The Roman poet Virgil put Arcadia on the traveler’s map when he described this mountainous district of the Peloponnesus as the quintessential land of milk and honey. The poet had a point: even today, Arcadia’s springs, streams and rivers nourish wildflowers and keep the hills and valleys green with strands of cypress, and groves of olive and fruit trees, well into the summer.
It is possible to leave Athens by bus or car in the morning and be sitting in the main square of most Arcadian villages by afternoon.
It is also possible to travel around Arcadia on enough unpaved roads to give yourself a reassuring sense of adventure. That’s what I did, when I revisited a clutch of still-isolated monasteries and toured the museums in two of Arcadia’s loveliest villages, Stemnitsa and Dimitsana. Sheep bells tinkled in the distance and the air was heavy with the scent of thyme and oregano as the road writhes up the mountainside to the final turn that reveals Dimitsana.
Like many Arcadian villages , Dimitsana was built amphitheatre style in the cleft between two hills. Most of Dimitsana’s handsome stone churches and mansions were built between the 16th and the 20th centuries, when the Lousios River powered some 100 mills strung along the steep gorge that twists for about 5 miles between Dimitsana and Stemnitsa. Many mills operated until the 1950’s, when modern technology made them obsolete.
On the road between Stemnitsa and Dimitsana, I took the turnoff for the Monastery of Our Lady of Aimyalon. Aimyalon is typical of many of the monasteries tucked into the clefts and caves in the cliffs of the Lousios River Gorge. According to local lore, several hermits retreated here in the late 16th or early 17th centuries and lived inside a cave. They kept some sheep and goats, and planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden on a narrow terrace below the cave.
Over the next century, a simple wood frame dormitory was built, projecting out from the cave, to house monks. The rough stone walls of the chapel, itself a small cave within a larger cave, were painted with biblical scenes.
The next morning, I took the paved road out of Dimitsana toward the village of Paliochori, the turnoff for more monasteries and the remains of the ancient Gortys, once an important religious site, all deep in the Lousios River Gorge. The gorge, whose red cliffs rise to more than 980 feet, run some 12 miles between the villages of Dimitsana and Karitaina.
I was almost on the monastery before I saw it, so perfectly are its brick and stone wall camouflaged against the deep red of the cliff. The camouflage was deliberate: this was once the home of one of the area’s “secret schools”, where the monks taught children during the Turkish occupation. Now the battlements and defense tower, and the monks dormitory and refectory, are in ruins, and the chapel is home to squeaking bats, who hang in a dark mass from the dome.
A five-minute drive took me steeply downhill to the Lousios River and the site of ancient Gortys, whose best days were behind it by the end of the fourth century B.C. By the riverbank stood the ruins of an 18th or 19th century water mill, the small, perfectly restored 11th century Byzantine chapel of St. Andrew and the remains of an earlier religious shrine, the fourth century B.C. Asclepieion, a shrine to the healing god Asclepius The tumbled remains of a Roman bath flanked the Asclepeion.
Just across the slender, arched stone bridge, a sign pointed off to yet another monastery, Kalamiou. Nearby on the citadel of Gortys, the walls now enclose an informal sheepfold. Sheep bells sounded everywhere, but the sheep, like the monasteries I had visited, were hard to spot on the cliffs.
I rinsed my face in the rushing waters of the Lousios River, wondering whether Pausanias, the indefatigable traveler of the second century A.D. had done the same. The river’s waters, Pausanias wrote in his Guide to Greece “are the coldest in the world”. I agree, but if there is a lovelier spot in all Arcadia, I have yet to see it.
Excerpted from an article written by Sherry Marker and orginally printed by the New York Times.
In September 2019 we’ll be hosting a fully escorted tour to the Peloponnese including a 5 night stay in a small private hotel in Dimitsana with stunning views over the Lousios Gorge. This small group tour, maximum of 10, includes visits to archaeological sites of Olympia, Epidaurus, Delphi and Mycenae, wineries, olive groves, cooking class and the best of locally produced food and wine in family run village tavernas.