GREECE  RE-VISITED 2006 - Week 5

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WEEK 5 NEWS -  Argolis,  Easter at Mykines (Mycenae) and the Diakofto~Kalavryta rack-railway:

North of Sparta, by the roadside towards Tripoli, stands a stark white marble memorial, with the Greek national flag fluttering alongside. The inscription reads: Here, on 26 November 1943, 118 Spartan men were murdered by the Germans' and the list of victims' names includes sets of 3 and 4 brothers, and a father and 2 sons. Such barbarous atrocities committed by Germans during the WW II occupation of Greece, ranked with the mass requisitioning of all food supplies and contamination of left-overs to deny scraps to starving Greek children (Georgios and his sister aged 2 and 4). Why, we wondered, is Greek hospitality extended to German visitors who, as we have witnessed, still today behave with the same unfeeling arrogance as in the 1940s?
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On a more civilised note, we drove north from Lakonia into the high central plateau of Arcadia, to revisit the remains of the 4th century BC Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea, set incongruously in the centre of a work-a-day farming community opposite the village's modern church. The Tegeans' ancient predecessors must have been wealthy folk since the temple was only 2nd in size to that of Zeus at Olympia. The fluted marble column drums still lie where they fell alongside the almost complete base of the temple; it is an evocative sight today - in antiquity it must have been an inspirational dedication to the city's patron deity, Athena (Photo 1).

Over the mighty Mount Ktenias Pass, we descended the much improved series of hairpins, down to the Argolic Gulf for a relaxed stay at New Triton Camping near to Drepano. This popular holiday area has a plethora of campsites to choose from, but New Triton right by the sea-shore stands out as modern and clean, with lovely shady pitches, and most important, a warm and hospitable welcome from the family. The SE corner of Argolis, with its barren limestone hills, drops steeply down to the Saronic Gulf  at Troezina, famed in the Theseus legends. Nearby is Lemonodasos whose mild, sunny climate supports reputedly 30,000 lemon trees (Photo 2). While in Argolis, we just had to revisit Tiryns, another of the Mycenaean palaces-citadels; as you drive along the road to Argos, there are the 'mighty walls', just as Homer described, built in the 13th century BC and still looking formidable. However many times we visit Tiryns, the ambience never ceases to thrill as you enter the citadel's gateway and look out across the walls over the modern orange groves.

As Easter approached, we moved on to Mykines village (Mycenae) for Easter, the most important festival of the Greek Orthodox year, when families gather in their home village for the celebratory weekend. As we drove up the familiar eucalyptus-lined lane into Mykines, we too had the feeling of returning home for the holiday weekend with the Darsinos family at Camping Mykines (Photo 3). The Good Friday evening service is a sombre occasion, with the floral-decorated Epitaphios, representing Christ's bier, placed reverently in the centre aisle of the church (Photo 4). This is followed in late evening by a candle-lit funeral procession, as the Epitaphios is solemnly paraded around the village accompanied by chanting of 'Kyrie Eleison'. Saturday night is the climax of Greek Orthodox Easter when, at the midnight majestic Anastasi liturgy, Christ's Resurrection is celebrated: just before midnight, the church lights are extinguished, then as the bells toll out for midnight, the altar curtains are thrown back and the Priest emerges holding aloft a clutch of candles, the Return of the Light symbolising Christ's Resurrection. Our candles were lit by neighbours and we in turn passed on the Light with the words 'Khristos anesti' (Christ is risen) with the customary response 'Alithos anesti' (Truly he is risen). The church terrace was a sea of light as everyone, carrying their lighted candles, gathered outside for the Easter blessing. We all exchanged traditional Easter greetings 'Chronia Polla' (Many happy returns) and 'Kalo Pascha' (Happy Easter), as fireworks cracked out across the village. It was such a privilege to share in this moving and memorable celebration.

Easter Day was even more special. Each family traditionally spit-roasts a lamb (seen hanging in butchers' shops all week!) to celebrate the end of the Lenten fast. We were again invited to share in the Darsinos family's Easter celebratory lunch. Photo 5 shows Marianos and his son Aristeides proudly standing by the psistaria (spit), roasting the lamb home-raised on their farm. Again it was such a privilege to be made so welcome, and to Marianos, Angeliki and their family, we say: Ευχαριστουμε πολυ για την φιλοξενια σας.

While at Mykines, we had of course to visit the archaeological site of the Mycenae citadel, which Homer's Iliad described as 'rich in gold', and which gave its name to the whole 2nd millennium BC Mycenaean civilisation. Dating from around 1,650 BC, the hill-top palace-fortress was the power base of kings like Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the Trojan Wars. Mighty walls surround the fortress, said to have been built by mythical giants, the Cyclops; how else could the huge stone blocks have been lifted into place? The most impressive structure is the Lion Gate guarding the approach, so-called from the carved relief of 2 lions mounted over the lintel stone which itself weighs over 20 tons (Photo 6) - the earliest such monumental sculpture in Europe. And to add further to our visit, we saw a Neumayer's Rock Nuthatch building its nest on the stonework of one of the Mycenaean tholos tombs and a Blue Rock Thrush flitting among the excavations - history, archaeology and ornithology, all in one pleasurable day.

Having said our farewells to Mykines, we headed north over the vine-covered hills of the upper Asopos valley, famed for the Nemean wines of the Agiorgitiko (St George) grape, past the ancient acropolis of Titani, and down to Diakofto on the shores of the Corinthian Gulf. Our reason was to travel on the spectacular rack-railway which climbs 2,500 feet from Diakofto up the Vouraikos Gorge to the small town of Kalavryta. Built in 1896, the narrow-gauge railway winds up through tunnels, across dizzying bridges and cliff-hanging ledges in breath-taking wild terrain (Photo 7). But even at this time of year, the train fills up and seats are limited. For Greeks, a visit to Kalavryta is something of a pilgrimage; it's a town with a tragic history. The clock on the church in the town-square stands permanently at 2-34; this is the precise time when, on 13 December 1943, in yet another of their infamous reprisal massacres, the Germans took all 720 men and boys age 13 or more to the hillside above the town, and machine-gunned them all in cold blood. The women and children were locked in the school, and only escaped being burnt alive by breaking down the door. The town was totally destroyed, as was the nearby Monastery of Agia Lavras where Patriarch Germanos had raised the flag of revolt against the Turks in 1821. The Monastery of Mega Speliou was burnt and looted, and 20 of the Monks were shot, the eldest of them 88. Can such utterly barbarous acts of savagery ever be forgiven? The railway journey up the Vouraikos Gorge was unforgettable; but in a different vein, so was the sense of outrage and sorrow we felt at the memorial to these crimes against humanity committed by Germans in 1943, which left a destroyed town of widows and orphans.

Springtime in the Peloponnese is the finest time of the year, with hillsides usually a sea of wild flowers. This year, indiscriminate use of herbicides has made the flora less spectacular than usual, but despite this, we have assembled a photographic collection of wild orchids seen during our 5 weeks in southern Greece:
                                           Click here to view the Orchids Page

Our circuit of the Peloponnese is complete and we have now arrived back at our starting point at Camping Rion beside the new elegant suspension bridge which spans the Gulf of Corinth (Photo 8). We shall now be crossing the bridge into Central Greece, heading north first to consult Apollo's famous oracle at Delphi, then to spend a few days across on Greece's largest island, Euboia (Evvia). Stay with us and share our ventures via our web site, and do email us with your views.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                    Published: Friday 28 April

Music this week:
Traditional Greek air Chronia


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