Hellenic and Minoan Greece

Who could go to Athens and not see the famed Acropolis and all its installations? Who could go to Crete and not visit the Palace of Knossos? Aye, Aye!

I knew I was going to see ruins and I read up before going so I’d know what I was looking at.  Perhaps I set my expectations a little higher than I should because I secretly (now not a secret) found the experience of Acropolis a little underwhelming. Or maybe I was wrong to be looking forward to being awed by architecture instead of what created it and what it stood for. Minds. Greek minds. Those of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. For the Parthenon, Pericles. He favoured democracy and wanted the Parthenon to represent the triumph of civilisation over forces of barbarism, and wanted to be remembered for it. And he is. Very typical of change leadership, if done correctly.

Of the buildings in the Acropolis, I like the Caryatids in the Erechtheion best – six statues of women that stood in wind and rain over centuries supporting the weight of the roof above them. The Erechtheion was supposedly lavish in design – seen in the Caryatids but not much else now. Which was probably why a Turk governor , when the Turks were in power, used it to house his harem back then. Luxury of the R21 kind.


Before Hellenic Greece were the Minoans. How could anyone not be besotted with the tale of the Minotaur and its Labyrinth? Palace of Knossos was the origin of the tale. Not much of the maze was left considering that it was built around 2000 B.C., but the palace complex was interesting in that it gave visitors a good feel of what it was like to live in a place like that. With a bit of reading up, you can go through the place without a guide, though I had to look up the meaning of the double-axe symbol (aka Labrys) so used in the Palace – its presence on an object would prevent it from getting destroyed/killed. Coincidentally, there is a brand of medicated oil widely used in Asia that has the same symbol – I use it for aches. Kills them! Ha!



I would love to know about the little stories that sometimes accompany a guided visit to the sites – like who lived in the Erechthenion before it was used for purposes not befitting a temple and why double-axes were used in Knossos. But it’s okay, I can guess or come up with theories of my own so I’ll never look at a bottle of medicated oil quite the same way again.

“Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments we have left. Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today.” – Pericles, 430 B.C.

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Being economical in Mykonos

Value for money. That is what I meant. This is rather difficult to do in the touristy isle of Mykonos where cruise ships dock and people flock to the startling white mass of angular buildings to frolick and be merry. Compared to the similarly touristy parts of Paris and London, prices here are not so bad actually but it is the most expensive one we encountered in Greece.

No matter, it is beautiful. It is so easy to take nice pictures of the place. Here’s one taken at sunset:


And another taken at a restaurant we chanced upon:

Mykonos town reminded me of French Manicure if it were a venue: fresh and neat with a sophistication that hovers between idyllic resort town and an upscale neighbourhood.  It is a maze though – worthy of a Minotaur’s interest. We had fun wandering around and getting lost. But you’d get a good feel of the painted pebbled lanes after getting lost a few times. In the midst of all these, I found a pretty cheap place near Fabrika Square to get takeaway Illy coffee for €1.50. I went there everyday to get my coffee fix.


There is a bus station there from where you can go to the different beaches. We spent a day at Platys Gialos lying prone on the deck chairs staring at nothing more than sun, rocks and the Aegean Sea. They charge for the chairs – €20 for two under an umbrella for as long as you like. It comes with a 1.5l bottle of water too. Clean loos. Good deal.
You can also go to Delos from Mykonos for €50 per person. For history buffs, it is a must-do. Accommodation-wise, it is pretty pricey if you look for rooms with private baths. It’s around €300 per night and up around Mykonos town for basic rooms.

It is an experience to see Mykonos but it is also one that doesn’t quite need a second visit.

Getting around in Santorini 

The Fira-Oia trail in Santorini is a 3-hour long hike that boasts spectacular views. We didn’t do that. Instead, we strolled in Oia and Fira, and then drove around Akrotiri for similar views, food and wine/coffee. Wherever in Santorini you are, the view is awesome. After you get the pictures of the blue domes and white buildings in Oia that is.


There is only one main road in Santorini that is about 16km long in the shape of the letter C, laterally inverted. For this reason, car rental companies don’t rent out GPS units – you find your way with directions given (of the left, right, right, see Mexican restaurant then turn right variety) and a map with a red bold line indicating the main road as well as thinner lines for the side roads. That’s it. Roads are signposted but not very well. Educated guesses and a hang loose attitude will come in handy.


The roads are also rather narrow with big tour buses zipping by too so it would be more restful for your heart if a smaller car was used. For €45 per day, we had a nifty Nissan Micra automatic, a beat-up car that has seen better days and had a bit of trouble going uphill with 5 in it. Heh. The poor thing was suffering. Petrol wasn’t cheap either – €1.87 per litre. But self-drive is highly recommended just so you can experience the island in your own time. It is one of the more efficient and economical methods of moving around Santorini compared to day tours (from €30 onwards per prsn) and public buses (€1.80 per prsn per way). Did I mention that parking is free everywhere?

There are boat trips you can make out to the volcano, a small sulphur pool they call a hot spring, and snorkeling near the white beach where the main attraction is the rocky depths beneath a single fish that ignores the pieces of French baguette floating above it. But the catamaran was splendid, crew was great and vibe was good with inebriated younger adults puking their faces off on the way back after enjoying 5 cups of the free flow white wine.

One thing worth taking the time to see though is the way Santorini grows grapes. The grape bunches rest on the volcanic soil, protected from the wind by the leaves and vines. They do not get pests because of the sulphur in the soil so the grapes are never really harmed. Local varietals are used to make wine and one they are famous for is the Vinsanto, a dessert wine. Santo Winery and Faros Market have that – the former is commercial while the latter makes theirs in the family cellar. There is also pickled caper leaves, much like the capers we know but their leaves are pickled. It seems only Santorini does this given their limited land, limited crop thus limited yield of capers.


The experience of the island is one of pleasant chaos for one so used to order and efficiency. I guess when you are on vacation, you have time for mess. I found the absence of the need to get something done well, quickly and properly absolutely enthralling. I only just have to remember where I stuffed my sunblock and cap.

Monasteries in the Sky

A magnificent formation of colossal rocks that seem to rise relentlessly up into the sky lies some 400 kilometres north of Athens. At the top of some of these rocks are monasteries founded as early as the 1300s.

This mythical existence of a place is Meteora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and historical gem, that was also made famous by a 1981 James Bond movie starring Sean Connery.
Why and how monks, unless hermits, chose to make their cells up there eons ago is a mystery but there are only six functioning monasteries today. We went to three in one morning – Rossanou, Varlaam and St Stephens. The fourth – Grand Meteoron – was closed for the day. Just as well because the walk up the staircase leading up to that one looked pretty intimidating. Heights are really not my favourite thing.
All three we went to had a little church each where mass and prayers were held. They all had what is termed ‘ecumenical radiance’ in the small but richly decorated domes and altars. Their surroundings vary and the views from each peak are completely dependent on where upon they are perched.

The walk up the Rossanou and Varlaam was a bit of a workout but worth the sweat. Access to St Stephens was very easy since it was a straight walk in. But for all, I had to cross bridges suspended near the peak between two rocks. Quite the adventure for someone with acrophobia.

300

What triumphs skill, courage, loyalty and honour? Treason by savage betrayal for pittance.
The battle at Thermopylae between the forces led by King Leonidas of Sparta and King Xerxes of Persia ended in favour of the Persians due to one man’s greed. Ephailtes had the blood of 300 Spartans on his hands.
The landscape around Thermopylae where the Spartans fell was very different from what it is today. They did not have as much land from the mountains to the shoreline, in fact, the breadth of it was just 15-men (standing shoulder to shoulder) long. This pass was a strategic battle front for the Spartans where they could exercise control over the advance of stupendously huge Persian armies so Spartans could fight them 15 men at a time. Imagine the stamina required to fight a 10000-men contingent with only spears, short swords and shields!
Xerxes lost rather badly the first two days of battle since he chose to rely on abundance and brawn. Neither of the two stand a chance against a well-oiled battle machine like the Spartans. In a moment of desperation, he used wealth to lure a snake that helped him slither his way into the Spartan stronghold to essentially stab Leonidas in the back.
It all went downhill from there. The Spartans had retreated into a small circle to make their final stand. Seeing that the Spartans were cornered, the Persian army fell back and their archers showered arrows at them instead. This meant that the Spartans never got to fight to their deaths but were instead mercilessly stabbed to death by curtains of arrows. For a people so adamant about honour and righteousness , I hope their dignity was preserved.
There is a wall at Thermopylae built to commemorate the bravery, dedication and patriotism of the fallen Spartans. Across the road from this wall is an excavation site. When the archaeologists dug up the place after WWII, they found Persian arrowheads.