Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

Turkish Delight

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I (Matt) navigated us to the Turkish border the morning of the eighteenth and remained reading in the car while Dan ventured into the offices to assess the costs of entry. He believed the man behind the counter at the border to say it would cost 50 each for a visa. He walked to the ATM and withdrew 100 Euro. He walked back to the man and learned they required Turkish Lira. He walked back to the ATM and exchanged the money into Lira. He walked back to the man and learned they only required 15 Lira each. Let me interject here and tell you that it’s really difficult to differentiate between 15 and 50 in foreign accents. We’ve experienced this several times on the trip, including the time when I insulted a t-shirt vendor at the U2 concert. In my defense, the t-shirt was only worth 15 Euro to me. Dan continued walking, returning to the border checkpoint with our visas before being informed of the required 40 Euro Turkish insurance for our car. He walked to another counter, bought that, and returned to the checkpoint. Daniel drove us into Turkey, delighted to be in Turkey and also off his feet. “To Istanbul!” we almost literally exclaimed.

Once in the city, we sat in a traffic jam off the Bosphorus for an hour before finding parking near the towering Hagia Sophia. We walked across the old city in search of an ATM. Only later did we realize we has walked past half a dozen. Dan must have wanted to walk a little more that day. I’m kidding, but at least we saw more of Istanbul. With our money, we tried to decipher our map and ended up at the Archeology Museums. A few Lera and we wandered the incredible collection of over one million objects from nearly every civilization in history. Istanbul, the bridge between the East and the West, has collected so many impressive artifacts from both sides. These included Hellenistic gravestones with concise, wonderful inscriptions like: “Marcus Flavius, he who caused no harm, farewell.” We also saw the oldest known peace treaty in the world, the Kadesh Peace Treaty, signed between Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire in 1258 B.C. There were some 800 thousand Ottoman coins, seals, decorations and medals. There were even artifacts with crazy-small inscriptions from the early civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt, a few dating as far back as 5000 B.C. Delightfully mind-boggling dates. We walked back between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka Blue Mosque) and found a hotel for the night. A room to ourselves, a warm shower, free parking across the street, free wi-fi access, a fan, clean sheets, comfortable pillows, a small breakfast, and the comfort of relaxing : $25. The ability to look out our room’s fourth floor window, across to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, practically on either side : priceless and delightful.

We walked to the Istanbul Strait for some Turkish coffee and a bottle of water to wash it down. Seriously. I jokingly called it motor oil. Not really, but it was certainly of a similar consistency, really thick and strong. Daniel liked it. Cultural experience. Back at the hotel I called my parents on Skype and Interneted late into the night. The soothing piano music from the restaurant below our window was silent be the time I finally signed off and fell happily asleep, clean body in a clean bed. I mention clean because I hadn’t had a shower since that Monday and had sweat a lot in the week’s summer heat. Another delightful shower in the morning and we left by 11 for church. Over the next two hours were involved in an accident and lost several times.

I had the laptop in my lap, trying to navigate from the Google map, turning right onto a busy Istanbul road, stuck behind a bus, signaled, and when I thought we were clear, Dan pulled around the bus. Halfway into our lane, a taxi whipped around the corner and slid its right, rear wheel well across front, left bumper. Dan pulled off to the side of the road and jumped out to face the less-than-delighted taxi driver. The traffic cops arrived soon and it took an hour to sort out paperwork and work out blame for the accident. An officer assured Dan we were innocent and we left with a photocopy of the taxi driver’s insurance information. We continued to struggle to navigate the city for the next hour, getting “stuck” in a tiny back ally when it suddenly dead-ended and we didn’t have room to turn the Passat around. A woman came out of her apartment and shared laughter with us and with another woman until a man arrived to move his van, letting us out. A couple more narrow roads, steep slopes, navigation in reverse, automotive showdowns, and we found a parking garage and walked to the Dutch Embassy and it’s service in Turkish and English. We attempted to sing along with the Turkish worship music and a man translated the lesson, delivered by four Turkish men. We left the delightful service and were served some coconut, chocolate, and pistachio-flavored Turkish Delight.

We finally visited the Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years after its completion in 537 A.D. Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered its construction and proclaimed of the rich decoration, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the building into a mosque. The Christian features were replaced by Islamic, four minarets were built outside, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. We toured the building, now a museum, enjoying its incredible Byzantine architecture of uncovered mosaics and massive marble pillars and ornamentation. I’m not sure, but Solomon would have probably been delighted. The main columns, each over 65 feet of granite weighing 70 tons, support the 102 feet wide central dome 182 feet above the floor. Not of Solomon’s wisdom but we were delighted. We retraced our steps westward towards Bulgaria.

Matt

The Greeks Knew How to Build

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

It was Thursday (16/07) when we reentered Athens, found a parking spot and set out to explore one of the most famous sites in the world: The Acropolis. The rather expensive tickets (€12) gave us entrance to the Acropolis and a number of other sites in the area. Athens is a hotbed of archaeological sites, with dozens across the city. The city has been inhabited for thousands of years and a center of civilization for most of that time.

The Acropolis, for most of that time, has been the center of Athens. It was the temple, the administrative area, a market, everything. The most impressive buildings are still in the process of being restored. Much of the Parthenon was obscured by scaffolding, for example. Still, to see these places where the history of our civilization began to take its’ current form. We entered through the Propylaea, the ceremonial gate, and began to explore the grounds.

Matt and I split up at the top and visited the sites in different orders. There was the Parthenon, a huge building used as a main temple for the the city which contained a giant statue of Athena, but after having been destroyed after the Turkish occupation, the Parthenon was then raided by the British Lord Elgin (with the Turkish government’s permission) who took almost all of the sculptures and friezes to London leaving the Parthenon a ravaged tabula rasa.

The Erechtheum was just across the main open area. There, the porch of the Caryatids was the resting place of many of ancient Athens’ religious treasures and possible some of its early kings. Many of the other buildings were destroyed, but pieces of columns and other building debris were scattered around the area. Over the edge of the top of the mountain, two large amphitheaters, one of Greek origin and the other of Roman origin are still used to this day. After exploring the site for a while Matt and I met back up and went to the Acropolis Archaeological Museum—just opened in June!—and explored it. It contained much of Athens’ treasures, mainly Greek and Roman sculptures.

Matt and I met up at the car again and went for some Gyros. Cheap and delicious! Then we were on our way again. We drove north west, hit the coast and continued more west past through Lamia. We had heard from the Zimmermans about a cluster of Greek Orthodox monasteries built on top of immense free-standing rock columns called meteoron (from the Greek μετεορον which means “suspended from the heavens” or something… the same root of the word meteor) and intended to get there by the next morning. We got lost a few times on our way but eventually reached the area, although we couldn’t see any of the monasteries. We cooked dinner and slept in a small pull-off area by the side of the road.

The next morning, not knowing exactly how far from the monasteries we were, we got up and, after some breakfast müesli we were on our way. Around the very next corner, we saw it. Dozens of rock pillars rising majestically from the valley floor. They seemed so out of place, like a modern art exhibit in the middle of the desert. The tops were covered in vegetation and seemed relatively flat, the tops ranged in size from a few acres to a few dozen square feet. Within our view, the tops of three of the pillars—one small, one medium, and one venti—was covered with stone buildings with red roofs, like tile icing on a stone muffin.

The entire area reminded me of a computer game I used to play called Riven (an intense, puzzle game played in a world that looks much like the area around the meteoron). A blue sky provided the background for the greys, reds, and greens of the meteoron. There are six of these structures scattered in the area (now a national religious monument, so free of too many chincy souvenir stands, although there were a few). Five of them are monasteries and one is a nunnery. The three we could see from our vantage point by the side of the mountain road above the valley of the meteoron were a small one, I don’t know what it’s called, one medium sized-one—I was later informed is about the average size—named Varlaam, and a very big one named The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron. We decided to aim for the big one and see if we could get in, and then we noticed about a dozen tourist buses and several dozen cars… we were disappointed, but decided to go for it anyway.

We entered The Holy Monastery of the Great Meteoron via a hike down into the valley and a steep climb up a tunnel then stairs all painstakingly carved into the side of the pillar. At the top, we were greeted at the door by a man who we were a bit disappointed that the man taking our money was not dressed in a monk’s habit but rather a tee-shirt and jeans. The entrance only cost €1 though, so that the took the sting away. The monastery itself was more like a museum, but a tasteful museum with some exhibits in English.

The monastery itself seemed much like a normal 8th century monastery which has been rebuilt and improved and expanded several times over the past millennium or so, although the size was limited to the extent of the flat area at the top of the pillar. At the time I was reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and was pleased to discover all the parts of the abbey were almost exactly the same. Seeing a living, active monastery with its chapel, dining room, kitchen, prayer room, library, servants’ quarters, even an ossuary really brought that rather disturbing book to light.

The first section we explored was an historical exhibit in an area that had been a dormitory for the monks. It gave the history of both the Greek state: the history of the modern state and the ancient nation. It also gave the parallel story of the Greek Orthodox church culminating in Greek freedom after World War II and the modern establishment of the Meteoron monasteries. We also visited a shrine to a few orthodox saints and the stories of several martyrs who had lived in the Meteora. Photos will convey the glory of these places and how they glorify God through the way they blend with their surroundings better than I can.

We left the Grand Meteoron and went down the road a bit to a spot we thought would be fun to climb. It was like a miniature version of one of the pillars so we climbed. It was a bit tricky and a bit nerve-wracking at a few points, but enjoyable after doing quite a bit of driving the day before. When we had finished climbing and were heading back to the car, we were confronted by an American. He asked us what we were up to and what brought us to the Meteoron. We talked for a bit comparing stories and then we gave him and his friend a trip down to the town at the bottom of the mountains where their bus would take them to Larissa.

It turns out that the one fellow, Tim, was an English teacher in Madrid, Spain where he was participating in a Spanish government program. He and his friend, Savannah, who was an engineering student in München, Germany, were traveling between Istanbul and North-Eastern Greece just for fun. We had an enjoyable time swapping stories with them, dropped them off at the bus, picked up some good drinks (it was an extremely hot day). Then, we headed for Turkey, although that evening we did make a very quick trip north just barely getting into Macedonia just to add a country with such a cool flag to our trip.

An Hellenic Adventure

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

We went first West to the coast to catch a good road, then South toward the border with Greece. Roads were not horrible, but not great. Our suspension got a few more dings in it but nothing shocking. The border crossing went off without a hitch and we were pleased to be back in Euroland.

Northern Greece was partly wooded, hilly, not fully agricultural but with some fields. Small towns separated by longish distances. We hit the town of Ioninnia and continued south to Patra where a large bridge now crosses the strait to the mountainous Peloponnese penninsula. We camped that night just outside of Olympia.

The next morning we spent several hours wandering the ruins of the temple complex of ancient Olympia where the old games had been held in celebration of the festivals for many Greek gods. We also saw the point where the Olympic flame for the modern Olympics is lit and the trip to the site of the Olympics begins.

We traveled back along the norther coast of the Peloponnese peninsula arriving later in the day at the Acrocorinth, the high mesa overlooking both the ancient and modern city of Corinth. It was spectacular. We saw it from miles away, rising hundreds of feet high separate from the surrounding mountains. On the top and down the sides, walls and ruins outlined the forts, castles, citadels, temples, and other buildings of the ancient Acrocorinth could still be seen. We explored for hours, hiking to the different high points, climbing the ruins and walls, and exploring the underground cisterns. We were also pleased by the entry cost: free.

We left in high spirits and aimed our citröening black Passat for Athens, stopping at the famous canal to see a spectacular bridge that lowers itself deep into the water instead of rising up or splitting to allow wider and taller ships through. It was cool.

We knew we were in Athens when we saw the Acropolis rising from the center of the city and we headed for it. After finding a Lidl and replenishing our stocks, we found a camping spot and spent the night just outside the city.