And to think we considered canceling this part of the Balkan Odyssey because of all the hype…. Cancelling was never really an option because so much of the Greek part of the journey had already been set in concrete (all our tickets to Athens and from there back to Belgrade had been prepaid as had 2 of the hotels and the rental car), but we did have long, serious pre-trip skypes about the advisability of going to Greece in the midst of a CRISIS.
Lesson learned: take all media hype with a huge grain of salt. And so sad to see that probably thousands did succumb to the fear generated by our 24/7 news cycle as there was evidence, particularly at some of the smaller sites, that tourism was way off this summer. Which of course compounds the Greek financial crisis as tourism forms a huge part of their economy. So sad to see the huge carpark at Epidaurus almost completely empty, for example.
We began in Athens where C and K met us at the airport. They each flew in at different times and waited for us so we could all drive together to the hotel Herodian Athens — a great find, reasonably priced, with killer views of the Acropolis and a block away from the spectacular Acropolis museum. The museum was definitely the high point of the Athens visit for me — thank you Robin Lawrie and others for telling us it is the #1 “must see.”
A backdrop for this part of the trip was the saga of S’s and my luggage which was never loaded onto the Sarajevo-Balgrade flight on 7/22. She finally received hers the day we left Athens and mine came a day after that. Fortunately we had a car and were able to detour back to Athens to retrieve mine en route from the Peloponnese to Delphi. The dull grey tee shirt and olive drab pants which necessity caused me to buy in Athens and then hand wash in hotel sinks thereafter, visible in numerous photos, reflect my attitude about that experience! Apparently this happens fairly frequently in the Balkans. Lesson learned: always keep medicines and a change of clothes in carry-on luggage!
In the Peloponnese we visited Mycenae, Nafplio (wish we had known what a beautiful seaside town that was before having locked in our hotel reservations outside Corinth!), and Epidaurus. It was amazing how you-blink-you’ve-missed-it driving over the Corinth Canal on the expressway now is! Fortunately we hadn’t blinked so we followed the exit to the old road and bridge and I was once again (after over 30 years) blown away by that marvel of 19th century engineering. Our one unfortunate experience in the Peloponnese was taking a hotel owner’s advice and going to Loutraki near Corinth for dinner. Very crowded, Coney Island feel to it, but saddest part was almost no fresh seafood to be had. That proved to become a common theme causing me to wonder if the Mediterranean has been fished out. Tragic to read this. What kind of a world are we leaving to our children…
Mycenae was amazing. How could people that long ago have engineered such a marvel? The “beehive” burial plot pre-dated the first dome by many centuries and stands to this day. Also very interesting: the clergy in that pre-classical Greek era civilization were both male and female. Artists were given a very high place in society and the trade of the Mycenaeans ranged from current day Afghanistan to Spain, the English isles to North Africa. Pretty amazing.
Epidaurus, in addition to being a spectacular theatre (still used today for performances during the summer) was also a center for healing. The museum there had medical instruments dating back many centuries — amazing how recognizable they continue to be. There is evidence that this was a place of worship and healing extending back into pre-history, which proved to be true of several of the holy sites we visited. There really are “thin places” in this world.
En route from the Peloponnese to Delphi we encoutered another sad learning when we stopped for dinner in Thebes. Our waiter in a little taverna on the main square there told us about his situation: he is a young man with 4 years of college behind him plus an MBA and he’s waiting tables for 20 Euros a day. He told us his was by no means an isolated story; it’s pretty rampant among young people throughout Greece since the economic crisis began. I’m not an economist; I see the world through a theological lens. Christ tells us we should forgive — 70 x 70 times. What use is there in continuing to tighten the noose around the Greeks? Did Europe not learn a lesson from the way WWI vs WWII were concluded (heavy reparations vs the Marshall Plan)? Noteworthy also is the fact that Greece was among the countries to forgive Germany’s debt post WWII and now it’s Germany leading the demand for even more austerity in Greece. How much blood can be squeezed from a stone? Again, I’m not an economist; I view the world through a theological lens. With the theme of this sabbatical being reconciliation I have to ask: does that not also apply to the way countries treat each other? We should also worry, overall throughout the world, what hopelessness and no visible prospects for the future might lead people to do. As Bob Dylan once sang “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose…” (Like a Rolling Stone, 1965). I also have to wonder: what’s going through the minds of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) where the unemployment rate is 60%. Does ISIS have any appeal to them?
Our next stop was Delphi. We pulled into our hotel late at night after an “interesting” drive through the mountains (I more than met my match with those switchbacks on Mt. Parnassus…). Awoke the next morning to a spectacular view of the valley below — could see all the way to the Bay of Corinth. Climbing up through the Temple of Apollo, between the heat and the high elevation, was a challenge. K and S made it all the way to the theatre, their parents only got as far as the temple. Delphi once attracted worshippers from all over Greece; each city state had a treasury there and the whole temple area was built up through the gifts of worshippers. People came from far and wide to seek advice from the Oracle — a woman priest over the age of 50 who had opium induced visions. One recorded vision in particular struck a note with me — “you must give 10% to the Temple of Apollo for your plans to succeed.” St. Stephen’s folk, what do you think about this approach to stewardship?
By far our favorite site in Greece was Meteora. Follow the link to read about the incredible history of this “thin” space where heaven and earth really do seem to touch. The first monks to come here were ascetics who sought out the caves in the almost supernatural rock formations in which to live, pray, and seclude themselves from the world. Monasteries were built (can we even begin to fathom how?) over many centuries on top of them, and six continue to be inhabited to this day. Of those six, the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen and Monastery Roussanou are inhabited by nuns (oh how it made my heart glad that Agios Stefanos is inhabited by women religious!). The history of women on Meteora is interesting: for centuries the monks followed the practice of “avaton” (still observed on the monastic peninsula of Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece), which forbids entry by any female anything onto the monastic grounds. Avaton in Meteora was lifted in the 1940’s (our guide told us that there was a fire at the Varlaam monastery and the first responders were women. Faced with the choice of defying the rule of avaton or letting their monastery be destroyed, the monks chose wisely). Interestingly also, two of the monasteries which had become abandoned, St. Stephen’s and St. Barbara’s or Roussanou, were rehabilitated by women and are now convents, or “nunneries” as all the signs say. Both are vibrant and thriving and the population of nuns currently exceeds that of monks in the other 4 monasteries still in operation.
Meteora (which means “hanging in the air” — and being there, especially in winter as we were told when some of the peaks are above the clouds, it is easy to see why the name) was opened to tourists in the early 1960’s. During our epic road trip in 1959 we visited the monastery of Great Meteoron (closed on Tuesdays so we didn’t see it this time); there were no tourists then. What a special thing it was to be able to visit at that time I now realize — thanks to my father’s intrepidness with that Studebaker and my mother’s intellectual passion for all things Byzantine.
We were fortunate to also be able to visit the excavations at the nearby Theopetra cave where evidence points to human habitation going back 130 millenia. Our guide explained the rationale for the location: nearby sources of fresh water, abundant vegetation and wildlife for food, situated high up for defense, and on the summer solstice the sun comes up over a natural stone obelisk situated between two of Meteora’s stone outcroppings in the distance. Even millennia ago our Neanderthal forbearers had a sense of wonder and awe about the mysteries of the universe. A thin space indeed.
Next stop: back to Belgrade and then on to Sarajevo again.