Steve Watson

 

      Information: Travels: Greece: Diary

 
 

2/11/96

(Saturday)

 


 

 

Arrived in Greece about 5 am local time. It being so early I thought it would be best if I just kept on moving, so decided to fly on to Crete. I caught a taxi to the 'Western Terminal Air Olympic' which I understand handles all the internal flights. Before we started there seemed to be some confusion on the part of the taxi driver: he kept asking 'what flight is that?' which didn't appear to be relevant to his getting me to the terminal at all. Also his chum who had been standing beside him chatting - and who had watched me walking down the steps and through the carpark towards the only taxi on the rank without moving - suddenly grabbed my bags while the driver and I were still talking and put them in the boot. Then he started shaking his hand for a tip. This was a bit annoying but, not being aware of customs, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and about 200 drachmas.

 

Having arrived at the airport I then had to buy a ticket, and the system they use is most strange. First you buy a ticket and then you move to a cashier (?, who does what? I don't know.) and then you go back - against the flow of customers - to the first counter to get an acknowledgement that you've been to the second one. And all this time there there are crowds of people who try to push in front of you, even when you're talking to the counter staff. I had to actually push people away just to stop them pushing me aside! A complete shemozzle. 

 

Arrived in IRAKLION.

 

And was quite at a loss to know what to do next. I tried to get a taxi to a luggage deposit that was listed (surely I'm misreading the guidebook) as at a bus station. This resulted first in a scrum of taxi drivers and camp followers all puzzling over the map (they didn't seem to recognise the city!), and second in my being taken to a standard bus stop in the middle of nowhere. So I just said 'take me to 25 Avgoústou' , the main street, which he could handle quite well. That all cost only a trifle (2000 drachmas) so it was only time and effort that was wasted. (The first taxi had cost 5000 D. and I thought I might have been trivially cheated, but the guide says that 's the standard fare between terminals. Don't be paranoid.)

 

There's a youth hostel on Vironos street  (Lordou BuronoV - Lord Byron) a bit off 25 Av. and I left my bags there while I searched for a hotel. I quite quickly found one on Dedalou that had a decent room available for just 6 kD ($NZ50).

 

Map of Iraklion

Formerly known as Candia. Airport to East, Big bus station to West, my hotel almost exactly at the centre.

 

Since there was still plenty of day left I got onto a bus and went out to see Knossos. I was lucky that the driver was looking out for me, because I was admiring the scenery as we drove along and didn't see the stop for the ruins. He very kindly stopped and called my attention to it.

 

Map of Knossos

 

Knossos was amazing. I'm very grateful to Evans for the partial reconstruction work, which, even when it's a bit inaccurate (as I'm told the main palace part is) still gives you a much better idea of the original splendour that you'd get otherwise. It was an exciting experience walking along the Royal Road. One thing made me especially curious: many of the small rooms don't seem to have entrances or exits. How were they accessed? By ladder?

 

The Bull Portico

I tried to include a picture of the nifty drainage works in the bottom of this picture but it turned out too dark. They're a series of terracotta half pipes with baffles, etc. Really very impressive for an ancient site. Comparable to Harappa.

 

The Royal Road at Knossos

The oldest road in Europe: about 4500 years old. Leads away from the 'Theatral Area' . There's a small modern shopping centre cunningly hidden behind those trees at the end of the road (which ends in a brick wall.)

 

Knossos: Horns of Consecration

The most comon religious symbol of the Minoan (Keftiu) civilization. They're obviously bull-related but they also seem to be related to the double axe (labrys). What their fundamental significance is is mysterious. Some say that these large examples are directed at significant features of the landscape: Mount Juktas can be seen through this one, for example.

 

Knossos Throne Room

Some sort of lustral basin in the middle

 

I got back in plenty of time too, so I took the opportunity to round the day off with a visit to the archaeological museum. This was almost as much fun as Knossos itself. There were Minoan frescoes, pottery, lots of labryses, Linear A tablets, and Mycenaean boars tusk helmets. I saw the Phaestos disc, the double bee pendant, the 'King' fresco, the 'Parisienne', the bull's head rhyton, the snake goddess figurines. Wow. All that stuff I'd only ever seen in photographs. There were some oddities though. For example, the funerary bath paintings show the labrys mounted inside the horns of consecration. I don't think I've ever seen that before. I have seen the double-bowled pots before, but in real life they prompt the question: why would anyone want to make such an  inconvenient pot? And what, really, is the meaning of those pushme-pullyou animals?

 

3/11/1996<˙˙˙˙/p>

(Sunday)

 


 

 

Didn't get as much done today as I thought I would. I had breakfast outside at a restaurant in Platia E. Venizélou just up the road from my place: bacon and eggs and good coffee. An English breakfast, as I believe they described it. This is the only way to start a day. Spent the time writing postcards to family and friends. My postcard to Sharyn was a picture of some idyllic Aegean island scene which I inscribed 'Ha ha ha ha ha ...' Her parents found that amusing - but, of course, she didn't.

 

Venetian Harbour

 

When I'd finished this very leisurely breakfast I went for a walk along the waterfront. It was picturesque in parts - especially the old harbour with the Venetian fortifications at the end of the quay, and all the fishing boats lined up and preparing to go out - but in other parts it had been rather spoiled by modern industrial brutalist additions. Wandering around the backstreets of the Western parts of Iraklion didn't add much to my store of memories of beautiful things.

 

Eventually I made my way out to the South/West Bus Station and caught a bus out to Phaestos.

 

Phaestos

The central courtyard of the Palace of Phaestos. The 'Prince's Rooms' are at left.

 

Phaestos

The Palace of Phaestos. From the propylaeon looking down the Grand Staircase to the Theatral Area and West Court. The circular structures at the edge are the storage pits..

 

It certainly struck me here how much the appreciation of this site depended upon my being able to impose Evans Knossos reconstructions upon it. On the other hand I seemed to have the worst trouble trying to reconcile the site map in the guide to the 'facts on the ground.' But that's a trivial difficulty. The view from the palace rooms must have been wonderful, especially when the farming was in full swing and they could also look out over a small town - wherever that was - supporting the palace.

 

I rather regret that I'd given myself so little time to see Greece. It means that I wasn't able to take the time to see Hagia Triada or Mallia as I'd intended. I had tried to arrange a trip to Delos (via the appalling tourist hell of Mykonos) or Thera/Santorini, but the transport available in the tourism 'off season' is so limited that it would have taken about three days to make those connections, and I just can't afford that much delay. So I decided to head straight back to Athens, but I'd get some accommodation at the same time by taking an overnight ferry across.

 

The ferry was nice. I booked a single, but that's just a double bunk cabin with one empty bunk. I think I upset the porter because I refused to give him a tip. To board the ferry one walks up the gangway and then negotiates steps and corridors to get to the cashier's desk in the middle of the ship. At that point - ie. after all the hard work had been done - the porter grabbed my cases, while I was still getting keys from the cashier and after my specifically saying not to take the bags - and started walking off to take them just round the corner. No more than 20 metres. It was a repeat of the taxi-driver's chum's non-helping: but this time I wasn't going to reward their laziness, so I said thanks and shut the door while he was offering his open palm to me. Tough for him. Next time meet your clients at the gangway and earn your money.

 

Ferry cabin

From Iraklion to Piraeus

 

4/11/1996

(Monday)

 


 

 

The ferry did not provide a restful environment. The noise was such that I couldn't get to sleep until about 5 am. And I had to wake up again almost immediately anyway because we'd arrived. Clearly it is only a 10˝ hour trip and not a 12˝ hour one as the guide described it. Thus I arrived in the dark in Piraeus (the port of Athens, but a separate city.) My first concern was to drop off my bags, but that turned out not to be possible. There was a railway station somewhere around here, I knew, but it certainly wasn't obvious how to get to it. I wound up lugging bags along broken footpaths and across tracks to get to it. And when I did there were no signs to tell me where I was and there was no luggage store anyway. So I headed off to another station - I guessed I was at the 'Northern' station - but this was also unmarked and had no store. By this stage I was fed up so I went outside that station and sat on the bags for a while thinking about what to do.

 

At this point I was approached by 'John', an Englishman who was working as a tout for travel agencies. He advised me to go to Iokasta Tours. (I love these names - why would anyone want to be associated with Oedipus' mother? Anyway, I didn't see any reason why this wasn't as good an option as any other, so I took a hair-raising taxi ride in to town. (As John said, Greece is the 3rd world, it's only modern on paper.)

 

Arrived in ATHENS.

 

I hired a little Fiat Cinquecento for 3 days for about 37 kD ($NZ180). Actually getting out of town was a bit of an effort: the roads are nowhere near as well marked as the roads in Italy, and they're all in Greek script which it takes just a little bit long to read so that I've driven past the road by the time I've worked out what it is. At the same time I was trying to get used to a new left hand drive car (first time ever) and new road rules. Luckily it wasn't peak hour, but it was still busy enough. Eventually I did escape, however, and headed up highway 1. Rather nice main roads in Greece.

 

Road Map: Athens to Delphi

 

Driving through Thessaly my impression was that it was about as fertile as the Central North Island; ie. not very. It seemed awfully dry and sparsely covered.

 

My first objective was to find the ancient Mycenaean citadel of Gla. It's a little bit off the beaten track, but I thought I had fairly explicit directions to it. It's off highway E75 near the town of Kastro (very top of the map shown). Well, I tried for ages to make sense of the directions until I eventually wound up in a rhubarb patch at the end of a farm road. At that point I started reflecting to myself (in heated terms) that the Mycenaeans weren't going to put a citadel in a rhubarb patch; they're much more likely to put it on top of a hill ... like that one over there, for example...  Oh... Yes, I'd been driving around looking only at the directions and the road and hadn't thought to look up and see the very obvious Mycenaeean citadel down the road a bit. Very embarrassing.

 

Gla was huge. Far too big to walk all over. And they say there are snakes. I walked along the walls quite a bit, but most of the interior was still unexcavated, so there wasn't too much to see in there. And it was also pretty rough and overgrown. It was still pretty impressive walking about such a place, which from the size must have been of supreme importance, but of which no one knew anything. Very Ozymandian.

 

The citadel of Gla

A Mycenaean site. Formerly located upon an island in the middle of lake Copaďs.

 

Drove through Orchomenos, the city of the Minyans, originally on the shores of the Copaic lake. Nothing much remains there. I was not detained by its charms, for it had none.

 

Away from Arahova

 

By contrast , I was very much taken by the picturesque town of Arahova which I'd merely been driving through. I rather think that I would have enjoyed stopping here for a time, but, again, I had no time for it. I was heading for Delphi, and I was eager to see that sacred spot.

 

Towards Delphi

A view of the ancient pile of Delphi. Mount Parnassos is to the right. The temple is that of the Treasury of the Athenians and the columns belong to the Temple of Apollo.

 

Delphi was everything that I'd expected. I recall Kenneth Clark once said that some places like Iona and Delphi always seemed to be sensibly spiritual places. I understand what he intends by this, even if one has not a spiritual bone in one's body, one can't help but be aware of the atmosphere in the place - an atmosphere of awareness that perhaps drew the early worshippers here, or perhaps is due to the awareness one has of the site's role in history.

 

The Polygonal Wall

There are inscriptions in various scripts on the base of the column to right and on the risers of the steps. The inscriptions relate to the emancipation of slaves.

 

The Theatre at Delphi

Looking down into the valley over the Temple of Apollo. To the right is the Treasury of the Athenians.

 

The Sacred Way at Delphi

Looking down the Sacred Way to the Treasury of the Athenians. The rock to the centre right was the sanctuary of Gea and from it the Sibyl prophesied. This is the omphalos, the centre of the world.

 

I took my time in Delphi. And when I'd finished I returned to the small modern town of Delphi and took myself a rather expensive room in quite a nice hotel. Not my usual choice of accommodation. It has amazing views down the vally. For dinner I went into town and found a small place that was open quite late. I asked for a chicken and salad; when it came there was plenty of it but it wasn't very good. Half a chicken, very indifferently cooked, and a huge bowl of 'salad' which seemed to be swimming in about half an inch of olive oil. (That's an exaggeration, but not by much.)

 

Hotel Vouzas

From the hotel pamphlet. My room was exactly as shown, except without a plant. There's a little balcony attached too, with a nice little table and chairs at which to sit.

 

5/11/1996

(Tuesday)


 

The morning view from my balcony

The Gulf of Corinth can just be seen at the top. In the morning the air is very still and clear and cool and you can hear the goat bells tinkling.

 

I woke up early enough today but it was such a pleasant room and such a great view from it and from the restaurant that I stayed until after 10:15 just reading and having breakfast and lounging. Eventually, however, I did tootle off and headed for the ferry at Andirio, just past Naupactis.

 

Road Map: Delphi to Langadhia

 

The road to it was excellent and largely unused, and it gave spectacular views of the Gulf of Corinth. I would have been happy to stop and swim at one of the lonely little beaches that I could see from the road down the coastal slope, but there didn't seem to be any way to get to them. 

 

There's obviously some problem with falling rocks from the cliffs above the road. At one point I had to stop while workers were attending to an active slip. The first time they waved me on I mucked about a bit putting my map away and thus avoided being struck by rock which just then shot across the road.  There were some quite impressive tunnel-like concret covers over the road in some places, and there are miles-long stretches where the cliff sides were covered in netting. Very interesting.

 

Car Ferry

My car and the ferry it rode in on. I have just crossed the Gulf of Corinth.

 

The ferry ride from above to below was quite painless; even pleasant, and blessedly brief. From Rio the road to Olympia is OK but dull. Olympia itself surprises with the pleasantness of its environs. The ruins are dotted and enclosed by plane trees. It looks like a great place for a picnic.

 

The Palaestra at Olympia

Formerly a wrestling school.

 

The Stadium at Olympia

 

As I was walking about the stadium - very nice - I was hailed by a guard who was just being friendly. I suppose it gets pretty boring around here in the off-season. We sat and talked after a fashion for a little while. He offered me a cigarette which I had to decline. He pointed out the course of the 'sacred river Alph', the Alpheus (or one of them anyway,) which runs just behind the olympic site. It's surprising how much one can communicate even when there is no common language.

 

The ruins are impressive - and even more melancholic than usual - and would be even better if, as the guide suggests, some restoration work were done on them. I also visited the Museum, which has two outstanding pieces: the 'Hermes' of Praxiteles, and the 'Nike Descending' by Paionos. The first I found more affecting than all but the best of Michelangelo's work.

 

Langadhia

 

It was obviously too late to go to sandy Pylos, where I had hoped to see the site of Nestor's kingdom, the hearth in the palace, and perhaps some displays of Linear B tablets. InsteadI headed East across the mountains of Thessaly. I found that the road was a narrow, winding, hilly, 'back' road, and it got dark long before I'd got very far. I began to worry about where I would spend the night because the villages I was passing through were very small and had no hotels that I could see, the car was beginning to make some rather desperate noises (the brakes were not happy, ) and I imagined I could see the fuel level declining. Driving was also becoming unpleasant because it was absolutely pitch black up here. Luckily, after going up some false roads, I found a hotel, the Kentriko, in some village whose name I had to work out later. At first I thought it was Karkhalou, but now I'm pretty sure it was Langadhia. I was also pleased to find dinner there: half a chicken and some fried spuds. How exotic!

 

6/11/1996

(Wednesday)


 

Road Map: Langadhia to Athens

 

Scooted off pretty early and headed for Tripoli, where I got some money out. What a procedure! I had to speak to and deal with 5 different people before I got my money, and as part of the process I had to be escorted upstairs to a different section of the bank. I couldn't help but notice that the only machinery in the bank seemed to be (1) telephones and (2) adding machines. There were no computer terminals or any other labour saving devices. The desks were all piled high with papers. Third world indeed.

 

I should remark that the roads widened almost as soon as I got past Karkhlou. I was pilled oevr at one stage by some policemen who were apparently doing some sort of random testing or checking or whatever. I never found out because they clearly couldn't be bothered trying to communicate with a foreigner and they rolled their eyes at me and waved me on. One of them also gestured towards the brakes which were making a nasty hissing sound. I could only indicate that, yes, I'd heard that too, but what could I do about it?

 

Mycenae

View of the Lion Gate. The lions are a monumental version of the emblem of the royal house of Mycenae (the Atreidae?) Behind it is grave circle A where the 'Homeric' heroes were found by Schliemann. At the upper right is a tour bus under a tree. It is parked at the entrance to the Treasury of Atreus (Tomb of Agamemnon.)

 

Went on to golden Mycenae. I stopped for brunch in Mikenes, the little modern village that services the tourist trade there. It was pretty quiet of course, so I got very personal service from the old lady who was running the large empty restaurant that I stopped at. The main was a ghastly, unwhisked omelette, but I also had beer and a coffee and delicious warm bread. In fact, I asked for extra of that bread and butter, which she cheerfully supplied.

 

The ruins were huge, well excavated, and quite impressive. Especially the lion gate, although it hasn't come out as well in the photo as I'd have liked. I'd had high expectations of this site and they weren't disappointed. The Tomb of Clytemnaestra - a beehive-shaped underground structure - was very interesting and also impressive: more so than the Tomb of  Atreus, I felt, but that might just be becasue the latter was packed with a rowdy party of school kids (French or Swiss I think.) They weren't misbehaving, they were just being kids, but it meant the atmosphere was rather spoiled.

 

From Mycenae I went on to Tiryns, a much less obvious site, where there was just one other person also exploring the ruins. She too was paying close attention to the maps in her book. I suppose she was doing just the same sort of tour as I was, and if I'd had more courage I would have approached her - but we probably couldn't have spoken to each other anyway.

 

The Great Walls of Tiryns

The stones are positively cyclopean - their height is a good fraction of the length of a person - and the wall seems to hang over your head when you stand below it. The effect is not well captured by a photograph.

 

Epidauros

In the shadowed centre of the theatre is a tour leader demonstrating the remarkable acoustics by dropping a penny on the ground. It was perfectly audible.

 

On to Epidaurus. The temples were pretty ho-hum, but the stadium had an impressive sense of decay, because it was still recognisable even though the stones were fallen down and rolling away. Ruins generally are unrecognisable. The Theatre was brilliant, of course. It was unfortunate that the same bunch of school kids who had been a plague in Mycenae had now arrived here. They seem to be making good time!

 

I left there with the car sounding more and more sick and headed past Corinth intending to stop at Megara. Unfortunately that was a hideous brown industrial dump and I couldn't find anywhere there that I'd be prepared to stay, so I drove on at terrifying speed in the dark to Eleusis. Again, what a dump, but I'm in a hotel, the Melissa, just past the site. I thought I'd get the chance to pop in the next day, but that didn't happen.  I watched 'Sleepless in Seattle' on the TV. The place was actually a bit strange. The bathroom was all tiles with neon lights and somehow it felt and sounded just like the room in the final scenes of '2001: A Space Odyssey'.

 

The Corinth Canal

So narrow. On the other side a ship was going through and not missing the sides by much at all.

 

7/11/1996

(Thursday)

 


 

 

Map of Athens

 

Arrived in ATHENS

 

in peak hour, I think. The only signs I saw were for Omonia, and although I considered leaving the route and trying to find signs for, say, the acropolis, I gave that up as hopeless. Somehow I drove directly to Iokasta Travel - which pleased me immensely - and I dropped off the car there. They booked the Balaska for me (just up the road) and the rental guy gave me a lift to it. He didn't seem at all fazed by the dreadful noises that the brakes and the steering were now making.

 

There's a great view from my hotel roof somewhere behind all the smog. I could barely make out the Parthenon, even though it should be easily visible from this distance. Walking along the streets I kept finding myself adopting an expression of holding my nose away. Athens stinks. I walked over a fair sample of the city and it all seems to be a dirty, tatty, stinking slum. I will remember the road system, the pedestrians, the drivers, as stupid, slovenly, fat and ugly. It is an ugly, ugly place. I never want to come back here. When I returned I felt dirty, and I was dirty. In general the Greeks (the Athenians anyway) are totally disorganized and lacking all good taste. Even the women had no idea about how to dress. The current city fashion seems to call for large women to wear tight tops over torpedo-shaped too-small bras. It was an offense to the eyes. Why doesn't their plumbing work? Why does it take ž hour to get a cash advance? Etc. Well, enough of that.

 

I visited the Archaeological Museum. This had a vast acreage of stuff from many periods, and I spent quite a while here. Outstanding, I thought, were the statue of Poseidon, and the treasures of Mycenae. I saw the 'Tripod Tablet'! There were also plenty of 'melanomorph' and 'erythraeomorph' ceramics. (I don't think I've ever seen them described with those words before.) Finally, there were the 'Fleet Frescoes' from Thera. Just beautiful.

 

I also went to the Cycladic Museum. It was small and not very special as far as the exhibits went - of course, that isn't really my area of interest, so perhaps I misjudge it - but it was very informative and well set out. A pleasant surprise.

 

View of Athens

From my hotel roof looking towards the Acropolis. It may be one of those fuzzy shapes out there.

 

I walked through Sintagma (Constitution Square), which is supposedly the city's heart, but it appeared to be a tip. From there I walked through the National Gardens, which was overrun with feral cats and smelt much as you'd expect it to. At last I arrived at the Acropolis, which is a building site at the moment, and has been, apparently, for quite some time. It was very difficult to get a good angle for a photo of anything. In fact, only one of the photos turned out to be really usable. That's a pity, I guess, but it's not as if I don't have plenty of other (professionally done) pictures of the place. I wandered over this site for a while (mind the slippery marble) - still, I was pleased to find, in relative seclusion - until it became fairly late and I had to begin to walk home. I went via the Areopagus and the Pnyx (to the left of the bottom of the map shown.) I had some trouble getting out of the grounds and wound up climbing over a fence near a large locked gate. There seemed to be no signs for an exit - or the exits really were all locked up by that time. By the time I got back I was very happy to be in my hotel.

 

The Parthenon

 

8/11/1996

(Friday)

 


 

 

At about half past midnight 'today', other tourists began to arrive in the neighbouring rooms, and they then began singing. At first I was a bit annoyed by this, but I think they must have been some sort of trained group, because the singing was really very good. That was actually a very nice way to go to sleep.

 

Up at 5am, packed and caught a taxi to the airport. As a final gift from Athens the taxi driver drove like a complete idiot: he was racing the other taxi drivers at the lights and got up to about 120 in the city. Left Athens (won't miss it,) and flew home to Wellington via Heathrow #4, Heathrow #3, and Auckland. My appreciation of the modernity and cleanliness and order of Wellington has never been greater - but I'm sure that will pass.