In the Steps of Byron (CNN Traveller 4/06)

 “I have traveled for three days through the most picturesque country,” wrote Lord Byron to his mother from Ioannina in northwestern Greece in 1809. Byron and his party had traveled on horseback from Prevesa, where they had made landfall on September 29 1809, through the sublime mountain scenery of Epirus to the ancient city of Ioannina. It was the 21-year-old poet’s first, life-changing visit to Greece, the country to which the great Romantic and philhellene would ultimately give his name, his fortune and his life.

Today you can read George Gordon Noel Lord Byron’s awestruck first impressions in a valuable early edition of his collected letters stored in the main public library of Ioannina, where it is one of the archive’s most cherished possessions. “Please be careful with this,” says chief librarian Vaia Economidou, as if she were entrusting me not merely with Byron’s letters, but with the poet’s memory itself. Ignoring curious looks from the other library users, I return to the book. Even today, an American, particularly an American journalist, is an exotic quantity in Ioannina. The most remote of Greece’s major cities, Ioannina, located 60km from the Albanian border, is best known as the former lair of Ali Pasha, the cruel, charismatic tyrant who governed the semi-independent Epirus region for the Ottoman Empire from 1788 to 1822 (when, having outlived his usefulness to Istanbul, he was murdered on the orders of Sultan Mahmud II).

It was Ali Pasha’s formidable reputation which induced Byron to travel to Ioannina from Prevesa, where today’s jet airliners touch down. Byron’s party made the northward journey in three days; the modern-day bus (once it finally gets going) takes three hours. But the view of the soaring, snow-capped peaks is just as heart-stopping now as it was back then.

“I shall never forget the singular scene on entering Tepalene,” Byron wrote to his mother, recalling his first encounter with Ali Pasha’s lavish court. “The Albanians in their dresses (the most magnificent in the world), gold-worked cloak, crimson velvet, gold-laced jacket and waistcoat, silver-mounted pistols and daggers….” Before he departed Epirus, the dandyish young lord would order a similar costume (the silver-mounted pistol was still to come). It was in Ioannina that Byron first began to view himself as the future saviour of subjugated Greece. And it was here he began composing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poem that would make him famous upon his return to London, and the work which first forced the condition of modern Greece (then all but forgotten by the rest of the world) on the imagination and conscience of Europe.

Once considered the finest seat of learning in Greece, Ioannina has come down in the world somewhat since its Ali Pasha heyday, when it was home to numerous foreign consulates. Unemployment is rife and packs of stray dogs roam the dusty streets.

But were he to visit today, Byron would have no difficulty recognizing Ali Pasha’s fortress, which still dominates the lower part of town, near silvery Lake Pambotis, or the oriental minaret that still punctures the clear mountain air. And he would be flattered by the degree to which his memory and his work are revered here, as they are elsewhere in Greece, nearly two centuries after his death in the cause of Greek independence.

“Byron? Of course we love Byron,” says Alekos Raptis, a local agricultural co-operative director and historical investigator, as we clamber up the parapets of Ali Pasha’s redoubt and gaze across the lake, just as an enthused Byron and his friend John Hobhouse did in 1809. “And remember, it was in Epirus that Byron found the most spirited Greeks,” Raptis adds, with a feisty gleam in his eye, whereupon he recites the oft-quoted lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage about the Suliotes, the fighting mountain-dwellers of the region, whom the poet saw as the rightful heirs of the proud Greeks of antiquity:

On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore!

Then it is time to head south through the Pindus mountains to Missolonghi, the twice-besieged city on the Gulf of Patras that was the western stronghold of the nine year-long Greek insurgency against the Turks, and which remains a shrine for nationalistic Greeks. This small, history and blood-drenched city has a population of 12,000, about twice the number it housed in 1809, when Byron and Hobhouse first passed through en route to Athens.

It was here, in this city adjoining one of Europe’s largest lagoons (which, curiously, is nowhere to be found in most tourist guides to Greece) that Byron again disembarked 15 years later on January 5, 1824 to help rally the flagging insurgency, to the sound of cannon fire and general jubilation. It is a scene captured in the famous painting by Theodore Vryzakis that hangs in the National Gallery in Athens.

“I will stand by the cause as long as my health and circumstances permit me to be useful,” Byron (who had been given the title of commander-in-chief by the grateful Greeks) resolutely declared. Alas, his usefulness was not to last long. Full of fight and vim, Byron, who had sold his property in England to fund the sputtering two year-old war of independence, initially hoped to lead an elite Byron Brigade of fellow philhellenes and Suliotes in an attack on the Turkish fortress at Lepanto. Instead the would-be generalissimo wound up spending most of his time quelling dissension in the ranks and waiting for further funds from the London Greek Committee.

Then, on April 9, he went out riding in a storm and fell ill. His condition — not helped by the ministrations of his doctors, who insisted on bleeding him with leeches — rapidly worsened. “My wealth, my abilities, I devoted to her cause,” he said on his deathbed. “Well, here is my life to her.” On April 19 he breathed his last.

News of Byron’s death traveled around the country and the world like a thunderbolt. Despondent Greeks feared their famed benefactor’s demise augured the end of their struggle. Instead, it helped re-energise it. As Harold Nicholson wrote in his 1824 biography of the poet: “Had Byron, as he was urged, deserted the Hellenic cause in February 1824, there would, I feel convinced, have been no Navarino.” This decisive naval battle occurred in 1827, when the Great Powers finally became involved in the Greco-Turkish conflict and a British-led flotilla of ships destroyed the Turkish navy. By 1930 Greece was free.

The fact that Byron died a non-combatant’s death was beside the point. All that mattered, to Greeks as least, is that he died for their homeland, and that relevance endures. “All my students may not know who Winston Churchill is,” says Athena Georganda, a professor of history and literature at the University of Patras, “but they know Byron is.”

“Byron? You’re writing something about Byron? That’s wonderful,” says the passenger on the next seat, a young economics student by the name of Dora Griva, as I get off the bus at Missolonghi. “Please give him my regards.”

It is not hard to find Byron’s legacy in Missolonghi: all you have to do is open the door to your hotel balcony, as I did after I settled in my room at the Hotel Arta, overlooking the town’s main square. There, right in front of me, were the words: Café Byron.

Rosa Florou, the vivacious deputy mayor, is chief keeper of the local flame. Florou is the founder of the Missolonghi Byron Society, a non-profit organization whose stated aim is the promotion of the understanding and appreciation of Byron and other historical figures in the 19th century international philhellenic movement. Based in Byron House, a replica of the building where the poet lived during his Missolonghi interlude, the society sponsors annual conferences for Byronites.

Florou says international interest in Byron, as well as in the Romantic movement in general, is increasing. “I think it’s because our own age is so un-Romantic,” she says, when we meet in the society’s library, which overlooks the exact spot where Byron landed 189 years ago.

Florou takes me on a tour of local Byron sites, ending at the Garden of Heroes, the moving cemetery where many of the fallen of the War of Independence are buried under it. This is where the future Greek prime minister Spyridion Tricoupis delivered an oration on April 25 1824: “He whose death we today inconsolably mourn, has given his name to our century.”

The final port of call on my Byron odyssey is Athens, visited by the poet in 1809, and the city that was the base for his further explorations of Greece and Asia Minor.

Today’s sprawling, modern Athens of three million bears little resemblance to the city of 10, 000 that greeted visitors in the early 19th century. But if you walk around the Plaka (old town) at night, when the droning of the incessant Athenian traffic has died down, and look up at the Acropolis, it is not hard to understand why Byron said: “In Greece I feel at home.”

Athens boasts several collections of Byron memorabilia. Perhaps the most impressive is that of the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies, which contains some of his possessions, including a rosewood playing card case, a filigreed gold watch in an enamel case and an amethyst letter seal with the words: “Without thy support, I die.” Perhaps the most moving item on display is a withered crown of Greek laurel that was placed on Byron’s coffin, along with a clipping from a newspaper of the time which took Britain to task for denying the poet burial in Westminster Abbey. “Today Byron is better remembered in England than he was in 1824,” says Panagiotis Mitsiopoulous, the Acropolis in Athens, “But here in Greece we still consider him a megalos kai kalos — a great and good man.”