Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Athens - A Gate to Understanding Ourselves


While harbored in Poros, we thought it a perfect opportunity to visit Athens: a one-hour ferry ride across the bay.

We booked a room via airbnb.com, our favorite way of finding wonderful and affordable places to stay. It didn't disappoint. We stayed right in the ancient town, the Plaka, in a one-room loft of a fashion photographer for Vogue whose marble-floored apartment was  a study in black and white, in furniture and photography. Elegant and soothing.

We were in walking distance of the museums, the imposing Acropolis, the fantastical flea market, the hip cafes, the ancient agora, and shopping.

I intentionally didn't take photographs of the ancient sites. For one, you can find so many, so much better on the internet. (We no longer live in the days of relying on travelogues for the facts and photos, but for impressions and insights.)

For another, I didn't take photographs because none (even those you find on the internet) can capture the grandeur and spirit of the Acropolis.

Here is the one shot I decided to take which I felt would capture Athens as fully as possible in one single photograph.

The many ages of Athens: Acropolis on the hill, ancient columns and possibly a mosque.
In the background up on the bluff is the Acropolis. Closer in, you can see columns of the ancient town. To the left is a Byzantine building from when the Turks ruled. And in the foreground is the same commerce being conducted which took place thousands of years earlier in the exact same way as it did amidst the columns if the agora, the marketplace.

About 160 years ago, Alphonse Karr said, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." The more it changes, the more it's the same. About two thousand years before, during the time the agora was just as busy as it is today, it was written in Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun."

More than anything, that is my take-away from Athens.

What does America pride itself on? Democracy? I'm sure some prehistoric tribes had one-person-one-vote systems, but even the modern form of societal democracy was founded by the Greeks several hundred years BC. (Just about the same time that they proposed the idea that the Earth circled the Sun.)

We humans loved, created, traded, ruled, fought, cultivated, homesteaded, sung, created music and art, and wondered about the stars in much the same way as we always have. Always there was the home, the marketplace, the battlefront, the canvass.

The only thing to change have been our tools.

Speaking of tools, we wandered the flea market which blossoms on Sunday. There we came across a small shed with this man selling electronics.

Electronica man selling capacitors in the modern day agora.
I quickly recognized the items out in front: air capacitors. They were used largely in tuning radios in the old days. I searched more of his boxes and, sure enough, I found capacitors with our family name on them.

Air capacitors.
I tried to explain to the man that my family had made them, but he didn't speak nor understand a word of English. I showed him my license with my name. At first, he seemed to have no interest, but when I went through more boxes, something clicked and he wanted to see my license again. He smiled and nodded. I gave him one of our calling cards with my name on it. Who knows, maybe he went home that night and said to his wife, "A most curious thing happened to me at the agora today."

Lest my rantings about America's shortcomings be mistaken for utter disappointment with the country, let me also write about one cultural similarity between Greece and America that I found profoundly moving.

I remember reading a profile of General Colin Powell (who, apropos of nothing, spoke fluent Hebrew.) He was introducing a foreign dignitary to Washington D.C. He took the dignitary on a walk through the mall, that great green space filled with monuments. He explained that each monument was a dedication to an ideal. Even those monuments to people were more reflective of the ideas they represented. This is what America honors, Powell said in so many words: concepts and ideas of democracy and equality.

What I learned in Athens is that the Acropolis, this plateau which was once a fortified village in Neolithic times, had become such a sacred place for Athenians that the only things built there were monuments to gods.

The Acropolis from an angle showing its immensity if not the details.
Do you see the tiny people on the stairs all the way to the right?
Even when the Romans arrived, they were so impressed that Athenians were so devoted to education, the arts and their gods, that they did not destroy the place and rebuild it with their own icons. They left it pretty much as it was. What's left of it today was what was built thousands of years ago: Testaments to our devotion to something greater than us. Call them concepts. Call them Gods. 

Call it our desire to be more than we are.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Monemvasia - A Singular Experience



Among the most spectacular villages to visit in all of Greece -- I know, what a set-up -- is Monemvasia. And the most spectacular methods of discovering this ancient fortification is by sea.

Fetching Monemvasia in the morning hours after an all-night sail from the Cyclades.
A closer view of Monemvasia as we passed by on the way to the harbor.
After reading this blog, click on the photos and enjoy them in more detail. One reason we went to visit this place is because it was so highly praised by our sailing friends Heidrun and Berthold. Luckily, I was dazed by the all-night sail and had forgotten what was expecting us. So coming upon this village was a splendid surprise.

This island, attached to the mainland by a causeway was
geographically destined to become a fortified city.
In the map above, you can see that our harbor provided us with a terrific view of the island while we stayed there to explore it. In days of yore, the causeway was protected by a huge fortified entrance and a drawbridge. The name Monemvasia means single entrance.

Jennifer paases unchallenged through the remaining single entrance.
Despite its seeming impenetrability, Monemvasia was occupied by the usual succession of imperialists over time. Greeks eventually had no need for its protection in the 20th Century and began to abandon it because of the difficulty in accessing it on a daily basis. After WWII, a new village was built on the mainland right by the causeway. We met a sailing couple who visited Monemvasia 20 years ago and said it was completely undeveloped and abandoned. Since then, it has been restored as a tourist destination.

The main road leading from gate to square inside the walls. Barely
wide enough for two mules to pass each other.
Inside the village walls, the alleys are narrow and much more convoluted and labyrithine than it appears from sea.

Stairs under arches. Houses built terrace style almost on top of each other.
New meets old. Both the stone and the electricity.
All the restoration is driven by tourism.
Most of the restored buildings have become hotels.
A hotel lobby inside a domed, cavernous space, surely a barn at one point.
The village sqaure.
Large parts of the lower village are still in ruins.
After exploring the alleys, tunnels, stairs, archways, and paths of the lower village, it was time to climb the stairs to the upper village. The whole plateau of the island comprised the upper village and became entirely developed. It too only had one entrance.

The switchback trail up to the upper village.
At the top, this stone road leads to the abandoned church.
Nothing more of recognizable form remains of the extensive citadel
which once capped this island.
Going down is almost more formidable than going up.
It is my wont to pontificate at this point. Perhaps ask a question about whether we all have a sole entrance to our most protected self. But I will just leave this post with a scene of the sun setting on this ancient fort.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Folengandros and Sifnos - Terraces and Kastros


Folegandros, a small, less-visited island in the Cyclades
is a dry, rocky island. Over what must have taken centuries, its determined citizens picked up stones on the steep slopes, one by one, and started building walls. This created small terraces. Many only as wide as maybe six feet and twice or thrice as long.

An rare large parcel on Folengandros surrounded by the more typical terraces. Some old house and barn foundations in the foreground.
The resulting terrace is known in Greek as a lithozona. A small area to eke out some sustenance. The remaining soil was less soil and still more rock. Yet somehow these lithozonas were cultivated with olive trees, hay, tomatoes, grapes, and capers. Sheep were grazed. Barns and homes were built on these plateaus.

I’m sure that the first walls were haphazard. Even today, we saw a few slap-dash ones. Such as this one.

This is a road bordered with walls, but that odd construction in front is a gate. Of sorts.
But over time, the skill of those former farmers and tradesmen was evident in today’s standing testaments. There were watchtowers built on cliffs with no binding material. These towers had bonfires at the ready to communicate danger to other parts of the island and neighboring islands. All the lithozonas walls are of this “dry stone wall” type of construction.

Click on this photo and zoom in on the base. It is just amazing how they laid one rock down on this incline, then another, then another, and the resulting wall is pitched at a perfectly slight but straight incline upward, and the whole tower is beautfully round.
The setting of these towers exposed them to the fierce winds of the Cyclades, sometimes reaching 40 and 50 knots.
Almost the entire island has been terraced. It must have taken generations upon generations. We can scarcely imagine such patience and commitment, much less dedicate ourselves similarly. (Or are we, just as fervently, creating some kind of electronica future byte by byte, device by device?)

Folegandros’ oldest village is a fortified town on a cliff. Impossible to reach from the sea and difficult to breach by land. Almost all Cycladic islands have one of these villages similarly situated. This one is called Kastro. A variation of castle.

Chora, Folengandros, clinging to the cliff.
The villages on Santorini were situated similarly for defensive purposes.
Inside, to our surprise, life still flourishes, bright and lively.







Who are the 765 people who choose to live here on this island; many of them in the small, cramped conditions of this fortification? Homes which are photogenic on the outside, are dark, dank and a bit musty on the inside.

One of them is a Romanian. He runs one of the restaurant in the village square. We talked to him for a little while in between serving guests. He came here when he was 12. Now in his mid-twenties, he has no immediate plans of leaving.

In winter, he says, they play soccer a lot. And he helps on a fishing boat. In summer, he works at (owns?) the restaurant.

This island is a typical example of what we have found in many Greek towns: A little bit of tourism is good. Too much destroys. A trickle of tourists allow indigenous people to supplement their living. The marauding masses forces the indigenous to live for the tourists.

It was nice to visit a Greek island still living for itself. Even attracting a new generation to its lifestyle.

Overlooking Chora on Folengandros is the Church of Panagia. 
The next island we visited was Sifnos. It is similar to Folengandros in that it is off the heavily trodden tourist path. It has around 2,600 residents in a number of villages around the island. Most encouraging is that the population is almost exactly the same as it was just after WWII.

Kastro on Sifnos. From this photograph it's hard to tell how much of an isolated hill Kastro is on. And you can't see the cliff dropping to the sea.
The entrance to Kastro.
Sifnos has a more illustrious history. It is said that almost half of all bronze found in weapons and art throughout Mediterranean archeological sites came from Sifnos. Mines here also produced substantial amounts of gold and silver.

Until one day, they didn’t. Was it because, as legend has it, the Sifnians became greedy and instead of presenting a solid gold egg to the oracle at Delphi, they presented a gilted one? The resulting curse made the gold disappear out of the mines.

Or was it because the mines simply was exhausted? Some suggest the mines flooded because they were eventually dug below the water table.

Inside Kastro.

Church of the Seven Matyrs just behind Kastro at the bottom of the cliff.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Santorini - The Lost Atlantis?

Santorini - The volcano's center rising from the sea as seen from Thira.

Santorini is one of the most photographed islands of the Cyclades. The fascination with Santorini is that its beauty is in stark contrast to the drama of being a volcano.

Thira, the island’s main town, was built clinging to the ancient rim of the volcano in a manner that makes one think the very town itself is deposit left from one of the past eruptions.

The village of Thira clining to the volcano rim of Santorini.
The cliff construction was not for the scenery and tourism which today dominates the village, but as a defensive setting against waves of various invaders over centuries. Minoans, Phoenicians, Dorians, Romans, Ottomans, Venetians, Germans, and others have all invaded the Cyclades. The island’s many names reflect its past. Some call it Santorini, which is the name established by the Venetians when they ruled much of the Aegean. But the street signs and the Greeks still call the island Thira. Perhaps some of the old folks still remember it being called Kalliste or “beautiful one.”

Thira is like a supermodel. It's hard to take a bad shot. Even the roofs are beautifully designed.
A shot of the same roof. Different angle of camera and of earth-to-sun.
Some say that Santorini is the lost Atlantis of legend. That the remnant rim village is all that is left of the grand city that plunged into the sea in a single day of doom. If we go back to the original mention of Atlantis by Plato, it is clearly stated that his fictional Atlantis was a vast continent just beyond Gibraltar, in the Atlantic Ocean.

But something of the old Santorini has been lost. It is falling to a new invader. Armies arrive daily by the thousands on cruise ships and in planes wielding not swords, but credit cards and cameras.

Santorini sunset madness. It is almost impossible to elbow your way through the crowds that gather to get the perfect spot to photograph the sunset. Click on this photo to see it in large and see the crowds gathered in all the little nooks and crannies.
Despite the crowds, I was able to find my own special spot.
As one local islander told us while we sat and drank Raki with him, “they leave with Santorini in their cameras, but not in their hearts.”

A Greek farmer offers rides down to the port, the old-fashioned way.
There are photographs from the early 20th Century showing what the town looked like before it was white-washed, gussied-up and offered up to tourists. For those who care, vestiges of that life can still be found.

To do that, venture off into the countryside. You will see it is blanketed in vineyards. Interspersed are fields of small tomatoes, fava beans and capers. It such a surprising sight on a volcanic island. These foods, mixed with the sheep, local cheese, olive tree groves, and fish from the Aegean provided Santorini with self-sufficiency.

The vineyards of Santorini.
We visited one of the island’s oldest vineyards. They had made wine long before electricity and machinery came to the island. Grapes were crushed in large stone basins. The juice flowed through basket strainers into aging wells.

In the 1950s, under the US Marshall Plan to restore Europe, the owner of this vineyard went to Athens to participate in a conference of setting up all kinds of cooperatives throughout Greece. As a result, in 1952, a US landing vessel arrived in Santorini and delivered the island’s first electric generator and wine-making equipment.

A photograph on the wall of old winery. The owner is in the middle.
Imagine that. The Greek islands lived through World War II without electricity. That is why all the edges of roads are painted white. All trees lining the roads. And all edges of steps in Greek villages are painted white. At first, Jennifer and I thought it was an aesthetic affectation until we had to walk home one night in the pitch black and down a long series of stairs to the harbor in which Phoenix was anchored. If it had not been for the white, we would not have been able to navigate in the dark.

The wine made here is called Visanto. It is a sweet red wine that is, essentially, a variety of what most of the world knows as port. The tomatoes here are the small cherry-type with deep top-to-bottom pumpkin-type ridges. They are dark and salty in flavor. Not surprisingly, they are made into paste. Tomato paste became another cooperative industry. They are still factories producing paste seasonally today.


An old tomato paste processing room. Notice the masher in the upper left.

I will remember Santorini for its exqusite food. No where else have I ever eaten such rich tomatoes. The fresh anchovies right from the sea; not salty and canned as we know them, but fresh and complex, were extraordinary. The Visanto. The capers. The fava.

How can you not smile and be excited about a meal like this?