its own undestroyed materials. The cella had been thrown down, but thirty-five out of thirty-eight columns are still standing. Through the Doric shafts you look upon a wide panorama of gray mountains, melting into purple in the distance, and crowned by arcs of the far-off sea. On one hand is Ithome and the Messenian Gulf, on the other the Ionian Sea and the Strophades.
We now trotted down the valley, over beautiful meadows, which were uncultivated except in a few places where the peasants were plowing for maize, and had destroyed every trace of the road. The hills on both sides began to be fringed with pine, while the higher ridges on our right were clothed with woods of oak. I was surprised at the luxuriant vegetation of this region. The laurel and mastic became trees, the pine shot to a height of one hundred feet, and the beech and sycamore began to appear. Some of the pines had been cut for ship-timber, but in the rudest and most wasteful way, only the limbs which had the proper curve being chosen for ribs. I did not see a single sawmill in the Peloponnesus; but I am told that there are a few in Euboea and Acarnania.
As we approached Olympia, I could almost have believed myself among the pine-hills of Germany or America. In the old times this must have been a lovely, secluded region, well befitting the honored repose of Xenophon, who wrote his works here. The sky became heavier as the day wore on, and the rain, which had spared us so long, finally inclosed us in its misty circle. Toward evening we reached a lonely little house, on the banks of the Alpheus. Nobody was at home, but we succeeded in forcing a door and getting shelter for our bag-gage. Francois had supper nearly ready before the proprietor arrived. The latter had neither wife nor child, tho a few chicks, and took our burglarious occupation very good-humoredly. We shared the same leaky roof with our horses, and the abundant fleas with the owner’s dogs.