GREECE  RE-VISITED 2006 - Weeks 6~7

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WEEKS 6~7 NEWS -  Delphi in the rain, followed by a visit to the island of Euboia (Evvia), re-crossing to the mainland by ferry for our continued journey north:

It always seems to rain when we camp at Rion, and on the grey morning we left the Peloponnese, heavy rain clouds veiled the hills to the north where we were now heading.

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Delphi and Euboia

The new Rion suspension bridge spanning the Gulf of Corinth was the picture of elegance, and had been expected to make the ferries redundant; but the costly tolls have meant that local traffic still keep the ferries busy chugging to and fro across the narrows.

Across on the north shore, we turned off towards Naupaktos, a town with a long history going back to Classical times. It was here also in 1571 that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, lost his arm in the naval Battle of Lepanto against the Turks; his statue still guards over the harbour. Today, despite the heavy through traffic which blights the town until the new by-pass opens, Naupaktos  is a lively place, its main street lined with butchers and fishmongers and trendy clothes shops. We crawled through in busy traffic to join the main road eastwards into Phokis; across the Gulf, the distant mountains of the Peloponnese peered out through the mist. The rain and heavy cloud made this coastline seem even more dreary, only brightened by the pink-flowered oleander bushes lining the roadside. The one jewel  along this otherwise featureless coastline is the charming little port of Galaxidi, the waterfront lined with tempting fish tavernas, and perfect spot for lunch of meaty octopus with crisply-grilled tentacles. From here, you could look across the bay to the mighty snow-capped massif of Mount Parnassos rearing menacingly upwards into the rain clouds.

Somewhere up there in the gloom was Delphi. But first we had to pass the dreary industrial port of Itea, the area around scarred with the spoil heaps of former bauxite mining. In the drizzly rain, the roads were caked with filthy red mud churned up by trucks. It was a depressing sight after delightful Galaxidi. Thankfully, we began the climb through the olive groves for which nearby Amphissa is renowned, up the winding hairpins to reach Camping Apollon close to modern Delphi village. Set on a shelf at 2,000 feet on the western slopes of Parnassos, it is a heavenly location looking out across the grey-green sea of olives filling the valley below. The panorama stretches from the distant Gulf of Corinth around to Amphissa nestled into the foothills of lofty Mount Giona whose summit graces the western horizon. At least that was the view when we were last here in 2004. For the next 3 days, the entire sweep of the valley below us was filled with misty rain, obscuring the magnificent panorama, and the skyline graced with broken white cloud (Photo 1). And in the morning, the hillside resounded with the tinkling of goats' bells and the call of this year's first cuckoo.

Being just 2 kms from Delphi village, we walked up from the campsite, and in spite of the weather, spent 2 rewarding days exploring the archaeological site and museum, re-opened at last and displaying the priceless finds from the excavations. It is difficult to explain the significance and setting of the oracular sanctuary at Delphi: set high on the steep terrace side of Mount Parnassos, the site looks down across the olive-filled Pleistos valley, and from antiquity has been regarded as sacred. Legend has it that Apollo, something of a parvenu deity, killed the shrine's guardian serpent, Python, and after a penitence-serving exile, returned to establish his oracle in the Sanctuary of Delphi. By Classical times, the Oracle had achieved prominent religious and political prestige throughout the Greek world and beyond. Individual rulers and city-states sought Delphic advice on both personal and political issues, or dedicated costly votive offerings to Apollo which served to beautify the shrine and enhance the prestige of the donor - a sort of ancient corporate sponsorship. Appellants would firstly undergo ritual purification at the nearby Kastalian Spring set under the enormous Phaedriades cliffs, before proceeding up the Sacred Way to the god's temple to put their question. Apollo's priestess would utter the oracular response in mystically equivocal hexameters, and it was for the client to work out the meaning - a sort of ancient predecessor of modern management consultancy. A famous example of Delphic obscurity was Themistocles' successful interpretation of the Oracle's response as to how Athens should protect itself  from the invading Persians in 480 BC; 'Defend the city with wooden walls' was Apollo's advice. Themistocles wisely  construed this, not literally, but indicating reliance on the Athenian navy's wooden ships, and the Persians were defeated in the confined waters off Salamis.

As the power and influence of the Delphic Oracle grew, the site expanded with a huge temple to Apollo, smaller 'treasuries' donated by city-states to contain their offerings, a theatre and stadium high on the mountainside to host the 4 yearly Pan-Hellenic Pythian Games, celebrated with athletic competitions and musical and dramatic festivals (Photos 2 and 3). The Delphi Museum contains a treasure trove of finds from the ancient site, the most famous of which is the beautiful bronze statue of the Charioteer, part of a votive-offering dedicated by the tyrant of Gela, a Greek colony in Sicily, celebrating victory in the Pythian Games chariot race of 478 BC (Photo 4). On a smaller scale is the delicately painted kylix (see right) showing a seated Apollo holding his lyre and pouring a libation. The weather for this year's visit to Delphi had been disappointing, but despite the rain, the misty clouds swirling eerily around the cliffs and filling the valley below enhanced the inherent mystique of the Sanctuary site.

1st May (Protomayia) is a national holiday in Greece, when houses and cars are traditionally decorated with garlands and posies of Spring wild flowers; George, our camper was no exception (see left). We used this day to travel eastwards across Boiotia. While admiring so much of Greek cultural inheritance, one of the modern Greek's less attractive features is the inherent weakness of soul which requires him constantly to prove his manhood by driving at breakneck speed to the homicidal disregard of others; no wonder Greece has one of the highest road death rates in Europe. Thankful to leave the main National Road and the speeding Athenians returning home after the holiday weekend, we crossed the new suspension bridge to Greece's 2nd largest island after Crete, Euboia (Evvia), for a few days' stay in the north of the island. Although mobbed by Athenian holiday-makers in summer, Northern Euboia is almost too peaceful in May. We wove our way by an unending series of twisting bends over the high wooded hills, and dropped down to the coast overlooking the Aegean close to the village of Agia Anna (St Ann), the first customers this season at the thankfully deserted beach-side Camping Agia Anna. As we turned in that night, we again heard the mellifluous song of a nightingale echoing in the nearby woods. And the following morning, the sun returned, enabling us to dry out kit. How often have we remarked on that primordial sense of well-being to feel the sun's warmth after a period of rain.

Continuing to the northern part of the island, we descended steeply from the wooded highlands to the coastal plain; the name Euboia means 'rich in cattle' and this was uncharacteristically lush farming country, with glorious views across the straits to the misty outline of mainland Pilion where we should travel next week. By the village of Ellenika, we paused at Cape Artemisio, where the Greeks had fought a naval battle with the invading Persians in 480 BC, and where the magnificent bronze statue of Poseidon was recovered from an ancient shipwreck and is now displayed in the Athens National Archaeological Museum. Most of the villages such as the tiny fishing port of Orei were devoid of summer tourists and still seemingly in hibernation. In this remote corner of the island, local people went about their business, and youngsters  returned from school on the bus. Just beyond Neos Pyrgos,  we passed a small cycad-fringed beach looking across to the mainland of Thessaly on the skyline (Photo 5).Around on the western coast, we explored the village of Limni (Photo 6); encircled by tree-covered hills, this red-roofed port had grown wealthy from 19th century shipping. Down in the narrow streets, we found the village's Historical and Folklore Museum, a superbly modest collection contributed by local people and illustrating life in Limni. Like other villages in North Euboia, Limni had absorbed large numbers of Greek families displaced in 1923 from Asia Minor by the population exchanges  following the 'Great Catastrophe' of the war with Turkey (see Prologue edition on Greek 20th century history). The curator said that her great-grandmother came from Constantinople, and she spoke matter-of-factly as if one day soon, the Mother-City would again be returned to take its rightful place as part of Greater Greece. If you visit Euboia, a visit to this excellent local museum  would be worthwhile (closes 1-00pm).

We camped that night at the excellent site near to Rovies, just north of Limni, and witnessed a superb sunset across the sea along the island's westerly coastline (Photo 7). Next day we caught the ferry back from Loutra Ethipsou to the mainland at Arkitsa, to continue our journey north. In passing, we paused at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae; the clouds over Mount Iti darkened as we stood by the memorial to pay our respects to the 300 Spartans who died defending Greece against Persian invasion in 480 BC (Photo 8). We speculated how different subsequent western civilisation might have been, had it not been for these brave Greeks' sacrifice, as witnessed by the memorial inscription: Stranger, go tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their word Their instruction from King Leonidas had been to fight to the last against the Persian invaders whose numbers ran to 100s of 1000s, and who drank rivers dry in their progress according to the historian Herodotus.  We should today honour the debt we owe to this sacrifice by being more wary of latter-day threats to our western civilisation.

We were now passing from Central Greece towards Thessaly, and camped that night at the aptly named Interstation Camping. It's northwards now towards the city of Volos and the Pilion peninsula. Follow our continuing ventures next week.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                                                               Published: Friday 5 May 2006

Music this week:
Ena to Helidoni


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