Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > Greece


May 1, 2006:
Pilgrims seeking an oracle
It was a brisk morning in the mountains as we set off to see the oracle of Delphi. On the way was a lookout where we could see the unfolding of the valley below—the ash green groves of olive trees, forests of deciduous and evergreens, and, toward the gulf, the harbor of the port of Itea. At the lookout, the flags of the countries of the European Union waved in the clip wind coming off these dramatic slopes of Mt. Parnassos, and Peter and Paul identified them all as we made our way to the ruins. 

Traveling up Sacred Way on switch back trails, we came first to the springs where pilgrims cleansed themselves before petitioning the oracle. The path to the Temple of Apollo was strewn with monuments and small temples, built to commemorate victories and pay homage to Apollo. Some of the more recent monuments were carved with crosses, marking the eclipsing of the Greek deities by the monotheistic Christianity. Unfortunately, many of these sacred sites were ransacked with the advent of Christianity as Christianity began to wield military and political as well as religious influence throughout this region and eradicate all forms of pagan worship in the name of Christ. Ironically, many Christian relics in Turkey suffered this same fate when the Ottomans and other Muslim invaders overthrew Christian regimes or plundered Christian communities. We saw this in Cappadocia where lovely first century frescoes on the walls of the stone dwellings of early Christian communities were obscured. The great temples of Khajaraho were created in a remote area in central India in an attempt to escape the Arab Moguls who destroyed these houses of worship of infidels in the name of Allah. Over the centuries this dichotomy of the victor and the vanquished has been repeated with the regrettable result of the destruction of many precious artifacts of anthropological and historical significance.

At the gateway to the Temple of Apollo was the lovely treasury of the Athenians, classical in design with graceful columns and statues, where pilgrims paid the requisite tax for appealing to the oracle. We climbed still further until we rounded the corner and there was the legendary Temple of Apollo, where kings, such as Alexander the Great, as well as ordinary folk, sought the wisdom of the oracle. The Greek explorer Byzas established the great Byzantine empire in modern-day Turkey on the more lucrative European side of the Bosphorous Strait after consulting the oracle and from these auspicious beginnings, the thriving metropolis of Constantinople, the grandest city of Christendom, was born. In this edifice surrounded by grand columns and overlooking a stunning panorama, it was easy to see why this was such a sacred destination. It is as if this place was the very source of divine inspiration, and the oracles and those seeking direction and answers alike could drink of this elixir of insight, ingenuity and wisdom. Its sacred origins date back to the 14th century BC when the deity Gaia or Ge was worshipped and delivered prophesies. When Apollo slew Python, her serpentine son who guarded the mouth of the cavern, the oracle became the center of his cult and by the end of 7th century, the first temples were built ushering in the golden era of the temple in the 500s BC. Aptly, one of the last prophecies proclaimed by the oracle was the prediction that the cult of Apollo had fallen and Christianity would prevail. In 392AD Emperor Theodosius banned the practice of the ancient cult and the oracle was forced to close.

The actual seat of the oracle was a humble stoop. Concealed from the petitioner, the oracle, always an old peasant woman, would achieve an altered state from inhaling the fumes of underground gases and deliver the prophesy in the form of a clever riddle. The riddles were sufficiently ambiguous and indecipherable that they could always be interpreted to fit the resulting circumstance. As a result the advice of the gods was always proven right!

Further up the side of the mountain was the great theatre with a capacity of 5,000 where music and dramatic performances were staged. If the performance was substandard, spectators at least had the fantastic panoramic view of the dramatic countryside for entertainment! While we were there, however, we were treated to an impromptu, but riveting, A capella performance of old Latin hymns by a group of visitors from The Netherlands. The fine acoustics of this grand old theatre projected their sweet strains as if a chorus of angels had descended from the heavenly realm to sing to us. We and the steady stream of tourists who were pouring into the theatre were hushed by the beauty of their voices and, like the oracle, lulled into our own spiritual trance, as the glorious melodies of Dona Nobis Pacem (Peace be with you) echoed across this magnificent setting. The appreciative crowd urged them for encore after encore but when they finished the songs they had brought, they quietly and humbly slipped back into the throngs. I sought them out to thank them for the gift of their performance and find out where they were from. I noted the church they were from in Rotterdam in the case that we might have a chance to hear them sing again when we visit The Netherlands.

The view continued to dazzle us as we traveled yet further up the path to the stadium, located off the edge of the mountain in a forest of evergreen. The trees seem to have protected it from the ravages of the weather and other destructive forces because it is remarkably in tact from the starting blocks and winners podiums to the tiers of seats surrounding the very oblong stadium. Inspired by the setting, Paul challenged me to a race. The result was inevitable but I gave it a good push and actually completed two laps and crossed the finish line, a feat in and of itself for this 45-year-old mother! I imagined the fans cheering on the underdog; it was glorious! It was more of an obstacle course than a straight running race as we had to swerve to avoid large puddles and other debris on the course!

We took a break to get some lunch at the corner café and then returned to unearth the wonderful array of artifacts in the Delphi Museum:

  • a marble sphinx created with marble from Naxos (where we spent Holy week and Easter this year and where there are magnificent marble quarries that look like modern cathedrals carved right from the side of the mountain) from 570-560BC. The lower half of its body is that of a dog, while its torso and head is human, and wings extend out from the upper back, as if it was the cape of a Superhero figure. The detail in the wings, breastplate, headdress, and paws is wonderfully elaborate, down to the grooves in the toes, the weave of the headdress and breastplate and the plumage of the wings, making this mythical creature look real, elegant and poised for action.
  • A statue of Antinoos (130-138AD). This was the statue of an accomplished athlete, Emperor Hadrian’s favorite. His likeness—and that of physical brawn in general—is used in many Greek statues, as the Greeks greatly admired athletic prowess and virility.
  • A statue of Aghias (5th century BC). This was the depiction of another famous athlete, one of the stars of the Panhellenic games in the 5th century. Upon his head is a bronze wreath of laurel leaves, the symbol of courage and victory, and he stands on a column, its base is covered in flowers. 
  • North frieze of the Siphnian Treasury (525BC). This frieze tells the epic story in wonderful detail of the battle of the gods Hera, Athena, Ares and Hermes against the giants. The warriors, bedecked in regal military attire, are brandishing spears and holding shields for defense as the battle is waged. Despite the resulting carnage, Athena and her cool cohort prevail.
  • Charioteer of Delphi. This charioteer in bronze used to command a four-horse chariot. Now he stands without his chariot but his expression and physical stance is so vivid, you can easily imagine him navigating his glorious chariot to victory! The expression on his face is one of a calm, cool demeanor under the pressure of the match, considered an admirable trait in competition. You could see the muscles in his outstretched arms bristling as he manipulated the reins and the veins in his neck and arms pulsing under the strain.

April 30, 2006: Delphi
Cool mountain air

The site of the ancient Greek oracle of Delphi, spelled “Delfi” in Greek, is located in a spectacular mountain setting overlooking the Gulf of Itea which opens up into the Gulf of Corinth. Once the destination of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the centuries in search of divine intervention, the little mountain village of Delphi now attracts thousands of visitors to see these grand ruins as well as for rugged outdoor sports, particularly skiing in the winter as these mountains are home to some of the most popular ski resorts in Greece. As soon as we got off the bus, we were greeted by the clean, cool mountain air and went off in search of accommodations. After covering the scope and breadth of the small town, climbing slopes and stairs along the face of the mountain, we arrived at a hotel in a residential neighborhood. At the front desk was a boy named Nick, who turned out to be slightly older than Peter. He was supervising the front desk that afternoon while his grandmother, the proprietor of the hotel, was out. However, when we decided to stay, he immediately called his mother, Maria, who came in her car to help us pick up the rest of the gang and our baggage down in the center of town. Nick was playing cards with his brother and his friend who was visiting from Athens and they were eager to talk to Peter and Paul in English and show them their card game. Once we were settled, we went out in search of food. Steve and Peter found cheap gyros at a local deli, and Paul accompanied me for stuffed tomatoes at another restaurant. On our way home, Paul and I wandered the charming streets of Delphi looking for our friend, Ken, a young Japanese man we met in Turkey, who was supposed to be arriving in Delphi at around the same time. (We later discovered he was still in Athens and we missed meeting up with him by only a couple of days.) Upon our return to the hotel, we were greeted by Nick’s father, grandmother and both brothers. They ushered me into the parlor, Nick’s grandmother made me a hot cup of Greek coffee and we chatted about our trip and the ruins of Delphi, while I seriously scarfed half a dozen of these very delicious butter cookies with chocolate filling from the bakery down the street. Nick’s father works at the Delphi museum and he filled me in on the hours of operation for the ruins and museum on Sunday and the most significant exhibits. I felt at home with this warm Greek family.

April 29, 2006: Athens
Traveling the Sacred Way

It was a brilliant day in Athens and Peter, Paul and I tried to squeeze in the tail end of our “Antiquities in Athens” tour. We started our whirlwind tour at the Kerameikos, the ceramic potters’ neighborhood of ancient Athens and the starting place for the great procession to the Acropolis every year. A large wooden boat with the robe of the gods as its sail was carried down Sacred Way, through the Sacred Arch and the streets of Athens, finally ascending to the Acropolis, its destination, the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena. The site is sunken beneath the current street level with two main streets running through it. The other street leads through another famous arch, the Dipylon, directly to Plato’s Academy, a prestigious Neoplatonist school of philosophy, founded by Plato in 387 BC. Besides being a potters’ neighborhood, fully equipped with a waste water and flood control system, the area served as a public cemetery where some of the city’s most honored citizens were buried. Tombs and stelae are scattered throughout the vast complex. Many are elaborately decorated with sculptures of the archaic and classical periods. One tomb is topped with the striking marble statue of a bull. There must have been an ancient waterway meandering through the area as well because there were many small bridges, made of large stone boulders in neatly arranged patterns, traversing canals. I had a feeling that when we saw one couple bending down next to one of these ancient tombstones, they weren’t studying the artifact but rather had found a little critter. Sure enough, it was a turtle, like the ones we spotted in Cappadocia. Yes, there he was nestled in the crevice of one tombstone. While overlooking the necropolis from a lookout in the middle of the neighborhood, Paul spotted a tiny turtle, not much larger than my thumb. I was amazed that Paul had seen him at all! As we began looking around carefully, we discovered other turtles of various sizes in the vicinity, presumably relatives of this baby turtle.

We didn’t have much time to fully appreciate the Roman Agora but at least we were able to sit on the steps of the library and overlook the grand central courtyard of the agora, outlined in a double line up of columns. Apparently in Roman times people would mull in the town square as they shopped at the shops along the outer perimeter of the complex.  At the entrance to the site is the Kyristes’ Clock, or Tower of the Winds, an octagonal monument that houses a hydraulic clock. Built in the 1st century BC, by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus, each side represents a point of the compass and has a bas relief of a god-like figure depicting the associated prevailing wind. Each figure’s hair and beard and cloak were swept dramatically by their prevailing wind, and they were holding various implements or natural objects that communicate wind—a shell, an instrument, etc. Also at this site was another of the Roman’s glamorous public restrooms. Holes in the stone lined the perimeter of a courtyard while the sewer carried the waste products into the elaborate sewer system in the city. Having worked for Public Works in Eugene, I have been very intrigued by the sophisticated public works implemented by the Romans in all of the sights we have visited—Ephesus, Pompeii, and ancient Athens and Rome. My children find my fascination with the public restrooms of antiquity rather amusing but they now help me find them when we visit archaeological sites. 

By the time we got back to our hotel to pick up Steve and his mother, we had to run through the streets of Athens to catch our bus to Delphi. With the help of friendly Athenians at the bus stop and on the bus (one gentlemen at the bus stop spoke enough Spanish to help me sort out where I needed to purchase tickets and at which bus stop we needed to catch our bus), we made it across town to the bus terminal, found the bus to Delphi and boarded it with only minutes to spare!

April 28, 2006: Athens
Acropolis bound

We traveled to Athens by ferry from Santorini through the night. Thankfully, we scored cushioned seats in the cafeteria to sleep. We arrived early the next morning and after traversing the Placa district of Athens finally found a hostel for a decent rate (for Athens, at least) and after eating a very European continental breakfast of coffee, bread and butter, set off on our walking tour of the Acropolis. First stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which ranks among the largest temples built in ancient Greece. I guess the project grew over time because it took nearly 700 years to complete. Started sometime before 515 BC, Emperor Hadrian finally completed the colossal structure in 131 AD. However, all that remains of the original 104 giant columns are 15 intact columns and enough boulders along the perimeter to reconstruct the vast majority! Still, these impressive columns, rising 17 meters into the sky and supported by a base with a diameter of 1.7 meters, were enough to conjure a mental image of the temple’s former magnificence. Apparently one column collapsed during an earthquake and I wouldn’t be surprised if that giant column tumbling to the earth alone was responsible for a subsequent tremor! All around the temple were what looked like piles of debris but on closer look it was the crumbled remains of the temple, many of them decorated with elaborate reliefs, valuable artifacts of an ancient golden era. As Steve was packing up his camera equipment, we were approached by a determined woman who told him in broken but firm English that this was an archeological site and that he mustn’t take anything from the site. When Steve said he hadn’t, she persisted in her interrogation, looking at his camera bag suspiciously. To reassure her, Steve dismantled his bag. She finally relaxed and apologized. We think she must have seen Steve pick up a piece of equipment he had laid on the ground and put it in his camera bag! Though at first we were taken aback by her vigilante approach, we were impressed with her desire to preserve this site for posterity, a mercenary for history! Adjacent to the temple is the gate of Hadrian, signifying his contribution to ancient Athenia. On the upper part of the arch are two inscriptions. On the side facing the Acropolis, the inscription reads, “This is Athens, the city of Theseus.” On the other side, facing the temple and the part of the city that Hadrian had built, was the inscription, “This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus.”  Apparently, there was some competition between these two rulers, requiring this very ostentatious clarification of political boundaries! 

Further down the Sacred Way en route to the Acropolis, we came first to a grand public theatre, the Theatre of Dionysis. In this massive theatre at the base of the Acropolis, up to 17,000 people gathered to watch plays by the famous Greek writers of the golden age, such as Aristophanes and Sophocles. Again only 20 of the original 64 tiers of seats remain but you can still imagine the thunderous applause from a packed house, fanned out across this grand amphitheatre. If it rained, theatre goers could seek shelter beneath the Stoa of Eumenes, an arch and promenade built in the 2nd century BC, next to the theatre. Just a little further down the road was a private theatre, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus, named after the benefactor who built it. Built in the Roman style in 161 AD, the acoustics are of unparalleled quality, distinct and well-amplified and it is aesthetically lovely with its stage, made of inlaid white and black marble. This theatre used to provide a ritzy venue for the rich and the famous of ancient Athens. Now, in modern times, it has been turned over to the proletariat and is used for cultural performances during the Athens Festival and otherwise a meticulously restored archeological specimen. Climbing still higher (drum roll, please), we passed through a Roman gate, the Beule, with its simple, but elegant, lines, and turned the corner and there we were at the gateway to the Acropolis, the Propylaea, an enormous entranceway adorned with monuments on multiple levels. A grand stairway and dozens of columns greeted us as we climbed giant steps and gained access to the religious and commercial capitol of ancient Greece. Some columns stood alone, like sentries at the gate of the castle; others supported all manner of structures. I learned the difference between Ionic and Doric styles from a passing tour guide—the Ionic columns have a decorative base at the top and bottom of the column, while the base of the Doric column is plain, like a cylindrical washer of a joint. One of the loveliest of the monuments that bedecked the entranceway was the temple of the Athena Nike. Like many of the buildings at these historic sites, it was under restoration but you could still see its impressive façade. It stand two stories tall with a temple on the top level overlooking the sweeping cityscape, its relatively dainty columns (compared to the monsters that otherwise lined the entranceway) supporting an intricate bas relief depicting the victory of the Greeks over the invading Persians. On the bottom level, twin niches led to a mysterious sanctuary in the bowels of the monument. 

In the shadow of Western civilization
In the center of the Acropolis is the Parthenon. It was amazing to be in the shadow of this symbol of Western civilization, its profound simplicity radiating its alluring essence. It’s true that it appears as though the columns in the middle are sagging under the weight of the columns. Another illusion is that the structure is constructed with straight lines. Remarkably, however, there is not a straight line in the design! Unlike many of the other temples of its stature, all the columns are intact or have been restored and so it can truly conjure the grandeur of ancient Athenia. As massive as this temple is, it was apparently built on the remains of an even more immense temple, built in the 6th century BC. The more “modern” Parthenon was built in 447-432 BC, the golden age of Pericles, and was the destination of the annual grand procession through the city in honor of the goddess Athena, Athens’ patron goddess. This huge annual pilgrimage of the Athenians, called The Great Panathenaea, is majestically depicted on the frieze that lines the upper tier of the temple. According to mythology, Poseidon and Athena vied for the position of guardian of the city. Poseidon presented the people with a horse while Athena very theatrically struck the rock of the Acropolis and offered the Athenians an olive tree. The Athenians preferred the olive tree, the symbol of peace and prosperity over Poseidon’s horse and thus the city was named Athenia. Based on ancient sources, a golden-ivory statue of Athena bearing arms used to stand in the center of the Parthenon. Twelve meters high, it was made of wood covered with ivory. She was sometimes clothed in robes and a helmet, both highlighted with gold plating, and otherwise stood naked in all her glory. Many of the sacred elements in the structure, including the statue of Athena, however are missing or only partially reconstructed, though many appear in the museum on site. One of my favorite museum exhibits was the frieze of the three bearded men, holding water, fire and a bird. Their expressions are quite animated, as if they are watching a very exciting contest. The whole scene becomes even more wild when you discover that their lower bodies are that of a snake! Next to this frieze is the wrestling match between Hercules and Triton. Hercules is pinning Triton, the monster of the sea, rendering him helpless under Hercules’ sheer brawn, his thigh muscles rippling under the strain.

We were all impressed also with the sculpture of the bearded youth carrying a goat draped over his shoulders to sacrifice to the god Athena, created in 570 BC. You can see his youthful vigor in his musculature and expression of eager anticipation as he carries out this important task of bringing the offering to the temple. Peter and Paul seemed to identify with this young man and kept coming back to this sculpture, their common bond of youth spanning the centuries.

There are also numerous statues of Athena, of course; the most famous copy of the original that was in the Parthenon is the Varvakeios Athena.

Across from the Parthenon is a unique temple, built on the site where Athena planted the olive tree, her sacred symbol. It is unusual because it is not symmetrical and has two balconies which are not thematically connected to each other. The balcony facing the Parthenon is particularly striking. It is supported by 6 caryatids, statues of beautiful maidens, also called “The Petrified Princesses” or the “Girls of the Castle,” in flowing robes and crowned in wreaths. They were apparently modeled after particularly beautiful women from Caryes, an ancient city in the Peloponnese. The originals are the last display in the museum, bidding us a blessed journey. I lingered a while in their feminine company, gazing at their exquisite grace and beauty.

An ancient marketplace
By the late afternoon, we were beginning to feel weary from our overnight on the ferry, followed by the day of trekking the Acropolis. We made it to the ancient agora and managed to muster the energy to explore this interesting complex that contains relatively intact ruins of the commercial, political, cultural and religious center of ancient Athena, including a mini Parthenon, the temple of Hephaistos. From this temple, set above the rest of the complex, we could view the remains of what was once a bustling marketplace and central plaza. Paul was impressed with the Stoa of Attalos, a gigantic, two-floor building that served as an ancient shopping mall, now fully restored with columns lining the long promenade. Down one corridor in the marketplace was the power block, a row of statues of the ten heroes of Attica from the 4th century BC. It was a popular gathering place because these heroes, though mute, were in effect Athen’s version of the “town crier”—public announcements were posted to their pedestals.

April 27, 2006:
Black sand beaches
Today was a Peter, Paul and Mommy expedition. After breakfast and preparing our bags for our evening ferry to Athens, we set off to the center of town in Fira. As part of our educational agenda for the day, Peter and Paul went to the archeological museum on their own (they get in free) and took notes so that they could educate me, Steve and Carrol of their findings later. While they were exploring the museum, I took a walk along the path that wound along the rim from Fira to the settlement where our hotel was further north. I visited the largest Greek Orthodox church in town and kissed the icon on display at the center altar, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and sat in the quiet of the church for a while, breathing in its sacred stillness and feeling the presence of my God. I continued along the path, past the cable car that runs down the cliff to the old port, and finally found the Catholic Church in town, St. Catherine, I believe. There was also a Dominican convent and a couple of other Catholic communities on the island, one convent is a joint Catholic-Greek Orthodox community. I was waiting for Peter and Paul when they came out of the museum. They were eager to tell me about their adventure in the museum. Apparently, the museum staff were very suspicious that they were unattended and followed them closely throughout the entire museum, which they found quite annoying. However, they were not to be distracted from their mission and they took extensive notes that stimulated considerable learning. They were quite impressed with the prolific findings of the 17th century BC—pots, nails, saws, etc., many of the artifacts were as sophisticated as their modern-day counterparts. Some of the artifacts found on Santorini date back to prehistoric times. In fact, the fossils of olive trees may be the oldest in the world.

We hurried to the bus station to catch the bus to Perissa, a black-sand beach on the other side of the island. When we arrived, we immediately went in search of a bakery for our picnic lunch but by the time we purchased fresh bread and got settled on the beach, it began to rain. We quickly ate our sandwich and then packed up to find shelter at a nearby café. Sipping hot beverages, we waited for the bus to return to Fira. From the bus stop, we took the path along the rim of the caldera back to our pension, each of us giving a quiz about Greece along the way.

April 26, 2006: Santorini
To the tip of the rim and back
The wind subsided a little today. We walked to the peninsula again and down to the church on the tip of the protrusion, like a bright white bulbous nose on the black and red of the pockmarked face of the cliff, a stern Neptune presiding over his domain of Atlantis in this massive volcanic crater. We sat in the square outside the church, once again soaking in the magnificent view, envisioning the island connected as one necklace of dramatic cliffs and split apart by successive eruptions and earthquakes over the centuries. And, here we sit across from an active volcano capable of reshaping this landscape once again. Incredible! Geology in motion, my expression of the day! On our way back to G-ma safely tucked at a café at Skara, we picked up a sample of red pumice-like lava. We’ll experiment with it later to see if it floats.

We walked along the road for the remainder of the hike to Oia (pronounced “ee-ah”), getting a view of the other side of the island whose cliffs fall off in terraced slopes to flat agricultural, alluvial plains. Rounding one mountain and another along the only road on the island, we finally came to Oia at the tip of the horseshoe that forms the main island of Santorini. It is more colorful than some of the other villages. Here, there are chimneys of terra cotta, even one veranda in bright orange, edifices of peach, doorways in gold and sky blue, tan outlined in brown earth tones, remnants of the castle walls of stone (Steve referred to them as “the upscale condos of the past!”). We walked to the tip of the island and a man standing at the wall noticed that Peter was reading, “The Bourne Identity” and struck up a conversation. Turns out he and his wife are from Queens, New York City, where I was born. They were very intrigued by our adventure and requested in advance an autographed copy of our yet-to-be-published book about our trip! Weary from our 12 km-plus hike, we found a café to park and once again gaze at the amazing spectacle of this caldera. It’s about 5:45 p.m. now. The sky is deepening in a soft shade of pink, and the blue domes of the many Greek Orthodox churches in this little village stand out in vivid relief against this canvas. We took a walk to the tip of the village, where a set of three old windmills create a character-full foreground for the unfolding sunset. However, the clouds eventually created an early curtain call for the sunset, enveloping the sun completely in a thick fog.

April 25, 2006
Blown away by a volcano
We spent most of the day blown away by the natural and architectural beauty of this place (pun intended!). Our patio overlooks the crater and we sat and drank our morning coffee and tea remarking on the many patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. At the tip of one large rocky outcrop, you could see the spray as the waves crashed against this magnificent protrusion and subsided into the relatively calm waters of the protected side of the peninsula. The view of the caldera is captivating, and, after a short jaunt to town to check out the bus schedule, ferries to Athens, and hikes on Santorini, we spent most of the day gazing at its depths. In the late afternoon, I fell asleep in a niche on the patio protected from the nearly always present wind on the rim. When I awoke, the late afternoon sun and its fabulous shadows beckoned me to spend its setting on the dramatic rocky outcrop that juts out into the mouth of the crater. As I walked along the rim, I noted all the dramatic contrasts that make up Santorini. Here is a word collage of my impressions:

  • a golden tiger cat standing by a yellow wrought iron gate to yet another Greek Orthodox church dressed in its white washed walls and blue Byzantine domes.
  • A weather-worn farmer perched on the side of his donkey passes me as he ambles down the cobblestone path while taking in the view of the caldera.
  • Another farmer, with his country style cap, walking amidst his grove of lemon and orange trees and tenderly checking for the ripe fruit.
  • The town of Skaras was yet another outcropping of resorts, houses and restaurants on the rim. One tan complex stood out from its typical neighbors of bright white, the stairs outlined in an earth tone of brown. Like all the buildings, however, all the features are soft, round—all corners, archways, and steps shaped or outlined in soft edges, making them look like successive clouds or pillows of down.
  • Walking down another small walkway in the town, I spotted a black dog scampering on the edge of a wall. It reminded me of the animagus of Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s grandfather.
  • The ruins of stone castle walls juxtaposed with modern dwellings with their clean lines and white walls.

I found the stairs to the towering rocky outcrop and crossed the relatively narrow isthmus, a funnel that created a torrent of wind. At the tip, I was surprised to see that the trail led to a small church tucked into the face of the cliff at the outermost point. It is so concealed it can only be seen from a ship in the crater or from this viewpoint on the trail. I backtracked a little and found a sunny spot on the protected side of the formation to watch the sunset. Shadows fell across the crater shaping and reshaping the landscape. The island of Thirasia, which forms the rim on the other side of the crater but is disconnected from the main portion of the island (was separated in a volcanic explosion in 236 BC), became elongated as a shadow engulfed its side that faces the crater and shrunk again to its actual size as the shadows shifted and retreated. The burnt red lava rocks on which I am sitting and that tower over me, etched with the mighty expression of Apollo himself, appear in relief now in the waning sunlight, while a golden hue bathes the villages on the rim in their glistening white dress. The black of the volcano in the middle of the crater deepens, giving it an ominous aura, its belly smoldering with the destructive power of a massive gastric ulcer in this land of stunning nature. Ships create their wakes in the rippled sea and sail into sunset and the evening mist seemingly slipping off the face of the earth as the day slips away. I picked some daisies clinging to the edge of the cliff that reminded me of Peter and his push-it-to-the-edge personality, flowers of assorted shades of lilac, the resurrection color, for Steve in honor of his conciliatory spirit, wild grasses that symbolized Carrol and her timeless connection with her grandchildren, and golden/orange wildflowers that characterized the sunset and Paul, fiery, yet gentle. 

April 24, 2006
Volcanic crater in the sea

We entered Santorini, a volcanic crater in the middle of the Aegean Sea, through one segment of the rim that had fallen into the sea. There we were sailing into the crater and marveling at the awesomeness of nature—its potential to create and destroy. From the violent volcanic eruption that occurred around 1650 BC, speculated to be one of the most powerful in recorded history, arose this splendid crater in the sea surrounded by majestic cliffs. Most of the people on the ferry were mesmerized by the view of the rim dotted with white washed villages clinging to the edge. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a black mass and looked around to find us sailing right past a smoldering volcano island, Nea Kameni, which arose from the middle of the crater in a volcanic eruption in 1707. It is obviously uninhabited and unvegetated, a mass of pockmarked black lava; however, it is hardly inert. In 1956, its base rumbled in a massive earthquake that nearly destroyed two of the island’s largest cities. Another neighboring island, Palia Kameni, one that provides visitors with hot springs in the sea, predates Nea Kameni by several centuries; it was formed in 197 BC.

From the port, we traveled by bus on a switch back road back and forth, back and forth, until we reached the rim at last. All the while we kept exclaiming in utter amazement at the awesomeness of each view of the crater. At a restaurant in Fira, we inquired about available apartments and found two units with a kitchen on the rim overlooking the crater and, after a savory meal of BBQ’d chicken and lamb, we nestled in for a good night’s sleep.

April 23, 2006
Resurrection Sunday!

Easter Sunday was ushered in with a cold wind. Peter and Paul were very lucky: The Easter Bunny found us in Naxos, Greece, and organized an Easter egg hunt on the rooftop patio and a treasure hunt in our studio apartment. We all enjoyed the unfolding of the treasure hunt that ended with the rolling away of the stone from the “tomb” to reveal a soccer ball for Paul and a travel backgammon game for Peter. By mid morning, we and our friends Roseanne from Canada and Andrew from England had gathered in the lobby for frappacinos, Easter sweet bread, and slices of orange that we had picked from the orchards of Potamia. Roseanne briefed us on Athens and we talked about alternative Easter and Christmas traditions. We spent the rest of the day breaking in Paul’s soccer ball on the beach. It was Peter and Paul vs. Mom and Dad, and Steve and I were glad to register a few goals on the scoreboard over the course of the afternoon. When the ol’ fogies started pooping out, Peter and Paul designed another less strenuous game, Sudden Death, to keep us engaged in the contest! According to Peter, I was the MVP of the shoot out, even though Paul was the high scorer. I guess I got extra points for heart and age! As we turned onto our block, we heard loud music coming from our place. Sure enough, Yani, Andrew and a couple of other guests, one young woman, from Gloucester, Massachusetts, a small fishing village where my mother was born and raised (!), and another from Juneau, Alaska, were dancing and drinking ouzo in the lobby. Yani hailed us and Steve and I joined in the traditional Greek line dance. As everyone retired from dancing, I conceded another dance with Yani until he realized I was shedding shovel-fulls of sand on his marble floor! Sorry, Yani, but my Keenes are terribly notorious for collecting sand. The adults all quickly got drunk on ouzo and the socializing grew more and more animated. In the meantime, Peter joined the fray, sipping on his alcohol of choice, a small glass of wine, and enjoying the conversation, especially our exchanges with Andrew! When we mentioned that we like British English, he vehemently retorted, “What do you mean by ‘British’ English??” and was quite adamant that English is from England and what the heck was all this nonsense about “diapers” and “faucets,” when any upstanding English speaker knows it’s supposed to be “nappies” and “taps.” He was also very critical of American football and ice hockey (“My God, have you seen the padding they wear!”) in light of what he considers the only truly respectable sport—cricket, with soccer coming in as a close second. All in all, a very satisfying Easter!

April 22, 2006
Christos Anesti!
Our friend, Michaela, came to pick us up for the night’s activities at the Metropolis Greek Orthodox Cathedral at about 10:45 p.m. As we walked along the waterfront, we kept jumping like jack-in-the-boxes as fireworks went off at random around us. When we arrived, people were streaming into the church even as the service was proceeding. All of us got a candle. Some of us used it to say a prayer at one of the small altars in the back of the church, but I held on to mine because I wanted to be sure that I would have a candle to carry the light of Christ back to our apartment. At about 20 minutes to midnight, the entourage of priests and deacons slipped behind the doors to the altar (in Greek Orthodox, only the ministers can enter the altar), while the rest of us waited with great anticipation for the Light of the World to emerge. At about 11:45 p.m., all the lights went out, and at about 11:50 p.m. there was a great stir from the altar and out came the chief priest, an older man bedecked in regal attire, carrying a large candle, the Easter candle, and there was a flurry of candle lighting that quickly fanned from the front of the church back to us, while electrical lights flooded the church as well. The priests swept through the center aisle out the back of the church to the special podium, or altar, set up in the middle of the large square outside the church. As midnight approached, the excitement reached a fever pitch; firecrackers were going off all around us, their mighty booms and sparkling colors filling the night sky. At midnight, the elderly priest raised his candle triumphantly as a smoke bomb perfused the air with a pink hue, and we all began kissing and greeting each other with joyful exclamations, “Christos anesti,” “Christ is risen!” I looked at my family and was filled with wonder—Peter was holding his candle up high, radiant with joy, Paul was hovering between Steve and me for protection from any wayward firecrackers, overwhelmed by the intensity of the celebration, Mom was on her cell phone wishing Kat “Christos anesti” and holding up the cell phone to record the joyful din, and Steve was shaking his head in amazement. It was truly a wondrous sight to see the whole community coming together to partake in this celebration so rich with cultural and spiritual significance. As we dodged the flying firecrackers, we watched families walking along the cobblestone streets or driving home, all nurturing the flames of their candles, as we were! Peter kept his candle burning until we were all tucked in bed and lit it as soon as he woke up on Easter morning.

April 21, 2006
Mom and I joined the hustle and bustle of other shoppers, shopping for Easter surprises. We picked up a loaf of the Greek Easter bread that looks like my grandmother’s Portuguese sweetbread (a sweet bread with an egg, dyed red, baked into it) and what we called a Good Friday bread, a raisin French bread, that everybody on the streets was eating today.

Good Friday in the streets of Naxos
At about 9 p.m. we headed to the church we went to last Sunday for the Good Friday proceedings. Peter, Paul and I entered the church and got in line to kiss the icon of Jesus on the cross. After all had venerated this image, the icon was covered in white linen and brought out on a ‘tomb” decorated with streamers of fresh flowers, this one all in white, carnations interspersed with baby’s breath. As we were reading the passion from our prayer book, a procession of altar boys, clothed in glittering gold robes, one holding a simple wooden cross with a crown of thorns draped over it and the others holding ornate gold crosses, all heralded the advancing altar, bedecked in flowers and accompanied by ushers and priests. We, along with a multitude of other people, began following the procession through the streets of Naxos, weaving in and out of the narrow passageways in the town. As we meandered through the streets with the sacred altar, it was as if we were accompanying Jesus on his journey through Jerusalem to the cross. People who lived along the route sometimes doused us with perfume or showered the path with flower petals as a way of blessing the faithful flock. The streets were overflowing with those following the procession or onlookers. Paul picked up a petal as a souvenir for his sketch book. After traversing a good slice of the city, we stopped at a large intersection. After waiting for about 15 minutes and chanting prayers led by a cantor as best we could (as it was in Greek), we heard another group approaching. Sure enough, a woman’s voice led the chorus and soon the entire entourage appeared with yet another altar, carrying the icon of Jesus’ death on the cross, this altar was covered in red and white flowers. This assembly joined our contingent, the two altars bobbing up and down above the crowds packing the streets and sidewalks. Shortly after this merging, we heard a marching band approaching. It was yet another mobile altar and another congregation accompanying it. This was Paul’s favorite, I think because of the impressiveness of the opening act! After meeting at this sacred intersection, the congregations and their altars dispersed back to their churches of origin. We followed ours back and only left for home when it was safely back in its resting place at the church we had attended on Palm Sunday.
April 20, 2006
Land of oranges and lemons
It’s been eight months since we drove a car. With Steve as our designated driver, we set off to tour the island.  Our first stop was the three villages of Potamia, upper, lower and middle. We started out in the town of Ano Potamia and set off on the cobblestone path that connects the three towns. The path leads into a verdant valley, made green by a stream that flows through the valley. Close to the stream bed, we encountered a rather large speckled frog who managed to disappear into the surrounding tall grass before we were able to get a closer look at him. We found others hiding in the algae growing in the shallow, stagnant waters of the ponds that budded off the stream. In Mesi Potamia, we ran into a lemon tree laden with lemons. This is the citrus growing region of the island and we were hoping to find some abandoned orchards in the many abandoned terraced fields across the islands so we could pick our fill of lemons and oranges. Peter and Paul scaled the stone wall surrounding the tree and then climbed the tree and began picking the lemons and throwing them to me to stash in my backpack. Along came a local gentleman and we were momentarily concerned that he might be the owner of the tree coming to reprimand us for picking from his tree. But he was only a kindly neighbor, named Georgio, and he stopped to watch the children pick the lemons and offer suggestions for the good picks. The neighbor across the street came out to look at the kids from her garden veranda. Again we thought we were in trouble but she seemed to enjoy watching the kids’ healthy vigor and our enthusiasm about each lemon that was picked. She even contributed to our haul by throwing us some lemons from her tree. We learned from her friend who was just arriving to visit her and spoke relatively good English, that the small segment of land that this and another tree was on, used to belong to her mother, but there disputes among the family about the ownership of the land, so now no-one claimed it and it lay fallow and unused. It sounds like there were hard feelings about this small plot of land and that this was the most joy that it had brought it a long time. When our pack was full, we said goodbye and continued on our way. Just around another bend was a small church. The Greek Orthodox, like the Muslims, has places of worship everywhere. It seemed in Turkey that there was a mosque on every block. Now here in Greece quaint churches with their little Byzantine domes are pervasive. Many of them are quite small, with the altar taking up the majority of the space, leaving room for only a few worshippers. This little church contained a beautiful icon of the holy family and we stood before its simple majesty for several quite moments before heading back out into the blazing sunshine that was illuminating our path outlined in white-washed stone and stucco.

Paul spotted from afar a church with a series of bell towers further ahead on the winding path and eventually we came upon it. It wasn’t open but we were able to admire it and its idyllic setting among trees bearing a yellow blossom with an unusually long stamen. In the last town, Kato Potami, before we hiked back up to the street, we found an abandoned orange orchard. The trees were laden with fruit so we once again scaled the stone wall, dodging large lizards slithering amongst the crevices, and began harvesting the mother load of the sweetest oranges I have tasted in a very long time. By the time we left, my pack was full to the brim, as were all our pockets! When we finally unloaded our haul in the trunk of the car, we had easily collected several dozen oranges and lemons, plenty for snacks and a good gallon or two of lemon juice concentrate!

Back in the car, we drove to Halki, the old capitol of Naxos. Once the commercial center of the island, most of the homes and other buildings were made in the neoclassical style from Italy. We meandered through the narrow Venetian streets, homes painted in muted pastels and trimmed with shiny black wooden shutters, to the heart of the town and found a café to eat our bread, cheese, olives and tomatoes. For our after dinner aperitif, we visited the distillery next door that produces a local liquor made from citrus fruit called citron and ouzo, as well. A basket of spices used to make ouzo—fennel, anise, star anise, coriander, cinnamon, and the sap of an unidentified tree—was on display. The guide who showed us the distillery’s operations and equipment, the boiler, vats and storage urns didn’t object when I asked if the children could sample the liquor and they were given a shot glass of their preference as well. I liked this liquor much better than ouzo but Paul was so smitten he bought a little sampler bottle of the sweetest variety! I think when he gets to northern Portugal, he’ll add Port wine to his collection. I remember doing the same when I was a little girl visiting Portugal.

Oil gold

Outside of Halki, the terrain changed from citrus to olive trees. The base of many of the olive trees was gnarled and antique-looking and I wondered if these trees were very old. In the small village of Demera, we visited an old-fashioned olive press. It was open and offered a decent and unattended interpretive display, and I found out that olive trees are some of the oldest trees on the planet, some dating back to the Neolithic period! It was a laborious task rotating the olive press, and Peter and Paul spent most of the ½ hour we were there trying their hand and their stamina at it. There was still pits, skins and other debris from the olive in the press and the stone cellar smelled of olives. I was amazed at the many uses of olive oil. Across the centuries it was used to anoint athletes, for spiritual rituals and for medicinal purposes (especially for skin ailments), as well as a staple in all Mediterranean cooking. Olive oil has always been coveted, and flasks of olive oil were often the prize in athletic and other contests.

Adorning the altar

At the oldest church on the island, a group of parishioners and the parish priest were preparing a wooden, portable altar for the Good Friday procession. One woman was outside the church making strands of lilac flowers. When she was finished, another woman would relay them to the priest and others decorating the altar. It was lovely, bedecked in flowers of different shades of purple, and I enjoyed watching them lovingly adorn what would be the receptacle that would carry the icon of the crucified Christ in solemn procession on Good Friday. I don’t know much Greek but I was able to greet them with, “Ya sou tikanis,” (Hello, how are you?) and “O Theo ine maz isou” (God bless you) and express my interest and delight in learning about and witnessing their Holy Week traditions. I also asked the priest what his name was, “Pos se lene?” When I told him that my name is Therese, he said, “Aah, like Mother Theresa!” and let us take pictures of them decorating the tabernacle and of our family alongside the sacred receptacle. One of the women in the group had made traditional Holy Week bread, a raisin, French bread with whole walnuts, shell and all, baked into it, and shared it with our family. It was still warm and, boy, was it delicious. The main altar was the oldest part of the church, dating back to the third century. It was clover shaped and in each of its alcoves was lovely old frescoes, my favorite was of a black Madonna. Over the centuries, the church has been augmented. The newer, front portal of the church is made of marble. When we left, we extended our greetings and blessings once again and I was filled with thanksgiving for this encounter of the heart.

Marble morraine

Our journey continued to the kouros, a huge stone statue of a virile male, just outside the small village of Kinidaros, where our friend Michaela’s family is from. On the way we passed through more orchards of lemons and oranges and stopped to fill up on more lemons. On our way back out to the coast, we passed a spectacular marble quarry, like a white cathedral against the sky. Off the quarry were slides of marble debris, kind of like a moraine of marble! In this area, pieces of marble lay everywhere on the roadside. We stopped at an unattended marble yard and scavenged a sampling of free souvenirs! At the coast we headed to the dramatic south coast, a stretch of pristine white-sand beach along the brilliantly clear blue sea. Steve was the only brave soul who immersed himself in the cold water. The drop off was so severe as he stepped into the water that he demonstrated diving off the shelf immediately into deep water. We clamoured along the rocky coastline but turned back when we discovered that an older couple had found a relatively isolated cove to sunbath nude! 

We attended Holy Thursday mass at the Roman Catholic chapel in the castle and were able to at least follow the structure of the service, even though it was in Greek. We did actually understand much of the last song as it was in Latin and we recognized those familiar Latin roots.

April 18, 2006
Hills alive with wild flowers

We caught the bus to the mountain town of Apiranthos. We were dropped off in the town square. Around the platform were several trails, one to an old church down the adjacent valley and another led up the hill on the other side to an old windmill. In the center of town we walked along the little cobblestone streets that wound through the town and the old castle walls. Like in Naxos, each turn in the path revealed yet another picturesque view—wrought iron gates, usually painted in blue, leading to homes, tucked in nooks and crannies and up winding staircases. Small doors and windows frames were often made from shellacked wood, the natural grain always forming unique patterns; just as there is no one snowflake alike, no piece of wood is identical. At one juncture, Carrol stopped to rest while Steve went one direction to take pictures and Peter, Paul and I went off to scout another spur in the path. When we returned, Carrol and Steve were no where to be found. We searched the winding paths in vain but did find a wonderful bakery tucked around one bend in the path. They were baking all types of bread, but when we were there, the baker was decorating loaves with walnuts (still in their shells) for the traditional Holy Week Greek bread.  With our fresh loaf of bread straight out of the oven, we finally sat down at the café at the entrance to the town to wait for Steve and Carrol to eventually appear which, within 15 minutes, they did. We left Carrol to explore the town at her own pace and take the bus to Filoti while we set off by foot on a hike over the hills to Filoti. Soon we were in the country following an ancient stone wall through fields of wildflowers, immersed in this soothing, quiet, rural setting. Along the way from time to time, the dome of a Byzantine church would peek out from the tall grasses, imbuing the scene with a sacred grace. As we passed the ruins of a civilization of centuries past, stone terraces, silos, barns, dwellings, and irrigation channels, I felt as though we were traveling back in time and my imagination conjured images of these terraced fields being lovingly cultivated by families from another era, well provided for by the bounty of the earth. All that remains of these terraced fields is a jagged outline of stone and an expanse of meadow, now a sea of wildflowers—red poppies, purple irises, yellow daisies, and many, many more flowers of all colors and varieties. It was as if we were walking through a Monet painting, a collage of soft colors bathed us and permeated our awareness, intensifying our appreciation of this experience and all the awesome experiences we have had on this trip. We were all completely absorbed by the beauty of our surroundings, and, forgive me for being cliché, but I couldn’t help but think of the scene in The Sound of Music when Julie Andrews runs into the hills, singing with her vibrant, clear voice, “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music.” We picked a bouquet to share the brilliant color of the setting with Carrol, each flower signifying a unique appreciation for her presence on our trip and in our lives. On our way up the mountain and over the saddle, we saw the occasional goat and dog but never another human being. At the precipice of the mountain, we could see Naxos in the distance and the blue of the Mediterranean in one direction and the sleepy town of Apiranthos cradled in the adjacent valley in the other. We had our lunch at this dramatic viewpoint and then scrambled downhill, off-trail because we couldn’t find the designated trail, toward the old monastery, actually a converted castle. The front door was made of beveled blue glass and a white wrought iron gate consisted of a pattern of simple crosses. We left a flower tucked in one of these crosses and said a prayer for Carrol who couldn’t join us on the trek, as the monastery is now under restoration and was not open for exploration. We continued along a better delineated path to another little white church with blue dome at the base of Mt. Zeus and then on to Filoti. As we were descending the mountain, we heard the bus on its way to Apiranthos and Steve hurried us along as this would be the last bus out of the interior. According to our guidebook, we were to encounter a lovely path that would lead us into the village and indeed, just as in the Wizard of Oz, steps did magically appear, but instead of a yellow brick road, a white marble path wound down into the village. Along the main road we eventually found our way to the café near the bus stop in the center of town and there was Grandma with a friend she had met along the way, Andrew from UK, who ironically was also staying at Panos Studios. An ice cream rounded off a perfectly delightful sojourn into the magnificent countryside of Naxos!

April 17, 2006
In the castle of Naxos
On our way home last night, Michaela had pointed out various entrances to the old castle of Naxos. Like Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India, people live among the walls of the castle, and, as with most of the Greek isles, the homes are painted bright white and trimmed in blue, their gates, doors, and window frames standing out in bold relief against the brilliant white background. Occasionally, there would be other colors, usually terra cotta or the pastels of the Native Americans of the southwest but the predominant theme was white and blue. Interestingly, I didn’t grow tired of this style, perhaps because it suited this island landscape so well with its striking white sands and rocky mountain terrain and the blue sea lapping at its shores. In fact, several times while looking at photographs of the islands, I confused the white of the desert land of these islands, made even more intensely white by the brilliant Mediterranean sun, with snow! Also, each abode was so unique architecturally, fitting into the castle wall or the stone terraced walls that we saw throughout the country side, like a jigsaw puzzle piece, that I never grew tired of exploring these little towns with their picturesque buildings. Before long, we had encountered yet another Greek Orthodox church, once again resplendent with its icons, most notably the Mother Mary and Jesus. As we penetrated deeper into the castle, we began following signs to the Catholic Church and eventually wound our way to it. It was undergoing renovation but we found a chapel that the Catholic community here on Naxos uses for services and were surprised to find that they had adopted the Greek Orthodox calendar this year and hadn’t celebrated Easter yet! We were in time for Holy Week in the Catholic Church! After the last month in a predominantly Muslim country and our experience with the lengthy services of the Greek Orthodox Church, we were glad to find the church of our faith. I met a couple from France who was also interested in attending Roman Catholic mass and we deciphered the schedule and location of the chapel together. Through stone archways and pathways we ducked and coursed while Peter and Paul “trailed” us like spies on an espionage mission until we were satisfied that we had covered the castle, though we were never quite sure as there was no systematic way to travel through it. At the top of several trails were look-outs where we could survey the collage of the surrounding city, sea and islands in the distance, the whole scene in rhythm with the cadence of the waves, the soft white of the homes like billowing clouds rolling in synchrony right into the gentle waves of the sea. And here we were from the castle wall presiding over this lullabic seascape, along with the variegated mountains of the interior, some also soft and rolling, others jagged and upright, standing as loyal sentries.

April 16, 2006
Orthodoxy, Greek style

Since we are in Greece, we are celebrating Holy Week and Easter according to the Greek Orthodox calendar and attended Palm Sunday church services at a local Greek Orthodox Church. There were no times of services posted so the night before I had asked a clerk in a store near the church if she knew and she told me to be there between 8 and 8:30 a.m. When we arrived, two priests were greeting church goers and we filed in and found seats together on the far side of the church. Two kind women behind us told us that Steve and the boys needed to sit on the other side of the church with the men. Two groups of choral ministers were situated on either side of the altar and were already singing incantations of prayer and blessing, though the priests had not yet processed in and the formal services had not yet begun. Carrol found the two of us seats in the center aisle where we could see the proceedings near the altar better. At about 8:30 p.m., the priests finally came in and in a flurry of incense and pomp and circumstance, the palms were blessed and we all went up to receive our palms. Following the cues of the women we were sitting next to, we kissed the priest’s hand and accepted the palms woven into a beautiful, traditional cross with an olive branch tied onto it. Even though it looked as though church had begun, the church was still only sparsely populated and there were no children and I think Steve and I were the youngest adults present. Finally, well after 9 p.m.., the families began arriving and the church filled to overflowing. Interestingly, though more formal in some respects than our Roman Catholic proceedings with the altar closed-off to non-clergy, the decorum was much looser with church goers coming and going up, some right behind the formal procession of the priests and altar boys, and busying themselves with all manner of worship—kissing icons on display near the altar and the elder priest’s hand as he sat in his special chair amongst the congregation at the beginning of the service and lighting candles at small altars throughout the church. Also, in the female quarter of the congregation, women were busy with children and grandchildren and often there was a buzz of conversation among the lively crowd. I created a bit of a raucous on a couple of occasions. The most vocal outburst was when I surrendered my seat to an older woman who seemed to be indicating that she was entitled to my seat. However, a group of women were acting as our guardians and had decided that Carrol and I would have decent seats in this area, I think ordinarily reserved for elders, and a squabble over these arrangements ensued. In the end, a chorus of “shssss” silenced the fray and I was told rather forcefully to remain seated in my chair and room was made elsewhere for the other woman! The other disturbance I caused was when I placed my blessed, and, therefore, holy palms underneath my chair on the floor! One woman tried to explain this to me by pointing to one of the icon altars. I thought she wanted me to offer one of my crosses at the altar and kiss the icon as others had been doing. So, I did this, but not wanting to forego all of my palms, I held on to the rest in my hand. Later, she returned the palm cross I had left at the altar to me, motioning that I should keep it in my hand and not put it on the floor. By this time, I understood the nature of my faux paux and acknowledged her attempt to educate me about Greek Orthodox protocol graciously. Apparently, however, there was strict silence amongst the men of the congregation, according to Steve, Peter and Paul, who were shuffled about and later had to surrender their seats altogether and stood for much of the remaining two hours of the service! There were beautiful icons throughout the church but I found it difficult to focus on meditation on any one icon with all the distractions of this entirely foreign service in a completely indecipherable tongue. After two hours of this, Peter, desperate to make an escape, kept signaling to me to make a quick exit. At this point, we had made it to what looked like communion and I didn’t want to miss it. Parents with young children had gathered outside the altar and the priest was feeding them the blood (wine) with a little spoon and handing out pieces of bread. They returned to their seats clutching and chewing on their generous portions of bread. Suddenly, Peter breached the middle aisle and told me that a communion basket had made it to the rear of the church, come and get it and let’s get the heck out of here! I gathered Mom C and Steve, who was in a semi-comatosed state, his face wore an expression of dazed reverie, and that is precisely and gladly what we did! After 2 ½-hours of high Greek orthodoxy (Peter called it a “2 ½ hour mosque calling”), boy, were we glad to be released into the brisk, bright day!

Monastery on the hill
After our brunch and a nap on the beach, we set off to take a hike in the surrounding hills. We followed the narrow road that wound up the hill, with only a few short-cut forays through the dry brush and cracked earth of this arid scrubland, until we reached the white-washed monastery high on the hill. It was open. We had to bend over to enter the very small, unassuming door, made of unfinished, knotted wood. We followed the sounds of worship to the chapel, and Mom C and I sat down to absorb the peaceful quiet of this intimate chapel, filled with incense, chanting, and golden icons. Peter and Steve, however, immediately bolted, for fear of being sucked into yet another service of interminable length! There were only a few people in the church and we sat next to one young woman and her grandfather who smiled and nodded at us in greeting and welcome. The young woman, Michaela, finally approached us and began asking us where we were from and how long we would be staying in Naxos. We had several questions about Holy Week, and she immediately took us under her wing, promising to get information for us about the schedule of services and festivities. As our whispers became louder and louder in our effort to communicate (though it didn’t seem to bother these worshippers, unlike our church where sustained whispering of this kind generally draws the sharp eye of worshippers in the vicinity), we decided to talk outside the church. We met in the entrance, overlooking the town of Naxos, brilliant Aegean Sea, and surrounding islands, and found out that she lives in Athens with her mother, father and brother, attends university there, is studying philosophy, and is currently visiting her grandparents, who moved back to Naxos after retiring several years ago, for the Easter holiday. Her family is originally from the small village of Kinidaros on the island.  We talked for a good half-hour and she told us she would talk to her mother about inexpensive accommodations in Athens and her grandparents about the services at the monastery and visit us at our hotel the next morning with more information. We said goodbye to her and to the man from Denmark that Steve and Peter had met outside the monastery and trekked to the small, picturesque church, built right out of the surrounding cliffs, not far from the monastery. This little church with its white walls and miniature bell tower topped with a simple cross stands out in vivid contrast with the surrounding barren landscape, a splash of brilliant white in a sea of speckled grey. The white-washed stairway leading to the front of the church was carved directly from the hillside. Inside the tiny church, that could only accommodate a handful of people, were non-original icon prints in frames, a quaint altar dug out of the hillside, candles, incense and precious oils for individual worship, and a few stools. Apparently, many valuable icons were stolen when the many churches that dot the island were originally opened to tourism. Still and fortunately, there are many grand icons left to be admired. On our way back to town, we merged with Michaela who was walking back to town too and we spent the time in a Greek language lesson of basic phrases. When her grandparents drove by, I attempted “God bless you” in Greek and apparently it was good enough to be legible because Michaela told us later that they were wondering how I knew Greek!

April 15, 2006

Shots of ouzo

We are now settled in a two-bedroom apartment at Panos Studios, run by Yani Koufopoulos. Zeni, his wife, met us and showed us the place, and we have enjoyed the family’s home-made wine from the cask in the lobby with our meals, as well as evening toddies of ouzo! Equipped with a small kitchen, we are shopping at local markets and bakeries and preparing our own meals, in fact a few entrees came from the kitchen of our dear friend Zeynep (Peter is recording favorite recipes from our trip), creamy spaghetti with yogurt, beans in tomato sauce and red lentil soup. On our first night in our apartment, we celebrated with shots of ouzo, also courtesy of the friendly management! Ouzo is a very popular, licorice-flavored liquor in Greece. There is a very funny scene in the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” where the staid, non-Greek parents of the groom meet their very boisterous, soon-to-be Greek in-laws and are introduced to Greek cuisine and ebullient hospitality, crowned with shot after shot of ouzo! By the end of the evening, they are completely smashed! In the style of the movie, Paul took his shot, and, much to our surprise, bottomed up, gulped it down and emerged with a big, goofy grin on his face!

Door to Naxos
Our first day on the island was blustery but clear. After a late breakfast at the café at our neighborhood square, we walked to the waterfront to visit the never completed temple of Apollo, what the locals call the “portara,” or “big door.” This is one of Naxos’ most distinctive landmarks as it is located on an island at the mouth of the harbor and greets visitors gallantly no matter what the weather. As stormy as it was last night when we arrived, we could still see it as it is illuminated by night, an eerie mirage in the sheet of cold rain and wind that greeted us. It appears in tourist brochures and posters, and replicas of it in all mediums can be found for sale and on display all over the island. It wasn’t raining this afternoon but the wind was so fierce that the waves were crashing over the walkway to the island, and we had to make a dash for it, our running hampered by the wall of wind we confronted! There was no avoiding getting sprayed, in fact, it was exhilarating and we ran up to the top of the hill to see the grand ruins up close. All that was completed of this temple was this entranceway, constructed of gigantic pillars, because conflict erupted between Naxos and Samos and construction was suspended and unfortunately never resumed. Large boulders lay strewn at the base of this now gateway to the city. The actual portal is roped off because it would be quite deadly should it collapse on some unsuspecting tourist. Peter and Paul dashed up to the highest and foremost pinnacle of the island, where the wind was the fiercest, and leaned into the wind, were suspended briefly by its oncoming velocity, and then fell into it. Further back, it looked as though they were falling off the cliff, but the peak did gently contour into a shelf below their launching point. We could see the giant troughs the wind was creating in the waves and really feel the force of nature from this dramatic point, letting out bellows of exultation. I kept thinking of the movie, “The Perfect Storm,” and wondering if the wind was stirring up a storm of that magnitude and backed off from the focal point of the wind for fear one gust might sweep us off the island!

April 14, 2006

Fantasy isles

We’re in Greece. After just an hour or so on a hydrofoil from the mainland of Turkey, we arrived on the Greek island of Samos in the north Aegean Sea. It is just as I envisioned Greece, houses with walls as white as the sand and burnt red-tiled roofs, built up against the rocky mountainside, cobblestone streets, lit by wrought-iron lamp posts, tumbling through the clumps of homes and small shops, Greek Orthodox churches softening the skyline with the scalloped edges of their Byzantine domes, and sparkling deep blue seas lapping the shores. We meandered through the streets in search of breakfast and quickly discovered as we converted the prices on the menus now in Euros that it is much more expensive in Greece. We finally joined the locals at one of the many coffee shops, found a local grocery store and had a breakfast of the creamiest yogurt we have ever tasted (Peter thought I had made a mistake and purchased cream cheese instead!), muesli, fruit and bread. Sated with this makeshift breakfast, Peter, Paul and I went in search of food to bring with us on the ferry for dinner. In our travels, we passed several orange trees and picked a few for the ride. When we ate them later on board the ferry, we discovered they were fine pickings—juicy and delicious. 

I had to suspend writing on the ferry, when the weather began pitching the boat from side to side violently. Paul and I both began to get seasick. We braved the deck for some fresh air. He finally threw up and we found ourselves a corner on the floor of the lounge so we could get horizontal, curl up in the fetal position and try to ward off the seasickness. We arrived at 12:30 a.m. at Naxos island in the middle of a fierce storm. It took several attempts for the pilot to dock the boat and then we braved the very cold horizontal rain and sustained northeasterly wind in search of a place to stay. Thankfully, proprietors from local pensions had come to meet the ferry and solicit business from the deboarding travelers, and we caught a van to one of these pensions and settled into a lovely room–with hot water and glorious water pressure (aah, did I bask in that shower as I thawed from the cold of the night)—for a good night’s sleep.