A day on Olympus

I have been struggling to write about this mountain for more than a year and a half now.

I spent a week on and around it in 2019. For now I will spare you my mental strife which is hard for me to engage with or ignore. As soon as I began I was tempted to write Olympos, which is the greek spelling, the ‘us’ ending being latin and as likely to take you, on the internet, to Oregon as to Macedonia.

Let’s avoid pedantry and write about one day.

I drove from Litochoro – see also http://postcards from Olympus – to the north through Vrontou and began to ascend the gently ascending alluvial plain, arable at first and gradually giving way to scrubby pasture, which skirts the mountains. I stopped to look at the plants by the road side. A battered pick-up – it’s always a battered pick-up – came smoking by and stopped and the driver got out to see what I was up to. In Greece drivers don’t wave a greeting to people walking by, they either ignore you or if they want to greet you they stop and do it properly. These are the moments I fear and desire. I want to engage and I hate my ignorance. We are far from the world of everybodyspeaksenglish, we’re in the world of Idon’tspeakgreek. But I have a few words. It’s like tossing a stick into a fast moving stream. I managed ‘flowers’, louloudia, and I heard ‘horto’ which we know from horticulture and which refers to wild, edible plants. He grabbed a bunch of thyme, smelt it with a deep breath and thrust it towards my nose. We both smiled and nodded.

The plain gives way to the first rocky hills and on a crag, above Papa Rema, which means grandfather stream, is the small church of Agia Triada, which means holy trinity:

Outside the chapel I came suddenly upon a gaggle of four by fours and their agitated drivers. One came up to me and said, ‘do you speak English?’, I thought, but that’s my line! And yes, it’s something I do well. He said they had to get to Albania. Could they get to Albania by following that track? I didn’t know the way to Albania which is about 300 kilometres from Olympus but I did know that the track led up into the mountains, up to where even the most fearsome 4 x 4 could not pass, and that to get to Albania they would have to go down in the other direction, down to Vrondou and Dion and the main road which runs along the coast. So he got onto his walkie talkie radio and spoke urgently to another member of his party who was waiting further up the track and that man then jumped into his vehicle and did a rough and tumble highspeed I can go anywhere three point turn and came roaring back. They had Italian plates. Did they have no internet or satellite connection for their satnavs? Did they think maps were obsolete? Is it racist to find Italians in military mode ridiculous?

I went into the chapel which has frescoes of saints looking puzzled and anguished – saints who strain to understand?

Before I set off along the valley I visited the nearby sanctuary of Agia Kori, literally saint daughter. She was a beautiful virgin who, being warned that the Turkish Pasha was about to enslave her in his harem, fled and hid in a cave in a lonely ravine, where she lived on roots and cranberries. Again, the american infection! There are no cranberries in Greece, and they certainly wouldn’t grow on limestone, as any gardener knows. Visited while dying by the abbot of a nearby monastery she received from him holy communion and at that moment a rock split open and holy water gushed out. This water cures all kinds of diseases, to this day. So many people visited that a cafe had to be built, and since there was no other building site in the ravine they put it in the stream bed, on concrete stilts.

To effect a cure pilgrims leave personal articles pinned to the rocks, it’s like the holy well I visited near Lough Neagh.

You can follow her now on facebook on the site of the Mystagogy Resource Center. The spelling explains the cranberries.

On the cliff face above the sanctuary grows a rare flower:

It’s called Centaurea grbvacensis, one of those names which gives botanical latin a bad name. I later learnt that it had become the occasion of another silly conflict between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. You may know that what used to be known simply as Macedonia was divided in the turmoil of the 20th century between Greece and Yugoslavia, and that the Greeks are possessive about the name. This centaurea is endemic to Macedonia in the old sense, i.e. it is found both in Greece and in the FYROM. But the Fyromese issued a set of postage stamps featuring some of their endemic plants, including this centaurea. Outrageous! What is Macedonia, a good question. Under the Ottomans it could claim to be the most ethnically diverse area of Europe, there were turks, greeks, albanians, jews, gypsies, bulgarians and vlachs, and probably more besides. Now of course the whole place has been considerably cleaned up.

Then I started walking beside the Papa Rema, the grandfather stream. The cloudburst from the previous evening made the stream a torrent, water flowing over the feet of the plane trees.

The woods around Papa Rema, like old Macedonia, are said to be among the richest and most diverse in Europe:

Particularly beautiful is a variety of arbutus, or strawberry tree, Arbutus andrachne, (not the one that is common throughout the mediterranean and in our gardens) with this lovely bark:

For some time I’ve looked for the common name of Jankaea heldreichii. This is a plant whose great beauty is enhanced by its circumstances: it is endemic to Mount Olympus, and there only on damp, shady rocks between about 500 and 1000 metres, which further increases its rarity since damp shade is itself rare in Greece; it is a member of a family which belongs almost exclusively to the tropics and it has the allure of the survivor since it is thought to have come through the last ice age in those same sheltered conditions which allow it now to survive Greek summers. On a learned website I found a discussion of the spelling of its botanical name (should it be jancaea or jankaea?) which is taken from the names of two botanists, Victor Janke von Bulcs, a nineteenth century Hungarian botanist, and Theodor von Heldreich who was born in Dresden and settled in Greece where he discovered, or named, 700 plants, 70 of which bear his name, and became director of the Natural History Museum in Athens.

see also endemics

A website for the European Environment Agency tells us that the plant has no common Greek name, which astonishes me. In spite of its rarity within its own neighbourhood it’s common, in the same way that the ultra-orthodox Jews who are my neighbours in Stamford Hill are plentiful here but not seen elsewhere so that their exotic appearance is a source of wonder for strangers, or just as Estonia is full of Estonians but nobody I know has ever met one. To me it is inconceivable that the local people had no word for this plant.

The day before my visit to Papa Rema I had failed to find a single plant in flower in the valley of the Enipea, above Litochoro. It was late May, and I was beginning to think I was too late. But now suddenly here it was!

It can be quite a scramble to get close to them:

But strangely, in the end I came across a mass of them growing on a horizontal rockface, and seeming not to mind a thick bed of pine needles:

It was almost dark by the time I got back. Evening sun lighting up an arbutus, the road is still a long way below:

This entry was posted in in Greece, mountains, flowers, landscapes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A day on Olympus

  1. Myna says:

    The anguished saint reminds me of Marina Warner in the current LRB writing that Eliot Weinberger ‘offers no rhyme or reason for what he is passing on’ in his latest book which she calls a miscellany and a scrapbook about saints and angels. Such freedom, no need to strain to understand. It’s like your blog.

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