On The Happy Road To Tholaria, Greece

By George Dillon Slater

The village on the distant mountain is separated by a deep gorge and a valley a kilometre wide, which rises up in terraced plots, glistening with golden stubble and emerald-leafed olive, punctuated by scattered white chapels. We descended into the gorge hundreds of metres below and then clambered up the side opposite, passing through a hamlet with three white houses and a chapel amid grey stone ruins, on a path built upon boulders of marble polished smooth by hooves and boots. Within an hour we had skirted the entire valley at a constant elevation, striding along a road built of igneous rock worn smooth as black leather, snaking high above the sea. We passed the Valley of the Doomed Donkeys, which tumbled down to the sea and from which no beast or human could ascend. Rumor said this road was 5000 years old, from the time of the Egyptian sex goddess, Isis.

At last we entered the village, found a kafeneion beside the church with a few tables and moody mules in the sun, and joined the tableau. We had been walking nearly four hours. Having left the metropolis, I now wondered if I would find enough here to sustain me throughout the winter, in the smuggler's lair of The Fixer. My companion, being of the extremely opposite sex, had done much to make me reconsider the possibility. Now we sat above a circle of sere Cyclades, with a glass of wine as a reward for our exertion. Yiorgos brought us a salad with ruby tomatoes from his never-watered garden, the sweetest ever, topped with a creamy feta and capers with the taste of fruit, all sprinkled with oregano. The bread was fluffy and yeasty, with a crisp flaked crust.

Corinna again returned to Greek grammar, which next to walking was one of her favorite obsessions. She had been studying Greek for years, looked Greek, and was German. But she had a Greek souvenir from the past: an engraved marble plaque upon which love letters had once been inked to a relative. Her great-grandmother's sister had been a governess with the family of the former King of Greece, Otto I guess, and fell in love with a Greek military doctor. Alas, the poor girl had been previously engaged to a Prussian, and there was dour disapproval all round. She wrote the doctor a letter vowing to leap off the Acropolis if her love remained unrequited, after he had been sent to the provinces for an extended stay of months which led her to desperation. (I don't do credit in my retelling of this romance, which for Corinna was akin to Tristan und Isolde). He returned to Athens to find the letter, and by chance his quarters had a view of the Acropolis. He looked up at it as he read the letter, realizing now was the hour, the deadline so to speak of his beloved's vow, and, incredibly, saw a feminine figure plunge off the parapet. To defend honor he drew his revolver and shot himself.

The press made much of the "new Romeo and Juliet," who were at last united in the cold grave. Now, Corinna paid homage to their cruel fate by immersing herself in the scholarly intricacies of the Greek language. She was German, but part of her felt Greek, the part which had wanted to marry a handsome young Greek doctor but had been forbidden by German nobles and Greek nationalists. (Corinna was a very serious member of Hamburg's municipal government; so I did not doubt her).

The village priest held his robes as he swept up the stairs, followed by two twisted men with crooked canes. Between them, the two stalwart but elderly gents carried a large shallow basket laden with tiles. They slowly turned up a lane beneath the terrace fronting the church, grunting lugubriously. The sun was glorious, and refracted like a gem in the retsina; the olives in the salad were plump as pears. Four aged gents next mounted the steep stairs, carrying a long cumbersome bench, into which some plumbing was attached. About eight other men labored up the stairs with other sacred burdens all afternoon, while we got slightly pizzicato on gleaming handmade wine. The owner was cordiality personified, and also answered to the name "mangas," not a nice word. He suddenly emerged from his quaintly furnished cave, all white-washed blue with framed sepia tints of big mustachos and fierce eyes, ex-kings and bathing film stars from the middle of another century, and while adjusting a snappy beret he tucked a polished crook under his arm, a glitza, and announced somberly: "I must go collect my sheep," saluted us then with a broad smile and knuckles and added, "you know where the wine is!".

A conjugal pair of red and beige falcons spiralled over the blue dome of the church, in circles so intimate I was amazed they didn't collide, or at least kiss. Another pair of the church's elderly volunteers hobbled back down the stairs propped up by their canes, their bastounia, shirts drenched from their tasks. A rather beady-eyed rogue suddenly stood next to our table and stared intently as five men, including the priest, came around the corner, carrying what looked to be an electrified threshing machine, the size of a small locomotive. He hastily sat down and glanced our way, then, without a trace of cunning, smiled and asked after our origins, our roots. He was convinced I was Greek and was willing to stay and have a coffee with us for the good of the church he said, winking as his elderly compatriots hobbled past with canes and burdens. "As you must be Greek," he said sternly, "surely you won't mind if I change the coffee to cognac?" Next, a true bear of a man lumbered up the stairs and asked the Rogue what he was doing with us, as the work was "elsewhere." "I told him to join us," I volunteered, as the Rogue silenced further comment with a dagger-like downward glance. "Certainly they must be done by now, or what in the devil would you be doing here?" The Rogue now let a swift smile sneak away from his face while awaiting his friend's riposte. His friend however, merely stood resting his weight on his bastouni, dismay clouding his face. I asked if he would like a coffee and he stared at me pensively for about a minute before replying, "No, a raki."

The Rogue and his friend wished us good health after the Mangas' wife brought the raki, even though, he added somberly, we were corrupting the good work of the church. A little hornet of a woman in black, darted up the steps, inquiring after the health of the Rogue's back, which evidently had some notoriety. He winked and sipped his cognac-concealed coffee and then the Mangas was suddenly standing beside us in his jaunty beret. "There," he said, "that didn't take long, did it?" Indeed, he was well aware of our pleasure on seeing him return, although Corinna questioned the conjugation of my remarks.

Later, we walked down the sleek new highway from Tholaria to the sea. We took the ancient road in, the modern road out. The mountains and valleys were interlocked and laced with lanes, many I suspected built in other millenia and with a better eye for the terrain. In fact, wherever my eyes fell, I saw walls cobbled across the landscape like a compulsive crustaceous growth, summing up millions of hours of Herculean toil, and all pointing majestically backwards in time rather than forwards. And so, down the new road we trod, uninterrupted by any passersby, descending to the sea burnished by a garnet sun, declining ancient verbs with which to master eager new thought, on an exquisitely cheerful road to nowhere, except a vivid new island home, until tiring of fresh macadam we veered off onto ancient tracks pebbled with goat dung.