Sunday, March 8, 2009


The latest adventure was a five-day trip to Greece. I’m afraid that we went a bit crazy with the camera again, so there are lots of pictures! You can see them at:


Greece has a lot of history, but its recent history seems to have shaped the modern country more than its ancient history. In broad terms, it was something like this:

- Pre-Classical Greece: before about 800 B.C.

- Classical Greece (including the time of Alexander the Great’s empire): 800 B.C. to 150 B.C.

- Roman Greece: 150 B.C. to A.D. 500

- Byzantine Empire: 500 to 1450

- Turkish occupation: 1450 to 1825

- Modern Greece: after 1825

We’re rapidly losing all fear of driving in foreign countries. Last year we drove all around the French countryside without incident, but in Greece, they don’t even use the same alphabet! How do you react to a sign which says AθHNA? Or worse yet, Kóρινθος? (The first is Athens, and the second is Corinth. ) Given a few minutes, you can puzzle it out. Unfortunately, if you’re barreling down the highway at 120 km/hr, you don’t have that few minutes. Luckily, most of the signs along the highway have English lettering as well as Greek. If there’s a road sign which only has Greek lettering, an American tourist probably has no business going there. Even that isn’t a complete solution; Athens is written as Athina, and Corinth is Korinthos. The worst part was driving in the city of Athens. Once we got off the freeway, all of the signs seemed to have only Greek lettering. It’s difficult driving in any large city, but this adds to the difficulties. With me navigating and Tonya driving, we were finally able to find our hotel.

When we think of Greece, we think of warm Mediterranean weather. But not at this time of year! We brought along our heavy jackets, and we’re glad we did. There was lots of snow on the mountains around Delphi, which had us worried about going further north to Meteora, but we didn’t have any trouble. The first days were the coldest; it was under 40⁰F at Mycenae, with a merciless wind.

Mycenae is one of the oldest sites in Greece. The city had its heyday around 1,700 B.C. , and the foundations date back to 3,000 B.C. Most of the heroes of the Greek legends (Perseus, Theseus, Agamemnon, Achilles, etc.) were Mycenaean. This civilization pre-dated classical Greece (that is, the Greece of Socrates and Plato and Pericles) by about 1,000 years; it was eventually destroyed and replaced by the invading Dorians. It gives you a different perspective on time! The Mycenaeans spoke a very early form of the Greek language, but they used a writing style called Linear B which looks nothing like the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, delta,…).

The drive to Delphi was lovely, describing a long oval around the Gulf of Corinth. I imagine that the beaches are packed with people in the summer, but in February, they were pretty deserted. Delphi is hanging from a mountainside overlooking a valley heading down to the gulf. It had landscapes somehow reminiscent of Yosemite, even though it didn’t look at all the same. With Delphi, as with Athens later, we were looking at a site which had been continuously occupied for a very long time. It was originally built around the famous Oracle of Delphi, located in the Temple of Apollo. There were early classical Greek ruins, sometimes overlaid by the later Roman additions. The Romans were great admirers of Greek culture, but that didn’t prevent them from despoiling Greek cities and building their own over the ruins.

Meteora is the site of a number of monasteries built on top of steep rock spires. The first one was begun in the 1300’s. According to legend, the monk who founded the first monastery had achieved such a state of spiritual perfection that he flew to the top of the rock spire. I don’t know what they did during the 400 years of Turkish (Muslim) occupation, but the displays there indicated that the monasteries were thriving in the mid-1500’s. Still, the Greek Orthodox church seems to have missed out on the Renaissance. The interiors of the church were decorated with gleefully grisly depictions of the deaths of the martyrs…and with the Turkish occupation, many of the Greek martyrs were a lot more recent than the Roman Catholic martyrs! There were also good paintings of the scales of judgement, showing damned souls being cast down into the mouth of the Beast.

Despite being such a large city, Athens was a wonderful place to visit. Our hotel was about two blocks from the Acropolis, and the very efficient Metro system allowed us to wander all over the city. Many of the Metro stations have very interesting archaeological displays. Since you can’t dig anywhere in Athens without finding the ruins of something, they incorporated the finds into the displays. Fascinating! The National Archaeological Museum has statuary from pre-classical times all the way to Roman Greece.

Recommendations for Greek travel:

- We rented our car from Swift Car Rentals. They delivered our car to us at the airport (no waiting in line at a rental car counter), and later picked up the car from our hotel in Athens. Very convenient!

- In Meteora, we stayed at the Pension Arsenis, enjoying the warm hospitality of the Arsenis family. Good food, nice views, comfortable room, reasonable prices.

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