08 June 2010

Tour of mainland Greece

18-21 May, 2010

In the morning I was picked up from my hotel and taken to my tour bus, where I joined 10 others who were doing either a 3-day or 4-day 'Classical' tour of mainland Greece.  Our guide, Vassiliki, was by far the best guide I had on the tour.  Her English was excellent, she had a good sense of humour and a passion for her subject.  We learned a lot from her.

Our first stop was at the Corinth canal.  As early as classical times people had thought of digging a canal between the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth.  But the canal was only finally dug in 1893.  It is an impressive piece of engineering.

The next stop we made was at Epidauros, where there are remains of an ancient Temple of Asklepios and a beautiful ancient Greek theatre.  Vassiliki told us that the key focus at Epidauros was the Temple of Asklepios, god of healing, and that the theatre performances offered healing of the mind to complement the healing of the body offered at the Temple.

The theatre at Epidauros was built in the 4th century BC and is the best preserved of all Greek theatres.  Greek theatres are distinctive in having a circular 'orchestra' in the front, rather than a semi-circular space as in the Roman theatres.  This circular space was originally for a group or chorus to perform songs and dances in praise of the gods, so Greek drama had religious origins.  In the 6th century BC, a man named Thespis added an actor to this group, allowing stories to be told in a much more personal and affecting way.  Subsequently extra actors were added during the 5th century BC.

The theatre at Epidauros is magnificent - and its acoustics are unbelievable.  In the centre of the orchestra is a stone.  When an actor stands on that stone, if the theatre is full and everyone is silent, the sound of the actor's breathing can be heard throughout the theatre.  Yes!  Unfortunately, when we went, there were lots of school children shouting around the theatre, so we didn't have perfect conditions to test out the acoustics.  Still, I stood on the stone and recited some lines from a chorus in the play Philoctetes by Sophocles (5th century BC), which I studied when I was a student at Victoria University.

I actually found the experience of visiting Epidauros surprisingly moving.  It was not just the connection with my study of classical Greek so long ago.  It was also the sense that the theatre had been built for the purpose of bringing people healing through a deeper experience of the truths and the sufferings of life.  There is a surprising freedom that comes with the acceptance of the uncertainties of our human condition.  As William Blake wrote many centuries later, "Man is made for joy and woe, and when this we truly know, through the world we safely go." 

After Epidauros we set off for ancient Mycenae, the famous city of Agamemnon, who led the Greek army to Troy.  On the way we passed one of 5 Mycenaean bridges in this area, which we were told were the oldest bridges still standing in Europe.  They were built in the late Helladic period (ca 1300-1190 BC).

Mycenae was a very impressive site, high up between two mountains with a natural water supply and overlooking a vast territory. 

In order to get into the ancient city of Mycenae we had to pass through the famous Lion Gate, built around 1250 BC.  Look at the huge stones in the wall, and the even more colossal stones in the frame and lintel of the gate.  The triangular relief above the lintel over the gate stands at the front of the huge lintel stone, and has a structural purpose of reducing pressure on the lintel stone itself.  An architect from the United States in our group was very interested in aspects of the engineering, which were revolutionary in their day and contributed to the development of classical architecture.

Not far through the gate was grave circle A, where Schliemann discovered the golden and other treasures that are now displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Mycenaean culture flourished between the 17th and 12th centuries BC.  It was the leading culture in the North Eastern Mediterranean during much of this time.  So, it was natural for the Greek expedition against Troy around 1200 BC to have been led by the king of this great city.

After visiting Mycenae, we headed off for the tourist village of Olympia, just next to the archaeological site.  It was a long journey and we were glad to arrive, have dinner and get to bed.

The next day we were out of the hotel by 8.30am, heading for Olympia. The ancient precinct was not far away and we stopped in the car park. As we walked to the site, our guide Vassiliki showed us one of the typical roadside shrines that are found throughout Greece. These shrines can indicate a nearby monastery or church, but they can also mean that there has been a death through a traffic accident of some sort. The items in the shrine can help you understand a little about the person being commemorated. There is often a card of a saint. This will be the patron saint of the person being commemorated, indicating that person’s name and gender. Secondly, there may be a little plaque with a picture of part of the person’s body. This indicates where the person needed (or had received) healing. Flowers are included for remembrance. There is normally a little oil lamp with oil poured over water (which is heavier and so stays below the level of the oil). A lighter is normally also left in the shrine. The oil lamp can be safely lit and left, knowing that it will gradually burn out and be extinguished by the water.

Olympia is a sacred precinct that has a lovely air of tranquility about it.  It is set in a beautiful area, between two rivers.  The photo below, of the ‘gymnasium’ (an open practice area for running training that was originally surrounded by a portico on all sides), gives you an idea of what the precinct was like when we visited it.  While there would have been many more buildings standing in classical times, I am sure that some of the leafy, tranquil atmosphere would still have been there.

The archaeological site, dedicated to Olympian Zeus, was an area that had been a sacred precinct even before the 12 Olympian gods began to be worshipped around 1400 BC. One temple that had been excavated dated back to the 3rd millennium BC, when the mother goddess was the principal deity. The fact that this temple is older than the surrounding temples is indicated by its being built at a lower level on the ground. Olympia constitutes one huge ‘tell’ in archaeological terms.

The Olympic Games connects with the Greek idea of honouring the gods with one’s body as well as one’s mind. These Games were sporting contests held in honour of Zeus, the king of the gods, and only free citizens of Greek cities and colonies were allowed to compete. The earliest records of the games date back to 776BC, but they had probably taken place for some years before that. The Games were held every 4 years in summer for 15 days, and during the competitions and the travelling time before and after the games, no warfare was allowed between Greeks. Victory at the Games was considered to be the greatest of honours for a Greek male and the city state he represented. (Our guide told us that there were also games for women in honour of the goddess Hera, held every four years in the spring.)

The sanctuary of Olympia built up huge prestige, and the priests of Olympia had a diplomatic and administrative role, not just a purely religious one. This would have related to the administration and  judging of the Games, appropriate honouring of special guests, keeping the peace between hostile factions while at the games, enhancing the prestige of the sanctuary and ensuring its security.

The importance of security can be understood from information about the centrepiece of the sanctuary, the Temple of Zeus.  Within it was a colossal statue of Zeus, 12 metres high, made by the sculptor, Pheidias, of wood covered with gold or ivory.  Approximately 1,000 kgs of gold was used for this one statue, and skin was indicated on the sculpture by a layer of ivory.  This sculpture was considered to be one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  (The sign below shows a reconstruction of the front of the temple and the comparative size of the statue of Zeus within the temple.)

Within the large ancient precinct there were many buildings.  Some of these were temples, others were buildings or monuments that had been erected for purposes relating to the athletic contests, and still others were monuments that had been erected principally to enhance the reputation of the donor.  As well as the gymnasium (for running training), we visited the palaistra (for training in wrestling and boxing), the theokoleon (priests’ quarters), the Leonidaion (accommodation for special guests), the Philippeion (monument put up by Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, to emphasise his Greek heritage), various temples, and of course the stadium.  This is where the original competitions were held, and where the shot put was held in the 2004 games, held in Greece.

It was a real thrill to walk the length of the stadium and to reflect on the competitions that took place here over more than 1,000 years.

We had lunch at Olympia and then headed off towards Delphi.  Along the way we crossed the Gulf of Corinth on the new suspension bridge.

As we approached Delphi, we rose steeply from sea level.

The mountain landscape was rugged and impressive.  The village, like the ancient site of Delphi close by, was set on the side of a steep mountain.  This is the view from the village towards the Gulf of Corinth.

The next morning we were up and off early to visit the archaeological site of Delphi.  Delphi was a sacred site of huge importance to the Greeks and eventually throughout Europe and Asia Minor as well.  The Delphic oracle was the most famous prophetic oracle in the ancient world and kings, rulers and military leaders all came to Delphi to seek advice from the oracle so that they would know what actions to take.

We started our tour at the Delphi museum, to get an idea of the layout, history and artefacts of the site.  A model showed the layout of the site.

The main temple on the site was the temple of Apollo, the god to whom the whole site of Delphi was dedicated. In this model, just in front of the Temple, you can see a large column (over 10 metres high) on which a sphinx was erected as a guardian to ward off evil.  This was an offering from the island of Naxos around 560 BC.  The sphinx itself is in the museum.

There were some amazing treasures in the museum, but three stood out for me in particular.  Firstly, some treasures had been stored in a pit in the 5th century BC, apparently after a fire (because the treasures were all burned to some degree).  Among these were parts of sacred statues of Apollo, Aphrodite the sister of Apollo, and Leto their mother.  These statues were made out of gold and ivory, as the colossal statue of Zeus was at Olympia.  As far as I am aware, these are the only classical Greek statues made of these materials that are still in existence.  The ivory burned black, but the gold could be restored to its original colour.

When I saw the face of Apollo I had the sense of what it might have been like to enter that ancient temple 2500 years ago.

The next item of real interest to me was an inscription of a hymn to Apollo that includes the most ancient musical notation in existence, dating to the 2nd century BC.  The letter-pitch notation is written above the words.

Finally, there was a wonderful bronze statue of a charioteer, given to the sanctuary by the ruler of a Greek colony in Sicily after the games at Delphi dedicated to Pythean Apollo.  This sculpture was originally part of a group that included a four horse chariot, and was one of the most famous sculptures in antiquity.

The statue is one of the few Greek bronzes to preserve the inlaid glass eyes and the copper detailing of the eyelashes and lips. The headband is of silver and may have been inlaid with precious stones, which have been removed.

The figure is of a very young man, as is shown by his soft side-curls. (Like modern jockeys, chariot racers were chosen for their lightness, but also needed to be tall, so they were frequently teenagers.) He is wearing a xystis, the garment which drivers wore while racing. It falls to his ankles and is fastened high at the waist with a plain belt. The two straps that cross high at his upper back prevented the xystis from "ballooning" during the race.

The statue is of the moments after the race when the winner of the race might have been doing a victory lap.  The veins are still up in his arm from the tension of the race, but he is now relaxed with a serene expression on his face.  As you can see, the folds of his clothing are beautifully shown.

After the time at the museum we went to the archaeological site of ancient Delphi, climbing the sacred way up to the Temple of Apollo.  There was a breath-taking view from the Temple site.

There were lots of monuments to see on the site, but one that caught my fancy was the altar of Apollo, just in front of the Temple site.  The island of Chios donated this impressive altar built almost entirely of black marble in 475 BC.  Because of the steep gradient of the hill, the altar is tall looking from the bottom, but a normal height looking from the forecourt of the Temple.  As a result of this donation, the authorities at Delphi gave to the Chians the right to go to the front of the queue (promanteia) if they wanted an oracle.  This right is written on the base of the altar.  After my visit to Chios, I was intrigued to see this piece of the island's history.

In the afternoon we headed towards Kalambaka, where we were to stay close to the Meteora monasteries that are perched on their steep pinnacles.  On the way we stopped at Thermopylae, the site of a famous 'last stand' by around 1,500 Greeks in the face of a huge Persian army.  When the Persians advanced towards the small Greek force guarding a narrow pass, the Persians told the Greeks to lay down their arms.  The leader of the Greek force, the Spartan King Leonidas, famously replied "Molon labe" ("Come and get them").  After two days of fighting, with the Persians sustaining severe losses, they found a way to encircle the Greeks.  The small force of Spartans, Thespians and Thebans stayed where they were, blocking the pass and fighting to the death, so that other Greek soldiers retreating would escape being caught and surrounded by the Persian chariots and cavalry.  Although this was a defeat for the Greek forces, the bravery of the Greek - and especially the Spartan - soldiers made this a defining moment for the ancient Greeks.

The poet Simonides composed a famous epigram that memorialises the heroism of the Spartan soldiers: "Stranger, go and to the Spartans tell, that here, obeying their behests, we fell."  This has been engraved as an epitaph on a memorial stone at the site.

The next day, after a short stop at an icon-making workshop, we visited two of the monasteries on the Meteora rock pinnacles.  The weather was wet and so the splendour of the view that you often see in photos was diminished, but on the other hand the mist and cloud created quite a mysterious atmosphere.  This is what the rocky outcrop looks like from the town of Kalambaka (a Turkish word meaning 'beautiful castle').  St Stephen's is the only monastery visible from the town.  You can just see signs of St Stephen's monastery on the outcrop a quarter of the picture along from the left.

On the way up the mountain we saw our first monastery from close quarters.  This was Roussanou monastery.  It is on a rock pinnacle, but is relatively accessible, being the lowest of the monasteries and quite close to the main road up the cliffs.

Then we went on to St Stephen's monastery, which I had glimpsed from Kalambaka.

As we entered St Stephens I noticed our guide paying our entrance fee, and I noticed how strange it seemed  to be paying a fee to enter a monastery.  I realised again how privileged I had been to experience the Athonite monasteries.  In fact, the contrast was strong with my experience on the Holy Mountain.  These monasteries were more geared to tourism as museums of how things used to be (although they all had a small resident community of monks or nuns), while the Athonite monasteries were first and foremost places of contemporary spiritual endeavour and commitment.  They were only secondarily places of historical interest or places for guests to visit.  I thought how important it is for the number of visitors on Mt Athos to remain limited so that the spiritual work of the monks remains the main thing on Mt Athos.

After a walk through St Stephens we went to Varlaam monastery, which was one of the larger monasteries in the Meteora area.  It was wet as we went up through the monastery to the main church (katholikon).

We were not allowed to take photos within the katholikon, so I took this view of the porch outside it.

In former times the only way to enter the monastery had been by a hoist.  Now heavy items are still brought in by hoist.  We visited the room that housed the hoist apparatus.

Formerly the windlass was used for powering the hoist, but now the hoist is motorised.  The hoist lifts things a distance of approximately 15 metres.  This was enough of a distance to deter unwanted guests.

As we left the Meteora region the weather cleared, and we finally got the chance to take a more typical photo of one of the pinnacle monasteries.  This is a photo from below Roussanou monastery.

We had lunch in Kalambaka at a restaurant that served 'home made food', and where you could go into the kitchen to choose what you wanted.

It was a lovely meal and set us up for the trip back to Athens.


Ketty said...

I found Delphi as a main attractive place in Greece. Delphi is the place where you could not find beaches , malls to grab your attention and not so most happening places, but you can add Greece into the list of spiritual and history lover place, where you feel piece and comfort. The most attractive place over here is a Temple of Apollo, which is open in summer and winter, then stadium which is modernized by Romans.
Delphi Greece

Anonymous said...

Very well done. You seemed to have been richly rewarded by your travels.

Your words and pictures have inspired me to visit Greece. Thanks.

munderwood99 said...

Congratulations on your enriching adventure. Yours was a challenging itinerary. Our self-guided trip in 2006 started with a car rental in the West Coast city of Patra, from there to Olympia then across the Peloponnese to Mycene. After a few nights in Naplion we visited Epidauros with its Temple of Asklepios and the theater, Corinth and then on to Athens. We returned to Athens in 2015, took a day trip to Delphi and ferries to Santorini and Crete. Returned to Tallahassee, Florida USA last week. Michael Underwood 7 July 2015.