Thursday, February 5, 2009

Never on Sunday

From the moment we stepped on the plane to the tune of piped-in bouzouki music, we knew we were taking off for some place very different from any place that we had been to before. We had 8 days in Greece, which is not a lot for this country, and we were going to make the most of it.

It's winter in Greece, so our plan was to skip the islands, all of them, and instead concentrate on sites close to Athens and the Peloponnese. We decided to rent a car and tour around the country, seeing as J. has the chops now to drive almost anywhere. We would hit the Peloponnese first, then drive to Delphi and finish up our stay in Athens.

We took a very early morning flight into Athens and through much trial and tribulation got the car and set off. Armed with just a couple of simple maps, we made it to the ancient site of Epidaurus. We met a curious couple on the way in (an older gentleman and his young companion...shades of ancient Greece?), but otherwise, we were the only ones there.

Allow me a digression. As I mentioned, it is winter in Greece, but all of the sites we visited were deserted. We were often the only ones staying at the smaller inns. We had all of ancient Greece to ourselves. There are troubles in all of the countries that we want to visit, but Greece seemed to be doing better since the huge riots of December (tens of thousands of people protested the police killing of a man then). I had read of some problems with the farmers of Greece the week before our trip, but thought it was the typical gas crunch issue. When we rented our car, the agent told us that up until a few hours earlier, the main roadways in and out of Greece had been blockaded by farmers.

He assured us that the route we wanted to take in and out of the Peloponnese was open now, but to keep a watch on the news. We entered through Corinth and then drove the seaside length of the Peloponnese to exit over the new Rio-Antirio bridge (which was so modern and sci-fi looking) to get to Delphi.

Back to Epidaurus. We were the only ones there. It was a little spooky at first, but after while it got to be fun. No one was around and we had the huge site to ourselves. The main attraction at Epidaurus is the Theatre. Set into a beautiful rolling hillside, the Theatre seemed to me to have perfect proportions. I had read in a book that from the very top row, you could hear a person rustle a piece of paper on the stage. J. went to the top to test it out. The acoustics are not quite that perfect, but the sound of one's voice resonating back from all that marble is quite simply the best karaoke machine in the world. We took turns singing, and then harmonizing from the stage, turning our heads every once in a while to make sure we were the only ones there.

We drove into the tiny town of 'modern' Epidaurus for lunch. We were starving, so we just went into the first place we saw with people. Those people happened to be a half dozen or so scruffy old Greek men sipping wine and ouzo, flipping their worry beads and lounging over the dregs of their lunch. We sat down and were greeted by a fat and happy old lady who brought us beers and told us the menu: 'fish or lamb' was all she said. We'll have one of each. Both were absolutely fantastic. The fish was a whole fish, unidentifiable by me, which had been liberally season with salt and then fried. The skin had become so salty and crisp, it was good by itself. I pointed at it and asked the lady, "what is this?" "Fish." The tender lamb was served in a rich curry-like stew with carrots and potatoes. We sopped up the broth with bread. So a whole fish, a big bowl of stew, basket of bread, a big platter of thinly sliced fried potato chips, a huge salad and two half liters of beer...less than $20! Our trip was off to a great start.

We drove through miles of olive trees and ended up in our stopping place for the night, the charming village of Nafplio. "Legend has it that Nauplios, grandson of the sea god Poseidon, founded the city. Nauplion passed from the Byzantines to the Franks in 1247, then to the Venetians, who fortified the city and Bourdzi Island. Turkish forces occupied the region in 1540..." Then it was recaptured by the Venetians and then went back to the Turks, etc. The old town where we stayed is a tiny little peninsula with a dozen streets and one heck of a beautiful sunset. There is the island fortification (Bourdzi) and a hilltop fortress called Palamidi (from the second Venetian occupation).

The old town was built for wandering, eating, drinking and shopping. And that is what we did. Dinner was forgettable, but for one thing: the first (and last) time I tasted retsina. Retsina is a white or blush wine which has been aged in pine barrels. The nose, and unfortunately the taste, are all of pine resin. I woke up with a very bad headache the next day, and only after a couple of glasses of the stuff. I guess you have to try everything, even that which is bad.

Bright and early the next morning, we packed up the car and headed for Mycenae. This is also another site where we saw only one other couple. Another 'according to legend' story: Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae who supposedly erected the city's massive stone walls with the help of Cyclops (yes, those Cylcops). The man who unearthed Mycenae claimed that he had found the grave of Agamemnon (though that was believed for a time, it was later discovered that these ruins were too old). But the really aren't new at all. They could be the oldest rocks I have ever seen. 16C BC. That's old.

You enter the site through a massive gate topped by two now headless lions. Immediately on the right after you enter are the double walled circular burial tombs. They are just so curious looking, almost alien-looking, ringed by these headstone-like rocks. Further up through the site are the remains of a palace and ramparts, but it's the graves that make this site interesting.

I guess it's the graves that give us almost all of the objects we see in the museums. Had people not been buried with this all this stuff, it would not have survived.

Anyway, back in the car and heading for the long drive to Delphi. Half of the drive is along the coast of the Peloponnese, which is beautiful. Then you cross over the bridge (we could have taken a ferry, but decided on the bridge) to the other side and it is almost mountainous. Very different landscapes. We drove alongside the mainland mountains for an hour and a half and then come upon a vast plane of olive trees. But as you drive the miles and miles through them, you begin to climb up a hill. Up and up and up the signs point to Delphi. Looking down you can see that there must be thousands of olive trees in the valley. They extend almost to the ocean, and that's what you see: a vast swath of green and then the very blue sea. It's breathtaking.

We walked through the little town of Delphi which seems to exist for tourists who aren't there. We found a restaurant and sat by the window and watched the sea and the olive trees until the sun went down. The wine tonight is much better than last night's retsina! We wandered around town until we find a semi-full restaurant. They must all be locals who live further up the hill. The place smells of wood smoke, so I know what I am ordering...meat, grilled meat. I get lamb and J. gets something unidentifiable (both are very good). From the edge of my seat I can see the kitchen. There is no chef, really, he is more of a butcher. He has a massive cleaver, and he cuts every dish to order. I see an order of lamb chops go through. A thundering and confident whack cleaves another chop off the big cage, and then he hammers it with the side of his blade to flatten it. A little seasoning, onto the grill it goes. Another fantastic meal, also very cheap.

It is raining and cold in the morning and we bundle up and lumber out to see Ancient Delphi. The story is better than the site: Delphi was founded by Zeus, and by the 2C it was a holy place dedicated to the Goddess Gaia and her daughter Thermis, who as the story goes was guarded by her son, the snake Python. "A hymn attributed to Homer tells how the god Apollo in 750 BC killed the Python and took his place, giving oracles through a priestess known as the Pythia (later called the Delphic Sibyl). The priestess (always a woman over 50 whose life was beyond reproach) would go into the temple and enter a trance, delivering ambiguous replies. ...During it's hey-day Delphi attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek World, from Spain to the Black Sea."

Blah, blah, blah: there's a treasury, sacred way, theater, temple and museum. Perhaps it's the weather, or the fact that we locked our keys in the rental car that morning, but we are not digging Delphi. As the rain starts to come down, we decide to leave for Athens.

High in the mountains we pass through a couple of ski towns (which are packed with tourists) and then come upon a taverna. We are famished, lunch is served. The taverna overlooks a mountain, and though the menu is in English and the place seems kinda touristy, the food turnd out to be great. We order the plat du jour, menu del dia, blue plate special and end up with a very filling and wonderful three course lunch. It starts with salads and snacks that include kebabs and stuffed cabbage, then onto a huge wood fired half of a chicken (for me) and then finally, some kind of apple strudel/pie thing with a thick cream anglais-style topping. I fall asleep in the car and Jeff wakes me when we get close to Athens.

It's a long day when we finally get to our hotel in Athens, the Ocher & Brown. It is plush and posh and the bed feels oh so good. I am too stuffed from lunch for dinner, so J heads out and gets a gyro. He loves it so much that we go back there in a couple of days.

The next day brings more rain, so after our included a three course breakfast, we head to the National Archaeological Museum. The museum houses the actual ruins of Mycenae, a huge collection of classical art, kouros, and most notably for me, Cycladic art.

Do me a favor and go to Google images and type in "cycladic art". I lack the capability to explain these pieces, but they are again, almost alien, and modern-looking, like Brancusi sculptures; though they are from 3000-2000BC. These sometimes faceless sculptural interpretations of the human figure are smooth and compact, with arms tucked close into the body. They have faces that look like the back of a shovel and totem-like bodies that are interpretation of human form, not the idealizes copies that you see in classic Greek sculpture. Like so much on this trip, Cycladic art is new to me, and a wonderful personal discovery.

You know what's cool? J. knows all of the ancient Greek myths. I am sure I took a class somewhere along the way, but I have long forgotten them. Though I am not sure if his knowledge is garnered by way of Graves, or Clash of the Titans, most of our trip has been comprised of him telling me stories. It's a lot of fun, being told stories, and he seemed to like telling them too.

The next day in Athens brings a lot of sun and the pinnacle of our trip, the Acropolis. The Acropolis is one of those places that I am almost afraid to see; one of those places that you have seen so many pictures of, you wonder if it can possibly compare to the images already lodged in your head.

Like most things in our travels, getting there is half the battle. The Acropolis sits on the top of seemingly the highest hill in the city, and you see it every time you turn a corner. So after climbing to the top, passing by yet another theater, you go through the grand Beule Gate. On the right is the Temple to Athena Nike and on the left is a massive pillar (atop which used to sit the Agrippa Monument). Though in a perpetual state of construction, this is all pretty impressive. And then you climb and come upon another gate, the impressive Propilea. Go through that and there is it. It sure is spectacular.

Much has been written about the Parthenon, about it's perfect proportions and intricate construction. I will say this, it's big and it's falling apart. It is undergoing massive renovations too. But I like it all tumbled down. Like your hair-do when you wake up on the morning after your wedding, or the table after a New Year's party: everything's all falling apart and somewhat smashed in places. But it still looks good, and you can see what used to be.

Also on the Acropolis is Porch of the Caryatids, see the photo at the top of this post, all of statues are copies. In the far corner of the Acropolis is a outcropping with a large Greek flag. Here's the story:

"When the Germans occupied Athens in WWII, the Evzone who guarded the Greek flag which flew from the Acropolis, was ordered by the Nazis to remove it. He calmly took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death.

The plaque by the flag commemorates Manolis Glezos and Apostolis Santas, the two eighteen year-old heroes who tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on the night of May 30th, 1941. It is of particular interest because these names are known not only by Greeks, but by many Europeans, because this act of courage and resistance to Nazi oppression was an inspiration to all subjected people."

We saw many more ruins and museums on our trip, so these are the highlights. As usual, if you want to see more pictures, they are posted here:


John DePaula said...

This is really similar to a trip I took after graduating from college - really brought me back!

Loved the Lion's gate and the beehive tomb. Epidaurus was certainly more crowded when I visited. Lucky girl!

My take on Delphi was different, though. I thought the site was imbued with ancientness - difficult to describe.

Hope that you have many more fine adventures!

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