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Journal

The Journal

Lake Doxa & Our Lady of the Shelters

Already October had come and gone, and the heat of the summer still lingered. After several days of 70-degree weather (what they call the “little summer of St. Dimitrios”), I yearned for the crispness of autumn, the smell of wood smoke, and the sound of dried leaves underfoot.

By body ached to be in the mountains, away from the city. My chance came when a friend told me her hiking group was hosting a getaway to the Corinthian mountains: two days in the northern Peloponnese, enveloped by pine, oak and fir. How could I resist?

We began our journey on the Feneos plateau, 900 meters above the sea where lake Doxa (Λίμνη Δόξα) lies nestled in alpine forest.

Walking past vendors of walnuts, wild thyme and honey, we made our way down a narrow strip of land that extends into the center of the lake. At the end of the promontory is a small church, dedicated to Saint Fanourios ( 'Αγιος Φανουρίος) and the crumbling remains of a monastery.

I could finally feel autumn sinking into my bones. The wind came in gusting bursts, sweeping down from the mountains to shake the willow trees and ripple the surface of the water. I stumbled upon a lone mullein plant, growing wild beside the monastery ruins.

A dam was visible in the distance against the soft blue waters, reminding me that Doxa was created by human hands. The dam was built in the 1990s to control the frequent flooding of the plain and to provide irrigation for local farmers. 

Facing north on the promontory, it's possible to see the red and blue monastery of Saint George (Μόνη Αγίου Γεωργίου Φενεού) hidden amongst the changing trees. The monastery was built there in the late 1600s after frequent flooding forced the monks to abandon the monastery at the center of the lake.

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After a short walk around Doxa, we journey up the mountain to St George, where, even in autumn, the courtyards are overflowing with greenery.

I immediately fall in love with the native Greek ivy (Hedera helix), dark black berries against deep green, vining its way over the yard entrance and climbing up the side of the monastery wall. Called κισσός (kee-SOS) by the Greeks, it was worn in garlands by followers of Dionysos, a symbol of immortality, intoxication, and the passionate entwining of lovers.

A short tour of the church and attic (where the monks held a secret school during the Ottoman occupation) ends with a sampling of their delicious rose petal spoon sweet. The monks make a living from the rose preserves, as well as firewood harvested from the surrounding forest.

I steal one last view of lake Doxa from the balcony window before rejoining the group. The November air is heavy with resin as we drive over the twisting roads. Passing through the small village of Steno (Στενό), I urge my friend to stop so I can drink from a spring that pours from the bark of an ancient plane tree.

The water is still cool on my lips as we arrive at the church of Our Lady of the Shelters (Παναγία των Καταφυγιών), a series of shelters and chapels carved into the cliff face below the road. Descending the paved pathway, the view of the valley is staggering. The shelters were constructed here to serve as a secret chapel, school, and stronghold during the Ottoman occupation.

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Ducking through narrow entrances and walking along creaking floorboards, it is possible to explore the suspended rooms, where fresh water comes from a spring in the rock and the trunk of a tree reminds me that the rock face was once exposed to the air.

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Continuing the hike downward, I look up at the shelters from below. I imagine making the precarious descent from the top of the mountain three hundred years ago, unaided by metal railing or concrete steps.

Breathless from the climb, I return to the top for a final view of the surrounding mountains.

Tomorrow we continue through the Stymphalian Valley...