Palamidi fortress conquered

The imposing Palamidi fortress has been staring at us for the past week. We see it early in the morning, glowing with a beautiful golden hue in late afternoon, watching the moon rising above it in early evening and shining when lit up at night. The one thing we have been putting off is climbing up to the top.

A bit of background and statistics for our readers. Palamidi was built in the late 18th century by the Veneticians in a remarkable three years. It is, by our calculations (well, from Wikipedia), higher than Sigiriya in Sri Lanka at an imposing 221 metres. There are only 999 steps, 200 fewer than Sigiriya.

Allan decides enough is enough, leaves our flat at before 9am and the climb starts. Chloe stays at home to shoot a short movie for our god-daughter, fully utilising the zoom on the camera to show Allan at the top of the fortress.

There are not that many people around but fellow climbers are friendly and encouraging. The marble steps are sometimes ridiculously steep and fairly slippy – just don’t do this climb up after some rain, otherwise the descent down may be quicker than the video at the end of this post.

As with most climbs, the views just get better and better and there is a huge sense of achievement on reaching the summit.

Chloe expertly records the video, although Allan’s face is the same colour as a ripe tomato – thank goodness the zoom doesn’t get too close-up. Then it is time for the climb down and slow walk back to the flat. Legs are already aching and the eight flights of stairs to get up to our top floor flat are a real struggle, but Palamidi is conquered!

See below for the 26 minute walk down compressed into 26 seconds.

 

Nafplio – it’s all gone a bit Venetian

Squeezing our belongings into the backpacks for the third last time of the holiday, we go from Olympia to Nafplio. As per all of our journeys in the Peloponnese, our choice is to either get up very early, take three buses and arrive six or seven hours later, or take an expensive two hour taxi ride. We chose the taxi option.

 Rocky and tree-covered mountains, small villages with terracotta roofs, roads zig-zagging up and down to altitudes higher than anything in England or Wales, all made for a spectacular ride through the Alpine-like scenery. It was still expensive though.

Our AirBnB place was a bit of a punt. It was suspiciously cheaper than most others, had only one photo of a not very nice sofa but on the upside, it had rave reviews. We therefore struggle up to the third floor of the building in the old town with a great deal of trepidation. What we are confronted with is a pretty decent size one-bed flat with a huge 10mx10m private terrace, which is overlooked by two Venetian fortresses glowing in the sunset. And, as a bonus, there is a slightly smaller terrace with a line of sight to the sea on the other side. The bed is slightly uncomfortable, but wow, check-out the view!

We are inspired to go to the supermarket and try to remember how to cook for ourselves again. Pasta, gnocchi and other delights are eaten on the terrace, often with the sound of choirs and bands that seem to go from restaurant to restaurant below us or firework displays for the cruise ships in town. Apart from these pleasant distractions, it is very quiet and pretty wonderful. Even a three hour gap in which mains water isn’t available doesn’t spoil anything. We later find out that this is a common problem and subject to a bitter dispute between the town and the water company – must be a nightmare for those who live here.

The old town of Nafplio is like walking around Venice, without the canals and mass crowds. There are piazzas, ice cream shops aplenty, posh boutiques, cafés, good restaurants, lots of jewellery stores and enough outlets to keep up Nafplio’s status as the worry-bead capital of the world. All very picturesque, but clearly some of the prices are for the owners of the Phillip Green-sized yachts moored in the harbour.

We have 10 days here, but have just found out that there are no buses to our next destination on day we leave, so it looks like we need to get another one of our budget-busting taxis that day. Every silver lining….

 

 

 

Faster, higher, stronger: from Ancient Olympia to London 2012

One of the many great things about being lucky enough to take such a long holiday is that we can stay a few nights at big tourist sites, instead of rushing everything on a day trip. It allows us to choose the best time to visit the main attractions and to see more of the town than the average tourist sees.

We were in Olympia for three nights. This allowed us to find out that the busiest time was first thing in the morning, especially when a cruise ship was in town. We therefore managed to avoid the 40-odd coach loads of tourists and plumped for a late afternoon visit. As this is such an important and interesting site, we also hired a guide.

The ancient Olympic games started in 776 BC and continued until the late fourth century AD. It was then deemed ‘too pagan’ by the Christian Roman emperors of the time, who looted and burned the site over a few decades in order to save everyone’s souls. Cheers.

We find out that the idea of the games was to educate and promote peace between warring city states, on the grounds that understanding your neighbours made you less likely to attack them. For one month every four years, a truce was enforced, alliances made and deals agreed.

We visit buildings where competitors stayed for a month before the games. They arrived early not just to train, but to be educated both intellectually and spiritually. Fascinating facts come by the minute from our excellent guide, including that building columns were designed to be smooth on one side to avoid injury during wrestling practice. We do the tourist thing of posing exactly where the boxing practice took place.

We see the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. One column (of the original 65) has been reconstructed to give some indication of how massive this must have been. In the middle of the temple, there would have been a huge statue of Zeus made of ivory and gold, encrusted with precious jewels with an olive oil lake below to reflect light and make the statue sparkle. No wonder it was described with awe, it must have been spectacular.

The games themselves were huge events. The 45,000 spectators must have been awe-inspiring for competitors who had never seen so many people. If they won, a statue was made of them and lots of the plinths with inscriptions still survive. It was a men-only affair, though, with just one woman (a priestess of Demeter) allowed to observe the competition.

As with the current Olympics, some competitors cheated. If found out (via a variety of methods including urine tasting) they had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, accompanied with an inscription naming and shaming them forever. A notable exception was the Emperor Nero, who entered the four-horse chariot race with an obviously cheat-worthy 10 horses. He promptly crashed, but this didn’t stop Nero declaring himself as the winner!

Continuing into more modern times, we see where the Olympic flame is lit before every games. We take a collective breath on discovering that this tradition was actually resurrected by Hitler before the 1936 Olympics. Finally, we saw the ancient stadium, used for the shot-put competitions during the 2004 Olympics. We were the only people there, so it was deathly quiet apart from the ghosts of Olympics past.

Allan did a re-run of the 1 stadia race (192m from one end of the stadium to another) in a time that wouldn’t have won any race, in either ancient or modern times. Excuses range from “it was very hot” to “it was bumpy ground”. In truth, he admits it was because of being unfit, in his late 40s, and with his marathon running days a distant memory.

The air-conditioned museum was a welcome break from the sun. This, like the site itself, was compact but stunning. The pediments of the Temple of Zeus and the statue of Hermes with the infant Dionysus were highlights, but the sheer quantity and quality of the artefacts was remarkable.

It is very quiet in the evenings here, so all that was left was to have a couple of cold beers followed by one of the best meals of the entire holiday at the wonderful Taverna Orestis.

We agreed that Olympia has a very special place amongst Greece’s archeological wonders. It is the start of a golden thread that directly links events of 2,500 years ago with our own lives in a very immediate way. As Londoners who felt the magic of the 2012 Olympics transform our city, even if only temporarily, we felt we had completed a historical circuit of sorts.

13 December 1943

Our hotel in the picturesque village of Kalavryta is next door to a bar. There’s not a single woman to be seen, card tables are cluttered with coffee cups and the clientele are exclusively men over the age of 65. Up until yesterday, we imagined that if we walked in the music would stop and everyone would stare as we disrupted their ‘men’s talk’ about nothing in particular.

Today we go to the town museum. It gives a brief history of the area but is rightly focused on the events of 13 December 1943. This was the day when a true horror of WW2 happened and when Kalavryta changed for generations.

On the pretence of revenge for the killing of German troops, the whole village was rounded up and locked in the local school by the Nazis. Every man and boy over 12 was separated from his family and led to the top of a nearby hill. They were then machine-gunned. It took two hours. Only 13 survived out of nearly 700.

The whole town was then burned to the ground. The women and remaining children only escaped the burning school by somehow opening a locked door. They then faced the horror of finding their slain husbands, brothers and sons and dragging their bodies down from the hill. They didn’t even have the tools to bury them – it was winter and the ground was rock-hard. To add to this desperate situation, the Nazis took all livestock and food from the village.

In the final room is an entire wall of photographs of the murdered. With this, the tears start flowing and the museum curator is ready with tissues and more upsetting stories.

We now imagine many of the conversations in the old-man’s bar are of lost fathers and brothers and how their families somehow managed to survive after 1943. They still should have some women in there though…

A lesson from history. There is no sharing of blame and there are not two sides to the story. F**k you, Nazi scum.

Kalavryta: another side of Greece

It’s thirty five miles, as the crow flies, from Delphi to Kalavryta. The two mountainside villages very nearly face each other across the Gulf of Corinth. It might as well be the moon.

Taking two buses and a €100 taxi, the journey takes just over six hours. The final hour, twists and turns through steep valleys and the road clings precariously to cliff faces. It’s beautiful and dangerous. Even on this life-threatening slalom, our taxi driver takes a phone call and does the final third of the journey one-handed. Sitting on the right, looking straight down into stomach-curdling canyons, Chloe is unamused.

Arriving in Kalavryta, it we’re struck by how… Swiss it seems. The village is a ski resort in winter, so this is low season except for weekenders from Athens. Buildings are thick-walled and stone-faced. Roads and verges are neat as a pin. Mornings are chilly. There’s no graffiti or litter. Coffee bars have a very apres-ski vibe and have names such as “fireplace”. But the tavernas serve lots of grilled meat, a mean Greek salad and there’s a local liqueur, even if it is a warming cinnamon brew.

In true alpine style, there’s a rack and pin railway that connects Kalavryta with Diokopto on the coast. It was built at the turn of the 20th century and, at a gauge of only 75mm, carriages are compact though modern and air conditioned. Over an hour, we rumble back down the mountain, following the path of a much-reduced summer river which occasionally flares into gushing rapids when it turns a bend, narrows and drops twenty feet. Sadly, most passengers’ view of these wonders is blocked by three people who decide to stand at the front window for most of the trip.

There’s time for a wander around the small holiday harbour of Diakopto, an iced coffee and we’re off again. Fellow passengers are better behaved on the return journey and we can now appreciate sights like the old tunnel ‘windows’ through which we get sudden bursts of towering cliffs and river gorges.

On Saturday night, as we walk out for coffee, we are nearly ploughed down by four horses charging through the pedestrian precinct, their riders in full traditional regalia. This, it turns out, is just a precursor to something that involves groups in local costumes parading through town, banners, bangers, dancing and speeches. Lots of speeches. It was charming but eventually we decided to go to dinner.

After all, we can’t hang around all night, there’s cinnamon liqueur to be drunk on the balcony.

Delphi – the main event

Chloe came here on a school trip back in the 80s, so knew a little of the place and the location. I, therefore, did very little research, so excuse my Brian Cox-esque hyperbole about the wonder of seeing Delphi for the first time.

The scenery here is breathtaking. In every direction there are tremendous views of mountains, terraces or towards the Gulf of Corinth. We booked the hotel’s cheapest room and it was meant to be a small room overlooking the main road. However, as we were staying three nights, the owner decided to upgrade us to a room at the back with a view over said vistas – how lovely. We can totally recommend the well laid-out, great value and just generally organised Varonos Hotel.

We drag ourselves away from the hotel early one morning to avoid the hoards at the main archeological site. In truth, the village of Delphi and the site aren’t crowded at all and we get in front of the only big tour group (well, just enough to appreciate the peace and quiet before the mass of footsteps approach).

And what of this site itself?  It is huge. There is so much to see and it’s simply stunning. There are five levels, all with a reasonably steep walk between them but far easier than some guidebooks and most of our internet research said. Or maybe it just feels easier, as we have climbed so many hills on this holiday?

At the lowest level there is writing carved into the stones that is still readable. Unfortunately our ancient Greek is as bad as our modern Greek, so we have no idea what it said!

The next three levels include the temple of Apollo, various treasuries including the magnificent Athenian treasury, an ancient theatre holding 4,500 people, and much much more.


Finally at the top, we are rewarded by the magnificent Stadium of Delphi that held the ancient Pythian Games (second only to the Olympics) with a capacity of 6,500. Unfortunately it is fenced off, so there is no repeat of the Athens Olympic stadium jogging earlier in the holiday. This does not spoil the wonder of one of the best historic sites we have ever visited. 

We complete our day with a meal with at Epikouros Taverna, barely 100m from our hotel. Will it deliver food as magnificent as the view and the sights we have seen today? The food was excellent, the view (below) sublime.

In the footsteps of pilgrims: day one in Delphi

 

What did we learn in Delphi, centre of the universe, navel of the world? Well, on day one we learned you can’t trust the internet. Don’t stay in Delphi village, it said. You need a car to see all of the sites, it said. They’re miles off the road, it said. Probably all shut on a bank holiday, it said.

Blessedly cooler in the foothills of Mount Parnassus, we intended to take a short walk to the Delphi Museum. On reaching the first bend, though, Chloe spotted the Athena Pronea off in the distance. A sanctuary dedicated to the goddess, it was the first site that pilgrims from Athens encountered on their way to the oracle. “That doesn’t look too far”, she said…

Actually, it wasn’t. About a mile out of the village of Delphi, you need to have some care on the stretches that have no pavement, it’s on a gently winding road. Five minutes’ walk downhill from the road and you’re at the famous round ‘tholos’ (maybe a temple, maybe a treasury for offerings). There were only a handful of people there when we arrived, the atmosphere was peaceful and the view stunning. We were in luck, passing a party of at least thirty on our way out.

Our detour meant that we followed the footsteps of those Athenian pilgrims back past the Kastalian Spring, where they would wash before entering the Sanctuary of Apollo. It was dry at this time of year and fenced off against rock falls, but a milestone nevertheless.

Saving the main sanctuary until tomorrow, we stopped briefly for a fruit slushy so strong that even Bart and Milhouse might think twice before indulging.

The Archeological Museum of Delphi has significantly improved since Chloe was last here in the late 80s. There’s even an access ramp. Of course, you couldn’t hope to get up it in a wheelchair given the slope, but it’s the first we’ve seen in Greece.

Cities, leaders and wealthy individuals all gave generously to Delphi in the hope of jumping the oracle’s queue, so it’s not surprising that there’s quite an haul to be uncovered. What is surprising is the detail that still remains on many objects. From statues and freizes to golden headdresses and tiny carved offerings, being an archeologist here must be like shooting fish in a barrel.

We finish the day with mastika on the balcony of our brilliant hotel (we can wax lyrical about the joys of light switches in the right places, shelves and comfortable mattresses another time) and can’t wait for the main event tomorrow.

Anchovies and a blood moon: family reunion

A partial family reunion occurred when Chloe’s mum, brother and sisters flew out to Greece and we all stayed at our Auntie Val’s place in Porto Rafti, just outside Athens. Dad stayed at home to look out for our Nan and Val was on holiday, but they were all sorely missed.

This coastal town is a weekend getaway for lots of Athenians, and we can see why. It’s a good few degrees cooler, a lot quieter and who can resist calamari and mastika on the beach? This goes double when the moon rises blood red over the Aegean and the mastika is served in half pint glasses.

Like all family get togethers, it was characterised by lots of food, bickering and bickering about food. Notable debates included:

  • Was the bloke in the Liver Birds also in Auf Wiedersehen Pet? Yes.
  • Is Saudi Arabia trying to destroy Venezuela? Indirectly.
  • What did Steps sing? Only the best pop of the late 90s!
  • Is Donald Trump a Nazi? All signs say yes.

In these scary times, it’s always good to laugh with, argue with and eat anchovies with the ones you love.

Temple, eclipse, à la carte

One of the very few downsides of taking an extended holiday is that it can be hard to keep the enthusiasm going. It’s easy to become a little blasé and miss the wonder of it all. Yesterday was a reminder of how lucky we are to be able to do this.

By chance, we’re in Athens for the August full moon. Every year on this night, museums and archeological sites are open late and are free to get in. Finding out which ones is a wholly different matter. Information on the Greek government websites is, frankly, a bit crap.

The day starts, very early as usual, with a visit to the Panathenaic stadium. We’ve been here before, but only for a quick run around the track, then we were off. This time, we get an audio guide and the whole history of this place is brought to life. It was the site of sporting competitions in ancient times, was entirely re-built for the first modern Olympics in 1896, still hosts events such as basketball, and was the finish line for the Olympic marathon in 2004.

There was a great little museum, through a slightly creepy tunnel under the stadium seats, with posters and memorabilia from previous Olympic games. These included reminders of better times for London and the UK in 2012.

However, whoever decided that a pure white marble stadium was a great idea in Athens obviously never tried to run around the track in the August heat. Allan’s best effort was to run up and down the shady side.

Next up was the temple of Olympian Zeus, not to be confused with the temple of Zeus in Olympia. Like many other historic sites in Athens, they seem to appear out of nowhere. Turn left at the dual carriageway, down the side of the park and, my word, there’s some 2000 year old stuff just sitting there in a field.

Again, like many sites here, there is lots of Roman as well as ancient Greek history. Emperor Hadrian completed this temple and constructed many other public buildings. Hadrian’s Arch, at the corner of the park, was built in his honour. When we read the inscription, we can’t help imagining him as a Trump-like figure (what with the wall obsession too). It says on one side ‘This is Athens the ancient city of Theseus’ and on the other ‘This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus’. Can we also make out a faint addition on this side? ‘Fake news. Theseus is sad.’ Remarkable.

We did consider trying to see the solar eclipse in the USA later this month as part of this holiday, but it was just too big a detour. We, therefore, try to make up for it by seeing a partial lunar eclipse in Athens. Luckily, it coincides with August full moon night!

As part of the celebrations, the National Athens Observatory is open late. Seems like an appropriate place to watch the eclipse, right? Half way up we realised that a lot of other people had the same idea and nearly gave up as it was so busy. So glad we didn’t, as we are treated to the moon with a bite-sized chunk taken out of it whilst overlooking the Acropolis. Oh. My. God. Wow. A highlight of the holiday and the number of people didn’t spoil it at all.

Not to outdone by the wonders of the universe, we stop for dinner at To Steki tou ilia that boasts it serves the best lamb chops in Athens – and that is some boast. It is 11pm and prime dinner time here, so we are made to wait around half an hour and are flipping starving. After the day we have had, would it deliver that promise? Well, of course it did.

One of our better days of this, or indeed, any holiday.

 

Athens: searing heat & inappropriate touching

We sail into the heart of the sun. More accurately, we arrive in Piraeus at about 3pm, but it’s hard to tell the difference. We’re going to need a plan if we’re to see Athens’ wonders without perishing of heatstroke, and this is it: get up dead early, see something, return to air conditioning for the afternoon, dinner, bed, repeat.

Day one: the ancient Agora

At 8am, only a few tourists have set foot here yet, so we’re free to wander through great piles of really old marble to our hearts’ content. The centre of Athenian society, it was meeting site, news stand, market, place of worship and sat between the two ‘houses’ of Athenian government, the Parthenon rising above it all.

The first path we set foot on turned out to be the Panathenaic Way. Chloe was as excited as when she saw Paul McGann in a lift at Gally or that dung beetle in Tanzania.  Allan was treated to a run down of what the road was used for and the difference between Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns. Who says Classical Civilisation A-level isn’t useful?

The Temple of Hephaestus was impressively intact, looking just as a Greek temple should. We can see it from our apartment balcony. Fun fact, for years people thought it was a temple to Theseus and the entire local neighbourhood was named Thisseo after it. Oops.

There was an excellent little museum and this time it was Allan who got over-excited when a 2,500 year-old, Spartan bronze battle shield was spotted. “No, I’m Spartacus!” and “Do you like Gladiator movies?” was heard way too many times.

The only blot on an otherwise perfect morning was being forced to ‘have a word’ with a couple of tourists who thought it was perfectly OK to rub their sweaty hands all over the feet of a two thousand year old statue. ‘Don’t worry, we won’t hurt it’, they say. We huff in a very British display of disapproval, which they barely notice.

Day two: Library of Hadrian & Museum of Islamic Art

Another early start and only two other tourists join us at the ruins of a marvellous library built by the Emperor Hadrian.

On first sight, we think the great columns at the entrance are the long side of the building. We soon realise it’s merely the back. The place is huge, with papyrus storage, reading rooms, auditoriums and meeting places. Of course, someone then plonked no fewer than four churches on the site. But it had served its purpose, making Hadrian look darn good and distracting people from who was going to pay for ‘that’ wall.

On our way out we pass two young women sitting on some marble columns and a family posing for photos on top of another. We’re hot and tired already, though, so simply indulge in more subtle huffing as we leave.

The Museum of Islamic Art offers a cool (and, again, empty) haven from the heat. Its four floors trace the development of artistic styles and techniques in the Islamic world from the seventh century onwards.

The bright colours in ceramics and glazes are particularly striking, showing how European and Islamic techniques developed at different rates. We can’t tell whether this is as a result of greater scientific progress or the availability of different materials. The results, though, are spectacular.

Particularly notable was a thousand year old woven rug, still in good enough condition to see the red and gold colours and make out the script.

Sadly, it was just too warm to enjoy the rooftop café for any length of time but the views across the city, including the Acropolis, were breathtaking.