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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mycenae and Me

My reason for spending a week on the Peloponnese sits atop a high hill (not a mountain by Taos standards!) looking across to the ancient fortress of Argos. Alongside my fifth-graders at Potomac School in McLean, VA more than twenty years ago, I took an imaginary walk through the Lion Gate you see below. The simple language of a children's version of Homer's Iliad, inspired my determination to one day walk, for real, through the same gate where Agamemnon set off for Troy. Could that walk bring alive the raw emotions of this epic tale of battle? I wanted to find out in person. Finally this May, I stood — with hundreds of fellow tourists — absorbing centuries of mythology and history that reverberated from Mycenae's massive walls, deep cisterns, and vast views over the Argolis plain.

No way to stand alone at Mycenae's Lion Gate.
Notice the Greek war helmet on my shirt. I couldn't keep myself from purchasing it when I learned that Troy was a stop on the Grand Circle trip I'd booked with Barbara, my dear friend and best travel buddy. The whole Iliad is written around the shirt in tiny print that forms that iconic helmet. I simply couldn't go to Troy without spending a day at Mycenae, the place the war began!

Walking through the gate, I stared up to the top of those cyclopean walls that lead to the citadel and palace. No fools, those Greeks! Enemies who managed to batter through the heavy wooden gate then faced a long exposed walk. There, they made easy targets for the spears and arrows of residents perched above. See the plan with the Lion Gate in the lower corner:
You'll see the Lion Gate in SE corner.
Several cisterns lie within the cyclopean walls. Some are fed by springs while one far below the city is served by a distant spring via an ingenious aqueduct system. If it looks dark at that doorway, imagine traveling a hundred yards in total darkness — the iPhone flashlight led me just far enough to realize that I didn't need to see a cistern at the end of a narrow, deep underground tunnel. This claustrophobe gave in to "seen one cistern, seen them all," on her retreat to natural light.

Able to withstand siege and assault, Mycenae served as both palace and worship center. Workshops for making weaponry and items for daily living lie not far from the markets of the agora. At the market, citizens might have purchased a vase decorated like the sherds you see below (1250-1050 B.C.). It depicts a chariot that likely resembles the one Achilles used to drag Hector around the gates of Troy.

Dates for the Trojan War are fuzzy - 12th or 13th century B.C. is as close as historians are willing to venture. Heck! — we can't even decide for sure if Homer existed or when his epic poems were composed.  Finding a modern translation selling online at Walmart suggest their popularity is a given, no matter when or by whom the stories were recorded.

What was life like for those ancient Greeks who sent thousands into battle, all for the sake of honor and the return of the most beautiful woman in the world. That question still sends tourists across oceans and continents to stand and reflect on the ground and within the walls where the battle call was first sounded.

Looking at artifacts inspires questions: could this woman, seen in the partial remains of an ancient fresco, be Iphigenia? It's intriguing to imagine this dutiful daughter whose sacrifice at Aulis was required before Artemis would allow the winds to blow the becalmed Greek fleet. Reading her story, told by Doris Gates in A Fair Wind for Troy, encouraged some lively discussions about sacrifice, parent-child obligations, and the inseparable nature of history and mythology in our study of ancient Greece.

Many objects in the exquisite small museum at this hilltop World Heritage Site transported me to the Mycenae of the BigA's: Agamemnon, Artemis, and Achilles. What an amazing variety of skills this culture shares with modern observers who marvel at both those cyclopean walls and these delicate small figurines (between 2-4 inches tall) from daily life and from the imagination.

Could my neighbor's morning cock-a-doodle-doo have descended from this Greek cousin?

This pair of sphinx-like figures — a skinny winged lion-man — intrigued and delighted.

This head cover caught my eye — just what every woman needs on a bad hair day atop a windy hill!

And what about that jointed body - some ritual puppet for goddess worship? Without explanation at the museum, I'm guessing no expert is willing to risk making an educated guess, at least not yet. 

No educated guessing on my travel intentions: return to the Peloponnese as soon as circumstances allow. A day at Epidaurus (click the history button to learn more) is a must.  Olympus calls to me, as well. There I'll honor the Greek Olympics, the celebration marking every Potomac fifth-grader's year-end with authentic costumes, games, and laurel wreaths. Turns out that my time at Mycenae didn't satisfy. I'll return with a good guide(book, if not a person) to complete this triad of Peloponnesian "must-do's."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Symi - splendid serendipity!

Symi, a small island that is considered by some to be the most beautiful of all Greek islands, is the first overnight stop on our small ship tour. Barbara, Jo Ann, Nancy and I woke to find ourselves in a beautiful small harbor. After a morning walk-around the tiny port town, our program director Attila, invited us to spend the day as we pleased. Everyone grinned: the flight from Athens followed by walking tours in Rhodes had been grueling. A 4 a.m. wake-up call was just the beginning of a long trip from one side of the Aegean Sea to the other. A superb lunch in Romios' shaded garden gave us just enough energy to board the Artemis before cocktail hour, dinner, and a night sail to Symi.

Atilla informed us that within short walking distance of our mooring in Symi harbor we'd find a pleasant beach for swimming and sunbathing. Motorcycles were available to rent for backroad adventures. There was always the option to explore art galleries and shops in town or kickback on the boat: perhaps read a book or play a game in the air-conditioned lounge or enjoy a mix of sun and shade on the upper deck. The four of us remained undecided, as our morning orientation walk came to a close. Then we heard the Poseidon's captain, Giannis, call out from the town dock: "Ladies, come for a cruise around the island with swimming and a BBQ lunch." Barbara said, "Whaddya think? Do we have time?" No hesitation — almost in unison, we all said, "Brilliant idea: absolutely! YES!!"

Making a quick dash back to the Artemis, we gathered basic day-on-the-boat gear: swimsuits & coverups, plenty of the large fluffy beach towels provided by cruise line, sunscreen, water, and flip-flops instead of walking shoes. Nancy and Jo Ann met us at the Poseidon at exactly 10:30 a.m. The excursion schedule included three stops at small coves for swimming and a lunch stop on the tiny island of Spetses before our return to the Artemis for the daily port talk and dinner.

Our loop around the island stopped first at a cove we called Spaghetti/Macaroni - Greek name: Maroni. After that we swam at Savasilios or "Santa Claus."  The last swim stop was in cove called St. Nikolas, the location where Guns of Navarone was filmed.

Those synchronized smiles tell the whole story. The water was warm enough after a momentary shock of cool. The Aegean is no bathtub! However, knowing that ouzo waited for us after the swim eased the slide from ladder to sea. Can you see our feet?  Divine is my only word for the Aegean's crystalline waters.

After each swim, Giannis welcomed us back aboard with tiny shots of ouzo or glasses of wine. Plenty of water available all day; no need to bring my own water bottle next time. Can you read the sub-text? ( return to Greece is surely in my future :-)

As lunchtime approached, we motored to Spetses, the itty bitty chunk of land southeast of the main island. Populated by a small herd of very hungry goats, its jetty was handy for off-loading the BBQ grill and provisions. The beach, shaded by pine trees, had plenty of picnic tables awaiting our buffet. To one side of the jetty is a pebble beach while the other side is sandy. While Yiannis and crew prepared lunch, I swam out to see if the dolphins who followed us into the dock might return, but no luck. I did, however, have a pleasant chat with an Irishman who had lived a couple of years in Albuquerque. A sometime Celtic musician, he had played in a couple of clubs I'd been to in Santa Fe — small world, indeed!

When we finished the perfect lunch of BBQ chicken and homemade Greek side dishes plus an all-American potato salad that we doctored with tzatsiki, the goats moved in to do KP.

St Nikolas cove, the location where The Guns of Navarone was filmed, was our last swim stop —by then, I was ready for full-on relax. Yiannis offered coffee, cake, more ouzo, wine, or water. Lazing against the cushions while background splashes punctuated The Fisherman of Halicarnassus was heaven. It's the perfect companion book for this trip.

I tried shooting photos into the late-after afternoon sun, but that didn't work for me so I'll add some photos from JoAnn after I take my computer to her on July 6th for picture downloading. 

Take a look below the ladder to see how clear the water is — no coral or other reef items for exploring via snorkel, but gazing at the sea floor while swimming was truly grand!!


Deciding to take the boat trip reinforced our trip theme: "When serendipity calls — as unexpected opportunities arise — say yes and see what happens." As with the necessaries, one visits the loo whenever it appears NOT when you need it. You never know when another will present itself. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Cruising the Gulf

Some photos to go with yesterday's commentary - yes! I solved the upload problem; just required a lot of patience with a very slow internet connection. Those who know me well will quickly note that patience is a virtue I express seldom, if at all!

On the Pegasus cruise, leaving the harbor at Tolo:

Those increcible clear aquamarine waters of Hydra beckon swimmers but the rocks present a forbidding entry. The solution:  sunbathing platforms perched among the shoreline rocks — and shallow steps leading into the water. Even nicer: from the swim platforms, one can meander uphill to shaded refreshment stands with picnic tables, umbrellas, and good mood music. A very civilized way to enjoy the sea!

See, Alan, I told you I ate lunch with a cannon. I just wish you could read the fine print on the menu that tells about the Sunset Restaurant being voted the 2nd best view in the world.

More cannons - and that's Gill&Steph who I met on the boat; funny that we all ended up at the same restaurant with a view and shared lunch together. Behind the lens is Peter, Steph's brother: 

Why so many cannons, you ask. Think pirates following in the wake of the shipping lanes that criss-crossed the waters between Italy and Byzantium. In fact, trade and anti-piracy activity provided most of Bouboulina's fortune, from which she funded ships with cannons to aim at the Turks in Greece's the war of revolution.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Hydra & Heroines

My last day in Nafplio — for at least a year, anyway! — was a wonderful but exhausting excursion to taste the Argolida's islands. First a bus to Tolo, then hop aboard Pegasus cruises to Hydra. For those in the know, pronounce ee-dra. Arriving by private yacht is for those really in the know! But however you get there it's a delightful place to spend longer than the Pegasus cruise stop allowed.

Lunch at the 2nd-most beautiful view restaurant in the WORLD was wonderful. How do I know its standing in the view competition — the menu told me so right on the front cover. Homemade bread with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, and capers accompanied a grilled gilt-head bream on a bed of roasted veggies. The waiter said I wouldn't need a salad, and he was so right. All of this in the company of a few cannons and a trio of Brit-Canadians from the Pegasus. I was there for lunch, but this sunset view shows the cannon to good effect (AND I can't seem to upload photos right now)

The bad news: photo upload isn't working.
The good news: the Apple store is just a few steps downhill from the hotel. By now, my idea of a few steps is anything less than 999. I'll stop in before leaving Athens to see if I can solve the problem.

Now, about that heroine: Lascarina Bouboulis AKA Bouboulina. While on a short stop at the island of Spetses, I took in a museum tour guided by one of her descendents, a very handsome young man who spoke fantastic English. This article gives you a down-and-dirty account of her heroism, although I can't figure out the connection with Briton's genitals. Please comment if you get it  — still a little jet-laggy here, so I must be missing some subtle point.

There are tons of poetic tales and a Wikipedia entry online if you want to know more than this brief overview. EVERY Greek knows Bouboulina, AND I bet they're hoping that the 1 drachma coin with her image on the front and the Agamemmnon on the reverse remains a souvenir. I don't remember ever getting a coin as a parting gift from a museum. I'm holding on to this coin in case it gains some value beyond the story it tells — maybe  when I return next year?

At the end of the cruise, I walked uphill from the harbor in Tolo to the first gift shop on the left. If the next bus had been scheduled to arrive in less than two hours, I never would have experienced another memorable moment: an inquiry for a taxi, and the shopkeeper replied in New York accented English. For a minute, I wondered if I was in Times Square. She asked me where I was from and then delighted in telling me she'd  grown up in Queens!! While I waited for the taxi to arrive, she HAD to fill in the rest of the story. Her parents immigrated to the States when she was eight. She came to visit relatives in Greece when she graduated high school, and sure enough, she left with an engagement ring around her heart. Her husband-to-be needed to work a couple more years before she could rejoin him in Greece, and she's been in Tolo every since.

She gave me the inside skinny, from a shopkeeper's perspective, on the Greek economy/Eurozone relationship. She said Greeks DO work really hard: her son keeps the shop open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 8 months of the year. (It rains the other other four months, so there are no tourists, anyway) She said everyone in her town is sure that Angela Merkel is eager to seal a deal with the Greek prime minister, but her interest in Spyrias is not economic. "We've seen how she looks at him!!" So fun to laugh my way into the end of the stay in Nafplio.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Beginning and Ending With Cats

My little sister, Sue, wants more pictures! So, no editing just a few raw
Nafp-snaps to give you a feel for town and waterfront:

Small Greek salad - just right for one! Fresh feta and local olives: yum-yum!!

Palimidi Fortress - partially moonlit and a little help from Mr. Edison.
The island castle is under construction; guess I'll have to return when it's done for a tour!

Serendipity Strikes Again!

Last year when Barb and I traveled to the British Isles, we kept bumping into wonderful events and exhibitions which were not on our to-do list. We never got to see the inside of Windsor Castle, but even better, we watched the state parade celebrating the first visit, EVER!, of the Irish President to England. The Horse Guards, Mounted Bands (not marching on foot!), and an Irish Garda Unit made the event far more memorable than a castle tour might have been.

Serendipity followed us wherever we went — to Dublin and Dun Laoghairie in Ireland, the Isle of Skye, and Edinburgh Castle. It seems serendipity isn't done with me, yet! Serendipity made super memories last night in Nafplio!

For a change from the tourist restaurant scene, I sought out an Internet-recommended neighborhood cafe for early supper. Service was fine. Food was OK (filling, tasty enough, and healthy, if you don't count a plateful of fries). The jasmine overhead formed a refreshing canopy, even though its blooms were mostly-done. BUT, after dinner as I wound back toward the tourist section through the steep, narrow streets, I heard faint strains of Greek music. This was Monday evening, the Greek Orthodox day for celebrating Pentecost. Perhaps I could peek in on some religious celebration?

Following  the music through nearly-deserted streets, I arrived at the banner-festooned church square. A local audience was settling into neat rows of plastic chairs arranged on the street. I was just in time to hear the priest speak before the dancing began.

Check out the woman in the last row at 1:45 - clap hands and roll them isn't just for Patty-Cake anymore!

This post is especially dedicated to my cousin, Savannah Tennessee Elaine Walling. Folk dancing was once, and may still be, one of her passions

Monday, June 1, 2015

Wake Up, Sleepyhead!

Even better than iPhone alarm-tone! (*) From the balcony across the street (If you're following me, it will look familiar.) these cheerful flashes of sunshine — canaries? — sang me out of a restless jet-lagged sleep. You can bet I'll take Ambien tonight! Closer than their competition, the slightly off-key church bells a block away, these guys are impossible to ignore.

Downstairs to coffee and a Greek breakfast buffet that covers the 8-foot bar with everything from spanikopita to fresh fruit, olives,  feta cheese and chopped tomatoes, honey and yoghurt, and chocolate cake! There's  something for ALMOST every breakfast taste in Europe and North America.

However: ¡No hay huevos rancheros aquĆ­ en Nafplio!

*figured out how to use iPhone alarm - so simple: just set it 8 hours ahead of Taos time, i. e. whatever time it shows. Why did that seem so complicated two days ago?