We begin the hike entering a pine forest. The way is nothing more than a goat path, a light stripe of previous footsteps and tilled soil that climbs the mountainside.
We follow the trail along which Ephialtes, the traitor of Sparta, guided the Persians Army to defeat Leonidas and his 300 soldiers who, clung to the Thermopylae’s gulch, were blocking the way to Xerxe’s massive forces. Nothing remains of that canyon today. There is just a flatland of marsh and fields and closed factories that leads the eyes to the sea. The mountain, the Kallidromo, is still there. Silent, green, blind to whatever happens in the valley, down there. Everything else is just a shadow, like the marks left from the writing on the second sheet of a ream. It is just a whisper in the wind that constantly mismatches history and myth, reality and fantasy.
I look at the narrow path in front of me: the ascent is steep, almost vertical, surrounded by a claustrophobic battalion of trees’ logs, one attached to the other. I try to imagine an army passing through. But the idea just seems wrong. Weird. A myth. Still, this path is history, like everything in Greece. History, here, is a way of breathing, of living, not just a subject you learn at school.
The climb is hard. I am following the head of the group, pushing more and more against my lungs that are gasping for air.
We cross the main road and we quickly cut through the trees again: where we are welcomed by another steep path that runs ahead of us, in the dark. Up, on our heads, the leafy branches of the trees form a solid green roof through which just some sparse sun rays manage to pass. The dim – light is thick and humid. There is no wind, just a chilly air that smells of mushrooms and undergrowth. We climb up, wheezing, from stone to stone, from root to root, following that unstable ladder of brushwood and pebbles without thinking to anything else but the effort of making another step, and another after it until we splash in a lake of sun and light when we finally reach a gentle mountain neck right under the peak.
In the distance, we hear the gurgling of a not too far stream of water, hidden somewhere behind the wall of tall grass, dry cardoons and brambles into which Efialthes’ path slips in and us with it.
When we reach the creek, a postcard sight is waiting for us. The water pours down among the stones, crossing the valley in front of us until it reaches a gentle jump. It gurgles downs with a light waterfall reaching a basin built of rocks and mortar. On the side of this bowl that narrows down quickly, gently leading the stream back on its bed, there an old oak tree, a wooden giant with a large crown gliding from blond to a reddish autumn shade and thick roots, braided into the water.
Beauty sometimes is unexpected. Sudden like a perfect moment. We sit under the oak, listening to the stream that jingles around like a giggling child. Few words are spoken. Someone drinks. Someone else takes pictures. The majority just breathe and look around. For a moment, sat under that tree, we become part of that postcard as well. At least for that brief moment.
Every time I think about the idea of the time I can’t avoid recalling Seneca the Younger ‘s ‘Moral letters to Lucilius’. Time –
was writing Seneca – is the only richness belonging to men. And sadly it has an expiration date.
But there are moments, precious rare instant, in which we stop living in the past or worrying about the future and we start existing only in the present. That late morning, sitting under that oak was maybe one of them.
It doesn’t take long for the magic to break. We stand and we start walking again, entering the woods and leaping over the bald summit.
The terrain is changing while we start descending. According to the sign that greets us at the beginning of the trail would take 5 hours and a half to be completed. Right before beginning going downhill another sign is waiting for us. A rusty old signal standing in the middle of nothing, like a solitary sentinel left on guard in an abandoned fort: to the Thermopylae three hours to go. We are almost halfway.
Going down is always tricky. It is easier for the lungs, but hard on the legs. The knees hurt while trying to find balance on the steep path that runs quickly towards the sea. We follow what it seems to be the path of a river. It is muddy and rocky. It jumps and leaps constantly. From time to time we cross large spots of woods: the foliage covers the mud and makes walking uneasy and treacherous. Our feet slipper, finding and losing our stability while slowly making our way to the end of the path becomes a habit. We become clumsy tightrope walkers limping in the stillness of the landscape.
We pass through a marsh of fallen trees and small ponds of still water covered in leaves and surrounded by bushes of red berries. We reach a small chapel and then a hunting shack. A peculiar place, a run-down hole with several dog houses outside, a grill, an old nicked table with several unpaired chairs all around and a flaked door with faltering handwritten written on top, ‘The king lives here’. The king is gone, the grill is off but in the woods far away there are echoes of shooting. Maybe, the king is somewhere hunting something. Maybe the king doesn’t even exist.
We keep going: the sunset is not too far away and the path is still long. The woods leave the place to the ridge of the mountain. The mud is still there but this time we proceed more carefully because there are no trees or branches or bushes between us and whatever lies down. The cliff is impressive but we almost don’t see it, busy as we are, staring at the trail, at our feet, measuring the steps, the breath and the pressure of climbing down to the sea that lingers in the distance.
It’s almost dark when we reach Thermopylae, a small village not too far from Leonidas’ monuments. People are at home already, or they are going back there, with trucks full of crates. Some stray cats are leaving their holes jumping and running on an empty square. There are a café, a restaurant and a couple of kids chatting in a corner. And then, there is us, with our muddy boots, our backpacks, our noisy walking sticks. From time to time, an open door let us peek into the daily life of these people: we see tables and women all around them, moving their hands quickly on thick layers of dark olives.
A girl stops us asking if we are coming from the monastery. She sees the backpacks. We are hikers, she knows it. She asks us if we have seen her dog: she has lost it. She even shows us a picture. But with no luck. We haven’t seen it. She doesn’t seem sad, just less happy, less hopeful. She comes back inside, to the table where her family keeps working on the harvest while looking at her. A man, that outside is moving some crates from a truck to the porch, tells us he will go the following morning to look for the dog but he is not sure he’ll find it. The woods are thick. We greet them and we depart wishing him good luck. He’ll need it cause we saw them, we saw the woods and yeah, they are thick and treacherous like all the wild woods anywhere anytime.
We follow the main road to reach the parking lot where we left the cars. On the left side, the town slowly wanes. Cars are passing by, the Kallidromo is far, surrounded by the darkness of the night that has just fallen all over. Leonidas’ statue looks at us from the other side of the street. All around there is a smell of rotten eggs. The sulfur baths are not far. Athens is somewhere south, miles away.
I look back in the pitch dark where I imagine seeing the shape of the mountain. There, a lost dog is running in the woods, while the king is sleeping and the old oak is mourning along with the winds. There, among thick woods and mud and creeks, an unconcerned nature lies, and with her sleep, the ghost of Ephialtes, of all the Persians, of Leonidas, the 300 Spartans and whoever else walked that path and climb that mountain. In another universe, on another split of the space-time, our ghosts are there as well.