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History > General History > The hand that scrawled graffiti: A Scottish traveller on Kythera in the nineteenth century

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submitted by George Vardas on 19.06.2005

The hand that scrawled graffiti: A Scottish traveller on Kythera in the nineteenth century

The hand that scrawled graffiti:
A Scottish traveller on Kythera in the nineteenth century

This is a story about a simple inscription, “GALT 1810” which can still be found in a limestone cave on the island of Kythera. What it represents and how it came to be etched onto a rocky formation in one of the inner chambers of the cave of Agia Sofia will take us on a journey of the Romantic imagination, a journey back into the nineteenth century of travellers, dreamers and the Greek ideal and its expression in an amazing cave.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of English Romantic Hellenism. For many centuries Greece had been regarded not as a real country but as a vision stemming from the spirit of the age. In 1755, the German aesthete Winckelmann wrote that “good taste was born under the sky of Greece” and that the highest ideals of human life and culture had been embodied in classical Greece. A number of English and Scottish travellers came to be entranced by the land of Greece itself and were inspired to defy the heat, plague and bandits and travel to Greece and record their experiences. They were to see in ruins sites for rapture.

John Galt was a Scottish novelist and poet possessed of an imaginative turn of mind. In 1809 Galt travelled through the Mediterranean and met and became an acquaintance of Lord Byron. John Galt was also a man looking for adventure and anything out of the ordinary. He once wrote that of all the miseries of travelling, “I do not think that one of the greatest is to be obliged to visit those things which other travellers have happened to visit and describe”.

Whilst in Athens he lamented the rape of the sculptures from the Parthenon by another, more infamous Scot, Lord Elgin and described somewhat fancifully how he almost gained possession of one shipment of the marbles when Elgin’s agents were experiencing difficulties in paying for their sea carriage. Galt’s interest in Kythera (or Cerigo as it was known in those times) was possibly aroused when he learnt that his Greek servant in Athens had been on board the Mentor when it sank off the island in 1802 carrying the first ill-gotten shipload of the Elgin Marbles.

And so it was that in the summer of 1810, Galt finally landed on Kythera in the small seaside village of Avlemonas where he found an English garrison “languishing for pastime”. Another traveller was later to describe the English and Scottish soldiers on the island as “blond and dreamy … seeking on the horizon, perhaps, the fogs of their own country”. Galt recorded his observations of Cerigo in a book entitled Voyages and Travels in the years 1810, 1811 and 1812.

[For a e-transcript of the book go to: ]

Galt was reasonably impressed with what lay before him:

“In point of picturesque beauty, the scenery has some pretensions, and we passed through a valley, so green and goodly, that in any part of the world it would be considered a very pleasant one. It is well planted with vines and enlivened with neat white cottages. The sun was setting as we approached it, and the peasants, returned from labour, were reposing at their doors for the evening. After the monotony of a sea voyage, we felt the full pleasure of the effect of rural sights and sounds; and regarded the aspect of the valley as an assuring omen of finding ourselves comfortable in the town.

After a short stay in Avlemonas, Galt, in the company of two British officers, decided to make his way to the picturesque town of Milopotamos. He had heard about a cave or grotto on the edge of a cliff at the end of a steep walking path leading from the village where the sea surged against the rocks below. Galt recorded his journey of discovery:

“We left the town in the morning for Milopotamo, in the vicinity of which the grotto lies. Our ride was over a bare and rugged country. We reached the village in safety, and left our horses at a monastery near the source of the large spring already mentioned. Here we procured candles, and a friar, who is the common guide; and, followed by a number of peasants, walked towards the entrance. In descending to that part of the coast, where the cave is situated, we passed a Venetian castle, which, by an inscription over the portal, appears to have been built in the year 1566. It stands at the head of a narrow shaggy glen, and reminded us of the feudal residences in our own country. From the castle, the path is, for the most part, over disagreeable harsh lava-like rocks. At the entrance of the grotto, we left our hats and coats, and bound our heads with handkerchiefs to protect them from the innumerable protuberances of the roof and sides. The aborescent appearance of the interior of this extensive cavern may be compared to a subterranean forest of petrified trees. The windings are intricate; and the effect of the lights, in many places, was astonishingly fine. In passing a long narrow branching passage, one of our companions heard a low murmuring sound. We listened. It resembled the breathing of a living creature; and we became curious to know what it was. Our friend entered the passage, and proceeded about twenty yards, when his candle was suddenly blown out. He groped, in the dark, to discover the cause, and found a chink, through which the wind was issuing violently, but could see no light. No one, we were assured, by the traditionary historians, ever penetrated so far before. There is some sort of glory in accomplishing what no other has done, if it should be only in exploring the recesses of a cave. We, therefore, returned to the town pleased with our exploit.”

The cave of Agia Sofia is the largest and most impressive of a number of caves on Kythera. The cave was first discovered by the famous speleological couple, Ioannis and Anna Petrocheilos. In her book The Greek Caves Anna Petrocheilou writes that there is nothing to suggest that a small opening about 60 metres above the sea in the steep cliff face on the western shores of Kythera is the entrance to a “veritable palace where only fairies could dwell”. This may be a reference to the ancient Greeks’ practice of using caves to honour the nymphs inside. The cave is about 2000 square metres wide. The chapel at the entrance dates back to 1875 with a colourful iconostasion marking the passageway to the chambers within. The frescoes depicting Agia Sophia and her three daughters, Love, Faith and Hope, which are situated just inside the cave entrance, date back to the 12th century.

The chambers of the cave are decorated with stalactites and stalagmites in a variety of hues from black and white to shades of red. The formations include “Swan Lake” which is surrounded by multi-coloured columns, the “Picturesque Lake” whose waters reflect the interesting limestone formations, and “Aphrodite’s Boudoir”. The pillars of an underground cathedral.

John Davey, the British Inspector-General of Army Hospitals, had visited Cerigo in the summer of 1827. In his book Notes and Observations on the Ionian Islands and Malta published in 1842, Davey described the cavern of Saint Sofia as a remarkable cave possessing “singular beauty, which it chiefly owes to the enormous stalactites and stalagmites in which it abounds, formed of a cream-coloured marble, descending from the roof, and ascending from the floor – some resembling columns, others altars, others buildings in ruins, and many resembling animals, the mimic forms, in brief, are of all kinds, and of most fantastic shapes”.

For Galt, Cerigo was an enchanting discovery. His observations of the customs of the island and other aspects of island life are certainly quaint: the “climate is healthy, but rather too violently ventilated” and Cerigo’s inhabitants are a “simple honest race, who dance to the lyre occasionally, eat, drink, and depart this life without often violating, in any point, the golden rules of King Charles”.

John Galt’s legacy on Kythera was to etch his signature into rock in the cave of Agia Sofia. For, as he wrote in his journal:

“The desire of perpetuity in mankind gave rise, among other practices, to the traveller’s custom of inscribing his name on the remarkable objects that he has visited.”

Galt found in the isle of Cerigo his land of imagination. His inscription in the cavenous recesses of Agia Sofia is a simple but poignant reminder of one intrepid nineteenth century traveller’s response to the wonderous spectacle that unfolded before him in a stunning cave on the island of Kythera.

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1 Comment

submitted by
George Poulos
on 20.06.2005

This article has arisen out of an earlier brief reference to John Galt and his "grafitto" at kythera-family. I have really enjoyed reading George Vardas's contribution because it represents what I call a "second-order analysis" - an anlysis which provides a progressive deepening and broadening of knowledge base about Kythera. I look forward to reading more of these kinds of analyses on the web-site in the future. I remain convinced that eventually 5-6 Masters and Ph.D theses will arise out of the information that is steadily being gathered here. A hard copy of the article was printed in the Kytherian Association of Australia, 2005 Ball Programme.