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Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

On Being Back Home Again

November 4, 2014 2 comments
Storms and sunset. I like it.

There was a lot of this while I was in Chania.

 

This one is a bit delayed. A bit more than a month delayed, in fact. Apologies for that—I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and just because my Greek odyssey ended in quiet fashion was no reason to leave my audience (you’re out there, right? Is this thing even on?) hanging.

Chania, in the west of Crete, was a quietly pleasant way to wrap up my travels. Founded as Kydonia long ago in the Minoan age, it passed through the hands of multiple powers, both foreign and domestic, over the intervening centuries, all of which left their mark. No massive museums to rival those in Athens or Thessaloniki, or fortresses like those of Nafplio or Mycenae. Yet with a cafe tucked into a narrow alleyway, twisting streets filled with craft shops, the relics of Venetian fortifications, and an old church turned into a museum, with relics of the Ottoman occupation in the garden, there was more than enough to see.

It would perhaps have been nice to spend an hour or so on the beach (or preferably in the sea), but wild weather and the first hints of autumn in the air put paid to that. I got plenty of the sea in my face just by strolling along the promenade, and the main adventure of my time in Chania was had the first night, making my way all along the long, crumbling breakwater to the old lighthouse, joining a French couple in climbing over the locked gates to do a little light trespassing for the sake of a good photo.

So Chania was a place for resting and relaxing, either collecting my thoughts and resting tired limbs after more than a week of walking to and around new experiences, or steeling myself for the inevitability of a five-hour Ryanair flight and the cattle drive of the airport that preceded it. With that in mind, as well as the long gap between getting home and writing this, here are a few collected thoughts.

  • Greece is utterly worth the effort. I’d waited for years to go there, and while I didn’t get to see everything I wanted (who could, in only ten days?), I saw wonders.
  • It’s a country of two parts. The Isthmus of Corinth has divided the Greek world for millennia, and it still does. To the north and east are the two main cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, connected by the country’s main railway. To the south and west is the Peloponnese, with smaller towns and cities, truly ancient ruins and wild hills, and no working railway.
  • It’s a straight travel choice. Either travel by bus, of which there are plenty, or by car and risk Greece’s occasionally tricky roads and drivers. The risks of the latter are probably a little overstated, but then I didn’t have to deal with them. Being bus-bound wasn’t a major problem for me, but if you want to get off the beaten path, you’ll need a car.
  • Get there early. Tour buses and the hordes they disgorge are the enemy. In Delphi and Mycenae, I got there before the worst of the crowds, and in Delphi in particular the result was magical. In Knossos I didn’t, and I ended up dodging the crowds and queueing up to see some of the best bits.
  • Alternatively, get there late. The Greeks had a tendency, not uncommon in the ancient world, to build their most imposing monuments on hilltops. If you’re going there in September/October, you’ll be able to catch sunset before they close. There’s not much that improves a sunset more than ruins two thousand years old…
  • Get comfortable with waiting. Service in Greece isn’t bad, it’s just not hurried. At all. Which should give you plenty of time to chill out, enjoy the ouzo or raki, and contemplate the meaning of life.
  • Travelling with one bag? Not that I’m the first person to figure this out, but it’s perfectly doable, even when travelling for more than a week. Just make sure that you know where to find a laundrette, and be aware that bringing presents home is going to be limited, size-wise.
  • Ditching the electronics… This is the second trip I’ve had where I limited my electronics to my phone alone. Given that I prefer to write freehand when I can, and that my iPhone is pretty capable, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. The only issue is battery life—next time I’d bring a battery case.
  • …but using the ones you have… I was flying by the seat of my pants with regard to a lot of my travel planning. Beyond my flight in and my flight out, plus my first two nights in Thessaloniki, everything was booked the day before, using Booking.com and/or Tripadvisor. It all worked pretty smoothly, but…
  • …paying attention to the details. My one big error on the trip was not realising that there would be so few ferries from Athens to Iraklio per day. I made the best of it in the end, getting to watch the close of the Ryder Cup in a Sports Bar, but the overnight trip was something I could have been better prepared for. Lesson learned—next time I’m not going to assume that everything will be convenient.
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History Turned Up to 11

September 29, 2014 3 comments

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Knossos, both restored and unrestored.

Travelling to Crete is like taking the lever that controls the Greek history time machine and pushing it as far back as it will go without breaking. Modern political divisions notwithstanding, this is a very different country, and there’s no better place to see this than in Knossos, heart of the Minoan civilisation of Crete and fabled palace of the mostly legendary King Minos, his daughter Ariadne and her half-brother the Minotaur. (Look it up – it’s a little icky.)
Even for the Mycenean Greeks who supplanted them, the Minoans must have appeared to be something alien and ancient. In the court of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the men of “Keftiu” were regular visits and the acknowledged masters of the wide green sea. The first maritime kings of the Mediterranean, they bequeathed some but not all of their practices to the Myceneans when disaster and strife somehow brought down their power. (The role of the Thera eruption in that downfall is yet another fascinating possibility.)
Looking at the art of the Minoans, it’s still easy to note the gulf that separates them from the later, more realistic depictions of the Greeks. In religion, the Minoans were goddess worshippers, and while they did venerate male deities too, the shift that placed Zeus (born and raised in a cave on Mount Ida on Crete as the tale goes) at the head of the pantheon of Olympian deities came after their time.
This shift in culture, art and language is a fascinating one to try and follow. There are Greek scripts that seem to depict the ancient Minoan tongue. The Linear B text seems of Minoan origin but is used to depict Greek language. The Minoans rose and fell several times over the centuries, coexisting with the Myceneans for several of them until their uniqueness was eclipsed.
The Iraklio Archaeological Museum does an excellent job of putting this tale in its proper context. (Any flaws in my understanding of it all, I’ll have to put down to my sleep-deprived brain – and while I’m at it, I’ll blame any typos on that too.) It seems that the more the Cretans were plugged into the trading networks and political systems of other Mediterranean powers, the less distinctive they became. Eventually, the people who had built and decorated the palace at Knossos so gloriously (though not necessarily as it now appears, depending on your opinion of Arthur Evans) became just another territory. An appendage and territory of other powers, whether Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, or Venetian.
It seems a shame, but we have the memories in myth and legend of those times and the relics recovered from the concealing earth and painstakingly restored. For me, I’ve enjoyed all that and more. My travels have taken me from Thessaloniki in the north of Greece, with its Byzantine and Ottoman influences, all the way to Crete, going ever deeper into history as I’ve continued south. This seems as good a place as any to stop. Maybe tomorrow, before I fly home, I’ll just lie on the beach for a while instead…

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The lighthouse at Chania in western Crete. On a stormy night like this, there’s no place better to be.

Up a Rock, Without a Prayer

September 22, 2014 3 comments

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Not bad for a hotel room view.
The first Christian hermits in the Middle East thought that the best way to get close to God was to get as far away from the madding crowd of humanity as they could (some of us may sympathise). Holiness, however, brought fame, and soon those same crowds sought them out. So the hermits erected poles and pillars and retreated up them for years at a time. Anything for a quiet life.
The monks of Meteora, sadly, weren’t taking this approach to its logical extreme when they decided to build their monasteries on top of inaccessible pinnacles of rock. It would have made this post much more coherent if they had. Instead, they were trying to keep out of the way of the Ottoman conquerors of Greece, with whom they weren’t religiously in synch . Whatever their reasons though, the results are spectacular.
Kalambaka, nestled at the base of sheer limestone cliffs (which, yes, people try to climb because some people aren’t happy unless they’ve found a new way of making their lives difficult) is a small town that mostly caters to the tourists coming to gawp at the monasteries of Meteora. My own gawping is taking place towards the end of the gawping season, which means that the town is a little quieter than it might be and a fair bit cooler. (That it gets a lot colder can be seen in the piles of firewood that most houses have set aside for the winter.) Which is definitely a good thing, as a trek up the footpath to the nearest monastery without a bottle of water came close to being a rather bad idea.
The views, though, were well worth it again, and tomorrow morning I’ll be back to do it properly. Already I’m realising that ten days isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of a country like Greece. But a day that can grant you a glimpse of Mount Olympus, a tour through a thousand-year-old church adorned with frescoes on every surface, and the sight of a monastery that can only be reached by a rickety cable car or a stairway carved into a cliff face is a day well spent.

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A little more Meteora is good for the soul.

Initial Greek Perambulations

September 21, 2014 Leave a comment

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It was all downhill from here…
If, like me, you harbour illusions about your ability to navigate around a foreign city unaided, Thessaloniki will disabuse you of them. Not so much the newer city, with its straight lines parallel to the dockside, but the older city, in the vicinity of the ancient acropolis and slightly less ancient Byzantine walls.
Here, roads go up and down, intersecting in random fashion, usually one lane wide but sometimes no lanes wide, owing to either parked cars or suddenly turning into stairs instead of a street. And while you’re trying to figure this mess out, the cats of the old city are watching you, aristocratically amused by another human struggling to survive in their domain.
I managed well enough last night, locating my hostel, the exceptionally welcoming Little Big House, and a pleasant place to have a beer in the form of Toixo Toixo. That was limited stuff though, and not long after beginning a day of perambulating this morning, I was reduced to heading vaguely downhill and hoping that I’d run into either the city walls or the sea.
Not that wandering wasn’t fun though, and once I did get my bearings again, there were plenty of places for this historical traveller to see, many of them relating to the little-thought-of Roman Emperor Galerius, who made Thessaloniki the capital of his eastern empire, a status it only held for a little time before Constantine moved the entire business to Byzantium/Constantinople.
Between that and the museums and the White Tower, wherein medieval prisoners were wont to be, well, imprisoned, there has been more than enough walking done today. The time has come to eat, at the Kitchen Bar by the waterside, before figuring out a route back to the Little Big House. If you don’t hear from me in the next ten days, send a search party…
Note: The wifi in the Kitchen Bar was pretty dire, so I’m posting this from the Little Big House. Which wasn’t impossible to find. Not easy, but not impossible either.

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The White Tower. Once known as the Bloody Tower, before they literally whitewashed it.

The Historical Traveller

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment
Mind you, I live in Dublin now, so visiting this is a holiday in itself.

A millennium and a half of history just down the road. But if you can go further, why wouldn’t you?

There’s a certain set of rituals to be undertaken before a long holiday. Eating the last of the perishable food in the house. Considering what clothes to take with you (there may be shorts, and the baring of milky-white leg flesh). Making sure that no one gets left in the lurch at work (inevitably, though, the clock draws the eyes more and more strongly as the end of the last day approaches). Reminding yourself not to forget your passport (which has absolutely no effect on whether or not you do eventually forget it).

I’m in the middle of all of this right now—in two days I leave Dublin for Greece (via Copenhagen for reasons of cheap flights and the prospects of a pleasant layover). On this trip, I’m staying true to one of my main reasons for travelling. There are many things that can drive one to visit distant places—time in the sun, adventure in an exotic locale, a new cultural experience, encounters with natural wonders—and over the years I’ve resorted to them all, either solo or in company. The draw that most informs my list of “must visit” places though? History.

Experiencing history is something like floating on an ocean. There are depths below you, all around, and every so often you can catch glimpses of what lies below. Back at home, familiar sights included a schoolhouse more than a century old, a ruined church more than a thousand years-a-crumbling and a stone circle dating back to the Neolithic period. Being surrounded by all of this as a child made me feel like I could reach out and touch the people who shared my homeland, no matter how separated in time we might be. The same feeling hits me on my holidays too, whether in the Colosseum in Rome, Tycho Brahe’s observatory in Copenhagen or a temple in Kyoto.

Greece has been on my top-ten list of places to visit for a long time. In fact, in the current political climate (which rules Egypt and Iran out) and in the absence of a long sabbatical from work (ruling out much of the southern hemisphere), it’s probably the most desired unvisited destination I have. Ten days won’t be near enough to see everything that I want to see (I’m focusing on the mainland rather than the islands) but they’ll be a packed ten days.

Why Greece? Look back to a childhood dominated by myths and legends for the main clue. To travel around Greece is to step back through time: from Ottoman rule to Byzantine domination, beyond that to the time of Imperial Rome and Macedonian kings, then to classical Athens and archaic Mycenae and Knossos. To return to the ocean metaphor, travelling through Greece is like floating above a wonderful mix of coral reefs and abysses. There’s always going to be something to see, layered everywhere you look. It’s a beautiful country too, full of wild mountains and deep valleys.

My basic plan is to start in the north, near Thessaloniki, and make my way south through the mainland, visiting Delphi, Athens and Mystra before hopping on a ferry to Crete, from where I’ll fly home again. Unlike my last long journey through Russia and beyond, there’s no need to exhaustively plan everything out, so I’m happy to wing it to an extent. That’s another benefit of travelling solo, I suppose: you can indulge your own whims without worrying about the impact they might have on your travelling partner. Of course, the drawback is not being able to share your enthusiasm and experiences, but that just provides a reason to repeat the journey again in the future.

All of which is to say that there should be, before too long, another travelogue appearing under the long-neglected “Travel” tab above. Between now and then, there will be reports from Greece whenever I get the chance to add them (not having planned out my accommodation to the last detail, I have no idea when and where I’m going to have Internet access—again, on the bright side, it’ll be nice to get away from LCD screens for a while).

In the last couple of days, I’ve realised all the things I’m going to be missing while I’m gone: a comics convention, Dublin’s Culture Night, the Ryder Cup and two weeks of rugby, West Brom and Doctor Who. For all that though, it’s been too long since I travelled. The excitement is just starting to kick in now, and it’s a nice, unfamiliar feeling. When I finally head to the airport, it’ll be in my preferred fashion, with a bag on my shoulder, a passport in my pocket and history in my future. I hope, in whatever I come to write about it, I manage to share some of that excitement with you.

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