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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

MAKING PLANS FOR THE SUNSET BIRTHDAY PICNIC ON THE PNYX HILL

I'll be celebrating my birthday in Athens again this year. I've had many memorable birthday parties there over the years, and as this year several friends will be arriving in Athens for a reunion, I wanted this one to be extra-special. So I decided we'd have a sunset picnic on the Hill of the Pnyx which is the place where the ancient Assembly used to meet. It's been a bit hard to co-ordinate the weekend's plans though what with other events, people arriving at various times, Athens friends working (they all work in tourism, long hours every day). But in the end everything will come together and somehow the picnic will take place.

The agora and the area surrounding it are favorite places of mine in Athens. I've spent lots of time wandering about the ruins and doing research there as the Agora and surrounding Hills feature in part of my novel. This is where Socrates hung out, and Plato too. And the great tyrants of Athens who left their mark on the city with buildings like the Parthenon. This excerpt is from a blog I wrote in 2005 after a day browsing around the site with my friend Patrick.

JUNE, 2005
Today's mini field trip took us up the Aereopagitou pedestrian path along the foot of the Hill of Muses. The path follows the ridge of a hill along what was the Diateichisinic walls which had been built to connect with Themistocles Long Walls, and enclosed the ancient quarters of Koile and Melite, site of many ancient dwellings dating to 5th C. B.C. (the time of the Peloponnesian War). It leads past the site of the North tower of "Dipylon above the Gates' where now stands the little church of Agios Dhimitrios Loumbardhiaris. The name comes from loumbardhaor "canon" and is derived from a miracle attributed to the Saint in which a Turkish canon, located on the Acropolis, was struck by lightening at the moment it was about to open fire on the congregation.

Just above the church rises the Hill of the Pnyx, in Classical times popularly called "The Rocks."This was the meeting place of the Assembly or Ecclesia, where the great statesmen such as Aristides, Themostocles, Pericles and Demosthenes held their audiences.Pnyx means "the place where people were tightly packed". Piknos: compact, dense, crowded.This was in reference to the single entrance way. The area itself could hold about 5,000 citizens as well as the Assembly officials. The Assembly was presided over by the Prytaneis. The citizens were hustled to the Pnyx by Scythian archers who held cords daubed with red paint across the streets of the Agora and neighbouring streets in order to hurry up the laggards and prevent citizens from cutting a meeting. There was only the one entrance, and everyone was scrutinized so no unauthorised persons could slip in. Nobody who was not a citizen could attend without special permission. Late comers who had been marked by the red paint, forfeited their allowance.

The Pnyx itself is a huge rock terrace in the form of a semi circle with a colossal retaining wall built of stone blocks. The excavations are more clearly marked now, including the Bema, a broad terrace levelled from the rock which served as the speaker's platform. (Up until a couple of years ago this is where they held the Athen's Sound and Light Show each night.) There's a magnificent view of the Parthenon from there, it also looks down over the Agora on the East side and a sweeping view of Athens right out to the port of Pireaus and the sea on the west. As well, there is a clear view of the Philoppapou monument on the Hill of Muses nearby.

Once the Assembly had gathered, prayers were offered at the altar of Zeus Agoraios and the shrine of the healing god, Zeus Hypeistos. The Assembly met ten times a year. The Chairman of the Prytaneis presided, assisted by a secretary and a Herald who made the announcements. The audience sat on wooden benches. At the lower level of the Bema sat the Prytaneis assisted by Scythian archers who kept order.

After the 4th century BC the Pnyx was abandoned and the Assembly met at the Theatre of Dionysos. I'd been to the Pnyx many times before but today was the first time I'd ventured beyond it, along the crest of the Hill of Nymphs where there is an old observatory (Asteroskopion) built in 1842, and nearby there are traces of the long Walls and the Barathron, the ancient place of execution. On the top of the Hill is the tiny Church of Agia Marina with its multi-domed modern successor dominating the hill. An inscription found on a rock here marks the limits of the Precinct of Zeus.Patrick and I walked down the hill and arrived on the pedestrian walkway in Thisseion where we stopped for a frappe at a very expensive side-walk cafe.

The weekend of my birthday, will be a gathering of friends from everywhere: Norway, Finland, Germany, Canada and those who live in Athens, a highlight of my Greek holiday. It's been a little tricky co-ordinating the time to have the sunset picnic. The most suitable date now seems to be on the day of my birthday, June 3. Being on the Pnyx for my birthday will conjur a lot of memories of other picnics my friends and I have held there. I have some great photos of gatherings over the years from the 80's and the 90's. Missing will be my dear friend Roberto, and the poet/magician James, and my pal Graham. So we'll have to pour some libations in their memory. No matter what, it's going to be a grand celebration!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

SOME STOPS ALONG THE WAY

It's been four years since I last visited Parga, a beautiful little town on Greece's west coast. We're going to stop off there for a couple of days on this trip and I'm really looking forward to being back there again. Mainly, I want to make a second journey to the Rock of Zalonga. I was there in the mid '90's but didn't write a story about it. And back then I wasn't keeping an on-line blog or diary so my memories of it are just what I wrote in my hand-written personal journal. It's a spectacular place and the memorial for the Soulioti women is outstanding.
Here's some notes taken from my emails home back in 2003, about my visit to Parga and on that trip, my second visit to the Nekromanteion (Oracle of the Dead).

PARGA.
This is a gem of a little town on the sea just a bit south
of Corfu. I've been here before but I'm amazed at how it's expanded.
Quite a popular resort for Italians and also Brits but some other
Europeans here too.

A bit of back history which involves the infamous Ali Pasha I
mentioned in Ionannina. This town ued to be a British Protectorate
at the time of the Ottoman occupation. Ali Pasha convinced the
Brits to give Parga to him for his expanded empire. The deal was
that he signed an edict stating that he would not harass or punish
the Souliote resistance force who had been fighting against the
Turks up the in the mountains near here. Of course, being the nasty
devil that he was, the edict wasn't worth the papers it was written
on. So he sent his men after the Souliots who were just south of
here at a place called Zalonga.

When the Souliotes learned the Ali Pasha's men were coming the men
holed up in a monastary to fight to the death and the women and
children climbed up on the mountain to a ridge that overlooked the
monastary. The Ali Pasha's men came and killed all the rebels in
the monastary. When the women saw that their fate was sealed (either
rape, being carted off to a harem or worse) they began a circle
dance, some of them holding their babies, on the top of the cliff.
As they danced round and round, singing their Souiiot freedom songs,
they came closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and one by one
they lept off onto the rocks far below. Only two babies survived
and these were later cared for by nuns of the monastery. The Greek
army has erected an immense monument to the Souliote women on top of
the cliff where they threw themselves off. I've been up there,
climbed up quite a lot of stairs to get there but it was worth it.
Quite an experience to be on the edge there and look down at the
rocks below and understand what happened.

This time I'm not going to Zalonga though I'd love to return. But
tomorrow I'm going on a boat trip up the Acharon River which
represents the Styx in Greek mythologdy, to the mouth of Hades where
the Necromanteion (Oracle of the Dead) is located. I've been there
before too, but this is a research trip. So I'll write more about it
later.

I VISIT THE ORACLE OF THE DEAD

Near Parga there used to be an ancient Bronze Age city called Ephyra
which was situated on a lake (now dried up) which was fed by two
rivers, The Ac heron and the Kokytos. This was te site of an
ancient cult of the divinity of death, the Nekromaneteion.

On a hillside, protected by cyclopeon Mycenaean walls and an inner
circuit of polygonal masonry, dark passageways led to the mouth of
an underground cavern which was believed to be the entrance to the
realm of Hades and Persephone. Ancients came here to consult the
souls of the dead who, on leaving their bodies, acquired knowledge
of the future.

I boarded a launch at Parga for a trip up the River
Acheron (symbolic of the mythical Styx) for a visit to the
Nekromanteion. It was an interesting voyage. My fellow passengers
were other tourists: German, Swedish, British, and included sev eral
children. Capt. Kostas was a good natured old salt who kept us
entertained as well as involved int he cruise.

The west coast of Greece, The Ionian Sea, is truly one of the most
beautiful areas of Greece, and I wonder why tourists bypass it
in favour of the more barren Cyclades Islands of the Aegean.
The coastline is magnificent, with high limestone cliffs riddles
with caves, geologically fascinating, where the earth has been trust
unwards due to volcanic action. All along the coast were great
jagged rocks jutting out of the sea like the sharp teeth of giant
sea monsters. (You know where many of the myths come from when you
see this kind of landscape.) We passed secluded coves with dazzling
turquoise water and white pebble b eaches. Tall spiky cedars and
deciduous trees cover the mountainsides that rise up from the sea.

We approached the delta of the Acheron and you knew you were
entering into a mysterious place. The river is narrow and
slow-moving, a dark jade green colour. Both b anks are thick with
reeds and willows dip their branches into the water. Turtles bask
on lily pads; black, peacock-coloured and emeral green dragonflies
dart over the surface. I wondered if this river once had
crocodiles. Y ou almost expected to see one emerge from the
shallows. It reminded me of the Bayou in Louisianna without the
cypress trees and menacing alligators. Unfortunately, my camera
battery expired as we began our voyage up the river. ***note to
travel writers: always go prepared!!!

We tied up on the shore and had to climb up a steep em bankment to
get to the road. Capt. Kostas informed us we must walk the 2 kms to
the Nekromanteion. He didn't mention that the last kilometer was
uphill. It was about 40 degrees that day. Hot as Hades! But we
slogged along through the corn fields and eventually reached our
destination: The Oracle of the Dead.

I was here once before, and not a lot has b een done since then,
but I was sorry my camera had died, because I wanted to record a few
more details as this was a research trip for the last part of my novel.

I could only imagine what it was like in the ancient times. Back
then y ou would come through the thick entrance gates into a dark,
torch-lit hallway. There were three chambers for supplicants,
separated b y a bathing room and a purification room. For sev eral
days the supplicants were kept isolated, questioned by the priests,
and fed a special purification diet of beans and lupins, some of
which were likely hallucenogenic. The visitors had to be prepared
psychologically and physically, since contact between the living
and the dead was dangerous.

Later they would be taken out to make sac rifices before being led
down a narrow, dark labyrinth which was filled with hallucenogenic
smoke. There they would enter the Palace of Hades to meet the souls
of the Dead.

From the central room, you climb donw stgeep stairs into a long,
narrow underground chamber which is formed by 15 arches. This
sacred room is the Palace of Hades and Persephone where the ghosts
of the dead appeared to communicate with those consulting the
oracle. It gives you a creepy feeling even now to climb down into
the crypt. Yoiu can visualize what went on back in thos ancient
times. Odysseus visited the oracle to consult the ghost of
Achilles. I wondered if perhaps Olympias had come there to consult
the soul of her dead son, Alexander.

Many objects have been found at the Nekromanteion, the most
important of them from the basement room, the sacred crypt. They
are on display in the museum at Ionannina. Among them is a device
like a crane used to make the figures of the deceased appear. This
may be why the walls in the main sanctuary were so thick, making it
possible to create sec ret passageways along which the priests could
move unobserved. In Roman times, 167 B C, the Oracle was uncovered
as a huge scam (like our seances) and the Nekromanteion was burned
down.

After communicating with the dead, visitors departed from the
sanctuary by a different road and were required to keep silent ab
out all they had seen and heard to avoid being guilty of impiety
towards the gods of the Underworld.

I'm not sure that I confured any ghosts while I was there, but later
that afternoon when we stopped at a beach to swim, I heard Olympias'
voice speak to me and wrote down her words to use in "Shadow of the
Lion".

The cruise back to Parga was fun. The sea was choppy and it was a
rough ride. Capt. Kostas who sails this coastline sev eral times a
day, kept the boat so close to the cliffs that you could almost
reach out and touch them. He took the boat into one of the sea
caves and encouraged two of the young boys to jump in for a swim.
Inside the cave there is a blue reflection from the crystal clear
water. The boys had a great time swimming and of course, teasing
Capt Kosta pretended he was taking the boat out without them. I'm
sure they had a lot of stories to tell their friends later.

Then we pulled into this lovely beach for a swim and lunch, a long
stretch of pebbles so smooth they were like polished gems. I
rented a beach chair and basked in the sun, had a delicious swim in
the warm sea, and then we set sail again for Parga. Certainly a
very interesting day!

I posted a story about the Ionian Islands on my writer's blog.
www.wynnbexton.blogspot.com

You can read a published version of the Nekromanteion trip on www.travellady.com
You'll see how valuable these journal notes are when it comes time to write an article about the adventure.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

TINOS, MYKONOS, DELOS: The Divine and the Decadent

Two months from this weekend my friend and I will be in Venice. Then, on the 22nd May we head by ferry to Greece. We're going to make some stops along the way, as well as visit a few islands after we reach Athens. I'm the tour guide because I've visited these places many times before, and written about some of them. My friend wants specifically to see one of the Cycladic Islands, noted for their pristine white churches with blue domes. I suggested that Mykonos is the most typical of these, the picture postcard Greek Island. And as it will be before high season we will not be beset by hedonistic rowdies who roam the island mid-summer, sullying the gorgeous beaches with open fornicating and strolling the labyrinth of cobbled streets nude and drunk. Yes, that's the way Mykonos has become according to a friend who works in the tourism business there. Unless the townfolk have come to their senses and forbidden such disgusting behavior. Unfortunately, in the past, the tourist dollar has meant more than modesty.

I've visited Mykonos twice before, both times off-season (once at Easter and once in early June). It's two 'sister' islands, Tinos and Delos, are also interesting places to see. And this is an article I wrote about them some years ago.


Only a few nautical miles separate them, but the islands of Tinos, Mykonos and Delos, in the Greek Cyclades Islands, are as diverse as the Elysian Fields and the Underworld. The Divine and the Decadent.
Tinos is ascetic: a holy island, famed for one of the most important shrines of the Orthodox Church. Mykonos is a pleasure seeker’s delight. Delos has been the god Apollo’s sanctuary since antiquity.

TINOS
The bell tower of the Church of the Annunciation looms above the flat rooftops of Tinos. Every August 15 for a hundred years, it has been the scene of a mass pilgrimage symbolizing faith and the Holy Mother.

There are several monasteries and convents on the island, the most significant being the Convent of Kehrovounio. In 1823 a nun received a vision there revealing the hiding place of the miraculous icon, which is now housed in the Church of the Annunciation. Its discovery was taken as an omen of Greek freedom from Turkish bondage.

White seminary buildings surround the Church like a fortress wall. The big iron gates, plated with silver figures of the Virgin and Saints open onto a wide courtyard paved with mosaics of black and white pebbles. The fragrances of candle wax and incense drift out of the open doorways.

The shrine of the Virgin contains the famed icon. The dark, egg-tempera faces of the Virgin and Child are almost obscured by pearls, diamonds, emeralds and rubies. The icon is believed to have miraculous healing powers. Pious worshippers approach in awe. During August, when the pilgrims flock to Tinos from every corner of Greece, it will be almost impossible to find a room at any of the hotels that line the bay.

Take a bus or rent a Vespa to explore Tinos. There are scenic coves and beaches, picturesque villages and campsites. Tinos is the birthplace of several famous artists. In Pyrgos, the home of the great sculptor Giannoulis Halepas has been converted into a museum. Koni is the native village of Nicholaos Gyzis, one of Greece’s most renowned painters. Folk art and handicrafts are displayed in the villages.

MYKONOS
The ferry trip from Tinos to Mykonos is only an hour. Mykonos is rocky and barren. The village is stark, vivid, a flaring whiteness against the ink blue sea. Sparkling white cubes of houses and the blue and red domes of miniature churches are strung out along the jagged shoreline. Hidden among the maze of narrow streets are the bars and cabarets that have made Mykonos internationally popular.

Mykonos is a stage for flamboyant jet-setters and sun worshippers, its sheltered harbor a haven for yachts. By day, the village is dazzling, the shop fronts hung with a brilliant array of wares. Narrow cobbled streets curl around the labyrinth of colonnades and arcades. Houses seem to lean against each other; wooden balconies and trellises spill over with magenta bougainvillea and crimson hibiscus. At the end of every whorl of streets, the sun sparkles invitingly.

Evening approaches. The whiteness is haunting. Vivid colors of the sunset reflect off the whitewashed walls. The streets flicker with mysterious shadows. It’s ouzo time. Sit at one of the harbor’s tavernas: sip a glass of this cloudy, licorice-flavored Greek aperitif; watch the last of the sun’s golden rays turn the evening into sheer enchantment.

DELOS
Early in the morning, take a trip across to the little island of Delos. As the kaiki approaches the ancient harbor, Delos is a sharp, ebony outline against the pale sky. The soft glow of the morning sun shifts across the bleak, rocky shoreline; an aureole appears over the tumbled ruins. The only sound is the gentle lapping of the sea.

Step off the kaiki; walk toward the porticos and pillars of the Sacred Precinct; feel the surge of excitement. Delos is barren, desolate. An awesome eeriness emanates from Apollo’s holy sanctuary. The power of unknown Beings is felt.

Walk along the Sacred Way, following the footsteps of ancient heroes. Odysseus visited Delos on his famed voyage, stopping to pay homage at the god’s altar. Theseus founded the Delian Games here on his triumphant return from the bull-courts of Crete.

Once a verdant, tropical garden island, lush with palm groves and fields of flower, Delos was populated from the tenth century BC. The Greeks assembled here to herald the rite of spring. Now the only inhabitants are scores of lizards basking on the fallen altars.

Solemn stone lions guard the avenue leading to the Sacred lake. The lake is now a dry bed, but there is still a palm tree growing on this spot in remembrance of the birth of Apollo. Here, his mother Leto, clasped her hands around a palm tree when she brought Apollo into the world.
Climb the rocky pathway to the summit of Kynthos, the Sacred Mount. Below, the sea glimmers like a jewel. The island is drenched with dazzling light. The sun burns off the rocks, searing the fields, parching the earth.

Across the narrow channel, colorful fishing boats bob into the shelter of Mykonos harbor. Tavernas and tourist shops begin a brisk trade. Nude bathers frolic in the clear blue sea at Paradise Beach. Another day has begun in the Garden of Eden.
Farther away, on Tinos, the bells in the tower of the Church of the Annunciation toll a litany calling the devout Tinians to worship.

The warm Greek sun beams down. On Delos, Apollos’ presence is felt.


IF YOU GO: The best time to visit these islands is in April or May, before the height of the tourist season.
There is a daily ferry service to Tinos and Mykonos from the mainland ports of Piraeus and Rafina and flights from Athen’s Olympic Airport. Boat tours run each day between Mykonos and Delos.
ADDITIONAL INFO: In Greek Mythology: “The Elysian Fields” were the abode of the blessed after death, or heaven. “The Underworld” was the world of the dead, or hell.