Carol Rist, Spring, 2001
In mid April we flew from Miami to Athens for our first Elderhostel experience. We landed in Athens at the brand new airport, built to serve the multitudes expected for the 2004 Olympics. Near the airport are many of the venues being built for the Olympics, and the road from the airport into town is being rebuilt in hopes that visitors to the Olympics will not be trapped in the kind of traffic jams that we encountered during our stay in Athens.
Wherever we went in Greece, people were talking about the 2004 Olympics. In Athens there was great anticipation. Elsewhere people were complaining that all infrastructure needs outside Athens were being ignored so that resources could be concentrated in Athens.
A bus picked up the Elderhostel group at the airport and drove us into the center of Athens where the driver deposited us on Syntagma Square. We had no time to admire this beautiful square; we were instructed to get out of the bus as fast as we could because our bus was double parked on a very busy thoroughfare. Our hotel, the Astor, was a couple of blocks down a street too narrow for our bus. We were told to go find the hotel, that our luggage would follow us. Luckily we found the hotel and the luggage did eventually arrive. The Astor was a modest hotel, but it had one outstanding feature. The restaurant, where we ate breakfast, had a stunning view of the Acropolis.
From our hotel we could stroll down to Syntagma Square (Plateia Syntagmatos). Syntagma is Greek for “constitution”. It was from a balcony of the royal palace, located on the east side of the square, that King Otho granted the Greeks a constitution on September 3, 1843. (Otho was actually a Bavarian prince who had arrived in Greece 10 years earlier as the king chosen to lead the Greeks by the British, French and Russians after Greece had fallen into anarchy following their successful war of independence from the Turks.) The former royal palace is now the Parliament Building. In the front of the Parliament Building is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. We enjoyed watching the evzones, as the guards are called, as they marched in front of the tomb in their short kilts and pom-pom shoes.
Also an easy walk from our hotel was the old Turkish quarter of Athens called Plaka. Plaka was built on top of the ancient Agora (market) which was located on the northeastern slope of the Acropolis. After Independence archeologists demolished many of the Turkish structures in order to uncover sites from classical Greece. We enjoyed walking around on the narrow streets of Plaka and looking over the archeological sites of the ancient Agora and up at the Acropolis, especially at night when the Parthenon was beautifully lit.
In the fifth century BC the temples on the Acropolis were burned to the ground by the Persians. It was Pericles whose ambitious rebuilding program
transformed the Acropolis into a city of temples which has come to be regarded as the zenith of classical Greek achievement. It would have been nice if the Turks hadn’t stored their gunpowder in the Parthenon when they were fighting the Venetians in 1687. The Venetians opened fire on the Turks and the Parthenon was toast. Of course we moderns can’t complain too much. We are responsible for the acid rain that is dissolving the marble from which the monuments are built. Major renovations are underway in an effort to save the monuments of the Acropolis for future generations. As you walk up the steps leading to the Acropolis you feel the excitement of approaching the most important ancient monument in the western world. Fortunately we were there on a spring day when the weather was cool and the crowds not overwhelming. The view from the Acropolis, looking down on the archeological sites of ancient Athens and out over the modern city, is as impressive as the view of the Acropolis that you see looking up from all over the city.
Each evening, as we headed out to a different restaurant, our guide told us that we were going to a very popular restaurant. But since we ate at 7PM whereas most Greeks eat at 9PM or later, we usually had the restaurant to ourselves. We enjoyed the Greek food and drinks, except for the retsina (wine mixed with pine resin). The ouzo was fine – just like drinking licorice. The Greeks believe that their coffee is among the best in the world. We wondered why we were being treated so shabbily because our coffee was always lukewarm. Then we learned that Greeks like coffee – and all their food and drink – lukewarm!
Our first day in Athens I was happy to have been a sorority member back at Duke. Sitting in pledge class learning the Greek alphabet was a chore, but forty-seven years later I was delighted to be able to read many signs (because the English word and the Greek word were the same). I was also amazed at how many English words come from the Greek language.
Our visit to Athens also included a visit to the National Archeological Museum. It was good to see that the British and Germans hadn’t pilfered all of Greece’s antiquities.
After three busy days in Athens we flew to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. Formerly called Salonica by English speakers, Thessaloniki is the capital of the Greek prefecture of Macedonia. The Elderhostel group was not the only group of senior citizens on our night. There was a group of elderly women dressed in black and wearing crosses who were returning from a trip to the Holy Land. To our surprise these women were very aggressive in pushing us out of their way. A member of our group who had lived in Greece for several years explained to us that politely lining up is not part of the Greek culture. From then on we tried to hold our own whenever confronted by people who were determined to get in front of us.
Thessaloniki has been occupied by the Romans, Byzantines and Turks and architecture from these periods makes Thessaloniki an interesting place to visit. We got a reminder of just how recently Macedonia was a part of the Ottoman Empire when we visited the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, who was born in 1881. It was not until 1913, following wars in which Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece fought the Turks and each other to determine who would control Macedonia, that Thessaloniki became a part of Greece. It is easy to forget how close Thessaloniki is to the Balkans until you realize that all of the personnel and materiel sent by the U.S. armed forces to Kosovo went through the port of Thessaloniki.
We have a neighbor in Miami, Joe Greslovski, who is a native of the country which is called Macedonia. Joe maintains that Alexander the Great was a Macedonian, not a Greek, and that the area the Greeks call Macedonia should be a part of the country of Macedonia. He calls the Greeks liars because the Greeks maintain that Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, were Greek,
just as Spartans and people from the Greek islands are Greek. On our first excursion in Thessaloniki, I asked our guide, Maria, what Philip and Alexander’s native tongue was. She became quite hostile and told the whole group that I had insulted her. She explained to us in an agitated manner that the language on all of the artifacts in the ancient Macedonian tombs was Greek and that Alexander spread the Greek language and culture all over the eastern Mediterranean and as far as India and the Middle East. “All Macedonians are Greek,” she said, “and the people who live to the north of us who speak a language which is a dialect of Bulgarian should call themselves and their country by a different name.” The Greek government only agreed to recognize the country we know as Macedonia when that country was officially named “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” And sure enough, on the Greek maps this country is shown as “F-YROM.”
One of our first trips outside Thessaloniki was to Vergina, where we visited the tomb of King Philip II. Royal Macedonians were buried with spectacular treasures. Since the tombs were located in burial mounds, through the years grave robbers have easily located the tombs and looted them. Luckily, Philip II’s tomb was located toward the edge of a large burial mound and had been overlooked by grave robbers. It was only in 1977 that an archeologist discovered Philip’s tomb. In it they found exquisite gold jewelry, bronze and terracotta vases, tiny, intricately detailed ivory reliefs, and a solid gold casket with lion’s feet, embossed with the sunburst symbol of the royal house of Macedonia, which contained the bones of Philip II. We did note that every written inscription was in Greek.
From the waterfront in Thessaloniki we looked across the Gulf of Thessaloniki at the breathtaking sight of Mt. Olympus which had a recent dusting of snow on its summit. We were happy that our next stop was the village of Litochoro (pronounced lee-TOE-whore-oh) at the foot of Mt. Olympus. Walking among the beautiful wildflowers on the slopes of Mt. Olympus was a real treat.
Southwest of Mt. Olympus are found the massive pinnacles of rocks known as Meteora. From the 1 1th Century solitary hermit monks lived in the caves high up on the rocks of Meteora. Later, monasteries were built which were accessible only by removable ladders. In the 20th Century, even though access by steps or even roads became possible, the monasteries were in decline. Then tourists began descending on (or climbing up to) the monasteries of Meteora and they are now thriving. We visited several of the monasteries, including St. Steven, which a group of nuns bought from a few monks who were barely keeping it from falling down. The nuns do whatever possible to accommodate the hoards of tourists, who pay to visit the monastery and stand in line to buy souvenirs from the nuns’ shop. We were only too happy to support the nuns and monks who maintain the monasteries of Meteora. It is a stunning locale and well worth the visit.
While we were in Litochoro, government workers all over Greece went on strike. Pickup trucks with loudspeakers on top were driving round and round with a message we assumed was to stay home from work. The main square had big signs up with the same message. While this was sociologically and politically interesting, we didn’t want the strike to interfere with our trip to ancient Dion, the sacred city of the Macedonians, who worshipped the Olympian gods here. Alexander the Great sacrificed in Dion before setting off to conquer the world. Because of the nationwide strike, both the museum and the archeological site were closed to the public. There was no way our guide, Maria, could get us into the museum. The door was locked. But Maria called the chief archeologist and told him she had a group of professors from America who needed to visit the site that day. (We did have a few retired professors in our ranks.) The chief archeologist told Maria that there was an area at the back of the site where there was no fence and that if the bus dropped us off back there and quickly drove away, we could sneak in and visit the site if we kept a low profile. We saw the ruins of buildings built from the 6th Century BC through the 4th Century AD. Ruins of the temples, baths, theaters and public toilets showed Dion to be a very well developed community. Sometimes new structures were built out of materials taken from previous structures, such as the fortifications made from sliced up columns of former temples.
Next it was time for us to return to Athens and board the small ship, Diogenis V, for a visit to the Cycladic Islands. The 32 elderhostlers were the only passengers on board. We had both a Greek guide and a lecturer with a Ph.D. in classical archeology from Oxford University.
We left the port of Piraeus and headed for Santorini, which was the farthest island we would visit. We were told that we were going to the farthest island because the weather would change in a few days which might restrict where we could go. Looking at the mirror-like surface of the Aegean Sea, it was hard to believe that the seas could ever be rough enough to interfere with maritime traffic
Santorini was once a circular, volcanic island. Around 1650 BC a colossal volcanic eruption caused the center of the island to sink, leaving a caldera with high cliffs. Volcanic activity and earthquakes have continued. The last major earthquake was in 1956, and another major earthquake is due any moment.
Sailing into the caldera is an impressive sight, with the rim of the volcano rising high above us. We took the cable car up to the town of Fira and enjoyed the typical narrow streets and whitewashed houses of the Greek Islands. We visited the archeological site at Akotiri, an amazingly advanced city built by Minoans who had come to Santorini from Crete around 2000 BC. The gigantic earthquake of 1650 BC buried Akotiri with volcanic ash. It was only in 1967 that archeologists began the dig which is uncovering this remarkable city.
We left Santorini to spend the night in port on the island of Ios. Our guidebook calls Ios “the apogee of sun, sea and sex,” but also indicates that most of the partying goes on at night. We decided to walk up to the village of Hora, which we found absolutely charming. We especially enjoyed the old windmills which used to provide energy but now provide only charm. The locals were particularly friendly. We had a nice little chat – in French – with a woman feeding a bunch of cats. When we were sure we had run into a dead end while trying to climb up to a lovely church, a woman came out of her house and showed us the right way to go. By the time the party crowd came out we were back on the good old Diogenis V and sound asleep in our cabin.
When we awoke the next morning we were at sea, on our way to Delos, a small barren island which is one of the most important archeological sites in Greece. The Odyssey, written about 700 BC, refers to Delos as a famous religious center. Delos also was an important commercial center, and when the Romans controlled Delos it was very prosperous due largely to a lucrative slave market that sold up to 10,000 slaves a day! Walking through the ruins you get an idea of how prosperous the community must have been. One of the most impressive sights is the Terrace of the Lions which guards the sacred area of the Sanctuary of Apollo.
When we had left Piraeus three days earlier on a sea so calm it looked like a pond, it had been impossible to imagine sailing on rough seas. But as we left Delos, a north wind was beginning to pick up, and a major storm was forecast for the following day. We were happy when we docked in Tinos, an island where the port was nestled on the south side of a mountainous island. It was fortunate that the following day a trip to the interior of Tinos was planned, because our boat wasn’t going anywhere in that gale.
Tinos is best known as a Greek Orthodox place of pilgrimage. Panagia Evangelistria, the church which draws all the pilgrims to its miracle-working icon, is short walk up the hill from the harbor. Pilgrims who feel the most pious go from the port to the church on their hands and knees, but they do their best to protect their hands and knees. The road from the port to the church is carpeted most of the way. We also saw a pilgrim with pads on her hands and knees. The road which leads up to the church is lined with shops which sell candies, icon copies, incense and replicas of body parts which the faithful leave at the church in hopes of curing whatever ails them in that body part. The candles are of various lengths because the pilgrim is expected to burn a candle which is as long as the pilgrim is tall. Tall people are really getting ripped off, because almost as quickly as a candle is lighted a priest puts it out and places it into a large can so that all the candles can be melted and resold. Since Karsten had a nasty cough, I looked and looked for a small replica of lungs to see if the icon could give him any relief, but all I found was arms, legs, hearts and ears.
Agriculture is very important on Tinos. As we left the town and headed inland, we were amazed at how much of this mountainous island was terraced for crops. Despite the dry climate the farmers manage to grow crops and provide all of the meat eaten on the island. One of the interesting features in the interior of the island is the dovecotes. Dovecote, a word I don’t remember having heard before, is a fancy word for a pigeon house. The Venetians, who ruled Tinos during the 17th Century, built the dovecotes, and they are carefully maintained and whitewashed to this day.
The quality of marble found on the island of Tinos is excellent. It’s quarries have provided much of the marble used to build buildings in classical times in the Greek islands. We visited the picturesque village of Pyrgos, where marble is still quarried. Every home in Pyrgos, no matter how modest, had a marble doorstep and marble lintels above its doors and windows. We had coffee sitting at tables outside a modest shop in the center of Pyrgos; the gable above the front door was marble. While munching on my Greek pastry I looked carefully at the words cut into the marble –
I finally realized that I was looking at the words “Snack Bar” immortalized in marble. I thought it was a joke, but our guide assured me that “Snack Bar” was what the Greeks call such an eating establishment. When I expressed disappointment that the Greeks were using English words he reminded me of how many Greek words have found their way into the English language.
When we arrived back at our boat we learned that the wind wasn’t slacking off; it was getting stronger. We were not leaving Tinos for at least another day. Sure enough, the next day we awoke to a howling gale. It was May Day, which is a big holiday in Greece. Most Greeks hang wreaths in front of their house to celebrate the coming of spring and spend the day celebrating. But during our walk through the windswept streets of Tinos we saw only one wreath and few people. All the homes were boarded up. Back on board the Diogenis V we were determined to celebrate May Day. We made our own May Day wreath, watched Zorba the Greek on video and read Medea, with Elderhostelers performing the various roles. That evening we got the bad news. The storm was showing no signs of abating, and the Coast Guard was ordering all ships to spend May 2 in port.
Tinos wasn’t the island we would have chosen to spend three days on, but we were determined to make the most of our time there. Andrew Farrington, our Oxford lecturer, offered to give us a special lecture on the role of women and family life in classical Greece. We climbed up the hill to the Tinos Archeological Museum which houses local archeological finds dating back as far as the 10th Century BC. We watchedShirley Valentine, an English film which takes place on Myconos, an island we were beginning to believe we would never see. Karsten and I wandered around the town and discovered the local white pelican who lives outside the fish market and is the delight of tourists and local children. We also climbed high above the town on a farm path and admired the way the rocks which have been removed from the fields have been utilized. Not only are there rock walls on all the terraces and rock walls on both sides of the farm paths, but there are also rock huts for protection of the goats.
On the morning of May 3 the wind was not blowing quite so hard and we had good news from the Coast Guard. Our boat could sail to Myconos! We had become fond of Tinos, but not fond enough to want to stay a minute longer.
Myconos is truly a charming little town. The narrow roads, whitewashed houses and churches and old windmills built right up to the shores of the Aegean Sea are a photographer’s dream. It was a great place to have our last visit.
As soon as we were back on board ship, we headed through the still rough seas to Piraeus where a bus met us to take us to the airport. We had been reading in the paper about the approaching visit of the Pope to Greece. Many Greek Orthodox people were opposed to the Pope’s visit. He was called a “horned monster” by some monks. When we learned that the Pope was arriving at the airport at the same time we were departing, we were a little bit apprehensive. As we approached the airport we saw police lining the road. But inside the terminal there was no sign of police; popes and other VIPs don’t frequent terminals. They are whisked away from their planes in limousines.
As our plane took off we thought about what a wonderful time of year spring is to visit Greece. The country is so beautiful, its history is so interesting and its people are so intriguing that some spring we will return.