Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Holidays

Before I even write this blog, I know there are things I will leave out, places I will describe inadequately, historical facts I will have misinterpreted, people whose essence I will not capture and landscapes whose power and immensity will be rendered banal through description. Even though I intend to accompany some of this with photos, photos can only give an idea, indeed often an overly subjective idea and can be no match for experience.

London-Day 1.

A day in London…what do two people who’ve both been to London before, do for one day? Well, my only objective was to go to the Tate Modern, having seen it mentioned in Woody Allen’s ‘Match point’ (silly reason, I know, but there you go!) Having checked in to our hotel, Hotel Apollo, (chosen because of its deified name, of course…nothing to do with location or any other factor!), we ate Pret-a-Manger, which I like because even though it’s nice and quick, it’s healthy too.
We then took off in the direction of the Tate, making a detour to the British Museum so that Denis could show me the great and wonderful fragments of the freise of the Parthenon (to educate me to a full and proper appreciation!) To be fair it was very impressive, so much so that I wondered what could possibly be left of it in Athens, if this much of it was appropriated and on display in London? (We since learned that these pieces were looted between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire). While I didn’t, and still don’t understand the stories the pictures tell, and mythology in general doesn’t hold my attention, the beauty of these sculptures was really something. That movement and body language could be portrayed through the folds of a toga, hewn from cold, hard marble is beautiful and can be admired to that end.
We then meandered through the streets of London to the Tate Modern, which we eventually found. Incidentally, the weather was quite hot on that day, preparing us I suspect, for what was to come later. We availed of audio guide as in the Tate, which were quite good…gave general information on the 3 permanent collections, and more specific information on certain paintings on those 3 levels. The four seminal periods represented are Surrealism, Minimalism, post-war innovations in abstraction and figuration. An example of a work better understood with audio information was that of Cubist artist, Georges Braque, Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece, whereby the commetator guides you through the objects ‘hidden’ in the picture leading to an understanding of how Cubists began to bring different views of the object together on the picture surface. On this picture, a clarinet, albeit with a different mouthpiece can be seen horizontally across the middle of the picture, as can various other musical symbols, eg. Bass clefs. Part of the bottle of Rhum can be seen (RHU( at the top, and part of the word valse can be seen underneath reinforcing the idea of music. The brackets of a mantelpiece, though quite obscured, can be made out at the bottom right. What also stood out to me were Andy Warhol’s rooms, obviously in the Pop Art category. The colour and immensity of the display is very powerful and the juxtaposition of various seemingly unrelated elements strikes a chord. On a backdrop of repeated pattern print (pink cow’s heads on yellow) are superimposed on one wall, a large $ sign, on another 6 skulls, on another 6 vertical coloured patterns, and finally on the last 2 pistols. What any of this means, I don’t know. I don’t know if it means anything, but it certainly gets you thinking of how these things might be related, why the artist chose to put them together, which begs the deeper question, how are things related to each other and to us, and do things matter? I guess it’s something like that that’s at the heart of consumerism.
After the Tate, we were both fairly wrecked and in need of a ‘nice-English-cup-of-tea-and-a-sit-down’, which we had in a bar beside the Tate, overlooking the Thames. We then walked along the bank, overlooking the river, where there was a fair amount of street performance. We passed by 10 Downing Street, and Buckingham Palace, but decided to cut both Cameron and Queen from our already busy schedule…next time, perhaps! Through St. James’ park we ambled, towards Picadilly, where we purchased tickets for 39 Steps, a show by Hitchcock. After some reliably good pizza at Pizza Hut, (more anon), and a drink at a nearby Irish pub, we went to the play.
Now I know we were tired at this point, and may have been overly critical, but really…! The plot was weak and the four actors were overstretched, despite using many theatrical techniques, quick costume changes and farcical manoeuvres to deliver the story. The basic theme was that of a man who inadvertently is embroiled in a murder of a ‘femme fatale’ and in his efforts to clear his name, he discovers a secret spy ring trying to smuggle scientific military secrets from Britain, and sets out, single-handedly to stop them. There were some Hitchcockian references, albeit a little brash. The pace was dashed, deliberately so, and the aim was parody and to give the effect of amateur drama, which certainly did come across in my view. I felt the whole show was too ‘loud’ and concentrated more around form than content, resulting in the story getting lost somewhere in the first half. And this, despite, raving reviews elsewhere…!

Day 2: London-Thessaloniki

After a breakfast, maybe not quite fit for the gods, in the Apollo, we got the Express to Heathrow, and flew to Athens with Aegean airlines. We got a meal on board, which in itself is a pleasant surprise when used to flying with mean old Irish airlines. And from there we flew to Thessaloniki and, after briefly remarking on the heat, got a bus to somewhere we thought looked like the centre?? Yes…we were lost! And without the language and even an ability to decipher Greek street names, we felt a bit at sea. So we gave up and got a taxi, which only cost 4 euro (and he even returned Denis’ lonely planet book which was left in the taxi…how sound is that?!)
We went out that evening for dinner, to Ruby Tuesdays, (not yet very adventurous with Greek cuisine), and then went for a few drinks in bars along the waterfront, one of which was showing the semi-final between Uruguay and Holland. Nothing too remarkable: nice places, but very high prices for drinks. It seemed we were experiencing a normal city in Greece, not one catering solely for tourists.

Day 3: Thessaloniki-Panteleimonas

After a nice sleep-in, we set out to explore Thessaloniki by day. We got breakfast, and then followed a walking tour outlined in Lonely planet, but spent about half an hour trying to find the starting point. Once we got going, it was easy enough to find our way around, and we went by some old Orthodox churches, old Roman baths, a Roman marketplace, the Galerian arch, the Modiano market, and the White Tower, which had a six floor exhibition of the history of Thessaloniki. There was English audio guides, and the exhibition was remarkably thorough, though impossible to fully take in. The tower was previously called the ’Blood Tower’ as it was the place of execution for janissary prisoners in the nineteenth century, but in 1912, when Thessaloniki was annexed from the Ottoman Empire and became part of Greece, the tower was whitewashed in a symbol of renewal and cleansing, giving it its current name, despite its grey colour. Having our tour completed, and drained from the heat, we chilled out with a coke and frappe in a bar close to the hotel.
We collected the car at the airport that evening at about 6, and with the help of Denis’ trustee sat-nav, and Denis’ trustee driving (which was really well-done!!) we made our way out of Thessaloniki and towards Panteleimonas, our next destination. So easily we seemed to be gliding along, we didn’t have any idea what awaited us that evening!!
We found the village without too much difficulty, but finding the house we were staying in was a whole other ball game. Perched on a high hill, the village could not be accessed by car, which we had to park close by and try to find this elusive place!! The village itself was beautiful, and very quaint, probably even more so on account of a dusky light lending it an air of mystery and a fairytale-like quality. Why was it getting dark this early?! On we went, and with the help of a kind shop assistant, despite the now inclement weather, we found our accommodation, a very charming country house. We went to get our bags from the car. By now it was fairly bucketing down, and we were met with a lady who was despairingly trying to tell us, in Greek, to move the car. (Her husband came to her assistance), and also led us back our accommodation, which was helpful, considering it was now pitch black, only lit up by intermittent streaks of lightening. So, once back in the safety of the house, we had to leave again to move the car, lest it be swept down the hill in the deluge (Heaven forbid!! We later thought it couldn’t be as drastic as all that, but with a rented car, you don’t take chances!) So out we trundled again, with no light to guide us but the lightning and a tiny lighter torch, and you’ll never believe it…yes, we ventured out a third time, with dry clothes this time, which were quickly soaked again, to get dinner in a lovely authentic restaurant close by. The second semi-final (Spain v Germany) was showing, but I was more taken with the drama out of doors-the lightning and thunder had subsided somewhat, but it the rain persisted. The food was lovely, and the setting was old-style, traditional and very homely. We returned after the match, and I was so relieved and grateful to feel safe and snug in bed, that I didn’t care about Mount Olympus, which I feared was becoming less and less of a possibility. Safety was more important, and if sacrificing ‘the dream’ was the price, so be it.

Day 4: Mount Olympus

Obviously it was not meant to be sacrificed! We woke up to bird-song and sunshine, and we breakfasted outdoors, looking onto the sea, with 3 remarkably thin tabby cats circling our legs for food. It was perfect. The man made us his special brew of ‘mountain tea’ to set us on our way.
We drove to Lithochoro and made enquiries regarding weather and about climbing as far as Refuge A, which we were told was ‘easy’, with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. ‘Oh, well in that case, what’s stopping us?!’, I thought, ‘let’s go. We might even get to the top top’ Innocent, na├»ve us!! We soon saw ‘easy’!
After buying a map and torch, we drove as far as Priunya, where we had lunch. I had a lovely Greek salad, which was to become my staple meal for the rest of the holiday…mmm!! Off we set along the alpine path, passing mules, a waterfall and following a very clear trail. It was not too warm, and we were sheltered well in the shade of the trees. Our pace was fairly good, but we took frequent short stops to rehydrate, take photos, tie laces (and whatever other acceptable pretexts I could devise!). After a while the landscape was more stony than wooded, and while the ascent wasn’t steep, we were climbing all the time. We chatted to a New Zealand couple, who had left that morning from Priunya, climbed all the way to the top (well Skolio, which is only 14m less than Mytikas, the actual summit), and were on their way back down again. It wasn’t until the next day that I fully appreciated their feat! Soon, after about two-and-a-half hours of climbing, we reached Refuge A, where we were very glad to sit and relax with a can of coke and some chocolate! This was where we would stay that night. The refuge was a lovely, very well-run resting place, with a fire in the dining room area, and warm, nourishing meals served up with remarkable efficiency. The showers there were cold, and the dormitories were cold to the point of dampness, but at that altitude (2100m), one has to make some allowances. We had a very pleasant evening chatting to two couples, a Scottish couple who were in Greece for a week, and who had actually hiked from Lithochoro to the refuge (how?!), and a German couple, Peter and Olga (Olga’s family were Greek). Peter was a travel writer and was doing an article on the refuge which was a long running family enterprise, with German connections. They were a very interesting couple, both writers, and while Peter was more affable, with probably more fluent English, Olga had a very strong individual presence. We dined with them, spaghetti all the way, and conversed, about travel, languages, jobs, Greece, the World Cup, and we went to bed at about 9pm, before lights out at 10pm.

Day 5: Mount Olympus-Meteora

Up we roused ourselves at 6am, after a cold night, had ourselves some bread and tea for breakfast, and headed off for the peak (we weren’t sure at that point which peak we’d opt for).
‘Which way?’ I asked Denis, who drolly replied ‘Up’. How right he was. Up and up and up and up!! It was unrelenting, the whole way! A scrub of trees marks the first section which zigzags upwards to a ridge with a map, which shows how much more is left to do!! From there follows a steep and stony path to the next main ridge, Skala, from where Skolio and Mytikas can be viewed. Mytikas looked ghastly, with treacherous furrows of rock protruding like the rucking of a failed seamstress. Besides, it was covered with a cloud of mist, so we opted for Skolio. Skolio was easily reached in about 15-20 minutes, and at the top, you’re looking down over the clouds giving an exceptional feeling of space and peace. Nothing else seems important, but the right here, now, this moment we’re breathing and the beauty of that-simple but magnificent!
Going down was less arduous, though the knees felt the constant pressure, and at this point the surface underfoot was quite loose, so care and concentration had to be given to each placing of the foot. We arrived at the refuge at about noon, and had our lunch and rested there for about half an hour. We parted ways with Peter and Olga and made our way down towards Priunya. This was quite hard work, and while we kept a steady pace, our legs were now jelly-like, and for the last half an hour or so, of that section, we were plodding along like two drunkards desperate for their next drop. Finally, we arrived at the car, changed our clothes and drove to Lithochoro. (Denis drove while I struggled to stay awake). There, we got an ice-cream, and continued to Meteora, the land of monastries on rocks. We found the acccomodation, (I’d better give credit to Denis for that one…!), showered and freshened up and trudged down to the village, footsore, but satisfied, and found someplace for dinner, which was eaten with relish. We slept very soundly that night to the sounds of crickets and whisper of leaves outside our window.

Day 6: Meteora-Delphi

We awoke, our minds refreshed but our bodies, especially our legs, begging for more rest. Steps, either up or down were particularly arduous, something we knew the monasteries had no shortage of. We breakfasted outdoors again which was lovely and then headed off for Great Meteoran, the biggest of the Meteorite monasteries, erected in the 14th century on a huge pillar of sandstone rock. It now serves as a museum for tourists, with a traditional dress-code policy, ie skirts to be worn by females. The monastery was established by St. Athanasios Meteorites, a scholarly monk from Mount Athos and dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ. As well as the church itself is a large refectory, kitchen, carpenter’s workshop, wine cellar and sacristy, all giving a good idea of the way life life was lived as a hermetic monk. The kitchen maintained smoke-stains, and all the original cooking utensils and ovens: one could almost smell the fresh bread and soup that must have provided their daily lunch! What struck me was the beautiful and detailed art of the iconographers, depicting various saints, including military saints (?), and ancient sages. Slightly disconcerting is a roomful of skulls staring out at you, skulls of previous residents. There was a basket pulley-system, which can still be seen to carry up provisions and monks too! While the museum was interesting to visit, I felt it would really benefit from some audio, or audio-visual guides, as it is difficult to take in information by reading alone, especially when there is already so much to see in terms of art, architecture and artefacts.
We then took off to visit a nunnery, a word I haven’t heard used since studying Hamlet, but this was one particular hamlet we could not find!! We went on a bit of a ‘wild goose chase’ around the hilly countryside of Meteora, and eventually gave up and had lunch in Kalampaka, before setting off for Delphi. I took over at the wheel, and actually found driving on the opposite side easy, I think because of the fact that the pedals are the same, something I was not expecting.
I drove for a good distance, but on approach to the windy roads towards Delfon, I let Denis take over. The area was extremely hilly, passing through a few rural villages, and an understandably deserted ski resort, which I’m sure throbs with life in winter (though, who’d have equated Greece with skiing?!)
Finally, we came to the town of Delphi, overlooking an immense valley, once accessed by water and believed, I’m reliably informed, to have been the centre of the earth. After checking into the hotel, and walking towards the site of the great temple of Apollo, we freshened up and went out for dinner to a restaurant with a view overlooking the great plain. We followed this with a drink in a local pub where we were bestowed with multiple offerings of fruit, nuts, drinks…just the two of us with three people to serve us! We took our opportunity to escape when another punter appeared.

Day 7: Delphi-Athens

After breakfast, we set out for the museum and archeological site, located ten minutes walk from the hotel. The museum was cool, which in itself was a relief from the already melting heat. It was clearly laid out, with artefacts from the temple and grounds on display and information accompanying them. I liked that Apollo was the god of music, and there are multiple depictions of him with lyre (cithara), and that the stadium in Delphi hosted music competitions. I was also impressed with the statues of twins, Kleobis and Biton, who dragged their mother, Cydippe, a priestess of Hera a distance of 8.5 km to a festival honouring Hera. So impressed was the mother with her sons’ dedication that she requested that Hera would grant for them the best gift a mortal could receive. That night, both sons lay down and died, and their statues were donated to the sanctuary of Apollo. Whether the ‘best thing’ is to die, or to have a statue dedicated in your honour wasn’t clear to me, but neither of these sound like particularly good rewards? Maybe I’m missing something.
The archeological site was well maintained, not very clearly marked out for non-Greek readers, but easy enough to piece together. It’s located on a great height and was where all the oracles took place, with the remains of Apollo’s temple clearly visible and numerous treasuries and dedications. It was interesting to imagine the country’s leaders consulting the oracle regarding important political, spoken through priestesses. Women were chosen to speak the oracles, entering a trance-like state to reveal the secrets of the gods. ‘Why women?’ I thought… We followed the path upwards, eventually coming to the stadium at the very top of the site, which hosted the Pythian games.
We left Delphi, and set out for Athens, via the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, which turned out to consist merely of motorway, with no apparent historical reference at all. Me, being indifferent to Greek battle grounds generally still found it strange not to have any sign of past bloodshed, so I can only imagine how such an omission must have confounded Denis.
We stopped for lunch at a coastal village outside Athens and then hightailed it to the airport to return the car to Hertz, which to access we ended up circling the airport about 4 times! (Make better signs, people!)
We got a train to Athens, and from Syntagma Square, got a taxi to our hotel, hotel Areos, a lovely hotel in a questionable location. We later went in search of somewhere to get dinner, and after a walk along a road practically devoid of street lighting, we turned back, and settled on a place closer to the hotel. The match (World Cup final, Spain v Holland) was showing, and we watched the first half there, and fell asleep in front of the second half (speaking for myself!) in the hotel room.

Day 8: Athens

After breakfast, we did walked to Syntagma and did a bus tour of the city. The heat was deadening on the top of the bus, and while the tour gave quite a good overview, I didn’t take in much of what was being said. I was more interested in pedestrians nearly being run-down by mad drivers, mopeds weaving through impossibly narrow spaces and taking all sorts of liberties at traffic lights and how the bus negotiated through absurdly narrow streets, avoiding, often by a whisper, cars parked on the roadside.
In the afternoon, we decided to take a trip outside of Athens, to the Temple of Poseidon, a temple majestically overlooking the sea. To get there, we had to take a bus journey which lasted over 2 hours. The coastal suburbs areas were prevailingly white, but my anticipation to get to the sea was heightened seeing swimmers bathing in the water which looked so blue and inviting. The bus conductor was lovely, a small man with a tendency to confer a sense of magic and awe on everything he speaks, even mundane old ticket fares. He reminded me of the Bilbo Baggins.
On arrival, we went to the restaurant and had dinner, looking out onto the temple on the height. We then went to the site of the temple itself, and took some photos. Poseidon, the god of the sea, is second only in importance to the city of Athens, who have Athena as their goddess. This was decided after a competition between the two, whereby Poseidon provided salty sea water, which was deemed less useful than the food, oil and wood of Athena’s olive tree.
We returned to Athens and went to a Creperie near Victoria metro station for supper and a drink in the bar of the hotel before calling it a day.

Day 9: Athens

After breakfast, we set out to explore the market area, which from the top of the bus looked very interesting-stalls and shops selling completely random, unrelated items, and an area open for trade twenty-four hours. (I wouldn’t particularly like to be wandering around it at 3am, mind…) Well, on foot it didn’t seem quite so interesting, just a narrow street with sellers touting their goods, but then we sought out the indoor food market, which must be more interesting. Well, I can safely say my vegetarianism, if ever wavering, was newly reinforced. Ugh!! Bawdy butchers bearing bloodied blades, proudly displaying their rancid cuts of meat from purplish kidneys to bow-shaped ribs. And the smell!! It brought back memories of the vile and penetrating kitchen smells of the Belarussian orphanage where I worked some summers. And that’s doing no disfavour to either.
On we went to the Acropolis museum, which again was a welcome reprieve from the heat. This museum, as the name suggests, is the keeper of the great treasures of the Acropolis (with the exception, of course, of the aforementioned sections of the frieze residing in the British Museum) The museum itself is a modern and creative building with lots of glass looking onto the Acropolis itself, and even a glass floor on the ground floor to reveal a historic settlement below. The museum houses the numerous treasures of the Acropolis and offers detailed explanations with each exhibit. Some of these are supplemented with other audio-visual devices, providing a very rounded education to facilitate everyone. For example, a large floor-to-ceiling screen tells the story of the Golden Age of Perikles, and the statue of Athena in comic-strip format, making it much more memorable for me, and I’m sure many others. Also, accompanying the floor with the Parthenon is a documentary explaining clearly the architectural features of the building and its significance to Athens and its demise through the years. In terms of the hundreds of sculpted figures and reliefs on display, I can only comment on their aesthetic qualities which are profound, and perhaps is the greatest legacy of the Ancient Greeks.
After lunch al fresco in a nearby restaurant, we went to the Acropolis, and took in the ancient site in the heat of the evening sun. The Parthenon was clearly the most imposing part of it, and was impressive still, despite being surrounded by scaffolding. Seeing the sheer volume of the rock and yet the precision with which the individual pieces fitted together to form the columns gave an appreciation of why this building has endured as a study and subject of awe. Atop the hill afforded a very good view of the city of Athens and how it stretches for miles in each direction. We walked down the around the Agora, (the Greek equivalent of the forum), and visited the Stoa of Attalos, containing a klepsidra, to mention just one artefact, which was a type of water clock to time the speeches of the orators. Finally, we visited the theatre of Dionysus, where the plays of ‘the Greats’, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes… were performed. We sat on the steps awhile and imagined how it must have been.
We returned to the restaurant where we ate the first night for something before heading to bed.

Days 10, 11 and 12.
We were bound for San Torini early next morning, so took a taxi to the port of Piraeus, and got the fast boat over, which had us there by 11.30am. Once there, we were met by numerous hotel and hostel owners advertising their accomodations. Not knowing the geography of the island, we just opted for the hostel, which we were informed was very close to the beach. While it seemed at first to be very cut off from the hub of the island, it turned out to be a very good location, as the beach is where we spent most of our time.
The beach was lovely, clear blue water and grey pebbles, (not golden sand, which was just as well as some of the time there was very windy and sand would be a right nuisance!) The water was very salty but lovely to swim in…it took no effort to get in, and while this eliminated the ‘buzz’ factor that the waters of the Atlantic never fails to deliver, it was nice to lounge about decadently and give the body a break for a while. What San Torini provided us with was rest, and plenty of it, because on an island where there is nothing to do but swim, eat and drink, one is compelled to relax, even if it goes against a person’s nature. It was good for us to have this time, as we had a very active holiday previously, and gave us a chance to breathe, process what we saw and did, and enjoy the stillness.
The restaurants / bars were nice for the most part, though I got a horrendous pizza on my first night there for which I had to wait 40 minutes. The top had a yellow, heavily-salted, rubbery unguent. I’m still wondering was it cheese? But on the whole, food and drink was fine.
We visited Fira, the island’s capital on the second night and travelled there on a local bus packed with Australians, Americans and English tourists, and a fiery and impatient conductor, the antithesis of our former Bilbo! Firo was grand…but exists solely, it seems, for tourists, and is completely assailed by mopeds and quads (in fact the whole island is). There was a beautiful sunset that we got to see from a rooftop restaurant, but on the whole I was not disappointed we were staying far away from it in the quieter area of Santa Irini. Waiting for the bus to return that night was reminiscent of Hillbillies on the Grand Parade, Cork, any Saturday at 2am.
Three days on the island was perfect for both of us…any longer and we would be bored, shorter and perhaps we would not feel quite so rested.

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