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Searching for the real Arcadia … Print

ARCADIA! The word suggest images of pastoral bliss and goat-legged Pan, the god of shepherds, twirling around olive trees, playing his pan-pipes. It was a place that inspired the European poets and painters of the 18th and 19th centuries and suggested an innocent, golden age. It sometimes seems more of a mythical place than a real province. So, on a cool autumn day, we set off from the tip of the Messinian peninsula and drove north to discover what Arcadia is all about, and if it still has mythical charm. The excellent Cadogen guidebook, Peloponnese and Athens, describes Arcadia as “one of the best kept secrets of the Peloponnese … a place that seemed ancient even in ancient times”. I know just what that means now as Arcadia has a certain timelessness, sitting snug amid mountains and ravines in the centre of the Peloponnese.

We were heading for the mountain eyrie of Stemnitsa, west of Tripolis. It is one of several mountain outposts in this region, including Dimitsana and Karitaina, but Stemnitsa is also claimed to be one of the 15 most beautiful villages in Greece. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Stemnitsa is built in giddy tiers up a precipice on the western slopes of Mount Menalo, at 1,100 metres, with a view down the long, deep Lousios Gorge.

On the day of our visit it had a wintry feel so high up, despite being a warm day elsewhere. The main square is the heart of this old village, with tables and chairs under the walnut and cherry trees, an old church nearby, and a few tavernas and kafeneia. The Gerousia is an elegant old kafeneio with outdoor seating, but it wasn’t hard to imagine how, in deep winter, villagers would be huddled around the central wood-burning stove inside. It has a feel of how kafeneia used to be in Greece, and in case you can’t imagine it, there is a wonderful collection of old photos around the walls showing groups of villagers from last century sitting outside the main door. Sophia, the owner’s mother, is very friendly and obviously proud of the establishment, as it featured not long ago in a travel story in a popular Greek magazine. Along with coffee she serves some of the local sweets like skaltsounia, pastry shells filled with walnuts and honey. She was very taken with our Jack Russell dog Wallace hiding under the table. “He’s very quiet,” she said. I knew she was tempting fate and the minute her back was turned he sprang to life, like Pan chasing a woodland nymph and barked loudly, scattering a group of passers-by. Just another day in Arcadia! Before we left, Sophia gave us a small container of cherry tomatoes from her garden to take away, and insisted we try a couple first. They were sweet and delicious and it was a nice gesture of hospitality. But coffee followed by tomatoes? Don’t try it at home!

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