More Greek kindness and beautiful Olympia

19 September

After arriving at Hotel Pelops last night, I’d found the number for roadside assistance and rung to ask what I should do next. They told me that as I already had the spare on the car, they couldn’t help and that I would need to ring the rental company to repair or replace the damaged wheel. I rang the rental company, and the operator said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but if you can get it fixed yourself, it will cost you less, and it will be probably done more quickly.” The difficulty was that the company had an office in Patras on the north coast of the Peloponnesos, and another at Pylos, on the south-east coast, both some hours drive from Olympia.

I went downstairs and asked the landlord if he’d be able to recommend someone to fix the car. He said to leave the key with him at breakfast time, and he’d contact someone, and that I should go to dinner and relax. I went to Zeus restaurant nearby and enjoyed beef baked in the oven in a tangy tomato sauce – and a glass of wine!

Next morning, the landlord greeted me with, “Kalimera! Are you feeling better this morning?” “A little,” I replied and gave him the key. After breakfast, he told me that the mechanic had checked it and said it was fixable. “Already!” I said. “That’s great! Thank you so much!” I had been mostly concerned that the damage to the rim may not be able to be fixed. The landlord said that the mechanic had taken the car and would fix it today and return it. “Go and have a good day,” the landlord told me. Feeling the relief flooding through me, I thanked him again, and went upstairs to shower and change.

I came back down in about 40 minutes, and the landlord handed me the key. “It’s fixed,” he said. Again I said, “Already! That’s great! Thank you so much! Efcharisto!” It cost only twenty euro, and I was back to four normal wheels again. Hallelujah! The kindness of Greeks. And efficiency!

So off I went to the ancient site and museum of Olympia. The carpark was so crowded with tour buses coming and going that parking was impossible, so I drove back to the hotel, parked in the same spot, and ambled the ten minute walk back to the site. As the site was going to be crowded with tours, I began with the Museum of the Ancient Olympian Games, which I hadn’t visited before. It’s smaller than the archaeological museum, and provides fascinating insights.

20130929-111636.jpgAthletic competition in prehistory grew from the physical competition needed to survive, to hunt food and to avoid or defeat danger. In the Greek world, it became associated with religious rites, like funeral games, and local and Panhellenic religious festivals. Olympia seems to have been a religious sanctuary dedicated to Zeus from at least the 11th century BC with the games being instituted in the 8th century BC, in 776 and continuing to 393AD, a period of 1,169 years. They took place at the second full moon after the summer solstice, which coincides with our August. They were an occasion of peace and complete truce between the often warring Greek city-states, and competitors came from all over the Greek world. A lot of diplomacy and business also took place. Women didn’t compete, and except in rare individual cases, women weren’t allowed in to watch. If they were caught sneaking in they were thrown off a nearby mountain!

One of the things I find really interesting is that long-jumpers held stone weights. I think they held them out in front to give them more forward momentum.

20130929-112048.jpgThe whole museum is dedicated to artefacts relating directly to ancient games, and they’ve been brought in from collections all over Greece and even the world. It’s a beautiful little museum, and well worth the time if you have it besides visiting the site and the archaeological museum. I then moved on to the archaeological museum, which has some wonderful exhibits, leaving the site to the quieter early evening.

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Of fallen rocks and the kindness of Greek people

18 September continued

After leaving Ancient Mantinea I continued toward Ancient Olympia. I stopped at Kapsia to look at a lovely house that may have been divided into apartments, because part of it was derelict, 20130927-200038.jpg

while the rest looked spick and span.

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The afternoon was wearing on as the air became cooler and the road narrowed and wound further into the mountains. I saw a man, a shepherd or goatherd, carrying a rough-hewn wooden crook, and wearing a long dun-coloured robe. Where it opened slightly at the bottom, below the knees, I saw that he was bare-legged and wearing shoes with no socks. His dark and greying hair was long and loosely pulled back, and his beard hung thickly to halfway down his chest. He gave me a look as I went by, which, though friendly, seemed entirely self-contained, just him, the mountains and his flock. Arkadia.

The mountains of Arkadia are beautiful. They’re also prone to rock falls. Every now and then I’d see little piles scattered on the side of the road. Suddenly, there were some on the road, with one about ten inches long and six inches high, smack in the middle of my lane. I’ve mentioned that I was driving a Suzuki Splash, and I’d already found out that they don’t don’t have much clearance underneath (see “Check before parking on the roadside to visit old tombs”). To avoid it I could go left or I could go right. Unfortunately I didn’t decide quickly enough to avoid it altogether, and my heart sank as I heard the k-chunk, felt the impact and the slight drag to one side before the car straightened. However, straighten it did, and I heaved a sigh of relief as everything seemed to settle down to normal again. However, about ten minutes later there was a definite drag to the right and a lot of rattling. Thinking, “That feels like a flat tyre,” I pulled over, and there it was. The driver’s side front wheel was completely flat, and worse, the rim had a big ding in its edge. “That’s not good,” I thought.

Outside of the car, there was a definite chill in the air. I dragged my suitcase out of the back, and lifted the floor of the boot up. No spare. I looked around. I was next to a long uphill driveway that had a taverna sign, but I couldn’t see a building. On the other side of the road was a kafenion, with an open front door and a log fire burning inside. I opted for the kafenion. The lady didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Greek, but between us, and a gentleman who was passing, we managed. The lady rang a mechanic in the next town, which was Lagkadia, and they conveyed to me that the mechanic would come soon.

20130928-002116.jpgA few minutes later a young man pulled in and they both greeted him. “Mechanic?” I asked. “Ohi, ohi (no, no)”, they answered, however they told him the trouble, and we all trooped over to the car. He seemed from his clothes to be in the army. He said, “Do you have tools?” I told him there was no spare. He lifted the floor of the boot, and then he lifted the second floor! There was the spare, and it had air in it. O frabjous day! He proceeded to change the wheel for me, and was at pains to ensure that I understood not to travel at faster than 80 kph, because this wheel “is smaller than others so it fit in bottom”.

In his website Matt Barrett’s Travel Guides, Matt Barrett advocates getting a larger car for various safety reasons when driving in Greece. I had forgotten this sage advice, and I can add a couple more reasons; the clearance from the ground, and the fact that these tiny cars come with a temporary spare only.

I wanted to pay these kind people for their time or at least buy them a drink or a coffee, but they wouldn’t accept anything but thanks, and waved me on my way with smiles and a last admonishment from the young man to “drive slow”.

At that point there was no other way I wanted to drive. The roads are so narrow and windy around Lagkadia that it took me more than two hours to drive the last seventy or so pretty much uninhabited kilometres to Olympia. I was so happy to reach Hotel Pelops and my comfortable little room.

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Where to now?

18 September

I was feeling a little lost this morning because I was checking out of Hotel Saron in Isthmia but hadn’t yet decided where I was going.

I’d been planning to go to Pylos, to visit the site known as Nestor’s Palace, which is reputedly the best preserved of all the Mycenaean sites. However, I’d seen a review on TripAdvisor when looking at hotels, that said Nestor’s Palace was closed indefinitely. I rang the Museum in Pylos, and they confirmed it, so after some deliberation, I decided on Olympia again, and booked two nights in Hotel Pelops, Olympia, a great little hotel, where I’ve stayed on both previous trips. I felt better. I had a direction.

The first part of the trip was on highway E65 which goes past Tripoli to Kalamata, and was uneventful, as highway driving tends to be. I stopped along the way to take photos of the Acrocorinth. The conical hill rises dramatically from the plain, and seen from below, the fortifications dating from ancient, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian and Turkish times are amazing.

20130926-002048.jpgI’ve loved the time on the coast, but it was great to be heading toward the mountains. The road goes through some impressive tunnels straight through the hills.

20130926-002344.jpgIt was definitely cooler and there was intermittent light rain.

After I turned off onto E55 toward Ancient Olympia via Vutina, the trip became more interesting. I saw a sign to Ancient Mantinea, only three kilometres away, and decided to see if there were remains. The site’s double gates were open so I drove in, and along a 200 metre gravel driveway. The kiosk wasn’t manned, but there were a few workmen around in bright vests and hard hats. They didn’t stop me so I began to wander over the site. There was a small but beautiful theatre, a baths, a boulefterion (council meeting house) and what looked to me like a long stoa. I was contemplating that when a young man came over and said, “Sorry, you are not allowed to take photographs.” I was surprised, as they’d allowed me to come in and wander. I asked why, but very politely, and  from real curiosity. He said it was because the site was “under construction”, and “it is the law.” I asked, “What about the ones I’ve already taken?” He giggled and said, “I don’t know.” He was very sweet, and I agreed not to take more, but I’ll keep the half-dozen I took. I won’t publish them, but will hug them to myself as a secret treasure. I’ll be interested to know when they open the site.

He confirmed that what I was looking was a stoa, and would have surrounded “the agora (market-place), it must have been the agora!” I think he was an archaeologist, or a student, and he was more excited than I was. We talked for a while, and he directed me to a few points of interest to look at before I left.

When I left, I parked across the road to look at a church, Agia Foteini, built in a sort of Byzantine style, but as I walked around the outside I began to feel that it looked rather more like a copy of a Byzantine church, weirdly mixed with an Addams Family type castle.

20130926-003649.jpgSmall buildings in the grounds were perhaps memorials, but looked like neo-classical follies at an 18th century English manor.

20130926-003831.jpg I found a garden where a hedge had been grown in the shape of the church name, followed by the number 1934. There was also a memorial stone with the same date. As I looked at all the bits and pieces that had been used in the buildings and even the surrounding pavements, I thought, with some rancour, “I bet they filched the building materials from the ancient site to build this.”

As I was leaving, a local guy who was there with some friends confirmed that it had been built in 1934. Then he said, gesturing towards the ancient site of Mantinea, “They took all the stones from over there.”

Damn them! I bloody knew it!

Lost pencils and ravening lions

17 September

Lost my pen in the garden yesterday. Well it’s a pencil really, because I prefer pencils, but it looks like a pen and that’s what everyone calls it who sees it. Everyone who works with me knows how attached I am to my orange pencils. I’ll have a look for it when I get back this afternoon from the sanctuary of the Nemean Games at Ancient Nemea.

The games were Panhellenic and were held every two years. While mainly athletic, they also included musical and theatrical contests. There was no town here in ancient times; only the sanctuary existed, containing priests’ houses, a guest house for visiting dignitaries and athletes, a bath complex, practice areas, the stadium and a temple to Zeus. Earlier 6th century buildings were destroyed and the existing temple of Zeus was built around 330BC. When philhellenes began to take notice of it in the 1800s, including English poet Edward Lear, it had only three columns standing, but American archaeologists and students have reconstructed six more since the 1970s.

20130923-174538.jpgIt looks beautiful. There are loads more column drums lying grouped, and they along with other huge stones have numbered metal tags on them, against the time more reconstruction might be done.

The stadium is about 500m away. The athletes prepared themselves in a special room, and then entered the stadium through a 36m long vaulted tunnel. It must have been quite similar to seeing the footballers enter from under the grandstand as they do today.

20130923-174747.jpgThere are quite a few bits of the tunnel where the athletes scratched their names in the stone.

20130923-174913.jpgNemea is famous in myth as the area that Herakles saved from the Nemean lion, a creature not of normal progeniture, that was ravaging, killing herd animals and people. Herakles had to kill the lion as the first of his twelve labours. First he tried shooting it, but the arrows couldn’t pierce its skin, then he tried beating it with a cudgel, but the lion escaped. Herakles tracked it down in a cave, and strangled it to death.

Driving back from Nemea, I saw a rusty old sign pointing to a Temple of Herakles, so I turned down the dusty little track and found it.

20130923-175129.jpgI love lucky finds like that, off the beaten track and not part of the normal tourist trail.

Back at the hotel, I had a swim in the sea, and then went to see if my pencil might still be where I’d been sitting. An elderly lady sitting there saw me looking and said, “Stylo?” (See? Pen.) “Oui” I replied, (pronouncing it “way”, because I’ve seen French Kiss with Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan). “Voila!” Says she, producing it from her bag, to which I of course replied “Merci, merci beaucoup.” School French came in handy at last! It only took 40 years.

No antiquities Monday

16 September

A grey cloudy day. I’m ridiculously surprised, but I guess even Greece has to have them.

20130921-185707.jpg It’s not cold though, only pleasantly cool, and when the sun squeezes through, the heat seems intensified by the prism of the clouds. No swimming for me today! I have to be hot, and preferably so does the water, or at least warm, before I swim. I enjoyed my dip yesterday evening at the little beach in front of the hotel.

Museums and antiquities are closed today, so I spent a bit of time blogging, trying to catch up. I decided in the afternoon to look for the northern submersible bridge. I didn’t find it, but I found something else – a place where you could, if you were insane, walk right up to the edge of the Corinth Canal, at its highest point above the water, and look over the edge. Eek! I felt sick. I couldn’t go any closer than about a metre to the edge and hold my camera out at arm’s length.

20130921-190822.jpg 90 metres, straight down! And no fences, signs, handrails, anything! One thing Greece is not, is a nanny state. If you’re dumb enough to fall, well, you shouldn’t have been there!

Thinking, “I shouldn’t be here!” I left, to seek the safety of, well, anything really.

I found a bridge over the Canal, thronged with people, because a ship was just about to pass underneath. Ships are pulled through the canal by tug-boats. When you see the clearance they have at the sides, you can see that it might be easier to only have to worry about steering, rather than maintaining power as well.

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You can’t see the tug in this because it’s hidden by the front end of the ship, but it’s there.

20130921-191941.jpg Last night I had dinner in the hotel but didn’t enjoy it at all – buffet style for all the fully catered tourists, French and Eastern European. I decided to have a late, but substantial lunch today, and get some takeaway or something to have in my room tonight. There was a taverna catering to all the tourists at the bridge, but I hadn’t quite sated my Canal fascination, and drove back to the submersible bridge at Isthmia again. This time I graced the other taverna with my custom, and had pork souvlaki and Greek salad, as they didn’t have an extensive menu, and a glass of house white. Not special, but satisfying, especially as I got to watch the bridge in action and a couple of ships pass through.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a bakery to stock up for my evening meal. A Greek bakery is filled with piles, and I mean big piles of innumerable biscuits and breads of an incredible variety. I decided to stay away from the sweet stuff though, and bought a bread roll with olives, and a little bun with a baby frankfurt in it. Unfortunately as I was leaving I espied several types of baklava, caved in, and asked for a piece. The lovely lady gave it to me for free, “for taste”, and wouldn’t accept any money for it. How lovely.

Later in the evening, when I got peckish, I started on the olive roll. I ate about half, but found the bread itself too sweet, so tried the “sausage inna bun” (for Terry Pratchett fans). It was sweeter still! I couldn’t eat it either. Several Greek breads and rolls I’ve tried are too sweet for my taste. Well, if I’m after savoury anyway.

But the baklava! The baklava was gooooooooood! Might need another of those tomorrow night I think …

Marathonas to Isthmia – easy!

14 September

If you read my blog of 13 September, “Don’t flip the bird at a Greek driver”, you’ll know that I intended to go back to Vravronas to try to see through the Museum properly before heading off to my next stop.

Well, I decided against it. One day I’ll go back, when the site opens again and I can see the lovely temple of Artemis as well as the Museum. To tell the truth, I hadn’t been looking forward to trying to find it again.

I had decided to go to Isthmia, which isn’t well known on the tourist trail, at least among Australians it seems. I had booked into King Saron Hotel. I was a bit worried that I’d somehow get on the wrong road and end up having to find my way through Athens traffic, which I’ve done the last two times I’ve tried to bypass Athens. Luckily for me it all went according to plan, and it was incredibly easy to find the hotel when I arrived in Isthmia too.

The hotel was a lovely surprise. I’d booked a sea view room, which was only a few euros more than the other option. The room was nice and the view from my room and balcony was brilliant.

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I like to eat at local tavernas rather than at hotels so asked what tavernas were in walking distance. The receptionist told me there were two, and recommended I go to the second one. When I arrived at 7:30 there were people eating, but the waiter told me they were closed from 6pm to 9pm, so I headed back to the other one. They had skordalia on the menu, which I love and you don’t always find, so I ordered that and a Greek salad. I chose a table overlooking the beach and was enjoying my meal when the breeze came up … and up … and UP! It wasn’t long before it was blowing so hard that I had to give up. However, I wasn’t giving up the skordalia, so I grabbed the last couple of pieces of bread and spread, no, lathered skordalia between them, paid, and left. Incredibly, as soon as I was away from the water the breeze was non-existent.

Skordalia, by the way, is a potato and garlic dip. This one didn’t seem to have much potato, but it certainly had a lot of garlic. Yum! “Good thing I’m travelling alone,” I thought.

Walking ancient streets in Rhamnous

12 September Today I walked the streets of the C5th BC town of  Rhamnous perched high above the sea on the north-east coast of Attica. It seems quite remote, although not very far from the village of Marathon. On the way I passed through a lot of countryside that had been burnt, some of it right up to the fences of houses, where it had shrivelled the shrubs and trees overhanging from the gardens. It must have been frightening for the people. Today however, nothing more unusual happened than having to stop to allow a tortoise to cross the road. (“There’s good eating on one of those.” Small Gods by Terry Pratchett) It was good to see him make it safely across. 20130916-215115.jpg It must have been quite a well to do place, with two ports, one just north and one just south of where the town reached down the cliff to the sea. The family burial chambers along the entrance road are still impressive, with smoothly dressed stone and marble walls twice my height. I stood at the terrace by the temple to the goddess Nemesis, looking at the beautiful view to the ocean and thought of Pausanias’ story that the statue of the goddess had been carved from the very piece of marble that the Persians had brought to set up as their trophy for their expected victory at Marathon. The goddess punished them for their hubris – big-time! I was very respectful when walking around the ruins of that temple! I continued down the steep stony path, brushing against dry prickly bushes, thinking about how long it would take me to get back up the hill, and wondering if one bottle of water was enough. I came into a small clearing in the bushes and saw the ruins of the town within reach now, across a gully and up the next hillside. The Greeks certainly knew how to choose a site. 20130916-221641.jpg I walked down the gully and up the hillside entering through the remains of the fortress which had housed an Athenian garrison permanently stationed there to guard the sea route between Attika and Euboea. 20130916-223234.jpg The view was wonderful from the town. I wondered how the residents carried trade goods up and down from the ports. Perhaps there’s more of the town as yet uncovered. 20130916-225742.jpg I could feel my pulse throbbing in my head on the way back up. When I reached the temples I rested in the shade finishing my water and recovering from the climb. I got chatting with the young guy in the entrance kiosk. He was very congenial, but frustrated and angry about the government, saying they care little for the antiquities, and less about the people. He loves Greece but wishes for a better future, for himself and the country. It seems there’s so much of this sort of feeling. It’s sad. I called in to one of the cafes at Marathon Beach for a coffee and to use their free wifi. The Golden Beach resort charges 5€ for two hours, which is scandalous. At the beach though, I can use it for as long as I like, and enjoy the view, for the price of a coffee. Bargain! 20130916-231516.jpg