Refreshment at last! Our friends from Santa Barbara, Steve and Maja Greig and their kids Peter (9) and Stacia (7), came all the way to Greece and Italy for their spring break. We all stayed together in Athens for the first three nights. It was great to catch up on the happenings back home and our kids relished in the opportunity to play with their friends. We are at the midway point in our journey and we miss home.
We did the “tour Athens in a day” jog through the ancient sites. We even had whistles blown at us by the site guardians for taking an inappropriate picture of Steve modeling the discus thrower at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The only thing I found inappropriate about the picture was that Steve was not dressed in the traditional Olympian uniform. Traditional Olympic participants competed in the nude. Check out the picture and tell me if it’s inappropriate.
We then hopped in rental cars and drove out to Nafplio, the old capital of Greece. Once again we were confronted with the overused descriptor “quaint.” It is beautiful. Quiet, tiny marble streets that look like you’d never fit a car down them, and yet we did. They kids stayed in one night watching a video with Leah while Meg and I went out with Steve and Maja. It’s a romantic place. Great honeymoon/anniversary local if any of you are looking for something different.
We spent our one full day there hiking up the hill of Palamidi Fortress. It is an old Venetian fortress that has been used by every conquering force ever since. It has incredible 360° views. Locals say it is 1000 minus 1 steps to the top. That of course put us to counting; we came up with 900 something and figured they must be counting every increase in elevation from the port to the top. At any rate, it’s a long way up. We played a quiet game of Sardines at the top with the Greigs. Maja hid and we didn’t find her for an hour. She appreciated the solitude, and we got lots of exercise. The day ended with amazing gelato. Since then we have sampled gelato in about a dozen places in Italy, and the winner is still the gelateria in Nafplio. I just wish I could remember the name of the place… There’s a big ice cream cone out in front, and they make their own product. The orange/chocolate is amazing!
We then flew to Milan. The Greigs went to Florence for a few days while we stayed with our new friends Juan and Talissa Gil. The Gils bring new meaning to the word hospitality. They are amazing! Thank you and bless you!
From there we met up again with the Greigs in Rome. Because the Greigs were here for such a short time we were back to the whirlwind pace. Our first day found us walking the Foro Romano, wowing at the Coliseum and looking for dinner at the Spanish Steps. It was in the Subway station there at Spagna that I was once again pick-pocketed. I now realize what a sitting duck I am when I’m holding Emma. But this time things turned out differently. My wallet was locked safely away in the backpack. This time the thief unzipped my camera case that was tied to my belt and slipped my camera out as the door to the overcrowded subway opened. I immediately felt the change in weight, noticed that my camera bag was empty and grabbed the man by the jacket as he was making his get-away. I shouted at him, “You stole my camera!” He held up his right hand as if to defend himself, and there was my camera. I grabbed it out of his hand and pushed him up against the wall of the metro tunnel. I called him a thief several times. Meanwhile an older (60ish) man grabbed the pickpocket and twisted his arm behind him. We were attracting quite a crowd by now. I still had him by the jacket with my left hand and held my camera and Emma in the right. Sam and Peter were each holding onto this guy’s jacket as well. Dilemma time, now that I had him, what was I to do? Steve had freed himself up and was next to me asking the same question. We finally decided to let him go and he ran. Seconds later the police showed up and gave chase to no avail. Emma and the girls were crying. I was all pumped up. It was pretty exhilarating. And I still had my camera. I’m still not sure how I held onto the thief, grabbed the camera from him and held Emma the whole time. Unfortunately that was not the last of our encounters with pickpockets in Rome. The very next evening, at the same Metro station, Steve got picked and lost some cash and credit cards. It was the same set-up; Steve was helping his kids on the Metro and was picked from behind. Here are some things I have learned about pick pocketing: 1 Never leave anything in your pockets you wouldn’t mind donating. That means any pocket, front, back, shirt or jacket. They can get it all. 2 Lock anything important in your backpack and lock that to yourself. It’s a hassle when you need to get things out, but that also means it’s a hassle to get things out for others. 3 Kids are like Power Bait to pickpockets. They know that you will pay greater attention to your kids than to your valuables. 4 Be vigilant, maybe even paranoid. Assume that you will be picked. Or in my case now, be vigilante. I pity the thief who comes at me next time. I have had plenty of time for loads of evil retributive responses to cultivate.
Even so we still enjoyed a bus tour and a day in lines to see Saint Peter’s cathedral and the Vatican Museum. No matter how many times you’ve seen the pictures you are still awed at Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. We all left with cricks in our necks from gawking at the ceiling.
Steve, Maja, Peter, and Stacia, thank you for visiting us here. We will miss your company.
Between our time in Crete, Naxos, Santorini, and Athens we have been in Greece for about six wonderful weeks. In spite of our pickpocket experience we have really grown to love the country, culture and people. Especially the people. A friend of mine back home said it is important to have your own personal Greek when visiting Athens, and we have ours! Thank you Spyros! Some of you have heard about Spyros, but here is the full story.
Back in December our housing plans for Athens fell through and we had to begin anew. We searched a site called sabbaticalhomes.com and got in touch with Spyros who advertised a home for rent in Marathon. Renting his place looked hopeful. But after a few initial emails it became apparent that there were problems with the place, and he informed us that it was not in good enough condition to be rented. He felt really bad about not being able to rent to us and offered to help us find a new place, even inviting us to stay with he and his parents. We eventually found another place to rent in Athens, but Spyros was adamant in his offers to help us out. He picked us up at the port at 7:00 am when we arrived and drove us to our apartment. For him this meant at least a two-hour round trip drive, and this for complete strangers. So we not only got to meet but he was also able to assure us that our place was safe. During our stay we met for coffee, dinner with his girlfriend Anya, and had him over for dinner at our apartment. The highlight of our time was being invited to lunch with his parents out in Marathon. They totally spoiled us was an incredible Greek feast and gifts for the kids. We visited the Marathon war memorial site and the beach where the Persians first landed. It was an incredible day. Incredible people.
I was struck by the similarity between Spyros and some of the Greek royalty from Homer’s Odyssey. In the story I am always inspired by how strangers are taken in, bathed, freshly dressed, finely dined, entertained, and then asked who they are. The Greeks like many other ancient cultures believed it was important that you treated strangers well because you never knew when one of the gods or an angel might take on human form and visit your home. We weren’t exactly angels, but Spyros and his family sure were! We were blessed by them and hope to pass the blessing on to other strangers we bump into along our journey and back at home. Thank you Spyros! Our door is always open for you and your family.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention this. Spyros is a Komboloi champion. Komboloi are Greek worry beads. Their origin is somewhat blurred but has some connection to rosary beads and mocking the ancient Ottoman Turk invaders. You’re just not Greek if you don’t have some in your hands. We all have our own sets and are learning how to fidget like a Greek. I have included the following video more for my own instruction but am sure that you will enjoy it as well.
Of the three early Greek Civilizations (Minoan, Cycladic, & Mycenaean) it was the Mycenaeans who embodied the immortal images of Greek Mythology and history. The peoples of the Cycladic islands were influenced and changed by both Minoans and Mycenaeans. The Minoans could have become the people of Greece if it hadn’t been for those pesky volcanic eruptions of Thera and the ensuing tidal waves. And so we are left with the Mycenaeans -Indo-European immigrants, known as Achaeans, to the Peloponnesus, who inherited the rich heritage of the both the Minoans and the Cyclades.
Most of what we know about his culture comes from two sources. The earliest source is Homer, the late 8th century BC epic poet/bard who authored and probably sang the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Now that had to be a long song!) He tells the story of the Achaeans rallying together to battle the people of Troy way over on the northwestern coast of modern-day Turkey. The Iliad recounts the drama and tragedy of the ten-year war. Tens of thousands of Achaean Greeks travel by sea, an incredible task in its own right, rallying around one king in particular: Agamemnon, King of Mycenae. Many historians place the date for this war somewhere around early to mid 11th century BC. At the end of the war, (this won’t ruin the book for you, but the Achaeans win) the Greek warriors head back home. Then in the Odyssey, Homer tells the fantastic story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home, the coming-of-age of his son Telemachus, and the faithfulness of his wife, Penelope. It is a must-read. I recommend the translation by Fagles. It’s readable and beautifully poetic. Anyway, all the Achaeans go home. Agamemnon returns to Mycenae only to find that his wife has taken a lover in his absence. He actually learns this while at a welcome-home feast when the lover runs him through with a spear. His surviving troops are slaughtered, but Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, eventually avenges his father’s death, killing both the lover and his own mother, Clytemnestra. Homer gives detail to Agamemnon’s heroics and cowardice, his generosity and selfishness, as well as his repentance and pride. He’s a “real” person, flawed just like the rest of us. All the other generals seem too heroic or self-sacrificing to humanly identify with. Agamemnon’s foibles as general of the Achaeans lead many historians to believe that he was more than just myth; he was a real live person. There’s a lot more Homer has to say about these people, about 900+ pages more, but this is a good place to start.
Our second major source of information about the Mycenaeans comes from amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. In 1876 he uncovered the ancient city of Mycenae - Agamemnon’s hometown. He found a great walled city set on a hill overlooking fertile plains with views to the sea in one direction and snow covered mountains to the other. It is beautiful. There are several other Mycenaean ruins in the area - all with their defining super-sized walls. The stones in these walls are so large, some weighing as much as six tons, that legend has it that Cyclopes were the only beings strong enough to move them into place. The term used to describe the enormity of the wall construction of these Mycenaean city-states is appropriately referred to as “cyclopic.” That’s pretty cool!
Aside from walls, Schliemann also found several shaft tombs - narrow cylindrical paved tunnels down into the ground. In one of these he found the now famous gold “Death-Mask of Agamemnon.” Along with this mask Schliemann also found several bronze swords, gold funerary ornaments, libation cups and pottery. It is the Greek equivalent to King Tut’s treasure except not quite as ornate or near the same quantity. All the same it’s amazing! It is in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. But it turns out that it doesn’t belong to Agamemnon at all. It predates him by about 300 years. If Agamemnon is buried here at all he is probably in one of the tholos tombs. These tombs in Mycenae match up with the probable dates for Agamemnon’s life. They are beehive shaped mounds. They were probably earthen hills that were paved over with foundation stones and bricks to create a dome. The dirt was then dug out from the paved area to create an empty room, the tomb. There are several of these being excavated in and around the ancient city. It seems unlikely we’ll find Agamemnon’s body since he was killed by enemies in his own home. His body was probably disrespectfully dumped somewhere just to spite him even more. That might explain why in the Odyssey, his ghost talks to Odysseus from Hades where he roams without rest. He was not buried properly to move on in the afterlife. Bummer for Agamemnon.
Mycenae’s ruins are pretty ruinous. The limestone foundations remain, walls are pieced together here and there, and some artifacts are in the on-site museum. But, most of the cool artifacts of pottery and gold are now in the Archaeological Museum of Athens. What strikes me most about this place is that anything at all remains. The weather here is harsh, and even though it’s on a hilltop, it’s still pretty damp. The moisture is really taking its toll on the limestone construction. Add to that the warlike nature of the Mycenaean city-states. There’s a reason they spent their time building walls! It’s the whole picture of the place that really stands out for me. The stories of real people like Agamemnon walking the palace pathways, rallying and marching his troops across the plain to their ships at harbor, returning home the victor only to be murdered here in his own palace. It’s no longer an epic myth. It’s real, a little embellished, but earthy, beautiful and real.
Who needs museums when you get to visit one every day just by commuting? I alluded to it earlier, but just about anytime someone digs a hole in Athens they “discover” something. The Metro system in Athens created an incredisble opportunity for archaeology. A number of the artifacts that were uncovered are on display and have the best descriptions we’ve encountered from any museum. At first we stared at the displays and took pictures of everything. I’m positive that we looked pretty dopey standing around the Metro stations actually reading the information about the artifacts that were found while digging the tunnels. The locals just cruise on by. More accurately put, they jog on by to catch their next Metro train or bus. After a while we joined the rush of it all until I realized that if I was going to retain anything about this place I needed to slow down and take it in. And one of the best places to read about the local archaeology and history just happens to be in the Metro. Whatever! These are a few of the Metro sites we discovered while commuting around town.
I will be the first to comment on my knowledge of Greek pottery. “This guy knows nothing!” But that will not stop me from sharing what little I know. After tromping through several museums and archaeological sites I am convinced that what put Greece on the map in the ancient world can be boiled down to two items. And no, they do not include democracy (they coined the term but not the idea) or statuary (early Greek statues were greatly influenced by the Egyptians!). No the two big contributions that put them on the ancient world trade map were olives and pottery. Laws were passed to insure greater olive output as early as the 8th century BC. But their pottery production and expertise were legendary and shipped everywhere throughout the ancient world. The following is a sort of timeline of examples of Greek pottery and its development over the milenia. The terms that describe the pottery are the terms also used to describe the historical periods of Greek culture. Like I said, I know nothing, so these dates are pretty rough and there are several sub-periods within each general period. Take it all with a grain of salt.
Neolithic Period (8500-3000 BC)