A Three-Legged Tour of Greece

This odd title for a post kicks off my new blog section: Books on Travel. I am an invenerate collector of books on many subjects and I have a particular interest in old travelogues, most of which are about travels to Greece. These are fascinating reads that combine the subjects of travel to places I know well, sociology/anthropology observations of a foreign culture and, of course, history. This is my second post on the subject, the first a while ago on Days in Attica. I hope there will be more soon, following the maxim that when not travelling, there is always reading about travelling.

A Three-Legged Tour of Greece is an actual title of a book – one that captured my attention when I picked up the dusty book with its frayed and faded cover in a junk shop years ago. The title page read:

A Three-Legged Tour of Greece [March 24-May 4, 1925]
By Ethel Smyth, D.B.E., D.Mus.
London: William Heinemann Ltd 1927

A number of questions immediately passed through my mind. What does a three-legged tour mean? Who was Ethel Smyth? She was a Dame (D.B.E.) and a musician (D.Mus.), but not a classicist, archaeologist or historian, so what did she have to say about Greece? Was it the usual classical tour of the antiquities of Athens-Delphi-Olympia? Or, was it something different?

The penciled price on the inside of the front cover was modest, so I bought it. Naturally, as the way of such purchases, it got shelved and forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until over two years ago we began selecting items to accompany us in our move to Greece. Only after that did I pick it back up again and start reading.

First, let me set the question of a “three-legged” tour straight. Smyth, who was in her 60s when travelling, was accompanied by her niece (who is referred to as E throughout the book). E often acted as a crutch for her aunt when on strenuous walking trips, thus proving the third leg. Also, after a bit of internet research, I discovered that Dame Ethel Smyth was a well-known British composer at a time when women composers were not the norm. Later in life, when her hearing was failing her, she became an author of numerous – mostly autobiographical – books. She had also been a suffragette and a contemporary and friend of Virginia Woolfe. She never married, but had lovers of both sexes. An interesting woman to tackle travelling in Greece – which she did on her own terms.

Ignoring the standard advice for tourists to begin in Athens, she started her tour of Greece in Salonica (modern Thessaloniki), having travelled by rail down the Balkans from Belgrade. The time Smyth was travelling was a changing time in Greece. The northern areas of Macedonia and Epirus had only been incorporated into the nation state of Greece in 1913 after centuries of Ottoman rule. World War I had ended in 1918, effectively the coup de grâce to the old Ottoman Empire. Smyth observes that throughout Serbia and Greece that the “peasantry” had benefited from what she refers to as the “bubbling up of energy upon the relaxation of the Turkish grip”. She remarks that “now silent” mosques and minarets are commonly seen in the landscape.

In 1917, near the end of the war, a great fire destroyed much of city of Salonica and Smyth’s description indicates that the city was still “half consumed by fire”. At the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922), the subsequent catastrophe of the refugee crisis in the exchange of population – one and a half million Orthodox Christians from Turkey in exchange for 500,000 Muslims from Greece. At least these are the figures that Smyth gives which are possibly inflated. The consequence of this crisis is remarked upon during their next stop in the town of Larissa on the edge of the Thessalian Plain. Here Smyth reflects on the influx of refugees, on the absurdity of town-bred people – textile workers and makers of carpets – from Asia Minor who were settled as agriculturalists in Thessaly. And, she later mentions the difficulty of getting around in Athens given the teaming mass of refugees that had settled on the edges of a very noisy city.

As far as her tour goes, Smyth states that her goal is to see the lesser known places, hence Salonica (“half burnt, but still elegant”), the Vale of Tempe (“a natural marvel”), Larissa (“fascinating town of minarets, storks & cranes”), Metaora (“the be seen to be believed”) and Karditza (“an ill-planned industrial town built on a marsh”) before reaching Athens. By then, her travelogue became a bit more conventional, scattered with classical antiquities and museums. From Athens they visited (among other places) Marathon, Sounion, Eleusis, Delphi, and the islands of Aegina and Poros – the latter by accident due to an incompetent tour agent. They also embarked on a tour by rail, car or mule to sites around the Peloponnese. Mycenae, Tiryns, Nafplio, Argos, Sparta, Mistra, Kalamata, Bassae, Olympia, Corinth and a many more were on the list to see in twelve days – a great feat even with today’s modern transportation. Highlights included a trip by mule in a storm over Mount Tayegetos from Mistra to Kalamata and conducting an improptu concert at Andritsaena near Bassae.

Like many foreign travellers to Greece, they embark on their journeys with certain expectations of a glorious Hellenic past based on their classical education and reading of ancient texts. Smyth was no exception here, but that did not leave her immune to the natural and contemporary wonders of the country. Most of her remarks are on the glories of the landscape, even if she couldn’t help but quote from the classics to help her descriptions along.

According to Martha Klironomos, who studies encounters with locals and British women travellers to Greece in the late 19th and early 20th century, Smyth’s book falls into her category of ‘sociological-anthropological travel narratives’. Ellen Bosanquet’s book, Days in Attica is another such traveller who falls into this category. Klironomos indicates that these types of narratives range from descriptions of those they encounter as romantic folk who display elements of their ancient past to descriptions of degraded, orientalised subjects.

Like Bosanquet, Smyth is impressed with the places and their significance in the classical past as well as the antiquities themselves. But, unlike Bosanquet in her encounters with people, she does not dwell on either romanticised or degraded elements in their character. For the most part, Smyth deals pragmatically with hosts at hotels or other accommodations (with only one “unpleasant” host in Mistra), waiters in cafés or restaurants, muleteers and train inspectors. Her remarks are generally on odd plumbing/bathing arrangements, degree of comfort (or lack there of) afforded by the accommodations, differences in foreign food (usually complimentary on basic Greek meals) and the lack of an adherence to a time table. At the end of the book, she remarks that despite expectations, she found that “almost every soul we met was kind, courteous, and superlatively well bred.” Inconveniences, she explains, are a result of a country in flux, the infrastructure to ease travel not quite in place.

Personal encounters with Greeks outside travel arrangements are few – such as the modest “Byzantine” monk at Metaora (where she did descend from a monestary in a basket), a helpful and intelligent Greek lawyer and his family in Megaspelion and cheerful guests at a rural Greek wedding in Attica. Yet, more telling remarks were made of her fellow travellers – of all nationalities. This includes descriptions of lovely German boys who enlivened events in Sparta with their singing (in comparison with traditional Greek music which she disliked), the hateful American mother and daughter in Kalamata whom they kept running into afterwards in various places, and pleasant well educated and cultured fellows of her own nationality.

She also reserves her most scathing descriptions for the agents of inefficient tour companies – something she probably would have done anywhere in the world. Her closing remarks in the book encapsulate her impressions of Greece. Her rosy glasses – her admiration of Hellas – remained intact.

There must be many such to whom, like the writer, the hope of getting to Greece some day has been for a lifetime the best dream of all….Forthwith their hearts will have burned within them (as did mine, lover of Greece from youth upwards…) and such a passionate desire to set foot on the soil of ancient Hellas will have shot up in their bosoms like a flame…to expire slowly and surely under an icey douche of costs, doubts, and difficulties played upon by our oddly pessimistic tourist agencies! In fact, it is for the victims of these that I have written … fellow-Greek maniacs who will gladly buy with a little discomfort a lasting enrichment of their lives.

For me, travel narratives like A Three-Legged Tour of Greece provide an interesting and sometimes amusing read seeing familiar places through their eyes. Yes, they are set within a worldview of a different era in which the authors operate, often providing skewed assessments of a culture. And, although they touch on events in history, they are more personal observations rather than accurate guides. They also provide an insight into the travellers themselves. If I find another travel gem in a used bookstore, you can be sure that I will snatch it up.

12 comments

  1. I guess Africa is not your thing (like you I met an archaeologist in the 80s and we married – but we met in Africa) but High Street Africa by Captain H Birch Reynardson CMG is an amazing little book. I found it second hand quite by accident and have read it twice over. I love the idea of reading old ‘guides’ as well and seeing the places today. Thanks for this!

    Like

    • I heard of your blog from a mutual friend whose husband was a Greek archaeologist. The title of your blog is inspired. Do write a post on old travelogues. They really are irresistible. It would be fun to read about Africa through Captain H Birch Reynardson’s (and your) eyes. Who knows? It may lead to more posts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this post! The book sounds fascinating, I must say I am taken with travellers tales past…Rose Macaulay, Patrick Leigh Fermor and others. A glimpse into a world past, a different mindset.

    Like

    • Hope to write a post on one of Leigh Fermor’s books sometime in conjunction with a recent exhibition here on his long friendship with two artists – one Greek (Ghika), the other an expat Brit (Craxton). And, Rose Macaulay is one of my favourites. Glad you liked the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The richness of an experience when travelling can only be enhanced by reading an impression through another’s eyes. When in Granada I devoured Irving Washington’s observations of the Alhambra in the early 19th century and but when I’m in India it’s the philosophical poetry of Tagore that sets the tone. Great post Deb, look forward to more

    Like

    • You are absolutely right! I must look into Irving Washington’s observations of the Alhambra – sounds like something I would enjoy. The Alhambra is on the “to be explored” list – just need to find the time. Glad you liked the post. I felt like I was sticking my neck out.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] north by train. She travelled through the same places as Dame Ethel Smyth some 30 years before (A Three-Legged Tour of Greece), but on a faster modern diesel train in the opposite direction. More than half of the book is set […]

    Like

Comments are closed.