Friday, October 29, 2010

Greece: Aντίο και Kαληνύχτα

Athens once agreed to pay tribute to Crete in order to avoid being sacked by the powerful Minoan Kingdom based on the fabled island. Every year seven youths and seven maidens would be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a horrendous monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull that King Minos kept in a massive labyrinth beneath his palace at Knossos. Already famous for earlier exploits, Theseus agreed to travel to Crete as one of the sacrificial offerings to the beast and try to slay the creature. If successful, his father implored, he should return to Athens under a white main sail instead of the traditional black.

Theseus, with the help of Ariadne, the Minos' daughter, was successful in killing the Minotaur and escaping back to sea. He forgot to change the sail, however. Standing at the southernmost point of the Attica Peninsula was Theseus' father who took one look at the black sail on his son's ship rounding the point and flung himself in to the sea in despair. His name was Aegeas, King of Athens. The sea became the Aegean and the fateful cape was Sounion.

That story, though myth itself, was better than any comic book fiction to this nine-year old boy almost forty years ago. Twenty years after first reading that story, I, the man, had come full circle. Ninety minutes was all that separated me from the first initial yearnings to see Greece in the first place. The post-rain skies were fat with heavy clouds but enough blue had broken through to create expressive scenery to divert our eyes from the tightly packed upscale homes and shops of Glyfada and other tony coastal enclaves. The further out from the city the pricier the real estate and this time, the farther back in time we went as well.

I wondered if each coastal island was a stronghold or hideout for some fabled hero or pirate. As the water became progressively darker I wondered if the change in hue was due to ever deeper history in addition to deeper water. How many triremes in both legend and lore sailed these waters to expand territory, rescue fair maidens or to save king and country. It all came in to focus on first sighting the Temple of Poseidon standing at the head of the promontory and bathed in the golden rays of a setting sun.
We dashed off the bus and then just stood there. You realize you are standing where history unfolded; where National Geographic, Life and Conde Nast magazines sent only their best photographers; where the hand of God joined seamlessly with the craftsmen of the gods. No matter the human era or style of worship there is simply no escaping some kind of faith and spirituality in so ethereal a setting. The deep blue sea met the gloaming of the darkening sky with the sun bathed in shimmering oranges and yellows behind cotton white clouds, all as a backdrop to ivory marble columns standing in ruins of a bygone era yet uplifting the soul this evening the same as it must have done thousands upon thousands of evenings before.

We loved the Saronic cruise our first full day in Greece. We couldn't imagine anything more beautiful than Delphi the second day. We were in disbelief at the variety of culture, history and ingenuity on that day in the Peloponnese and dutifully awed by all of the wondrous remnants of art and architecture in Athens. We wanted to live in Greece after Sounion, some in this era, some in ancient times. Any time was the consensus so long as we could end the day with the peerless union of unyielding faith and incomparable beauty of this singular place on Earth.

The sun set. We rode in silence back to the future, to pack for tomorrow and the long journey home. I for one felt as though I was leaving home behind.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Greece: Last Day - The Museum

A slight rain greeted us the next morning as we lie in bed at the Esperia Palace Hotel in Athens, Greece. This was both a good thing and cause for small worry as it concerned our planned day ahead. The vacation was winding down far too fast for anyone's liking but here we were, the last day in Greece. The long journey home started first thing in the morning but now, this morning, rain pattering on the window outside we had two things left to accomplish. After only the second late wake-up call of the week, it was time to be quick about getting up and getting out.

The National Archaeological Museum opened at 8AM but we were in no hurry and thought what better way to spend a rainy day; it was the afternoon we were more concerned about as we set out northwest on Stadiou Street to Omonoia Square and then north on Patision Street to the forecourt of the museum. When we arrived, the immediate impression is that if ever there was a museum dedicated to national history, art and architecture greater than this one it is simply gone from the face of the earth. The Louvre and British Museums are collections of showpieces from former world empires. This one in a sense is the same, featuring works from every major island-state and culture in the Greek world but all from what is now one nation.

Whole statues, fragments of works, shelf after shelf of "amphorae," the Greek clay urns and pots hand painted with gods and other heroes lay in every direction. Pick an era and simply stand in the midst of incredible art and exquisite architecture. In one display case was the fabled gold funerary mask of Agamemnon.
Another room featured a bronze of Zeus/Poseidon that was found at sea in a shipwreck. He is poised to throw his lightning bolt or trident, depending on which legend you read first that included a picture of the piece. For me it was Poseidon.

A few "Kouros" statues stood solemnly in still another room, braided hair hanging to their shoulder blades, deep chests trumpeting youth, power, vitality, etc. More than a few samples of jewelry, silver and copper coins and other shiny or dangly bits lined the walls, very few of which were more recent than 400 years BC. The crowning moment for me was the bronze of Perseus, inlaid eyes staring with deadly intent at some hapless victim, the forefingers of his right hand crooked as if holding a stone or just releasing one. In today's language the look on his face said it all: "I gotchoo, and I'm gon' bust you up!"

In familiar refrain we left the museum all too soon but had one more tour to take on this our last day in Greece. The rain had let up encouragingly as we quick-stepped back to the hotel for our 3:30PM pick-up in the hotel lobby. Wanting to say good-bye to Greece in style, our half-day tour this afternoon was to Cape Sounion, about 90 minutes southeast of Athens, to watch the sun setting behind arguably the most beautifully set temple in at least all of Greece.

Gotta go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Greece: The Acropolis at Last

We'd seen temples on hills, temples on islands, temples in the middle of town and now soldiered on to the ultimate temple to top them all, that of the Parthenon dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of the capital city.

Who breathed this very air as we made our way like so many millennia of pilgrims would have done to the center of Athens, both to marvel at the majestic architecture or make our devotions to the resident spirits? How many great names ending in "-es," "-as" or "-us" walked before us on identical or similar roads and trails to this magnetic place in history and society? Honking horns and traffic lights prevented each step from seeming a step back in time but the pull of the ruins I felt could be no less irresistible today than they would have been 2500 years ago.

As if programmed, we continued up the hill past the dilapidated shell of the Theater of Dionysus at the northeast base of the Acropolis.
Beyond the crumbled seating that once held nearly 17,000 only the proscenium stage remains largely intact where once the plays of Aristophanes, Sophocles and Aeschylus had been performed. The unique features of the theater today are largely to contrast the building style with that of the Herod Atticus Theater just to the south of it and near the main entryway to the Acropolis itself. Where the older theater to Dionysus was built in to the very hill itself as was the custom of early Greek design, the much smaller Herod Atticus is a complete construction of its own by the side of the hill. It is still used today, most famously as the venue for Yanni's "Live at the Acropolis" performances.

The climb up the ceremonial steps through the "Propylaea" or main gate to the top of the Acropolis ranks as one of the most exhilarating climbs in the world. Even in ruins it is impossible to not be intimidated by the combination of climb and towering architecture before gaining admittance to the hilltop fortress and sanctuary. The fact that we were surrounded by hordes of other tourists actually helped pace the climb so we wouldn't be out of breath when we finally paid our entry fee and got to the plateau above. White marble architecture combined with gorgeous blue skies above and lifted our hearts and excitement to a near fever pitch.

There it was. Across a flat expanse strewn with ruins of stone and marble and a slight annoyance of scaffolding stood the Parthenon itself. The temple of dreams and goal of a lifetime. The "Spielberg Affect" was in full force as we "ahhhh'd" one and all, slack jawed with amazement, the corners of our mouths curled in smiles born of success, wonderment and out-of-body disbelief. We were finally here.

We stopped long enough to convince ourselves that other important structures lay all around us, such as the Erechtheum, world famous for the Porch of the Caryatids, that collection of six columns carved in the shape of tunic draped maidens, or the sanctuaries of Zeus and Pandion at the north end of the compound. Beautiful they were, bedazzling in their own way, beguiling, even in contemplating their age and purpose yet like most of the people around us we simply weren't convincing in genuinely exploring these other wonders as we bee-lined to the Parthenon. Nothing else mattered.

Few could tell the style of columns (Doric) and fewer still cared. The Parthenon simply is. It is cliched and pointless to describe its impact or beauty. It just is. Replacing an older temple to Athena in the 5th century BC we learned of the stylistic tricks that create the balanced style of the building, including an extra, odd-numbered column down the length for additional aesthetics and columns that seem to lean inwards as they taper for grace. Cap all of that off with the marble carvings along the different facings of the building depicting epic battles between Athenians and gods, Athenians and Amazons and Athenians and other empires and this slab of marble is simply the wedding cake to end them all.

Like the Olympian Gods whose cult slowly faded we did not want to leave either. It was a church for a while, then a mosque after that during the occupation by the Ottoman Turks. It then became an ammunition depot that was targeted during an attack by Venetians in the 17th century that blew a hole in the center of it which can be seen today where a section of outer columns is missing.

As at Delphi only two days before, we stared at the partially restored ruins and wondered what the finished building must have been like back in the day. It is enough to wish in some ways that it is never restored less the imagination suffer in the loss of wonder.

Gotta go.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Greece: Athens

Ah, today was the day! After flying 12 hours just to get to Greece then spending the first three days on boats and buses this was the first morning without wake-up calls at sunrise. And it was the day of perhaps the greatest anticipation as much of this day would be spent winding our way to and visiting on top of the Acropolis of Athens itself. Nothing symbolizes all that is Greece or Athens itself than this flat-topped rock rising some 500 feet above the city with history dating back to the Bronze Age. First, though, would come a busy yet casual morning of walking around the city before winding up at the Acropolis itself.

The old Royal Palace was closest to our hotel so we started there to see the yellow and white building now serving as Parliament House for the national government. Honestly, it's not much to look, a big, square three-layer cake with a few neoclassic columns at ground level. The main point of interest, however, is the two-man honor guard, the "Evzones" at the base of the west entrance standing watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I always wonder how each ceremonial guard comes up with the elaborate dance of respect that is the march, change of position and change of guard. The Greek guard is no slouch on the world stage, starting with the kilt-like uniform known as the "fustanella" which features the kilted overcoat, ivory leggings with knee-bands, a red beret with a long sash hanging from the right side and what look like red rubber shoes with a tuft-ball at the toe. Top all of this with a bayoneted rifle and the high-kicking, full arm-swinging march that meets in the middle with a tapping of the toes at the center of the monument. These young men believe in their role of honor and sense of duty as much as any honor guard I've seen at Arlington National Cemetery. We watched in silent respect and moved on.

A quick walk by the original Olympic Stadium first built in 566 BC then re-cased in marble two hundred years later and renovated twice more before the revival of the games in 1896. Used again for the 2004 games it is a massive structure in the elongated "U" style that once held 80,000 spectators and easily evoked visions of the heyday in classical architecture all around the city. Reinforcing that image was a stroll past Hadrian's Gate, a Roman Arch built by the globe-trotting conqueror most famous for his wall near the Scottish border in England. This 60-foot tall arch spanned a main road leading towards our next destination, the complex featuring the Temple of Olympian Zeus at what was then and remains today the heart of ground-level Athens.

The beast is big, that's the only way I can describe it. This colossal set of columns really demonstrated not merely architectural ingenuity for its time but sheer power and authority as well. It is arguably not hyperbole to imagine this building as the St. Peter's of its day. Like more than a few later cathedrals the story goes it took over 630 years to complete and, longer than a football field, was in fact the largest temple in Greece during the Roman years. By the time it was finished as a place of worship, however, the temple had a relatively short shelf-life before falling in to disuse, disrepair and abandonment. Ultimately it became a quarry for building supplies on other projects around the city but enough remains for anyone to see that this was one big building at the center of a major spiritual culture.

And this before we looked over our shoulders and saw the Acropolis less than a mile away and waiting.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Greece: Mycenae Memories

There was a choice between a two-day tour of the Peloponnese which included a visit to Olympus, the sanctuary to Zeus and original site of the Olympic games in his honor to promote civil harmony within the Hellenistic world. Also on offer was a three-day tour which included a huge circuit of the major attractions of the Peloponnese and the complex of Delphi where we were the day before. We went with the one-day tour which would be grueling in and of itself but also by the third straight day of on and off of buses and such. How many times does one go to Greece? It's been over twenty years for me and I remember that trip like it was yesterday. Well, maybe at least last week.

Back on the bus after a quick visit to the preserved - of course preserved - Roman city of Corinth we motored south to the city of Mykines, which is the modern town that's on the map entirely for being the stopping and service point for the ruins of ancient Mycenae. This culture was ancient to the ancient Greeks, as much a mystery some 1500 years ago as they are today but celebrated through literary works such as the Iliad. Fabled King Agamemnon hailed from here and was allegedly buried here at the Treasury of Atreus "Beehive Tomb" just outside the main gates to the mountain compound.

The tomb itself is not much to look at from the inside. A round room with a conical roof completely underground and void of any construction, shelving, benches or other furnishings. Compared to the heat of the day outside the most impressive thing about it was the fact that it was very cold. After a hot minute to look at a round room of nothing, it was back on the bus for five minutes to the base of the royal compound and up through the world famous "Lion's Gate" through which all visitors then and now must pass.

The tour guide was a knowledgeable elder lady with a lot of information to share. My excitement from first arriving in Greece, however, was still barely contained as I raced ahead with my camera to get unobstructed views and camera angles of the complex, the royal cemetery just inside the gate and the breathtaking view of the well defended surrounding plains and distant mountains.

For some reason my lungs decided to develop a case of bronchitis. Huffing and heavy breathing for the rest of the day, I would not be deterred from this (so far) once in a lifetime experience. I made sure that I didn't miss the bus but I wish I had had more time to simply enjoy being in that place, that setting.

The port city of Naufplion was our lunch stop at "a typical Greek restaurant" included in the tour. The view of the harbor below was gorgeous, the sky and sea seemed to merge at the horizon in a seamless blue, pierced by the white of gulls diving for tidbits off the balcony. I had never been happier.

Maria Callas, "La Callas," the vaunted Greek national treasure sang once at the amphitheater at Epidaurus. Seating 15,000 people and in existence since XXXX, the amphitheater is notable for having the kind of natural acoustics that allow the artists to be heard from the stage to the top of the house 55 rows up. Maria was a classic, classical belter who didn't need a microphone anyway and the performance of her signature role "Norma" is as remembered today as it was stunning all those years ago in 1960. Today we went through the tourist paces, scampering up to the cheap seats and then shouting down to our friends - the acoustics only work traveling upwards - to whisper something back to us or strike a match to see if we could hear it.

Maria rests in peace while the stadium today rests only in silent night. We rolled in to the gloaming back to Athens, touched, uplifted, elated, sated, tired.

Gotta go.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Greece: Poly-Peloponnese

To look at it upon a map we did not cover all that much territory on our third day of touring the Greek mainland. The all day tour of the Peloponnese covered more in history than it did in geographic area but we, of course, didn't care. We drove along the coastal highway west of Athens and about an hour out of town when we first witnessed military paratroopers practicing their skills along the shoreline. We also passed the small bay that served as the site of the Battle of Salamis which pitted the Greek Alliance against the Persian Empire in 480 BC.
Crossing finally in to the Peloponnese at the Corinth Canal this engineering marvel of the late 19th century saved a tiring 650 mile journey around the peninsula to reach Athens. At barely 70 feet wide, however, today only the smallest of commercial shipping bothers with it now. "Snap" went most cameras and we trundled across in to the Roman city of Corinth, the first of four stops that would include three distinct cultures and civilizations.

At the site towered the Roman temple to the sun god Apollo, the only one of the 12 major deities to have the same name in both civilizations. This was one larger and better preserved than the one at Delphi from the day before but lacking in the majesty of the mountain setting. The marketplace was impressive, including an example of a barrel archway to the side of a very well preserved main road through the center of town. The public toilets were interesting because at first we didn't know what they were. A large stone with several seats carved in to them that looked for all the world like commodes without stalls, though, and we finally put it together. The exposed plumbing troughs that led to and lined the main street also put the finishing touches to the function.

A city-state in its own right Corinth had the misfortune of being wedged between Athens to the east and Sparta on the peninsula to the south. In other words, lots of battles and changing of hands going back 3000 years up through the Roman city laid before us. Corinthian column capitals were popularized here along with Paul's writing of the 1st and 2nd Corinthians right in this very town. The history was compelling but the best moment was the pack of schoolchildren out on a field trip at the same time we were there. The picture says it all. They were the perfect age for budding confidence and ten-year old hamminess. Twenty-some years later I can't help, of course, but remember that moment but also wonder how their young adult lives are starting out today. In the age before digital cameras this was one of those photos worth waiting and praying for at the developers back home.

Typical of solidly packed and tightly timed one-day motor tours, we were in Corinth for maybe an hour.

Gotta go.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Greece: Day is Done at Delphi

One of the more stunning revelations by our tour guide on this day at the ruins of Delphi was the fact that the entire complex had not only suffered earthquake damage but had lain buried under a small village since the Medieval ages. And they only agreed to move after another earthquake damaged their homes and were offered a whole new village to move to! By the late 19th century major excavations revealed much of what we were enjoying this crisp day on Mt. Parnassus at Delphi.

The drive up from Athens was long and culminated in winding switchbacks as we crawled up the Pleistos Valley to get to Delphi. The winding Sacred Way greeted us for the on-foot portion of our day, leading us past the Treasury of Athens and the Sybil Rock to the Temple or Apollo at the heart of the complex. This temple dates from the 4th century B.C. and is the third in the series going back four hundred years before that. Not the largest temple but it's placement at the center of the complex and capping off the Sacred Way in addition to the views of the surrounding valley make it easily one of the most impressive.

We weren't done. Above the temple loomed the equally impressive bowl of an amphitheater, some 35 rows high and seating a solid 5,000 people. Still not finished, we continued on the trail ever higher up the mountain until a flat plain opened in front of us to reveal a thoroughly unexpected site in the shape of a full stadium. The Pythian Games were held here every four years but two years off from the Olympic Games so they would not overlap. Dating from the 5th century B.C. it stretched nearly 600 feet end to end and seated 6,500 in Romanesque stone bleachers thanks to renovations and other improvements by Herod Atticus.
I had to do it. Yes, that's me clowning in the center of the royal box - more a stone sofa - giving the thumbs down in my best imperial pose.

Back at the main entrance to the complex and after deep reluctance to leave it all behind, the museum offered some choice delicacies of its own in the manner of a restored sphinx and other statues discovered on the grounds. The signature piece is "The Charioteer," an unparalleled life-size depiction of a youth in bronze holding the reins to his horses while standing in a chariot after winning a race at the nearby stadium. Some hooves and other bits are nearby silhouetted by a drawing of what the entire piece once looked like but there is no taking the eyes away from the Charioteer himself. The inlaid eyes add haunting life to features that seem peeled from living flesh. It took a lot of cajoling from our tour guide to press on to the Tholos so we could get down the mountain before sunset for the journey home to Athens.

Roughly 50 feet in diameter with the posts for ten columns former an inner circle, only three of the twenty outer columns have been restored. Even then it is easy to see the concrete fill used to recreate the columns from among the strewn sections and rubble we threaded our way through for the best photo angles. After the view from on high within the main sanctuary the view from down low at the Tholos was no less mesmerizing as we looked up to imagine what the full glory of the temple, the theater, the treasuries and all those tunics must have looked like. As with every guided tour this one was over all too soon.

Sometimes when they say "restored" you want to see the completed building, roof, interior spaces, etc. In this place in Greece, Delphi, what is restored is the recognition of former grandeur, the feeling of total beauty, the resurrection of the very soul.

Gotta go

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Greece: A Day at Delphi

"Speechless" is clichéd and also not at all what keeps a writer in beer and shoe leather. The film industry has come to know the slack-jawed, wide-eyed and air sucking facial expression as "the Spielberg Effect" as the director has used this prelude to a major "reveal" most famously in his own films as dinosaurs and massive alien space ships have presented themselves to thunderstruck characters and audiences alike. We were one busload of slack-jawed, wide-eyed, air-sucking and thunderstruck tourists when Delphi came in to view ahead of us after a three hour drive over the lower flatlands and mountain approaches of Greece. We were transported.

Into another world and another time. Off to the left sat the exquisite round Tholos temple but we would get back to that. After a sharp left turn and sprawling from the road up the hill off our right shoulder was the heart of a layered complex of temples, statues, treasuries and votives of every conceivable kind. My friends and I felt, knew, that we had arrived at the heart of everything - the mythical, architectural, spiritual and also sensual - that ancient Greece was all about. Delphi, more than the Acropolis itself, held every city, island and region in its power with each wanting to outdo its rivals in the opulence of its offerings.

Our tour guide led us off of the bus with the first of many admonitions to stay together and not wander off on our own. We wanted both to stretch and attack this wonderful world at the same time. Leading us up the zig-zagging "Sacred Way" to the heart of the complex we passed through the main entrance which was as grand as you please thanks to the half-moons of the Argos Monument. The entire complex was built to intimidate the weak and celebrate the glory of the faithful as well as the power of Apollo to whom all of this opulence was dedicated.

Only one votive treasury building has been restored at the first hairpin turn of the path. Imagine a large garden shed in classic stone architecture and you get the idea. This one, the Treasury of Athens, now represents all of the treasuries that once lined the path and once held all the tribute to the famous oracle for her favors over the years. Not much farther up the hill stood a tall column of unadorned rock, the "Sybil rock" on top of which sat the "Delphi Sybil," who foretold the future. She, an older woman of pure living, was only the first, and not connected with the more famous Oracle within the Temple of Apollo itself.

All around us were the foundations of ruined treasuries and an interesting rock carved in the shape of a navel. Zeus launched two eagles to the east and west and marked this spot with his navel where they met again as the center of the Earth - so goes the legend. So we continued up the hill, our necks craning over our left shoulders at the collection of columns at the southeast corner of what was once the Temple of Apollo, the core motivator for anyone bold and rich enough to make the journey to Delphi.

Inside the Temple sat the priestess Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi who either did or did not need, depending on whom you talk to, gaseous emissions from beneath the temple and swirling around her high tripod seat to offer her answers to carefully framed questions, again either in plain speech or delirious tongues thanks to the holy ether. Her answers were famously noncommittal; whether or not she favored the supplicant was the result of his own interpretation. From the display of riches around us many gambled on the answer they wanted to hear and it paid off for them and the oracle in wealth, prosperity and tribute.

I didn't need to smoke anything to see the past and it was beautiful so far, only halfway through the delights of Delphi. At the top of the hill was something quite unexpected indeed.

Gotta go.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Greece: Driving to Delphi

Who knew from Delphi? Greece is one of those singular nations where nearly every cloud in the sky, stone in the shoe, bend in the road or open plain is lodged in the brain, connected to some fanciful or fantastic story of human passion. Today, the second full day of touring this great nation found my friends and I on the northwest highway E962 heading towards Delphi, sacred oracle to the god Apollo. Second in importance only to Olympia, the sanctuary of Zeus, Delphi was a focal point of spirituality, sports and unbelievable wealth and subsequent influence throughout the ancient Greek world. And it was halfway up a mountain in the Pleistos Valley and overlooking part of the Corinthian Gulf.

The beginning of the drive was filled with its own excitement as we would be stopping in Thebes on the way to our destination. Wow was the only thing I could think to say, visions of cheesy Hercules movies running in my head as I imagined the great stone walls that surrounded this great rival to Athens looming eventually in to view. Before Athenian rule became the order of the day for the Hellenic world Thebes, as the major power of Boeotia, challenged Athens at every turn for supremacy, siding at one point with the Persians against their rivals at one point and putting an end to the power of Sparta at another. Thebes was a force to be reckoned with, controlling over half of mainland Greece during the height of its power.

If we hadn't stopped on purpose we could have driven right through modern Thebes today and not been aware of the history all around us and beneath the asphalt of the road we were on. A market town of maybe 25,000 today, to say that Thebes has shriveled on the vine of time is to be generous but sad indeed. Tourists in the area, like us, are often on the road to somewhere else as little has been done to preserve the history of the area beyond the battlefield at Plataea or the central fortress that once guarded the city. To look at the "Cadmea" fortress today is to shrug and hop back on the bus. We all stayed on the bus after a quick stretch at a local gas station and motored west to Delphi, the main purpose of our tour.

Though only halfway up Mt. Parnassus the ancient site and modern town are still up a sizable mountain and reached by the types of narrow switch back two-lane roads one would find anywhere else in Europe. The fact that we came overland from Athens made me think that "back in the day" the island powers would simply have sailed up the gulf to what is now the port cities of Kirra or Itea. There was still no getting around having to climb the hill, though, so no doubt only the serious at heart and rich of resources would venture here. I mean, horses to do the heavy lifting but standing in a chariot or worse, walking up this thing...and in sandals?

Coming around the corner on Highway 48 and coming at last in to view, what lay before us was simply miraculous. And these were only ruins.

Gotta go.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Greece: Sailing With History

When you're on vacation you want to sleep late. When you're on vacation in a country like Greece, though, you also want to see as much as you possibly can with every available minute. That means wake-up calls at "O-Dark-Hundred" in the morning to shower, dress, get downstairs, eat a hurried breakfast, get back upstairs, brush the teeth and grab the camera so you're downstairs again all "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" for the tour bus that just squealed to a halt outside the lobby door.

My traveling buddies and I had agreed on a set of tours to take which also included one tour-free day at the end of the week to rest, enjoy Athens and see the National Museum. Today the bus would do pick-up duty around a few hotels in the area to bring us all down to the Port of Piraeus from whence we would embark upon a one-day sailing tour around the Saronic Gulf.

Knowing that nearly every lake, river and other large body of water played host to or was named for some greater or lesser figure in Greek mythology, I was electrified merely to be sailing on the waters where so much real and imagined history took place. The Greeks defeated Persia at the Battle of Salamis late in the year 480BC. Theseus returned from conquering the Minotaur on Crete through these waters. The Argonauts sailed to Colchis and there was also that business about Helen of Troy. Was there another body of water on Earth like it? No tunics were included with our tour but I swear I would have worn one.

The Island of Aegina was our first stop which truly began the mythical immersion for me. On the eastern side of the island is the Temple of Aphaia, a minor goddess of fertility and agriculture and worshipped nowhere else in the Greek world. The significance of her temple is that it served as a model for the larger Parthenon in Athens. The structure we were deposited in front of is the 2nd temple to the goddess and has been standing since 580BC. Standing on top of a windblown hill surrounded by low brush and trees that might easily have been here just as long, I had arrived. With over 2500 years of history all around me, this picture says it all.

We sailed next to the island of Poros which was little more than enough time to do a little shopping and retsina tasting at the various market stalls along the waterfront. The third and final island was Hydra, named for the springs throughout the island and not the multi-headed monster of the same name. Like Portofino on the Italian coast, the island and community are all about their very compelling architectural beauty. Our cruise ship, the "Hermes" of the Epirotiki Line, was like a rowboat compared to the sea-monsters plying the Caribbean today. She stretched beyond the harbor breakwater at the base of the tea-cup shaped town rising up the surrounding hill. Hydra town is home to less than 3,000 and features winding alleys, streets of little more than stone steps and, of course, sweeping views of the town and surrounding sea.

This was the first and only "cruise" I would experience for the next nineteen years. While others enjoyed the onboard casino during the night sail back to Piraeus I savored the experience, rolling my jaw and smiling as if the whole thing were a savory morsel. I didn't cry but I would have been quite alright if I had.
It was only the first full day. And it was that good.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Greece: Hold my Hand!

We landed in Athens and I felt as if walking on something unreal. The ground was good and solid but this was the first time I had come face to face with the mystical, the mythological, the magic of Greece itself. Once I'd left the airport, of course, which had surely seen better days and would be replaced by a new facility before long. Circling in to land I could see the Acropolis, the 1st Olympic Stadium and the port of Piraeus laid before me but I still hadn't touched ground. Now I was here and my friends and I only had to get to our hotel for the next six days before we could turn loose on what was for me 20 years of pent up anticipation.
Our hotel was the Esperia Palace at 22 Stadiou Street, maybe two blocks from Syntagma Square where the Greek Parliament and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are located. If I had to count stars I'd say two, meaning neither flea-bitten or grand but clean and comfortable enough for three bachelors in their 20s needing little more than separate beds and hot showers. Our one friendly warning was not to wad up too much toilet paper because the pipes were on the thin side and clogged rather easily. We weren't worried about TV reception or cable, either - we were in Greece! - but there was an evening of live entertainment one night when the latest political protestors took to the streets which we enjoyed from the comfort of our upper floor windows.

My partners and I knew we wanted to see as much as possible but made no plans ahead of the trip as to what and when. The first day was largely just getting over jetlag and wandering the immediate neighborhood but not before setting up several trips at the front desk which provided pick-up service in the lobby each morning for every tour we had selected. With that all set, our entire week planned, it was time to see, smell and feel the majesty of Athens. There might have been cars, buses and neon in the streets but this was still Athens!

Continuously inhabited for over 7000 years, who knew where to begin for our "half day at leisure" self-guided tour. The Plaka, of course! The oldest city market still in use on the planet. Shops, stalls and customers along with all manner of thieves, pickpockets and the tourists they preyed on gathered in the same spot since the time of Athena, patron goddess of the city. Everything is up for negotiation all around and I tried my hand at picking up a couple of thick wool sweaters before moving on with our walk around town. We found out where other things were that we would be seeing later in the week such as the National Archaeological Museum at Omonoia Square and how to get to the Acropolis before deciding it was time to grab a drink before find something to eat.

We pulled in to a random watering hole on a main road and were instantly greeted by the owner who ushered the three of us to a corner table with a carafe of fresh water. As soon as we were settled he took our drink orders and left quickly, after which three lovely local ladies immediately took his place and joined us. Huh?

Before the owner could return to ask us our pleasure, one of my buddies looked at me and said "Quick, hold my hand!" WHAT? Back with our heavily watered drinks the owner and ladies decided they had sized us up wrong, we paid for our drinks and boot-scooted out of there faster than they could blink!

They weren't nearly as perturbed as we were. We were tourists, this was Greece. "Whatever!"

Gotta go!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Greece: The Chase and the Dream

Three best friends raced after each other around the playground at school one afternoon, it could have been a Tuesday. One of them for a change had simply wanted to read quietly but the other two were having none of that. It was a beautiful day and the name of the game was "Keep Away." Tony had been the one trying to read a new comic book, the one time when nine-year old boys tend to retreat in to themselves, to escape in to the magical pages of full color comic artwork and fantasy. Donald and Reiner, his two classmates, did not have this particular comic and that was enough to get Tony going.

"C'mon, guys" went out the universal plea to either join the fun or in this case knock it off. The comic Donald and Reiner were passing back and forth between each other just out of Tony's reach was not a DC or Marvel masterpiece. It wasn't even Uncle Scrooge who had his own version of the story or even Archie Andrews and the gang from Riverdale. This comic told the short hand version of Theseus and the Minotaur, one of the most famous stories from ancient Greek mythology.

And what a story! Proving oneself, conquering a horrible monster, miscommunication and all to explain how the Aegean Sea got its name? Whatever it was to Donald and Reiner it wasn't Spiderman or even Captain America.

"That's weird," shouted Reiner over his shoulder, Tony in hot pursuit. Where the ear was programmed to expect one super hero or caped crusader in particular "Theseus" simply did not compute and therefore wasn't cool. And with all of those "th's" and "s's" in the name and no "-man" at the end of it whoever it was could only be described as sissy. That took the chase up a notch, the three boys a sneakers and blue jeans blur to one and all around them. "Give"-whoosh-"me"-whoosh-"back my"-whoosh-"comic!" The sun angled just a hair lower in the sky as if itself turning to watch the action.

Through the section where the girls jumped rope, played hopscotch and skipped jacks and across the field where kickball, fuss ball and football were going on at the same time they ran. Tony was the faster runner but generally only in a straight line or wide turns. Rabbit cuts were not his specialty but eventually he did catch them. It was all a big game as they stood and caught their breath, Donald handing over the cherished comic while Reiner happily clapped Tony on the back who smiled and rolled his eyes at his two goofball pals. Tomorrow Donald or Reiner would let his guard down enough to be the patsy and so it would go.

"So who's Theseus?" Donald asked? As they answered the call of the whistle and walked, slowly, back to class, Tony told his friends what he knew which at that point was only what the comic book had illustrated. Recess was over and the Three Amigos laughed and giggled amidst cries of "Wow!" and "Cool!" as they rejoined their classmates, arm in arm in friendship, jovially congratulating each other on another good game of "Keep Away."

As Tony trudged the stairs to his second floor classroom, though, a question stuck in his mind. "Where was this place?" he mused as the door closed and silence fell once more upon a worn but relieved schoolyard.

Gotta go.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Greece: Theseus and the Three Amigos

"Stop it you guys!" the young boy cried. "Give it back!" It was another day in the playground, maybe a Tuesday in the Spring, as Tony chased after his tormentors. It was his turn to be "It" so he knew eventually they, his friends, would let up on him though he much preferred like anybody else to not be the victim. They were "The Three Amigos" of the schoolyard, though so each of them got it twice each week except Sundays it seemed. The sun was high and a few small clouds glided overhead as if chasing the kids and leading them with fleeting bits of shade while they chased each other around the grounds.

Recess for Tony was not always about pick-up games of tag, kickball or marbles. It was also a chance to catch up on his private reading. Sometimes in the midst of pigtails being pulled, muddy knees and teachers' whistles he just wanted to be alone, off in another world. There was always playtime after school at home before dinner.

Try as he might every now and then to have some quiet time and stay out of trouble, though, his buddies could always be counted on to stir things up. Tony was never one for being quiet all that long anyway and they knew it so what could be more fun and natural than targeting him for a quick game of "Keep Away?" And today the focus was the thing Tony happened to be reading. It looked like, felt like and was drawn like a comic book only it wasn't one most other fourth graders would be reading and thus began the game.

"Whatter ya readin'?" asked Reiner as he snatched at the comic.

"Theseus," replied Tony, quickly drawing it away from one line of attack. That question never came without a grab at the prized possession.

The world in the pages of this comic was unlike any he had ever seen, read or heard about. All of the names were strange, both the names of people and the names of places. Every rock, plant, river and body of water had a name which belonged to someone who fell in, fell off or was transformed to preserve their memory. Even the stars, planets and constellations had an angle. Were they kidding?

"Who?" challenged Donald, deftly snagging the book from Tony's unsuspecting hands and turning it over, peering at it suspiciously.

Never the fastest reader around, Tony just the same could not turn the pages fast enough as the story unfolded before his eyes and in his mind. This one had strange animals with still more strange names and gods. Lots of gods and all of them with strange names, too. And they were just as flawed and vengeful as the humans and heroes who built temples for them, fought wars because of them and went to the ends of the earth to find or get away from them. This stuff was better than Superman!

"Theseus and give it back!" Literally rising to the challenge, Tony was on his feet, bored with the ritual of it yet eager to get back to his story. Tony liked Donald and Reiner. They were his best friends in his fourth grade class. Like any friends, though, sometimes they weren't always in sync. They wanted to play and Tony was always a part of that play. Today, however, Tony just wanted to read. That didn't matter to Donald and Reiner.

Ancient Greece would have to wait - this was, after all, an elementary school playground. The chase was on.

Gotta go.