Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Scrambled Foxtrot

 Athens greets us with sunshine and social unrest. The bus doesn’t go all the way, the subway doesn’t stop at the Syntagma station, the one close to Parliament. We arrive at Cristina and Dan’s house safe and sound. Six years is a long time, but it didn’t change a thing. They spoil us with freshly squeezed orange juice (not all oranges are equal to this task, they have to be small, soft, and with a shiny peel), dried figs from their garden, olives from their trees. Our children don’t remember meeting (they were less than 5 years old) but get together like all teenagers do. They live in a very small apartment, next to a church that rings its bells from 7:30 am. If we all get in the kitchen there is barely room for standing, so we go out and eat feta salad (feta cheese with tomatoes and flooded with virgin olive oil), kokoritzi (a dish made from sheep intestines), sausages and meat patties. 

We didn’t have a plan, but because of the social unrest, with Angela Merckel’s visit (Germany’s chancellor is here to assure the Greek people that European Union is still there for them, only they need to hang on) we chose to visit the continental part of Greece and the Peloponnese first, and leave Athens at the end. They lent us their car and we’re ready to go.

At times I look back at our trip through Greece and imagine the steps of a foxtrot: slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, only now they are ambled and massed by their type, and many slow ones got lost.

Quick: Meteora (Met-eh-aura)

An archipelago of faith in the sea of modern life. Anybody could reach it on the road, climb the steps, view it... few are open to receive its peace.

Pillared rocks, 200-300 feet tall, vertical sides, flat top adorned with a monastery. In the 9th century, hermits were living in the crevices and small caves. By the 12th century there was an Orthodox Christian community. From the 14th century they were keeping the faith alive, under Ottoman occupation (Muslims). They were safe from unwanted visitors if they lifted the rope ladders. Today the six monasteries are a World Heritage Site and steps hewn from the rock can take you safe in their midst. 

There is a dress code: long sleeves, long pants, knee length skirts for women. I admire the designs made with recycled terra cotta shingles between rocks. Between geranium pots, kittens play. There is a museum with cult objects, another with the different people and their role in the resistance against Ottoman rule, yet another with kitchen utensils. 

But these are not important for me, the church is,  like a painted Bible, quiet and smelling of frankincense. We enter and look at everything—the wooden seats around the walls; the archbishop's chair, made of ebony and ivory, reminding me of the ones from Red Fort, India; the candelabras with ostrich eggs and bees’ wax candles; and the icons, everywhere on the wall, on the columns, on the ceiling. The colors, the design, so old and yet so fresh, subjects found in every Orthodox church and others only here. 

This is a picture of a postcard, as we couldn't take photos inside. This is the old style of painting, 15th century

The new style and colors of icons

As we leave one of the monasteries, we are offered loukume (Turkish delight), freshly made by the nuns.

Quick: Delphi

The temples stand atop of a hill, all in ruins, stripped of their adornments and their columns. Though the signs show how it was supposed to look, it is difficult to imagine it. 

Same building in its glory.

Just a few columns are left from Apollo’s temple. Close to it, the children find a draining tunnel and they start exploring. What was a boring filial duty becomes an adventure with spider webs and crawling spaces. Unfortunately, the tunnels are not long enough, and the air is still and hot; they need to come out. 

Above them, an amphitheater and at the top of the hill, the stadium where they held the Pythian games (they were part of the Panhellenic Games and they were held 2 years before or after the Olympic Games.) Between rocks and ruins, colchicum is blooming (it looks like crocus, but blooms in fall). 

Apollo's temple

Apollo's Temple, view from above

The amphitheater

The stadium with the marble seats.

Apollo's temple, amphitheater and the valley that leads to the sea

More interesting is the museum that has, beside the marble statues,

Asking the oracle a question

 metopes (decorative panels between columns on a temple) and so on,

 parts of chryselephantine statues. The name stands for objects made of gold (chrysos means gold in Greek) and ivory (the elephantine part). The Greeks already knew how to make statues that would look like they were alive, but they needed different materials to complete the illusion. 

Another extraordinary find is a silver bull with gilded horns, forehead, and hoofs made from forged silver sheets. It was a gift to the gods in the 6th century BC.

On the stones of the Treasury of Athens songs were carved, words and notes (the first ones of their kind). They were sung when they were bringing offerings, and the specialists deciphered and reproduced them through modern methods.

The notes are between the lines

When I think of an earthquake, I imagine destruction.  But the Charioteer was preserved by an earthquake, hidden by the rubble, and thus escaped the fate of being transformed in tools or weapons. He has won and parades his horses (which were lost). His face is calm and peaceful.

He still holds the reins

Detail of the Charioteer

To reach the next stop we cross an outstanding engineering feature: the Rio-Antirrio bridge over the gulf of Corinth. It is built to survive earthquakes, tsunamis and the annual growing span of the gulf.

Quick: Olympia

Modern days Olympia is a 6 by 6 grid streets almost all the buildings catering to the tourism business. If they are not hotels, then they are restaurants or souvenir shops. To get to the old Olympia we have to walk a little bit, between oleander bushes and their heavenly smell. 

Historians didn’t elucidate the mystery: who was first, the temple for Zeus or the games held in his honor? Looking at the marble strewn place I don’t think it matters anymore. It was an Olympic village, with a gymnasium, where the athletes would train, anointed with olive oil, a bath, a hotel with more than a hundred rooms, besides the temples and the stadium. In time other small temples and buildings were added. Now all its adornments are gone: the statues taken by different Romans to their villas, the huge chryselephantine statue of Zeus to then Constantinople, now Istanbul (only to burn in a fire), its marble to other constructions. 

The white temple is Zeus', red roof rectangle: Hera's temple, left lower corner: the hotel, left upper corner: the gymnasium, right upper corner: the stadium

What is left of the gymnasium

We witness a cultural misunderstanding. A Japanese woman crosses the rope that circles the ruins to pick up a plastic bottle with some yellow liquid in it. Immediately whistles blow from several directions, and the woman hurries back on the path. A man starts walking and talking toward her, agitating his arms. The guardian yells at the tourist. She explains that she wanted to clean up the place, she considered the bottle was dropped by a tourist and wanted to correct a mistake. The guardian is not impressed, I think she would have liked to give a fine. It turns up that the bottle contains gasoline for the weed-trimmer that the man is trying to make it work to cut the overgrown grass!

A little bit later, tourists climb up on the pedestals of long gone statues, posing in classic postures and no guardian is there to whistle them off.

Some steps lead up to Zeus’ temple, but it’s roped off and all the columns, with one exception, are fallen. I would have liked to see it returned to at least a partial glory, but these specialists are moving so slowly, that it seems they will never finish. Hera’s temple is more approachable and we can stroll between the rows of columns. Outside it there is the altar, the place where they used lo light the torch for the Olympic Games.

This column was restored for the 2004 Olympic Games, the ones in the foreground are waiting for their turn.

Hera's temple with the altar in the foreground

Behind an arch that used to continue with a tunnel, we can see the stadium. Larger than the one from Delphi, it has a continue marble slab with holes for poles to separate the lines. On this, the naked athletes would line up for the contest. The judges would watch them from their marble armchairs. The spectators would cheer them from the sides. 

Shrill whistles, long ones, insistent, are raking my nerves: a tourist took off his shirt and marched some yards. It is not allowed! The children wanted to run a race barefoot, they couldn’t, it is not allowed. I took a picture of the chair on the start line, I had to delete it, it is not allowed! WHY? Blah-blah, disrespect, blah-blah, religious places, blah-blah. And I thought that running barefoot would show respect toward the athletes and the rules.

Maria insists we do a race. We line up and run our best in sandals. At the end of the stadium delicate flowers are sprouting on the clay. We are all winners! Never have I imagined as a little girl, while doing my training for track, that I would be here! It feels special, it IS special! These games would stop wars! The Spartans, the Athenians, they would stop fighting for several days so their athletes could participate at the Olympic Games! Why can’t they do it in our modern days?

Quick: Temple of Apollo Epikourios (epic-ooree-oss)

Out of the tourists’ way, at the end of more serpentines, up on a hill, there is another World Heritage Site that we couldn’t pass. It is hidden under a temporary tent, several years now, until they find a better solution to protect it from weather. One of the best preserved temples in Greece, it still has the walls that protected the sanctuary (cella). The columns are made of marble drums and their shape and size served as a model for the Parthenon, on Acropolis. 

Ioan verifies the tethering.  

Slow: Ermioni (Air-me-oh-nee)

Not so fast! You think you can relax in the slow paced life? First we have to take you there, over the hills and valleys, and countless hairpin serpentines, in pitch darkness (because we overstayed in Olympia and Bassa). The last part could be considered an advantage because we can see the gulf like an illuminated horseshoe and the Nafplio (nahf-plee-oh) fortress in the lime light. Mihai is driving, I am looking on the iPad, like the good co-pilot that I am, telling him which way to go. We’re very close, and the anticipation of a relaxing home is building up. Google maps is showing me three routes to reach Ermioni, less than a mile difference between them, going one left, one right and one through the middle. 
“Take the middle one.” 
“But the road signs says to go left...”
“Take the middle one!” and after one mile it splits, take the left, another mile, take left again, now right, and so on, and on, and on. Then I realize that I have less than 5% battery and we don’t have a charger. By the time I plug into Maria’s computer the screen goes dark and we have to rely on my memory of the map. Left or right? Right! At least it doesn’t split anymore and we push up the hill again, wondering if this is the correct road, and how long we have. BRAKE! The bitumen finishes right there with a drop onto a dirt road. This is not our way, we have to go back! In the meantime the screen lights up again, and we find ourselves on the map. Why didn’t we stop when we lost the map? There is no place to stop, there are no pull outs, we can’t block the traffic. We drive through a crowded village, Friday night, everybody is out for fun, we’re tired, we just want to get “home”— wherever that place is. We finally reach Ermioni, but our street is too much to ask Google maps to see it. Dan calls: ”Where are you?” “We’re here, the sea is on our right and we don’t know much else” “Stay right there, I’ll come and pick you up.” For him it made sense where to find us if we had the sea on the right, from our point of view we were lost.

To be continued...

The hedgehog welcomes us in his garden

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