25-31 March 2018
Skip to the fun part if you like. The information in this opening is only useful in reminding us that travel can be messed up by things out of our control.
Though we had planned to be in country by the evening of Friday, March 23, a before-takeoff maintenance issue on our Thursday night American Airlines flight from Chicago caused us to miss our connection to Athens on Friday morning. We stayed at a London Heathrow hotel at the airline's expense that night, unable to get a replacement departure till Saturday evening, on the night before spring daylight saving time took effect in Greece. We settled into our hotel in Athens by 4am local time, Sunday the 25th, meaning that our planned days before the tour were cut by two thirds. The tour began on Monday, and the airline will reimburse for our lost, prepaid Friday night in Athens, but still. . .
Sunday, 25 March
At last we are awake in our destination and more than ready to do some introductory Athens exploration on our own, before we join our tour group tomorrow. (We have not been with groups in the past, but we specifically came for this short run after a recommendation from an experienced traveler: Marisa's mother, Faye.)
Our unexpected experience continues as we learn that today is a parade/celebration day commemorating the defeat of Turkey in the 1800s with marching soldiers, tanks, jet and helicopter fly-overs, and closed streets until almost 2pm. Having walked a pleasant 20 minutes over to the closed Archaeological Museum, we enjoy cappuccino from a corner shop and take in the parade, wishing for the marching bands but only seeing them when they have gone silent, marching by us at the end.
We hop on the on-off bus to begin our easy orientation with an-eye-opening ride around town. Since so many people are here for the celebration, and only a couple of our desired historic museums and sites are open, we stay on the bus, looking out from our open seats on the top at all the closed, neglected, graffiti-covered storefronts and apartments, many occupied and many abandoned. The graffiti is on a scale that Marisa has only seen when on a historic preservation trip to Berlin in 2003. (That city was still in the throes of its chaotic reunification after the Wall had come down more than a decade earlier.) For Greece, this aggressive vandalism that some see as art is primarily the result of uniquely dark retribution suffered from the EU following the financial crisis of the late 2000s. A people overwhelmed in their daily financial lives have little time or desire to clean up such, now, unimportant things.
Hopping off for a sample of the shop life on a holiday, we stroll among small streets filled with people and stores that seem aimed at both regular, daily needs and tourist tastes. Very familiar, old Europe feeling to be here.
We hop back on and get back to the museum spot, then walk a different route back to the hotel, thinking we may stop along the way for a drink or a bite. Nothing jumps out, so we have a good meal at the hotel. In the early evening, we meet our tour group for the first time at a brief orientation in our hotel.
Monday, 26 March
It's the first day of five on the tour, and it's the first tour group we've joined for more than a single day. After breakfast we join 43 others, plus the driver and the guide on the rather new and smooth bus. We jostle for the perfect seat that will eventually - in our structured musical chairs version of who-sits-where-and-when - will land us in the front seats in a couple of days. Our guide, Anna, has a pleasing Greek accent, and her English is excellent, and so is her knowledge, we soon learn. Our destination is the Acropolis, but we stop by the Panathenaic Stadium first. Built in the 2nd century AD (new!) and host to the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896, it's the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble.
Realizing that a more-than-middling knowledge of ancient Greek history and mythology would greatly help us during our week-long journey, we had indulged in a dozen or so online lectures (Dr. William Neidinger on Amazon.com) for several weeks before we arrived. This now set our trek up to the Acropolis in historic context, though the architecture-as-architecture stands on its own. The Acro (highest point) Polis (city) was probably inhabited at least 5,000 years ago, though it's really Pericles in the fifth century BC who constructed what we're looking at. Even walking up the hill, we're treated to wayside treasures and killer views.
We start walking up and eventually through the propylaea (monumental gateway) as Anna explains the reddish cloud cover isn't about the weather, it's about the dust blowing north out of Africa. Well, now that explains why the weather forecast on our phones continues to show sunshine icons and we see only haze. A couple of stylized drawings of what the Acropolis may have been can help to figure out just what we're looking at: always remembering that these weren't glowing white marbles, but highly painted and stylized buildings and statues.
Our eyes are on the Parthenon (and growing crowd) above us, but down to the right is yet another show-stopper: the Theatre of Dionysus.
Considered to be the world's first theatre (The. World's. First. Theatre.), the site has been used since the sixth century BC and this structure was in place by the fourth century BC. The "late" alterations, as they say, were done in the third century AD.
Dionysus is both the god of wine and the patron of drama: No irony here, friends.
Okay, we're there. We're there! For the hundreds of times we'd each seen photographs of this building, we're there. It doesn't disappoint, but I don't know if our small minds really grasp what a 2,500-year-old building should look like. Of course, it's a wreck: in 1687 the Ottomans were using it as a gunpowder magazine and the Venetians blew out the middle of it with artillery shot. And then Lord Elgin completed the task. It's still magnificent through the African dust. We show you a stock photo on a sunny day just to give you the sunny-day perspective.
On the north end of the Acropolis is a building of beauties standing off to the side. The Erechtheion was dedicated both to Athena and Poseidon, but may have been built to honor King Erechtheus from the Iliad. The beauties (the Caryatids) are on the north porch. Five of the six originals remain and are in the Acropolis Museum. Lord Guess-Who took the sixth figure as well as the overlying entablature back home to his Scottish estate. They're with the other marbles now.
When we have soaked up as much as our eyes and minds can for the moment, we are allowed to leave the group and continue our own hop-on/off bus, one of which makes a stop here every half hour. (We had purchased two-day tickets yesterday.) We rode directly to the Archaeological Museum where we had been yesterday when the parade passed by.
The neoclassical building was finished in 1889 and closed only during World War II. Truly one of the world's great museums, it has originals from archeological locations all across Greece. This is really the one; artifacts and art that we've seen in photographs a dozen times. We're inordinately pleased with ourselves for having watched those online lectures. This is all making sense now.
These gold cups and funerary pieces are mostly Mycenaean dating from ~1600-1500 BC.
The kouros (naked youth) and sphinx
from the archaic period ~600-450 BC.
Zeus ~460 BC
found at the bottom of the sea
maybe Paris, maybe Perseus ~340 BC
found in a shipwreck in 1990
hacky-sack ~400 BC marble Zeus ~150 BC marble Aphrodite ~100 BC
about to smack Pan with her sandal
horse and jockey ~140 BC
After a few hours we walk out to the museum's courtyard and there come to a restaurant with lots of tented, outside seating. It is not fancy or expensive and, like many such venues, it is attractive to pigeons. No big deal, and fun to see them flee as a bunch when a small waitress simply waves her hand. We have a beer, a grilled cheese with fries and some chips, then walk a few yards to hop on the bus again.
This time, we stay on the bus's top deck and ride the full circuit, without getting off, in order to take in the feel of the traffic-choked city that longs for remedial love and maintenance. However worn down or disillusioned the citizens may be, the activity in Athens reflects inherent, indomitable determination.
Now late afternoon, we hop off again by the Archaeological Museum and catch a ride with a 70+ man in his yellow Mercedes that appears to be a rough 25 years old. It's a short ride, but he is on his phone, speaking animatedly the whole way. Like cabs anywhere.
For the evening meal tonight, Wade goes to the small grocery across the street from the hotel where he finds very satisfying bites and wine that we consume comfortably in our room. We read, decompress, and soon fall asleep - ready for the trip out of the city tomorrow, heading west.
Tuesday, 27 March
Now we load with the crowd and, after breakfast, take off for the longest, fullest day of history/vacation we can remember. From the choked streets of Athens, we are westbound to Mycenae with important, ancient sites along the way. It's stop-and-go traffic through the western industrial section of Athens, but we don't mind. Everything is new. Everything is incredibly old.
Shortly after we leave the city traffic behind, we have a stop for refreshments and an unexpected thrill: there is a canal carved down through volcanic rock. Completed in the late 1800s, the Corinth Canal connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Aegean Sea, separating the Peloponnese peninsula (well, really an island now) from the Greek mainland. The first written documentation of a proposal to cut a canal is from the seventh century BC; the first failed attempt to actually dig the canal was in the first century AD; and it was finally begun in 1882 and finished eleven years later. It's only 4 miles long; about 70 feet wide at the base; no locks; crazy steep limestone sides. Many landslides later (some seismic, some Nazi-inflicted) and the canal is now of economic interest only to the tourists who buy a cold drink at the nearby roadside stand.
Back on the road, we are approaching the archaeological site of ancient Corinth and our guide is sharing a detailed narrative of the apostle Paul's connection to the area, much of which we, of course, know. The connection to the ground we are on is profound. Paul was a converted prosecutor of Christians. There were big differences among the early Christians, the Orthodox Greeks and, soon, the Roman Catholics, followed by, yeah, the Protestants.
The ruins are heavily Roman though the site was occupied from at least as early as the seventh century BC. In classical Greece (fifth and fourth centuries BC), Corinth was a wealthy city-state known for its luxuries and luxuriously expensive hetairas (temple prostitutes, for lack of a better phrase). It remained an important part of Greek politics, but when the Romans arrived in 146 BC, they killed the Corinthian men, sold the women and children into slavery, and burned it down. It remained deserted for about 100 years until Julius Caesar rebuilds it (hence the Roman ruins that we really see). Another 100 years and St. Paul shows up. In the third century AD the earthquakes largely destroy the city; five centuries of decline follow; another earthquake kills about 45,000 people in 856 AD; and more wars and more earthquakes and that's it, they've had it: 1858 is the last earthquake and "New Corinth" is established about two miles northeast of these ancient ruins.
Acrocorinth (the high place of Corinth) is high above our walking paths, on a rock outcropping. We won't go there, but it looks magnificently down upon us.
The spring water still gurgles
at the base of this building.
Temple of Apollo
Roman-era bits Christian bits
Our late lunch is at a giant restaurant where, our guide says, many a world leader has stopped by, including a U.S. president named Bush, not sure which. It is new and decent, clearly configured for busy tourists. And the view out back - blue sky, blue water, shadowed mountains - is pretty spectacular.
Now to Mycenae. Only thirty miles from ancient Corinth, but a site that was at its powerful peak in 2,000 BC (as opposed to "newer" Corinth who was really hitting its power stride 1,400 years later). There are faint traces of the Neolithic here, but this is really a Bronze Age site whose grave circles had been filled with gold (remember the Archeological Museum in Athens) and exquisite pottery.
On our way to the citadel (acropolis), we'll stop by the Tomb of Clytemnestra first. She was the wife of King Agamemnon, the mythical Mycenaean ruler who led the Greeks in the Trojan War. So, she's not really there. Never was. Or maybe she was, but the inner burial chamber was found looted and empty in the 1960's. It's a tholos tomb, referred to by we English speakers as a beehive tomb. Built in 1,250 BC it's considered the most monumental tholos in Greece today and probably the last tomb of this type in the region. There's a large triangle of stone over the door that would have had a colored relief sculpture on it. Inside the chamber, the mortar-less roof is truly amazing.
We enter the road to the Mycenaean acropolis through the Lion Gate. Built in the 13th century BC, it's the only recognizable piece of Mycenae that remains. It's the largest Bronze Age sculpture in Greece and that makes it the oldest one in Europe. It was mentioned by an ancient geographer in the 2nd century AD and so, even when buried, Heinrich Schliemann knew where to find it.
The photo does not make it clear, but the Lion Gate is 10'x10' with the lions adding another 15 feet. The heads, made of a different material, are long gone.
Now we walk up the winding processional road to the Mycenaean palace complex at the top, pass by a few tour groups, and then spend some time at the top with a German schoolteacher and his field-tripping students. The lecture is a bit long, but then it's quiet: just the wind and the view.
Back down through the groups and we stop for freshly squeezed orange juice from the neighboring trees. After more kilometers through hills, valleys, olive groves and orange orchards - with snow-covered mountains in the distance - we arrive at the ancient Theatre of Epidaurus which is part of a sanctuary that is dedicated to the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius (ess-KLEE-pee-oos). As we near the theatre, Anna tells us it is considered to be the best ancient theatre for acoustics. Those of you who know Wade can guess the end to this story.
The crowds that have tumbled off multiple buses soon spread themselves across the rising, stone seating to get their feel of the ancient, and current, venue for story, sight and sound. Marisa heads to the high seats for photographs and to merely watch the performance she knows is coming. From the uppermost row of nearly 14,000 seats, one can hear someone on the stage talking, just talking. But that's not all that's gonna happen. . .
Because I do not deny being an egotistical, professional actor who has performed more than a hundred times in outdoor theatres without a microphone,
I cannot stop myself.
I speak a few lines from center stage, and the crowd reacts.
I sing a few bars to another positive reaction.
Then a lady near me asks for an encore, whereupon I am required to sing a full song, which her husband records.
The crowd cheers. I tip my hat.
The nice words he gets afterwards take him back to his own ancient times of performing outside 46 whole years ago. He claims this as a major bucket list moment. Back on the bus, we continue to Nafplio, where we are given some walk-around time. We buy granddaughter Colleen a little summer outfit at a nearby boutique and stroll under greyish, but pleasant skies before heading to the nearby hotel, which is especially nice.
The tourist crowd, with whom we share our tasty buffet dinner, is large and stays late along with us. With 6:30a breakfast and 7:45a departure looming, we are in bed by 9:30p. A very good first day on the road.
Wednesday, 28 March
An early rise in order to have our suitcases in the hallway for pickup by bus crew. Excessive, and mostly tasty, buffet breakfast. We are off on time with a great perch on the bus. Our long and relaxing ride starts under cloudy skies, but the sun shines on our first stop: a large shop filled with pottery, jewelry and other gems, most of which are made by the artisans in the building. This truth is demonstrated during our brief tour when we are shown people at work and given details about the provenance and authenticity. The more expensive pieces are made in the traditional ways and modeled after museum works.
During our online lecture viewings, Marisa had become quite keen on the Minoan pottery, in particular the octopus vase made around 1,500 BC. We were thrilled to see it in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. And, yes, we were pleased to see the museum reproduction in the shop. And. . . you know the rest. Back on the bus and Marisa wins one of four prizes for purchasers: a 3-inch glass evil eye pendant to ward off bad behavior from overeager customs officials and UPS drivers.
Our bus and driver at the pottery The museum pieces Our pieces
Our day continues with a scenic, relaxing drive west with even more mountains rising, some with snow, in the distance. Our lunch is at another large facility, clearly designed to primarily serve large tour groups. It's good.
Early tomorrow morning we will tour the ancient Olympian site, but this afternoon our guide wisely takes us to the museum first. Beautifully done and originally opened in 1882, it was the first museum in Greece that was outside the capital city of Athens. But it's been redone beautifully in 2004 to coincide with the Olympic Games in Greece. There are lovely collections of terracottas and bronzes, but we've got museum legs and are tired of our "Whispers": the wireless devices and earpieces that bring Anna's voice into our heads whenever we get within 100 feet. How does she do this all day long?
With some alone time after the museum, we walk the streets of the small town for a little shopping and sit for a cappuccino break. The feel of the shops and streets here is not overly touristy, but the quality of the infrastructure and the clean feel show the benefit of attracting many visitors.
We check in to our hotel, have wine on our personal deck, nap, then go for a tzsatziki-making demonstration in the restaurant before the meal comes. Good idea, but we can't hear or see. We taste later and it's lovely and garlicky.
Back to the room. Another early morning coming.
Thursday, 29 March
Under a beautiful morning sky, we walk the original Olympic grounds. Beginning in the 8th century BC and ending in 393 AD, the tradition of games every four years was here. Invitees came from far away, warmed up and trained in the area for weeks, then competed in the several venues on these grounds. There were many buildings on the site: the Temple of Hera, the Temple of Zeus, the workshop of Phidias, housing for athletes, treasuries, a hippodrome, the stadium. On and on. The remains are evocative and so visually pleasing in the early morning. Still a bit of mist and dew on the once-marshy ground. We're the first group to arrive. Lush and quiet. Long morning shadows in the photos. We will be here for at least two hours.
Temple of Hera.
At these ruins the modern-day Olympic flame is lit every four years by sunlight reflected in a mirror at this site.
Temple of Zeus.
Here sat Phidias' famed ivory and gold sculpture of Zeus. At 43-feet tall, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The same second-century geographer (Pausanias) who documented the Mycenaean Lion Gate described this marvel as well.
The only structure at Olympia dedicated to a human, it celebrates Philip of Macedon's military victory in 338 BC. (You know, Alexander the Great's dad.)
Through the archway, all walked to the large, sloping green space that is said to have seated (without actual seats) 45,000 spectators that watched the sprinters.
We didn't sprint, but we did walk the glorious length in the brilliant sunshine.
Much of this destruction is from earthquakes in both the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.
After repeated flooding, the site was finally abandoned entirely in the 7th century.
Those rectangular cuts in the stone are where the metal rods were fitted that brought the column pieces together to form the upstanding whole.
How are we supposed to top all this?
Back on the bus, we continue in the northwest direction, taking nice roads that are smaller, not limited access, and the views are filled with ever more mountains, water, crops and snow in the distance. A beautiful bridge finished in 2004 to be open for the Athens Olympic Games has exorbitant tolls and therefore, not as much traffic as had been hoped. We pay the toll.
Our stop this evening is at the end of what Anna describes as a "cliffy ride." Our bus is taking incredibly sharp turns at slow speeds. Sometimes he passes an intersection on purpose, then backs up to make the turn from the other side. Anna makes the right call again and we head to the Delphi Museum at the end of this day so that we can be at the site early in the morning. Another beautifully restored and arranged museum, it houses the artifacts unearthed during excavations at the Delphi site and so it contains holdings that cover over a thousand years.
Look at the dates. Sphinx of Naxos.
From 560 BC and 10 feet tall, it stood on a 30-foot Ionic column near the Treasury of Athens at Delphi.
The Treasury of Siphnos.
Many cities built small treasury buildings with beautiful friezes like this one to commemorate victories and thank the oracle for her advice.
The Charioteer of Delphi.
Cast in bronze in 470 BC, he is at his moment of victory and being presented to the spectators. Art historians say this bronze represents the passage from Archaic to Classical art.
From here, it's more winding and cliffy roads, but now only a few miles, up to our hotel just outside Arachova. It's a beautiful mountainside town and when the tourists are not visiting Delphi, this is a heavily-visited ski resort.
We have tremendous views from our first floor patio deck, out front and across the steep valleys with their thousands of olive trees.
To this sunset mix we add a couple of ouzos and a bit of Campari and soda.
The afternoon is restful and dinner is nice.
Friday, 30 March
Up and out for our last day with the group, and our last day of seeing new sites and sights. After breakfast and luggage pick-up (my, this picking up of the luggage outside one's hotel room door is quite the luxury), we are back in the bus for a careful and twisty ride back to the Delphi archaeological site.
The ancient Greeks considered Delphi the navel of the world. Not unusual, of course: many (most?) ethnicities have their center-of-the-world creation myths. But this is something else entirely. Occupied from the Neolithic period, it's during the Mycenaean period (1600-1100 BC) when it increases in importance and hits its heyday in the 6th century BC. On the southwestern slope of Mount Parnassus, its ruins only hint at the riches once present at the site of the Oracle.
Ah, Pythia. Chosen from the older women in the area, she had to have lived a blameless life before she could be the mouthpiece of the god Apollo. She would fall into a vapor-induced trance and priests would interpret her sacred ravings, often in ambiguous exhortations. "Know Thyself" was inscribed on her temple and we'll leave it at that. Theodosius I, in the name of Christianity, silenced the Oracle in 390 AD and then his zealous followers completely destroyed it.
We walk up through the Athenian Stoa, wind around to the Treasury of Athens, gaze upon the Temple of Apollo, and Marisa walks up and past the ancient theatre. Spectacular.
The mortarless, polygonal stone wall of the Stoa. The Omphalos of Delphi.
The stone navel was the
symbol of Apollo and the sacred Oracle.
The Athenian Treasury.
Built around 510 BC and dedicated after the Battle of Marathon.
Beautifully reconstructed in 1903-1906, it sits just below the Temple of Apollo.
The Temple of Apollo.
Where the Oracle sat on her bronze tripod seat and inhaled the prophecy-inducing vapors.
These ruins date from the 4th century BC, but erected on the site of an earlier temple.
The Delphi Theatre.
Originally built in the 4th century BC but remodeled for Empero Nero's visit in 67 AD, the theatre uses the natural slope of the mountain to form the bowl. Amazing view from the top after a mighty steep hike. The smoke is from the early spring burning of pruned olive branches.
I guess we're done now. What an amazing few days. We ride into the small town of Arachova for a little free time. Huge buses like ours and many cars and motorcycles (not so many scooters) creep through on the narrow, stone-curbed main street, which is lined with tourist-focused shops. With a half hour to roam, we find a shop with hand-stitched, silk embroidered pillow covers. Coming from a long line of people who do this kind of work, as does she, Marisa peers inside and checks the knots. She knows them to be the real thing. Even though this town is clearly built around the tourist business, it is stunning in its stone-covered reality and its place high on the mountainside.
We board the bus at the edge of Arachova and try to make our way slowly, slowly through the crowds. Where double-parking is a nuisance, but common, in the larger towns, here in Arachova it backs up the traffic for several minutes. Our guide mutters a choice word for the driver's ear once, but then she is overheard the second time while her microphone is hot. She's a tad embarrassed, makes us promise not to tell (oops!) and the lets us know that "malaka" (as she called the double-parked driver) translates quite nicely as "asshole" in English. Well, maybe not entirely a great translation as the Irish couple further back in the bus announce that "wanker" would be a better translation. The entire group is roaring now. Giddy with our good fortune to be here.
We're just a few kilometers from our final lunch as a group. Agelos House. Our bus is first, but four more show up very quickly. There must be 250 people at the same time here and it is menu service, not buffet. Impressive. Nice conversation at our table with a couple of ladies from our group. Then we are off for Athens.
Looking down the mountainsides as we go, there are miles upon square miles of actively harvested olive groves. Our ride back to the capital city is under clear skies with no sign of the haze we saw before. The weather has been beautiful for all our venture west, with temperatures in the 60s and no rain. Back to our hotel, we elect again to grab bites in the store across the street, eat in our room and call it a night.
We were worried about being on a guided tour: would we have time to ourselves? would we miss sites off the beaten track? would we be appalled by silly tourist stories and miss the necessarily-ambiguous tones of academically-focused histories? In the end, we saw things we wouldn't have seen, were treated to ample downtime, and were more at ease traveling on "cliffy" rides in a WiFi-equipped bus than we would have been in a small car. We don't know what we'll choose next time but we are very pleased with this time.
Our trip home is uneventful, and our plans are intact this time. We might reconsider our choice to spend the night in the public areas of Heathrow, should we be faced with that again, but all is well. Arrival at O'Hare on time, customs the usual mess, then the suburban train back to our Illinois home on a chilly Easter morning.
Glad we went.