Greece – October 2004

As almost one year as passed since I last traveled and can’t record any new travel impressions in these pages, I figured I’ll go up to the attic of my memory and dust off some recollections of old travel adventures that could be written about. So, here is what I remember from the trip to Greece that Marité and I took in October of 2004.

In my youth I had been an avid reader of ancient history and had tried to image how life could have been 2,500 years ago. Through the years I still dreamed about visiting some of the sites of antiquity that had sparked my imagination many years ago. Luckily, Marité shared my interest in the subject, so it was easy to decide to take a trip to the cradle of Western civilization, Greece, to see some of those places.

We arranged the land portion of our trip with a tour company, Gate1 Travel, who offered us good service, nice hotels, a comfortable bus, and an expert guide that was a student of archeology, and was truly knowledgeable in the history and mythology of ancient Greece.

After approximately 10 hours flight from New York City, we arrived in Athens about midday. An English-speaking driver was waiting for us at the airport and he took us to our hotel, the Stanley, near the historical center of the city, where that afternoon we met our fellow travelers and our guide. Afterwards, we had dinner in a typical taverna near the hotel. The waiter spoke barely any English, but they had a menu in English, so we were able to order and eat a decent meal.

Corinth canal

Next morning, our coach picked us up early and we started our journey to the ancient world. Our first stop was at the Corinth Canal that cuts through the narrow part of the isthmus of Corinth, connecting the Gulf of Corinth in the Ionian Sea with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. The idea of the canal was conceived twenty-six hundred years ago, although its construction actually started only in 1882 and was finished in 1893. It is 4 miles long but only 70 feet wide, making it not usable to wide modern cargo ships. Today, it is mostly a tourist attraction, where people in pleasure boats or from bridges, like us, admire the long strip of water that cuts through the isthmus 90 feet deep from the land level.

We continued our trip to Mycenae, where the mythical king Agamemnon, who led the Greek forces against Troy during the Trojan war, it’s said to have ruled about 3,500 years ago. One enters the citadel Mycenae through the Lion Gate, so called because of the relief sculpture of two lions that stand above the entrance to the ruins. Stone walls 25 ft wide and 25 ft high flank the gate. The stones of the walls are held by sheer gravity, without any binding material between them. Most of the stony blocks are so huge that the ancient Greeks believed that the walls had been erected by cyclopes, not by humans.

Lion Gate

Walking through the rest of the ruins I had difficulty to imagine that I was looking at the remains of houses, public buildings and stores of a bustling town, that dominated all of the south of Greece three millennia ago. Still, there was something in the surroundings that made me pause with awe, thinking how magnificent that city must have been when it was built during the Bronze Age.  

We continued our trip and stopped at the amphitheater of Epidaurus, near the sanctuary of Asklepios, the god of healing. The amphitheater, build in the 3 century BC, has a capacity of 15,000 spectators and is till used nowadays to represent classic Greek drama. Due to its perfect acoustic the actors don’t need microphones, as their voices reach every place of the arena with total clarity.

That night we stayed at the city of Nafplio, the first capital of Greece after it regained its independence from the Turkish empire, in the first quarter of the 19th century. We were too tired to visit any of the sites of this city, which it’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful of Greece. We had dinner with group and went to bed early.

The next morning, rested and refreshed, we traveled through the region of Arcadia and visited the Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia. This was the most sacred site of ancient Greece and was dedicated to the ruler of the Greek gods, Zeus. On this site every four years, from 776 BC to 394 AD, athletes from all over Greece would come to compete in games that awarded victors a wreath of olive leaves. Most of the games were held in the Stadium, with a capacity of 45,000 people (only men, as women were not allowed in the arena).

Entrance to the Stadium in Olympia

Other current attractions on the site are: the altar where, every four years, the Olympic Flame is lit starting its run to the site of the modern Olympic Games; the Palestra, where athletes would train before the games; the remains of the temples of Zeus and Hera, and the Archeological Museum, with impressive exhibits and findings from excavations in the area.

That afternoon, we had a long journey towards our next destination. We left the Peloponnesus and re-entered mainland Greece crossing the gulf of Corinth on the recently completed Rio–Antirrio Bridge. The bridge is a five-span four-pylon cable-supported structure almost 1.8 miles long. I was shocked to hear that our coach had to pay 50 euros to cross it. I believed it was an outrageous amount, compared with the toll one paid to cross the Verrazano Narrows bridge in NYC, which at that time cost $ 6.00 for a bus, I think.

We arrived at our hotel in Delphi in the late afternoon. We sat on our balcony before dinner and watched an amazing sunset over a beautiful valley with olive groves. It was like Apollo, the god of the Sun, was riding again his chariot into the night, over the land and the people that had given him his seat in Olympus.

We had dinner in the hotel again with the group and went to rest to our room. As we shut down the lights, we heard buzzing around us and bites on our body. We turned the lights on again, to discover at least a dozen mosquitoes lurking on the ceiling. The prospect of the mosquitoes feasting on our blood during the rest of the night didn’t appeal to us, so I got a towel from the bathroom, climbed on the bed and started to jump up and down, and hit the insects with the towel. I think that I got rid of most of the pests, because the rest of the night was quiet and peaceful.

The next morning, we visited the ruins of Delphi, the seat of the Oracle, or Pythia, famous throughout ancient Greece and the then known world. The site was dedicated to Apollo and attracted individuals, as well as government emissaries from the Hellenistic world and abroad, who came to seek the advice of the oracle before embarking on any major personal or public plans.

The Tholos in Delphi

At the time we visited Delphi, it was (and I assume it still is) a well-preserved archaeological site, with impressive columns and imposing foundations, and an important museum, which give a glimpse of what ancient Greece religion and culture must have been at the cusp of its glory.

We left Delphi in our bus, which took us to the picturesque village of Arachova, on the southern slope of mount Parnassus, one of the sacred mountains linked to Greek mythology, where we had our lunch. Afterwards, we continued our trip arriving in Athens, at the Stanley hotel, in the middle of the afternoon.

It was a warm evening and we decided to climb Mount Lycabettus, a hill in the middle of the city, about 900 ft high. We choose to take the walking path that winds the hill up to its summit, forgetting that we were in our middle 60s. Although, starting about halfway to the top, we cursed constantly until we arrived at the peak and sat in the terrace of the café that operates at the spot, we deemed that the effort had been well worth it. What a view! Under the crepuscular light, most of Athens laid magically at our feet and in the distance, we could see the illuminated glorious Acropolis. For our return to the foot of the hill we took a cable car, that ascends and descends Lycabettus and whose existence we didn’t know when we started out trek.  

The Parthenon

Next morning, we had our last organized sightseeing tour. We visited the Acropolis, with its magnificent Parthenon, build to honor the goddess Athenea, by Pericles in the 5th century BC.  Another important building, still standing among the ruins, is the Erechtheion, a temple also dedicated to Athenea, with a beautiful porch where the usual columns are replaced by 7.5 ft tall statues of the Caryatids. (The current statues are exact replicas of the originals, which are now housed in the Acropolis Museum and in the British Museum.)

We also visited that morning the Temple of Olympian Zeus, an immense temple dedicated to the greatest of the Greek gods. Its construction began in the 6th century BC, but was not completed until the 2nd century AD, by the Roman emperor Hadrian. At the end of its construction the building had 104 marble columns, almost 56 ft tall and over 6 1/2 ft in diameter. Sadly, only 16 columns survived to our day.

The last stop in the tour was the Panatheniac Stadium, the only stadium in the world build entirely in marble. It was originally created in 330 BC, reconstructed in 144 Ad, abandoned for many centuries and finally refurbished in 1896, to host the first modern Olympics. Years later after our visit it hosted again the Olympic Games of 2004.

We had the afternoon free, but I’m not sure what we did. I believe we just roamed the city and visited the ruins of the Agora, the ancient gathering place of the Athenians of old. I also remember seating in an outside café nearby, having a beer and taking in the atmosphere.

The next morning, we took a flight to the island of Naxos, where we spend three days of relaxation in one of the beautiful Cycladic isles, not as touristy as Santorini or Mykonos. We rented a studio apartment with a great view of a valley and close to the village and beach of Agios Prokopios. The Summer season has ended it and we had the beach and its surroundings almost for ourselves.

Naxos Town

The town of Naxos or Chora, was a 10-minute ride by bus. We enjoyed walking the sea front promenade, where on the fisherman stalls, hanged hundreds of squid and octopus, caught earlier in the morning.  In addition, the area houses restaurants, souvenir stores and quaint artisan shops. And then, there were the white-washed houses, the courtyards, and the narrow-cobbled streets, that shouted, quietly, “you’re in a Greek island”.

Ancient history was also alive in the ruins of a temple dedicated to Apollo, with a massive marble doorway, the Portara, still standing. As well, there was a whole section of the town, the Kastro, which was the area occupied by Venice for 300 years in medieval times, well worth exploring.

We returned to Athens for one more day of sightseeing. In the morning, we took a subway to the port of Piraeus, where we wandered a while, reminiscing the film “Never on Sunday”, filmed in that location and which we had seen about 40 years earlier, probably. We continued our roaming in the afternoon in the Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens. Throught its quaint pedestrian streets, it is a paradise for the visitor, with its restaurants, cafés, jewelry and souvenir stores.

Our sightseeing ended that afternoon in front of the presidential palace, where we watched the changing of the guards at that place. Perhaps not as spectacular as in Buckingham Palace, it is still fascinating to see these soldiers, called Evzone, with their traditional skirts, red caps with a long silk tassel and heavy shoes with a big black pom-pom on top, march in front of their post, with high goose steps and hear the metallic sounds, made by the nails under their shoes, when they hit the pavement. Although their ceremonial garb may look funny, the truth is that the Evzones are part of an elite fighting military unit whose origins date to the years of the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, between 1821 and 1832.

Evzone guard

Next morning, we took a ride in the subway that got us in the airport for our flight back home. Thus, ended this wonderful trip, which gave us a glimpse to the past of our civilization and the opportunity to enjoy the rugged beauty of this country.