Peloponnesian Pilgrimage: An Idyll with the King and Queen of Greece
It was the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, John Peurifoy (seen right), who gave him the sobriquet “Pistol Packing Peurifoy” because of his confrontational, straight-shooting style as Chief of Mission in some of the world’s trouble spots in the early 1950s. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis once wrote that he was not really a diplomat but a politician, a man of action who favored a blunt informality matched only by his preference for loud, checkered shirts.
In Greece, he worked to counter the return of communism and to strengthen the center-right Greek government that included the Greek royal family, with whom the Peurifoys had a close friendship. Peurifoy would later serve as ambassador to Guatemala and to Thailand, where he and his son died in an auto accident on August 16, 1955.
Ambassador Stewart’s wife Betty Jane wrote about her experiences living in Greece during the years 1950 to 1953 as the wife of United States Ambassador to Greece John E. Peurifoy for ADST’s Foreign Service Spouse Series.
“My husband and I, unmissed and unsung, stole down the back stairs and sped away to Piraeus”
Betty Jane Peurifoy, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Greece John Peurifoy, 1950-1053
Betty Jane Peurifoy: Early in April, Mrs. Mary Carolou, the beauteous American-born lady-in-waiting to Queen Frederica, came to tea to present on behalf of Their Majesties an invitation to a three or four days’ cruise-tour of the Peloponnesus. Expecting to start from Athens the next Sunday, they planned to tour the land by day and sleep and sail aboard the Royal Yacht by night.
Besides the King and Queen, the party was to include only six persons, Sir Clifford and Lady Norton, the two Peurifoys, Mrs. Carolou, and Dr. Maiamos, who was private physician to the Royal Family. We were most eager to accept the attractive invitation. (John and Betty Jane Peurifoy and sons at left).
Apart from being tempted by the pleasure of such excellence company, my husband strongly believed that an American ambassador should avail himself of every opportunity to become better acquainted with his assigned country and its people. Moreover, he was especially curious about the Peloponnesus because most of the Greek-Americans had emanated from that region.
As usual the ambassadorial calendar was committed a month in advance, but we knew that Miss Frances Burton, my husband’s clever secretary, had a genius for juggling dates and appointments to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.
Just in time, we painfully remembered that the Embassy had already issued invitations for a reception at the Residence on the next Monday in honor of Mr. Cocke, the president of the American Legion. So though tempted to accept, we were compelled to decline the invitation from the Palace.
Later that evening, just before we retired, Mrs. Carolou telephoned to say, “Their Majesties will be happy to postpone the sailing from Sunday until Monday night.” That enabled us to keep the cake and eat it, too. We could be on hand to greet Mr. Cocke and our guests and still sail with the King and Queen later in the evening. The Peloponnesus was, after all, not to be the unturned stone in my husband’s career.
The Pyrpolitis (Firefighter) was a former mine sweeper that had been converted, somewhat against its will, into a yacht suitable for His Majesty, the King. By midnight, we were sailing through the Corinth Canal against a Greek sky hung so low that we could have touched the stars and we but dared.
On the steep left embankment we grazed a small niche containing a crude statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the Andrew Carnegie of the Greco-Roman world. The guide book devotes pages to describing the littered remains of Hadrian’s vast building program which extended from Britain to Jerusalem during the golden age of Rome. All at once the heavens swelled, and we floated into the broad black waters of the Gulf of Corinth.
Early next morning, cannon fire from shore routed us from our bunks. The Pyrpolitis had dropped anchor off the small port of Algion, and the good Algionians were greeting their Sovereigns with a cacophony of cannon, bells, and cheers.
The King, royally understating the situation, remarked, “My compatriots do like noise.”
“Yes, Sir! Noise and numbers.” I agreed, overwhelmed by the size of the welcoming committee swarming the dock.
For a coveted glimpse of their popular King and Queen, Greeks had traveled many miles from the far corners of the Peloponnesus. As our party was piped ashore to the clamor of army, church, and civilians, even the youngest Peloponnesians screamed, “Zito Vassilev.”
Then the King drove us in his car to a village six miles away where we boarded a quaint railroad car for the climb over the mountains. The old fashioned steam locomotive was straight from the pages of a child’s drawing book, and the coach was nothing more than an open roofless box car, carpeted to the last centimeter of floor space and furnished with two substantial armchairs and the proper number of other comfortable chairs.
With the King and Queen enthroned in front on the two armchairs (which in Greek are appropriately called polithrona), we tooted away and traced a colorful path through the florid countryside. Nothing exceeds the fair face of Greece in springtime, and on that special spring morning the fair face was an enchantress who exploited every charm, first to bewitch and finally to enthrall.
Our susceptible little train flirted outrageously with a coquettish mountain stream whose course led us through a spectacular gorge. One instant we were in the abyss, gazing through a blur of pink almond blossoms at a waterfall high overhead.
Then scaling the beetling cliff, the next instant we were poised aloft a celestial peak at the very gate of Heaven. Across from us, stark mountains stood in rugged silhouette against bluer, snow-capped mountains etched on the sky.
On the last horizon gleamed the sea, for in Greece, the sea is always visible if one but climb high enough to catch the view. At some appropriate point between heaven and earth, the little train halted for a picnic lunch.
Kits of cold meat sandwiches were unpacked, and bottles of American soft drinks were uncorked. To my husband, Sir Clifford pertinently observed, “Have you considered that we are being paid to do this?” At that moment, pinching myself to prove I was awake, I decided that an ambassador’s job was the richest in all the world.
“The Greek donkey may be the smallest in the world, but he is no ass”
After lunch, our plucky train persisted to the end of the line where a small but articulate group of peasants awaited their King and Queen. A septuagenarian shepherd dedicated to Lady Norton an original poem in blank verse. My forays on the Greek language had not yet penetrated the mysteries of blank verse, but Lady Norton indicated that the poem esteemed the British in general and Lady Norton in particular.
Transferring to tiny donkeys we plodded over fields of daisies and poppies and through orchards of blossoming pear trees in the vague direction of the Megaspelion Monastery. The Greek donkey may be the smallest in the world, but he is no ass, for he has a large flair for the points of the compass and as keen awareness of the force of gravity.
Clinging like a fly to a wall, my donkey inched around the sharp angle of a steep precipice and delivered me into full view of Megaspelion, pasted like a postage stamp on a vertical cliff which reaches some four hundred feet into the Greek sky.
At first glance one cannot determine whether the monastery is carved from or painted on the wall of sparing rock. One sees only the facade of a modern building six to eight stories high, glaring like a multi-eyed barnacle from the base of the towering cliff.
That day the monastic sentries were on the alert. As soon as their Majesties rounded the curve within view of the monastery, the air bust into a mist of bells (as the poet said). The atmosphere grew dense with a clangor bouncing from peak to peak and swelling the valley.
Ever since then, instead of counting sheep on a sleepless night, I simply hearken to the echoes of the Megaspelion bells. That heady symphony is guaranteed to drown all competitive musings. Megaspelion, which means “big cave”, was founded in the fourth century by monks from Salonika.
Although the institution itself dates from the earliest Byzantine era, a few years before World War II a fire destroyed the ancient building and many sacred treasures. Today a fairly new building houses the ancient brotherhood whose ranks are annually diminishing in number. This prevailing tendency to diminution threatens with extinction the Orthodox monasteries in general.
As the monks’ average age increases, their ranks numerically decrease. Soon only a handful of elderly monks will remain to carry on the tradition. In order to subsist, the Orthodox orders desperately need a vigorous recruiting program. Unless they can attract a host of novices, many monasteries will become ghostly relics of another age, and the twentieth century will mark the end of some of Christendom’s oldest institutions.
After a fervent welcome, the monks guided us around the premises, reverently displayed the cherished treasures and holy relics, and celebrated a special service in the chapel. Then they conducted us to a large sitting room with an aerial view of the valley and, in customary Greek fashion, served the inevitable refreshments.
Hospitality is a compulsive Greek virtue. Every house offers a guest something to eat or drink, be it a complete meal or only a glass of water with a spoonful of jams (which in audibly recommended for the liver).
The special delicacy at Megaspelion was a cordial made from rose petals, and, proving that “a rose is a rose is a rose,” it tasted exactly like a rose. However, just for the record, I did not become a rosaholic and can even now admire a rose from a distance without the slightest craving to devour it. After posting for the usual pictures, we departed on our patient donkeys and journeyed to a point where several palace automobiles met us.
“The glamour and stature of the monarchy imparts beauty and color to many drab lives”
With the King, an enthusiastic driver, behind the steering wheel of the lead car we drove through the village of Kalavryta. The tragedy of Kalavryta was recorded in its streets lined with women in black. The preponderance of women in the village was the tragic consequence of World War II.
One cold December morning, during the occupation, the Germans, in reprisal for Greek guerrilla atrocities, burned Kalavryta (seen left) to the ground and murdered every male of fourteen years and older. In 1951, the surviving population still bore mute testimony to the massacre of over a thousand Greek men and boys.
Not far from Kalavryta is the monastery of Agia Lavra, famous as the birthplace of the Greek Revolution. There on March 25, 1821, the Bishop of Patras was protagonist, as well as curtain raiser, in the first scene of the dramatic struggle for independence.
At the close of a religious service, the courageous bishop unfurled the Greek flag and proclaimed the national revolution. It is reasonable to assume that the noble monks at Agia Lavra never had known anything to equal the feverish excitement of that tumultuous day in 1821 until I arrived in 1951 and asked to be directed to the ladies’ room.
Later, while piloting us over the rugged mountains of the Peloponnesus, the King revealed his weakness for a “shaggy dog” tale. In the course of swapping stories, we even borrowed from the children’s repertoire of “little moron” exploits. One that tried the patience of the group was about “the little moron who tiptoed across the medicine cabinet because he didn’t wish to disturb the sleeping pills.”
The King regaled us by describing a cartoon from, I believe, an American magazine. The picture showed three boys peering into a cage at the zoo and discussing the animal inmate in the following succinct vocabulary: “‘Snake.””‘S’not! ‘Snail!” “‘S’neither!’S’neel.” (The King and Queen of Greece are seen at right.)
As we skimmed over the country road to join the ship on the coast, the Queen suddenly called to her husband, “Stop! Stop!”
The car screeched to a halt alongside a peasant woman who had been waiting, heaven knows how long, with her paralyzed son to see the King and Queen pass their way. The startled mother hoisted the crippled lad high in her arms so that the Queen might speak to him and touch him.
From the presence of their beloved monarchs, they had drawn hope, courage, and the strength that fortifies. In a country as poor as Greece, the glamour and stature of the monarchy imparts beauty and color to many drab lives, the same as a splendid cathedral enriches the world of Latin American poems.
If the wealth of the cathedral were melted down and distributed evenly among the poor, no one person would profit so much as a peso, and everyone would lose something of grace and excellence.
Aboard our floating motel, we changed for dinner. (Although I haven’t the vaguest recollection of our quarters; apparently they were adequate because during those days, we regularly changed clothes and slept somewhere). Dinner began with caviar which for once outlasted my capacious appetite for sturgeon’s eggs.
As conversation rambled, I remember the Queen’s expressing a predilection for Walt Whitman’s poetry. When Sir Clifford recited verses of Noyes and Maserfield and confessed that while he found Emily Dickinson rather prim, he would have relished a flirtation with Edna St. Vincent Millay. One can hardly suppose that the pleasure would have been one-sided.
Someone began the game of asking, “If you had a choice, which one of all the figures in history would you choose to be?”
When the Queen promptly answered, “One of Alexander the Great’s generals,” the King seemed to think she could have stated a wiser reference.
He questioned, “Why one of Alexander’s generals? Why not Alexander?”
Nevertheless I sympathized with Her Majesty’s choice. Hadn’t the generals outlived Alexander and inherited his empire?