Monday, 29 April 2013

Meteora, Day 2 & 3: The Greek Adventure Part IV

Having worn ourselves out the day before, Steph and I decided to start our second day in Meteora with a bit of a cheat. Instead of walking the several miles back to the point we had reached the day before, we decided to take a taxi instead.

We began by walking down to the centre of Kalambaka and buying our lunch from the bakery, which had slightly better looking sandwiches than anywhere else. We then went across the street to the taxi stand. It took a moment to explain to our driver that we didn’t want to go directly to any of the monasteries, but wanted to be dropped at the head of a path by the side of the road. Once the driver had figured out our destination, he turned around and walked over to a nearby trailer that was selling fresh fish.  He spoke a few quick words with the fish monger, received a bag of fish and ice, which he tossed in the trunk, and only then did he get into the car.

It was about a fifteen minute drive to our destination, a wide patch by the side of the road. As the taxi pulled away, we saw an old man, with a huge mane of curly grey hair, sitting on a bench with a small dog. The man looked at us and said, ‘Oh, you take the old path...’. It turns out that the man was born in Kalambaka, but had lived a good chunk of his youth in New England. I could still detect a faint Yankee twang to his English. He said it had been nice to live in a modern country, but that the dreams of Kalambaka had never left him, so he had returned. Now, he sat on this bench, because there was no work to be had. His wife spent her days selling little knitted flower hair accessories near the entrance to one of the monasteries. (Actually, Steph had bought one of those knitted flower hair clips the day before, more, I believe, out of charity than anything else). It was an easy-to-believe testament to the economic difficulties in this corner of Greece, even one that had such spectacular tourist attractions.
Varlaam, with the Dragon's Cave underneath...

Eventually we left the man behind, and started up our path. Even though the path had been marked on our map, it was clear that it was little used. The short trees grew close all around. Despite the steep, rocky terrain, we were fresh and made good time. Soon we came to a small clearing, and the gaping mouth of a cave, a dragon’s cave. I would later learn the story behind this cave, and a new story of a nameless dragonslayer, both of which I will share in a future post.  After a quick crawl around, we started up again. In all, we climbed for nearly an hour before  we caught our first glimpse of the giant monastery of Great Meteora, the oldest and grandest of the region. Should you ever come to Meteora, and only have time to visit one monastery, this is the one. Not only does it have wonderful views of three other monasteries, and a truly grand church, it also contains a museum of manuscripts and other treasures, a medieval store room, an ossuary where dozens of skulls sit on a shelf, and a small museum devoted to the Greek War of Independence.  It is certainly the most complete ‘attraction’ of the monasteries, but also the only one that felt just a tad busy and crowded.

From Great Meteora we took the short walk down the road to the monastery of Varlaam, which sat on its own great tower of stone. After another wearying stair climb, we made it inside. While examining the frescoes inside the church, Steph and I were approached by a young monk.  (Unlike western monks, Greek monks dress all in black and sport long beards).  He asked if we had any questions, as he had some time to spare. I asked him about the meaning of several of the frescos, especially about the scenes of judgement. His English was broken, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist, and learned a thing or two about Orthodox theology as well. Despite approaching us, he seemed a shy man by nature, especially towards Steph. But he answered her questions as well, explaining that he had lived in the monastery for the last ten years, and that in every way it was his home.

Unfortunately, our quiet chat was soon interrupted by a large group of noisy Spanish tourists. The poor monk actually winced in pain as the noise echoed into the previously quiet church. Kindly, he opened a side door, allowing us to escape. The last we saw, the monk was doing his best to find someone who spoke English to try and communicate with the group.

From Varlaam, we walked down a long, winding, quiet road to the convent of Roussanou.  It was meant to be our final stop for the day, but it turned out to be closed (It closes several hours before all the others). Unfortunately, Roussanou was located at the furthest point away from our guest house, and no matter which way we turned, it was a long road back. Still, it was a pleasant day, and the world was quiet, so we set out. Our little tourist map did show one path that cut down through the side of Meteora, and could potentially save us an hour or two on our journey. However, as we had learned several times before, not all paths are created equal. Leaving the road, we once again plunged into the trees. At first, the path seemed clear enough, but as time passed, we grew less and less sure about our direction. Looking back, I think we mistook an old stream bed for the path, and thus went badly of course. At an hour in, we were both convinced that we had lost the path, but neither of us cared for the prospect of the steep climb back up the way we had come, so we pressed on, hoping to rejoin the path somewhere below.

At one point, we were passed by a long line of goats, wandering their own way back up the mountain. I hoped they might be accompanied by a goatherd, but no such luck. So down we went, until we got stuck. We reached a point that no matter which way we turned seemed to lead to a sheer drop down a nasty height. Thankfully, it was still early in the afternoon and plenty of light remained, so we weren’t overly worried, but I admit, I was a tad disheartened. Thankfully, my wife is a great deal braver with regards to heights than myself. After a bit of exploring, she discovered a fissure between two rocks that we could slide down on our butts with little danger. Faced with either that or the prospect of climbing back to where we had started, I happily took the slide. This proved to be the crucial move, because after a few minutes, we popped out onto a cobblestone path. From there, it was a just a gentle walk down to our guest house.

The rest of the day passed in a relaxing way, with the door of our room opened to the balcony, where a contented little cat snoozed away on a chair, and where I could see some of the high grey rocks of Meteora from our bed.

On our third and final full day in Meteora, we visited all three of the remaining monasteries. In truth, I don’t think any of them really deserve great individual attention. Compared to the previous two days, this one was quite relaxing. It was by far the sunniest and clearest day in Meteora, and we took it slow, often stopping to sit and admire the views. We didn’t get lost, nor talk to any monks, nor discover anything much beyond what we expected, but we loved it. If the previous days had been about wonder and discovery, this day was about the joy of our being together, someplace far from home, where cares could be set aside to walk amongst the quiet beauty of the world.

It was a very, very good day. 

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Meteora (Day 1): The Greek Adventure Part III

While few people seem to recognize the name ‘Meteora’, and I admit that I’d never heard of it before planning a trip to Greece, it probably deserves to be listed amongst the great tourist sites in the world. In broadest terms, Meteora is an area of rocky grey pinnacles, about five kilometres wide and five kilometres deep.  In between the rocks, the ground is mostly covered by a dense concentration of short trees. 

In the early medieval period, the place became a haven for hermits, who took up residence amongst the numerous caves sunk into the sides of the rocks. Later, in the thirteen hundreds, monks began building monasteries on the tops of the nearly inaccessible pinnacles, hundreds of feet above the ground.  Although some of the monasteries grew as large as castles, the only way to reach them was to be winched up in a rope net. Today, most of these monasteries lie in ruins, but six remain, functioning as either monasteries or nunneries. In each of these cases, long stairways have now been carved in the rocks to reach them, and all six are, at least partially, open to the public.

As Steph and I woke up on our first day in Kalambaka, the town at the foot of the rocks of Meteora, we had a plan for a long walk and some serious site-seeing.  It was a cool and slightly damp morning. The skies were overcast and grey, and the great rocks sunk slightly into the background of the sky.  Undeterred, we grabbed our backpacks and set off. We walked down from our guest house to the western edge of Kalambaka, and from there set off on a windy, empty road, up towards the rocks.  Armed with a slightly sketchy tourist map, the best we could find, we planned to see a few churches and a cool rock, before we got to the main event of the monasteries. That was the plan, anyway.

As we rounded a corner, only ten minutes or so out of town, we looked up to the rocks, and saw several, long-abandoned hermitages.  These were just stone walls, built over the front of cave mouths, but were so old and cool, I had to take a closer look. To reach them required scrambling up fifteen or twenty feet of slightly wet rock, but it was no great effort. There were about four different caves, each with a stone-walled front, a wooden door, and a couple even had a window. Inside, the caves were dry and smelled of straw. None looked like dwellings in any modern sense, as all had sloping floors, and only a little room to stand or manoeuvre. A couple of the caves stretched away back into darkness, and one even seemed to have a second floor. At the time, I was thrilled to find such a cool little place, but it would soon be so overshadowed as to be almost forgotten.

We continued up the road for another couple of minutes, then turned onto a steep, wooded path that headed into the heart of Meteora. Walking another ten minutes or so, we suddenly stepped out from the cover of the trees, to a sight that took my breath away. For a moment, I truly believed that we had stepped between the vale of worlds into some enchanted valley, where goblins and men struggled side-by-side.  The first sight that caught my eye was the high, wooden platforms.  Hundreds of years old, and at least a hundred feet off the ground, this series of decaying wooden structures projected out  of the caves in the cliff side, somewhat connected by crumbling wooden ladders. It looked liked nothing so much as Goblin Town, depicted by Peter Jackson in his filming of The Hobbit. My mind couldn’t then, and really still can’t today, understand how people once stood upon those precarious wooden platforms. More, that they lived there, in a life of prayer that must have been tinged with vertigo.

But this was just the first of the sites of that marvellous valley, for just a bit along, in the same cliff face, was a monastery or church built right into the side of the cliff.  Perhaps it covered some vast cave, or maybe it just clung to the side, it was impossible to say.  If that wasn’t enough, when we turned around to look the other way, there was an even more impressive church, the church of St. Nicholas, built even farther up in the opposite cliff wall.  I cannot even estimate how high off the ground this church was, but to the naked eye, it was small and remote. 

As we wandered around the wooded floor of the valley, around yet another small church that stood upon the ground, I had to keep reminding myself that it was all real. It seemed more likely that some fantasy novel had come to life around us. I saw armoured knights on the high porches of the great churches, and the glowing yellow eyes of goblins in the caves behind the wooden platforms. Real crows swirled around the dizzying heights, adding more to the fantasy than the reality.

Just to make it all the more wonderful, bar one German family that quickly moved on, Steph and I were alone in this enchanted place, and it was quiet. No cars, no people, not even much wind. Just the occasional noise of the circling birds, and the (perhaps imagined) creaks of the ancient wooden platforms...

Eventually we left, too soon perhaps, or maybe just soon enough, so that it still lives in my memory, unspoilt.

Our path out of the valley took us down into the outskirts of Kastraki, another little town that borders the rocks. Our next goal was a lone pinnacle which rose above all the others, surrounded by a circle of cliffs. Our little tourist map made this seem like quick side trip, but it was anything but.  Although we didn’t cover that much distance along the ground, the gain in height was a challenge.  Up we went, past a worn looking church, and further up, past an abandoned church, through the heavy woods. Carved stairs gave way to wooden steps and then to bare rocks. Little bugs danced around in the cool, but humid air. Finally, we reached the base of the great stone.

In a land covered by monasteries and churches, this stone seemed to me a last great statement of pagan defiance. It felt a place of ritual, a gathering point, secluded, dangerous, high above the fields where people lived. Paths ran off in several directions, but all of them seemed to lead to precipitous drops, and my enthusiasm for further exploration quickly waned.  

Once again, Steph and I were alone in this strange and fantastical place. I suppose with the great monasteries so close, and the path so steep, this stone didn’t feature on many tourist itineraries, but I’m glad that it made it onto ours. That said, the place left me uneasy, mostly because of my fear of heights, but also because of a sense of strange ‘otherness’, that I can’t quite explain. Up in these high rocks, the wind blew harder and colder, and perhaps the chill got to me.

The descent proved much quicker than the climb, and we soon found ourselves back on the edge of Kastraki. Although it was past noon by this point, it was a Sunday, and the town seemed asleep. We did, however, find a little grocery store that was open, from which we bought the makings of a somewhat pathetic lunch.

Tired, but still in high spirits, we picked up our packs and started off on another, long, uphill walk. As we walked along the quiet road out of Kastraki, I noticed a man cooking long spits of meat on a large open grill outside of a taverna. Too early for the Greeks to eat lunch, and too early in the year for many tourists, it seemed a move predicated more on hope than reason. Still, I noted it down for the future.

The roads around Meteora are obviously new, or at least newly paved. They are some of the best roads we saw in all of Greece. However, there were few cars this Sunday, and we had a long and peaceful walk to the nearest (and smallest) of the great monasteries of Meteora, the Monastery of St. Nicholas.

Sitting alone on its little pinnacle of rock, with its little bell tower above it, it is a building that seems designed to be photographed. With our aching legs, it was a serious chore to haul our bodies up the long, winding path, and then onto the great staircase that led up to the monastery. We bought tickets, from a man who was obviously not a monk, and Steph wrapped a skirt over her trousers, for such is required in all the monasteries, and then we were let inside. The main attractions of this monastery (and many of the others) are the amazing medieval frescoes that covered the walls of their little church. Although the paint work was old and faded, and the lighting was by candle only, it was a glorious little place, with depictions of saints and beasts all around. It was quiet. A quiet rarely found in our world. Not even the hum of electricity or distant traffic.

 Beyond the church, there was little to see in the monastery, until you reached the roof. Here, where building met rock, you could walk up to the little bell tower, and take in the views all around. They were spectacular. In every direction, great rocks rose from the greenery below. On many of them could be seen the ruins and foundations of other monasteries, built and abandoned long ago. I imagined the incredible task it would be for some archaeologist to come and explore those remains.  In one shattered ruin, we could see a large clay pot, old, but still complete. I wondered how long it had sat there collecting rain.

Time moved on. The day grew colder. Although it was still only mid afternoon, most of the monasteries closed at 4PM, and it was a long road yet to any of them. We knew that our day of exploring was done. We had originally set out thinking we would see 3 or 4 monasteries, but had only made it to one. We had only originally planned to spend two days in Meteora, but thankfully we had left a hole in our schedule, just in case...

Slowly we made our way down from the monastery and then down the road back to Kastraki. As we walked, the rain started to fall, just lightly, but almost as if to state that, yes, our day was done. On the outskirts of town, we again saw the man cooking meat on the open grill, and I proposed that we perhaps get a bit ‘to go’. The man stood up as we approached, and offered his chair to Steph. His daughter was sitting behind him and she offered her chair to me, but I declined.  As we made our order, and waited while he finished cooking us a long spit of pork, the skies opened up, and the rain came pelting down. We huddled under the cooking tent. Steph chatted with the man, about the food and tourists, while I listened to the falling rain and the sizzling meat. As the rain showed no sign of letting up, we decided that we would go inside to eat.

If memory serves, the restaurant was called ‘Boufidis’, and it had a huge, high-ceilinged dining room. It was completely empty, except for a young woman that we took to be another of the man’s daughters. We took a seat by the crackling wood-fire and were content. The young woman brought us a huge salad of tomato and cucumber drenched in more olive oil than I’ve ever seen used on anything. This, along with roast chunks of pork and crusty bread composed our meal.  Halfway through, the young woman also brought us two small glasses of wine, one red, one white. ‘These are from me’, she said, and did her best to explain that they came from ‘here’, though whether she meant that particular taverna, Kastraki, or just the region, I’m not sure. Despite the simple fare, the emptiness of the room (eventually a French family also came into eat), and our slightly damp clothes, it proved one of the most enjoyable meals we had in Greece.  I have no doubt that in the height of tourist season it is a fun and rocking place, and I recommend anyone going at that time to give it a try, but on that day, we were happy for the quiet end to a wonderful and fantastic day.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Road to Kalambaka: The Greek Adventure Interlude

Dephi isn’t big enough to have a bus station, so instead, tickets are bought from a cafe on the edge of town, near where the bus stops.  As Steph and I had a long day of travel, we caught the earliest bus, around 10AM. We bought tickets for Lamia, knowing we would have to make two more switches.

When the bus arrived, right on time, the bus driver informed us that we would have to change buses at Amfissa, a step we hadn’t planned.  So we boarded the half-full bus and set off on our merry way.  It was another windy journey, down one mountain, up another, and down into a valley.  The scenery was spectacular, and thirty minutes later, we reached Amfissa.  We didn’t see much of the town, but from the bus it seemed a rather work-a-day kind of place. We got out at the bus station, which more resembled an abandoned dry-cleaner than any kind of terminal.  We waited on the side-walk for half an hour, before another bus pulled up. This one bound for Larissa.

The bus ride to Larissa continued the beautiful mountain scenery, and, despite Greek buses lacking toilets, it was a comfortable enough journey.  I had expected to get a lot of reading done on the trip, but I found myself more inclined to simply stare out of the window as the Greek countryside passed by.  Two hours later, we pulled into the bus station at Lamia.

Lamia is a big city and serves as a transportation hub to points both north and south.  The bus station we pulled into was large and clean with nice facilities.  It is only one of the several bus stations in the city, but thankfully the one we needed for the next leg of our trip. I asked for two tickets to Trikala, which the man behind the counter produced with a slightly pained expression. It seemed we had just missed a bus, and the next was not for another two hours.  So, for the first time that day, I did get a lot of reading done, while eating a ham and cheese sandwich. The Greeks don’t seem that big into sandwiches, certainly not like the Brits, but passable ones could be found in most places.

Like every bus before it, the one to Trikala pulled up right on time. Before passengers got on, however, the bus driver got off, and gave a package to a waiting woman. We noticed throughout our trip, that the buses in Greece not only carry people, but also the mail and bits of cargo. At one point we stopped and picked up some auto parts which we delivered along our way.

After a short drive through the mountains, our bus descended onto the plain of Thessaly. In stark contrast to the rest of Greece we’d seen, this was wide, flat country, devoted to farming.  It reminded me a bit of the rural American South, with its small towns filled with rusting cars and scattered farm machinery in every state of repair. Although I continued my quiet survey of the Greek countryside, I did so with less interest, and the hours sitting stiffly on a bus started to take their toll.  It was near to five o’clock when we finally reached the bus station, just outside of Trikala. It appeared that the station was attached to a huge mall, but we didn’t have time to explore as our next (and thankfully last) bus was due in fifteen minutes. 

This bus proved to be a much more local route, and we stopped frequently to pick up and drop of passengers. This did give us time to get a good look at Trikala, which appeared to be a slightly more attractive city than most. It at least had a nice river running through it. As we closed in on Kalambaka, our destination, we began to realize that we didn’t really know where to get off. However, when we saw a big fountain, we assumed that was the centre of town, and the guess proved correct.

We knew our guest house was on the northern edge of town, nestled below the rocks of Meteora.  So, in the fading light, we started upwards. Although the great rocks loomed above us on two sides, we were more focused on where we were going. In the dim evening, the upper parts of Kalambaka take on a slightly sinister air. Several houses are half-built or abandoned, junk is piled on the sidewalk, and numerous stray cats lounge on every corner. In truth, it was mainly a product of our tired minds, and after a day in Kalambaka it lost all of its sinister feel, even if much of it could use a fresh coat of paint.

We eventually reached our destination, Alsos house, a beautifully-built and up-kept guest house.  After dropping our bags, we went off and had a lovely dinner outside, back down by the fountain, a great place for people watching as the sun disappears.  It had been a long day of sitting on buses, but what little we knew of Meteora, promised us several days of great walking.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Treasures of Delphi

The museum at Delphi is small, but it contains a number of really beautiful and interesting ancient pieces. While I love history and can find something of interest in most museums, when in Greece, I am most interested in works connected to the ancient myths. Contained below are a few of my favourite pieces from the Delphi museum. They aren’t necessarily the best, but they are of the most interest to me.

The Sphinx of the Naxians

One of the major show pieces of the museum, the Sphinx of the Naxians once stood on a high pillar in the midst of Delphi. It has been somewhat repaired from the state in which it was discovered, but is still a beautiful work. Naxos was an ancient Greek colony in Sicily, and according to the museum info, the Sphinx was a statement of Naxian artistic prowess. What connection the Sphinx has with the city, if any, was not mentioned.

The Philosopher of Delphi

The plaque next to this statue identifies it as ‘old man’, but says that many people think that he was meant to be the ‘Philosopher of Delphi’, though it offers no explanation as to that means. I just think it is such a great sculpture, and the man could easy be a representative of any ancient seer or wise man.

The Labours of Hercules

When the Athenian Treasury in Delphi was rebuilt, the archaeologists wisely used plaster casts to replace the friezes that ran around the tops of the walls. The originals are now housed in the Delphi Museum, and include several really interesting pieces.  The best of these are a couple of fragments from the labours of Hercules.

As my interest in dragons and dragonslaying stories is well known, it should probably comes as no surprise that one of my favourite pieces is a fairly clear depiction of Hercules fighting Ladon, the dragon of the Garden of the Hesperides.  Although Ladon is usually depicted with multiple heads, it’s a great sculpt, nonetheless.  This section also contains a really nice centaur, minus the face.

Another fragment of the same frieze contains an interesting depiction of Geryon, the three bodied giant.  I’m sure this creature is an artist’s nightmare...what is a ‘three-bodied’ giant anyway? Well in this case, it looks pretty literal, three bodies stuck together. Six legs, six arms, three heads.  I’m slightly surprised to see one body carrying a shield, though I don’t know why I should be.

Anyway, those are just a few of my favourites from the Delphi museum. There are other pieces that other people I’m sure would find more impressive, but these are the ones that really caught my imagination.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Delphi: The Greek Adventure Part II

I travelled to Greece in the hope that I might find a lingering sense of magic and myth, of the days when Jason sailed in the Argo and Theseus fought the Minotaur. I never found that in Athens. The city was just too crowded and hectic for such quiet feelings to survive. So, on our second full day in Greece, I was ready to move on to Delphi, once the site of the Oracle of Apollo, and a common feature of many Greek myths.

Despite being a major tourist destination, the only public transportation to Delphi is an infrequent bus service, departing from Athens’ northern bus station. Our guidebooks warned us that these buses sometimes sell out, so we caught a taxi to station and bought our tickets forty-five minutes early. We needn’t have worried. As we discovered throughout our trip, April is not tourist season in Greece.

Sitting in the back of our half-full bus, we motored out of Athens on a quiet, but well maintained road. The scenery rolled by, becoming more and more mountainous. Before long, we were winding our way back and forth up and down steep mountainsides, and weaving our way along steep shoulders. After an hour-and-a-half, we stopped at a remote mountain hotel for a quick drink and bathroom break. Then it was back onto the bus for another ninety minutes of high-mountain driving. As we neared our destination, we passed through several idyllic-looking little villages clinging to the mountainside. We were so taken in by the view, that we nearly missed the ancient ruins as they flashed passed on both sides of the bus. We had arrived in Delphi.

The modern town of Delphi sits about 500 meters up the road from the Ancient site. It is a small, tourist town, built on four or five levels running up the side of a mountain. The main street is nothing but hotels, restaurants, and gift shops, but the rest is mostly houses, a cute school, and an impressive church of St. Nicholas. Our hotel was about halfway down the main street and proved easy to find. We checked into our comfortable little room, opened up the balcony doors, and revelled in the view. In that moment, I saw mythic Greece. 

From our balcony, the land fell away into a deep river valley, populated by small trees and a scattered few houses. Down in the distance, between the long arms of the mountains, we could see a little town, all clustered red roof-tops, resting at the edge of the sea. In that quiet stillness, my mind added to the scene: a couple of galleys with sails spread pulling into the bay, a group of heroic warriors staring down from a mountaintop, a terrible creature with poisoned fangs, lurking in some hidden cave. This (for the incredible price of 28 euros a night) was more than I had hoped.

After a fantastic lunch, we spent the rest of the day exploring the deserted streets of Delphi and relaxing on our balcony. It was the perfect antidote to the crowds of Athens.

The next morning we were up early, determined to be the first through the gates at the ancient site. We didn’t quite achieve that, but we did at least beat any tour buses. The ancient site of Dephi is a wonderful place. Its ruins line both sides of a twisty path, that slowly winds its way up the mountainside. At first we passed a scattering of foundations and a heavy stone wall. Slowly the ruins gained a bit more shape, and we begin to see the various little booths, or treasuries, set up by different city states to house statues and other show-pieces. As we rounded one corner, we saw the treasury of Athens, a heavy-looking little temple-like structure that was rebuilt from its pieces (following ancient plans). Further on, we passed by broken columns and numerous plinths, that once held the (literally) thousands of statues that crowded the site. 

In a short time, we reached the heart of Delphi, the foundations of the temple of Apollo, where the Oracle would announce her prophecies. (Note, this is where the oracle of the historical period, say 500 BC would sit. The oracle of the mythical period, say 1200 BC, would have sat lower down the mountain, surrounded by a lot less fanfare.) The foundations are impressive enough, but combined with the six massive columns, re-erected by French archaeologists, and given the views all around, it is truly a spectacular site.

By the time we reached the temple, a tour bus had arrived, and a large group surged up the hill in an adolescent wave. Luckily, we were mostly able to stay ahead of this group and keep the peace of the site. It is definitely worth staying overnight in Delphi and getting the early view of the site.

Moving on from the temple, we continued to climb up to the theatre, where upwards of 5,000 people could once have crowded in to watch the dramas of the day. It is from the top of the theatre that  the best views of Delphi are obtained, as you can look down on all of the rest of the ruins, and out into the valley beyond. I think most tourists probably stop there, as the path becomes very steep at that point. However, for those with the wherewithal to continue, a short hike through the trees gains a view of the ancient stadium. It is a small (probably minor league) stadium, but beautifully constructed.

Thinking about it afterwards, while Steph and I had a very calm and peaceful exploration of this ancient site, this is actually at odds with how Delphi must have been in its heyday. The place appears to have been something of an ancient Las Vegas, with various groups all trying to outdo one another with their fabulous treasuries, statues, and monuments.

After we finished our explorations, we came back down the hill and along the road to the nearby museum.  This is a fabulous little collection of artefacts, which I will discuss a bit more in tomorrow's blog.

Although it was only noon, and we already felt like we’d had a wonderfully full day of ancient sites, we weren’t quite finished. Strangely, we hadn’t seen the one sight that is most commonly associated with Delphi.  A bit farther down the road away from town, unconnected by pavement, and sort of haphazardly sign-posted, is the Marmaria, another collection of ancient ruins. These are mostly just tumbled down collections of rocks; however, the site is dominated by the three rebuilt columns of the Tholos, a round temple to Athena. Despite its fame, we were mostly alone at the site, and ate our packed lunch while staring at the ruins.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing at various viewpoints. After about 3PM, Delphi was once again nearly deserted with all the day-trippers having headed home. I think we could have easily spent another couple of days at Delphi. 
There are paths that lead out of the town both up the mountain and down the valley, and it would have been nice to go down to the town by the water, even if there is probably nothing much there.  However, we still had more of Greece to see, and the next day had already been scheduled for a very long bus ride...

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Athens: The Greek Adventure Part I

Waking up on our first full day in Greece, I stepped out onto our quiet, fourth-floor balcony and gazed around. Down below, sat a small, pretty Byzantine church, while just a bit in front of it, was a pit containing a few columns of some ancient ruin. Between them, three giant, nearly leafless trees swayed in the breeze, singing with the twittering of endless little birds who apparently nested in the trunks. It was probably the nicest, most peaceful view of Athens I would see.

Re-energized after our day of travel, Steph and I set out early. We wanted to get to the Acropolis before the rest of the tourist hordes. The weather was pleasantly cool, the streets, here in the tourist part of town, mostly empty and quiet. The Greeks aren’t known for their breakfasts, but we found a little place selling coffee and sandwiches. I bought what I thought was just a small loaf of dark, seeded bread, but which turned out to be some kind of feta cheese pie.  Not bad, but not what I was really after first thing in the morning. 

Despite our guidebooks, we actually failed to find the entrance to the Acropolis on the first attempt, walking completely past it. I guess we expected some kind of big sign with an arrow pointing the way, but there was no such thing. Well, we found it eventually. Paying our way inside, we climbed the steep hillside, until the heavy columns of the Propylaia loomed above us.  The Propylaia is the great gateway to the Acropolis and has stood the passing centuries with surprising resilience. The roof is gone, but much of the rest remains. Being a gateway, it is probably often overlooked, and most people probably rush on to the Parthenon, but it definitely deserves a bit of attention.  Also, it is the only one of the ancient buildings on the Acropolis that you can currently walk through.

All of that said, it is hard not to have your eyes drawn immediately to the Parthenon.  It is just such a massive, hulking presence. If I’m being completely honest, I found the Parthenon just a little bit disappointing. At the current time, its massive beauty is somewhat spoiled by the scaffolding and the noise of construction. 

Frankly, the whole Acropolis has a bit of a construction site flavour to it at the moment, which does much to dent the imagination. (Amusingly, the current round of construction is to repair the construction work done one hundred years ago, and not the building done over two thousand years ago.) Considering Greece’s current economic climate, and the number of people actually at work on the building, don’t expect to see it finished any time soon – if ever.

More appealing to my eyes, is the smaller and prettier Erechtheion, famous for the six column/statues of women on one wing. Off on a quieter corner, this was an ancient temple to appreciate. Nearly fully intact, it was easy to imagine it in is ancient glory. (For mythology buffs, it was also near this building that Theseus’ father flung himself from the cliff upon seeing the wrong colour sails on his son’s ship).

All in all, we spent a good hour or more wandering among the many fallen stones that still litter the Acropolis. Going early definitely paid off, as the gateway of the Propylaia and the path down were packed as we were making our way out. I really can’t imagine how this works in high tourist season...

The next stop was just down the hill at the Acropolis Museum. Okay, I’m going to come right out and say this. The museum was a disappointment. While it is a very well designed structure (really the architect deserves an award), I didn’t think the ‘treasures’ it housed lived up to the billing. Now, there is a debateable point here...perhaps the greatest treasures of the Acropolis (known as the Elgin Marbles) currently reside in the British Museum. The Greeks seem to have built the museum in the hopes that the British Museum would take that opportunity to return them. They didn’t. So one is left wondering about the wisdom of building a museum to house a treasure you don’t have. The debate about the Elgin Marbles makes for quite interesting reading, and I can only say that I’m glad that I’m not part of it.

On the plus side, the museum does have a nice cafe, with a porch that projects like the prow of a ship, giving a great view up at the Parthenon.  To my mind, the Parthenon is actually better viewed at a distance at the moment.

From the museum, we made a slow ramble through the streets of Athens. We passed through the Bazaar, which was slightly reminiscent of London’s Camden Market, until we reached the ancient Agora (the centre of ancient Athens government). This is a large area of scattered ruins, presented in a nice, park-like fashion.  The most impressive of these ruins is the temple of Hephaistos, a squat, heavy columned building that seems a perfect example of an ancient temple (even if the roof was added by the Byzantines when converting it to a church dedicated to St. George).  

After lunch, we set out for the Archaeology Museum, which is away to the north of the Acropolis.  We caught the subway to the nearest stop and then proceeded on foot. We promptly got lost. Looking back, I’m really not sure how we did this. Probably if we’d studied the map a bit longer beforehand it would have been simple. We ended up wandering the streets and parks of Athens for well over an hour before we found it.  We arrived half-an-hour before closing, hot, tired, and really in no mood for a museum. Still, it was our only chance to see it, so we took a very quick tour through it.  The only thing I really remember is the golden Mask of Agamemnon, an impressive treasure even if it likely has nothing to do with Agamemnon.

We spent most of the rest of the day recovering from our exertions. After a rest break back at our hotel, we wandered out again and saw the Roman Temple of Olympian Zeus. Actually this isn’t so much a temple anymore, but a collection of twenty-four (extremely large and impressive) columns that made up one corner of the original. At its height, it would have certainly been a rival for the Parthenon. We could only see it from behind a fence, but that was fine.

In some ways, it is a shame that we’d scheduled only one day in Athens. I would have liked another crack at the Archaeology museum, and there were a couple of other minor sights of interest...but, I was also glad to be leaving. Athens is a big, crowded, and not particularly attractive city. Like most of Greece that we saw, it has a serious graffiti problem. Most of this isn’t even the colourful street-art style, but just random, junky vandalism, and it is everywhere.  Also, unsurprisingly for a city which sits in a bowl between mountains, the air is foul with car fumes, and the numerous stray cats and dogs do little to help the overall atmosphere.

Luckily, our Greece adventure had just begun and the best, by far, was yet to come...

The Greece Adventure (Prologue)

Despite my long-love of Greek mythology, I have never really considered Greece as a possible travel destination. I don’t know why, it just hadn’t occurred to me. However, when my wife, Steph, suggested we take our next holiday there, I jumped at the chance...

We left Oxford early on a cold Tuesday morning. As always, I insisted that we plan to arrive at the airport three hours before departure. Often, I admit, this has meant long, boring waits in the terminal, but this time it really paid off.  As soon as we caught the bus to Heathrow, our driver informed us that the M25 (the main motorway around London) had been closed due to a truck fire. This forced us to take a long, crowded detour, which turned what is normally an hour long bus ride into a two-and-a-half hour bus ride. Many of the other passengers were obviously a bit edgy, but for the most part, we were able to relax. Also, since we were travelling with British Airways out of the extremely efficient Terminal 5, I knew we’d be able to reach our gate in a matter a minutes. As so often happens, it didn’t matter anyway. The plane was delayed by an hour. 

The flight itself was an uneventful 3.5 hours, and we touched down just as day was turning to evening. At passport control, Steph and I parted. She joined the long-line for EU citizens, while I, apparently the only non-European to have flown on the plane, walked straight up to the counter in the ‘All other Passports’ line. Soon enough, we were stamped into the country, had collected our bags, and were free to explore Greece! Actually, the first thing we did was buy tickets for the subway, and wait a quiet hour in the nearly deserted train station for the train into town. Eventually, the train (or mobile graffiti gallery, depending on your point of view) arrived. It was just past eight o’clock at this point, and night had fallen, obscuring any views we might have gotten from the overland portion of the journey. Instead, we watched the train slowly fill up with Greeks. Growing up in America (and living in the part of England that I do) I am used to seeing a huge amount of cultural diversity, so it is always interesting to travel to a place where the people have strong, national look.

By the time we reached our stop, the nearest to the Acropolis, the subway was packed, and we were glad to be off it. As we made our way out, we passed by a display of ancient ceramics, built into the station wall. I remember thinking - they’ve found so much ancient pottery in Greece that they can keep it in their subway! 

Emerging onto the darkened streets, we didn’t have much of a chance to form a first impression of Athens. We were tired, and just wanted to find our hotel. Thanks to Steph’s fantastic sense of direction, this didn’t prove problematic.

I suppose we went back out to have dinner that night, although I must admit, if we did, I don’t remember it. I remember being grateful for a chance to put my bags down and to sleep in a semi-comfortable bed.