Monday, April 20, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey 4: Malia (and the British Museum)

Meet the kitty who photobombed the ruins of ancient Malia, a Minoan city on Crete. This little charmer appointed herself our guide, and proceeded to show us around in a most proprietary way.

For anyone wanting to catch up with the earlier three posts in this series, follow these links for posts about Athens; about Nafplio, Epidaurus, Tiryns, and Mycenae; and about Crete (Siva, Knossos, Phaistos, and Aghia Triada).

Malia, a Minoan city on the northern edge of Crete and east of Iraklion, was not the last archaeological site we visited, but it was the last major site.

This last picture is the famous bee pendant, found in Malia and now on display at the archaeological museum in Iraklion. It's an exquisite little piece of intricate goldwork from the middle Bronze Age.

I've not said much about any of the places featured in these posts, relying mostly on pictures. But if you are interested in such things, I would urge you to seek out information about them. The history is fascinating. I learned a lot about Greece, past and present, in preparation for this trip, but I'm no expert, and I'd suggest that you seek out those who are, because Greek history touches every aspect of western civilization. And for those who have not been paying attention to Greece's current economic and political crises, I would urge you to take a look at that, too - it's a David and Goliath tale with no foregone conclusion.


So many of the great Greek antiquities have wound up in England that it seemed only appropriate to end our trip with a stop in London and a visit to the British Museum, always one of our favorite places.

Phidias showing the frieze of the Parthenon to his friends, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868
 As many of you will recall, there is considerable controversy over whether the so-called Elgin Marbles should remain in their current home in the British Museum, or be returned to Greece. I don't want to go into it here, but here's one (of many) links if you'd like to know more:

The new Acropolis Museum in Athens has rather pointedly left places for these friezes and sculptures, should they ever be returned. Here are two pictures of some of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum:

I'll leave you now with one last image. One decorative theme we encountered over and over again, especially on Crete, was the octopus. (It also turned up in pretty much every restaurant we ate in.) What amused us most was that most of these sea critters are pictured with huge round eyes, communicating utter surprise, as if they are shocked - shocked! - to find themselves decorating pots and vases. So I can't bring this series of posts to an end without providing you with at least one amazed octopus.

Images in this post are our own photos or in the public domain, with these exceptions: the bee pendant is by Olaf Tausch and licensed to Oltau via the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; the photo of the Parthenon Galleries is by Mujtaba Chohan and licensed to M.chahan via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; and the picture of the surprised octopus on the pot is by Wolfgang Sauber, licensed to Xenophon via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey 3: Crete (Siva, Knossos, Phaistos, Aghia Triada)

This is Part 3 of what is now my four-part post about our recent trip to Greece. (Unless it turns into five parts, which is entirely possible.) If you'd like to read about Athens, see Part 1 here. If you'd like to read about Nafplio, Epidaurus, and Mycenae, see Part 2 here.

After exploring some of mainland Greece, we relocated to Crete for a week, which we spent living in a stone house in a little village called Siva. It had been the childhood home of our host, and you could see vestiges of what it had been like in an earlier time: a courtyard with an outhouse (now plumbed and containing the washing machine), a well, and a wood-fired oven. One particular treat was to be able to pick fresh oranges from the trees surrounding the house.

Siva is tiny (population 244, according to Wikipedia). It was quiet and lovely (see view above and at top), and we enjoyed staying there. It is close to Iraklion, but far enough away to have a rural feel. We enjoyed our hosts' own olive oil while we were there, especially when we learned that we had driven past the trees that produced the olives, and the press that pressed them was just down the street. It doesn't get much more local than that.

Another example of local products can be seen in this sign, just across the street from "our" house (and next door to the goat):

We didn't try this particular vintage, but we're sure it's a winner.

Siva was far too small to boast any public transportation, so we rented a little Fiat Panda from the efficient and capable Dimitris. With it, we acquired a GPS with the usual cultured female voice, courteously instructing us on where we should be going. Since we are perhaps not the very best at following instructions, we named her Cassandra, after another long-suffering woman who nobody ever listened to.

Cassandra: "Go that way!"
 We started off elegantly enough, greeting her with "Speak to us, o Cassandra, of the road to Iraklion" and suchlike. But it fairly quickly devolved into something closer to "Bug off, Cassie, we're stopping for lunch." I don't think we are GPS sorts of people. We finally figured out how to turn her off, though for a while we had her speaking in Greek, which was almost as good.


The famed palace of Knossos was our first sightseeing stop on Crete. Knossos, of course, is said to be the palace of the legendary King Minos and home to the Minotaur, complete with labyrinth, bull-leaping, Theseus, Ariadne, and all of that.

Knossos has seen more restoration, some of it questionable, than the other Minoan sites we visited, but it is still an evocative site.

Here are some of the current denizens of Knossos:

And two more well-known restored frescoes from Knossos (now in the museum in Iraklion):

Having poked around the northern edge of Crete for a while, we decided to head south. We huffed and puffed across the mountains in our little Fiat (which we think was muttering "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can..." in Greek) and found ourselves on the south coast, where it was about 10 degrees warmer.

Phaistos (Festos, Faistos)

Less restored but no less interesting than Knossos was Phaistos, for which we found a number of alternate spellings, including several on the road signs on our way to it.  From around the same time period as Knossos, Phaistos is in a magnificent location, with panoramic views in all directions.

The nearby site of Aghia Triada was similar in many ways, though it was more of a village and less centered around a huge palace than either Phaistos or Knossos.

These imposing pots (and the ones from Knossos shown above) are called pithoi (singular pithos). They are seriously big. The ones from Knossos probably stand 8 or 9 feet high. We should have put a person in the picture to show the scale, but we didn't think of that until after we had left. Even today the Cretans like to decorate with them, as you can see in this picture of the house in Siva:

We did see one post-Minoan site in our meanderings. Gortyn afforded us the chance to look at Roman Crete.

It also has the Gortyn Code, or at least most of it. This law code, carved in stone in lines that reverse direction (left to right, right to left, etc.), is said to be the oldest and most complete surviving code of ancient Greek law. You'll have to look carefully to see the writing, but it is there.

Next time, we go back north and head west (with occasional help from Cassandra), to show you Rethymnon, and then east, to show you Malia.

Images in this post are either our own photos, or in the public domain.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey 2: Nafplio, Epidaurus,Tiryns, Mycenae

This post concerns the second phase of our recent trip to Greece. Anyone who missed the bit on Athens can find it here.

We picked the lovely seaside town of Nafplio both for its undeniable charm and for its proximity to two of the archaeological sites we most wanted to see: Epidaurus and Mycenae.

We chose the Hotel Byron, and we were not disappointed. It did require a bit of climbing, though, which we were unaware of when we trundled our luggage from the station and walked till we spotted its welcoming sign:

Around the corner from the welcoming sign was the way in (or perhaps I should say the way up):

Factor in another three flights of stairs inside to reach our room, and I think it's fair to say that we walked off the amazing homemade marmalade we ate each morning. Tim suggested that they needed a funicular, and he was heard to quote Douglas Adams from time to time concerning "the advantages 'up' has to offer." But then, he was the one schlepping the bags.

Just across from us was the church of Saint Spyridon, on the steps of which, in 1831, Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of state of the then newly liberated Greece, was assassinated:

Murder of Ioannis Kapodistrias, by Charalambos Pachis

A few pictures to give you an idea of Nafplio's appeal:

We rented a car to go to Epidaurus when we learned that the bus schedules were not going to allow us enough time to see it properly. Both of us had wanted to see the ancient theatre there, with its famous acoustics, and it was worth braving Greek traffic and roadsigns to get there. A person standing in the center of the stage can drop a small object and its impact will be heard throughout the theatre.

Tiryns was another archaological site we wanted to see. Called "mighty walled Tiryns" by Homer, it was said by some to be the birthplace of Heracles. Even today the huge stones of Tiryns are impressive:

And finally we made it to Mycenae, home to the great king Agamemnon of Homeric fame. It was the source of this famous mask, called the Mask of Agamemnon (though it actually is several centuries too early to be him):

If I had been Agamemnon and I had a palace with the breathtaking view he had in Mycenae, I would have left Troy to its own devices and spent my days sitting on the patio drinking ouzo. Well, okay, maybe not ouzo. But drinking in the view, definitely.

I was excited to see the famous Lions Gate at Mycenae (see picture at top, also detail below).

Very nearby, we were able to see the extraordinary tholos tomb variously known as the Treasure of Atreus or the Tomb of Agamemnon.

Inside the tholos tomb the acoustics are downright alarming. If someone speaks, a listener may well hear the sound from another place altogether. At one point I would swear I heard someone laughing demonically just behind me, but when I turned to see who was there, there was nobody at all. It was actually pretty creepy. I left with alacrity.

Here's the entrance to that tomb:

I loved Mycenae. I flirted briefly with the idea of writing about it, but then my better judgment prevailed, and I decided to leave it to the experts. (All I came up with was a limerick, and I'll spare you that.) One of those experts, my friend Judith Starkston, has written a very fine book, Hand of Fire, about the life of Briseis, a character mentioned only briefly in Homer's Iliad. Agamemnon plays a major part in her tale.

Next time, we'll be in Zorba country - Crete! Join me then for more pictures, to meet the kitty who photobombed Malia, and to find out why we named our GPS after the prophetess Cassandra.

Pictures of the mask of Agamemnon and of the murder of Kapodistrias are in the public domain; other pictures are our own.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Our Greek Odyssey I: Athens

I was supposed to begin this blog with a picture of the Parthenon. I mean, isn't that what every spiel about a trip to Greece is supposed to start with? Classic, timeless, tasteful, sublime... 

However, as some of you may have noticed, I haven't been blogging lately, and in fact haven't been online much or communicating much. So please bear with me as I gently ease my way back into social media's comfy little illusion that we all actually have something to say. This could possibly mean that I'll be even more eccentric than usual for a while.

To make it easier on all of us, I'm going to blog my recent trip to Greece mostly with images, mostly pictures taken by my husband, but a few supplementary shots taken from Wikimedia Commons. And I'm going to divide the trip into three posts, for the three places we used as home base during our travels: Athens, Nafplio, and Crete.  (Also possibly a brief post about the British Museum in London, where we went to see all of the Greek antiquities that wound up there. To paraphrase what Hayakawa once said about the Panama Canal, they stole them fair and square.)

This one's Athens. So here's that Parthenon:

We stayed at the lovely Hotel Hermes, which had a mind-boggling breakfast buffet. You could get eggs, bacon, baked beans, pastries, baklava, spinach pie, yogurt, honey, jam, bread, toast, olives, Greek salad, tiramisu, rice pudding, bran flakes, several different fruit juices, fresh sliced oranges, apples, cheese, sliced meats, granola, and I'm probably forgetting a bunch of things. You could not, however, get this peculiar Greek gelato:

That was someplace else. But Hotel Hermes was a good base for seeing the Acropolis and the museums, and we took full advantage of it. Here's some of the evidence:

The new Acropolis Museum is spectacular, and has very pointedly left some obvious places to display the Elgin Marbles (see upcoming post), should the British by any chance ever decide to give them back.

The Archaeological Museum was amazing.

Large parts of it are currently closed due to the Greek financial crisis, but a kindly guard took pity on us when I looked crestfallen at not getting into the room with the Cycladic art, and he took us in for a precious five minutes of looking at the things I had most wanted to see. We owe him.

Athens seems to be populated by a very large number of lethargic dogs, which people just walk around, or step over. They flop down wherever they happen to be. The ones in this picture are actually atypically perky.

 After our brief private tour of the Cycladic art in the Archaeological Museum, we went to the Cycladic Art Museum for more. I am very attracted to these boldly simple ancient sculptures which have influenced so many twentieth-century artists.

Note the pointed feet on this statuette:

I've read that this type of feet indicates that the statuettes were intended to be lying down, not standing up. Though I do wonder what future generations might say about these:

Other Athens pictures include picturesque corners, the Olympic Stadium, and the goddess herself:

We were able to watch the Changing of the Guards, which was quite an elaborate spectacle (and which we are pretty sure was John Cleese's inspiration for the Ministry of Silly Walks):

Each of those little white pleated skirts has 400 pleats, which the wearer has to iron in himself, or so we've been told. And we've also heard that they used to hide knives in those fluffy, harmless-looking tassels on their shoes.

Although this is only a taste of what this fascinating city has to offer, for now we will say goodnight to Athens and, in the next post, move on to the town of Napflio, the perfect jumping-off point for Epidaurus and Mycenae.

Images in this post are our own, except for the photo of the dolls, which is licensed to GeekChickLoLo via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, and can be viewed here.