I was playing with my Greece pictures again today and I am amazed at how beautiful and sparse this country is. I want so badly to go back. This is Thera, on Santorini, which is really the rim of a volcano. The grapes they grow here are trained to grow in “baskets” to help protect the fruit from the wind. The volcanic soil is so rich that it produces the most amazing wine. Somewhere I have a picture of those baskets, because there were some next to our hotel. *sigh* Someday I will go back.
May 22, 2005: We spent most of this day travelling, getting to the ferry terminal at 730am with our bags in two. S gave us our tickets and we had to trundle up the ramp ourselves and stow our bags. The thing with living in the Aegean, there’s not the same tides or currents that we have here in BC, so the ferry terminal is basically a pier where the boat stops and drops its ramp. No manoeuvring into a little stall or anything. Some grumbled about having to look after our own baggage, especially the couple who had decided to bring all three of their suitcases with them.
The ferry was a flying dolphin fast cat type with a car deck and two passenger decks. I tried to describe BC ferries in comparison and got some blank looks: i.e. why should Canadians need to fit that many people and cars into a single boat – hourly? I don’t think anyone realises how big the Island really is. (At 32,000 sq km [12,355 sq mi] just in case you were wondering, and nothing in the Greek islands even matches that size. Anyway, it was a fast ferry, being a cat and it cut through the water like it was butter. We passed one island that S said had been used as a penal island since it had nothing on it, and also Siros before we reached Mykonos.
Our hotel got upgraded again to a swanky spa-hotel called Saint John. We each had our own little nifty rooms with beautiful views and because it was built on the side of the island. The pool was one of those horizon pools, so you couldn’t tell where it ended and the ocean began. The water was also salt, being pumped in from the bay and out again, in a waterfall that got redirected out to sea. There were steps that went in a little bridge over the narrowest part of the pool and down to the beach. Oh so lovely! S. took us for a little tour of Mykonos town and explained the public bus to us so that we could find our way back when we wanted to. We saw churches, the windmills, the pier and Petros the pelican and his buddy (another pelican) on the beach. Mom made friends with the giant bird almost instantly and everyone was awed by her affinity for the bird. Apparently these birds were hand-raised here or some such and they just wander around town all the time. 6ish, we went to a little place called Rhapsody Bar in Mykonos town and had some loverly cocktails. I’d have loved to stay and have a couple more, but I felt a little like the odd one out, being between the young couples, the flirty 30-somethings and my mother. Anyway, I had a pina colada and we looked out into Little Venice as the sun began to set. It was beautiful. See little venice here. Rhapsody Bar is the white and blue in the middle. Mom and I toodled around for a bit and got quite a bit lost before we found our way to the bus. Apparently Mykonos town was built in a way to deter pirates from attacking: thus there are no straight roads anywhere. God it was beautiful…
May 23, 2005: We were up fairly early this day for our “paradise cruise” on little fishing boats captained by some wonderfully salty Greek fishermen who looked totally bored about ferrying us tourist people around. We went to Dragonissi island and our first swim was in a cave. I still can’t believe how beautifully clear the water was. The pictures do not lie. At the second beach we had a snack and a little drink. I went swimming again and went right across the little bay. Still stunned by the clarity of the water and how the extra salt in it made me float more easily. At the third beach we had lunch at the Taverna Thalassa (which is a Contiki Bar – noticable by the music) and the fourth beach turned out to be a nudist beach. That was interesting. The people there kind of put clothes on as we came onto the beach and spread ourselves out. I got very burned on this day. I forgot that my sunscreen wasn’t waterproof. Ouch!
May 20. This is the day that mom and I had free to fart around Athens by ourselves. We had breakfast at he Intercontinental, since it was a fabulously huge buffet and there is little likelihood that we’ll ever have the opportunity to devour such delights for breakfast again. I had a waffle with fresh strawberries (which tasted like they’d been picked that very morning – don’t ask me how they managed that in downtown Athens!)
Since we were on a main street, it was fairly easy to find our way back to our “old stomping grounds” of the Plaka where mom hoarded film from the lady we bought my camera from and stamps from the Hellenic Post Office. Then we hoofed it back so that we could change hotels in order to meet up with our second tour group. The Taxi ride was harrowing, as only a lead-footed race-driver wannabe can be in a downtown gridlock that is made more hazardous by the copious amounts of people on motorbikes who insist on wearing their helmets on their elbows rather than their heads. (Wow, that was a run-on wasn’t it?) Apparently there is in fact a law about wearing helmets, but since there is no particulars about where one wears it, they figure the elbow is good enough. How cheeky is that, lol? The Acropol is on Omonoia Square (which mom insisted on pronouncing ‘Ammonia’ the whole time), so we decided to hoof it to the National Museum. Only when we got there it was closed, so we went to the benaki Museum instead, which was really quite awsome. Our tour director had said that this was the one that would make more sense to us after all the ruins we’d seen, and she was right. There were also mannekins with traditional clothing from all kinds of regions – so cool!!! I wrote in my book about how much Lindsie would enjoy this museum with all the arty things and costumes and such all over the place.
That evening we met our new tour director, who is English and Greek – and it showed up in her speech. She directed us to the Goody’s around the corner for dinner if we were tired. Since we were we went and had chicken nuggets. While we were there we saw a procession of some sort come through the streets. There were a bunch of kids carrying candles and a wreath of thorns by silks and a few people carrying an icon on thier shoulders. We didn’t find out until later that it was a name day celebration – for St. Helen and St. Kostas. Apparently name days are a big thing in the Greek orthodox church – even bigger than your birthday. Also seem to remember something about not being able to be baptised if you don’t have a derivative name of a saint. Thus Mary, maria and Maryann would have the same name day. Nifty eh? Only the person having the name day is expected to throw a party and have cake and such on hand so that people who come to wish them a happy name day have something to eat.
May 21, we started on our second tour with another spin around Athens to see the Acropolis and the Olympic stadium. S, our instructor, left us in the Plaka where we had Gyros and then mooched around the stores again. She got us to take the subway, which was terribly cool. In the stations there are displays of all the relics and things that they found when they were excavating the tunnels. One wall had a cutaway of a graveyard with different kinds of graves. Apparently the early inhabitants of Greece had better plumbing than we do! Also interesting to note that the construction of the subway took far longer because they kept having to reroute around major archaeological finds. There’s a hole in one of the streets like there was in Verona that shows the old city under the new one. Too cool.
While we were here we met some interesting people, not to mention the neat guy who told my mom that the dust in the store was free, special dust from the Acropolis. Also I liked the young man who bantered with me about what a dog would taste like with potatoes. Trust me, it was funny at the time.
Dinner in the Plaka again this night, with more traditional dancing. I found out that S is also a Taurus and I found myself clicking with her, which was nice, since I hadn’t really with the other guide.
That night it sounded like there was a party in the streets. At about 11ish there was lots of loud honking and yelling and shouting and screeching of tires and singing and music… it wasn’t until the am that we found out what it was. S informed us it was because Helena had won the Eurovision contest on her name day, which translated as another victory for Greece and thus the celebration. Seems the Greeks don’t do anything in half-measures.
May 19 – Oh my, Meteora.
I thought I was prepared for Meteora, but to be honest, no picture really does the place any justice whatsoever. I mean this comes close, but still falls short.
This is an area in Kalambaka which, oddly enough is never mentioned by the ancients. One would think that giant free-standing pillars of stone would make some impression on the minds of a people who built temples that would perpetually face the eastern stars, who believed that giants helped to build Mycenae, and who believed that the gods lived on the top of Mt. Olympus and descended to mingle with the mortals. But there isn’t. Apparently not a thing until Christianity took hold in the Byzantine era. (9th c) That was when, in a search for a place to be closer to God, hermits, and later whole communities of monks came here. Meteora means “in mid air”, which is halfway between heaven and earth, and thus perfect for communion with god.
When the hermits first came, they climbed up on their own, and built shelters in the caves on the cliff-faces. Every now and then monks from nearby monasteries and members of nearby villages would come and bring supplies that would be hoisted up by rope. Later, they built monasteries on the top of these pillars. It started with a church (Church of the Transfiguration), which was built for Sunday services, and grew into a monastery (the Grand Meteoron). By the 16th C there were 24 monasteries and nunneries. Now, there are only 6 left, two of which are nunneries. They declined as the Byzantine Empire declined, being attacked from all sides for almost 1000 years. Men would join the monasteries to avoid being soldiers.
There was one cave that was covered in Handkerchiefs. Apparently it’s a custom to dedicate a handkerchief to St. George. I’m still not sure if that particular cave was where he lived or what the purpose of dedicating handkerchiefs to him, personally was. I’ll have to research this one a little more, but it was really quite neat to see all the colours on the side of the pillar.
We visited the Grand Meteoron and the Nunnery of St Stephen. My mother and I both wore our dresses, but others had to use the “complimentary” skirts made by the nuns before they were allowed to enter. (I still can’t believe that people bitched about this). They all still fly the flag of Byzantium, which is yellow and sports a two-headed eagle, which is looking towards both it’s borders. Officially it’s the flag of the Greek Orthodox Church: like so. Their head church is located in present day Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, which means ‘Holy Wisdom’.
We went into the Nunnery of St. Stephen first. the complimentary skirts in this little place were in much nicer shape, as the nuns are infinitely better at needlework, as was apparent by the tiny stitching on these and the black robes they wore. The inside of their church had scenes from Jesus’ life, as well as scenes from the saint’s lives. All around at about eye level was a string of female saints standing with their palms out. All of their expressions were different. I wish I could have found a copy of those images, because they were fabulously done. All of the nuns had a serene look in their faces – at least the ones we saw – as they watched over the bumbling crowds of outsiders filtering through their holy place. I loved their little gift shop, where I bought postcards because the funds would go to their nunnery. It was so tiny and organised. The nun behind the counter smiled when I thanked her in Greek.
To get into the Grand Meteoron, we had to go down several hundred steps, then over a little bridge, then through a little tunnel, and then up a few hundred more steps. In previous centuries the only way into these monasteries was by rope and pulley, which they only changed when the rope broke. There was a garden beside the church, from which I took pictures of the valley beneath the pillar. In the monastery we looked at the paintings inside the church of the transfiguration and I was sufficiently awed. Every inch of the inside of those buildings is painted with scenes from the bible, which are used to teach. Reading was a skill for the privileged, so the pictorial representations were handy for teaching. We also saw a reliquary where the skulls of the previous monks were stored. They were all in rows on shelves in a tiny, dusty little room. Some people took pictures inside, but I thought that would be terribly disrespectful. I bought postcards here too, though I don’t think the man behind the counter was a monk because he was dressed in jeans and a shirt, but I could be wrong.
Some of our group partook of the vans and things that were selling tourist goodies outside the monasteries, but I only bought some more water for the bus trip back to Athens.
We drove past Thermopylae, where the Spartan King Leonidas stayed to fight the advancing Persian army in order to buy time for the rest of the Greek army to retreat. There was a giant statue on the side of the highway that we stopped to take pictures of.
We also drove past Thebes where Oedipus, (of Sophocles’ plays fame) was said to have met and conquered the sphinx, as well as fulfilled the vicious prophecy of his birth, which was to murder his father and marry his mother.
We arrived in Athens to find that we were relocated to the Intercontinental hotel due to renovation issues at the Royal Olympic. The bloody place had a freaking MALL underneath it. Each room had a minibar, TV, stereo and an optional playstation. J would have loved it. I totally felt out of my league. Mental note: Take some nice evening clothes next time!!!
Nothing is complete without a little side note about our nutty group. (There were two groups on this trip, one we were with for the mainland part and one for the islands.) It was weird how this group, compared to the second one was not nearly as tight-knit or cohesive as the second… perhaps because there were more?
Anyway, there were the salt-and-pepper shaker couple, who were both retired teachers and had the same hair-cut and colour. She wore little sweater-sets and he wore cardigans. They refused to climb the terraces to see the ruins of Delphi because it was going to be hard on their knees. I mean, what a waste! you come to a foreign country with this much history and you SKIP OUT ON THE RUINS??
Then there was the oriental (not sure of his original nationality) Texan and his wife. He got loud after a few beer (much stronger than American beer, I believe) and it was really funny listening to his accents warring with each other. They were really nice people, but I couldn’t help getting a kick out of him when he’d had a few. I felt a little bad for his wife in those moments, but she just shook her head and struck up a conversation elsewhere.
Another set I remember was the ex-marine and his gold-bedecked wife. That man chewed gum as if chewing gum would save the world – with his mouth open – at dinner. neither of them said much and when mom and I had dinner with them in Kalambaka, I’m sure we were getting the judgment of a lifetime. I kept getting sideways glances from The Wife – perhaps because I was wearing the same clothes I had that morning? I’ll never know. He didn’t seem to enjoy the ruins that much either, but then he did have a few things to say about walls and defensibility, so who knows.
There was another mother-daughter set with us from Alberta. They were very nice and laid back. Mom and I spent a large portion of our time with them. I think the daughter used just as much film if not more than I did.
Then there were the crazy Aussie newlyweds who bought a Bouzouki nearly the first day we were there. Mom got tired of them pretty quick I think, but I continued to get a kick out of their antics.
Then there were the two Texan ladies we met in the airport in Amsterdam. They talked about soap operas quite a bit and made me miss some of the things our guide said. Sometimes I’m not so sure they enjoyed themselves, and often ended up asking stupid questions that the guide had just answered a few minutes before. I think they had the most fun at the restaurant with the dancing men.
Also on this trip was a very large man and a very tiny woman who couldn’t make up her mind whether he was her travelling companion or her husband. I think when he was complaining about how stairs made him hurt he was the travelling companion and when he bought lunch he was the husband.
There was also a very tall man and his energetic blonde wife from California who were also quite funny, especially in combination with the loud Texan man after a few beer. Tall man was designated as our guide’s helper, because everyone could see him wherever we went. This woman was the one who fell in the mountain town, but she was very matter-of-fact about it all and never complained about it.
Then there were the two women who were each travelling by themselves. THe Australian woman was a bit of a busy-body. She’d invite herself everywhere and then tell stories about how she’s pulled herself out of the ditch or some-such until everyone else was blue in the face. That was a bit much. And then the Popoff woman who I wished would just pop-off, no pun intended. I got told that women should wear skirts to dinner, and to sit up. I don’t know where she got off being like that, but the two of them were sort of “at” each other off and on the whole trip. Funny that they were bunking together. Mom didn’t hear the sit-up comment, or I imagine she’d have become a little stiff with her, hehe.
May 18: The day we visited the ruins of Delphi and the museum. The site consists of 5 terraces, since it’s built on a mountain face. The round building (the Tholos) that most people associate with Delphi is in fact not the Temple of Apollo, but Athena Pronaea (before) and is not part of the Sanctuary. What would happen is that pilgrims (I have no better word at the moment) would come up the mountain, first to the spring to cleanse themselves, then to the Pronaea and then up to the treasuries and then the temple itself where they would pose thier offerings and questions to the oracle. So the forum is on the lowest terrace, the treasuries, the temples, the theatre and then the stadium – where the Pythian Games were held. (Games and entertainment seem to be a large part of worship with the Greeks)
Legend has it that after Apollo was born he went on a search for a place to build his temple, and when he found Delphi, thought it to be the most beautiful place in the world. (It is really, really beautiful) It was already occupied by Python, whom he killed in order to take over. Apollo then went to purify himself before building his temple. After the temple was built he turned himself into a Dolphin (Delphi comes from the word Delphini, which means Dolphin, in Greek) and landed on the deck of a boat. When the boat came to shore near Delphi he turned back into his god-self and informed the sailors that he had chosen them as his priests. The woman who was chosen to be the Oracle, or Pythia was usually over 50 and chosen from the people living in nearby Delphi-town. The message was given and meant to be interpreted. If you couldn’t, then it was no blame on Apollo or Pythia, nor the priests you could consult for the interpretation. (I.e. The “wooden wall” would save the city. Interpreted as a literal wooden wall makes no sense, however, a fleet of wooden ships making a barricade certainly does.)There’s more about the legends and the site here and here, in case you want more info.
The place was stunning… there is so much still standing and half the walls are filled with inscriptions and dedications carved into the stone, so the archaeologists know who was there when. The treasury of the Athenians is the only building that is still intact, and it’s pretty impressive, considering it was meant to demonstrate that region’s wealth and power in Delphi. I love that it was thought to be the center of the world, and we got to see the Omphalos in the museum. Yes it’s a funny hive-shaped piece of rock, but it’s a funny piece of rock that they kept oiled and perfect because they felt it represented the navel of the world. Also saw a statue of Antinoos, who was a favourite of Hadrian. There was also a statue of Aghias, which our guide felt to be one of the best and most beautiful statues ever made. You can see him here. What I loved the most was the bull which was once covered in gold and silver. I wish I’d written the story of him down and will have to do some more research, but he was huge and just as perfectly detailed as the statues of the men and women. What’s funny is that all that’s left is the precious metal, which was basically screwed up in a ball after some invader stripped the insides out for making weaponry, so the archaeologists had to uncrinkle the whole thing in a very painstaking manner. That impressed me almost more than the bronze charioteer and the remains of one of the horses (there are just two legs left – damn pillagers). Mind you, the charioteer’s eyes spooked me a little, because they’re made of stone while the rest of the statue’s green. Another thing that I remember distinctly were the statues of Kleobis and Biton because you could really see the Phoenecian influence in the art.
Mom and I went all the way up to the top to see the stadium. It was neat because all the stones were mossy and greenish – obviously not the main attraction at Delphi and the view was absolutely beautiful. Crikey I hope my camera worked!
We had lunch in a little “chalet” not far from the museum. I dissected a green almond just to see what it looked like. Almond trees grow all over the place here, as to pistachio trees.
Then we drove over Mt. Parnassos and through Thessaly, the granary of Greece, through Lamia, where we stretched our legs and ate ice cream (again) before entering into Kalambaka where our next hotel was. I swam in the pool at this hotel and it was fabulous.