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Thursday, July 21, 2011

WANDERING AROUND ATHENS

Enjoying a relaxing moment in Thisseion

When I visit Greece, I don't go as a tourist.  I've invested 32 years of my life in this country, much of it in Athens, so I consider myself sort of an honorary citizens.  From my first trip there in 1979 to my most recent, whenever I go there I feel I am at home.  Over the years a great many of my friends have passed on or gone back to their own homelands, but I still have friends who live in Athens and these people are part of my Athens family.  We've known each other a long time!

View of the Acropolis from Thisseion
I never get tired of going to Athens and visiting all the old familiar places.  When I go I also plan visits to places I have never been to -- believe it or not there are still a great many islands and parts of the country I have not yet seen.  But I still love just hanging out in my old haunts and retracing former footsteps.
The little tourist train
Even though I know my way around, sometimes it's fun to hop the little tourist train and go chugging through the narrow laneways, a pretty neat way to get from one side of Plaka to the other without walking if it's hot.  My friend and I took the train again this summer,  from Plaka to Thisseion.  You can hop on and off wherever you want so we always hop off in Thisseion where there are comfortable sidewalk cafes and great views of the Acropolis.
Monastiraki
I always wander around to check out what's new in the shops in Plaka and Monastiraki.  Sometimes I try out different places to eat but I still like going to some of the tavernas where my friends and I used to hang out. When I went by my favorite taverna next to the Roman agora last summer I found out that my friend Ari, the waiter, had retired and moved to Patras.  The old Dirty Corner is now the Posh Corner and the Moroccon Chicken Corner is now a more spiffied up eatery on the corner of Kidatheneon and Adrianou.  My favorite taverna in Plaka Square is closed now, and too bad as they had music and dancers.  You could sit in the Square and take in the show for free. 
I still hang out all the time at the To Kati Allo on Hatzichristou St.  I've known Anna and Leonidis, the people who run it, for years. Their son Dino, who helps his parents and waits on tables, is now a father with two kids and an American wife. I've known him since he was a  little boy.  Not many of the same patrons grace the tables there nowadays, and it is a nostalgic time for me as I miss my friends Robbie and Graham and some of the other gang.  (Both of them passed away a few years ago).  But I still meet my girlfriends there, and dear old Ove the Danish scholar is usually sitting inside so we have a chat.
The Agora
It doesn't matter how many times I have climbed the Acropolis Hill, I still feel in awe of it.  The same goes for the Agora.  I know every stone by heart but I love it there.  I remember that on my first trip to Greece, the first day I arrived in Athens I let my feet take me walking not knowing where I'd end up, and I ended up in the Agora.  That was a huge dejas vu moment for me, as when I looked around it seemed a curtain had been lifted and I 'saw' it as it had been.  It was such an emotional experience, I stood there and cried.  I never tire of wandering around that whole ancient area including the Hill of Nymphs and the Pnyx.  I am familiar with the history and can imagine what it must have been like when ancient Athens was at the peak of her glory.
The New Acropolis Museum
Same goes for the Museums.  I love visiting the museums although I try not to overdo it.  This year I made another trip to the Acropolis Museum which is fabulous.  And another day I went to the Benaki Museum because it's been a couple of years since I visited it. 
Parliament Buildings in Syntagma Square
I was curious about the protesters in Syntagma Square.  On the night I arrived I had to walk through the street by the Parliament that was cordoned off by heavily armed police and military. I worried that I was walking into one of those riots the media has been quick to report. But no, it was only the peaceful protesters. Some speeches were being made but otherwise it was more like a festive atmosphere.  I went back several time to take photos of the tent camp.  I never saw any violence while I was there and when it did happen it was only in the area around the Square. Everywhere else was peaceful.
Peaceful Protestors


I love riding the trams, metro and buses and know my way around quite well.  Sometimes my friend and I take the tram to the beach for a late afternoon swim. The metro system in Athens is excellent and some of the stations are like mini museums.  (You have to watch out for pickpockets though.)  When I lived there in the '80's I tutored English all around the city so I grew very familiar with the various areas of Athens.

Of course it's sad to see how the economic situation has affected the Greek people.  There are many closed shops and unemployment and constant strikes, and the people are worried.  But Greeks are resilient people and hopefully they will rally and eventually all will turn out okay.

I know I'll keep going back to Greece as long as I am able to travel.  I am constantly torn between wanting to be there and having to be here.  There have been a couple of times I meant to return there to live, but now it is more practical for me to be here.  But it will always be my second home.  And I can hardly wait to go back again!
Temple of Olympian Zeus with Lycebettus Hill in the background

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

HOME AGAIN: CLOSURES & NEW BEGINNINGS

My wonderful vacation is over but already I am missing Greece.  If it were more practical for me to do so, I'd be living there again.  But because of my work here, my writing contacts necessary for publications (especially for my novel), and the current economic situation there, it isn't possible.  Over the years I'd made a couple of attempts to return to take up residency and each time something happened to thwart the plans.  If I could afford to be there six months of the year as I used to during the '90's, that would be ideal.  But financially I can't afford to do that. So I have to be satisfied with making it a holiday destination instead.

Each time I return, there are changes, and closures of a kind.  For one thing, a number of my very good friends have passed away during the last few years.  Others have left to return to their own countries.  I still have several ex-pat friends who have lived in Athens for years, and those are the people I go to visit.  I always stay with my friend Christina and her daughter Daniella as they are like my Athen's family. (I used to babysit Daniella from when she was a year old, and now she's a gorgeous 15yr old young lady!)  And each time I visit I try to see something different.
#14 Vironos St. where I used to live. Now all shuttered up with an iron gate sealing it all off!

One of the big shocks for me this time was when I went past #14 Vironos Street in Plaka where I used to live. Every time I am in Athens, and pass by the iron gate, I stop to peek inside the courtyard and reminisce about my life there back in the '80's.  This time, there was a huge iron sheet placed over the entrance with a door and 1 buzzer so you couldn't look inside the courtyard.  I expect Kyria Dina has either moved to her seaside home or perhaps even she has passed away, and now the house is under renovations.  It made me sad not to be able to look inside.  Just like three years ago when I made my last visit to Lala, the shepherd's village where I used to live part-time.  It was like a ghost-village with nobody around and many houses shuttered up, possibly because the old ones had passed away. 
Lala, Euboeia

I miss those by-gone times.  And especially I miss my dear friend Roberto.  It seems strange now to sit at the To Kati Allo Taverna where we all used to hang out, and most of the time there isn't anyone I know there other than dear old Ove (also alone), other than the nights the girls meet there.  I still enjoy hanging out though, and chatting to Anna and her son Dino who run the place.  And this time, I made friends with a nice man who works at the souvenir shop just at the corner. 

There are still many islands and parts of the country I haven't visited.  This year my friend and I spent four days on Poros which was a pleasant surprise as for years I had bypassed it. While I was visiting Poros I learned that a very dear friend of mine from Vancouver had passed away.  On the night I had this sad news, I was walking by the sea and the sky was brilliant crimson with a sailing vessel silhouetted against the sky.  I paused to say a prayer for Dora and took a picture of that moment. 

Dora's Sunset

Of course Dora's unexpected death shattered me but I was determined to keep on enjoying my time on the island. Unfortunately this was made difficult by my travel partner.  So after that we parted ways and I went on my own to the Peloponnese.  Solo travel is something I truly enjoy so that part of the journey was most memorable as I traveled down to Gythion and the gateway to the Mesa Mani.
I will certainly return to see more of it. 

And, for the first time since 1979 I made a bus tour visit to Mycenae, which included a stop at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.  So there were many excellent experiences during the three weeks I was in Greece.  Three weeks?  That was the shortest time I've spent there in awhile but I had been offered some classes this summer and decided that it was best not to over-extend my stay.  Wish I was still there though!  And for sure I'll be back next year!

Friday, July 08, 2011

TOURING THE ARGOLIS BY BUS: MYCENAE & EPIDAUROS

Being a seasoned solo traveler, I'm not one who enjoys traveling with a herd, but occasionally a group trip is worthwhile, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area and short of time.  It has been 32 years since I first visited the Bronze Age site of Mycenae and I wanted to return this time.  I could have taken the local bus but the idea of a long 2k. slog up the hill to the acropolis in the blazing Greek sun didn't appeal to me. So I opted to take a day trip of the area on a bus tour.  The tour included the north east area of the Peloponnese from the Corinthian Canal down as far as Nauplion visiting both Epidauros and Mycenae sites.


Over the years I've attended several dramas at the Epidauros ancient theatre, but had never investigated the Asklepeion healing sanctuary there.  I've also been to Corinth a couple of times, but had never returned to Mycenae to see those massive cyclopean walls, the Lion Gate and the Royal tombs. This bus tour seemed the best option for me and the thought of riding in an air conditioned bus was appealing.

The route took us on the coastal road, past the fabled site of the Eleusinian Mysteries and across the Corinthian Canal which connects the Aegean Sea with the Ionian Sea.  Once you get beyond the industrial zone past Piraeus, the scenery is spectacular.  The Corinth Canal provides a short cut and safe passage connecting the two seas and dates back to Roman times when the first excavations began, forging a way through where boats would be hauled from one side to the other of the narrow isthmus.  With better technology the canal was finally opened in 1893, and is similar to the Suez Canal.
Epidauros theatre
Asklepeion
Our first stop on the tour was the Sanctuary of Asklepeion, the healing shrine at Epidauros, which traditionally included a theatre, part of the ancients psycho-therapy.  The sanctuary was dedicated to Asklepios,the legendary son of Apollo.  These shrines were always near natural springs and in settings that were inspirational for the well-being of people who visited.  There was a gymnasium, stadium for games and a theatre where festivals and dramas were held.  The theatre of Epidauros seated 14,000 people and was found almost intact in its beautiful setting amid trees, with a backdrop of rolling hills.  The acoustics of the theatre is nearly perfect because of the extraordinary way it was constructed.  Even today the actors do not use mikes to project their voices.

The Asklepeion sanctuary which is part of the site, contains many ruins of the buildings such as a 'hospital' for the ill, a 'hotel' for visitors, dwellings for priests/physicians and a spa.  It is in a setting of pine trees in a valley, a tranquil setting to aid in the healing of those who came for treatment.
The Bourzi at Nauplion

Nauplion: Palimidi FortressThe tour bus left Epidauros headed toward Nauplion and stopped for a photo shoot of the picturesque town nestled by the sea below the importing ramparts the Palamidi Fortress.  On the way, we passed by the archaeological site of Tiryns, a Mycenaean fortress featured in Homeric epic poems and stories related to Theseus. I definitely plant a trip to explore this 3,000 year old site further on my next visit.

Tiryns
After stopping for an excellent lunch, we finally arrived at Mycenae.  The acropolis and palace of Mycenae is the citadel of Agamemnon, the king who led the Greeks in the Trojan Wars along with his brother Menelaus who was king of Sparta.  The site was uncovered in 1874 by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (who also excavated Troy) as he set out to prove the factual basis of Homer's epithets of "well built Mycenae, rich in gold".  Unfortunately he also plundered these sites and removed a lot of artifacts.  This site is famous in the Greek tragedies, as after his return from Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra and her lover who later were murdered by their daughter Electra and son Orestes. This fulfilled a curse on the  House of Atreus.imposed on Agamemnon at the onset of the Troy Wars.
Lion Gate
The citadel is imposing, especially the gigantic stone walls and the famous Lion Gate where you enter the site.  There are a number of impressive ruins including a circle grave and the palace itself high on the crest of the hill. 

Further down the hill is another huge domed grave or 'treasury' site where royalty was apparently buried.  Schliemann had identified the tombs of Clytemnestra and her lover Agesthies and of the "Treasury of Atreus" named the Tomb of Agamemnon, however it is now concluded that although these maybe  royal tombs they were from a different period.  The big 'treasury' bomb is an impressive monument which is entered thru a 15 metre corridor into a beehive-like structure built without use of mortar.  The great lintel of the doorway is formed of immense stones estimated to weigh 118 tonnes.
The Beehive Tomb (Treasury)
I had always hoped for a second look at this amazing tomb and was just as awed this time as the first. 

When we left Mycenae we stopped by a pottery workshop.  This huge shop makes and distributes the museum copy artifacts that you find in souvenier shops around Greece.  It was interesting to watch the potter and pottery painter at work and to see the thousands of pieces they have produced in this family-operated shop.
The Potter at work
The Painter at work
Pottery before it's painted
For me, the day trip in a comfortable air condition environment with a well-informed tour guide was worth the price (99Euro) and I even got a student discount, thanks to my friend Carol!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

VISITING ANCIENT GREECE


New Acropolis Museum

I can not understand people who come to Athens and fail to visit the Acropolis or the new Acropolis museum.  This museum is one of the most outstanding displays of artifacts and well worth taking the time to visit, even if you're not a history buff.  In my opinion, if you've come all the way to Greece on holidays, you should at least spare a little time to visit ancient Greece as this history is such an important part of the Greek culture and psyche.

The new Acropolis Museum is more than just a museum, it's a link between present and past. It's treasure include more than 50,000 pieces unearthed in excavations around Athens.  And one of the amazing things is about it is walking over the plexi glass floors and viewing below you several eras of Greek life from Byzantine, to Roman, to Classical and Hellenistic.  The way the exhibits are displayed is also a beautiful thing to see. As many times as I've viewed these exhibits in the old Acropolis museum, to see them in their new, modern spacious exhibition halls is breathtaking.
So, if you're in Athens, don't miss out on this experience. You won't forget it and it's impossible not to feel the positive energy around you as you come in touch with Athens past.


No visit here is complete without a visit to the Acropolis, the city's most iconic landmark.  Since my first visit to Athens back in 1979, to the present, I must have visited the Acropolis several hundreds of times, yet I never get tired of climbing the hill and wandering those sacred heights.  The restorations are still in progress and there is scaffolding around the Parthenon, but it's still as beautiful as ever. If you go, try to go early in the day or evening because it's a long climb up in the fierce mid-day sun.  But you won't be sorry you made the effort.
Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Acropolis
Theatre of Dionysus
There are sights to see below the Acropolis too. I love the little theatre of Dionysus, and if you get chance, go to a drama or music performance at the Herodian (Theatre of Herod Attica - Roman period). 


The Agora

And don't forget the agora -- ancient Athens meeting place.  One of my favorite temples there is the beautiful Temple of Hephaestion.  I never grow tired o browsing the pathways around the ruins or visiting the little museum in the Stoa of Atticus.  On my very first visit to Athens, when I let my feet take me walking, I found myself in the agora.  As I stood there, it was as if a curtain had been lifted and I saw it as it had been.  It was an overwhelming deja vu experience and I began to cry, overcome with emotion.  Since then I have had a special draw to this ancient meeting place, as if I had truly 'been there' in the past.  Maybe that's why, when I've written about it in my historical fiction novels, I can 'see' it so clearly.   These ancient monuments have a very special meaning tome and I'll never get tired of visiting them.

Today I went to the Benaki Museum mainly to look at artifacts from the Bronze Age 3200 - 1000 BC, the Classical period 5 - 4 BC) and the Hellenistic period 3rd C BC) 

Macedonian gold treasures at the Benaki
The Benaki also has an excellent Museum of Islamic Art that is worth a visit. While you're over there in Thission visit the Keramikos which is where the elite of ancient Athens were buried just outside the city gates. 

There's lots of museums and sights to see around Athens so when you come for a visit be sure an take yourself around. If you're pressed for time you can always hop on and off one of the tour buses or the little red train!
I'm going to visit the Bronze site of Mycenae and the ancient theatre and Asklepion of Epidaurus tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

EXPLORING THE MANI

Mani Tower House


I visited the little town of Areopoli (Ares town) a gateway to the Mesa Mani in the Peloponnese.  Formerly called Tsimova, it was given its new name "Town of Ares" (God of War) because of its efforts during the War of Independence.  It was from here that the leader (Bey) Petrobey Mavromehalis declared the uprising.  A statue of him is in the town square.

Areopolis is a typical Maniot town with stone built tower houses (some recent, others restored). The sights here are typically Maniote. Aigia Taxiarches cathedral has primitive reliefs above the door from 1798.  There are tower houses restored to look like those of  the Medieval times but built in the 1800s.



 I wandered the narrow cobbled streets admiring the unusual architecture, fuchsia bougainvillea and coral hibiscus spilling in a colorful array over the stone walls; old wooden doors painted green, blue, purple and orange.  There were several tiny churches dating around the 1796 era to the early 1800's.



 The Mavromakalis family church is in a little plateia, the interior is lined with frescoes.  There is also a Byzantine Museum in the Pikoulakis Tower but I didn't visit it this day.


What is the Mani and Who are the Maniotes?


Scenery in the Mani



This southernmost peninsula of Greece stretches from Gythio in the east to Karathamyti in the west, terminating at Cape Tenaro, a mythical entrance to the Underworld.  It's spine is the vast stony mass of Mount Taiyetos and its southern extension, Sangias,  a wild landscape with an interesting idiosyncratic culture and history.

This part of Greece seems to still be close to its violent medieval past which carried on until the end of the 19th C. and remains somewhat isolated.  Despite this it's one of the most hospitable parts of Greece.  There are two parts of the Mani, the Exo (outer) and the Mesa (inner). Mesa Mani is the part of the peninsula south of Gythio, classic Mani territory, a jagged coast and land mass of rocks.  The mountains are key in Maniot history forming formidable natural barriers providing refuge and bastions of resistance over the last two millennia.

The Dorians never got this far south in the wake of the Mycenaean. There was some Roman occupation later and even Christianity didn't take root until the 9th C. (500 years after the estabilishment of Byzantium).Thru the years the Venetians and Turks took control of the Peloponnese and there were constant rebellions climaxing with a Maniot uprising March 17, 1821, a week before the War of Independence was officially declared.
Tower House pension
Along with their national assertiveness, the Maniotes were known for their extreme traditions of blood feuds which were exploited by the Turks.  These blood feuds were the result of a feudal society that developed around the 14th C.  After arrival of Byzantine refugee families, known as Nykians,  various clans developed, forming strongholds in tightly clustered villages. Over the centuries these clans clashed frequently and violently, claiming land, power and prestige.  As the feuds grew more complex, strongholds were built -- these stone battle towers raised only by those of Nykaina descent many of which still remain.
From these fortresses, the clans (sometimes based in the same village) conducted vendettas according to strict rules and aims, the object being to annihilate both the tower and the male members of the opposing clans.  The favored method of attack was to smash the tower roofs.  Because of this,the towers rose to heights of 4 and 5 stories.  These battles could last for years with women bringing in food, ammunition and supplies.  They would end in the destruction of a family or total surrender of the clan.
I've always been curious about this area of Greece and it's unique history so it was a special thrill for me this trip to at least visit Ariopolis, the gateway to this turbulent but fascinating area.  Next time I'm here I hope to travel right down the spine of the Mesa Mani and see some more of it.  It's worth the trip, quite different from the usual island tours and other Byzantine sites of Greece.