The beautiful Peloponnese

Apologies for the belated nature of this post.  It turns out that using a folding bluetooth keyboard with my iphone is not an ideal computer system for speedy typing. Too many errors. In any case, I’ve been in Greece since May 12 and feel like I’ve been here a year.  Much has happened.  I arrived in Kalamata on May 12 after a layover day in London. I spent much of my London time walking as fast as possible to cover the area around Buckingham Palace, the parliament and government buildings, and tried to walk along the Thames all the way to the place I was couch surfing.  At 9pm I gave up as I apparently had to traverse some dodgy areas and took the metro.  Arrived at a Gotham city looking complex (apparently Batman was filmed on location) and stayed with a hospitable Norwegian who had recently moved for work.  I woke up too early and joined the crush of commuters getting on the tube.  There were queues forming in the station and people practically hurled themselves into already crowded trains as if in a mosh pit.   I was shocked at how crowded it was.  Certainly well-used transit. More than can be said for most Bay Area public transportation.

I arrived in Kalamata and was lucky to be greeted by Alexis, who was hosting me together with his wife-to-be Christina, as part of couch surfing.  It’s a great online organization that allows travelers and hosts to find one another, determine likelihood of compatible match, and have a cultural exchange.  You can meet for coffee, a talk, tour of the city/village, or a place to stay.  I can’t say enough good about it.  Alexis took me to their modest 1 bedroom apartment in Kalamata, a beautiful seaside city in the southern Peloponese and home to the famous green eating olives.  I say eating because most of the olives grown in this part of Greece are for making oil, and in the past were used only for burning in lamps, as the area was too arid to make tasty olive oil.  I spent the next week walking everywhere, and experiencing the truly generous hospitality of Greek culture.  Despite economic woes and brutal austerity programs currently in effect (including 24 percent tax on everything, including super market food, hotel, ferry, restaurants, gasoline, electricity), the people here are kind and will do what they can to make you comfortable.  I was truly in awe of Alexis and Christina’s kindness.  They even invited me to attend their upcoming wedding.  They have a dog, Arthur, who apparently hates the sound of the English language (he’s not alone).  Every time I spoke, he would lunge at me either with jaws agape (in a rather playful nip) or would jump on me and give me a tongue bath.  As I’m allergic to dogs, we quickly determined that it was better that he was in his kennel when I was present.

Days in Kalamata were spent walking in the old town.  I had a few projects to accomplish, including buying a road map of Greece, a GPS (car rental place charged 80 Euro for 2 week use of a GPS), cigarette lighter usb charger, and a book or 2 on the Peloponese, specifically on archaeological sites.  I’m an amateur anthropologist (and archaeologist for that matter) and spend inordinate amounts of my travel time looking at crumbling rocks and searching for pottery shards.  I spent 3 separate days at the archaeological museum in town, which contains remains from many sites in the southern Peloponese.  I had to bring a handheld electric fan in because it was beastly hot and there was no a/c.  I found a great souvlaki shop in the old center, and wolfed down garlic/oregano spiced chicken in a pita gyro, remembering the smell of souvlaki wafting in the streets in Athens when my family visited in 1968.  While I haven’t been back to Greece since, it seems that it hasn’t lost the magic of that time.  Central to that is the people and their way of life, which has in some ways been preserved by strong tradition and economic necessity.

I also went to the military museum, which hosted a very important display (in Greek) of the traumatic history of occupation starting with the Venetians in the 1200s, the Franks (despotate of Morea) in 1400s, and then Turks a bit later that century.  Apparently the Turks committed stunning autrocities on the population for 400 years, including bringing up Greek children as Turks, torture, taking Greek women to harems, and the like.  A mathematics student serving his compulsory military service here gave me an excellent summary of the events described in the museum.  He also gave me a great tip about a GPS app that doesn’t require cell signal or wifi called Here.  It has been my saving grace on many driving adventures since.

On the way to the castle, perched atop the old town, is a lovely folk culture and history museum.  It is located in an old house whose contents were donated to the state as part of the museum.  The first floor contained objects from village life and the more oppulent members of society.  Some of the more interesting items included a leather papoose of sorts to hang the baby in the olive trees when the mother was working in the groves, a stone mill for grinding wheat (it turns out that most of the Peloponese grew wheat for bread until after WW II when olive trees were planted in its stead), a coffee mill (coffee has been a staple of life as long as can be remembered – its heated over a charcoal fire in a small metal carafe), statuary that adorned homes, beautiful painted floor tiles, a wooden olive oil press, wooden molds for holy sacrament, cheese making equipment (feta primilarly from sheep and goats milk), and other items that I can’t remember.  The upstairs housed items from wealthy Kalamata society, including paintings, beautiful wooden furniture and writing desks, and fine silks and gowns from Paris.  It turns out that Kalamata has been an important port for centuries and was very involved in exporting olives and other products and importing the finest goods the world had to offer.

I had some nice hikes into the hinterlands: one up into a canyon that apparently ancient Spartans would hurl infants with birth defects, and another into olive groves leading towards the Mani peninsula to the southeast of Kalamata.  I walked daily to the sea and the beautiful strand near the marina, marveled at the fish teaming near the ancient stone blocks delineating the port, and generally slowed down my pace of life.  Greeks, I have noticed, work extremely hard.  It is a very unfair bias that the north geographically speaking has of southern countries being lazy and such.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  And with the harsh austerity measures that have gotten worse over the last 2 years, the pensions of elderly Greeks have been reduced (many times to half) to the point where many cannot survive.  It is only through the grace of the social structure and traditional of strong family bonds that these people are surviving, if on a thread.  Greeks love their children and shower them with everything that they can possibly give them.  Most parents work extra hard to give their children some legacy, often a home.  With the current draconian financial measures that Greek banks have imposed on the people, many Greeks have had their only home taken away from them.

Similar in some ways to the subprime mortgage loan scandal that has been occurring in the US, Greek banks are asking for mortgages to be paid after only 4 or so years of their being granted.  Let’s say you take a 30 year loan.  The bank comes to you in 4 years and says we need the entire amount of money now.  If not, we’ll take your house.  And that’s why so many Greeks have been selling their homes to foreigners.  In many coastal towns and islands, I have seen British, French, and other northern Europeans who have recently purchased homes from desperate Greeks who would otherwise lose their homes to the banks.

It’s a tragedy beyond compare.  In the past, 95 percent of Greeks owned their own homes.  That number is rapidly falling.  Thanks to Goldman Sacks, who cooked the books to make Greece look like a likely candidate for EU entry in 2001 (they lied about their debt ratios), Greece is being asked to make up for an impossible situation and the people are being squeezed.  They say you can’t get blood from a stone.  We’ll see.  As it is, Greek tourism is way down.  People can no longer afford to take vacations, nor do they have the time to do so, as they need to work.  As a result, places that rely on tourism are 20 percent slower (or more) than last year. Most Greeks I’ve spoken with know some of the reasons life has gotten harder but not the entire picture.  The media has carefully obfuscated the facts and made it appear to be different than it is.  One particularly well-informed bakery owner in Argostoli, Kefalonia (an Ionian island) recounted the numerous people who have gained from the suffering.  Anyone who blames Greek laziness is buying into centuries-old prejudice based on envy of the mediterranean lifestyle (picking lemons from the tree, growing one’s own veggies).  Seems idyllic but life is much harder than it appears. Later on Pilio I met an apple grower who said that

After a lovely week in Kalamata, I set off with a rental car.  It was a bit of a fiasco getting the car: I was given a tiny and asked about a slightly bigger one.  I was told there would be one at 4pm, and got to the place with no one there. Finally someone appeared at 4:45, but it turned out the hatchback cover was missing.  I asked about this and was given 2 smaller covers that didn’t fit.   I didn’t notice that the car mats were missing and upon turning the car in was vehemently accused of being a thief, a liar, and of stealing the mats.  I was so angry at the false accusation that I responded that before accusing someone of stealing someone, they should be certain of the truth.  They said their cars always had mats (I asked why it didn’t have a hatchback cover if they always came equipped).  I stood in front of the airport with 2 women yelling at me, me asking what could be done to remedy it, while the guy who I was going to rent a car from patiently waited for me.  Quite a scene.  The angry company went to him and  I’m sure told him that I was not to be trusted and was a horrible person.  It was pretty upsetting.

I set off much later than expected (around 6pm) that Monday to Koroni, a beautiful Venetian town complete with a very nice castle.  I drove down harrowingly narrow streets to the marina and taverna strip, and found a nice place at the end that made fish soup (potatoes and fish – traditional Greek fare that I’d been hoping to try).  I met a Greek man who had relatives in the US and spoke English (actually, many Greeks speak English – it is taught in the schools along with Ancient Greek, putting American foreign language education to shame).  We talked for a few hours and I asked where I might camp.  He suggested the marina and then offered to let me stay at his place.  As it was my first night in the car and I wasn’t certain I’d be able to sleep comfortably within, I took him up on his kind offer.  He had 2 cots in his family home, which he and his brother share, at the top of Koroni.  We sat out on the roof around 1 am admiring the long strand on the other side of hill from the old town.  The moonlight sparkled on the water and I could have sworn that I saw Poseidon’s horses galloping in the waves.  Really.  It was the first time I’d ever seen that apparation, perhaps influenced by the Poseidon sanctuary that I’d discovered on the way to Koroni.  Not much was left of the site, but it set my mind wandering.

The bed was one of the less comfortable I’d experienced: more of an army cot than anything.  And mosquitoes were out in droves.  It was too hot (a balmy 85 degrees at midnight) so I asked him to keep the windows open.  Luckily he had a blue light zapper that seemingly attracted and then killed them.  I awoke with fewer bites than expected.  We went down to the harbor and had coffee.  I bought a crepe with fruit and savored the flavors (here they use Nutella on everything, which I abore).  Butter and maple syrup don’t exist in Greek cuisine (thus thin people), so I had it dry with bananas on top.  I bid John farewell, promising to stop back before turning in the car (he kindly housed the 2 ill-fitting hatchback lids in his boat).  He offered to take me out to sea on his boat, the summary of his 40 hard years of labor as a boat refinisher.  He was apparently one of the best, and had been used by a cousin in Athens who had him work 14 hours/day for many years.  He finally left and went abroad, working on elite boats in France, England, Germany, and elsewhere.  Now physically broken and in pain, he has a boat and is awaiting a pension.  He is afraid that it won’t be enough to survive on.  He has a strong wine habit but insists on not starting before noon.

I drove to Finikunda, a lovely small village that consists of 2 main streets and stately homes scattered around the bay (mostly foreign owned vacation homes, sadly more and more the way of things because of the ill-fated economic policies that Greek banks have bestowed).  It turns out that originally it wasn’t a village at all but rather one taverna which the surrounding villagers would come to.  Slowly it grew and people began to move there.  I talked with a very bright young man who worked at the main taverna with the view of the sea.  It was the oldest there, and he waxed philosophic about how tourists waste their money on a taverna meal rather than going out on a boat and exploring the sea or eating a wonderful shared meal with friends on the beach.  I made my way to Methoni, another Venetian village like Koroni sporting a huge castle on a bluff overlooking a preta-naturally blue green sea.  I liked the old town and walked around in mid-day.  You’ll never see locals walking between 2 and 5pm, the siesta hours because it’s too hot at that time of day.  Most tourists are sensible as well.  Because I was camping, I didn’t have much choice.  Most taveranas are closed during those hours.  Those that are open don’t have fans, let alone air conditioning.  The main street has recently been renovated and is quite lovely in a Disneyland kind of way.  The other streets have a much more real look, one that I have become accustomed to and like more.

I decided to stay the night so I could go to the castle during opening hours.  Most sites are closed by 2 or 3pm, so morning is the time to go to places like castles.  I was recommended to stay at a place near the castle on the beach next to a fish restaurant, but it seemed too crowded and fishermen congregated there in the wee hours.  I opted for a grassy spot near a taverna and an upscale vacation apartment.  I slept in the car, my first night, and found it less than comfortable.  This I would do for several more nights until I got the brilliant idea of setting up my tent next to the car (thus lessening the risk of a break-in).  In the morning I had a delicious waffle at the fancy hotel cafe overlooking the bay and castle, used wifi to access email, and set off for the castle.  I’d learned that I should always wear close toed shoes when exploring here, as the combination of sticker-filled bushes and weeds, holes, rocks, and generally dangerous to feet conditions prevail in most parts of southern Greece (more later on the toe-spraining incident at Zarnath castle in Mani).  I explored to my heart’s content.  There wasn’t much left of the castle, just some of the stone making up the battlements and places where cannons were placed.  An old stone church was located within (this was a very common occurrence – all castles and temple sites sported churches built atop them.  Seems the church had a rather inflated sense of its import.  Certainly it had the power to do as it wished.

After I went back to the old town and walked.  I decided to push on to Pylos, another lovely Venetian village.  I had stayed nearby in Iklaina, a small village above Gielava, several days before with a couch surfer who was born nearby but grew up in Australia and moved back to be near the place he loves.  He is an ardent golfer and has a lifetime membership to a swank Navarro Bay golf club.  Friends with the owner, a former local shipping magnate and close friend, he was given the membership.  I had fun driving a golf cart around as he and his friends played the very tough 18 hole course.  Apparently he’s a highly skilled golfer and in high demand at the local course, where people come from all over to play (his friends came from Athens, a 3 hour drive).  As I didn’t have a car during the 4 day visit, I walked everywhere, discovering an archaeological site about a mile from his house (possibly connected with Palace of Nestor – Iklaina was the name of King Nestor’s daughter).  I also walked from the beach back to his house, a 5 mile walk in 95 degree/90 percent humidity. Despite a sun hat I had a red face that day.

So coming back with a car was a nice change. I explored Pylos and met Sofia, the resident seamstress who fixed the hole in the pocket of my pants (and while I was waiting it seemed the whole of Pylos too).  She’s a health nut and also an archaeology major, like many Greeks that studied the classics in order to pursue teaching positions, which have sadly dried up.  She recommended various sites on my upcoming trip, including Ithomi, Dion, and the castle on the other side of Navarro Bay, as well as Palace of Nestor.  I left and headed toward Hora and Nestor’s Palace only to find out that the site has been closed for renovation and is scheduled to reopen June 13.  I planned to go back and see whether it was reopened but never made it back. After Hora I drove through the arid olive-tree bespeckled landscape to Kyparrisia, a beautiful (yet another) Venetian town built high up a mountain.  The old town lies beneath the castle which is located on top of a precipice.  I reached the town in the evening and did a short walk in the old town at the top of the hill near the castle.  The town spills down from the castle at some altitude to the sea, with narrow cobbled lanes and ancient crumbling homes haphazardly placed along the hillside.  After an hour I decided to seek a good camp site (free, not paid), and made my way down the hill and north along the coast. I asked at a gas station and was told that there was a nice beach at Kalo Nero.  The roads through small towns are unbelievably narrow.  More than once I was sure I’d scraped the car doors trying to get through an eye of the needle-sized passage. Doesn’t help to have a white rental car ;>.

I found  a place away from the street lamps and set up camp. Someone kept turning their high beams on at the other beach and I got paranoid that they were surveilling me.  Some cultural biases are hard to shake. More than once while camping at the beach I was bothered by people cruising at a snail’s pace in their cars.  I was happy when daylight came and I was up and out.  I’d gotten good at putting my tent away in under 5 minutes.  More than once I woke up to a farmer or worker needing to pass and waiting for me to move my tent. To avoid such mishaps, I usually parked such that my tent was hidden behind the car but the road was not obstructed.  That night (and on many other occasions at old sites, ruins, and cities) I noticed the disturbing odor of fecal matter.  I don’t know the cause (hopefully not what I feared), but it has caused me not to linger as I might have liked on more than one occasion.

The next day I went to a really nice bakery.  The woman spoke some English and pointed out the best route to the Temple of Apollo Epicurius. As an aside, bout 30 percent of the people I’ve met in Greece speak English – mostly young people, as English language is now compulsory in Greek schools.  Ancient Greek used to be compulsory till very recently.  (More than one Greek I’ve met has bemoaned the deterioration in the quality of education over the past 20 years or so).  I thanked her and bought some yummy traditional Greek pastries: orange cake, baklava, and walnut cake.  She recommended a great cafe in the old town near the castle, and I followed her lead.  It turned out to be one of the most stunning places both for its views and creatively decorated interior. I wrote my first TripAdvisor review ever, which I decided to only write when I truly loved a place and would give it 5 stars. I ended up writing 2 more on 5 week-long sojourn by car through Greece. While driving through the countryside I listened to music loaded before I left using an auxilliary cable purchased in Kyparissia so I could listen through the car radio.

I left Kyparissia and  headed to a thalos tomb several miles north.  I thought I must have missed the sign, as I drove for many minutes on small winding roads.  Finally I saw a small booth and gate, and entered the grounds.  Unlike most thalos tombs, whose domed roofs have long since caved in due to natural disasters or pillaging, this one’s dome was intact.  Walking down the main outer passageway through the domed entrance to the center of the tomb, which was very large (approximately 70 feet in diameter),  I heard my footsteps echoing from a full 360 degrees, providing surround sound similar to that of the Temple of Heaven in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.  The chambers were built as corbelled vaults, with layers of stone placed closer together as the vault tapers toward the top of the tomb, causing this wonderful auditory delight.

In Greece, the vaulted tholoi are a monumental Late Bronze Age development. Their origin is a matter of considerable debate: were they inspired by the tholoi of Crete which were first used in the Early Minoan period were they a natural development of tumulus burials dating to the Middle Bronze Age? In concept, they are similar to the much more numerous Mycenean chamber tombs which seem to have emerged at about the same time. Both have chamber, doorway stomion, and entrance passage dromos, but tholoi are largely built while chamber tombs are rock-cut.  After about 1500 BCE, beehive tombs became more widespread and are found in every part of the Mycenaean heartland. In contrast, however, to the early examples these are almost always cut into the slope of a hillside so that only the upper third of the vaulted chamber was above ground level. This masonry was then concealed with a relatively small mound of earth.

The tombs usually contain more than one burial, in various places in the tomb either on the floor, in pits and cists or on stone-built or rock-cut benches, and with various grave goods.  After a burial, the entrance to the tomb was filled in with soil, leaving a small mound with most of the tomb underground.  The chamber is constructed of masonry, even in the earliest examples, as is the stomion or entrance-way. The dromos in early examples was usually just cut from the bedrock, as in the Panagia Tomb at Mycenae itself. In later examples such as the Treasury of Atreus and Tomb of Clytemnestra (both at Mycenae), all three parts were constructed of fine ashlar masonry.  The entrances provided an opportunity for conspicuous demonstration of wealth. That of the Treasury of Atreus, for example, was decorated with columns of red and green lapis lacedaimonius brought from quarries over 100 km away.

The abundance of such tombs, often with more than one being associated with a settlement during one specific time period, may indicate that their use was not confined to the ruling monarchy, although the sheer size and therefore the outlay required for the larger tombs (ranging from about 10 meters to about 15 meters in diameter and height) would argue in favour of royal commissions. The larger tombs contained amongst the richest finds to have come from the Late Bronze Age of Mainland Greece, despite the tombs having been pillaged both in antiquity and more recently. For example, although the Vapheio tholos, south of Sparta, had been robbed, two cists in the floor had escaped notice. These contained, among other valuable items, the two gold Vapheio cups decorated with scenes of bull taming which are among the best known of Mycenaean treasures.

I had a beautiful and somewhat harrowing drive through tiny villages on my way to the temple.  I ended up in a small village, where I was just able to drive to the main square through the narrow streets.  I am starting to learn not to plunge boldly ahead when driving through a small village.  On many occasions I’ve been stuck and had to execute an 11 point turn or reverse for 1 km.  Neither are my favorite driving maneuvers. In this case, I followed a van into the square (if they could make it, why couldn’t I?). A man jumped out and gesticulated in rapid-fire Greek.  I said “Thexero Hellenica” (I don’t know Greek), to which he responded that he’d lived in Florida for many years and would I have a drink with he and his friend.  I begged off as I was already late to the temple of Apollo.  It was 3pm and I wasn’t sure how late the archaeological site was open.  He insisted but I refused, thanking him profusely.  I made my way back to the unobvious main road, and crossed my fingers that I’d find the temple.  It was a crazy drive.  No road barriers and 2000 to 3000 foot plunges, large boulders (2 to 3 feet across) littering the road, loss of asphault and only dirt for sections.  At the bottom of a gorge crossing I wondered whether I’d actually make it in one piece.  Thus the admonistment to stay on the national roads.  So much for listening to sage advice.

I finally made it to Temple of Apollo Epicurius (Apollo the healer or helper) at Bassae, which in classical antiquity was part of Arcadia.  The final drive was stunning (one of the many commanding views I was to have in Greece), as the temple sits at an elevation of 1131 meters above sea level on the slopes of Kotylion Mountain.  It is one of the best preserved temples anywhere, and was praised in its day by Pausanias as eclipsing all others but the temple of Athena at Tegea due to the beauty of its stone and the harmony of its construction.  Although geographically remote from major polities of ancient Greece, it is one of the most studied ancient Greek temples because of its multitude of unusual features. Bassae was the first Greek site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List (1986).

I ran to the ticket booth and discovered that the site was open till 8pm.  Phew.  That meant I had 3 hours to peruse the site.  There is also a temple to Artemis at the site, but it is located several miles away from her brother’s temple (Apollo and Artemis were siblings).   I wanted to really drink in the Apollo temple, so I chose to investigate to my heart’s content.  It is currently undergoing a concerted preservation effort by a multitude of archaeologists from all over, and as such is under a large tarpaulin.  Earthquakes have plagued the region, and in antiquity many columns had fallen as a result.  The current efforts are reinforcing every part of the structure so that it won’t fall in the future.  Because of the lateness of the hour, the museum staff weren’t at the site.  I took the opportunity to creep through the portico onto the large stone cella, through the stoa and into the antechamber in front of the altar.  I’d been craving the chance to experience what it might have been like to be at one of these sites in antiquity, so this was my chance.  With care, I walked carefully, examining the stone beneath me and the columns on either side.  It was a magnificent experience, similar to the experience of walking into the center of the thalos tomb earlier that day.

The temple is aligned north-south, in contrast to the majority of Greek temples which are aligned east-west; its principal entrance is from the north. This was due to the limited space available on the steep slopes of the mountain. To overcome this restriction a door was placed in the side of the temple, perhaps to let light in to illuminate the cult statue.  The temple is of a relatively modest size, with the stylobate measuring 38.3 by 14.5 meters containing a Doric peristyle of six by fifteen columns.  The roof left a central space open to admit light and air. The temple was constructed entirely out of grey Arcadian limestone except for the frieze which was carved from marble (probably in ancient times colored with paint). Like most major temples it has three porches: the pronaos, a naos, and an opisthodomos.  The naos may have housed a cult statue of Apollo, although it is also surmised that the single proto-Corinthian capital discovered by Cockerell, and subsequently lost at sea, may have topped the single column that stood in the centre of the naos, and have been intended as an aniconic representation of Apollo Borealis. The temple lacks some optical refinements found in the Parthenon such as a subtly curved floor, though the columns have entasis.

Unable to tear myself away, I waited till 8pm to leave.  That was to be the normal operating procedure throughout my time in Greece.  I am a snail when it comes to museums, whether focused on history, art, archaeology, anthropology, or other contents.  I want to drink everything in, and I read every description.  When I go to a museum with my mom and step dad, we have to set a time and meeting place and they bring reading materials to keep from dying of boredom.  I am interminably curious.  As I wound my way down from Kotylion Mountain, I spied a shepherd with a flute, walking along the road and (in my mind) communing with his flock.  I am in awe of shepherds and fishermen.  I think they (especially the former) are the closer than any to the land and unadulterated human nature.  This guy was out in the middle of nowhere, not even a stone hut for miles, and seemed perfectly happy.  That we all could be so lucky.  Or perhaps more accurately, advanced.  I made my way to Andritsena, a small village also clinging to the same Kotylion mountain north of the temple.  I enjoyed walking through the narrow streets, and drunk in the distinctive scenery of mountain villages in this part of Greece.  It almost looked Tyrolian, and they sold fruit brandy and other fruit delectables.  I ran into a motorcyclist from northern Greece who recommended the mountainous route through Stemista and Demitsana.  I capitulated and headed first to Karytaina, a beautiful village with a hilltop castle on the right bank of the river Alpheios near its confluence with the Lousios. The village dates back to the Middle Ages, but its history is unknown before the Crusader conquest ca. 1205. At that time it became the seat of a barony under the Frankish Principality of Achaea, and the castle was built in the mid-13th century on a steep rocky outcrop by Baron Geoffrey of Briel.  Like much of the Peloponnese, the area returned to Byzantine control in 1320, and came under Ottoman control in 1460. After a brief period of Venetian rule (1687–1715), Karytaina returned to Ottoman control, and prospered as an administrative and commercial centre. Karytaina and its inhabitants were among the first to rise up during the Greek War of Independence of 1821–29. Today Karytaina is a protected traditional settlement and has, alongside the remains of its Frankish castle, several other medieval and Ottoman monuments.

I walked up a steep passageway toward the castle, investigating the ruins of several churches and monasteries on the way to the top. No accident that churches and castles were built atop the highest mountains where a spring and pagan temple once stood.  I wandered down the village’s medieval streets, past the old cemetery, and back to the car.  Night was falling, and I wanted to get to a reasonable camping spot.  I pressed on to the lovely village of Stemnitsa.  Wow, what a location.  Located above the Lousios, which a Greek friend says is the cleanest river in Greece, and nestled into a hillside, it is a sight to behold.  Even at night.  I found my way to the main square, parked under the clock tower (a rather gruff official told me not to leave my car long), and made my way to a cafe.  I met an Albanian working in the town who encouraged me to visit Albania.  He was very warm and welcoming (and spoke at least 4 languages).  I made a Skype call and then said hello to a table full of young people.

It turns out they are all students at the jewelry design and production university in town.  They were very kind and showed me where I could buy a pita falafel, then asked me what I was doing in Greece.  I explained as best I could, and then asked if they knew of a place to camp for the night.  After conferring for several minutes, one volunteered to let me stay in her flat.  That was a complete surprise.  I willingly accepted, and we continued to talk and laugh late into the night.  Finally, around 1 am, we called it quits and stumbled toward home.  I was lugging a bag of laundry and shower items, so my arms were quite full.  I re-parked the car, heeding the warning of the city official from earlier in the evening, and we set out to her flat.  She was very welcoming and set me up on the couch, apologising for only having cereal and milk for breakfast.  I didn’t expect anything and was so appreciative of a roof after camping for nearly a week.  She was headed to Megalopolis to visit her boyfriend and family for the weekend, but we talked about possibly going to Crete together (she has an aunt there).  I think she is only free in July, which is when I’ll be in Budapest getting dental extractions and implants done.  I hope we can find another time to go together.

I slept for what seemed like days.  Finally, at 1pm, I awoke, jumped in the shower (with my dirty clothes underfoot – a trick I learned while hiking the PCT), and succeeded in washing both my hair and my wardrobe.  I hung my things to dry and set out to meet her colleagues, who had invited me to see the university and watch them in action.  I made my way to the aforementioned cafe of the night before, found my friends, and we set off together, walking down the pretty streets to the university.  I admired an amazing exhibit of jewelry design, including filigree, then watched as one melted silver and poured it into a mold.  It takes more patience and willingness to start over (which he did 3 times) than I had imagined.  They were very focused and quiet, and I took my leave after watching for 30 minutes or so.  I packed my things and headed to Dimitsana, another storybook town that had been recommended to me.  It’s only 8 miles away, and on the way I drove to a cliff-hanger monastery.  Very dramatic views (and the drive).  I found Dimitsana much less quaint.  Stemnitsa really feels like stepping into a fairy tale.  Dimitsana is more touristy, and less pretty.  I bought some mandarin liquor from an old woman who seemed annoyed at being bothered.  I wanted to support the local economy, so was surprised at her attitude.  I walked through many lanes and up steep hills, and learned that the first gunpowder mills of the town were built under the guise of home industry in the middle of the 18th century by Bishop Ananias Lakedaimonias, who paved the way for a revolt against the Turks.  Unfortunately for him, the movement was discovered in 1764 and Ananias and his partners were executed. In the same year, the monk Agapio moved the monastery’s books to a library, which he and others grew until 1821, when the use of books to fuel the gunpowder mills during the War of Independence severely reduced the book supply. For this ignoble event, Dimitsana has been called ‘the nation’s powder keg’. Prior to that time, the Patriarchate oversaw the production of new books, and a seminary known asΦροντιστήριο Ελληνικών Γραμμάτων (Tuitin Centre of Greek Literature) was active here. Many bishops and scholars graduated from it, among them Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople and Germanos III of Old Patras, whose homes have survived in the town.

After wandering for an hour or two, I got back in my car and decided to double back to the Katafigio Agrias Zois Arkoudorema-Chaliki forest of Menalo Mountain for a camp site.  Unfortunately, by the time I got there it was dark and I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  Literally.  I made my way down a dirt road, and a bike passed me.  I continued till the barking of dogs was not overwhelming (barking is a constant earsore in Greece).  Here I set up my tent on the other side of the car and settled in for the night, hoping that I was far enough off the road in case someone needed to come through.  Luckily I wasn’t disturbed till morning.  I awoke and made my way to first to a small out of the way mountain village before going to Lagkada.  I don’t remember what the village was called, but I’m certain I could find it again.  I drove past farmers working in their fields, and pine forest studded mountains to a small town nestled in the forest.

Alighting from my car in the main square, I aired out my rain fly, wet with condensation.  I cut some bread and cheese and ate it with olive oil and oregano, my traditional Greek breakfast.  I noticed 2 women who appeared to be inspecting me from their front porch, and I assumed they were annoyed at my flagrant contamination of their square.  Annoyed in response, I mumbled under my breath, but then noticed that it was a taverna, and the thought of a latte inspired me to be bold.  I entered, asking if they sold coffee, and they offered me traditional Greek coffee (which I don’t really like) and homemade bread, feta cheese, and sauteed liver.  All had a very strong flavor, but I accepted, and they wrapped their gifts in a napkin.  Then I looked at the photos on the wall of 2 men, and the woman motioned to the older indicating ‘papoos’.  I later found out that means grandfather in Greek.  He looked to be a shepherd and wore the traditional costume of the skirt and fez-like hat worn by Greek patriots during and after the War of Independence in 1821.  I was struck by the apparent simplicity of these women’s lives (I gathered they were in-laws or some relation) and their unconditional generosity.  I used the few words of Greek I had learned (orea edo =  beautiful here) and we communed for a few minutes.  They pointed to photos and items in the house/taverna, explaining their significance.  The photo of the younger man was apparently the other woman’s husband, who died afer military combat.  Moved by their kindness and desire to communicate with me, I felt tears welling up in my eyes.  The younger woman, possibly in her 50s, was also feeling emotional and she too was teary-eyed.  The 3 of us embraced, I took a photo of us (they suggested it), and then I left.  They told me to come back and visit, and I said I would.  And meant it.

The encounter made me feel nostalgic for the halcyon days of yesteryear.  ‘Carry on MacDuff’ I thought to myself.  My dad often used the popular Shakespearism. I got back into the car and drove to Lagkada, which is the terminus for the hiking trail that begins in Stemnitsa and of which I walked a small portion.  Winding down a steep rural road on the side of a large gorge following the Lousios River, I drove to this town and alighted, doing my usual walking tour of the village to get a feel for it.  I didn’t like it as much as Stemnitsa, and after about an hour continued towards the ancient site of Olympia.  Within about 5 miles of the site I started noticing heaps of garbage sitting by the side of the road, with the concomittant smell of trash ripening in the sun.  I later learned that the area around Pyrgos has experienced a 3+ year hiatus in trash collection due to lack of a suitable landfill (seems strange since there appears to be plenty of open space) and a strike by trash collectors for better wages.

In any case, I held my nose as I approached the supposedly beautiful site of the first Olympic games, made less appealing by the arid  climate and intense heat.  I entered the museum first and spent more than 3 hours marvelling at the marble friezes and bronze remnants from the site.  The area had been covered by a marshy bog, thus preserving the hammered bronze sheets that decorated many of the monuments better than almost any other site in Greece.  Apparently hammered bronze relief was much more common than carved marble statuary as a source of decor in Ancient Greece.  I learned this from evesdropping on a group of American art university students.  I listened to them for some time, as the teachers were both dynamic and rife with information.  They talked about the 2 marble friezes on display that had adorned the Temple of Zeus:on the west pediment, the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, and on the east, the Oath of Pelops and Oinomaos before their chariot race (the river god Cladeos and a seer look on).

The temple, built between 472 and 456 BC, was the very model of the fully developed classical Greek temple of the Doric Order.  The site had been used since the fourth millennium BC, first as a temple dedicated to the earth mother Gaia, and later in the Archaic period, a temple to Hera. The Altis, the enclosure with its sacred grove, open-air altars and the tumulus of Pelos, was first formed during the tenth and ninth centuries BC, considered Greece’s Dark Age, when the followers of Zeus had joined with the followers of Hera.  The main structure of the building was of a local limestone that was unattractive and of poor quality, and so it was coated with a thin layer of stucco to give it an appearance of marble like all the sculptural decoration on the temple.

The temple housed the renowned statue of Zeus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  The Chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue was approximately 13 m (43 ft) high, and was made by the sculptor Phidias his workshop on the site at Olympia. The statue’s completion took approximately 12 years. On the head was a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. In the right hand, Zeus held a figure of Nike (the goddess of victory), also made from ivory and gold – and held in the left hand a scepter made with many kinds of metal, with an eagle perched on the top. Zeus’ robe and sandals were made of gold. His garments were carved with animals and with lilies. The throne was decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory. The statue was Classical Greece’s most revered artistic work.  All we have left are small models of the statue, as the early Christians put an end to such idolatry with hammer and tong.  Such lovely people.  Between the burning of famous libraries like Alexandria and the destruction of ancient sites, they nearly destroyed ancient civilization.

The site was less than impressive.  I couldn’t get within 100 feet of the temple of Zeus, which is now nothing more than a rectangular stone platform.  The museum staff blew whistles when they deemed that someone got too close to a relic, causing post-traumatic stress with every step out of fear of reprisal.  The stadium with oval track was impressive.  I found a pretty mosaic floor in one of the bath houses at the end of the day, which I showed an appreciative British couple.  The approach was cordoned off so that you couldn’t see it, so we broke the rules and climbed under the rope to get a closer look.  We left the site together and they suggested some places to visit in Romania, where they’d done a bike tour.  I considered staying in the hotel there, as it was after 8pm, but decided to head to Pyrgos and nearby Kotalko, Pyrgos’ ancient port.  As I neared Kotalko I noticed the continued piles of rubbish along the roadways, and the ripe smell of rotting refuse.  Not conducive to attracting tourists, let alone the effect on the local population.  It was Saturday night and I saw the townspeople gathered around a stage in the main square listening to some kind of entertainment.  I wanted to stay and listen, but knew I needed to find a place to camp before it was pitch black.  I continued through the town and on a windy road behind and up a cliff, then followed a dirt road which appeared to go to the beach.  After interminable minutes and bottoming out several times on the rutted road, I turned on a smaller road and parked next to an old stone house, probably used by shepherds or olive pickers.  In either case, it appeared abandoned, or at least not currently occupied, and I decided to set my tent up for the night.  It was too far to go back to town, so I resigned to turn in early.

In the morning, I packed and headed back to the main town, where swarms of French cruise ship passengers were already descending en masse on the tiny town.  I walked the 3 or 4 main streets, then headed toward the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, which had been recommended to me by my friend in Iklaina.  The museum appeared closed, which dismayed me terribly, so much so that I called the number shown on the museum door and inquired about the possibility of opening the museum just for me.  The man was very polite and said that it would open later that day.  I was skeptical, but decided to walk back to town.  On my way out of town, I stopped and saw that it was indeed open.  And what a treat!  It is a culmination of 22 years of extensive research and study of ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic literature, vase paintings and  archeological finds) and includes approximately 300 operating models of ancient Greek inventions created between 2200 BC and 100 AD.  Kostas Kotsanas created the exhibits and wrote several books describing its contents, including Familiar and Unfamiliar Aspects of Ancient Greek Technology, Ancient Greek Technology, and The Musical Instruments of the Ancient Greeks.

Though the contribution of the ancient Greeks to the fields of philosophy, fine arts, and science is well known, the technology used to accomplish their feats is not.  All models were constructed by Kotsanas to highlight this relatively unknown aspect of ancient Greek civilisation and to prove that the technology of the ancient Greeks, just before the end of the ancient Greek world, was shockingly similar to the beginning of our modern technology. The bolts and nuts, gears and rules, pulleys and belts, sprockets and chains, block and tackles and winches, hydraulic controllers and valves are just some of the inventions of the ancient Greeks which were the foundations of their complex technology.  Perhaps it should be called ‘How the Greeks Saved Civilization’.  The exhibits are accompanied by audio-visual material, detailed diagrams, photos and complete bibliographical references, while many of the exhibits are interactive. There are projecting stations with video and animation as well as documentaries in which the exhibitor explains the function and the use of the mechanisms.

Some of the exhibits include:

  • Plato’s alarm clock (the first wake-up mechanism)
  • Automatic temple gate opening after fire sacrifice (first building automation)
  • Static automatic theater of Heron of Alexandria (first cinema)
  • Hydraulic clock of Ktesibios (first precise automatic clock)
  • Heron’s aeolosphere (first steam engine)
  • Automatic maid (first robot)
  • Odometer (first road counter)
  • Movable automatic theatre of Heron of Alexandria (first self-starting puppet show)
  • Crane with winches for the elevation of mast and load (first elevating mechanism)
  • Perpendicular Mycenaean loom
  • Web of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife
  • Catapult Palindonos (first siege machine)
  • Bale-fires and beacons (first telecommunication method)
  • Acoustic telegraph (the first acoustic radar)
  • Elevating mechanism of two-sided elevation (first building crane)
  • Hysplex (first starting mechanism)
  • Ancient Greek musical instruments

I savoured the experience like a kid in a candy store, with the museum staff demonstrating the models.  It reminded me of the exhibit of I’d seen in 2006 on how the Islamic world saved civilization during the Dark Ages of the Christian world with their scientific and mathematical discoveries.  I stayed till closing, and reluctantly made my way north to Patras.  I wasn’t sure what I would do there, but I had been recommended to visit Lefkada, an island north of Patras, and I intended to go.  I drove the national road, which was very quick relative to the windy one-way mountain roads I’d experienced, but I had to adjust to the fact that cars would pass in both directions, sometimes 2 sets of cars.  Reminded me of the experience I’d had in Georgia and Abkhazia last summer.  Crazy drivers.

Patras was beautiful.  I was told it was just a big city, but it appeared quaint and more like a spread out mediterranean village.  I got off the freeway and headed toward the sea, where I drove till the road ended (literally).  I had to back up to keep from going into the sea.  At that point I spied a taverna.  Captain Morgan’s, to be exact.  Okay, corny name.  But I was hungry and decided to pursue a course of vitals.  I walked in and spied a man eating a very tasty looking fish.  I asked him what he had ordered, and found out he was the tavern owner and a fisherman to boot, and had caught the said fish earlier that day.  He was very nice and invited me to sit.  I asked him whether more fish were available.  He said there was one other, and that I could have it.  So I ordered fish and a Greek salad, and after a short time was devouring the meal as if I hadn’t eaten in several years.  It was the best fish I’ve ever had, and I made good friends that day.  I showed him the map marked with suggested places to visit, and he strongly suggested I go to Kefalonia, the island where Nick Ferentinos’ parents were born.  I had mentioned to him the possibility of going, and he said yes.  He gave me marching orders: drive to Killini (the ferry is half the price of Patras) and take the ferry to Poros.  We found out ferry times and I had just enough time to catch the 7:30pm ferry, so after a short time, I hopped in the car and sped south to Killini, where I had a luxurious 20 minutes before the ferry left.

Greek ferry workers are much more relaxed than those of other countries.  I drove to the dock and there was a knot of them smoking and gesticulating.  They paid no attention to me nor others who had lined up dutifully in the cue.  When I asked where we should go, they motioned to drive my car onto the ferry, so I obeyed.  Others were still in the cue, and I went back and told them that the ferry would be leaving in 10 minutes.  They didn’t believe me, but asked the workers and got the affirmative.  I settled on the main deck with my journal, but mostly spent the hour and a half gazing at the open sea and looking for dolphins, whales, and other sea creatures.  I arrived in Poros at sunset, and after a few minutes spied a long rope-lined path up a steep hill to the Sunset Taverna.  I climbed the steps and ordered spicy eggplant (a side dish) and some bread and Greek salad, and talked with a British couple leaving the next day.  I already liked the place.  After dinner, I drove along the sea and found a hidden nook where I could put up my tent.  Cars passed within 10 feet above my spot, but had to slow down at the bend and therefore didn’t pose a noise problem.  I slept on the narrow beach and awoke in the am to find ferry trash, which I picked up.  I headed back to Poros and checked at 2 hotels.  The second, an apartment with cooking facilities, was a great price (30 Euros), and I took it in a heartbeat.  It was to be my home away from home for the next week, the base from which I explored the lovely island of Kefalonia.

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4 responses to “The beautiful Peloponnese

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