Timeless Crete

Silvery olive grove

Silvery olive trees, fertile plateaus ringed by craggy stone mountains, luscious oranges, throat-searing retsina and unrivaled warmth and hospitality from its people – this is the Crete I remember when I first visited over 35 years ago.

Yes, much about Crete has changed. Sun-worshiping northern Europeans began drifting in over 30 years ago, and once the Iron Curtain was torn down, eastern Europeans arrived in droves. Aigos Nikolais, in the east, once sported just a couple of hotels; now there are hundreds, with thousands of condos spread over the hills above the still-turquoise bay.  The dozens of stone windmills that once ringed the Lasithi Plateau, are mostly in ruins, although one shop keeper claimed the government was restoring them. The once-sleepy capital, Heraklion, which I traversed on foot in less than half an hour, sprawls for several kilometers and its port is a routine stop for cruise ships. Rethymno in the west was so full of obnoxious shills and even more obnoxious tourists, we beat a fast retreat. Hania, the capital in post-Ottoman Crete from 1898 until 1971, retains its Venetian architecture and charm while merging with the more modern city.

Venetian lighthouse at mouth of Hania habor

Venetian lighthouse at mouth of Hania harbor

Agios Nikolaus and its bay, surrounded by concrete hotels, condos and villas.

Agios Nikolaus and its bay, surrounded by concrete hotels, condos and villas.

Yet, away from the crowds of sunbathing tourists and the jungle of shops selling junky gewgaws, especially south of the island’s northern rim, much of Crete remains wild and beautiful (to steal a phrase from West Virginia’s tourism pitch) and the people are unfailingly polite and hospitable. We rented a car for the four days we were in Crete and drove over as much of the island as we could cover while still giving ourselves ample time to pick different spots to relax in (or get the hell away from!). Michael now knows why Crete, for me, holds such a special, distinct place in my heart. We crawled up soaring mountains which, off-road, only goats can traverse; seen the biggest (reputedly) gorge in Europe; ate the ripest, best tomatoes I’ve had since growing my own; sipped homemade wine; eaten grilled octopus and calamari, feta cheese, dolmades, spinakopita and kebabs, that put the best American versions to absolute shame. And everywhere we enjoyed the hospitality and joie de vivre that make Cretan Greeks so unique.

A real Greek salad, with the ripest tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, non-rubbery feta cheese and, of course, lots of olive oil.

A real Greek salad, with the ripest tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, non-rubbery feta cheese and, of course, lots of olive oil.

Not for the faint of heart: grilled octopus tentacles, one of my favorite treats. It's a toss up between grilled octopus and grilled calamari, either with Greek salad, as my favorite meal.

Not for the faint of heart: grilled octopus tentacles, one of my favorite treats. It’s a toss up between grilled octopus and grilled calamari, either with Greek salad, as my favorite meal.

Crete is not a big island: Its population is about 600,000 (the entire population of Greece is not quite 11 million). It’s 260 km/160 miles long, and 56 km/35 miles at its widest point, and has just one highway, the “National Road” that runs the east-west northern length of the island – and with 90% of it being only one lane in each direction.  Most of the mid- and cross-section of Crete down to the southern shore is mountainous and sparsely inhabited. The vast majority of roads south of the National Road are narrow, two land roads. There was no “highway” in Crete 35+ years ago; I rented an ancient VW Beetle (I swear it was pre-WWII vintage and had only 2 cylinders) and coaxed it over the steep mountains on roads barely wide enough in places for both my car and a fat donkey. (Some of the secondary and especially tertiary roads today are not much wider.) Traversing the mountains onto the western ridge of the Lasithi Plateau and seeing the ancient windmills in full sails was one of the highlights of my week in Crete so long ago.

Today much has changed, this is inevitable. Some of the change is for the good, some I wish hadn’t happened. But Crete is so special, so beautiful, it would have been impossible to prevent the world at large from discovering this haven. It all depends, I guess, on where and how you choose to spend your vacation days in Crete.

Michael and I tend to travel differently from most people we know. Our lack of pre-planning and reservations and distaste for package tour groups has led to some novel, wonderful, interesting, as well as (infrequent) unpleasant consequences. Crete for me never disappoints in delivering the most pleasant of experiences. And I am now going to stop “talking” and try to show Crete as I’ve rediscovered it instead of putting too many words to “paper,” so to speak.

Town of Lakki, perched on a ridge among the White Mountains of south-central Crete. The mountains were a haven for Cretan guerillas fighting first Turks then Nazis

Town of Lakki, perched on a ridge among the White Mountains of south-central Crete. The mountains were a haven for Cretan guerrillas fighting first Turks then Nazis

Lakki's Monmument to three generations of resistance fighters from 19th c. Turkish rule to Nazi domination in WWII

Lakki’s Monument to three generations of resistance fighters from 19th c. Turkish rule to Nazi domination in WWII

Day one we drove to the Samaria Gorge in southeastern Crete, reputedly the largest/longest gorge in Europe at about 16 km long. The White Mountains earned their name from the amount of snowfall received annually. The highest summit is  2,453 m (8,048 ft) and there are over 30 summits that are over 2,000 m (6,562 ft) high. Lakki was a small town about half way to the gorge, situated on a ridge among acres of olive groves.

Samaria Gorge, winding its way through the White Mountains

Samaria Gorge, winding its way through the White Mountains

Agriculture is still a major source of income in Crete, although dwarfed by tourism these days. Two fertile plateaus east and west, provide a great deal of the produce, while terraced olive trees cover the lower slopes of mountains in orderly rows, with citrus and other fruit orchards squeezed into nearly every available space in the lower altitudes.

Lasithi Plateau, abundant farmland but missing the traditional windmills of old.

Lasithi Plateau, abundant farmland but missing the traditional windmills of old.

I recall vividly clambering over the mountain pass bordering the eastern edge of the Lasithi Plateau and finding several ancient windmills, sails turning majestically in the breeze. Unfortunately, these windmills have largely crumbled into disrepair.

Windmills' stone bases along the easatern mountain pass to Lasithi Plain

Windmills’ stone bases along the eastern mountain pass to Lasithi Plain

Virtually all the functional windmills now in Lasithi are modern iron-framed, soulless water pumps, as seen below.

Modern windmills on metal frame -- not quite the same

Modern windmills on metal frame — not quite the same

I finally spied a few stone windmills with the bare bones of sails, but without canvas, on the western side of the plain.

Windmill without its sails, western ridge of Lasithi Plain

Windmill without its sails, western ridge of Lasithi Plain

Outside of Lygaria Beach, where we stayed, my favorite town in Crete is Hania, mainly because the municipality has retained much of its quaintness without sacrificing too much to the all powerful lure of tourism. Nevertheless, Hania had its share of touts, cheap trinkets and souvenirs and overpriced cafes. Yet the city has done a much better job of preserving its centuries-old Venetian architecture than its neighboring city, Rethymno.

Old mosque and Venetian buildings on the east side of Hania harbor

Old mosque and Venetian buildings on the east side of Hania harbor

A charming art gallery in the old Venetian section of Hania around the harbor. Through the doorways you can glimpse the interior courtyard and garden of this old house.

A charming art gallery in the old Venetian section of Hania around the harbor. Through the doorways you can glimpse the interior courtyard and garden of this old house.

Cafes claim every centimeter of space possible in the narrow streets of old Hania

Cafes claim every centimeter of space possible in the narrow streets of old Hania

And the streets can get quite narrow!

And the streets can get quite narrow!

By contrast, Rethymino was highly commercialized, and many fine Venetian-era buildings crumbling from neglect. It was very common to find a beautiful building’s street level area renovated and housing a tony boutique, IT store, or cafe, while the upper stories languished in disrepair and neglect.

The Venetian-era lighthouse in Rethimnon's harbor.

The Venetian-era lighthouse in Rethimnon’s harbor.

Rethminon's waterfront boulvard, replete with touts.

Rethminon’s waterfront boulvard, replete with touts.

We became so annoyed with Rethminon’s waterfront cafes’ touts that we beat a fast retreat. We stopped for a cool drink and snack at the first quiet cafe we came upon, only to find this two doors down:IMG_1041First “Euro Store” I’d seen in Europe. What a disappointment!

In total contrast is Knossos, the royal palace of the ancient Minoan culture that once ruled much of the Mediterranean eastern rim. Historians and archaeologists accredit the Minoans as having the first European civilization. I was glad to see that the excavations were proceeding more cautiously and with greater protection than 35+ years ago, but there are still problems with looting an even graffiti on the premises. For that reasons, most of the truly significant, original artifacts, including the frecoes, have been removed to the Archaeological Museum, and musch of that you see here has been reconstructed – not without controversy from purists.

Knossos Hilltop Palace

Knossos Hilltop Palace

Jars or amphoras, partially reconstructed

Jars or amphoras, partially reconstructed

Throne room

Throne room

Detail of grifffin frescoe in throne room

Detail of griffin fresco in throne room

 

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

Bull Horns, symbol of the Minoan King (partially reconstructed)

 

Gift Bearers frescor (reproduction)

Gift Bearers fresco (reproduction)

Bull Leapers of Knossos

Bull Leapers of Knossos

 

We stayed at a small, family-run hotel on a hillside above Lygaria Beach, 18 km west of Heraklion. It was like being in our own private world. The room was small and Spartan, but the restaurant very reasonable (if not inexpensive), and the food outstanding. The Spiros-Soula Hotel was a delight and a respite, with cool breezes obviating any need for A/C. The family was friendly, generous and lovely to spend time with. Even the family cat adopted us. (What a surprise.)

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The Spirous-Soula Hotel

The Spirous-Soula Hotel

Looking down the hill toward Lygaria Beach and beyond:

Lygaria Beach and bay below Spiros-Soula Hotel

Lygaria Beach and bay below Spiros-Soula Hotel

And, finally, as I end this posting, one of many reasons we plan to return to Crete:

Sunset ove Lygaria Beach and bay

Sunset ove Lygaria Beach and bay

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Where Legends Were Born and Myths Died Hard: Peloponnese

The eastern entrance to the Canal of Corinth is considerably wider than its 21 m./70 ft. width.

The eastern entrance to the Canal of Corinth is considerably wider than its 21 m./70 ft. width at its narrowest.

Crossing the narrow isthmus of Corinth from Attica to the peninsula of Peloponnese felt as if I’d crossed into the lands and fertile imagination of my eight year-old world. Captivated by my 3rd grade text of Greek mythology, my absorption with Greek history, gods and wars grew along with my expanded reading, our family travels, and my father’s tolerance for answering endless questions. By the time I was 12, I knew far more European history – especially Greek – than I knew about my own country. To me, the legends and myths of Greece, the major wars between the dominant city states of Athens, Corinth and Sparta (as well as smaller wars between any of them and other Greek cities), the great Greek-Persian battles, were a living panoply of history, often re-enacted with childhood friends. (I usually chose to be a Spartan warrior – but only if I had to be a mortal…but…if I was feeling particularly democratic and less like a goddess, I’d opt to be an Athenian bull leaper in Crete. Go figure.)

Thus it was with awe I walked through the ancient cities of Corinth and Mycenae, strolling the same cobbled and marbled roads that kings Menelaus and Agamemnon had trod before they set sail for Troy. We even visited what is believed to be the site of Agamemnon’s tomb. However, I’m going to leave it to you readers to look up what aspects of Greek history and myth to refresh your memories, and will try to stick with mostly pictures and explanatory captions. (And maybe a legend or two!)

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The Corinth Canal connects the Saronic Gulf the east the Aegean Sea, to the Gulf of Corinth, in the west (which in turn leads to the Ionian Sea, then to the Adriatic Sea). Unable to cut through the meters-thick rock, the crafty Corinthians of old laid logs across the width of the isthmus, and charged mariners to drag their ships across land to the other side. It was either drag your ship across the isthmus 6 km/4 miles or spend 2-3 days sailing around the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Due its narrow breadth, the canal today is used primarily by pleasure craft or very small commercial freighters.

With beginnings tracing back to the 8th c. B.C., Corinth by its heyday in 5th c. B.C. was a power to be reckoned with. One of the three most powerful Greek city-states, along with Athens and Sparta, Corinth had a population of about 250,000 and was a bustling center of commerce and wealth.  As with much of southern Greece, Corinth took its lumps from various invading forces: the Romans, Venetians and other European powers, before being taken over by the Ottomans. Today its excavated ruins can only give a glimpse of the beauty and position of power Corinth once had.An

Now, as promised, more pictures and less words.

Ancient Corinth

Acropolis overlooking Ancient Corinth. Centuries later, various central and western Europeans built their own fortifications around or over the ancient ones, giving the fortress walls a medieval look.

Acropolis overlooking Ancient Corinth. Centuries later, various central and western Europeans built their own fortifications around or over the ancient ones, giving the fortress walls a medieval look.

An interesting blend of ancient ruins of Corinth in the foreground, with a Byzantine church if left background, and more modern buildings to the right, with a Byzantine style church in the left background.

An interesting blend of ancient ruins of Corinth in the foreground, with a Byzantine church if left background, and more modern buildings to the right, with a Byzantine style church in the left background.

Ancient amphiteater at Corinth

Ancient amphitheater at Corinth

Temple of Apollo. It held 30 Doric columns, the tallest monolithic columns of any ancient Greek temple.

Temple of Apollo. It held 30 Doric columns, the tallest monolithic columns of any ancient Greek temple.

Temple of Apollo (circa mid-6th c. B.C.) contains the tallest monolithic columns of any ancient temple in Greece, per Jordan. Originally there were 34 limestone, marble-stuccoed Doric columns; today seven remain standing – still an impressive sight.

Reputedly the bath house and boudoir of one of the leading courtesans of Corinth (there were several hundred).

Reputedly the bath house and boudoir of one of the leading courtesans of Corinth (there were several hundred).

Greco-Roman statuary recovered in the excavations; on display outside the small museum at ancient Corinth.

Greco-Roman statuary recovered in the excavations; on display outside the small museum at ancient Corinth.

Remains of shops lining Lechaion Road

Remains of shops lining Lechaion Road

Well-preserved metope from Corinth

Well-preserved metope from Corinth

The Lechaion Road, the central road of Corinth, once lead from the city of approx. 250,000 to the Gulf of Corinth.

The Lechaion Road, the central road of Corinth, once lead from the city of approx. 250,000 to the Gulf of Corinth.

The Lechaion Road originated in Lechaion,the port city of ancient Corinth, strategically located northwest of Corinth. The marble-paved road, 20 feet wide or more  in places, ended at the propylaia or monumental entrance to the heart of Corinth.

Mycenae

Allegedly built by the giant, Cyclops, the only being large and strong enough to haul the huge stones up the surrounding mountains, Mycenae’s mountain city-fortress has survived the centuries. The Mycenae dynasties ruled from this citadel 16th through 12th c, B.C. and spread its culture throughout the eastern and mid-Mediterranean rim. The Mycenaean royalty supposedly were descended from the Olympian gods, and thus were the source of legends, myths, poetry and art for centuries beyond their existence. Yet until little over a century ago, most of the world believed that the Mycenae, Troy and the casts of characters spawned by Homer’s epic poetry were simply myth coupled with artistic license. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s brilliant excavations both at Mycenae and in western Turkey proved that at least some of the events, people and cities of legends were real.

Citadel atop the hill upon which Mycenae was built.

Citadel atop the hill upon which Mycenae was built.

So what really started the Trojan War? Did some or all of these legendary people truly exist and live as depicted in legend: Agamemnon and his faithless wife Clytemnestra; his brother Menelaus, whose wife, the beauteous Helen, purportedly sparked the Trojan war when she ran off with Paris, prince of Troy; warriors Achilles and Ajax; vengeful siblings Electra and Orestes; the wandering Odysseus. No one is absolutely certain where the facts waned and the legends grew, but there is some truth in the epic tales. Jealous, spiteful gods, youthful indiscretions, testosterone-fueled pride, revenge, alliances and allegiances, lust and greed — all seemed to have played a part in this story – along with a lot of myth. Here’s a highly condensed version:

Barred from an Olympian wedding due to her disagreeable nature, Eris, the goddess of discord, threw a golden apple among the guests. Inscribed on the apple were the words, “For the most beautiful.” Three goddesses immediately claimed the prize and title: Hera, Venus and Aphrodite. Chicken that he was, Zeus, who happened to be married to Hera, turfed the decision to a mere mortal, Paris, one of the sons of the King of Troy. Both Hera and Athena tried to bribe Paris with practical gifts: wealth and power from Hera, great wisdom from Athena. Aphrodite promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. What a surprise: Paris chose Aphrodite to win the coveted apple.

Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, unfortunately was married to Menelaus, King of Mycenaean Sparta. Undaunted – and on the ruse of a diplomatic mission — Paris traveled to Sparta to scope out the scene and claim his prize. Aphrodite’s little helper, Cupid, struck Helen with a “love arrow;” she duly fell in love with Paris, and off the two absconded across the Aegean to Troy, on the western coast of what is now Turkey.

Humiliated and angered, Menelaus gathered his fellow Greek allies, including his brother, King Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, Ulysses and others, and set sail for Troy. And while it would be convenient to say “the rest is history,” that wouldn’t be quite true. While most historians agree (1) there was a great city called Troy, and, (2) there was some kind of war between a Greek coalition, led by the Mycenaeans, and the Trojans, many also believe that this war had more to do with regional competition and wealth rather than love and revenge and the stuff of legendary heroes. And there are those who believe the whole story is a lot of Homeric bunk. But it is entertaining and certainly resonates, as it’s been retold for about 3000 years.

Barred from an Olympian wedding due to her disagreeable nature, Eris, the goddess of discord, threw a golden apple among the guests. Inscribed on the apple were the words, “For the most beautiful.” Three goddesses immediately claimed the prize and title: Hera, Venus and Aphrodite. Chicken that he was, Zeus, who happened to be married to Hera, turfed the decision to a mere mortal, Paris, one of the sons of the King of Troy. Both Hera and Athena tried to bribe Paris with practical gifts: wealth and power from Hera, great wisdom from Athena. Aphrodite promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. What a surprise: Paris chose Aphrodite to win the coveted apple.

Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, unfortunately was married to Menelaus, King of Mycenaean Sparta. Undaunted – and on the ruse of a diplomatic mission — Paris traveled to Sparta to scope out the scene and claim his prize. Aphrodite’s little helper, Cupid, struck Helen with a “love arrow;” she duly fell in love with Paris, and off the two absconded across the Aegean to Troy, on the western coast of what is now Turkey.

Humiliated and angered, Menelaus gathered his fellow Greek allies, including his brother, King Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, Ulysses and others, and set sail for Troy. And while it would be convenient to say “the rest is history,” that wouldn’t be quite true. While most historians agree (1) there was a great city called Troy, and, (2) there was some kind of war between a Greek coalition, led by the Mycenaeans, and the Trojans, many also believe that this war had more to do with regional competition and wealth rather than love and revenge and the stuff of legendary heroes. And there are those who believe the whole story is a lot of Homeric bunk. But it is entertaining and certainly resonates, as it’s been retold for about 3000 years.

Now for some pictures.

Lions' Gate, leading to the inner city of Mycenae

Lions’ Gate, leading to the inner city of Mycenae

Detail of Lions' Gate

Detail of Lions’ Gate

Royal cemeteries or grave circles functioned as mass graves, where  layers of Mycenaean royalty were laid to rest over their elders.

Royal cemeteries or grave circles functioned as mass graves, where layers of Mycenaean royalty were laid to rest over their elders.

Mycenaean gold mask recovered from the royal grave pits at Mycenae.

Mycenaean gold mask recovered from the royal grave pits at Mycenae.

Entrance to tomb of King Agamemnon. A gold mask, one of several found (as the one above) in the royal grave circle at Mycenae, is believed to be that of Agamemnon and is in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.

Entrance to tomb of King Agamemnon. A gold mask, one of several found (as the one above) in the royal grave circle at Mycenae, is believed to be that of Agamemnon and is in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.

Entrance to one of the grave circles at Mycenae.

Entrance to one of the grave circles at Mycenae.

Gold necklace from Mycenae.

Gold necklace from Mycenae.

Swords found at Mycenae

Swords found at Mycenae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nafplion

Once the capital of Greece, Nafplion is a hidden beauty unfamiliar to many Europeans and most Americans. Its charming yet small waterfront on the Argolic Gulf of palm-fronted, open-air restaurants and cafes remind me of Nice and Cannes in the 60s.  As much of southern Greece, Nafplion fell under the dominion (post-Roman empire) of various European powers before being overtaken by the Ottoman Turks, then wrested back in the name of Christianity and re-established as the kingdom of Greece in the 1830s. The Europeans’ puppet king, Otto, a lesser Bavarian prince, promptly moved the capital to Athens and Nafplion slipped into the backwaters of history. The city is slowly being discovered by an increasing number of tourists, but still retains its small town charm and appearance. (In other words, not a lot of globalization is readily apparent.)

A portion of the Naplion waterfront in the foreground, with the small Venetian fort Bourtzi in upper left.

A portion of the Naplion waterfront in the foreground, with the small Venetian fort Bourtzi in upper left.

The Venetians defeated the ruling Ottomans here in 1540. They were building the Palamidi fortress-castle when the region was retaken by the Ottomans in 1715.

The Venetians defeated the ruling Ottomans here in 1540. They were building the Palamidi fortress-castle when the region was retaken by the Ottomans in 1715.

Part of Palmidi overlooking the Argolic Gulf.

Part of Palmidi overlooking the Argolic Gulf.

Epidavros

Another site we visited was Epidavros, once the center for healing in ancient Greece. Founded in the 6th c. B.C. to honor the god of healing, Asclepius, the sanctuary grew in reputation and wealth from grateful patrons cured of various maladies. Due to all the generous gifting from grateful patrons and patients, the site also became a center for the arts, with beautiful buildings designed by the bests architects, statuary from the best sculptors, and the construction of one of the most acoustically perfect amphitheaters of the ancient world — and one of the best preserved.

Unfortunately, invasions over the centuries from Romans, Goths and others destroyed much of the buildings and artwork. However, the amphitheater has survived quite well and is still used today for performances. A small museum displays many of the excavated items, including some interesting medical instruments, many of which have changed little over the centuries.

Medical Instruments from  3rd and 4th c. B.C.

Medical Instruments from 3rd and 4th c. B.C.

Statue of Asklepios, the god of healing (Aesclypsus in Latin).

Statue of Asklepios, the god of healing (Aesclypsus in Latin).

Amphitheater at Epidavros, still in use today. There were too many tour groups coming and going to try out the acousitics. Supposedly a coin dropped on stage can be heard throughout the stadium.

Amphitheater at Epidavros, still in use today. There were too many tour groups coming and going to try out the acoustics. Supposedly a coin dropped on stage can be heard throughout the stadium.

As a final word, I cannot begin to thank enough our driver-guide, Jordan Daigolou for the incredible tour he gave this day (along with his son guide-in-training, Nikolas) as well as his tour of Athens the day before. Our drives from site to site were full of historically sound information, Greek myths and facts, and spirited discussion. For any of you traveling to Greece and want a great driver-guide, here’s Jordan’s website and email: www.athens-tours.gr and jordantaxi52@hotmail.com.

Up next: Crete!

Ancient Athens: Agoras, Temples and Myths

City of Athens, the Acropolis and the Saronic Gulf

City of Athens, the Acropolis and the Saronic Gulf

My earlier blog on Athens focused nearly exclusively on the Acropolis, the crown jewel of Athens.  As anyone knows who’s been there, Athens offers more riches than I can ever possibly cover in even a second blog posting. So for the rest of this “discourse” I will be focusing on just a few of the ruins and sights that we enjoyed while in Athens. Hopefully, I will get to a third, which will focus on a few of the major sights of the Peloponnese peninsula that we toured. One of the best moves we made was to hire for two days a “driver-guide,” a native Athenian who was incredibly knowledgeable about Greek history, architecture and culture. Through Jordan Daioglou’s knowledge and expertise, we were lucky enough to soak in a fortune of Greece’s varied history and culture. So to the highlights:

The Ancient Agora

The “Ancient Agora” dates to the 6th c. B.C., Greek era of Athens. An agora was a combination marketplace, center for administrative and commercial entities, and a location where citizens could socialize as well as wax political. In Roman times, the agora was also referred to as a   “forum,” although in Athens, the Roman Agora is known as…”the Roman Agora.” The Ancient (or Greek) agora is far more interesting. It has a mix of Greek architecture, statuary, ruins, and the most completely intact ancient temple in Greece, the Temple of Hephaestus. Unfortunately, the agora has sustained substantial damage over the centuries from Persian, Goth and Turk invasions, and general pillaging and theft.

Temple of Hephaestus flanked with female and male cyprus trees

Temple of Hephaestus flanked with female and male cyprus trees

In the picture above, the temple is flanked by a male cypress tree on the right and a female cypress tree on the left (the highest boughs on either side). They are easily distinguishable because the female is broader and fuller, whereas the male tree is straight, tall and spiky. I chose this picture to illustrate an interesting tale of the origins of the cypress tree Jordan regaled us with. (There are variations through the ages; this is the most common one.)

The Greek god of the Sun, Apollo, became enamored of a beautiful young man named Cyparissus, and presented the youth with a sacred stag as a gift. Cyparissus loved the deer, which soon became his treasured pet. One day, while hunting alone, Cyparissus accidentally killed the deer. In tears, he begged Apollo to allow him to mourn forever. Apollo reluctantly granted his lover his wish, and turned Cyparissus into a tree so he could stand vigil over the spot where the deer had died and mourn his beloved pet for eternity. And, from the myth, came historical tradition: since ancient times the majestic (male) cypress tree has remained a symbol of mourning, continuously “weeping” (exuding resin) for those who have passed on. And throughout the Greek and Roman world, you will find only male cypress trees planted in cemeteries, and the boughs of the cypress tree are used for wreaths of mourning. According to one site I checked, even the Roman Catholic popes are buried in cypress caskets.

Back to the Temple of Hephaestus. It is on a small hill overlooking the Ancient Agora. Remarkably complete, it nevertheless has sustained damage since constructed in 449 B.C. Hephaestus, known as Vulcan in the Roman pantheon, was the god of fire, the forge and metal workers. He hammered those nasty iron-and-fire thunderbolts that Zeus was forever raining down on disloyal worshipers. There are some beautiful metopes (stone relief sculptures) on the eastern and western walls of the temple. The ones below seemed better preserved.

Temple of Hephaestus, 449 B.C.

Temple of Hephaestus, 449 B.C.

Frieze (west end) of Temple of Hephaestus, 449 B.C.

Metopes (west end) of Temple of Hephaestus, 449 B.C., depict a legendary battle between centaurs and the Lapiths, an ancient tribe from Thessaly.

The Stoa of Attalos

The Stoa of Attalos (reconstructed)

The Stoa of Attalos (reconstructed)

Not without controversy from archaeological purists, the Stoa of Attalos has been reconstructed to illustrate what this beautiful yet functional building once looked like. Part administrative offices, part commercial shops, the stoa also provided an open yet shaded meeting place for Athenians to meet and greet and do business. The columned “porch” was 115 meters/ 377 feet long and made completely of marble; in the lower porch the exterior, fluted columns were of the Doric style, and the interior (unfluted) columns were Ionic. Today, both the upper and lower porches display remains of period statuary, and the interior lower rooms are a small museum. Through the ages there were several stoas in the agora but sadly they have not survived except in pieces. However, the reconstruction of this stoa at least provides modern visitors an idea of their beauty and function.

(If you want to brush up on your architectural  column styles, go to

http://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/519/flashcards/1605519/jpg/doric_ionic_corinthian1345064595381.jpg)

Exterior of Porch of Stoa of Attalos

Exterior facade of the porch of Stoa of Attalos

Detail of upper porch of the Stoa of Attalos

Detail of upper porch of the Stoa of Attalos

Reconstruction of lower porch of Stoa of Attalos 159-138 B.C.

Reconstruction of lower porch of Stoa of Attalos 159-138 B.C.

Church of the Holy Apostles

There were other, far less intact remains of temples and buildings in the Ancient Agora.  One building that struck my interest wasn’t of either the Greek or Roman eras, but a Byzantine chapel built over some Greek agora ruins.

Church of the Holy Apostles (Byzantine addition to the Ancient Greek Agora)

Church of the Holy Apostles (Byzantine addition to the Ancient Greek Agora). The large bush in front is in the bay laurel family, I was told.

Defaced Fresco in Church of the Holy Apostles

Defaced Fresco in Church of the Holy Apostles

Constructed in the 10th c. A.D. this chapel, the oldest Byzantine church in Athens, stands over what was once a Greek temple to nymphs. (How’s that for irony?)  The chapel’s simplicity, even in the Byzantine style, simply captivated me, as did the interior frescoes. Allegedly, and unfortunately, Turkish occupiers of Athens chose to horribly deface these intricate frescoes.

The Roman Agora is about 100 meters from the Ancient Agora and also worth a visit, but aside from the entry arch (below), the ruins are not as well preserved or reconstructed as in the Greek agora.

Arched entrance to Roman Agora

Arched entrance to Roman Agora

Temple of Zeus & Hadrian’s Arch

The magnificent Temple of Zeus was once the largest temple of Ancient Greece. It also took the longest to build – 700 years – and after many starts and stops was finished by Emperor Hadrian in 131 A.D. Sadly, almost all of the 104 Corinthian columns have been destroyed by time or vandals, and only fourteen remain standing; a 15th lies in pieces on the broken marble flooring.

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus - Details of Corinthian capitals

Temple of Zeus – Details of Corinthian capitals

Our guide, Jordan, told us that these temple columns, the tallest in Greece, had been secured together with molten lead pored through a hole bored through the center of each piece as one monster disk was mounted on top of the others already in place. Many of the columns still standing in 1687 were destroyed when the Turks, under attack by the Venetians, tore them apart to remove the lead for bullets and cannon balls.

A remnant of Rome’s domination of Athens stands at one end of the park housing the Temple of Zeus. Hadrian also built this grand archway, decreeing it would mark the end of the “old” city of Athens as well as grandly mark the entrance to the “new” and decidedly Roman city.

Hadrian's Arch, leading to Temple of Zeus

Hadrian’s Arch, leading to Temple of Zeus

Pan-Athenaic Stadium

We learned there is much misinformation about the origins of modern-day Olympic games and which is the “original” Olympic stadium (there is none existing). Contrary to what many people believe, the Pan-Athenaic Stadium in Athens (pictured below) is not the original, ancient Olympic stadium.  Most accurately referred to as the “Ancient Games,” these pan-Greek athletic events were held every four years to honor Zeus, and took place in Olympia, from which the name “Olympic Games” eventually derived. The first stadium on this site in Athens was a 4th c. B.C. wooden arena, and was used for traditionally Greek athletic contests honoring the goddess Athena, hence the name. The wood was replaced with marble in 329 B.C., refurbished in 140 A.D., then left to languish through the years of various occupations.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, various cities and countries around Europe sponsored Olympic “festivals” and athletic events, but the first modern “Olympic Games” (involving only Greek and Ottoman Empire participants) were held in an Athens square in 1859.  What was left of the old Pan-Athenaic stadium was restored privately by a wealthy Greek, who also personally funded the Games held there in 1870 and 1875.  Another wealthy Greek, George Averoff, then funded a massive overhaul of the stadium for the Olympic games held here in 1896. The stadium was used once again when Athens hosted the 2004 Olympics, for both the archery competition and, fittingly, the end of the marathon.

Pan-Athenaic Stadium, reconstructed for 1896 Olympic Games

Pan-Athenaic Stadium, reconstructed for 1896 Olympic Games

Lykavittos Hill

Lycavittos Hill (Hill of the wolves), highest point in Athens, crowned by Chapel of Agios Georgios

Lycavittos Hill (Hill of the wolves), highest point in Athens, crowned by the Chapel of Agios Georgios

Named in ancient times as the “Hill of Wolves,” the Lykavittos (also known as “Lycabettos”) is the highest point in the city. Rising out of the sprawl of modern Athens, the hill offers beautiful vistas of the metropolis (when not obscured by smog). We opted not to either hike or take the funicular to the summit where the Chapel of Agios Georgios perches, but stopped just below for a photo op.From Lykovittos Hill

 

Temple of Poseidon

Temple of Poseidon atop cliff at sounion, overlooking Aegean Sea

Temple of Poseidon atop cliff at sounion, overlooking Aegean Sea

It is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed with ancient ruins in Athens and its environs – there are so many beautiful sights to see. The Temple of Poseidon is worth visiting, if for no other reason,for  its stunning location. Perched on a cliff above the cobalt Aegean Sea, this temple to the god of the seas has served as a beacon to sailors for centuries. For ancient Athenian sailors, it was a welcome sign that home was near. The temple was also at one time the centerpiece of a fortress that encircled this hilltop as the southernmost defensive point for Athens.

Nevertheless, the historic importance and beauty of this temple hasn’t deterred generations of individuals from carving their names into the marble columns and base of the temple. Among generals and plebeians alike, the English poet Lord Byron chiseled his name into a column in the early 1800s.

Temple of Poseidon

Temple of Poseidon

Temple of Poseidon (3)

The site of the temple also plays a role in Greek history and mythology, although how much is truth, how much myth, no one can say.

In ancient times the Minoan King of Crete ruled many of the islands and mainland of southern Greece, including Athens. Legend is that King Minos demanded an annual blood tribute from each vassal state: seven boys and seven girls to be sent each year to Crete. Rumor had it that the hundreds of youths brought each year were to be fed to the Minotaur, the king’s son, a mythical half-bull, half-man that roamed in the labyrinth of Knossos, the Minoan royal palace .

One year Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, Aegeus, pleaded with his father to be sent as one of the seven Athenian male youths. Already renowned for his prowess, Theseus claimed he could kill the Minotaur, and free Athens from Minoan tyranny. His father relented, but only if Theseus swore that if he should return in triumph from Crete, he must replace his ship’s black sail with a white one, so that King Aegeus would know his son still lived.

Theseus sailed to Crete, and within a short time, King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell madly in love with him. On the day he was to enter the labyrinth and encounter the Minotaur, she gave Theseus a ball of string, instructing him to tie it to the entrance so he could find his way out again.

Theseus slew the Minotaur, found his way out of the labyrinth, collected his lover and Athenian compatriots, and headed home for Athens. Along the way, they stopped at an island to replenish food and water, and the feckless Ariadne fell in love with Dionysus, the god of wine and partying. Distraught, Theseus resumed sail for home, but as he entered the gulf leading to Athens from the sea, he forgot to hoist his white sail. King Aegeus, who had stood watch at the Temple of Poseidon waiting for his son’s return, saw Theseus’ ship approaching, but with the black — not white — sail unfurled in the wind. In despair, Aegeus threw himself off the cliff into the sea. And thus the body of water at the mouth of the gulf have ever since been known as the Aegean Sea.

And that’s it for now. Stay tuned!

Travel notes: I mentioned our guide, Jordan Daioglou, who was a magnificent tour guide. If traveling to Athens and mainland Greece, I highly recommend you retain him. His website is www.athens-tours.gr or you can reach him at jordantaxi52@hotmail.com.

Athens: Ageless and Still Stunning

The Parthenon on the Acropolis at Twilight

The Parthenon on the Acropolis at Twilight

Athens is timeless, a stunningly beautiful series of images from more centuries than most people even want to contemplate. Even now, after my fourth or fifth visit, I’m awed by the magnificence of its ancient buildings. Many of Athens’ iconic buildings, such as the Parthenon, above, were constructed in the 5th c. B.C., others before, others after. The following posting is going to be shorter than usual on words, but have so many more pictures, as I feel the beauty of Athens, even poorly captured by camera, speaks more succinctly than whatever I can put into words. Everyone gravitates to the Acropolis first, the flat-topped mount in the heart of Athens upon which the Parthenon, the city’s ancient testament to its namesake, the Goddess Athena,still presides — despite 15 centuries of wars, desecration, explosions, theft and neglect. However, I would recommend to the novice in Athens that they go first to the New Acropolis Museum, and learn as much as they can about the Acropolis, its construction and its restoration, before actually trek up the hill itself.

The New Acropolis Museum

The New Acropolis Museum

It’s an incredibly well-done museum, opened in 2009, with exhibits and film in English and Greek. Many of the remaining, original metopes (3/4 “relief-statues”), friezes and statuary have been removed from the Acropolis to the Museum to preserve them. You can also hire a private guide to take you through either or both the museum and the Acropolis itself. (Tours by Locals has some great guides; whether you choose them or another guide source, read carefully about the difference between “driver-guides” and state-licensed “official” tour guides. Both serve their purpose.) However, if you’ve read up on your Greek history and have a particularly good guide book (I favor the Lonely Planet series as a     start), then you could be okay on your own. The walk up to the Acropolis is steep and the marble pathway can be very uneven and slippery, so beware of stylish and dysfunctional footwear. But it’s worth the climb.

Approach to the Acropolis monuments through the Propylaia, 437 B.C.

Approach to the Acropolis monuments through the Propylaia, 437 B.C.

To the right, at the top of the Propylaia is the exquisite temple of Athena Nike, which was recently reconstructed for about the second or third time.

Temple of Athena Nike, 425 B.C.

Temple of Athena Nike, 425 B.C.

And finally, the Parthenon. It’s been under repair/reconstruction/preservation for over 30 years, so it’s hard to avoid having scaffolds and cranes in the pictures.

Reconstruction or repairs to Parthenon

Reconstruction or repairs to Parthenon

To the left is a beautiful temple, really three temples, called the Erechtheion. It’s actually the most sacred spot on the Acropolis. The founding of the city actually began here, according to myth. In short, both Poseidon (God of the Seas) and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom, among other virtues) vied for the city. Poseidon struck his trident into the rock of the Acropolis and a saltwater spring gushed forth. Athena waved her hand (presumably) and an olive tree sprouted and grew from the rock. The people chose Athena as their patron goddess. However, not wanting to totally offend Poseidon, the citizens of Athens dedicated a temple on the left of the Erechtheion to Poseidon. On the right is the famous porch of the Caryatids (or maidens), and in the center, is the temple where the inner sanctum was the holiest spot in Athens

Erechtheion - Most sacred spot on the Acropolis

Erechtheion – Most sacred spot on the Acropolis

Porch of the Caryatids,Erechtheion, begun 421 B.C.

Porch of the Caryatids,Erechtheion, begun 421 B.C.  These Caryatids here are reconstructions.  Five of the original six statues are in the New Acropolis Museum; the 6th is in the British Museum.

And about the stolen artwork, in short: Periodically there is a big brouhaha between Athens and the British Museum about the fact that a former British Ambassador, Lord Elgin, spirited off to London several marble Parthenon friezes as well as one of the Caryatids from the Acropolis. The British refuse to return them, saying they paid for them. The Greeks are totally dissatisfied with this response, since Lord Elgin paid the Ottoman Turks, who then ruled Athens (along with much of Greece). The matter is unresolved and remains a sore point with Greeks, Athenians in particular.

Ancient Entrance to the Parthenon -  from the East. With few exceptions, all ancient temples in Greece are entered from the east.

Ancient Entrance to the Parthenon – from the East. With few exceptions, all ancient temples in Greece are entered from the east.

Two theaters flank the southern slope of the Acropolis. The Odeon is still used today for concerts, and the Temple of Dionysus has sadly disintegrated.

Odeon (theater) of Herodes Atticus, 161 A.D.

Odeon (theater) of Herodes Atticus, 161 A.D.

Theater of Dionysus, 6th c. B.C. (SE corner of Acropolis)

Theater of Dionysus, 6th c. B.C. (SE corner of Acropolis)

 Cat finds friends.  Feral cats abound on the Acropolis. (No, I didn't pet it, Mom!)

Cat finds friends. Feral cats abound on the Acropolis. (No, I didn’t pet it, Mom

The Parthenon itself has sustained considerable damage beyond the ravages of time, art thieves, and the pillaging of marble and stone for building houses. Athens was in the hands of the Turks for a few hundred years, much to the consternation of the Christian (Western European) world. When the Venetians laid siege to the city, attempting to wrest Athens back into Christendom, they actually shot at the Acropolis and its temples. At the time, the Parthenon was used by the Turks as a munitions arsenal. Of course, once hit, the arsenal exploded, gouging the inner sanctums and columns of the Parthenon.

Destruction of the Parthenon when Turkish arsenal exploded in 1687

Destruction of the Parthenon when Turkish arsenal exploded in 1687

There is a great deal more to Athens than I can ever possibly cover in a single blog posting. So, I think I’ll end here, with just one more picture of the Parthenon, this time at full dark:

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