June 15th, 2008


Olympic Dream - 6/12

Today, we took a tour. It's the only one we signed on for, and we did it because it's a 45 minute bus ride from where the boat docks and Olympia itself, and we had to be back at the boat by 2 and it just seemed like a good idea. It involved a fair amount of herding at the front end and following directions (you can imagine how good we are at being herded and following directions), not to mention getting up at 7 in the morning and being relatively coherent, but we got ourselves fed and dressed and to the bus before it left, and that's the important thing, right?

I love Greece. The last time I was here was in 1968, on a teen cultural tour organized by a company that specialized in hiring famous scholars to herd school-children around Europe. In our case, it was H.D.F. Kitto, who wrote a famous book on ancient Greek history. He was not a young man, I'd say in his 60's, and looked more like a turtle than anybody I'd ever seen, but he was an indefatigable walker, a kind and humourous order-keeper, and a gifted lecturer. His wife, a lean and leathery Englishwoman whose hands were gnarled with the athritis that had cut short her career as a concert pianist, organized watermelon seed spitting contests that she inevitably won.

This guide, inevitably, suffered by comparison.

We broke off from our tour not long after getting through the front gate, attaching ourselves to another, who was more interested in architecture and history. The most interesting fact we learned was that there were Women's Games held a little before the men's games (which women weren't even allowed to attend, owing to the nakedness of all the participants and (I would guess) the warlike nature of the competitions). Dressed in short chitons, the women would race, and the winner would get her portrait, in terra cotta, inset into one of the columns of Hera's temple. The men were naked so that any class differences signaled by clothing would be stripped away, as it were, and they could be judged simply on what they could do, not who they were. They were soldiers, not professional athletes, and all the games were skills a soldier needed in battle: running, javelin-throwing, wrestling, chariot racing.

So, in a way, the whole Olympic games was a peaceful way to show which soldiers could beat everybody else''s butts without the need for bloodshed.

No one has ever actually lived at Olympia (except Nero, briefly, when he had a house built so he'd have a place to stay while he competed in the chariot races), except maybe the priests of Zeus and Hera. There's a model at the museum of the way they think it looked in the classical period, with all the buildings laid out tidily, and plenty of room for processions and crowds of spectators. Now it's all tumbled with blocks of limestone and marble, some of them arranged into low walls, most of them just lined up with grass growing over them. They've heaved up a few of the columns in the temples so you can get an idea of where the arcades were, and the foundations of the temples of Hera and Jupiter and Philip of Macedon are pretty complete.

Around and among the ruins are trees: eucalyptus, sycamore, Judas trees, oaks, of course. Olive and pine trees. The air is scented with eucalyptus and flowers. The grass is full of tiny pink convolvulus and red and yellow flowers I don't know. We ate our 11am yogurts sitting above the ruins of an arcade (so the sign told us), sitting on a block of dressed limestone, listening to the crickets shrilling and the birds singing. There was shade and there was a cool breeze, which were both welcome, because it was very sunny and hot as blazes.

Eventually, it was time to meet our group again, so we could get into the museum. Which was prime. The Famous Thing it has is the Winged Victory, the really beat-up one with no face and hardly any wings, and the Hermes holding the infant Dionysus by Praxilites. They're both splendid, especially the Hermes. But I particularly loved seeing things like the molds from the studio of Praxilites--terracotta molds of folds workmen could smooth gold leaf into before fitting it on the wooden statue of Zeus. And the bronze curls (twisty, snaky, wavy) and body parts from votive statues (feet, an ear, a rather startling little phallus). And the entire case of gryphon heads, screaming silently out into the room.

It's not a large museum--maybe 8 rooms. But 30 minutes was not nearly enough to appreciate it's splendors. Still, that's what we had, and we enjoyed it.

Then there was the statutory opportunity for us to contribute our bit to the Greek economy (Ellen bought a t-shirt for her father, with a quotation from Socrates on it. He liked it a lot). And we got on the bus again and came back to the port town.of Katakolon, where we had lunch. Marinated sardines, with oil and vinegar and little slices of garlic, wonderful bread to dip in it, and an excellent taziki which we liked so much we put some on bread and put it in one of the sandwich bags Ellen travels with to take back to the ship for her parents. We got into a conversation with a French couple at the next table. They were feeding the cat (with leftover fish from lunch) and the fish, (with leftover bread). They were touring Greece, very impressed with the size of the boat we were on. There was speculation about the size of the staff, compliments on Ellen's pronunciation and a small grammar lesson. My guess is that she was a teacher. Or it could simply be that she was like me, a natural explainer of things, in season and out.

We parted amicably, us to the grand bateau, them to watch our depart. I suspect it's impressive, if only because whatever anything this size does has got to be impressive.

At the Edge of the Volcano--6/13

This was a long day--long enough so that we came back to the ship too exhausted to do much of anything but scarf down some indifferent pseudo-Greek food in the cafeteria and fall into bed. I didn't even write, which was probably a mistake, considering what a mess the book is currently in, but we've got a sea day on Sunday, so perhaps I can make it up then.

My account, however, can be succinct.

Santorini (the main town is called Thira) is the rim of a volcano. People who like to explain myths say that its eruption and destruction of an early ancient civilization was the basis for the legend of Atlantis. It certainly destroyed a thoroughly civilized and fairly advanced society that had toilets and bureaucracy, and some very beautiful wall paintings and ceramics--also bronze cooking vessels that look a lot like your very own pots and pans. Our favorite ceramic vessels were called duck vessels, which did indeed look something like ducks with their bills in the air (you poured from the bill), and were often painted with eyes, as well as wheat or grapes or even swallows flying across their round bellies. If they'd reproduced one of those, we might have bought it, but, logically enough, they went for the less eccentric shapes instead. And we couldn't find anything painted with swallows.

But I get ahead of myself.

The town of Thira is built along the top of the volcano's rim, overlooking the huge natural harbor of the caldera (the term of art for the hole where the lava came up, which most of you probably know a whole lot more about than I do). To get from the port to the town, you have to climb the inside of the volcano, pretty much straight up. There's a cable car, and there are donkeys, and a very long line for each.

We took the donkeys. It was like nothing so much as the Caucus Race from Alice. Weathered guys in Greek fisherman's hats pop you on top of a donkey, whack the donkey on its backside, and you're off. The donkeys start when the like and leave off when they like. They move in clumps, they wander from side to side of the stepped switchback path, they amuse themselves by walking into the walls and other donkeys. You hold yourself on by the pommel. There's no rein, no way to guide them except by leaning, which they effortlessly ignore. The view was spectacular, but I can't say I noticed it much. I'm glad I did it, but I have to say, the whole experience was a lot more fun when I was 17. We came down on the cable cars, which, while scary, only lasted a couple of minutes, and were in out of the sun.

Once up, though, we could appreciate the view. It's indescribable. Ultramarine water, scrub-covered slopes curving in an almost complete circle, a couple of lava islands like Leviathans sleeping in the lagoon. The white, white houses of Thira and Oia capping the ridge like snow.

After the museum and lunch at a little taverna with Ellen's parents (local cherry tomatoes watered with nightly dew, small and intensely sweet, grilled dorado, grilled sardines, fresh marinated anchovies, a veggie plate, a lovely local wine), we took a taxi to the town of Oia on the north of the island, partly to get away from the 3-ship's worth of shopping cruisers and partly to see if we could find a beach to relax on. We did, eventually, although we had to walk maybe a mile down a hot and shadowless road to get there. There was wild thyme, though, all in bloom, and a lot of wildflowers I don't know. Next time, I'll have to bring a botanical guide.

The beach was rocky, tiny, lovely. We picked up bits of lava, red and black, and tied them into my handkerchief for my Rocks of the World collection. I'm sorry I didn't think to pick something up in Olympia. We dabbled our sore feet and looked out over the sea to the vague blue mound of the next Cycladic Island along, and then we clambered back up to a little sea-side cafe, where a couple of young Greeks gave us a ride back up to Oia. Hot and tired, we found a nice taverna where I had a yogurt with thyme honey and walnuts and Ellen had a coffee and a Greek pastry. The yogurt was thick and creamy and sharp, the honey intense and flowery and not very sweet. The walnuts mostly added texture. It was divine.

Then a little gentle shopping. There's a lot of tourist tat on Santorini, but there's some lovely jewelry, too--mostly red and black lava beads (I visited a bead shop, to good effect) and gold museum reproductions. We got some presents, then hit the cable cars, got on a tender, motored out to the ship, and fell over. It wasn't so much the walking (although we did plenty of that, and mostly steeply uphill or down), as the sun. As I type this on Saturday, I find myself distinctly reluctant to venture out again, despite hat, sunscreen, and fan. But there's no way we're coming all this way and not seeing Ephesus, so we're girding our loins for departure.

Tomorrow, thank heaven, is a day at sea. I will work on my book. I will tell you about Ephesus. I will soak my feet in the hot tub. I will work on my book some more. I will rest up for Malta, where there's bound to be a castle. And you know how I feel about castles.