Rooms With a View
Fri 15 Sep 17 - Mon 25 Sep 17 34 °C
Arleen and I spent a week in September 2017 touring Greece by car. It was a really wonderful trip. Greece is a beautiful country, almost everywhere within sight of mountains on one side, and views of the sea on the other. It is rife with history, and the Greeks have done a great job of preserving their ancient sites, and sharing them with visitors. We loved the people, loved the food, loved the sunshine.
Athens - 16 Sept
We didn't get to spend much time in Athens, as we were anxious to begin our tour of the country. We landed in Athens on Saturday morning, and spent the day doing what all the tourists in Athens do, walking the Acropolis and the Parthenon. This area is exceedingly popular, the crush of tourists, and all the 'restoration' work going on really detracted from the sense of antiquity that was lurking in there somewhere. Still, it was fun to imagine walking in the footsteps of Socrates as he must have walked from the Agora to the summit of the Acropolis.
The Greeks have recently built a beautiful new Acropolis Museum at the base of the rock. The museum was built on top of/around an archaeological excavation, and houses some of the real sculptural treasures from the Acropolis. Highlights were the Bust of Alexander, the Caryatid Ladies, and the (incomplete) Parthenon friezes. And, of course, the phenomenal Lego reconstruction of the Parthenon :-)
Corinth, Mycenae, Nafplio - 17 Sept
Our first stop from Athens was a quick visit to the ancient city of Corinth (Archaia Korinthos). The ancient city sites high up above modern Corinth.
Corinth was a fairly wealthy city-state because of its location straddling the isthmus between the Peloponesse and Attica, roughly halfway between Athens and Sparta. The city was founded by Corinthos, a descendent of Helios, which was certainly apropos on the day of our visit (it was hot as blazes - 35C). Though abandoned after being conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BCE, the city was rebuilt by Julius Caesar, and still boasts both impressive Greek monuments (see the Temple of Apollo, right) and an extensive Roman forum. We can imagine that this is where the apostle Paul must have stood when preaching about faith, hope and charity.
From Corinth it was on to Mycenae, and the cursed palace of Agamemnon. On the flight over, I was reading Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus, and one of the basic premises of the book is that the collective fictions that we share and believe carry much more meaning and are much more powerful factors influencing our culture than the actual historical truth.
If we want to understand our future....we must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.... You cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths
On our visit to the ruins of the palace at Mycenae, I was struck by how true his thesis is. The story of the death and the avenging of Agamemnon is one of the most emotionally power in the Greek canon. It is one of heroism and tragedy, of great human emotions: love, jealousy, courage, treachery. The story was told by Homer in the Iliad, and inspired tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. When Schliemann unearthed the rich treasures from the tombs at Mycenae, it was natural to try and ascribe them to Agamemnon, the king who lived in everyone's imagination. Unfortunately, the facts and dates don't hold up, and in reality, the treasure pre-dates the Trojan War by several hundred years.
Filicide, Mariticide, Regicide, Matricide
The bloody story of the house of Atreus: Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek alliance against Troy. At the beginning of the war, as the Greek forces congregated at Aulis, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia to ensure the winds needed to sail to Troy, and earning his wife's enduring hatred. Upon his return after the war, he was slain by his wife Clytemnestra, and her consort, Aegisthus. Once Clytemnestra's role in Agamemnon's death was uncovered, she was then killed by her surviving children, Electra and Orestes.
The palace of Agamemnon stands on the brow of a hill at the head of the plain of Argos, which unfolds itself to view all the way to the Argolic Gulf. The palace is isolated by the bed of a mountain torrent on one side, and deep valley on the other. The wild and dreary scenery of the mountain, the gloom of the naked and massive rocks, and the few straggling olive trees, make for a sense of desolation and romantic solitude. The foundations of the Cyclopean walls, which girt the citadel, remain solid and unshaken as the rock from which they were formed. We entered the citadel through the Lions Gate. The sculpture of two lions, in half relief, is the most ancient sculpture in Greece. It was through this gate that Agamemnon, the "King of Men" issued forth to conquer Troy. In some ways, we were standing at the beginning of poetic history. Standing among these ruins, among the earliest of structures raised by man, the mind felt oppressed with the weight of time. We ended up wandering for several hours in the mid-day heat, amongst those relics of the heroic ages.
Nafplio is a quaint little port city on the Argolic Gulf. A port for the city of Argos in the Middle Ages, it is also home to a Venetian castle on the hill overlooking the city, and a fort guarding the harbor (17th century). Beautiful vistas, and a nice waterfront with all the fresh seafood you could ever want. Worth getting up at dawn to watch fishing boats heading out at sunrise.
Galaxidi and Delphi - 18 Sept
Sandwiched between visits to ancient sites at Mycenae and Delphi, we crossed this modern architectural beauty spanning the Gulf of Corinth at Patras.
On the way to Delphi, we stayed at a delightful little boating and fishing village on the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth. We stayed at a little guest house (Miramare) with a beautiful Mediterranean garden that doubled as a dive school in the high season. Most of the activity in the town was split between the locals mending their nets and fishing in small boats, and as a pit stop for well-heeled sailboaters and yachters touring the Ionian Sea. The night we were there, a giant Trump-worthy party barge yacht, the Olga, came into port, disco music blaring, carrying an almost Hollywood caricature of a Russian plutocrat and his entourage. We enjoyed one of our more memorable meals at the O Bebelis in town. A family run place, and the owner/chef takes real pleasure in delighting and surprising his patrons. The special that night was stuffed onions which were beyond amazing. He gave me a brief rundown on the recipe, and it is vaguely similar to this: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/stuffed-onions#ampshare=https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/stuffed-onions which I'm definitely going to take a crack at.
Delphi - Know Thyself
Delphi is one of those places that just keeps cropping up in anything you read about the history of Greece. Considered the Ompalos (center or navel) of the world, it was the one place that all the notoriously divided Greeks could actually agree upon as a sacred shrine. The Oracle figures in stories from the Bronze Age (Iliad), the Classical period (Socrates and Alexander), and Roman times (Cicero and Nero). Because of its widespread acceptance, Delphi became a fantastic showcase of art treasures and all the Greek states would send rich gifts to show off their generosity and gain favor with the Oracle.
This is the second world navel siting for both George and Arleen (the others being Varanasi and Cuzco, respectively). Collect them all? Easter Island, Ankor Wat, Karnak and Mecca await :-).
It isn't hard to see why Delphi had such exalted status. The place just exudes a natural spirituality. Set in rugged mountains, nature is imposing and bearing down on you wherever you look. Combine that with the other-worldy vapors rising from the chasm at the Oracle, and an obviously well-developed sense of showmanship and marketing from the temple priests, and you have a recipe for a world-class shrine.
In some ways, I saw parallels with the Buddhist Mahabodhi shrine at Bodh Gaya. Both places have a sacred feel. However, at Bodh Gaya, the sanctity seemed to come less from the place, and to flow more from the piety of the pilgrims that were visiting. In Delphi, the people there are just tourists, and the you only feel the sacred spirit when you are apart from the crowd. Both places also were sort of a mini-Epcot center for their respective religions. In Bodh Gaya, each of the Buddhist countries has payed homage by building their own characteristic shrine or temple. In Delphi, each of the Greek city-states (and in fact, many other parts of the ancient world) built sanctuaries or treasuries to house their elaborate and expensive gifts to the gods.
The Delphi Archaeological Museum houses an impressive collection of sculptures from the site. Highlights were the 12 m high Naxian Sphinx (560 BCE - Naxos was one of the very wealthy Cycladic islands), and the statue of Antinous commissioned by Hadrian. Antinous has the distinction as the last being made god. After his death in 130 AD, Hadrian had him deified. Apparently attempts to also get him his own constellation fell short.
Thermopylae and Meteora - 19 Sept
Fair warning. This next section is going to be pretty geeky. I remember reading about the Battle of Thermopylae as a kid, loved the classic B-movie "300 Spartans", read about it again in Herodotus, and then the movie "300" became a cult classic. The battle has sort of become a poster child example of the power derived by an army defending its native soil, a metaphor for the advantages of training, equipment and geographic advantage as force multipliers, and a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. Visiting the actual battlefield was a little bit of a pilgrimage for me.
The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC between the allied Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes, during the second Persian invasion of Greece. A Greek force of approximately 7,000 men blocked a narrow pass between steeply sloping mountains and the sea against the much larger Persian army (Herodotus said 5 million, but I think the accepted number is somewhere between 300,000 and 1.7 million). The Greeks held the pass against the Persians for two days of horrendous battle. On day 3, knowing that his force was being outflanked by the Persians Immortals, Leonidas dismissed the other Greek forces and then remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans in a historic last stand.
The memorial for the battle is really quite modest. Think something like Washington Crossing the Delaware. An impressive statue of Leonidas with his defiant response to Xerxes demand that they lay down their arms - "Molon Labe" (Come and take them). Directly across the road is the actual battlefield. Over the centuries, the sea has retreated several thousand meters to the east, but it is believed the road in the picture below pretty closely represents the shoreline in 480 BCE. The pass was probably about 20-30 m wide, and was fortified with a low wall is disrepair built by the Phokians.
Walking the battlefield, you could readily imagine the strength of the Spartan hoplite phalanx, and what must have been the truly horrendous violence of the confrontations taking place at the wall.
"Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade.' " - Herodotus
Epitath on the Kolonos hillock by Simonides - "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
Meteora lies at the North end of the Thessaly plain, which must be the bread-basket of Greece. We saw hectares and hectares of corn, wheat, barley, sugar beets, cotton, and tobacco. Reminded me a little of driving through California's Central Valley.
Meteora itself was somewhat of a disappointment. While the monasteries are definitely architecturally dramatic, they don't convey much of a sense of history or piety. Apparently they were all abandoned until reoccupied late in the 20th century. They have all been completely renovated, and with the exception of a few well preserved frescoes, fairly uninteresting.
We did have one of our nicer meals of the trip at the Taberna Gardenia in Kastraki. Great views of the cliffs, tasty fried eggplant, souvlaki (meh) and a local delicacy of "Gigantic Beans'. These are large (think olive size) white beans, baked in a really light, flavorful, spiced sauce. Topped it all off with Baclava. Our waiter was also a mountain climbers who maintained the local climbing routes, and he gave us the run down on an accident earlier in the day where someone had had a major fall, broken leg, etc.
Litchoro, Mt. Olympos, Dion, and Vergina - 20 Sept
Lunched in Litchoro, a smallish town on the slopes of Mt. Olympos. Look up, and see the peak, home of the pantheon of the gods. Look down, and see stunning views of the Aegean.
Kind of easy to imagine why the gods chose Olympos for their home. Craggy, imposing, and often shrouded in its own clouds and weather, it is almost other-worldly.
As we headed north into Macedon, we were now getting into serious Alexander country. First was a quick stop at the Archaeological Park in Dion, and the temple of Zeus where Alexander made his oblations before starting out on his campaign against the Persians. And then on to Vergina, and the site of the ancient Aigai, which was the first capital of Macedon. Ended up being one of the real highlights of the trip.
Vergina is a small, non-descript town surrounded by hectares and hectares of peach and fruit orchards. There wasn't much going on here until 1976, when the tomb of Philip II of Macedon (Alexander's father) was discovered. Greece generally does a really nice job with their archaeological museums, but they really outdid themselves here. Absolutely stunning! The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai is entirely underground. With only spot lighting, the museum is dark and exudes the feeling of a tomb, while still being spacious and airy. Very much of an Indiana Jones feel to it. Some of the original ruins have been left in place right inside, and visitors can walk further underground to approach right up to the facades of the tombs. I'm pretty sure I was standing right where Alexander must have stood as his father was laid to rest.
While the museum itself is a gem, the collection of artifacts on display that were recovered from the tombs is fantastic. As the hegemon of a united (somewhat) Greece, Philip was a big deal, and his son (soon to be a pretty big deal) made sure he was buried with all the trappings. The artifacts are remarkably intact and well preserved, and display truly unequaled craftsmanship. There is a pretty much complete set of armor, some fantastic copper and silver vessels, and the gem of all the artifacts we saw in Greece (or anywhere else for that matter), Philip's golden funerary crown of oak leaves. This crown or wreath is unbelievably well crafted and lifelike. Hard to imagine how the goldsmith was able to take a heavy metal like gold and replicate something as light and fragile as an oak leaf. Weighing 717 grams, it looks like it weighs just a few ounces. Just breathtaking.
We spent so much time in the museum, by the time we got out, the town was pretty much closing down (not like there was a lot going on there anyway). We ended up sharing dinner with a couple on holiday from Germany, Rainer and Sybil. Rainer has his skipper's license, and they had spent the last two weeks sailing the Greek islands, and were having a little inland adventure before heading home. A real interesting guy. A doctor, he spends about a month or two each year donating his services in under-developed countries (mostly Africa), primarily doing surgeries in places that don't have hospitals. Got to hear a lot of his sea stories, and doctor stories, and we also attempted to solve the political and financial challenges between Greece and Germany.
We ended up inadvertently booking the wrong hotel and ended up at a real nice guest house by accident. Our hosts Aphrodite and Olympia (their real names!) were friendly and wonderful, and Olympia gave a great promotion of the region over breakfast.
Prespa Lakes - 21 Sept
The Prespa Lakes National Park is way up in the north-western corner of Greece. It is a transboundary park shared between Greece, Albania and Republic of Macedonia. The life of the locals is concentrated in a number of small villages around the lakes. The houses are picturesque, built in a traditional style, out of stone and clay bricks with stone tile or straw roofs. Lots of bean fields, and this is ground zero for the Gigantic Beans!
We spent a day in Agios Germanos, hoping to get a better sense of the small, rural Greek village life, and walking around some of the byzantine ruins on the island of Agios Achilios. We were sharing a visit to the ruins of a 10th century basilica with some goats and water buffaloes when a tour bus full of Nonnas incongruously showed up to take in the holy site.
Nea Michionia - 22 Sept
Perhaps my favorite day of the trip. Nea Michionia is a small seaside suburb of Thessaloniki. We stayed in the delightful family-run Stratis hotel (thank you Elena and Apostolis) with a stunning view of Mt. Olympos across the Salonic Gulf. The waterfront had the usual surfeit of excellent outdoor seating cafes and tabernas to choose from.
We pretty much spent the day just walking around and people watching. Got pulled into a surprise 50th birthday party for a Bulgarian woman who had married a local and now lived in Nea Michionia. A bunch of her friends came down from Varna and took over our restaurant. What a hoot.
In the evening, seems like all the men in the town congregate in a few game room/bars to chat, drink, smoke, and play backgammon and cards. Would have fit right in at Rhinelander. The dominant game seemed to be a variant of pinochle. Not sure where all the women were while this was going on.
Thessaloniki - 23 Sept
We spent our last day in Greece walking all over Thessaloniki. A very livable city, about the population of Minneapolis (but a lot warmer). The heart of the city seems to revolve around the very popular waterfront, with a lot of parks, the White Tower, and the grandiose Alexander statue.
The folks in Macedonia appear to have an absolute fetish about Alexander, and they don't want to let it go. Seems like everywhere you go, it's "Alexander lived here when he was a boy" or "Alexander's grandmother was from here", etc. When I asked one of our hosts, Christos, about relationships with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), he responded "Well, it should be better now that they are considering renaming their airport from Aleksandar Veliki (the Great) to Mother Teresa." The recently installed Zoran Zaev government, has apparently decided to quit provoking Greece and to try and resolve the ongoing FYROM name dispute. All part of Skopje's efforts to become a member of the EU and NATO, So far, Greece has been vetoing the ascension procedures. - "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet."
The Museum of Macedonian Struggle seemed like an homage to futility. The story behind Macedonia's efforts to break free from the crumbling Ottoman empire was just a repetitive series of minor uprisings, some local guerrilla band gets encircled and wiped out, wait 20 years, and then repeat. Finally, after the Ottoman defeat in the Balkan War, Greece moved into the resulting vacuum faster than Bulgaria or Serbia could. Sort of a shortage of inspiring victories (perhaps that explains the aforementioned focus on Alexander).
The Ataturk Museum in Ataturk's childhood home was an interesting lesson in hero worship. Almost all the visitors were Turkish, and they were acting like American's might at Mt. Vernon. The highlight for most was the opportunity to take a selfie with the wax figure Ataturk.
The city itself is very walkable. Lots of byzantine basilicas and churches, and the really fun Kapani Market, with blocks and blocks of vendors selling fresh produce, meat and fish.