Sunday, January 17, 2010

What not to do when you're bored at Corinth: Walk to Sikyon

It's Sunday here in Columbus and I was trying to find something adventurous to do. After a bit of interwebbing I realized that the Historical Society is closed and anything from their website that sparked my interest also seems to be inaccessible. It's raining today and foggy, so it's really not a good day for biking around town and playing Investigator. Here I am with all this creative and inquiring energy to spend and nothing to do with it.

This state of affairs recalled to my memory a long Saturday this past summer at Corinth, when Dan Leon and I were desperate to get out of dodge. So desperate, in fact, we decided to go Topograph-ing (Yes, I just made that word up).

One thing I learned about archaeologists while at the American School is that they like to wander aimlessly around the countryside, investigating 'topography.' Of course, when an archaeologist is aimlessly wandering, they are actually, you know, looking at stuff. Sherding. Learning things. Observing hills and dells and ravines and flood plains and stream beds. They're seeing archaeological sites of the future. Processing historical possibilities. They are doing a mystical activity utterly foreign to people of my generation - Learning The Lay of The Land. (Note: this is why archaeologists tend to play such vital roles in wartime).

So at Corinth (and Greece at large) there's an archaeologists' tradition of making 'treks' off to other towns in imitation of 'treks' made in antiquity: Corinth to Nemea, Corinth to Kleonai, Corinth to Mycenae, etc. In Hill House (the Corinth Dig House), there's a folder with records of past archaeological escapades of the sort. The main actors are usually Ron Stroud and John Camp, and their notes record extraordinary details - what olive grove they turned left at, how many minutes exactly did it take to proceed down the slope, what dirt road has now overgrown and is no longer passable. That sort of stuff. They're great historical documents - and consciously so. Meanwhile, as the years pass, those hikes have become the stuff of legends.

Anyways. In the early 2000s some students decided to re-live the glory of the Stroud-Campian expeditions and left their own detailed notes, but with social commentary (on each other) and with descriptions of all the debacles included. So, not only is there a rich oral tradition about these walks passed down by people like Guy Sanders and Charles Williams, but there is also a growing collection of textual evidence beefing up Hill House's material culture. It sits there on the Corinth library table, staring at you, reminding you that other people, once, were not so lazy.

So Dan and I decided we were going to make our own walk. We weren't going to just rehash the Stroud-Campian Days, but we were going to boldly turn towards the heights of Sikyon, a place growing in mystique and aura ever since Guy first introduced it to us in the autumn days of the year. We did the appropriate research, asking advice of Guy and James and Iulia, consulting maps, squinting over satellite images, scribbling down as much as we could on scrap papers that we packed into our bags with snacks and water and various other contingency items. We got up early, when the light was still kind and soft, and left at 7am.

Woooo! Here we go!

I think I had a specific vision in my head of what the trip would be like. All the tales I'd heard abounded with dirt tracks meandering through olive groves, little ravines and quaint bridges, mustachioed farmers on slow donkeys, melting mudbrick shacks and overgrown structures. But instead of going inland, where those things abide in all directions, we went down into the Corinthinan plain, towards the coast, where an enormous impassable highway slices the landscape in half, and concrete town after concrete town follows one after another. I think Dan remembers our Corinthia hike with a more measured cast, but for me, it was a day that started with a beautiful morning's promise and turned into a sweltering stone hell. But I get ahead of myself. Here's how it went:

A beautiful morning with Akrocorinth and the excavation house far in the distance. Ah, the freedom of the open countryside and our own two feet!

Okay, we made it about 30 minutes before we started getting lost. Crappy printed maps from Google work in theory, but no so much in practice.

We saw a lot of dogs. We were barked at, alot.

We passed a rabbit farm. I guess this is where all those tasty rabbit dinners come from.

We went from town to town, moving through the rural patches, empty lots and suburban monotony. It was June 20th and, as the day grew on, it got hotter and hotter. The asphalt stretched forever. Fumes and truck exhaust engulfed us. The sensation I remember most strongly was the aching of my feet after hours of hiking on the unforgiving road surface. A whimpy whine began to grow in my throat.

We got remarkably lost in Assos. No one - seriously, no one - knew how to get to Sikyon (modern Vasiliko) when we asked in our meagre Greek. It was noon-ish, we were halfway there, and our will was flagging. Finally we found a corner store that pointed us in the right direction and gave us free water. It was like an oasis of beauty in the depths of the harshest desert. We ate lunch with our feet hanging into the concrete drain on the edge of the road.

Help us find the way! Please!

Near the end we returned for a bit to rural life, but never a cushioning dirt road for our feet. We passed by several enormous gypsy camps.

By this time, I was very difficult to be around, truly surly. Poor Dan.

Finally reaching Sikyon required climbing an enormous hill with a zig-zagging road that nearly did me in. But we were almost there, almost to Sikyon itself, where we would collapse into chairs at a shady taverna and eat enormous quantities of Greek food. We could pretend we were ancient people arriving from Corinth to see the great artists and sculptors of famous Sikyon. Yes!

Except that in actuality, Sikyon has nothing. And there aren't any tavernas. No restaurants at all that we could find. That is, NO FOOD after walking for 8 hours and well over 12 miles. Sure, we did pass two packed cafeneios (watering-holes for dudes only). There were no women in sight. At this stage we were desperate for sustenance, but found none. The archaeological sites were closed; there was really nothing, in the end, at Sikyon for us. No food, no archaeology, no charming corners, only bone-deep weariness.

Dan was a trooper and entered a small convenience store to ask if they could call us a taxi. Calling a taxi entailed walking out to the street and yelling down to the cafeneio, "Giorgo, are you working today?" Giorgo was not working. We had to call the nearest city and have them send a cab out for us, which then zipped us back the way we'd come, straight back to Ancient Corinth and the fastest, most satisfying taverna food we could find. 8 hours and 12 miles undone in half an hour.

Apparently there was a reason no one at Hill House had walked to Sikyon before us. Well, we tried. We made it without dying. And it was a learning experience. I learned that I am no good at Topograph-ing in beautiful charming countryside like Denver Graninger is - instead I am a pro at Topograph-ing on concrete and in traffic. Somebody's got to do it, I guess. Or could it be that, in the end, Dan and I were just two more grad students trying our damnedest to be like Ron Stroud and John Camp, and failing miserably? At least it's a good story, and we laugh about it now, and it allowed us to get out of the House. And perhaps we can insert ourselves into the oral history of walks-gone-wrong; maybe I should print this out and add it to the Hill House Folder, as a guide for how not to walk to Sikyon.


Anonymous said...

Cool story! Next time I'm overcome with an urge to go to Sikyon - we'll drive. :p

J. Harker said...

That sounds hellish. And amazing at the same time.

Bill Caraher said...


Another great post. I'll admit that I have no fonder memories than wandering the Corinthia looking for "ruins". Over mountains, through valleys, olive groves, clambering up terraces steadfast in the belief that if I could just get over to that mountain top or that little hollow there would be something unbelievably cool (and publishable) there. For all the kilometers that I walked, I think I found ... four or new sites... which I am slowly publishing. But more than that, I learned so much about the Greek landscape. So, don't count your trek as a total waste.


JPL said...

Reminds me of our trek up to ancient Thera, except this sounds much more awful. Next time hats maybe?

Pierre A said...

Yours is not quite the first walk to Sicyon. Theo went on a more inland and less concreted route in the late spring of 1960, and had much the same feeling about it when it was over. Searing heat, not enough to drink, and no food. The only difference may have been that the site was not fenced in then.


I have spent some quality time in Sikyon, with Yannis Lolos' project. Indeed, the place is ravaged by earthquake and bad attitude. I'll never forget the cat that the local teenagers strangled in the church yard, right next to the school we were all lodging in. I find the Orlandos museum a fascinating cultural artifact: rebuilding a bath. I'm glad it's finally opened. By the way. Sikyon is torturous to find even by car!!!

Maddy said...

Wow. I'm impressed. I worked at Sikyon for a couple summers, and while there's some really interesting archaeology there, Vasiliko is truly a creepy place. In all my time there, I saw only a handful of local women (with the exception of the nice lady who works in the bakery).

I really like this post though! At least you got a good story out of it.

Anonymous said...

Great post. It prompted a question that may be somewhat pedantic to the Archeolgists here. How are most sites found? By accident (Bob finds an artifact digging his vegetable garden), professionals saying, "You know that site looks like somewhere people would have lived in ancient times.", some ancient records giving professionals a rough location for a good site to dig, or some combination thereof?



Ιφιμέδεια said...

A great tale, no matter what -though in the end when you didn't get any food, I felt kind of guilty for having enjoyed your adventure so.
It always amazes me how in places so close to Athens (Corinth, Argolid, Boeotia, Chalkis) you find in people such a spirit of conservatism.
And another sad fact: people in the Greek country often don't know the ancient monuments in their vicinity. I remember asking for the way to the citadel of Gla in Kopais at Kastro the modern-day village and no-one knew :(

Dallas said...


If we are both in Athens next year (certainly you will be!!), we must set out some walking trips in Attica and Greece beyond.