Sunday, September 30, 2012

Thirty Days in Greece!

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I arrived in Greece! Some days it feels like the time has flown by while at other times it seems as if I’ve been here forever. Now that  I have lived here for four weeks, I thought I would share some interesting anecdotes about the cultural and political atmosphere in Athens.  In addition to the crazy driving and the abundance of dogs and cats, which I’ve already mentioned, another constancy is the presence of frequent demonstrations. Although I am careful not to get too close or to be involved, I feel privileged to be able to witness such a pivotal time in Greek history. As we have been told by CYA staff members, most demonstrations are not violent protests but planned expressions of Greek democracy. I’ve walked past three or four demonstrations since being in Greece and have never felt unsafe. That being said, this past Wednesday was a day of general strike and some violence erupted in Sytagma Square. I live about a twenty minute walk from this area of Athens so fortunately I was not anywhere near these protests.  I did however feel a small effect of the general strike, as I was supposed to meet my art history class at a museum but couldn’t because it was closed.
Another slice of Greek culture that I’ve experienced came in the form of the local farmer’s market. On Friday, my housemates and I decided to explore the farmer’s market that is held once a week in our neighborhood of Pangrati. It stretches uphill in the center of the neighborhood with vendors lined all along the street. We arrived at about 11 in the morning and were immediately engulfed by the crowds of people. Vendors yelled out prices while eager shoppers picked out the best fruits and vegetables. We ended up getting a ton of fresh peaches, grapes, carrots, and even thirty eggs! On our way back from the market, I looked up and noticed a gas station. I read the sign and took note of the price of gas. The sign read 1.235 euros per liter (that’s not exact, I can’t remember the specific number). Anyway, I was curious to convert this to dollars per gallon so I could compare it to prices in the states. After consulting with my housemates (and google), I discovered that the price of gas in Athens is currently about $9 or $10 per gallon! That’s right, next time you pull up to wawa just be thankful you’re not buying gas in Greece!
In addition to our adventures at the farmer’s market, this weekend a few friends and I decided to spend a day at Cape Sounion. We left Athens on Saturday in the early afternoon and took the 90 minute bus ride down the coast. The scenery we passed while on the bus was beautiful so I didn’t mind the trip. After arriving at Sounion, we ate lunch and then headed to the beach! The weather was gorgeous as usual and the sea was so clear and blue! Thanks to Anthony’s previous post, we kept a look out for sea urchins and avoided stepping on the few that we saw. After our swim, we headed up the hill to visit the Temple of Poseidon. This amazing Doric temple stands on a promontory overlooking the Aegean Sea. I don’t think I can describe how beautiful the view is from this cliff, but hopefully you can get a sense of it from the pictures.

Hope you enjoy!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Freaks and Greeks, Pt. 4 "Crossing the Gorge"

Since Sam pretty much covered everything there is to cover about Crete (and did so spectacularly) I figure I'll talk about the last day of our program wide trip: the Samaria Gorge. Located in the southern part of western Crete, the Gorge is a national park of Greece and a phenomenal place to hike. They argue about the distance, but it's somewhere between a 16 and 18km descent from the mountains, through the dry river bed and out to the sea (facing away from mainland Greece toward Libya). CYA hadn't been able to do the hike for several years because of inclement weather, so it was truly a special treat to be able to see such a natural wonder.

Despite the 5:30 AM wake up call, I managed to stay awake on the long bus ride from our hotel in Chania (on the northern side of the island) up the White Mountains to the beginning of the gorge. The hairpin, switchback turns up the sides of the mountains brought me back to my time in France and my unrelenting fear of the bus skipping a barrier and rolling down a canyon. Wonderful thoughts for 6:30 in the morning, of course. Luckily (and obviously, or I probably wouldn't be writing this post) we made it to the top unscathed, ready for the descent from the north towards that oh-so enticing goal of a black rock beach to the south. One look at the rising sun peaking over the mountain tops was all it took to get me excited for the day.

The first few kilometers are considered the hardest of the relatively straightforward hike - you spend the first hour winding down the side of the mountain on loose stone paths, dropping in elevation at an alarming rate. It can be killer on the knees if you're not careful.

When the beginning path finally leveled out we found ourselves at the beginning of a dry river bed - the very same river that created the gorge the same way that the Colorado River made the Grand Canyon. Springs and pools still dot the hike, and towards the end the river reemerges and follows the path. I'm glad that we did the hike at the end of summer - I imagine that the river must flood the trails when winter ends and the snow melts away from the mountain tops.
I was in the first group at the front of the pack, taking the hike at a brisk pace, so it was about two hours in when we reached the 8km halfway mark and the abandoned village that serves as a rest stop. It was a beautiful but chilling sight to cross the high bridge over to an almost empty settlement. The main inhabitants of the village these days are the kri-kri, a type of small mountain goat that's only found in Crete and on another small island. You're technically not supposed to feed them, but they're too adorable to ignore. Needless to say, I gave away all of the snacks I had packed to a baby kri-kri. I'm sorry to say that of the many, many pictures of a pygmy mountain goat eating from my hand, none have yet been posted. I scoured facebook for any sign of them, and this is the best I could do.

After that wonderful and animal filled pit stop we got on our way down to the lowest point in the gorge, leaving us with an 8k straight shot through the mountain pass. The sides of the mountain suddenly rise up above you on both sides, nearly blocking out the sun and reminding you of how small you really are and how big and grand the world can be. Mother Nature has a love of "Shock and Awe," I suppose. It was at this point that the river started running again, and we had to cross over from one side to the other multiple times, running over precarious wooden bridges that were missing just a few too many log rungs.

 After nearly 4 hours in the gorge we made it to the end and were greeted by the soothing sounds of the ocean. Or, at least I wish it were that easy. There was another few miles of poorly paved roads to navigate before getting to the beach and the ferry that would eventually bring us back to Chania. I got to witness a mountain goat fleeing from our group by climbing a minivan, though, so I guess it was worth it. The beach, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, was truly spectacular. The beach was entirely black sand and pebbles (which were boiling lava hot in the early afternoon sun, but who's complaining?) and the water had the most amazing blue tint that I've seen yet. It was the perfect way to cool off after the hike, and the perfect end to an incredible trip to Crete. And a preemptive thank you to Will and Mary, from whom I've "borrowed" these last two photos because my camera died before I made it to the beach.

γειά σας,

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Journey to Crete!

      There are so many stories I could share about my time in Crete, I don’t know where to begin! I’ll warn you right away: this is going to be a long post! To start off, I’ll just mention a few things about the island itself and about the cities I traveled to while I was there. Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean and the largest of all the Greek islands. It has been under the control of many civilizations and empires over the course of its history and its art and architecture reflect these many cultural influences. Therefore, not only did I get to see the very oldest Bronze Age Minoan ruins but also Venetian and Ottoman structures and art work.  Over the course of five days, our group visited three of Crete’s major cities: Heraklio, Rethymno and Chania. Each of these cities is along the northern coast of Crete and contains a beautiful mix of mountain and sea views. In order to arrive on Crete, our group left the port of Piraeus in Athens and traveled by ferry (overnight) to the port at Heraklio. The ferry ride itself was a new experience for me so I was already so excited to begin the trip! We arrived on Crete early in the morning on Tuesday and launched right in to our busy schedule.
                                                                     On the Ferry!

 Day one began at the Minoan palace and city of Malia. Although it is difficult to picture now, Malia was once a thriving town during the Bronze Age. It was initially built around 1900 BC and was rebuilt several times only to be devestated once and for all in 1450 BC. I still get chills every time I step on a walk-way where I know people stood some four thousand years ago. After visiting the site of Malia our group continued to a second Bronze Age city, that of Gournia. This site, much like Malia, contained many of the standard features of a Minoan city such as a central court. Below are a few pictures from both archaeological sties.

                                                                   A giant Pithos!


                                                                The view from Gournia!

                                                          The Mediterranean!

    After a long ferry ride and two hikes around Malia and Gournia, our group was ready for some relaxtion. We headed to the small (modern) town of Pacheia Ammos where we stopped for a late lunch and a swim in the Mediterannean! There is just nothing like floating in the clear blue water of the Mediterannean while taking in the beautiful mountain views. 
   Day two of our Cretan journey centered around a visit to the most famous Minoan palace: Knossos! Having learned the most about this particular site, I was so thrilled to be able to see it for myself. In addition to walking around the enormous palace complex, we also visited the Archaeological Museum where I got to see the Leaping Bull mosaic that I studied in my very first art history class at Tufts (see pic below). Much of the original archaeological site of Knossos was reconstructed by the archaeologist Arthur Evens so many of the pictures I took include views of his reconstructed columns and mosaics. The original columns were made of wood and thus do not survive.

After seeing many Minoan palaces and cities, our group spent much of the last two days of our trip visiting more recently built structures. These included two Venetian Fortetsa castles, one in Rethymno and one in Chania, as well as a Venetian monastery. The Venetians occupied Crete during the 12th-17th c. AD and were eventually ousted by the Ottomans during the 17th century. It is still possible to see traces of both Venetian and Ottoman occupation on Crete. One example of this can be found on the original Venetian fortetsa in Rethymno where a church was converted by the Ottomans into a mosque. Evidence of traditional Turkish bath houses, called Hammams, can also be seen in Chania.

                                        Venetian fortress (above)/ Venetian church (below)

                                  Another Venetian fortress (above)/ Church turned mosque (below)

                           Church at the Arkadi Monastery (above)/ Turkish hammam (below)

It would be impossible to recount all of my experiences in Crete, but I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites: walking down 4,000 year old steps, swimming in the Mediterannean, visting the only remaining synagogue on Crete, holding a 3,500 year old pomegrante, seeing a reconstruction of a Minoan ship...and many many more!

Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Syntagma, Acropolis, Plaka...and more!

            A lot has happened since the last time I posted! Most notably, I just finished up my first week of classes here in Athens. The four courses I am taking this semester are Ancient Greek (Lysias), Latin (Seneca), The Near East during the Hellenistic Period, and Bronze Age Art and Archaeology. It is just as amazing as I thought it would be to read Ancient Greek and learn about the Bronze Age in Greece itself! I have even had a class on site at the National Archaeological Museum already!
            Before classes started, I spent last Sunday exploring Syntagma Square. In addition to finding a store where we could buy school supplies, my friends and I also wandered up to the Parliament building. We happened to arrive right before the changing of the gaurd ceremony in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier. It was enthralling to watch the regimented and precise steps of the two gaurds and two soldiers.

            Right next to Parliament is the Syntagma Square metro stop inside of which is a mini-museum. All around the underground station are samples of Ancient Greek pottery, sculptures, and even an exposed section of the underground earthen layers with ancient roadways and even burials! My friends and I had to take a picture next to the full skeleton in the subway station, although I’m not sure it came up clearly in the picture.  

          On Tuesday, after my second day of classes, I finally made it up to the top of the Acropolis! I don’t think there will ever come a time when I am not in awe of the Parthenon and its surrounding buildings.  I made it up the steep marble steps and found myself staring in amazement. Since I went just before dusk the whole city had a warm glow as I looked down on it from the walls of the Acropolis. Additionally, it was a great time of day to visit because there wasn’t a huge mob of tourists crowded around. Instead, I was free to slowly wander around and take everything in. One new thing I noticed was evidence of later Roman and Byzantine occupation of the site, such as a damaged corinthian capital and an engraved cross (see pictures below). It’s easy to forget that other groups saw the significane of the Acropolis and altered the buildings for their use (such as converting the Parthenon into a church). It was such an amazing experience walking amoung these buildings and I can’t wait to go back many more times!

            Since I can’t help gushing over Greece’s food, I have to quickly mention my new favorite lunch/dinner spot in Pangrati: Grill and Pita.  My roommates and I have already gone twice this week for dinner! By far the best thing I’ve eaten in Greece so far has been the chicken gyro from Grill and Pita. It’s a delicious combination of shaved chicken, lettuce, onions, fried potatoes and tzatziki sauce all wrapped in a warm pita. It’s amazing!

            That brings me to today’s adventures which included an extensive shopping trip in Plaka, the area just under the Acropolis.  In addition to browsing the jewelry and leather stores, we made our way to the Poet Sandal Maker, a famous family run leather shoe-making shop. Two of my roommates and I happily purchased a pair of custom made leather sandles which we will always remember came from Athens, Greece! As often seems the case in Greece, we stumbled upon some ruins on the way to the sandle maker! Right across from all of those modern stores stood the site of Hadrian’s Library (the same Hadrian who I talked about in my previous post).  Of course, I was mesmerized so I stopped to take a few pictures.

            I’m sorry if this post was a bit long-winded, but I am so excited to share all of my experiences and pictures. I hope you enjoy the stories and I can’t wait to write all about my trip to Crete when I arrive back in Athens next week!


Monday, September 10, 2012

Freaks and Greeks, Pt. 3 "Sea Urchins Aren't Nice"

Last Saturday was the first time I've left Athens since arriving in Greece. On a tip from our modern Greek professors, about ten of us took the coastal bus down the winding highways that hug the cliff side to make our way to Cape Sounion at the southern tip of Attica. The ride was supposed to be 90 minutes long but, in true Greek fashion, took an hour longer. I didn't really mind though, because it was my first chance to see the Mediterranean. Its definitely been said before, but you wouldn't believe how magnificently blue the water is. I smiled the entire trip down - I think I may have creeped a few Greeks out. Mission Accomplished, Am I Right?

There were two reasons to go down to Sounion - the ocean and the Temple of Poseidon. The cape is a cliff that juts out into the ocean, and the Ancients chose the spot for a Temple to Poseidon - God of the Sea. It was really breathtaking to walk up the path and see the marble columns juxtaposed against the waves. I'm so sorry, I can't believe I actually just wrote "Juxtaposed." Anyway, the temple is a great example of the Doric order of building (the columns don't have fancy bases), and one can definitely imagine ancient Greek sailors seeing the temple as a welcome sight and a reminder of home after long voyages away from Hellas. 

 There's a great beach in Sounion, but we decided to be adventurous and climb down the rocks to swim in a secluded natural harbor we saw after walking around the paths. The stones formed some natural steps so it was easy to walk down and get to the waves. The water was so refreshing and warm, and I was struck by how salty it was. The wind can be pretty intense at times too, so the sea mist pounding your face adds to the sense of adventure, I suppose.  Despite how clear and blue the water was, none of us noticed the small black sea urchins clutching the sides of the rocks on the bottom. A few missteps changed that - the barbs are like a combination between a bee sting and a splinter - not pleasant. I only got a few in one toe, and I didn't have that bad of a reaction. My roommate, on the other hand, got some welts all down his side that needed an ointment from a local restaurant. Guess sea urchins can be poisonous, or at least people have different allergic reactions to them.

We made our wall to a taverna on top of the cliff after that ordeal, and then made our way down to the (almost urchin free) beach. As the sun started to set we made our way up the hill again to catch a bus back to Athens. While we were waiting we caught a breathtaking view of the area. It doesn't get much better (or much more Greek) than some ancient ruins on top of a cliff catching the light of a fading sun over the sea. I can feel myself falling in love with this place.

Definitely come to Sounion if you're ever in the area. That's an order, not a suggestion.