Acropolis

We had just arrived in Athens and one of the first things we did was visit the Acropolis to see what all the fuss was about. The Parthenon is the ancient temple in the center of Athens on a hill overlooking the whole city. It is the most prominent symbol of Greece, connecting the ancient with the modern. Originally Nafplio was the capital of Greece from 1829-1834, after which King Otto of Greece decided to move it to Athens. At the time, Athens had a population of roughly 4000 people. His decision to move it to Athens was fueled by his vision of creating a modern city around antiquity connecting the Greeks with their rich history. His vision was quickly realized and less than 200 years later Athens contains over 3 million inhabitants.

Today it makes for an interesting sight. There are buildings such as the Parthenon, which are thousands of years old and step a kilometer in any direction and you can find modern chic cafes, restaurants, and shops. Additionally, there are thousands of tourists per day trekking uphill through sweltering heat, often in the high 30s, in order to catch a glimpse of the ancient world.

Three things struck me during our visit. Firstly, the general wonder of being next to several structures that have survived through thousands of years of weather, war, and devastation and are considered symbols of western civilization. Secondly, the ancient being the center of a bustling metropolis demonstrated Greek culture’s survival and transition into modernity. Thirdly, the fact that tourism accounts for 18% of the Greek economy was made visible by the sheer amount of travelers around the acropolis. Although, physically challenging, the climb was well worth the view of the temples, structures and of the city.

Richard Clogg’s ‘A Concise History of Greece’ contains greater details of the context in which King Otto moved the capital to Athens. Page 49 of his book reads, “The choice of Athens as a capital, a town dominated by the imposing ruins of the Parthenon and with its associations with the glories of the Periclean age but in the early 1830s little more than a dusty village, symbolized the cultural orientation of the new state towards the classical past.”

Peter Von Hess painted a scene featuring King Otto entering Athens. It is an interesting artistic interpretation of the events and can be found http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_of_Greece#mediaviewer/File:Otto%27s_entry_in_Athens.jpg

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Ancient Agora of Athens

Following an exhausting climb from the Parthenon, we decided to explore the Ancient Agora which is located at the northwest slope of the Acropolis. We ignored our legs painful protest to trek over this large square. The Agora was the heart of the ancient city where theatric performances, religious ceremonies, and athletic contests were held. Furthermore, it was the center of commercial and political activity in antiquity. It dates back to approximately the 6th century BC and was destroyed and pillaged numerous times, from the Persians in 480 BC and many others up until the Greek War of Independence in 1826-1827.

The most striking building in the Agora is the temple of Hephaestus. At first glance it seems like a smaller version of the Parthenon, however, the differences are in the details. The temple of Hephaestus was the best preserved structure from antiquity that we had seen. It pillars and general structure were almost perfectly intact, demonstrating an architectural miracle. It survived through thousands of years of erosions, wars, and disasters. Most of its surrounding area was remnants of ancient buildings which were little more than rocks piled on top of each other in an orderly fashion. The Agora has been undergoing excavation by the American School of Classical Studies since 1931 and continues to this day.

After this long day of visiting the Parthenon, Acropolis, and Agora, we realized why much of Greece seems empty during the daytime hours. The scorching heat can be unbearable and we should have been fully prepared. Barring the heat, the site is definitely worth a visit, especially considering it is walking distance from the Parthenon.

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Exarcheia

Exarcheia is a very particular neighborhood in Athens. I had heard it was an anarchist hotbed with a counter-culture vibe. Although it didn’t really sound like my style, I have to admit I was intrigued.

We decided to take a stroll through Exarcheia around midday, to explore the neighborhood and also to visit the Polytechnic University of Athens. After fifteen minutes of walking, we ran into humans from all walks of life including professors, punks sporting Mohawks, grandmothers, homeless people, and the average Greek citizen. The area had a rough edge which differentiated it from the more touristic neighborhoods such as Monastiraki and Plaka however at no point did we feel in danger.

Historically Exarcheia is a very curious neighborhood. From 1967-1974 there was an aggressive military dictatorship in Greece. In 1973, several students from the Polytechnic University of Athens in Exarcheia mostly left-wing sympathizers, decided to barricade themselves in the university and create a radio station broadcasting revolutionary anti-dictatorship messages. Soon after, thousands of students and workers joined the protest. The dictatorship reacted by sending a tank sprawling through the gates of the university which resulted in several deaths and hundreds of injuries.

This was a crucial event which seriously questioned the legitimacy of the military dictatorship and at the same time damaged its public image and reputation. It sparked a series of events which eventually led to the dictatorship’s downfall in 1974 and the restoration of parliamentary democracy in Greece.

Today it is home to thousands of students and left-wing sympathizers. Everywhere you look the walls are plastered with radical anarchist graffiti . It is also filled with plenty of independent book stores, coffee shops and a major university. Its distinct revolutionary and intellectual atmosphere make it worth visiting. Throughout my travels, I have never visited a neighbourhood with such a unique history.

An interesting example of oppression during the dictatorship occurred on the island of Makronisos. Greeks who opposed the military regime were sent to this prison island to be ‘re-Hellenized’. Yannis Hamilakis wrote an engaging article on this topic called, “The Other ‘Parthenon’: Antiquity and National Memory at Makronisos.”

Richard Clogg wrote in his book ‘A Concise History of Greece’ about the student protest at the Polytechnic University of Athens on page 164-165.

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Corinth Canal

We had travelled to Corinth with some family friends who live in Athens. Along the way, we stopped by the famous Corinth canal. I had learned about it in class, conducted some research and had been told about it by our Greek companions. Piecing together all this information I came up with the following: The idea of building a canal connecting the western sea to the eastern sea of Greece dates back to the ancient Greeks. They originally wanted to create a shortcut for ships as an alternative to sailing around the Peloponnesus. There were several attempts by ancient Greeks and Romans since the 7th century BC, all of which ended in failure.

The idea experienced a revival shortly after the formation of the Modern Greek state. Ioannis Kapodistrias, founder of the Greek state, was the first to demonstrate significant interest in the canals construction since ancient times. However, due to lack of funds the project was postponed numerous decades. Several French, Hungarian and Greek companies attempted the project, most going bankrupt. It was finally constructed in 1893 several thousand years after the original idea. After its completion, its economic usefulness was deemed a failure. It is too narrow for cargo ships to safely navigate and thus the canal experienced much less traffic than anticipated.

Today it is mainly used as a tourist attraction. There is also bungee jumping available for the adventurous. Although tempting, I had just finished eating plenty of gyros and wasn’t entirely certain the cord could support my extra weight. I decided to pass on the bungee jumping and save it for another time.

The Corinth Canal is quite a marvelous site, approximately 6 and a half kilometers in length. Historically it represents the Greek government’s mismanagement of funds and dependence on tourism. If you are in the area, I recommend stopping by, it is a site worth seeing.

One film which comically depicts the mismanagement of funds is called “Brazilero” where E.U. money is spent to buy a Brazilian soccer player for a Greek soccer team.

Another interesting perspective on the Greece’s mismanagement of funds and the Euro crisis is given by Yanis Varoufakis, a professor at the University of Athens. One key idea is that the Greek people have been given more than their fair share of the blame in the crisis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRRWaEPRlb4

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Ancient Corinth

We were staying at a family friend’s house in Corinth for a couple of days. The modern city of Corinth is fairly unremarkable, however, it is very central and just a few kilometers away lies ancient Corinth.

We drove there in our ancient Fiat Panda and immediately got lost. What should have taken several minutes ended up taking approximately half an hour. After several headaches and a near-collision with a herd of sheep, we found a local who was willing to guide us out of our misery.

Upon our arrival, the first thing we noticed was the large size of the site. At its peak Ancient Corinth rivalled the power of Athens and Sparta. The ancient city-state participated in several wars such as the Greco-Persian war, the Peloponnesian war, and the Corinthian war (evidently). Furthermore, Ancient Corinth founded several colonies in Sicily and Corcyra, modern day Corfu. The city state experienced its ups and down but survived well into the Roman era. After it was mostly destroyed by earthquakes in 365 and 375 A.D., it dwindled in importance. However, its legacy and significance survive to this day, drawing tourists in droves from all over the world.

There were several large pillars which were the remnants of the temple of Apollo. The large pillars were the most striking and identifiable landmark in the area. It dates back to approximately 540 B.C. There were several remains of the ancient agora (marketplace). However, other than a few structures such as the temple pillars which were partly intact, most of the buildings have disappeared over time.

I thought it was remarkable to be in the presence of one of the most powerful ancient city-states of its time, overlooking a great mountain. Many people on-site seemed to share my enthusiasm.

One of the ancient world’s most famous books, “The Peloponnesian War,” was written by Thucydides. Another literary pillar is Herodotus’ “The Histories” which is an account of the Greco-Persian wars. Both of these authors laid the foundations for modern day historical interpretations of events. Also, Ancient Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and many others complex power-relationships are described in these works.

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Mycenae

Mycenae was at one point the center of the Hellenic universe. The Mycenaean stronghold is located on a mountain making it easily defendable. It is located somewhat near the center of the Peloponnesus and is also close to the isthmus which gives it geographical importance as the midpoint of ancient Greece. The period between 1600 BC and 1100 BC is called the Mycenaean period in the Hellenistic universe in reference to the overwhelmingly powerful Mycenae.

Greek mythology has it that Perseus founded the ancient city. It is the very same Perseus who defeated the legendary Medusa thus contributing to the city’s epic legacy. Furthermore the legends state that Mycenae was ruled by several dynasties of kings, namely the Perseids and the Atreids. If Greek mythology is of interest to you I strongly recommend you read up on their stories which include parts of the Trojan War, murders, deities, family strife and all the other wonderful ingredients that make for fascinating classical Greek tales.

The most impressive part of the ancient fortress was the lion gate. The small entrance to what was once an impregnable fortress is right underneath a sculpted plaque of two colossal stone lions. The artistic details of the lions show a level of skill and craftsmanship that is centuries beyond their time. Furthermore, it survived through several thousand years largely unscathed and to my knowledge, is the sole remaining Mycenaean sculpture. Some other notable structures include several granaries and graveyards surrounded by large fortress walls.

Walking through the remains with Mycenaean stories in mind gave me a closer connection with classical Greece. I recommend this ancient site for anyone with even a mild interest in Antiquity. After visiting you may rediscover a passion or love for the ancient world.

The stories of Perseus, the Medusa, the founding of Mycenae, and the dynasties of the Perseids and Atreids are all contained within Barry Powell’s book, “Classical Myth.”

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Epidaurus Theatre

The Epidaurus Theatre is a famous ancient structure in the Peloponnesus. Amazingly, it can seat up to 14,000 audience members. The acoustic quality of the ancient theatre should be considered a minor miracle. We saw various tourist guides place their group members in various spots throughout the theatre, and then stand in the middle and whisper gently. To our amazement, the sound carried to the far end of the theatre in a clear and distinct fashion. The theatre hosts various drama performances throughout the year. Once again, this demonstrates Greek culture’s survival through thousands of years and the timelessness of its significant accomplishments.

Epidaurus was a minor city in ancient Greece which remained under the rule of Argos. In antiquity it was known for being the center of healing in the Hellenic universe. People used to travel from distant places in order to seek cures from the Gods. They would visit a temple called the asclepeion. This and the theatre were the two landmarks which placed ancient Epidaurus on the map. Health tourism brought wealth to Epidaurus which facilitated the theatre’s construction. According to Pausanias, an ancient Greek traveler and geographer, the theatre was built in 340 BC by Polykleitos. The theatre rows were divided in sections separated by functions. Priest, rulers and citizens each had designated seats.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints we were not able to return for a performance however given the scenery, history, and view I cannot imagine a more epic setting for an ancient drama. I strongly encourage anyone to attend a performance or just to stop by and visit the ancient site. The acoustic miracle is often cited as the theatre’s most astounding feature and does not disappoint.

The Epidaurus Theatre is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is internationally recognized and protected as such. Additional information regarding the site can be found at http://whc.unesco.org/en/search/?criteria=epidaurus.

Another interesting article regarding health in ancient Greek was written by Vivian Nutton and is titled, “Medicine in the Greek World 800-50BC.”

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Polilimnio Waterfalls

We were on our way to my grandfather’s house on the southern tip of the Greek province of Messinia. As we were driving we saw a sign which said ‘polilimnio waterfalls.’ After several hours of mountainous and desert like scenery we thought it would be a suitable change. Another sign at the foot of the entrance read “climb at your own risk.” Our adventurist spirits arose within us and enabled us to overcome hours of fatigue. No challenge was too big at this point and nothing was going to stop us from reaching these waterfalls.

At the beginning of our climb we noticed the streams were filled with a dense light blue water, probably best described as aquamarine. The area was also filled with strange insects I had never seen before. It really felt as if we had stepped into another planet and had to double check with my companion to make sure we were still in Greece. Then we began our rigorous climb that was filled with wobbly rocks, awkward jumps and slippery slopes.

After a painstakingly long forty-five minute climb with several near-death experiences we had finally arrived at what seemed like paradise. Imagine a serene pond surrounded by cliffs, tree and a breathtaking waterfall with lazy sunlight just barely poking over the cliff. Everyone who had braved the climb radiated happiness from being in such a beautiful atmosphere. The water was mildly lukewarm and pleasant for swimming. We had truly discovered Messinia’s best-kept secret. Having been to Messinia several times and having family in the area I had never heard of the waterfalls but I was thrilled to have made this discovery.

If you enjoy nature, hiking, spectacular views or just want a change of scenery, I strongly recommend visiting this natural phenomena. This pleasant surprise was one of the best moments of my grand tour.

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Mystras

After consulting my co-adventurer and her little book called the “Routarde” we decided to make a day trip from Messinia to Mystras, a fortified Byzantine town from the middle ages. Be warned if you are taking a car or a refrigerator with wheels (our vehicle), the drive is very difficult. At first, what seems fairly straightforward quickly turns into long winding roads going up, down, left, and diagonal on epic mountains that are straight out of the Lord of the Rings. Combine that with a blazing hot sun and a malfunctioning radio and you have a real journey ahead of you.

After several hours of painful driving we had finally arrived at Mystras. Mystras is sometimes called the Florence of the East. This is because around the 14th and 15th century Mystras became a cultural center where the arts flourished. The evidence of this statement can be seen throughout the medieval city. The site is littered with monasteries which are filled with beautiful murals. There is so much art that in the Mystras shop you can buy original Mystras art pieces which are hundreds of years old (for a hefty sum). It became the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. Since 1262 it was ruled by the Byzantine Emperor’s relatives and various despots until it fell to the Ottomans in 1460.

It is built on an inclined mountain which is a good natural defense and creates awe-inspiring views. Some of the structures worth visiting are the Metropolis, the Monastery of Vrontochion, and Saint Sophia. If you have been lucky enough to view some famous Catholic churches in Europe and appreciate their grandeur, I recommend going to Mystras which has similar buildings similar with an Eastern Orthodox twist. The structures and art have their own distinct style which is worth the painful drive and climb. My only piece of advice would be to wear some hiking shoes, bring plenty of water, train for several months at the gym prior to this trip and bring a high-performance camera.

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Castle of Methoni

We traveled to Methoni, a little seaside town on the southwestern tip of the Peloponnesus. Our main purpose was to visit the legendary Venetian castle of Methoni. It was built by the Venetians in the 1300s and rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 1500s with modifications to withstand artillery fire. It encompasses a large area surrounded by fortified walls, a moat, with a central gate and the “Bourtzi.”

The Bourtzi was a prison and a guard tower used to survey the harbor. It was easily the most striking building inside the walls of Methoni. In order to access the Bourtzi, one has to cross a bridge to reach a stone castle surrounded by crystal-clear blue sea. According to local legend, the prisoners and execution victims spirits lurk in the Bourtzi and can be heard screaming at night. While walking around the prison, there were several eerie cells which were little more than holes in the wall. Although from close it was spine-chilling, from a distance the sight looked like a postcard with a picturesque castle surrounded by pristine ocean.

Historically, the castle represents the Western and Eastern influence in Greek culture. The Venetians and Ottomans each controlled this area at various points in time. One of the distinctive features of this cultural mélange is that the architecture is neither Western nor Eastern but rather a blend of both with some unique features. Greece has a geographical position as the focal point between the East and West. This idea was introduced to me by a McGill Greek history course, and as I was travelling in Methoni I realized that this fusion can be seen in the cuisine, language, architecture and culture.

The castle of Methoni brought out my McGill academic knowledge in a practical manner by giving me new perspectives on Greek culture. As I was speaking Greek and eating moussaka in Methoni after a long trek, the magnitude of outside influences on Greece began to dawn on me. One of the miracles of Greek culture is its ability to positively absorb outside influences while retaining its Hellenic core.

The film, “Politiki Kouzina” (or A Touch of Spice) portrays the intertwining of Greek and Turkish/Ottoman culture and history. In this film, various similarities in the culture’s foods and languages can be observed.

Another film, “America America” portrays an example of Greeks who lived in the Ottoman empire, and left their home for a better life. This is reminiscent of the 1923 populations exchange where over a million Greeks left their homes in Turkey and brought their Eastern habits  to Greece.

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