Are you an urban explorer? A history nerd? Perhaps a dark tourist? A foodie? Then this tour is for you… read on to find out more about the content and themes we’ll be uncovering :
I have been involved in the local travel industry for over a decade : tourism is an important part of the country’s output, and the majority of everyone involved are genuine, diligent professionals. The quality of accommodation, services and tours is one the highest one can ever expect on a holiday, anywhere in the world. But I couldn’t help noticing that more often than not, it comes cherry-picked, bubble-wrapped, too-good-to-be-true : For example, you hear a lot about the majesty of the Athenian Golden Age, but less about the primal darkness of Spartan Hegemony. You hear a lot about the glory of the Albanian Epic, but less about the horrors of the Civil War. You hear a lot about the characteristic friendliness, openness, and laid back character of the culture, but less about the schadenfreude, intrigue and mutual mistrust that’s been marring it for centuries. And beyond the tidy cosiness of a quaint little Aegean island or the cosmopolitanism of a classy resort, there are gritty cities and rugged villages where life is hard, and forgotten places where rust, grime and abandonment takes over. This mythical, travel packaged Greece is a sort of brushing part of the reality under the carpet, a form of cheating : like playing Pacman – only all the dots are big, and so the ghosts seem to always be on the run. That’s why I always felt an urge to challenge the typical “Been to Greece” experience, and try to shed some much needed light into the country’s bursting skeleton closet.
In my Forgotten Greece tour, I aim to showcase a different, more atypical side of the country we all think we know. I wanted it to be about different perspectives and interpretations of its history, culture, and people : about local pride (and much prejudice), atavistic folly, fatal stubbornness, heroic desperation and often, abject abandonment. But it will still be about Greece, nevertheless – or at least the aspects of it that are not as well advertised. We will look for the difficulty, the indigestion in Greek history, culture, and reality – and through this process, perhaps we will arrive to another understanding, and a different appreciation of the country as it emerges today. To this end, I have created an alternative itinerary through the rugged southern region of Peloponnese : it’s a part of the country I am very familiar with, and my natural choice to explore and showcase. I have also put together a riveting narrative, that will take you through millennia of history and culture – some of it palatable, most of it not, and all of it bewildering. It will be a search for Greece’s true, and often contradictory, nature. It will again be like playing Pacman – only all the dots will be small, and the ghosts will surely be chasing us without respite.
Fairytale castles. Derelict factories. Ship graveyards. Secret bunkers. Ghost cities. Abandoned train stations. Places of death, darkness and memory : sounds interesting?
Empire, Conflict, and the birth of a Nation
Greece is familiar with war and conflict, and the rise and fall of empires. Throughout the tour, we will be revisiting the country’s long history from ancient times to modern through specific, well researched locations and episodes that convey the spirit of this journey. We will visit one or two relatively more known heritage sites that definitely worth it – but many of the spaces we will be at are ranging from unappreciated, to little known, all the way to downright obscure : there will be some outstanding, hidden locations that even locals in the region have never heard of before !
- The fall of Sparta : We will discover the dark history of the powerful city state that dominated ancient Greece by virtue of military prowess, austerity, and civic equality – and one might add, sheer brutality… There’s no better place to tell that story than the city of Sparta itself, as well as its greater region – including the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ancient Messene. I will relate the legend of Sparta, emerging from the darkest age of antiquity, and speak of its powerful mentality through its institutions : The blood cult of goddess Orthia, the rigorous military training of Agoge, the terror of Crypteia – an ancient night infiltration practice, and of course the perfection of the Phalanx, the military formation that dominated classical era warfare. We will hear stories of order, sacrifice, brutality and glory, from the now defunct society that once shocked the Classical world, dominated the Greek states, and eventually led them to victory against the Persians, the biggest empire of that age. We will also talk about the end times, in the aftermath of Sparta’s crushing final defeat at Leuktra, when Messene was fortified by those formerly exiled and subjugated by the Spartans, becoming their testament of defiance against the terror the once mighty state inflicted upon them.
- The twilight of Byzantium : Most people connect the end of the Byzantine Roman Empire with the cataclysmic event of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans – but in fact, the remains of the Empire continued to exist in a few last independent vestiges. It was a wretched, and yet imperially illuminated existence that lasted a few years before its final demise. We will recall the spirit of those final days of the Byzantine Empire at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mystras, exploring this extraordinary abandoned medieval city, the refuge of the last Roman emperor after the fall of the capital. On location, surrounded by an abundant concentration of majestic, and fully explorable ruins, we will recount the stories of court intrigue, betrayal and desperation, as the empire disintegrated and its remnants vanished in history, scattered and forgotten. We will then search for clues and answers about the legend of the Marble King – the last Byzantine Emperor and his now long lost bloodline… or is it?
- The Greek War of Independence : The re-emergence of a new Greek state after four centuries of Ottoman rule is a major turning point in European history : it was the first successful European uprising of the age of nationalism. It was to be a romantically charged, and turbulent struggle that ushered the era of unconventional warfare, started a wave of Philhellenism, and succeeded to elicit an emotional international response. The uprising culminated to an unbelievable victory, and resulted in the rebirth of a nation – but beyond the epic facade, it is also very much a story marred with civil war, betrayal, terror and disaster. It will be hard to tell heroes from villains, as we will unfold the incredible, and sometimes terrifying events of this revolutionary conflict at the real life locations of some of the most desperate actions of the war. These include the site of the Last Stand at Maniaki, where a small contingent of Greeks led by the priest Papaflessas fell to the last man against the overwhelming forces of Ibrahim Pasha, and the site of the Battle of Diros, where a force of Greek women armed in sickles routed a superior force of invading Ottoman mercenaries, among others.
- World War 2 : We will experience the German invasion of Greece through the events of Operation Hannibal 2 : In one of the earliest airborne operations of the war, the German 2nd Fallschirmjaeger Regiment’s assaulted the strategically important Corinth Canal, defended by the valiantly sacrificed men of the British 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. This story will be told on location of the explosive combat action, where we will visit the secret bunkers and abandoned pillboxes left behind by the occupiers. We will then hear the story of the subsequent Axis Occupation of Greece, on the site of one of its darkest episodes : the Massacre at Kalavryta, Wehrmacht’s horrific retribution in response to partisan activity in the Peloponnese.
- The Greek Civil War : While peace returned to Europe at the end of the war, civil war broke out in Greece, and fighting intensified with incredible, politically charged ferocity. We will remember the bloody and dark events of the first Cold war conflict, at the site of the Well of Meligalas : a place of revenge, execution and memory. From veterans to partisans. From freedom fighters to enemy combatants, from liberators to butchers : we will explore the story of Greek resistance, and the ideological divisions, hidden agendas and fatal rivalry that tore a liberated country apart, and the effects of the lingering memory of this conflict in modern Greece.
Politics and Religion
- Political Turmoil : Although widely accepted as the birthplace of democracy since classical times, Greek politics historically struggled with intrigue, corruption and factionalism, resulting in frequent instability, recurring bankruptcy, military coups, and national disasters of the highest order. But despite the often catastrophic results of these chronic deficiencies, the emergent Greek state managed to establish itself, become progressive, expand its territory, and influence the fluid Balkan politics of the 19th and 20th century in the most dramatic ways. We will speak, and see evidence of these deficiencies – but also of the great progress always achieved through such self-inflicted hardships and failure : It’s a contradictory state of being that has left its everlasting imprint on Neo-Greek mentality, and demands to be understood as well as it deserves to be eradicated.
- Divisive Personalities : We will relate this very Balkan state of affairs through various historical characters : Dimitrios Paleologos : the ambitious, scheming, and fateful last Byzantine prince, who surrendered the empire to the Ottoman Sultan before retiring to a monastery. Georgios Dikaios, known as Papaflessas : the temperamental, defiant cleric who impetuously started the Greek revolution 4 days early, and died in a blaze of glory while facing an overwhelming Ottoman force. Charilaos Trikoupis, the 7 times Prime Minister whose ambitious infrastructure projects both changed and bankrupted Greece. These are just a few of the characters that I’ll bring back to life, while we’ll be visiting significant locations relating to their story.
- Church and the State : We will also talk about, and see evidence of the importance of religion and its rituals in the Ancient and Byzantine worlds, as well as the pivotal role of the church in the preservation of the cultural identity that led to the resurgence of a new Greek nation from Ottoman rule. We will have the opportunity to see mystical ancient temples and talk about the mysterious, and sometimes bloody rituals performed there. We will visit an abandoned early Christian catacomb, and talk about the legends of clandestine services and secret education in the face of persecution. We will often be surprised by the majesty of medieval iconography, and talk about some of the astonishing acts of faith of saints, clergymen and their flock. Last, we will see unusual evidence of the ongoing fusion between religious folklore and modern reality, as well as the unshakeable, and often problematic, bond between Church and State in today’s society.
Maritime and Industrial Heritage
- Maritime Heritage : Seafaring has always been an important part of of Greek heritage. In the course of this trip, we will explore the importance of the country’s maritime history from ancient to modern times. We will visit the remains of ancient Diolkos, a forgotten ancient track way that allowed ships to cross the isthmus of Corinth overland throughout antiquity. We will see the site of the ancient naval confrontation at Salamina that’s given birth to Greece’s naval tradition, close to the site where according to legend the Persian King Xerxes had set up his throne to view the monumental clash among 1200 ships. We’ll also talk about the important role of Greek sea power during the war of Independence and the Balkan wars, but also the importance and contribution of its merchant navy, at wartime, in the post war reconstruction, and up to this day.
- Grand Ambitions and Industrial Decay : We will marvel at the determination of Prime Minister Trikoupis in modernizing the nascent Greek state at the Corinth Canal, a miracle of 19th century engineering that preceded the Panama Canal by several decades. We will see evidence of Greece’s unfulfilled industrial dreams, at the Diakopto-Kalavryta Rack Railway, a living monument to the folly of Greece’s industrial might, then at Elefsina, arguably Greece’s grittiest city, and home to the country’s massive shipyards since the late 1960s, and last in the abandoned industrial zone of Patras. In these locations, we will witness the effects of the country’s enduring financial hardship, and its search for a new identity : industrial decay, social problems, and the rise of political extremism alongside local initiatives for regeneration and development.
Food, Culture and People
The human factor is important in understanding a culture. In the course of our journey, we will come in contact with locals : We may encounter community leaders, shopkeepers, farmers, fishermen, musicians, poets, priests, or immigrants. We might even get the chance to hear their stories and quiz them over a brew of strong Greek coffee, or few quarters of wine, depending on the occasion !
The Peloponnese, as much as the rest of Greece, is a fertile land blessed with good arable land where everything grows naturally, and supersized. We will be sampling some truly organic produce – tomatoes the size of your fist, gargantuan courgettes and aubergines, and gigantic, grotesque looking lemons. The fields will be full with ripening olives, grapes, and oranges. We will be sampling delicious local dishes, such as the region’s famous whole roasted pork, village sausages, moussaka, wooden barrel matured feta cheese, grilled octopus, and an endless feast of other local delicacies, either cooked privately – exclusively for our group, or enjoyed in small tavernas and cookhouses over local retsina wine and craft beer. We might even get a chance to learn how to cook a hearty local dish or two, so bring your appetite with you !
We will also spent some time in the kafeneio, the coffee shop/general store that used to be so central in rural Greek life, where we’ll spend some time playing backgammon and cards, and perhaps argue over politics. There will be ample free time to visit street markets, music halls, arts and crafts workshops and do some shopping – should you chose to. And you might as well bring your swimming suit with you, as there will be opportunity to go for a dip or two in the sea !