4th International Student Byron Conference
General theme: “Byron, The Homeric traveler”
May 17-25, 2005
Messolonghi Byron Society – Byron Research Center
The 2005 iteration of this conference, generously organized and sponsored by the Messolonghi Byron Society, took place in Messolonghi and its environs May 17 through 25, concluding with a delightful visit to the magical island of Ithaca. From undergraduate to veteran professor, all participants were unanimous in their appreciation of an academic program of immense diversity and extraordinary quality, tours to many of the area’s most alluring sights (and historical sites), and a hospitality and graciousness of spirit unique to Greece and the hallmark of the Messolonghi Byron Society’s assiduous and energetic President, Mrs. Rodanthi-Rosa Florou.
This year’s theme, “Byron the Homeric Traveler”, was a particularly happy one in view of the participants who gathered to begin registering at the Byron House Tuesday afternoon (May 17). Reminiscent of the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, embassies arrived from around the globe: Russia, England, South Africa, Wales, the United States, and, somewhat later, from Lebanon. Greece was well-represented, not only by a number of Messolonghi luminaries, but also by students and professors from Athens and Thessaloniki. All delegations were pleasantly housed, either in the comfortable Hotel Theoxenia, an invigorating walk to Byron House, or the newly constructed Panagia Eleousas Camp Building (previously untried by conferees), just a brief stroll away–both enjoying delightful situations immediately upon Messolonghi’s lovely, large lagoon.
The beauty of this May afternoon was exceeded only by the warmth of the opening reception by the Mayor of Messolonghi, Mr. Giorgos Prevezanos, who honored participants with a tour of the Municipal Art Gallery and Museum of History, with its many reminders of Messolonghi’s heroic past and tributes to Byron and his compatriot printer, Colonel Leicester Stanhope. Following light refreshments and the souvenir presentation of one of a variety of reproductions of art work for each of the attendees, Mrs. Florou led the group on a brisk walk around Messolonghi’s historic downtown (which certainly brimmed with activity for a Tuesday evening), including a stroll down one of Greece’s innumerable “Byron Streets” (Odos Vyronos).
Dinner at the Theoxenia Hotel, sponsored by the Messolonghi Byron Society, capped the inaugural festivities. For many conferees, this was their first introduction to Greek cuisine, although the favored “aperitif”–particularly for newly arrived transatlantic guests–was strong coffee. And the evening’s “dessert” was a dramatic rendition of Byron’s “Beppo.” In the unfortunate absence of Dr. Peter Cochran, the theatrical enthusiasm and expertise of Professor Malcolm Kelsall was of immense value. He and Dr. Peter Graham, both on very short notice, shouldered most of the weight of speaking roles, with some superb extemporaneous acting volunteered by Professor Andrew Hubbell (the long-suffering Giuseppe/Beppo), Michael Edson (the debonair Count/Cavalier Servente), and an extremely coquettish Laura (played by Svetlana Klimova). The European contingent stayed later to chat, while most of the bleary-eyed Americans shuffled off to bed.
The academic portion of the program commenced Wednesday morning (May 18) with welcomes and introductions by Professor M. Byron Raizis, Joint President of the International Byron Society, Mrs. Florou, President of the Messolonghi Byron Society, and by Dr. Graham, Director of International Relations of the Messolonghi Byron Center. Although the day itself was quite cloudy, this was by no means true of the presentations. The papers of the first academic session began in an energetic fashion with a lively discussion by Shannon Heath, who spoke on “Manfred’s Byronic Hero and the Epic of Self.” Shannon argued persuasively that Manfred is far more than a classic epic hero. He not only exemplifies what has come to be referred to as the “Byronic hero,”but he also serves as a particularly felicitous prototype of the modern epic of self, in which the characteristic of autonomous independence becomes a feature of critical importance.
In the permanent absence of one and the temporary lack of another of this session’s presenters, Dr. Graham heroically closed the gap with his own contribution. Speaking on “Byron, Odysseus, Nostos, and Nostalgia,” Peter deftly discriminated between the overpowering but ultimately elementary and naive “nostos,” which drove Odysseus in his epic return home, and the more complicated, ambivalent, and–in many regards–opposite “nostalgia” so operative in Byron’s own life and poetry. This first pair was most happily balanced by a magnificent presentation by Dr. Vangelis Politis on “Landscape in Byron’s Thought and Life.” Dr. Politis sensitively remarked on the role of geography as it impinged upon Byron’s complex world. He took special pains to demonstrate the inspiration provided by mountains and water on the poet’s work, particularly as they figured in the time Byron spent in Geneva and Messolonghi.
Although the first panel set an unusually high standard, session two by no means failed to rival its excellence. Justine Rumbel led with a presentation entitled “Don Juan: Byron’s Commercial Odyssey.” Given that Don Juan parallels the Odyssey in important regards, Justine traced some of the ways in which censorship ultimately influenced the final form of Byron’s poem. She took special care in evaluating censorship as it related to Byron’s efforts to modify–if not completely reject–poetic convention and traditional morality. In “Separating God from Man: Heroic Identity in Don Juan and The Odyssey”, Elaine Wood continued with the theme of morality. For Odysseus, she convincingly pointed out, virtuous actions can be defined in a world over which the gods have control. But what if the gods are absent? Elaine eloquently described the way in which this creates pressure to change the definition of the hero, especially in Byron’s Don Juan. Such a compelling topic certainly deserved to be revisited, as, in fact, it was in the following presentation by Charlene Reidy on “Rejecting the ‘Uncommon Want’: Outdating of the Hero from Homer to Byron.”
Charlene carefully demonstrated how Byron rejected the long-standing model of the Homeric hero as no longer useful to his early nineteenth-century audience. He took it upon himself, instead, to educate them about a more timely and appropriate revision. After Charlene’s masterful updating of the hero, she joined her fellow travelers in a brief odyssey to the Hotel Theoxenia for lunch.
Any doubts that the energy of the morning could be sustained were surely erased as soon as the Official Opening Ceremony began later Wednesday at the Trikoupi Municipal Cultural Center, an event open to the public. By way of prelude to the evening’s excitement Mrs. Florou began with a bit of “show-and-tell” featuring (on the best authority) a pair of Byron’s shoes. This exhibition was followed by welcome greetings from Professor Michael Dermitzakis, Rector of Athens University, Mr. Giorgos Prevezanos, Mayor of Messolonghi, and Ms. Panagiota Dakalaki, Councilor and spokeswoman for the Prefect of Aitoloakarnania. The keynote speaker, Professor Malcolm Kelsall of the University of Wales, Cardiff, then took the floor to speak on “Byron and The Odyssey,” after a glowing introduction from Professor Byron Raizis. The elegant and polished oratory which followed demonstrated the wisdom of the Byron Society in choosing their presenter. With the caveat that Dr. Kelsall’s lecture was far too rich and colorful for effective summary, he took as his main avenue of explication Homer as an “urtext” for the Romantics, especially Byron’s relationship to the epic poet. In Kelsall’s view the inevitable reevaluation involves asking not whether Byron is Homeric, but if Homer is Byronic. Every great artist–from Homer to Shakespeare to Byron himself–not only deserves but also requires reinterpretation, and a Byronic reading of Homer will highlight the subjective sentimentality typical of the early nineteenth century, while presuming upon the naive, objective understanding that preceded it.
After Professor Kelsall’s brilliant and inspired declamation, the Official Opening Ceremony concluded with a concert by the renowned choir of the Messolonghi Cultural Center, singing music all written and arranged by Greek composers, under the talented direction of Mr. Spyros Holevas. Although surfeited now intellectually and aesthetically, conference participants still had room for food. Fortunately for their appetites, the Mayor of Messolonghi, Mr. Prevezanos, and the Board of T.E.D.K. of Aitoloakarnania and the President, Mr. Thymios Sokos, had graciously provided dinner at the Radio Station Restaurant. The ranks of attendees now swelled by the nearly two dozen students from the English departments of Athens University and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (both of whom had also attended the Official Opening Ceremony), a convivial evening was anticipated. Following a generous repast–and one exotic for those new to Greek delicacies–the group was entertained by a wonderful series of Greek traditional dances performed by the Messolonghi Cultural Center dancing troupe, under the able direction of Mr. Dimitris Karavasilis. As the evening wore on, more and more students and faculty members voluntarily took to the dance floor (or were importuned to do so), although few, if any, were able to capture the youthful energy demonstrated by the Mayor of Messolonghi and Mrs. Rosa Florou.
Logistical exigencies delayed somewhat recommencement of the academic program Thursday morning (May 19), although the papers themselves were anything but sluggish. Session three started off in a sprightly fashion with three intriguing presentations from the DePaul contingent. First up was Kimberly Puchalski who courageously ventured into an as yet unexplored aspect of the relationship of “Byron and Blake: Homeric and Mental Travelers.” Kimberly carefully and skillfully contrasted the physical-earthly journeys described by these two poets with their correlative spiritual-imaginative transformations. Professor Jonathan Gross then stepped in smartly to rescue one of his students, whose paper had taken an unexpected earthly detour, with a masterly discussion of “The Wound of Philoctetes and the Scar of Odysseus: Jefferson, Byron, Clinton.”
It would be unfair and cruel to reduce this rich study to a line, but particularly fascinating was Jonathan’s explication of the concept of “erotic liberalism” in helping make sense of the darker, “Philoctetean” aspects of Byron (as well as of Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton). Cyber-magic having rescued Jena Hencin’s study of “Byron’s ‘Prometheus’ and Blake’s ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion'” from its errant side trip, in the interim, she fascinated the audience, albeit from a computer screen rather than traditional hardcopy. Jena focused on the two authors’ treatment of heroism, especially the ways in which creative thought can be freed through suffering.
The fourth session which followed involved a distinct change of pace, as Michael Edson warmed up the audience with an extraordinary study of the vocabulary of ambulation entitled “Walking, Treading, Plodding: Byron on the Move”.
Michael adroitly led the audience through a study of Byron and traveling as it helped to inform the poet’s writing and as it served as a metaphor for spiritual growth. Hard on his heels cantered Dr. Argyros Protopapas with a slightly modified paper topic of “Riding and Liberating Galloping: Physical Aspects in the Traveling Urge of Byron and Shelley.” This thoughtful presentation elevated locomotion to yet another level on which Dr. Protopapas explored the psychophysical exhilaration promoted by equestrian exercise and its role in producing liberating visions and insights.
After these two theoretical excursions (Mrs. Alexandropoulou’s presentation was deferred until Sunday evening), it was time for conferees to engage in a practicum. The first exercise, à la Mr. Edson, was a stroll to the site of Byron’s death, not far from Byron House itself and now distinguished by a memorial column to Byron erected by the University of Athens on the centennial of his demise. Mrs. Rosa Florou thoughtfully provided eponymous flowers for all participants to honor the great poet who had occasioned the conference. There followed a “liberating gallop” via a motorized incarnation of Dr. Protopapas’s steeds to visit the bucolic studio of the famous painter-engraver Mr. Apostolos Koustas, who shared not only his glorious artwork with an appreciative audience but also some very welcome refreshments. The next stop in an eventful day was a visit to ancient (probably second century A.D.) Roman “thermae” or baths at Agios Thomas, now idyllically embedded in a well-maintained grove of almost equally ancient olive trees.
The eighteenth-century monastery of Saint Simeon on the nearby slopes of Mount Arakinthos was, to the disappointment of the visitors, closed for the afternoon, but their letdown was soon mollified by a lavish luncheon, courtesy of the President of Messolonghi’s Advanced Technological Institution (T.E.I.), Mr. Leonidas Panagiotopoulos. Institutional cuisine, dinner partners agreed, has rarely if ever tasted better. The camaraderie of the early afternoon was typified by the closing gesture of Dr. Vangelis Politis, T.E.I.’s Vice President: the generous donation of several volumes of a rare edition of the poet to the rapidly growing library of the Byron House.
The activities of May 19 described thus far might seem enough to fill a week, but, in fact, the day was just beginning. After the munificent meal at T.E.I., conferees enjoyed a visit to the Cathedral of Agios Spyridon in Messolonghi, a church occasionally attended by Byron during his stay there. This was followed by a tour of the House-Museum of the Greek national poet Kostis Palamas and then a brief exploration of the nearby House-Museum devoted to the memory of two Prime Ministers of Greece, the father and son Spiros and Charilaos Trikoupis. Byron travelers then repaired to the historic village of Katochi just on the outskirts of Messolonghi, where they were charmed by the wide variety of Greek ethnic costumes, all products of the workshop of Mr. Nikos Plakidas. Several of the group’s photogenic members (Jena Hencin, Nicole Tymchyshyn, Svetlana Klimova, and Shannon Heath) agreed to pose in costume, while Professor Kelsall struck a particularly dashing figure, bepistolled and Corsair-like in military regalia. The transformations were stunningly impressive, but generous refreshments were provided to revive amazed guests.
The next stop on a busy day’s itinerary was at the island town of Aetoliko, twice visited by Byron, where the travelers were welcomed by its Mayor, Mr. Nikos Galanis. After a warm reception in the town hall, the visitors adjourned to a wonderful evening’s coolness in the town plaza to be treated there to coffee, courtesy of the Mayor. A walking tour of Aetoliko then ensued, which included two magnificent churches on the way to the local museum. A variety of fascinating artifacts were neatly on display for viewing, proudly arranged by the museum’s patrons, who then shared with their guests the most delectable array of homemade appetizers, lovingly prepared with great care and served with the most gracious enthusiasm. The evening’s stroll then took the group to Aetoliko’s oldest church, before terminating at a restaurant near the town plaza. As dinner came to an end, those present were serenaded by the opera-quality voice of Svetlana Klimova, who sang a poignant Russian melody. A day full of adventure ended when the bus deposited conferees at their places of lodging after a swing by Tourlida for a late night view of the beach there.
Friday (May 20) began with the fifth series of papers, which proved to be the most abbreviated of the academic sessions, owing to the regrettable absence of Dr. Peter Cochran. It was, however, masterfully inaugurated by a brilliant presentation by Svetlana Klimova, who spoke on “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: The Concept of the Way.” In a fascinating treatment of the interplay between the literal and the metaphorical, Svetlana showed how the “real” physical journey described by the poet is interwoven seamlessly with the fictitious and created excursions of the mind and soul, so that one ultimately leaves a familiar world for as yet untried and unknown spiritual and psychological adventures. Stephen Wilkerson continued with the theme of pilgrimage in “Hephaestus Goes on Vacation: Byron and Homer’s Reluctant Traveler,” although “the journey” took a backseat in this presentation. Stephen argued for some entertaining if unexpected resemblances between the prosaic Greek god of fire and the rakish Romantic poet. In the absence of a third formal presentation, Professor Raizis kindly shared with the audience an impromptu discussion of his own experience in introducing, editing, and translating into Greek Marco Bozzaris, The Grecian Hero: A Tragedy in Three Acts. This drama, written by the American playwright and philhellene Oliver Bell Bunce, is based on the historic figure Markos Botsaris (1790-1823), with whom Byron corresponded in 1823. The play was originally penned in 1849, and Professor Raizis’s Greek-English edition has just become available this year (2005).
Expectations for the rest of the day ran high, particularly in view of the morning’s theme of “Pilgrimage.” The journey began with a visit to the office of the Prefect of Aitoloakarnania, Mr. Dimitris Stamatis. The Prefect himself had been called away on important business, but the group was cordially received by the Prefectural Deputy, Dimitris Geropantas. If, as Svetlana maintained earlier, real life travels are inextricably intertwined with spiritual journeys, this was nowhere more evident than in the moving experience of daily living at a home for the disadvantaged in Messolonghi. Conferees witnessed members of the home at work fashioning pottery, making colourful prints, sewing, and gardening. The staff of the home treated the visitors to refreshments following a tour of the living quarters. Byron himself is never far when one is in Messolonghi, and participants then removed to the city’s Garden of Heroes to view the centrally-located statue of Byron (distinct from the memorial column at the site of his death). Additional time was provided to wander among the many other tributes to those fallen in war, as well as monuments to a variety of the allies and friends of Greece.
With such a rich agenda, spare time to visit Panagia Finikias (the island Chapel of the Virgin of the Palms, to which Byron often rode at sunset), as originally planned, did not present itself, although several of the group’s trips west, just on the outskirts of Messolonghi, afforded opportunities to view the chapel from the highway. One such occasion arose on the heels of the tour of the Garden of Heroes, just mentioned, after which participants completed a pilgrimage to Plevron (also “Pleuron”), located on a hillside overlooking the city five kilometers to the northwest. Originally the site of two different settlements dating to the time of Homer, the extant archeological remains are several hundred years younger. But treading these ancient paths on the mountain (many not normally available to tourists) with its spectacular view of Messolonghi and the surrounding lagoon was certainly a high point–both figuratively and literally–for members of the conference tour, particularly as the site took those present on such a memorable journey back to Homer himself.
Lunch, at the Theoxenia Hotel, followed the descent from Homer’s hilltop back to Byron’s Messolonghi. Although the afternoon was to have been “free,” one can be certain that a good many of the group were absorbed with preparations for the evening. No conference is quite complete without a gala celebration, and this gathering was treated to an extravaganza to which even the veteran reveler Byron would have presented superior marks. A bus took the group to Kalavrouza village and the estate of Mr. Vassilios Zelios. After a most friendly reception and a feast of truly Bacchanalian (indeed, given the location in Greece, of Dionysian) proportion, local dancers shared their talents with surprising energy and unrelenting enthusiasm, much to the delight of an enchanted audience. A goodly number of guests had either been sufficiently observant during or suitably inspired by the evening to join in a variety of the Greek dances which followed. Svetlana Klimova once more shared with the assembled party-goers an a cappella arrangement of the most exquisite beauty. There was certainly general agreement on the bus ride back to Messolonghi that it would be impossible to improve upon Mr. Zelios’s generosity and warm hospitality, as well as on the excellence of the evening’s food and entertainment.
In contrast to the first three full days of the conference, which opened with academic papers, the fourth–continuing along the lines of journeys and pilgrimages–commenced with a tour. It was a group of now well-seasoned travelers who boarded the bus Saturday morning (May 21), bound for Agrinio, the largest town in Aitoloakarnania Prefecture. Visitors were first intrigued by a variety of treasures at the metropolitan Archaeological Museum, and this was followed by a tour of the stirring art collection housed in the Kapralos Sculpture Gallery. Mrs. Florou then led the group on an animated march through the commercial center of the town, which concluded in the office of the Mayor of Agrinio, Mr. Thymios Sokos, who not only extended a genial welcome to the assembled hikers but also took pains to insure that all participants were well-hydrated with refreshments following their exercise.
A short bus trip to nearby Lake Trikhonis, the largest lake in western Greece, guaranteed a thorough revitalization of the group, who reveled in the beauty of its vast expanse, surrounded by refreshingly cool groves of trees. After revivification was complete, conferees returned to town for an opulent lunch provided at one of its most luxurious restaurants, courtesy of Mr. Thymios Sokos, Agrinio’s Mayor.
Even with splendid adventures such as these speeding up the passage of time, it still came as something of a shock to realize that the afternoon’s sixth session would also be the last full academic portion of the conference. As if to establish with some authority that the last was by no means the least, Meredith Miller and James Graham together began the final session with an engaging discussion of “Site Seeing: The Maps and Legends of Byron and Homer.” Alternating turns at the podium, Meredith and James borrowed a page from the architectural theory that informs their professional work to enhance a visual understanding of the travels of the two poets. The duo very effectively contrasted traditional horizontal perspective with that of the vertical, which promotes an overlapping, layered experience, suggesting a completely different and much richer way of viewing the episodic narratives and their complex accretions typical of Byron and Odysseus’s journeys about the Mediterranean.
It was, in fact, political events in the eastern Mediterranean that had unhappily detained the session’s last two speakers’ arrival in Messolonghi from Lebanon until Saturday afternoon. But good fortune had finally turned a smile upon the travelers and on the audience, as well, given the excellence of what followed. Valerie Aoun gave the first address on “Homer and Byron: An Iconographic Journey from Hades to the Gates of the Exalted Self,” delivered with great passion and confidence. In a marvelous and well-crafted presentation, Valerie described the iconographic pathway of both poets from satanic disillusion to a rebirth of the spirit to a final ecstasy of the exalted Self. Purgation is indispensable in this journey of the soul, which the poets accomplish through the catharsis of the writing process, ultimately rising to their Creator through the twin wings of faith and reason. The last of the regular academic papers was perhaps the most unique. Professor Naji Oueijan presented the audience with his conception of “Byron’s Virtual Tour of Lebanon.” Although Byron was denied the opportunity to visit this beautiful country, Professor Oueijan very creatively illustrated via computer graphics the vistas Byron would have likely beheld and described a number of the dignitaries he might have met and experiences he could have expected. Anyone less familiar with Lebanon than Professor Oueijan would be hard pressed to suggest a more viable scenario, and his conclusion seems unassailable–namely, that HAD Byron visited this region, his writings would have undergone a profound change. The day’s physical and intellectual pilgrimages at an end, all members of the group shared together dinner at the Theoxenia Hotel.
Conference goers were blessed Sunday (the 22nd) with yet another in a series of glorious May mornings–an auspicious beginning for additional exploration in the Messolonghi vicinity. This day’s adventures began with a visit to the magnificent and splendidly located 4th- to 6th-century Christian basilica of Panagia Panaxiotisa on a rural hillside near Gavrolimni village. Visitors enjoyed a special treat at this historic location in the form of Mr. Athanasios Paliouras, Professor of the Medieval and Byzantine Archaeological Department of Ioannina University (Ioannina is somewhat more than 100 miles northwest of Messolonghi). Mr. Paliouras shared freely of his extensive knowledge about art, architecture, religion, and history with the participants, who freely plied him with a variety of questions. Although it was difficult to pull away from this peaceful and idyllic region of calm, the next destination was equally serene, as the tour members settled down to delicate sea breezes wafting over the charming village of Krioneri (“cold water”) in Halkeia borough. After a restful interlude on shore, all seaworthy adventurers boarded a small fishing vessel for a brief but innocuous odyssey to the base of Mount Varasova. A much smaller craft then ferried the mariners to shore in shifts. Once back upon terra firma, sailors immediately transformed, in the manner of Proteus, into equally intrepid rock climbers, making their way several hundred feet upwards over an unstable and occasionally treacherous gravel incline, severely testing James and Meredith’s theories concerning the vertical perspective. The final destination was an enormous limestone cave used, as Mr. Paliouras was good enough to explain, for hundreds of years as a monastery and medieval church. Agios Nikolaos, hugging the side of Mount Varasova, no longer serves an active religious function, although relics of its monastic past are everywhere evident–as is a truly heavenly view of the Gulf of Patras, as one leaves this historic site to descend.
Although a few minor mishaps were inevitable on the way down, the hikers gathered once again at the mountain’s base in good spirits, and quite a number opted for a frolic in the transparent and, to all accounts, comfortable blue waters overlooked by Agios Nikolaos. After a delightful hour of baptism in the Mediterranean, passengers reembarked for the voyage back to Krioneri. The bracing combination of sea air, cruise, and mountain climb had left all visitors with a pretty hearty appetite. So it was with great relish that these explorers fell upon a robust meal, featuring, aptly enough, fresh fish as the main course–but not before they were welcomed to this lovely part of Greece by the chairman of the cultural center, Mr. Spyros Houliaras, and the Mayor of Halkeia borough, Mr. Nikos Stamboulopoulos, through whose generosity (and that of the Halkeia town council) this wholesome cuisine was provided. “And when at last,” in the words of Homer, “they’d put aside desire for food and drink,” the luncheon ended–if not on a high note, then surely on a shrill one, as the dinner guests were serenaded by a strolling band of gypsies. Mrs. Florou and Mr. Stamboulopoulos, in particular, literally “got an earful” of rather strident tunes (if that word can be accurately applied here), before Professor Oueijan brought some degree of harmony to the ensemble.
An uneventful bus trip back to Messolonghi provided participants with the necessary leisure to begin to absorb some of the day’s activities. As good fortune would have it, no formal program had been scheduled for the evening, and this provided an excellent opportunity for participants and a number of the town’s citizens to attend a fascinating presentation at the Hotel Theoxenia by Mrs. Loula Alexandropoulou, historian and former Principal of Messolonghi High School, entitled “Messolonghi’s Major Area in Byron’s Time.” Assisted by another local historian, Mr. George Kokosoulas, Mrs. Alexandropoulou traced Byron’s relationship with Messolonghi employing a series of marvelous images. Illustration was by way of a cornucopia of slides depicting maps, etchings, drawings, and paintings of incidents and locations pertinent to Byron and some of his colleagues in Greece. After Mrs. Alexandropoulou’s colorful and educational presentation, the group felt a great sense of gratitude–and gave a corporate sigh of relief that they had not had to forego such a useful and entertaining series of pictures.
Fortunately for the group, Sunday evening still held a few moments of freedom, as–when Monday (May 23) broke–preparations were in order to leave Messolonghi and the conferees’ temporary homes for the week. A bus was boarded soon after breakfast, and a relaxing trip of about an hour and a half followed on the way to the port of Astakos (known to Byron as Dragomestre) to the west. Monday was yet another in a series of glorious days in May: sunny, slightly breezy, and entirely pleasant. The weather made for an excellent opportunity to explore Astakos, take a moment for lunch, and then to delight in the two and a half hour ferry ride to the fabled island of Ithaca. Upon disembarkation, the group was immediately swept away, this time in two smaller buses, to the capital of Ithaca, Vathy, where all were housed together grandly in a manner befitting Telemachus himself in the Hotel Mentor, immediately upon a magnificent bay.
After becoming acquainted with their rooms at the Hotel Mentor, members of the group strolled to Vathy’s Municipal Cultural Center just around the corner, to which the public was invited for the evening’s “Byron event.” Mrs. Florou and the Mayor of Ithaca, Mr. Telemachos Karavias, jointly introduced the evening’s speaker, Emeritus Professor M. Byron Raizis of Athens University, who spoke in Greek on the subject of “Lord Byron and Ithaca.” Although Byron actually mentions Ithaca only in passing in his poetry, he did pay a visit to the island in August of 1823, an account of which Professor Raizis reconstructed from a wide variety of sources and shared with his listeners with his customary erudition and aplomb. His presentation was well-received by the audience, particularly by those who understood Greek. The conferees then adjourned to a restaurant most agreeably situated beside the bay, where they were feasted royally, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Telemachos Karavias and the Ithaca town council. In a fitting conclusion to an exciting day, Svetlana Klimova once again electrified the assembly with her singing, which met with thunderous applause from Byron conferees, as well as patrons from several other restaurants within range of her voice.
Tuesday (May 24) arrived joyfully–but also with an undercurrent of poignancy, as participants realized with varying degrees of consciousness that the final full day of the conference was, inconceivably, at hand. The group left the Hotel Mentor that morning on a highway that was to prove immensely Odyssean, full, as it was, of assorted twists and turns. But, notwithstanding its formidable convolutions, the road led right to a large bust of the legendary Odysseus himself, in the middle of the quaint town square of Stavros, about 10 miles from Vathy. Next to the monument of this most notorious of all of Homer’s travelers was a map illustrating his Mediterranean peregrinations. The interlude in Stavros also gave the group an opportunity to visit a church facing the town plaza, as well as the occasion to tour the municipal Archaeological Museum, which made up with its wealth of material– to say nothing of the enthusiasm and expertise of its docent/director–what it may have lacked in magnitude.
Every member of the group no doubt spied a favorite artifact, but many will have surely settled upon the only known ancient shard containing the name “Odysseus.”
From Stavros, conferees traveled another ten miles to the north through Frikes to the village of Kioni, amphitheatrically arranged around a bay of the most stunning beauty. The final “plenary” session the group enjoyed together was sharing lunch, once again as guests of the Mayor of Ithaca, Mr. Telemachos Karavias. This meal could not have occurred in more charming and picturesque surroundings, with soft, gentle winds, playful sunlight, idyllic views and a sense of serenity reminiscent of the afternoon at Krioneri two days earlier. Following lunch, leisure was allowed for window-shopping, last minute souvenir buying, swimming, chatting, and merely lounging, although some of the more adventurous members embarked upon an exploration of Kioni bay by paddle boat.
The return trip to Vathy was in no way less serpentine than the morning’s, but it was somewhat more sober, as part of the conference participants were to depart that afternoon for Athens, which they did very near, in fact, to the beach where Odysseus is reputed to have finally arrived back home centuries ago. A parting gift to each conferee from Mr. Karavias was a book of poetry composed by the Mayor himself, illustrated romantically with early black-and-white photographs, and calculated, no doubt, to assuage some of the rampant melancholia of the ones leaving. Those staying behind in Ithaca had a final afternoon in which to take advantage of the island’s pristine and magically engaging beaches. Dinner that evening was a special occasion, for besides being the last for those remaining back, it was also the chance to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Peter Graham’s son, James. There was heartfelt agreement, both among those in Ithaca this evening and among those who had recently departed prematurely, that the conference had been a grand and unqualified success. And there was also little doubt that, for all of the many hands which had contributed to bringing the meeting about, it would have never taken place at all without the energy, enthusiasm, and selfless effort of the Messolonghi Byron Society’s gracious president, Mrs. Rosa Florou.
As Wednesday morning (May 25) dawned, a column of heavily laden conferees could be seen wending their way from the Hotel Mentor along the docks towards the large ferry which would transport them to Cephalonia and, ultimately, by bus on to Athens. A few remained behind to travel later that day to Messolonghi or to Athens by another route. But wherever their path led them, it was clear to most of the group that–like Odysseus and Byron before–“we’ll go no more a-roving” in western Greece. Not, at least, until the NEXT International Student Byron Conference in Messolonghi.
(written by Stephen Y. Wilkerson)