A walk in Greece


The River Pineios, which drains into the Aegean Sea near Stomio, runs along a ten kilometre, often very narrow, at times almost a thin cleft, the Vale of Tempe in Central Greece. Ancient legend has it that the valley was cut through the rocks by Poseidon’s trident. The Vale was believed to be the haunt of Apollo and The Muses. Other mythical characters are said to have visited in this valley. Whatever the truth of all these, the mythological associations and beauty of the Vale attracted the attention of the writer/artist Edward Lear (1812-1888), who was touring what is now Greece in May 1849. He was very keen to visit it.

In 1851, Lear published an illustrated account of his travels in the Western Balkans, “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania”. Although most know Lear best as a composer of verse, much of it humorous, he regarded himself as a painter primarily. He was without doubt a good painter and sketcher, but this is not what gave him lasting fame. The title of his book included the word ‘Albania’. This is appropriate because much of his travelling in the Balkans was done in what is now Albania and parts of central Greece that used to be important centres of Albanian people during the existence of the Ottoman Empire. Lear’s book on Albania is one of the loveliest books ever written about the country.

After seeing the spectacularly located monasteries at Meteora (close to the River Pineios), Lear wrote on 16th May 1849:

I had been more than half inclined to turn back after having seen the Meteora convents, but improvements in the weather, the inducement of beholding Olympus and Tempe … prevailed to lead me forward.”

On the 18th of May Lear recorded:

“…I set off with Andrea, two horses and a knapsack, and a steeple-hatted Dervish, at whose convent in Baba, at the entrance to the Pass of Tempe, my night’s abode is to be.”

Baba is described in the Seventh Edition of “Handbook for Travellers in Greece” (published by John Murray in 1901) as:

A pretty Turkish village. On the opposite side of the river stands the ruined fort of Gonnos, which commanded the entrance to the defile.”

The village of Gonnoi close to the southern end of the Vale is, I imagine, named after this fort. The long out-of-date guidebook pointed out that in Greek ‘tempe’ means ‘cutting’ or ‘chasm’.

On the next day, Lear noted:

The early morning at Baba is more delightful than can be told. All around is a deep shadow, and the murmuring of doves, the whistling of bee-eaters and the hum of the bees fills this tranquil place.”

After visiting the village of Ampelakia near the southern entrance to Tempe, Lear moved towards his goal, the Vale. He wrote:

“…I went onward into Tempe, and soon entered the celebrated ‘vale’ – of all places in Greece that which I had most desired to see. But it is not a ‘vale’, it is a narrow pass – and although extremely beautiful, on account of the precipitous rocks on each side, the Peneus flowing deep in the midst, between the richest overhanging plane woods, still its character is distinctly that of a ravine or gorge.”

After much wonderful descriptive writing, Lear concluded:

Well might the ancients extol this grand defile, where landscape is so completely different from that of any part of Thessaly, and awakes the most vivid feelings of awe and delight, from its associations with the legendary history and religious rites of Greece.”

Lear continued:

As it was my intention to pursue the route towards Platamona…”

‘Platamona’, or Platamon, to which Lear referred is a small seaside town on the coast of the Aegean Sea. It is overlooked by Mount Olympus and within sight of the mountains Pella and Ossa. It is some miles south of Katerini.  It played an important role in my life.

Every summer, my PhD supervisor Robert Harkness (died 2006) and his wife Margaret (died 2003) drove their caravan across Europe to Platamon, where they camped for about eight weeks on rough ground near the sea. I travelled out from England to Platamon with them on one occasion and did the return journey on another. Travelling via France, Germany, Austria, and the former Yugoslavia, the journey took almost ten days. During one of my visits to Platamon, in 1977, I mentioned that I was keen to follow in Edward Lear’s footsteps by visiting the Vale of Tempe. Robert and Margaret were keen that I should do this.

The modern road along which we drove, the Athens-Thessaloniki National Highway, ran high above the gorge along one of its edges. From this road, there was little if anything that could be seen of the Vale. Looking at today’s maps, it is evident that that road still exists, but a newer highway travels in a straighter route in a long tunnel, marked on the map as “Platamon Tunnel”. The latter only opened in 2017. It shortens the journey from Thessaloniki to Athens by several hours.

Robert and Margaret drove me to a spot near the southern end of the Vale and left me there, planning to meet me again when I reached the northern end of the gorge. I had no idea where exactly the Vale began and if there was a footpath in it that I could walk along. I began walking up through a sloping field to two men who were sitting there looking after their goats.

My Modern Greek was limited to a very rudimentary vocabulary. Using sign language, pointing at my feet, and mentioning the name ‘Tempe’, I managed to convey to these gentlemen my question about how to walk through the Vale. They pointed to a railway embankment high above where we were. I understood, or at least believed I did, that one had to walk along the railway track to see the Vale.

I climbed up to the embankment and began walking on a narrow gravelly path next to the railway track. Soon, a long passenger train with carriages belonging to various different European national railways passed me quite slowly. I could see from signs attached next to the doors of the carriages that this train was an express that connected Athens with Munich.  I continued walking in the direction of the Vale. The track was on an incline and the further I walked, the higher the embankment was above the terrain below it.

Eventually, the track entered a curved cutting lined on each side with jagged rocks. Suddenly, I heard something behind me. I forced myself against the rocky wall of the cutting just in time to avoid being crushed by a diesel locomotive travelling at a high speed. The engine sped past and I continued walking, somewhat nervously.

The track emerged from the cutting and traversed a high sided embankment at the far end of which there was the entrance to a dark tunnel. Seeing that ahead, I decided that it would be dangerously foolish to proceed any further along the track, the main railway line connecting Athens with the rest of Europe.

I stood on the embankment and looked around. To my right, I could see the River Pineios far below in what looked like an attractive narrow valley. I decided that as I was not prepared to risk my life in a dark tunnel, I needed to get off the railway track. So, with some trepidation I sat down and slid down the steep embankment until I reached its base far below.

At the bottom of the embankment, far below the railway line, I found myself on a level footpath that ran along an embankment that led down to the river. It became clear to me that this path was once the foundation for an old railway that had been replaced by the one which I had just left. As I walked along, I realised that this old railway bed was what the two gentlemen had meant by walking along the railway track.  The path wound its way through the depths of the Vale following the course of the river. The scenery down in the valley did not disappoint. It could not have differed much from what it was like when Edward Lear walked along the Vale 129 years earlier.

After a while, I reached what must have once been a railway station. I had arrived at the old railway station of Aghios (Saint) Paraskevi. This was part of a group ecclesiastical buildings. A suspension bridge for pedestrians ran from near it across the river to the other shore. Away from the river, there were some picturesque pools. The whole area was luxuriant with many trees, some with branches hanging over the stream.

The religious compound was not present when Lear walked the Vale. The old railway was built in 1910 as was the present church of Aghios Paraskevi (that stands on the site of a 13th century church). The bridge that I crossed was constructed in the 1960s. Before that, pilgrims could only reach the church by boat (see: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/07/st-paraskevi-in-valley-of-tempe.html).

About two kilometres further on, the Vale reached its northern end. I found Robert and Margaret sitting in their Land Rover in a car park, enjoying hot tea from a thermos flask. I cannot remember whether I told them about my lucky escape whilst walking along the railway in the rocky cutting, but if I did not, which is likely because I would not wanted them to have been worried, now it is far too late. My two dear friends are now no more than fond memories, and the Pineios still flows through the Vale of Tempe.

Illustration is one of Lear’s pictures of the Vale of Tempe in 1848


Herodotus and ants in the refrigerator

My PhD supervisor, ‘Prof’, and his wife ‘Wink’ used to spend their summers camping by the sea in northern Greece. Prof spent his days profitably studying an aspect of the area’s local fauna.

Prof, a good scientist, had an insatiable curiosity about everything. This knew no rest periods. Quite a few years before I met him, Prof and his family began taking summer holidays in Greece. They camped there in their caravan, which they hauled across Europe with their old Land Rover. At first, they visited many of the tourist sites in Greece as well as spending time relaxing by the sea. One of the beach resorts that they visited was Platamon in the Greek part of Macedonia. While his family were enjoying the sun and swimming, Prof noticed some large ants scurrying about on the sand. They were large enough to be seen from quite a distance. What interested him particularly was that they were most active around midday when the air temperature was at its greatest. At this time of day, hardly any creatures, let alone insects, were active. The temperature of the surface of the sandy soil on which these ants were busy carrying out their daily chores was in excess of 40 degrees Celsius. The two-coloured (red and black) ants whose bellies were carried vertically were members of the species known to taxonomists as Cataglyphis bicolor. Prof nicknamed these ants ‘catas’.

These desert ants caught Prof’s interest. After all, they were far more interesting to him than swimming or reading books. Why bother with fiction, he would have asked, when life itself is so interesting? This fascination with insects was not new; it began in his childhood days, when he had been keen on entomology. He began observing the ants in his usual methodical way. This had two results. First, their behaviour began to obsess him to such an extent that his interest in connective tissue gave way to his study of the ants’ behaviour and ecology. Secondly, because of this interest every summer holiday had to be spent in Platamon. He could not get enough of his ants. I will return to them later.

Prof’s curiosity was unending.  It extended to bizarre extremes as I was to discover shortly after I began working with him. Wink was keen on arranging large parties at their home in the Home Counties. Prof noted that the guests standing chatting with glasses of drinks in one hand helped themselves to whatever was offered to them on trays. At one of these parties, Prof, who was not keen on small talk, retired to the kitchen and opened a tin of fish-flavoured cat food. He spread this in thin layers on salty Ritz Crackers before laying them out neatly on a tray. He called the pretty young daughter of one of his guests, one of Wink’s cousins, into the kitchen and asked her to offer his unusual snacks to the guests. He wanted to test his theory that people at parties would eat anything that was offered on a tray. The young girl, who was aware what Prof was up to, began carrying the fishy snacks towards the living room, but halfway down the long corridor she turned around and returned to the kitchen. She told Prof that she felt a fit of giggles was about to begin, and that she would not be able to keep a straight face whilst offering the crackers to the guests. Wink, who told me about this later, was both furious and amused.

After many years without one, Prof and Wink acquired a small camping refrigerator. This allowed my friends to refrigerate bacon and butter and to keep milk for longer periods in the summer heat. It also allowed Prof to refine his research in an interesting way. He used to pick up a cata and then pop it into a small specimen jar. Ant and jar were then put in the refrigerator for a few minutes. The ant’s metabolism slowed down in the cold, and the creature became immobile. When it was so anaesthetised, Prof removed the ant and painted a small identification mark on its belly with the kind of paint (it was the ‘Humbro’ brand) that was used to decorate model aeroplanes made from kits such as used to be manufactured by companies like Airfix. When the ant warmed up and awoke, Prof placed it carefully exactly where he had found it.


Prof ‘stalking’ marked ants in northern Greece

Prof was delighted when he saw his first marked ant reappearing the following day, and again the day after. Now, he was able to follow the activities of individual ants. The marked ants were not given numbers; they were given names. Thus, ‘Alybel’ had a spot of silver coloured aluminium painted on its belly; ‘H’, who had a particularly plump belly, was named after Prof’s school friend, the larger than average Canon H; and so on. Another was named ‘Canon’. These names appeared in the scientific papers that Prof published eventually.

Once he had developed a method for tagging ants, Prof began to follow them about as they carried out their daily labours. He bought an enormous number of aluminium garden tags before leaving England for Platamon. Each of these had a rectangular part that was to be used for writing the name of a plant and a contiguous tapering section that was supposed to be stuck into the soil next to the labelled plant or seedling. Prof numbered his miniature labelling stakes from 1 upwards and kept them in numerical order on a long wire. When a marked ant poked its head out of the nest, Prof began stalking it. Every 10 seconds, he placed one of his numbers with its sharp point on the position where the ant had been, beginning with tag number 1, and then 10 seconds later number 2, and so on until the ant returned to its nest. Thus, he left a trail of aluminium labels that mapped out the ant’s footsteps. After the ant returned to the nest, he plotted out the ant’s exact path on a paper map. He did this without difficulty as he had learned how to draw maps during his spell in the army at the end of WW2.

While Prof was stalking ants, he must have looked quite odd to the casual passers-by. Dressed in a khaki safari jacket and unfashionably long khaki shorts, his head, which was largely hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat, bobbed up and down at regular intervals as he laid each successive marker. He hoped that no one would disturb him or his markers but made no fuss when the goatherd’s goats strolled over his open-air laboratory. Once, I remember him trying to explain to the goatherd (in broken Modern Greek) what he was trying to do. The goat man remained mystified. The Greeks, incidentally, referred to the catas as κλέφτες (‘thieves’ or ‘robbers’). Prof used to wonder whether the catas, which were capable of carrying loads much heavier than themselves, were the same ants that Herodotus claims carried gold in India.

Herodotus (c480-c429 BC) wrote

(see: http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/the-gold-digging-ants/):

Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold. The Indians, when they go into the desert to collect this sand, take three camels and harness them together, a female in the middle and a male on either side, in a leading rein. The rider sits on the female, and they are particular to choose for the purpose one that has but just dropped her young; for their female camels can run as fast as horses, while they bear burthens very much better.”

However, these ants, according to Herodotus, hid from the heat:

When the Indians therefore have thus equipped themselves they set off in quest of the gold, calculating the time so that they may be engaged in seizing it during the most sultry part of the day, when the ants hide themselves to escape the heat.”

So, the ants that Herodotus describe differed from the Cataglyphis ants in northern Greece in that they became invisible during the hottest part of the day. Maybe, it was hotter in the area that the ancient Greek described than in Greece.