Greece #3 – The Achaean Peninsula

We have discovered a little café around the corner that makes a decent latté (a recent addition to the Greek menu) and serves avgi with mpeixon (transliteration of ‘bacon’).

The Corinth canal - begun by Nero, and so soon out of date

Thus fortified we picked up a car – they upgraded us to one of the new Mini-Coopers, Misty seems to bring such luck – and put our lives into my hands to drive out of Athens in rush hour.

But it was so easy that we are free of the city in no time, and arrive at the dramatic (but too thin for modern tankers) Corinth Canal in time for a little something.

 

We are retracing the tale of Theseus in reverse – from Athens of his triumphant kingship to Eleusis to Megara where he adventured – now all suburbs of Athenian sprawl – to the isthmus of Corinth where he killed the bandits like Prokrustes, and finally across the Gulf of Salamis to Troizen of his birth, a land of plunging cliffs into the dramatic sea.

A bit of aquaculture on the Achaean peninsula

 

 

My goal for this year, my place of pilgrimage, is the temple of Asklepios, the father of holistic medicine.  I have never been here in the winter, and it is cold. Mist and I burned through the place, making some video blogs at the theatre, the gymnasium, the baths, and the sleeping barrows.  It is a place of great power.  The whole story has been written out elsewhere (and I am putting video blogs up on the Anatomy Trains blog), but this time we were a bit

2500 years ago - sure looks like structural work to me!

hurried through, both by the cold and the fact that everything closes at 3, so we had not too long anyway.  We got to see it all, though, and there was no desire to linger in the sharp wind and scudding clouds – not like the other times I have been here, with a need for shade and the constant sawing of the cicadas to sing you into a nap.

 

Peckish and cold, we stopped at the first taverna we saw on the road to

Misty at the theater of Epidaurus

Nauplion.  Out of season, out of mealtime, we were nevertheless welcomed.  At one end of the large and empty dining room, family dynamics were in easy evidence in front of the little olive wood fire around which everyone was huddled: the old father, the owner, deferentially offering us menus – but really what was on offer was chicken and fries, so that’s what we ordered.  He gave the order to his grey-haired, black dressed, and bent wife, who put some chicken breasts and wings in a hand grill and set them over the fire.

 

The son, a large, round-bellied oily-haired man who spent most of our stay there on his cellphone, obviously could not wait for the old folks to pass the establishment over to him so he could make the changes he’s been itching to make for years.  The old couple was so courtly, the food so delicious, and the young man so obvious, that we left wishing a heartfelt Xronia Polla (Many Years! – a traditional New Year greeting), that the youth’s naked ambition be redirected away from his long-suffering parents.

This bridge was built in the time of the Iliad - still good to go

 

 

Along the road to Nauplion, we came across a Mycenean bridge, a hint of the castle to come.  I wonder how many of our bridges will still be standing 2500 years from now?

Tonight we are in Nauplion (naff’-plea-on), which has a fortress (but everything closes at 3pm) and a waterfront (but we are cold and tired, and are staying inside to watch CNN until we fall asleep).  Before we dropped off, though, we went for a brief walk around the ramparts and wandering up and down through the walking part of town reveals such a number of hotels above the Grand Bretagne, where we overpaid but what the hell, and really interesting craft shops.

Nauplion

 

 

We will leave early in the morning, so the joys of shopping in Nauplion will have to wait for another trip, but the commercial town I have seen on previous trips has given way to a more benevolent image.  We also got a great view of the little castle island in the harbour, which served as a prison and the home for the hangmen of Nauplion during the Venetian empire.  Nauplion is the Greek rendition of Napoli.

In the early morning, while Mist slept in, I walked up on the battlements above the town in the morning sun, listening to a recording of my old mentor, Bucky Fuller.  Only integrity will count, he says, in the coming storm, in humanity’s final exam.

After a hotel breakfast worthy of any Courtyard Marriott, we reboarded our little MiniCooper and tootled up to Mycenae.  Again, so much has been written about Agamemnon’s palace, but to stand on a real place that reaches back into the Iliad and beyond, a place where the weight of history is palpably felt in the gloomy stones.  Misty and I went down into the cistern, a hundred steps down into utter darkness – though no one is in utter darkness if they have an iPhone.

Tom in the Lion Gate of Agamemnon's Palace

Misty next to the wall of Cyclopean rocks

down into the cistern

The beehive tombs

 

 

After a while, the weight of Clytemnestra and Electra and Iphigenia and Orestes and Aigisthos wears off and we start going silly.  Misty wants to jump off the cliffs in a squirrel suit, and I feel simultaneously the youthful desire to make such a leap, and the parental wince of ‘Do you have to?’. What could be more fun than to leap of a cliff and fly at great speed? – but the guy who invented it just lost it into a cliff, so, o my precious daughter, do you have to what I did to my parents?  I suppose you do.

It has been so good to see all these tourist attractions in the off-season, with almost no one there, and the heat not oppressive.  In the beehive tombs, we are solo, so I can do my weird Tibetan chanting with the tones resounding, as in the Kamakura Buddha, but this time there is no one to gather up their children in fear, only a couple of American boys who ask us to take their picture as they lie as if dead in the centre of the gravel floor.

On the way back to Athens, we stopped at Akrokorinth, a huge rock rising out of modern Korinth, a place of great luxury, sailors’ treasure and famous courtesans in the time of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  (“Faith, hope, and charity, and the greatest of these is charity” – except the proper translation of ‘caritas’ is not what we mean by ‘charity’ but rather ‘caring’.  The needs or so great these days that it is easy to become numb and not care any more.)

Thank God we could motor most of the way up, because it would have been a rough climb up this huge mound of solid rock poking out above the gulf. As it was, from the end of the dirt road (where for some reason there were three pickup trucks with dogs in cages – poor souls, sticking their noses through the holes at us), it was quite a sharp climb through successive fortifications – Venetian, Byzantine, Turkish, and finally to the ancient Greek foundations of a temple at the very top.  No where else could successive layers of history be so clearly read.

This is the mountain the Sysiphos, a king of old, was condemned for his sins of hubris to roll a large rock up the hill, only to have it roll down again just before he reached the top.  Knowing this myth since I was a child, I always envisioned a small grassy hill, not this mountain with multiple ways up.  How he must have enjoyed those hours between tasks, when the rock had rolled down, and he could descend unencumbered to find and begin to roll it up again!

On the way down, we pick up a likely-looking hitch-hiker who turns out to have been a student at St John, Misty’s alma mater.  Leaving him in town for his bus gets us lost, and we end up cross the Corinth canal at its end, giving us a unique view that we could not capture, as the locals were bearing down on their horns behind us on the bridge. Nero started this canal, but it took the 20th century to finish it.

I had the idea to go through Athens to Sounion, but we hit Athens at rush hour, and after an hour of stop and go in the Athens sprawl – there was no freeway – I gave up, and we headed into town gratefully gave the car back to Avis, glad to have avoided an accident in the millimeter clearance of Greek traffic.

Greek sprawl has spread the city - ugly and clacking - over the whole Attic plain

We went out to eat early, determined to get to bed before midnight, as we have an early start.  Thus we landed in a taverna just behind the hotel.  It was like being transported back thirty years: the owner didn’t even ask us what we wanted, he just started bringing things – all excellent.

Early in the evening a guitarist and a bouzouki player showed up, and there we were, back in Plaka of the 70’s, singing, dancing, clapping.  The bouzouki player, much better than the one from a few days ago, nevertheless still had very bad hair: a combover over a lugubrious rubber face.  The guitarist, a large-headed family man with a white military haircut and a terrific voice, held the melody while the bouzouki player laid down the harmonies between puffs on his cigarette.  Between ouzo and red wine, we were definitely the worse for wear as we wove our way down the cobbled street (feeding our leftover meat – they always over-serve the meat – to the street dogs on the way) and fell into bed.

I am so glad that Misty got to experience this, not in a touristic way, but with a genuine feel.  The Greeks, upon meeting you, seek where you are connected to them (“Boston – ooh, Celtics! – basketball is now big over here). Too many Europeans – the French especially, the Germans, even the Italians – are looking to separate themselves from you, especially, and understandably, if you are an American.  But whatever the Greek’s politics, they seek connection, and it is an endearing and imitable trait.

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