My big Greek odyssey
When I look back at the posts I’ve written since my arrival in Athens it could appear I spend almost all my time teaching or thinking about teaching. From Monday to Friday my focus is mostly on my volunteering and lesson prep but I try to plan weekends around my other interests.
Greece is not particularly well served by inter-urban public transport and it can be complicated to find easy connections from Athens to the places you might want to visit for a day trip. As a result, I opted to do mainly organized tours. The advantages of an organized outing mean you get picked up and dropped off at a convenient location, somebody else does the driving (and the trip planning) and your licensed guide usually has all the facts saving you leafing through a book trying to interpret a particular stack of rocks or identify a distant church spire. I eventually reserved tours via an agent in Monastiraki after comparing prices online with those of several local agents. I found price differences of up to CDN$20 for identical packages consisting of coach transportation, guide, site admissions and lunch.
My first day out was a Saturday in Argolis in the Peloponnese. After the coach had made its round of various central Athens hotels (in hindsight I should have sat on the right side leaving Athens to take full advantage of the coastal scenery), we set off via the Corinth Canal. This was an impressive feat of engineering to admire before we continued through the orange plantations. olive groves and vineyards that line the highway towards Mycenae, home of Homer’s great king Agamemnon and the centre of Mycenaean civilization. Gazing out across the plain from the heights of the former palace, I imagined Queen Clytmnestra awaiting the return of her husband’s ships from Troy as she plotted his death. Her view to the Gulf of Argolis would have been very clear.
We stopped for an excellent lunch of roast lamb and Greek salad at the King Menelaus eatery in modern Mycenae where I shared a table with two retired educators from Australia. And that’s another of the “plusses of busses” for the single traveller because there are often other interesting people who’ve joined the tour for the same reasons you have.
There was only one scheduled foray into a tourist-trap gift shop along the route after we left Mycenae. After a brief lecture on the crafting of modern day imitation Greek vases we were invited to make purchases. Some stayed to buy but I got back on the bus where an American lady talked about all the souvenir stuff she’d filled her home with over the years (and all the money she’d paid for it) and how it all got thrown out when she’d downsized to smaller premises.
Our next stop was Nafplio, the second capital of the newly independent Greece from 1827-1834, and a gem of a town located on the Argolic Gulf. A year-round tourist destination and popular honeymooning spot, it had a very familiar feel which was enhanced by the sea air and the architecture of the buildings in the central streets. It all clicked when I spotted the winged lion of St. Mark with an accompanying inscription in Italian set into the central façade of the 17th century barracks. For some reason, our guide hadn’t thought the Nafplio connection to the Venetian Republic was important enough to tell us about even though Venice had controlled that part of the Mediterranean for nearly 200 years between the end of the 15th century and the early 18th century. When I asked the guide about the Venetian connection she kind of dismissed the question but stated that modern day Nafplio and Venice are twinned – they aren’t. But I did learn that the Venetians called the town Napoli di Romania to distinguish it from the other Napoli which, at the time, was the Kingdom of Naples.
And finally to Epidaurus, the site of an ancient healing sanctuary and still-used amphitheatre dating from the 4th century BC. It was a beautiful drive up through rural villages and an argument for self-touring in this area when you can stop and start as you choose along the way. I felt we didn’t have enough time at Epidaurus as it’s an extensive ruin with a small museum too. A reason then for skipping that hokey gift shop in Mycenae for more time at Epidaurus! (And speaking of gift shops, the Greek government operates its own “chain” called Hellenic Heritage Museum Shops that sell really tastefully designed products at various locations including Epidaurus. Another location is on the left side of the Greek Parliament above Syntagma Square. I can't seem to find a link other than an inactive Facebook page so watch out for them.)
A few weekends later I headed out on a day trip to Delphi. It’s advisable to travel in that direction with clear weather because the dramatic views of distant Mount Parnassus are a memorable feature of the landscape en route. (Check the weather forecast first and make sure you sit on the left side of the bus!). I went with the same tour company as before but a different guide who was well versed in the mythology and practices of the ancient Greeks. That background is important in understanding the religious power of the Delphi Oracle, its significance and accessibility for the Hellenic world.
I wish I weren’t such a language geek and I wish some guides wouldn’t spin stories that sound good. On that Sunday, our guide told us that the French government made a special request to the Greek government to name Montparnasse railway station in Paris after Mount Parnassus as a way of honouring the French archaeologists who had lead the Delphi excavations in the late 19th century. I haven't been able to confirm that in my Internet searches but I have found out that it was classics scholars from the Latin Quarter in 17th century Paris who gathered to recite poetry atop a nearby artificially made hill. Eventually the hill came to be called Mont Parnasse as a nod to the Greek mountain at Delphi. The railway station and whole area of Montparnasse is named after that long-gone fake hill.
The almond trees were in bloom as we wound up the steep road from Arachova towards the ruins of Delphi and looking back down the valley at what would have been an arduous trek on foot you could understand the determination and intention behind a journey to the Temple of Apollo . It certainly is an other-worldly setting and the presence of gaseous vapours would have helped to create mystery and a sense of the supernatural for the peoples who travelled there to consult the Pythia.
Our tour of the Delphi site was thorough and enlightening…at least I felt it was at the time and still do. Our guide interpreted the Sacred Way, its Treasuries and the remains of the Temple of Apollo and then left us to explore the upper area around the amphitheatre on our own. Later we made our way over to the excellent museum that displays many of the artifacts unearthed there. We could have toured this with the guide but many of us chose to wander through at our own pace.
Roughly two hours later, we boarded the bus again and travelled down the valley to lunch which was as good as the one I’d enjoyed on the Argolis tour. Lunch is always optional on these excursions but it’s worth the extra money and saves you hunting for a place to eat. This time I dined in the company of a young engineer from Ohio and a Canadian couple, she an interior designer and he an almost-retired federal court judge.
After lunch we continued our descent until we arrived back at the ski resort of Arachova which reminded me of just about every other European mountain resort I’ve visited. Full of gift shops and people up from Athens and other distant towns promenading in their Sunday finery or soaking up sun in the fresh air of the sidewalk cafés. We were there for about 30 minutes, long enough to take photos of each other on top of the landmark clock tower, and then we were back in the bus for the 2 hour trip back to Athens.
The final day trip I’ve done since being here was last weekend when I took myself across the Saronic Gulf for a day out on the island of Aegina. The island can be reached in 40 minutes by hydrofoil from the Athens’ port of Piraeus or on the cheaper and slower ferry service that takes about 75 minutes to make the crossing. I’d forgotten how ferry travel works in so many small ports around the Mediterranean. The ferry sails right up to the pier, the gangplank is lowered and foot passengers compete with vehicle traffic to be first off the boat. One of the last announcements I understood before disembarking was that this ferry wasn’t waiting around for any stragglers. Somehow everybody makes it off the boat and eventually out of the port area safely.
I’d probably have been better off taking the earlier ferry to Aegina Town (which turns out to be the location of the first capital of the newly created Greek state from 1827 until 1829)as I had just missed the one and only bus out to the Temple of Aphaia, the 4th century Doric structure which visitors come here to admire. If I’d been on Aegina from April through to the end of the tourist season, a bus runs several times a day in that direction. Out of season you have to take a taxi and that will set you back about 18 euros. I had considered hiring a scooter but you need an international drivers’ license to operate one in Greece if you’re going to be law abiding. The island is too hilly for cycling leaving me with no choice but to get a taxi. But the taxi fare was worth it because the Temple was a glorious sight perched high above the Saronic Gulf. Clear skies of a blue that you only see in ads for Greek vacation destinations and water like aquamarine provided perfect contrast to the white marble. I must have lingered there for an hour or so before walking down through the Aleppo pine forest to the resort village of Agia Marina on the far side of the island.
It looked as if they were still getting ready for the season in Agia Marina but there were a couple of restaurants open and I chose one with a terrace overlooking the open sea so that I could enjoy my lunchtime moussaka à la Shirley Valentine. This was the only restaurant I’ve ever been in where I experienced a cluster of cats and what I thought was a tame goose (it turned out to be a Muscovy duck hen) begging at tables for crumbs.
And eventually I caught another taxi back to Aegina Town, past the ruins of medieval Paleochora high up in the hilltop of the central part of the island. I didn’t even know about this particular site until I saw some of the remaining churches that dot the hillsides along the road between Agia Marina and the port. Reading about it later, I see it’s worth a return visit so I’ll save that for next time.