Neapoli, Pt. II: Local Guides, Byzantine Towns, and the Southernmost Point in Europe
In my last post I was singing the praises of the local host and guide over a guidebook. Fittingly, I suppose, I spent the rest of the day working on the debate Aristotle stages in the Politics between those who support the rule of law and those who would advocate the rule of human beings. The rule of law is all well and good but much of life is about the singularity of human action and experience that the law in its generality can’t quite grasp. Human beings are all well and good but they can be bribed, which is to say, they can rule out of their own self-interest. I read Aristotle’s solution to point to the way that even the rule of law is the rule of human beings, the collective rule whereby we determine what the law should be in order to habituate ourselves toward the good life. I come to this conclusion by looking at Politics III.13 which is actually the chapter before this debate begins where Aristotle makes the peculiar claim that the supremely virtuous human being wouldn’t need the law because such a person would be the law. My husband recently gave a series of papers on this supremely virtuous king (SVK for short), so we talk about this character a lot. What I found most peculiar when I went back and looked at this passage was that this figure is a foil to the claim that the free and equal make the law for themselves, suggesting that SVK doesn’t need the law not only because he isn’t free and equal but because he doesn’t need to deliberate with others about the good—he’s so good whatever he does is good. That’s a wild position for a human being to be in for Aristotle and it makes me think of Greek heroes, or Aristotle’s effort to reinvent a Greek hero since, let’s be frank, whatever Greek heroes does is not always good. Sometimes it is, but often, well, no.
Fortunately, Kosmas* is not an SVK, and he’s found a welcoming community of people—free and equals—with whom he is thinking about what it means to live well (one friend, a committed communist, asked Kosmas when he called if he was with the “Agents of Imperialism”). After our lovely day at the beach at Simos and our trip to the Petrified Forest (picture lots of very scared trees), Kosmas took us to the town that is the southernmost town in all of Europe, Agios Nikolaos or St. Nicolas. We walked around the town and found on the side of the road the kind of flowers from which the hemlock that Socrates drank was made. There is a single black seed in the middle of each one that you crush up and get an oil that makes the poison.
After we worked up an appetite—we talked about working up an appetite a lot, maybe because as Kosmas told us, the Greeks spend a lot of time talking about food, where they are going to eat, what they will eat, what they had last time, this proved to be the case—we went to a restaurant called Neraida, which means fairy. The two owners / chefs of this restaurant make their own dairy products, honey, wine and bread. They grow their own vegetables, buy local meat. One of them is a pastry chef and desserts are their specialty. And they’re single, as they proclaim on the front page of the menu. We had their wine, goat cheese — it was the strongest, tastiest goat cheese I have ever had — and Greek salad. We tried some Cretan salad — Kosmas’ friend and colleague who is planning on moving to Brooklyn in August met up with us with her brother and his girlfriend and so we were able to try the things they ordered too, which supports my theory that people should never order the same things at the same table so that you can all try different things. They ordered the Cretan salad and it was interesting—tomatoes with goat cheese and a hard toasted bread, almost like a bruschetta salad. We ordered cheese pie—it was a variation of what we had the night before which was fun, two ‘new Greek cuisine’ varieties. Then we had goat which was so tender and moist. Oh, I should say that we started off with just the goat cheese and some ice cream cake-like dessert while we were waiting for Kosmas’ friends. I kinda like this — start with dessert and end with dessert. Our friends, because they did soon become our friends too, ordered a slow roasted pig’s leg that was delicious (pictured above). It was for two but three people could definitely share it. Oh and fries. The Greeks serve fries with everything. Of course, they were fresh fries at Neraida. From where we say on the outside porch at the restaurant, there was a gorgeous view of the valley with the sun setting and the sky turning pink and purple. I did not have the camera equipment or talent to capture it on camera, though I tried, so you’ll just have to trust that it added to the grandeur and awe of the experience – you could see why they called the place fairy. It felt enchanted. For such carefully and thoughtfully made artisanal food, the place was not at all pretentious. The chefs came out and sat with us and talked about what was fresh on their menu. The ceiling was decorated with fancy gourds. After dinner, we had their walnut infused raki. The meal cost about 25 euro each.
Along with dinner, we had a nice long argument about Heidegger—me against two dyed-in-the-wool Heideggerians—so that was fun! Actually, I’m the kind of person who does think that much of 20th century continental philosophy owes its paths of inquiry to Heidegger, and I think all philosophy graduate students should read Heidegger; I’m just not raising the flag. What can I say, we’re not SVK’s, we need each other to work these things out. After dinner, we went back to Andres’ cafe and had some drinks. At one point, Andres was sitting and having drinks with his friends and didn’t want to be bothered so he told us to go make our own drinks. We stayed up late talking about Greek and American politics with Kosmas and his teacher friends.
The next day, Sunday, we met at Cafe Maggiolano’s for coffee and then took off for Monemvasia, the town in the castle. It’s a little town and almost no one lives within the castle walls, though there are lots of shops and restaurants, and we did see some houses on sale if you are interested. Monemvasia is a Byzantine town that was never captured by the Ottomans, which they are very proud of. For such a tiny town, there are tons of churches. We went into the church in the town square that houses an old Byzantine icon that was stolen at one point and cut into four pieces by the robbers so that they could move it. It’s been restored and the cuts add to the somber feeling of the icon’s crucifixion scene. It’s off to the right of the altar in a little climate-controlled room. We went to the museum, which is pretty small. There are some classical and Hellenistic ruins that the Byzantines used as lintels for their homes, as in this one with, of course, a St. Mark’s Lion over it.
If you go to the right of the church from the square down the stairs and through the arch and then wind back through to Byron’s winery (where you can do a wine tasting), you can make your way to a swimming area where we swam. It was pretty idyllic. You can swim pretty far out and get a view of the whole little town and its high walls and see how difficult it would have been to take off. At one point pirates ruled the sea around here and the little town with extract a fee from the pirates for safe passage. If they refused to pay, they would fire their cannon at the pirate ships. Outpirating the pirates, ARG!
Having worked up an appetite (of course) we went to lunch at this little place called Matoula that had a patio with a view of the sea. When we first arrived there was a singing group. They sang just a couple more songs — it was nice to hear them, but we were glad to have space to talk. Kosmas talked to the owner about the efforts to privatize at Simos and she said that the property taxes on the restaurant have skyrocketed. The frustrating thing seems to be that the small businesses are getting the squeeze while the big corporations and those who are connected to the current ruling coalition are not suffering, so it felt like home! The food was good — we ordered tzatsiki and Greek salad; I had moussaka; Kosmos ordered eggplant salad and Jeff had lamb with the traditional pasta. They brought us an orange-infused cake for dessert, which was one of the better of these kind of traditional cakes that we’ve had.
After lunch, we took one last look around, stopped at a souvenir shop and ran into Kosmas’ friends—the brother and his girlfriend that we had had dinner with the night before. We felt like we really belonged because, like Kosmas, we were running into friends on the street everywhere we went. Then when we were driving back, Kosmas ran into a colleague on the side of a street in another little town. So everyone in Greece knows everyone else in Greece, at least in the Peloponnese. Or at least on this little foot of the Peloponnese, the Mani.
Kosmas drove us back to Neapoli—the Greeks demonstrate their faith by the way they drive. Then we drove back to Nafpoli—the return trip took only three and a half hours, about two hours less than the arrival. We learned our lesson— the mountains are pretty, but slow.
The law, like the map that makes the one route look shorter, but in fact, is much longer because of mountains, can prescribe but it can’t tell you when it should be applied to which case. Fortunately, a human being can. So we’re grateful to the human beings of Neapoli and St. Nicolas, the southernmost city of Europe (outside of the islands), for letting us share in their living. They certainly live well.
*An earlier version of this post spelled Kosmas’ name incorrectly.