Monday April 17, Olympia by way of Arcadia

One of the consistent characteristics of the bus tour is the opportunity to shop. In almost every location the bus stops at a place which is "the best for ...", in this case jewellery and statuary. Such stops usually take up an hour or so. Our presumption is that the goods are or reliable quality, at a price not too high, but one that allows a certain commission for the tour company and/or the guide. It is a reasonable deal for all concerned, if so. At this particular stop, there was a big dog that looked like a cross between a dalmatian and a St. Bernard. It was very thin, but looked happy.

The first part of the westward drive was through dramatic semi-mountains, largely covered with olive trees, but with many red-buds in full bloom, making the whole thing very beautiful, but hard to capture on film from a moving bus. On the other side of the final pass, we entered the land of Arcadia (really!). Arcadia was greener and more agricultural than the eastern side of the mountains, and was quite lovely. The mountains here were less dramatic, but equally demanding on the bus brakes.

For a coffee break, we stopped at Megalopolis, in a valley of the Arcadian hills. On the main plaza there is a monument that looks at first like a war memorial, but on closer inspection it turns out to be a sad woman with her head on her hand and a laurel across her lap. She is mourning the Greeks massacred by the Nazis in a nearby village, in one of their reprisals for some guerrilla activity.

From Megalopolis, we continued westward to the Ionian Sea coast, and then north to Olympia (which is nowhere near Mt. Olympus).

Olympia was both interesting and pretty, as the site is full of red-buds that were in full bloom, making a nice contrast with the ruins, especially around the Palaestra where the athletes practiced for the Olympic Games. Nearby, there is a large Temple of Zeus that had survived for about 1000 years before being destroyed in an earthquake around 700 AD. The basic pillar and lintel construction of the Greek temples is very susceptible to earthquake damage, as one can see from the remains of all the columns lying side by side on the ground. The temple must have been very impressive when it was in good condition.

Olympia: the Palaestra
Olympia: Earthquake-toppled columns of the Temple of Zeus
The original Olympic Stadium. The stone strip across the floor is grooved to make starting blocks. There were no seats on the banks.

The entry-way into the Olympic stadium is a passage through a tunnel. The path to the tunnel was once lined with statues to Olympic champions. There were also statues noting disgraced athletes who had been caught cheating! The stadium is rather longer than a modern one, the straight running track being perhaps 200m. There are no seats, except for a judges' dais in the middle of one side. People had to sit or stand on the grassy banks. The starting blocks are still there, a line of stone with grooves for the toes. In the stadium, our guide, Poupie, had us all hold hands in a ring and state our names and nationalities as a symbol of the Olympic ideal of peace. But whereas all the other nationalities said what country they came from, the US people didn't. They gave their home state name, presumably assuming that everyone would know "Nebraska" meant "USA."

We stayed again at another Amalia hotel with an enormous echoing marble lobby. At dinner we found that our table-mates were on their fifth Globus tour, all of which they have found most enjoyable. Later, we found that many of the people on the tour had been on several previous Globus tours, and nobody had anything bad to say about them.

Tuesday April 18, Delphi

We had to get up at 6:00 because the site at Delphi closed at 14:30, and it is a long drive from Olympia. At first, the bus followed the coastal plain, as flat as the prairie near Winnipeg, along the Ionian Sea. The flat agricultural landscape was quite a contrast to yesterday's mountains, and to the terrain we were to see in the afternoon. We took a ferry across the Gulf of Corinth near Patras, where it is said St. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross. There is a big Byzantine church on the spot.

Ready to cross the Gulf of Corinth. Click to see a scrolling panorama from Patras ferry dock.

The road along the north shore of the Gulf is quite spectacular. It clings to cliffs, and goes up and over, or around headlands and bays, always with the deep blue Gulf and the misty mountains on the far side. Eventually we caught sight of Mt. Parnassus across a bay. Delphi is on the slopes of the mountain, about 1000m (3000 ft) up, but before getting there we passed through the plain at the head of the bay, which is one enormous olive orchard (forest?).

To get up to Delphi, the bus had to negotiate some pretty tight hairpins along the side of a deep valley, and one place where the road looped over itself. Eventually we reached the village of Delphi, through which the bus had to squeeze with rather small clearances in order to get to the ancient site. Once we were there, we went first to the museum, which was so crowded with tour groups as to be absolute chaos. Poupie got quite mad with a couple of the other tour directors, but eventually we were able to get through the crowds and see the sculptures and friezes.

The setting at Delphi. The buildings are set on a steep hillside, with the stadium at the top. The oracle was probably in the Temple of Zeus
In the arms of Mt. Parnassus, the stadium at Delphi, where they held the Pythian Games, which were similar to the old Olympic Games at Olympia.

The site itself is set on a hillside that is much higher and steeper than the usual photographs would lead one to believe. The context is very spectacular, with the mountain behind and the deep valley in front. The valley has not only the green of olives, but also the pink red-buds, again in full bloom, as contrast. There are actually two sites, one lower down and a bit further up the valley, dedicated to Athena. You can see it in the background of the middle picture above.The temple there has twice been destroyed by rock falls from the grey and gold cliffs above.

The main site is based around a largish temple to Zeus (nowhere as large as the one in Olympia), in which the Oracle probably operated. On the way up to the temple, the path zigzags past what were small temples or treasuries for the different Greek cities, as well as a wall on which is inscribed the names of over 800 slaves who had been freed as dedications to the oracle over the years. The Athenian treasury is being restored, but the others are being kept as excavated. Above the Zeus Temple is a small theatre, and high above that, at the foot of the cliffs of Mt Parnassus, is the stadium where they held the Pythian Games. Unlike the Olympic Stadium, where the audience stood or sat on grassy banks with a judges' dais in the middle of one side, this one has several rows of seats along the sides, and the judges' dais is at the end shown in the picture.

After lunch we went further up the valley to a village that specialized in carpet making. With Poupie's help, we bought one with a "Noah's Ark" design. We had to carry that with us for the rest of our holiday, and it was quite heavy, although tightly folded and wrapped. Later, in Turkey, we bought a killim (a kind of throw rug) in a very similar design.

The hotel, another Amalia, had a fine setting, looking down the valley to the sea. In fact, we said at the time that it would be hard to imagine a finer setting, but we had to amend that when we got to our hotel in Santorini. The moon was full and the night clear, which seems appropriate for Delphi!

The evening view down to the Gulf of Corinth from our hotel room in Delphi. Click to see a scrolling panorama


Wednesday April 19, Meteora

The terrain became more striking each day. This morning we crossed two mountain ranges, hairpinning up and down, overlooking deep valleys, some with small towns or villages at the botton. Always there were sweeping vistas, sometimes with snow-capped peaks in the distance. They are not big mountains, but are somewhere between the Scottish Highlands and the Alps. They are lovely, with plenty of variation in the rock formations.

The priest painting icons, which he would bless for a small extra charge.

Before lunch, but after we got out of the mountains onto a plain, we stopped at an icon factory where a priest and three assistants painted and put gold leaf on icons for sale. For a small extra charge, the priest would write a personal blessing on the back, which was authentic, because he was an ordained (Orthodox) priest. To help the atmosphere, extra strong ouzo and Turkish Delight were provided for sampling.

The rock formations on which the Meteora monasteries are built, seen from Kalambaka
A monastery (from the Meteora visiting ticket).

We took lunch in the village of Kalambaka, in the shadow of the cliffs on which the Meteora monasteries are built. The rocks have eroded into chimneys as well as longer cliffs, and several of the original monasteries have been partially destroyed as the cliffs erode away from below them. The rocks themselves are interesting. They are layered, sometimes with small stones or sand, sometimes with big rocks and stones, as if they had been laid down in a sea or lake at the foot of mountains down which torrential floods occasionally coursed.

The monasteries themselves are not as interesting as the fact that they exist where they do, on pinnacles of rock. Now there are stairs and bridges to access them (we visited two), but in the old days supplies and people had to be hauled up in a basket. The winch is still there in one of the monasteries we visited. Apparently over the whole set of monasteries, there are about 65 monks and nuns still living there.

The drive up to the monasteries was a bit scary, with tight hairpins around the cliffs, but the drive down was easy, as it went by the evenly sloped back side of the cliff system. The hotel was another Amalia with a big marble lobby, just outside Kalambaka.

Thursday April 20, Return to Athens (by way of Thermopylae, Thebes, and Marathon)

We had a late start because all we had to do was to return to Athens, mostly by a motorway along the east coast. As we passed Larissa, I noted two big carpet factories. On the trip, we stopped at the monument to the Spartans and Thespians who fought the battle of Thermopylae against the Persians. "Thermopylae" means "Warm gates" because there was a hot spring there, and the place at that time formed a narrow coastal plain between the high mountain and the sea. It was a gate to Attica. Later, we bypassed Thebes, which is now a modern city with few antiquities, but it has an old history, told in the ancient tragedies around Oedipus and his family. Finally, we passed, but did not stop at, Marathon, where the battle was fought in which the Athenians defeated the Persians, and the soldier ran to Athens with the news.

Athens from the Lykabettos Hill, over the Akropolis toward Piraeus

Once in Athens, we checked in again at the Novotel, and then went for a walk. We stopped in at a Web Cafe and opened a Yahoo account to send mail to some people back home. Then we walked up the Lykabettos Hill, which is the highest point in Athens. It was a bit hazy, but we could see the Akropolis, with Pireus and the Saronic Gulf in the distance.

Friday April 21, Athens, Piraeus

We had a late morning and a very slow bus ride to the Akropolis. There was a huge crowd entering and leaving, but somehow Poupie managed to keep the group together while she guided us in her usual interesting way. A big construction crane is inside the Parthenon because it is being restored, and one can no longer go inside, as I had in my previous visit to Athens, in 1963. The Parthenon had been in reasonably good shape until it was blown up when ammunition was stored in it in one of the wars with the Turks in the 17th or 18th century.

The crowd at the entrance to the Akropolis. It is a popular site to visit, but there is plenty of room when one gets inside.
The Erechtheion: a temple to many gods. The olive tree in front of it was supposed to be where Athena touched her foot to the ground when she took Athens under her protection.
The Parthenon, destroyed only relatively recently when it was used as an ammunition storage place in the 1700's, is being restored, and has a construction crane inside.

After the Akropolis, we were left to our own devices. We went across to the Pnyx, where the first democratic assemblies were held. Then, after a light lunch outside it, we visited the Ancient Agora.

The Pnyx, where the first democratic assemblies were held. The conical hill at left, beyond the Akropolis, is the Lykabettos Hill.

The Ancient Agora, with modern Athens stretching away to the hills in the north.The Hephaestion is at the left, the Stoa of Atticus is the long red-roofed building in the middle right. Click to see them better in a large image.


Agora: the Hephaestion, a small, well preserved temple. The columns in the foreground are of a stoa.
The Portico of the Stoa of Atticus, where Socrates talked to Plato and Plato to Aristotle.
Ostracon. It reads "Socrates: Anagorasios"

The Agora was full of poppies in full bloom, which made it quite pretty. There is a small temple to Hephaestos in pretty good repair, but most of the rest is just footings of buildings, except for the Stoa of Atticus, which has been rebuilt to look as close as possible to the way it was when Socrates talked to Plato, and Plato to Aristotle. It was an eerie feeling to be walking and talking where they did!

In the museum, there was an ostracon of Socrates, which I was given permission to photograph using a flash. An ostracon is a voting tablet. Each year the citizens wrote the name of someone on a convenient surface such as a piece of broken pottery, and threw it into an urn. The one with the most votes was ostracised and never allowed to enter Athens again. Someone had not liked Socrates, and voted for him.

Pireus. A marina, with the main harbour in the distance.
The Dionysos restaurant. Later we saw the floodlight display.

In the late afternoon we went on a bus tour of Pireus, guided this time by Lynda rather than Poupie, but the bus driver was still Zachos, who demonstrated several times his exact knowledge of the width of the bus.

Pireus is a port town, but there are many nice views of pretty harbours and marinas. We also saw the remains of the Periclean walls that were supposed to allow Athens to be provisioned from Pireus while under siege by the Spartans (it didn't work because the ships also brought the Plague). We wound up having dinner at the Dionysos restaurant at the foot of the Akropolis, with a wonderful view as the floodlighting changed.

Pireus from the air, with Athens in the background. The marina shown above is in the centre-right foreground.

The next day, April 22, we flew to Heraklion, Crete, but we had a final view of Pireus as we climbed out of Athens airport..


Continue the holiday in Crete