GREECE  RE-VISITED 2006 - Week 2

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WEEK 2 NEWS beautiful spring days to welcome us back to Greece: magnificent deserted wild beaches, Independence Day celebrations in Gastouni, a total solar eclipse at Ancient Olympia, and the Temple of Bassae high in the Messinian mountains:

You would be hard put to find a more delightful place this side of heaven than Camping Aginara Beach in early Spring: the air is refreshingly warm, the silence is deafening, apart from the ever-present birdsong, and the sound of surf crashing onto the beach is mystical. And on a sunny morning, the view from under the trees which fringe the beach, across to the island of Zakynthos silhouetted on the misty horizon, is unforgettable.

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It is so good to be back, especially for the sunsets across the Ionian Sea (Photo 1). On our first night in Greece, still bemused after the traffic mayhem of Patras port, we found sanctuary in the delightful gardens of Camping Rion, close to the ferries which still ply across the Gulf of Corinth, and now overshadowed by the new and elegant Rion Bridge. Next morning, a 100 kms drive through pouring rain brought us round the NW Peloponnesian coast to recuperate for a few days at Aginara Beach near to the village of Glypha (see left). And as if to welcome us, Spring weather brought a revitalising warmth to the air (Photos 2 & 3).

March 25 is Greek Independence Day; our reason for coming out early was to share in the celebrations of the day traditionally marked as the date  in 1821 when Germanos, Patriarch of Patras, raised the banner of revolt against 400 years of barbaric Turkish rule, leading to Greece's reassertion as an independent state (see right). Every town and village has its parade to mark this important anniversary, with youngsters in national costume, the boys dressed like young evzones guards with white kilts and pom-pom shoes. We joined local people in the nearby small town of Gastouni for the Independence Day Mass and Procession, led by the town band, along to the wreath-laying ceremony at the war memorial. With Greece's tragic history during the 20th century, there is no shortage of war-dead to be remembered. We felt honoured to share in this colourful and moving ceremony (Photo 4).

Just how many highlights can you cram into one busy week?  We moved on to Ancient Olympia to see the treasures at the Archaeological Museum, to witness March 29's solar eclipse, where else but at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and as a climax to the week, to visit the Temple of Apollo at Bassae in the mountains.

The modern town of Olympia is not an attractive place, the main street lined with emporia selling schmuck to the 1000s who flock here daily in armadas of tour-buses. Just above the town is Camping Diana, kept by a hospitable retired academic who chats away to us in French. It must be the only campsite-reception with the works of Plato, Demosthenes and Herodotus on the bookshelves. We had set aside 2 days here to revisit the Archaeological Museum and to witness the total solar eclipse at the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, which seemed somehow the appropriate place for this. And as if a good omen, all around the grassy banks were carpeted with scarlet and lavender-coloured wild anemones.

The Olympia Archaeological Museum displays all the finds from the nearby Sanctuary site. Much of the military hardware, religious artefacts and sculptures now displayed were dedicated to Zeus at Olympia by ancient Greek city-states, commemorating victories in war or successes in the Games to boost their political prestige, making this one the finest collections of archaeological treasures outside Athens. 2 such dedicatory offerings preserved in the Museum are the helmet worm by the Athenian general Miltiades in defeating the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon in   490 BC (see left), and the elegant 330 BC statue of Hermes with the infant Dionysus, sculpted by Praxiteles (Photo 5) and preserved virtually intact. We were fortunate in having one of the few quiet days for our visit, enabling us to study and to photograph the beautiful exhibits largely in undisturbed peace. It was another day of happy recollections.

SOLAR ECLIPSE:  View details of Eclipse   The central line of totality for the solar eclipse of 29 March 2006 passed from North Africa, across the Aegean between Crete and Cyprus, and on over southern Turkey. Although some 200 miles from this line in NW Peloponnese, we hoped we should experience almost full totality. All we needed was clear weather. We had chosen to witness the phenomenon at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games established here in 776 BC and originally part of the religious festival. The centrepiece of the Sanctuary are the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, built in the 5th century BC to house the monumental gold and ivory cult-statue of the god, one of the 12 wonders of the ancient world. The temple stood for almost 1000 years, and the collapsed Doric columns which once surrounded the temple now lie strewn across the ground from when an earthquake destroyed the structure in the 5th century AD. The mighty foundation base of the temple still stands, and it was at this spot that we chose to observe the 2006 eclipse (Photo 6). Viewed through dark eclipse-viewing glasses, the moon began its transit across the sun's surface at around 12-40 pm Greek time, and took an hour to achieve the maximum level of cover, leaving just a crescent sliver of remaining sunlight (see right). Even with this degree of penumbral shadow, such was the sun's power that normal daylight was only marginally reduced to a sort of evening dusk with slightly increased cool wind. And tourists wandered by, oblivious of the Titanic happening taking place. Athens News, the weekly English-language Greek newspaper, reported that those observing on the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo just off the Turkish coast witnessed a period of totality lasting 4 minutes; normal daylight was cast into gloom and the birds fell silent. At Olympia, the spectral dusk confused local cocks who began crowing. As the moon passed across the sun's face and normal daylight resumed, we continued our exploration of Olympia's archaeological site, revisiting the Stadium where the ancient Games were held and the other partly restored monuments (Photo 7). Memories of this day's happening, witnessed in this setting, will last a life-time.

Leaving Olympia, we headed up into the mountains to the small town of Andritsena, perched precariously on the steep mountain-side, where we had promised ourselves a soublaki lunch at a tiny taberna in the narrow main street visited in 2004. This simple meal was yet another highlight of the trip. You need to experience Greek hospitality and values to appreciate fully just how much of civilised life we have lost in UK's mercenary society. Our reason for venturing high into the mountains was to revisit the 5th century BC Temple of Apollo Epikourios ('Helper') at Bassae. Pausanias, the 2nd century AD travel writer reports that the Phigaleians built the temple as a thanksgiving to Apollo, their protecting deity, for sparing them from the plague. Despite being poor mountain farming folk, the Phigaleians commissioned the top architect of the day, Ictinos from Athens who had built the Parthenon, to design their votive offering to Apollo. The remote location was a cult-site, high on a shoulder-plateau of Mount Kotilion at 3,700 feet. Amazingly, after 2,500 years of ravaging by weather and earthquakes, the Classical temple at Bassae remains one of the best-preserved in Greece. Despite now being swathed in a protective canopy (see left) as part of the conservation programme, it is a startlingly impressive sight (Photo 8). To see the temple in the bright morning light, we wild-camped nearby at 3,500 feet. Our reward was to experience an awesomely bright dawn as the sun flared out above the mountainous eastern horizon at 7-15 am; it was as if Apollo himself was welcoming us to his remote retreat in the mountains.

From Bassae, we wound our way down the narrow mountain road, past the modern village of Phigaleia, back to the coast at Tholo - but that's a story for another week. So stay tuned ...

Sheila and Paul                                                                                    Published: Sunday 2 April
Next edition to be published in 2 weeks

Music this week:
Traditional Greek air Ambeta


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