(A Tour Around the Roumeli, July 2013)
The Oracle of the Dead was closed for refurbishment . . .
So we fed no ghosts with blood, but continued to the River of Pain, which one meets in a shadowy grove, outside a small town called Sweet (Gliki). Leaving the Kayaking and the Pony Rides for another day we walked into the gorge, and soon into the water of pain itself (as everybody else was doing). My god it was cold, yet so wonderful. You can't think where the "springs" are going to be, the river is a healthy size, definitely no baby, and then you realise they're all around you. The Acheron, has a weird hairpin course (with its sister Acherontas running parallel some of the way), and is spring-fed all along the deep-carved gorge. The waters, colder than ice, pure and sweet and teeth-numbing to drink from your hands, come thundering up from its bed. Shooting through fissures in the hollowed stone banks; or out of black caves (that you can't get into, the flow of water is too strong). We all waded up stream together, under the beautiful greenery, between the towering walls: Greeks, Italians, Danes, Germans, Netherlanders, French; in bikinis, shorts, wet suits, water-sports gear: fighting the current, all of us with glorious smiles on our faces. It was just such an amazing place. Peter and I hadn't brought a waterproof bag, and had to turn back at the first deep stretch. We walked up the hillside from the place where you step into the water, and followed the trail towards a distant mountain citadel (Zogli) until we reached the former Roman Bridge; recently smashed by winter floods, and replaced by a suitably Brutalist slab of concrete. Here we went swimming in the pools, collected butterfly sightings (Southern White Admiral and Cardinals, mainly) and realised there was a fabulous thing we could do, but it would have to be another expedition.
The second time we wore water clothes & water shoes, & carried nothing but the car key in my zipped pocket. We headed straight for the Roman Bridge, got into the river and canyoned down. A modest "canyoning" experience, but not to be underestimated. I took the first rapids head first, wow: didn't try that again! Playing with this river is like playing with a giant tiger cub, that loves you very much, but it doesn't hold back! I was lucky to get away with bruises, but after that we soon figured out what you had to do. The rapids are shallow, you clamber through them like a crab. Don't climb the giant boulders, it won't help! In the deeps you glide. The fearless yellow wagtails perch and stare at you from the rocks of the gorge, and you're buffeted by the icy springs shooting from cracks and caves; but fairly gently.
So many! Who would have thought death had undone so many!
And who'd have thought they'd be so starry-eyed happy about it? There was a big Italian family group, including old men, old women, and two little tiny girls in water-wings. My, they were game! Laughing and chattering like joyful starlings: the strong handing each other across the rapids, forming a chain and passing the rest from hand to hand. They wanted us to join them but we preferred to watch, cheer them on at each obstacle; then drift after them in peace. Everyone coming upstream from the Shadowy Grove was asking us (the way you do, when you've just crossed over, I suppose), what was it like further up? We speak Europe's universal second language like natives, which makes us useful. And, where are the Springs? Why, I wondered, do I keep being taken for Danish? Ah! it was my Katcon teeshirt. Makes perfect sense! Not many of those we met will have made it to the Roman Bridge, against the flow. But I bet the Italians did. Even those two little girls in their water wings.
I never wanted this wonderful ride to end, but it did, & so at last to the shallows where the first and most powerful icy stream rises from under a rock and joins the river. One fat lady clutching a very worried little dog, as she stood thigh-deep at the meeting of the waters, and we had returned, reluctantly, to the light of common day. Bone cold. Loss of core temperature cold. We'd been in the water an hour and a half, feeling glorious the whole time, but once on the dry land of the living again it was astonishing how cold we were. (Hours later, and after gobbling a carb-heavy picnic lunch in a toasty-warm field of tall sweetcorn, I still couldn't believe the air temperature was around 30 degrees, although it obviously was. The heat of the sun could not reach me). We huddled over tiny thimbles of sweet greek coffee. I looked around me and thought how strange if this was the day's harvest of the dead; how odd that everyone seemed to have died in skimpy holiday attire. Maybe that's what dying does to you.
They say this river heals and they are right. On our first visit, on the path down from the bridge, I'd slipped hard on the skala, and scraped a nasty big slice down my shin. I hate holiday injuries, but luckily I knew what to do. I hurried to the river, walked straight in: stood there until my bones ached & I was fine. Not a hint of a bruise, no need for a dressing.
In the afternoon we went kayaking: down through the delta to the sea. A completely different Acheron: dark and clear, not glaucous eau de nil. Full of snags and trailing willows and extremely interesting wildlife. The idea was that we would get up close to said wildlife. That part didn't quite work out, as our guides in the other kayak never stopped talking (in Greek) except to yell, occasionally "Beaver!" (really European Musk rats), or "Big Bird!" maybe, whereupon the wildlife took itself off, very smartly. Never mind, I love kayaking, & it was peaceful and nice. The Penduline Tits were ace too. Their nests are really cool.
That's a wonderful river. An extraordinary find, & if the Acheron really flows from where we go when we die, which I can well believe, it speaks well of the place.