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An Olympian Tree On a Grecian Hillside

THE large island of Evia, Greece, is not rich in ruins. Odysseus never slept here. Tragedians wrote in other places. Evia gets exactly three lines in Berlitz's 700-page guide to Greece. Don't come here looking for a classical atmosphere.

But less-elevated pleasures lie all around. In Prokopi, one of Evia's villages, there is a Leicestershire manor, a Turkish saint, and, in the cool of every late afternoon, a concert provided by goats.

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And then there is the tree. It is said to be the biggest plane tree in Europe. Its trunk is creased and pleated like the face of an old poet. The bottom branches have sought the earth, have put down roots, and have again risen, so that the lower part of the tree seems to be leaning on its elbows. The upper branches widen and soar. A hollow at the base of the trunk is as big as a room, and indeed has been used as a room - as picnickers' refuge and lovers' hideaway. There is even rubbish from a small fire inside this wooden den. But fortunately, the fire didn't damage the tree.

The government of Greece locks up the Acropolis on Sundays, but affords no protection to this mighty work of nature. The tree stands amid the slag heaps of an abandoned magnesium mine, as if to say that the animate triumphs over the inanimate, though maybe the message is only that magnesium is no longer in demand. When the mine was operating, Prokopi was more prosperous than it is today. Now, in tavernas, some men play cards from morning till night.

I visited the tree with a party of musicians. Fifteen of us scrambled over its thick roots. We joined hands, and we could just encircle it. My nose rubbed against the tree's indifferent hide. We sang "Embraceable You" - a comedown musically for this crowd, who for the last several days had been practicing a four-part mass of William Byrd. But I couldn't manage the mass, so the singers were accommodating to their new friend.

We were all staying at the Candili Centre for the Arts, a manor house and outbuildings on a hill above Prokopi that rents itself out to artists and musicians and writers, in groups or in pairs or singly. The estate was built in the 1830s by a relative of Lady Byron from Leicestershire. It remains in English hands. You could spend a year in its library. You could swim laps in its bathtubs. We all played croquet on its lawn, where a chaste Victorian garden blooms under the proud Greek sun.

To reach the biggest plane tree in Europe from the Candili Centre, we had to totter single file across a plank bridge suspended on ropes over a stream. Then we flocked through a meadow where belled goats were grazing. On our way back, the goats were gliding toward another meal. Their bells, more or less in harmony, played just for us.

Goats are everywhere. I saw them tethered in the tiny yards of white village houses; I saw them with their herder in the fields; I saw their hides hanging from a rope stretched between trees. At a party on a hillside, I saw goat meat roasting on a spit that was turned over a fire by a patient hand for 3 1/2 hours.

Prokopi's citizens, descended from indigenous Greeks and resettled Turks, have strong, reserved faces. Old women wear the black kerchiefs of Mediterranean widows. Mustachioed middle-aged men nod in silence to a stranger; their severe wives do the same.

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Young unmarried women, who have learned some English, are chattier. They teach in the school or serve in the shops. They wish they were elsewhere. Young men are elsewhere - farming, or manning construction teams in the cities, or trying to make their fortunes in Canada. Shops offer honey, hand-loomed rugs, and pastries. The rare foreigner is welcome to look around and even buy; but the proprietor does not make a pitch.

During my week in Prokopi, I wondered how these diffident merchants got by. On Sunday, I found out. On Sunday, the church bells peal early and often, and voices from the houses echo the bells' excitement. The grass on the town square is flattened by automobiles, and tour buses raise quantities of dust.

The church in Prokopi is the final resting place for the remains of Saint John of Urgup. Well-dressed Greek families spill out of the tour buses. They attend the service, or they do not; at any rate, they visit the church, pay their respects to the saint, and then wander around the village, buying a woven pocketbook here, a jar of honey there. Finally they settle merrily in a taverna, where they dine on fish, salad, and cheese.

The mountains surrounding Prokopi are thick with pines, firs, and plane trees of ordinary size. I climbed one of them, meeting first bees and then butterflies.

The larger town of Mandoudi has a bank and a hardware store; I got there by bus. I visited a rugged beach, too. The beach does have a ruin - the remains of a Roman wall. The former fishing village of Limni has had its seafront laminated into picturesqueness by Greek preservationists; but a few streets back from the breakfront I found the usual goats, chomping.

Prokopi is the ultimate in unsophistication. There is not statuary to tell your friends about. There are no oracles to consult.

But it's so relaxing! As soon as you forget about culture you find tranquility. And if you want to show the folks back home you learned something, you can mention that mountains, honey, and artists offer an Hellenic balance. For the philosophical-minded there's that majestic tree to consider; and also those goats who, at least until they reach the spit, lead a life that many would call enviable - hiking, feasting, and making soft music together.

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