Back in the Hotel Belle Helene that night, George the owner had no time for such pretentious meditations. While watching Greek soccer replays with his son on a crackling old TV in the lobby, he suddenly roared: "Did you go to the Secret Cistern?"
"The Secret Cistern! One hundred and one steps carved into the cold black earth. Count them! At the end is a drop. Two hundred feet, straight down!"
"I must have missed it, George…"
"Oh, but it is mandatory! The greatest experience in Mycenae!"
Next morning –– after a feverish night between the sheets with so many Nazi ghosts and flying insects –– I was up before dawn, creeping downstairs to avoid another harangue.
"You're going to the Cistern?" came George's voice, echoing across the dark hotel porch like a challenge from Zeus. "Go, now!"
It had occurred to me that this was some Peloponnesian practical joke. All three of my modern guidebooks spoke in grave, funereal tones of the foolhardy travelers who had entered the Secret Cistern, only to perish in the icy waters below. Henry Miller, in the Colossus of Maroussi, relates trying to descend the Cistern twice, only to turn back in blind, white–knuckle terror ("I honestly would rather be shot than forced to descend that staircase alone.")
My manhood was obviously on the line here. Well, I thought, with a sinking sense of resignation, if visiting this creepy Cistern was part of tradition––it's Pausanias called 'the water source of Perseia,' and archaeologists believe it was an emergency well used in time of siege––then I'd just have to tackle it. I tested out my pathetic little torch––it wouldn't do for the batteries to fail––and nervously drove back up the mountainside to the Lion's Gate.
This time, at 7 am, I was the first visitor to the ruins. As a cold morning mist wafted around the shadowy palaces, the site looked far more gloomy and barbaric than it had the afternoon before. I'd never formed a vivid image of the citadel's Bronze Age inhabitants. But as the gray sky pressed down in a sodden chilly blanket and the damp air slithered like a snake down my neck, it was easy enough to imagine the princes coming back from distant wars in their boar's tusk helmets, warming themselves by open fires –– their palace walls adorned with bright painted images of griffins –– and in the shadows, haggard soothsayers chanting spells like the witches in Macbeth, trying to ward off a cataclysm, disease or earthquake or invaders.
Around one corner, a dozen workmen with gardening tools froze and looked at me in shock like Mycenaean shepherds, I thought, surprised in the act of some secret ritual offering to the gods. "Ah… carry on," I said, as their eyes followed me suspiciously.
Following the map, I stumbled onwards towards a crumbling pit and found the entrance to the Secret Cistern. It was unmarked, no more than a crack carved into the rock. I flashed my sorry little torch along the roughly–hewn tunnel walls, and the worn steps that plunged steeply down. In some parts, the roof had buckled and was propped up by planks of wood.
A ghoulish darkness closed in as I descended, enveloping the feeble torch beam. The walls were moist, cold as the proverbial grave; the scent of bat excrement hung in the thick, rank air. No Roman traveler in his right mind would have come down here. Even the name 'Perseia' suggested Perseus seeking out the monstrous gorgon Medusa in her labyrinth.
There was no ventilation, and I deliriously imagined that I was breathing in the same fetid exhalations of Mycenaean kings and slaves from 3,500 years ago. Thirty steps, forty, fifty… I took each one slowly, trying not to slip on the slime of rats and demons, which I imagined would cast me down into the dismal waters that lay far below, a Stygian pool decorated with bones.
Eighty steps… I was covered in beads of sweat, which were freezing into hard cold diamonds. Why was I doing this? What did I have to prove? I could see my gravestone: Tricked into Damnation by a Buffoon Named George.
One hundred steps… and then…
The tunnel had been sealed up. Archaeologists had filled the Secret Cistern a few years ago, I later learned, after one too many fools like myself had plunged to a watery grave.
"What does it matter?" George roared when I told him the outcome. "It was marvelous, was it not? Unforgettable. An Homeric excursion––even now! "
Tony Perrottet is the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: the True Story of the Ancient Games; his new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped is being published by William Morrow in July.
Fact file: The historic rooms at the Hotel Belle Helene are cheap––currently 45 Euros a double, including breakfast. Tel; 011–30–275–107–6225. (No website, and email is decidedly shaky).
All photos copyright Tony Perrottet except the picture of Heinrich Schliemann.
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