Thessaloniki – August 2015

I’m having breakfast in the breakfast room at Plaza Hotel, Thessaloniki. Every time I think of the hotel I begin to hear Ian Moss singing the Cold Chisel song. This is a nice hotel though, not like the one in the song. The rooms and furnishings are comfortable, with original paintings. Although the bones of the building are old, the bathroom fittings are new. The staff are kind and sweet. This morning, the waitress handed me my big mug without my asking for one. If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know I can’t be having with the little cups that are ubiquitous in hotels.

I had about €80 with me from my trip in 2013, and I’d forgotten to get cash from the ATM at Athens airport. During the night I’d woken feeling a bit nervous because I had only about €40 left after the taxi and dinner, so I knew it had to be my first priority. That and a SIM card.

DSC06715I got directions in the morning from the receptionist and within five minutes found a plethora of imposing looking banks. Terry Pratchett correctly makes the observation that banks are always built to look like temples.
While all Greek banks don’t necessarily have columns, they frequently resemble Neo-classic type mansions. Happily, there are plenty of ATMs and contrary to what people in Australia believe because of the horror media stories, mine happily dispensed €600 without a blink.

Next for the SIM card. I followed my receptionist’s directions and while she didn’t know the name of the shop, I recognised the Germanos sign from a distance. It’s really cheap in Greece compared to Australian roaming, and definitely the way to go. For a month’s worth of calls, texts and 1.5 Gb of data, as well as the card, it was €17, or about $26.50. I pay $40-50 a month at home, without paying for the SIM card. A tip in case you decide to do this. You must take your passport with you as a security measure to buy a Greek number. Some people may have a problem with this but I don’t.

My fiscal wherewithal and communications sorted, and with them my feelings of security, I set out in search of the ancient architectural beauties of Thessaloniki.

There are churches. Many churches. Grandiose Byzantine structures, massive, beautiful, well kept and still actively used. While looking at them, I saw people of all ages lighting candles and kissing icons. DSC06586While the history of churches can be interesting, if you know me, you’ll know that they’re not nearly old enough to captivate me for long.

I wandered off to look at the triumphal Arch of Galerius, a Roman governor and later Emperor, who died, as many did, prematurely and horribly.

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The arch is illustrated with his defeat of the Persians, and is impressive even now.

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I found the Palace complex, which looked well kept, but was locked, with a sign saying it was open Monday to Thursday. I thought this was odd, as most ancient sites are open Tuesday to Sunday, and only closed on Mondays. I was able to look down on it from the perimeter but I like to read interpretive signs, or even simple labelling of the buildings to fully appreciate a site. The signs were there, but out of reach.

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Nearby are the ruins of the Octagon, part of the palace complex, in which can be seen from the street above the remains of extensive mosaic floors. It too was locked, the province at the moment of only a couple of cats.DSC06517

Ancient computers and packing hats

30 September 2013

I bought a box to pack Connal’s hats in this morning. Walked for over an hour the other day looking for one without luck, and 40 minutes this morning, and it turned out after various directions in back streets to be around the corner from the hotel. Less than two minutes to get back and it only cost 50 cents! Bargain!

I also found the walk-over excavations in Monastiraki station. I’d been thinking it was in Omonia, but it’s in Monastiraki, basically my backyard, all the time. I really should have twigged earlier, because there’s a big skylight down to it in Monastiraki Square. To see them you go to the Kifissia platform, where I went today because I was heading to Victoria station to visit the National Archaeological Museum. Yes, that’s my ancient stuff visit for today, to see the museum again, which is fantastic, but to also see the Antikythera Mechanism exhibition, finds from an ancient shipwreck discovered off Antikythera, which Connal and I missed by a month last year. DSC06100The mechanism is thought to be a type of computer or calculator – only 2000 odd years old! The workmanship and tools required to make it are extremely advanced. The link above provides loads of information. There are many other finds from the shipwreck, including this larger than life-size arm of a boxer.

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I can only imagine the damage that boxing with this type of wrapping would do to both the boxer and boxed.

DSC06065After getting out of the Metro at Victoria, I did my usual trick of turning left instead of right, adding a few blocks to an already considerable walk. (Have I mentioned before that I’m directionally challenged?) Hot, sweaty and a little weary I decided to rest and fortify myself before going into the museum, which, handily on Mondays, is open till 8pm, rather than closing at 3pm as it does the rest of the week. I ordered a cappuccino. The jug of cold water and the croissant are gratis. Another thing I love about Greece – if you order a coffee or tea, it comes to the table with a jug of cold water and a small cake or two.

On my walk down (and up!) 28 October Street earlier, I’d noticed a heavy police presence, complete with riot shields, mostly standing around chatting, and their bus. They were in khaki rather than blue, as was the bus, so perhaps they’re national rather than city police. Whatever they were waiting for must have begun, because the bus just went by, lights blazing and siren wailing. I could sit here all day watching the life of the city, but it’s time I made a move into the museum.

A surprise concert

27 September

On and around the Acropolis all day. I did it the old way, walking up there from the hotel, and climbing the sacred way in the sunshine. There was a small orchestra rehearsing in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the lovely music drifted up to the climbers. I and many others stopped to listen, and applauded at the end of each piece. DSC05855It’s the only performance in the Odeon that I’ve seen, and all the more enjoyable for being unexpected. Eventually the rehearsal ended, and I floated rather than walked the rest of the way to the summit.

I walked all day. My feet were complaining loudly towards the end, so I shut them up with a double ice cream. On returning to the Attalos I went to the roof bar to relax and write, and gaze again at the Acropolis. Eventually I went out to dinner after 8:30 at a taverna called Iridanos on Adrianou, below the Temple of Hephaistion. Delicious Greek salad and another wonderful view for 5 euro!

The Acropolis Museum

26 September 2013

Slept in this morning and eventually wandered off to the Acropolis Museum, taking the Metro from Monastiraki. During the construction of the Acropolis Metro station southern parts of the ancient and medieval city were unearthed, establishing human habitation from the end of the third millennium BC. Simple houses from the second half of the fourth century were excavated, with wells, sometimes more than one in a house, for drinking water, and underground cisterns to collect rainwater for household needs. Under the whole area is a dense network of clay pipes that carried waste from houses and workshops to underground sewers. Another huge excavation is in progress under the massive entrance of the Acropolis Museum, with a promise that when excavations are complete visitors will be able to walk among the remains of the ancient neighbourhood, while an exhibition of the finds will be mounted in the museum. You can look down from the entrance walk into the excavations.

Another huge excavation is in progress under the massive entrance of the Acropolis Museum, with a promise that when excavations are complete visitors will be able to walk among the remains of the ancient neighbourhood, while an exhibition of the finds will be mounted in the museum. You can look down from the entrance walk into the excavations.

DSC05787They seem to go quite a way under the museum. It will be great to come back in a year or two.

Inside the entrance is a series of models showing the development of the Acropolis from around 1200 BC, when it was basically a hill, fortified with a Cyclopean wall, similar to those at Mycenae and Tyrins, with the palace in the centre of the plateau, through all stages to the end of the Byzantine era.

DSC05813Also here is the silver cup awarded as a prize to Spyros Louis, the winner of the 1896 Marathon, displayed with a fascinating photo of three of the runners. Amazing to compare modern athletes, with their coaches, running shoes, uniforms and bibs, with these runners, probably untrained, barefoot and in their everyday clothes.

Five of the six Karyatides are housed in the museum, where they’re sheltered from the depredations of weather and pollution. The sixth of course is in the British Museum, where it’s been since its theft by Lord Elgin. Those we see on the Acropolis, holding up the porch of the Erechtheion, are copies. One of the five originals was undergoing preservation work, and was modestly hidden inside a sort of fabric dressing room.

DSC05838 It’s great to be able to see them close up, and appreciate the intricate carving of their hair and the draped folds of their robes.

There’s also a beautiful bust of a youthful Alexander, which I love, probably carved from life 340 – 330 BC, which would be around the time that Phillip sent Alexander as his envoy to Athens.

The top floor of the museum replicates the design of the Parthenon, its marble columns replaced by shining steel poles, and the remaining sculptures interspersed with plaster copies of the missing Parthenon marbles, holding their places for when they’re returned.

DSC05833It’s a brilliant concept, showing just how magnificent it was. Through floor to ceiling windows, you look out to the Acropolis, and the real Parthenon.

I had a late lunch at the museum’s balcony restaurant. Most meals in Greece are enormous, because they’re made for sharing. Lunch however was a potato salad and smoked trout just big enough for one – and delicious. While I ate, I could look up at the Acropolis, and also back at its reflection in those huge windows.

A quiet afternoon in Athens

25 September 2013

I came across the little church of Agia Aikaterini on Galanou Street. The surprise was the lower courtyard, which revealed excavated ruins. I love the way you find this sort of thing in Athens, just wandering around. I’m reminded of a Terry Pratchett line, “What Ankh-Morpork is built on is mostly Ankh-Morpork.” So it is with Athens. From the street I looked down onto pavements and columns. The capitals of the columns were almost at my eye level. The excavations continued into caverns below the street.

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The taxi drivers hanging around chatting and smoking didn’t know anything about the site’s history, so I guess I’ll look it up. One day.

The police had been out in force for one of the scheduled demonstrations, but there hadn’t been any trouble. I saw these guys taking a break on Ermou Street and they kindly allowed me to take photos.

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I’m always amazed at the way the police travel in Greece. When they’re just doing normal patrols, they ride around in pairs on a little motor bike, but when trouble’s expected they drive around en masse in buses, with heavy weapons and riot shields. I think these guys were happy to be having a quieter afternoon than expected.

No electricity in all Pylos, Madam!

23 September 2013

After the Museum I went to Niokastro (new castle) which wasn’t closed for conservation, or closed because of any danger. It was in fact, open! Of course it’s not old enough for my preference, having been built in the 1500’s under the Ottoman empire, then upgraded by the Venetians, but it was still quite fun. The picturesque old walls of the town, which led up to the castle, run alongside the road.

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The heat was relieved by a light rain in the afternoon – a novelty in Greece during summer – but a storm brewed up in the evening.

The thunder and lightning continued throughout the night, and at some point I was awoken by a loud bang. That’ll be the electricity, I thought, and tried the bedside lamp. Then the room lights. As I suspected. I unplugged my camera and iPad, which I’d had charging, in case it suddenly came back on, then went back to sleep.

This morning there was still no electricity, and in case it was only my room (did I mention the dodgy wiring?), I mentioned it to the man in reception. He snapped, “No electricity in your room, no electricity in all Pylos, Madam!” Hmm, could be a good day to move on …

“Ok, but there’ll still be some cold breakfast, even if there’s no tea,” I thought, feeling a mild panic begin to rise. Have I mentioned my tea addiction? I need tea, especially in the mornings.

As I entered, the waitress giggled at my bare feet, then surprised me by handing me my customary large mug! “There’s hot water? But how?” I asked, excited. “Ne, ne (yes,yes),”she smiled, waving generally out the back. “Cars,” she said. Some sort of portable generator, then. How clever. And thank goodness!

Off to … somewhere today. My last night before handing the car back at the airport then back to Athens for my last week. No electricity, so no wifi, so no booking possible. I think I’ll just drive and see where I get to. I’m considering Hotel Saron at Isthmia again; it’s nice, I can have a swim, and the wifi is ubiquitous and strong!

Pylos

21 September 2013

I’m sitting in the breakfast room at Hotel Miramare, Pylos, looking out at the beautiful serene little harbour. There’s a pretty cruise ship anchored and small boats are ferrying back and forward, bringing passengers to tour the town. The horrible boys have gone, and suddenly the wifi, which is only available in public areas, works! I could sit here all day, however there are two castles to look at and I need to move.

I first tackled the Paleocastra (old castle), and in true Greek fashion, cheerfully ignored the sign at the bottom, warning of danger. As I climbed higher, regretting having only one bottle of water with me, my innate caution began to reassert itself. I completely chickened out after about halfway, having managed to get this view of the castle.

DSC05366The views of the bay on the way back down were lovely – Homer’s “sandy Pylos”, perhaps where Telemachus came ashore to ask Nestor for news of his father, Odysseus. The view from the castle itself must have been spectacular.

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On the drive back to Pylos to visit the archaeological museum, I happened across another Mycenaean tholos tomb in a farmer’s olive field. It was undeveloped, but recognisable, and amazingly, just right there!

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The museum was great, featuring many finds from the Palace of Nestor, which has unfortunately been closed for conservation for some time.  In museums I’m always fascinated with sculptures and paintings from ancient times, knowing that I’m looking at someone who was alive 2000 odd years ago, or in the case of this beauty, even longer.

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Looks pretty good for 3000 years old, doesn’t she?

South to Pylos, and the importance of wifi

20 September

Another quick decision about where to go. This morning I decided to make my way south to Pylos, despite the Mycenaean palace of Nestor being closed till 2015. I hadn’t been there before, there’s plenty to see, including two medieval castles in Pylos itself, and another in Methone, about 20 minutes drives from Pylos, and it has an interesting history. Decision made, I went on-line and booked three nights in Pylos in a waterfront hotel. The internet has made travel so easy now. I tend to use Booking.com because I’ve almost always found a great place with all the features I’ve wanted. There are other sites though that are just as good. I have a friend who uses Air BnB, and has travelled all over France and Italy using it. She’s also used it to find places for us to stay in New Zealand when we go to compete in archery tournaments there. The internet has put the power into our hands, and I love that.

So after having a chat with Alkis at Hotel Pelopsabout Olympia, the Olympic Games and other things, and thanking Mr Spiliopoulis again for his help with the car, I set off southwards to Pylos. There were no further mishaps with the car, and apart from taking the scenic route once or twice when the main road wasn’t obvious, everything went pretty smoothly. As I drove through the town of Kyparissia, I noticed the ruins of a fortress on the hill-top. As I was making pretty good time, I decided to try to turn off and have a look at it. As always when you climb a hill towards an old acropolis, the streets got narrower as I got higher, and at one point I had to reverse down-hill out of a dead-end. There’d been one sign pointing up-hill from the main road but no others and, probably somewhat chastened by my recent car mishaps, I gave up after 20 minutes or so. I managed to get a couple of photos from about half-way up. Apparently the ruins are of a Frankish fortress, but I don’t know any more than that.

20131002-005444.jpgIt seemed to take ages to get to Pylos from Kyparissa, much longer than the time advised by Google maps. I don’t think Google knows how narrow and windy some of the Greek roads are! Eventually though, I came over a hill and caught sight of beautiful Navarino Bay. I wasn’t prepared for how lovely it is, and despite being very keen by this time to get to my hotel, I stopped at a handy lookout spot and took some photos while drinking in the fabulous view.

20131003-032350.jpgThis beautiful peaceful bay was the setting in 1827 for the event that precipitated the end of the 400 year Turkish occupation of Greece, the destruction of the Ottoman fleet by the combined forces of the French, Russian and English commands. Many of the wrecks lie still where they sank. They say they can be seen if you take a boat tour on a clear day.

While gazing, I chatted to a gentleman who told me that he had to take a lot of photos because his wife couldn’t walk so she had to stay in the car. What do you say to something like that? It made me realise how lucky I am, and how grateful I am. I got back into the car and continued down the hill toward the town of Pylos. I’d taken a screen shot of the satellite map before leaving this morning, so as I drove into town, I was able to head straight along the waterfront and find the hotel immediately. My room was really cute with a balcony

20131003-032659.jpgoverlooking the tiny handkerchief of beach, and the harbour.

20131003-033336.jpgIt’s a great feeling to come into a pleasant room after a long wearying drive. I settled in, feeling very relaxed, and looked for a power point to recharge my phone, camera and iPad. Suddenly not so relaxed! I found one on either side of the bed, for the bed lamps, and one for the TV. The problem was that the plates of all three had been lifted and were hanging off the wall with the wiring exposed, and each of them had a couple of appliances, lamp and phone, lamp and fridge, TV and air-con, jerry rigged directly into the wiring behind the plate. It’s possible if I’d plugged my chargers into them that the power points would have worked, but frankly, I wasn’t about to touch them! One of the things I love about Greece is that the people have a real can-do attitude and make pretty much anything work. In this particular case though, I would have preferred the usual method of using power points. I continued my search. No luck in the bathroom. I finally found one that looked safe to use, possibly because it never had been, on the wall at the side of the wardrobe. The adapter and chargers wouldn’t fit between the wall and the wardrobe, so I put my back into it and shifted the wardrobe a few inches sideways. Success! Appliances plugged in and charging!

I went to ask the receptionist for the wifi password and found that wifi was only available in the public areas, which included the breakfast room, open all hours, food only at breakfast time, and the bar, open all hours, no food. I went out to dinner at a waterfront taverna where I ordered before finding out that they didn’t have wifi. I think it was the only taverna or cafe in Pylos without it, because I found later that it was pretty much ubiquitous. I read my book instead, “A dance with dragons” by George R. R. Martin. (Love the Game of Thrones series!) To begin, I ordered grilled mushrooms. They neither looked nor tasted as I expected, and while tasting interesting, and not unpleasant, they weren’t a favourite.

20131003-033040.jpgA coach load of 50 German teenage boys arrived that evening, and totally monopolised the available bandwidth, so neither I nor the receptionist could use the wifi. The internet empowers us in all sorts of ways, but we can become extremely dependent on it. And I don’t half get the irrits when I don’t have it!

Why do I love Olympia…….?

19 September continued

After leaving the Museum of the Ancient Olympics I walked back a few minutes into the village and had baked feta with tomatoes and peppers (capsicum) for lunch at a taverna, and did a little writing via the free wifi. So many tavernas and kafenions have free wifi, as do most of the hotels. The waiter passed by and said, “Eat it with the bread – it’s nothing without bread.” I have to agree. In fact, even with the bread, I didn’t find it nearly as delicious as I find most Greek food. There are many more tasty dishes. It was filling though, and so fortified, I set off again.

It was still very hot so I opted for the air-conditioned museum first. I’ve been in there twice before, so I didn’t take many photos this time, however I looked more carefully at the bronze armour and weapons. I had read a really good series of historical novels set in the 5th BC a while back by Christian Cameron, about a Plataean warrior who was also a master bronze smith, and the descriptions of smithing had heightened my interest. I took particular notice of this Illyrian helmet from about 530BC, which is unusual in the beaten silver decorations attached. The cheek pieces show horses, and the decoration across the brow is of lions attacking a boar. I think it’s beautiful, although much of what I’ve read recommended against fancy armour, as glancing blows could catch in the decoration instead of sliding off without causing injury. Perhaps this piece was dress armour, or made particularly as a dedication to the sanctuary.

20131001-092001.jpgI sat for some time contemplating the reliefs from the Temple of Zeus, especially the ones of of Theseus and Perithos fighting the Centaurs, who’d become drunk at Perithos’ wedding to Deidameia, and tried to carry off the Lapith women. The faces of the humans are depicted as calm and noble, while the faces of the Centaurs are brutish. It was a reference to the recent victory of the Greeks over the “barbarian” hordes of Asia, the Persians. I couldn’t help thinking though, as I contemplated Deidamia’s serene face, that while she was being the modest and dutiful bride, she was thinking, “Bloody Centaurs! Every time you invite them to a wedding … ” as she modestly and serenely elbows him in the head.

20131001-093725.jpgI ventured out into the late afternoon and made my way around the ancient site. I don’t know why, but I feel something special at Olympia, I’m especially drawn to this of all the sites I’ve visited. Ironic really, as if I’d been alive at the time, I wouldn’t have been allowed in, on pain of death! Nevertheless, I feel something special, something calm and peaceful here, particularly in the area of the palaestra, which was the wrestling, boxing and general practice area. Now that’s especially odd, because I bet at Games times, it was anything but peaceful and quiet! I can’t explain it. Nevertheless.

One of the things I love is that each time I return to an ancient site, there’s evidence of more excavation and study going on since my previous visit. I was delighted to see that at Olympia.

20131001-095149.jpgIt always makes me excited about returning in the future and seeing new things. Well, old things really. New old things.

All too soon the site attendants burst my bubble with those shrill whistles they use to warn wandering tourists of impending closing time. It has to be done I know. The sites are too big for them to run around telling everyone individually the way we usually do at work that the place is about to close. Still, I could wish for a less intrusive method. As everyone neared the gate, I turned for a last look at beautiful, peaceful Olympia. Till next time.

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