Once in Greece we had no concrete plans but decided to head for Parga, a little fishing village we had read about. By luck we found an ideal camping site, in an olive grove, with restaurant and supermarket on the site and all for less than GBP 3 a night for the two of us plus tent and car.
A visit to the tourist office informed us that we were only a few miles from Hades itself. Surely the Mecca of all speleologists. Actually it is called the Necromanteion of Ephyra, or the Oracle of the Dead, visited by countless supplicants for over 3000 years, including Odysseus himself.
We drove along a new coast road cut into the limestone some hundred meters above the sea. The scenery was magnificent, and, soon, below us we saw the long sandy beach of Ammoudia so we knew from the tourist leaflets that we were somewhere near. It was now that we began to learn something of the vagaries of Greek signposting. No wonder Odysseus was away 20 years, his directions were even vaguer than ours.
„You will come to a wild coast and to Persephone's Grove, where the hill poplars grow and the willows that so quickly shed their seeds. Beach your boat there by Ocean's swirling stream and march on into Hade's Kingdom. There the River of Flaming Fire and River of Lamentation, which is a branch of the Waters of the Styx, unite around a pinnacle of rock to pour their thundering streams into Acheron. This is the spot, my lord, that I bid you seek out .... then the souls of the dead and departed will come up in their multitudes”.
We decided modern Greek signposters are still influenced by their Homeric inheritance. Firstly they appear to follow the universal system of mentioning a place once and then never mentioning it again. To add variety they name places which are totally irrelevant, the road to Hades is signposted Athens 435 km! Distance varies from sign to sign so that sometimes you appear to be travelling backwards, a signpost on a cross roads pointing right sometimes means go right, sometimes take the road behind the sign, and we soon learned to check the back of signposts as we drove past as sometimes directions were different on each side. However, town names are always shown in both Greek and Roman script, a great help. As far as maps go we discovered that the map-makers too had difficulty in making up their minds as to what existed where. The best maps we concluded were the small ones issued free by the Greek Tourist Office, but natural features on these seldom agreed. We eventually assembled three maps of the same area, which if consulted in conjunction with each other, enabled fairly trouble free navigation.
For those who come after, this is how you get to the Oracle from the coast road. Take the Ammoudia turning, double back under the new road and drive straight up through the village of Mesopotamo, the Oracle is on the hill facing you under a small chapel.
At the time we visited the entry fee was GBP 1 per head and a map at the entrance gave a layout of the site. Pilgrims were housed in windowless dormitories, relieved of their votive offerings by the priests, left to grope in the dark round a labyrinth of passages before arriving in a room from which they were lowered on a winch down a 15 ft drop into a domed chamber, part natural, about 30 ft long. All the while they were subjected to hallucinogenic vapours, and once in the final chamber, which was again totally without light, the priests, presumably, took the part of the spirits of the dead the pilgrims had come to consult. In the floor of the chamber, which is now reached via an iron ladder, and electrically lit, there are the remains of two small streams, presumably, these flow in winter, but certainly they resembled nothing like the foaming River Styx of my imagination. Indeed, it was difficult to imagine the River Acheron as it peacefully threaded its way across the plain below the pinnacle, as the pathway to hell.
My eight year old daughter was horrified at the avaricious behaviour of the priests, her experience of the clergy being based on William Jones, our Baptist Minister, back in our village in Wales, a familiar figure in his Homburg and Raincoat. I don't think she could picture him lowering his parishioners into the jaws of hell. However, an explanation that these priests were not Christians cleared the matter up. „Still, I bet they [the priests] had a good giggle about it afterwards”, she remarked, amazed at the gullibility of the pilgrims.