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Saturday, 9 August 2008

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands:Part 1-Athens

In 1995 I did a hiking trip package tour to Peloponese and the Ionian Islands. As always I wrote it all up in great detail and now, over the next few weeks, you will get the chance to share it again with me.

Incidentally the best thing about putting all this old stuff in a blog is I get to re-read it myself and live it all again without having to move out of my study. Of course, all names have been changed. I wouldn't want any of these people tracking me down!

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands (c) Robert Hale 1995


I've been to Greece a few times and the pattern has always been roughly similar :- fly to Athens, leave the city as quickly as possible, go hiking in the islands, end up back in Athens and leave the city for a second time as quickly as possible. From this you might form the opinion that I don't like Athens. You wouldn't be far off the mark. Once you have visited the various famous ruins you realise that there is little of interest to keep you in the city. It's probably my least favourite city in the world which considering that it's the capitol of a country that I like so much is really rather a shame. This particular trip took me off hiking on Peloponese and around the Ionian Islands.

The Athens' air was still too warm and had a sultry humidity that had eased only slightly with the sunset. I reached out and used my fork to break a corner from the large slab of feta cheese that lay on the single Greek salad being shared between five of us. The other two had chosen taramasalata. Greek salad consists of quartered tomatoes, onions and cucumber with feta all drowning in olive oil and is also known as Peasant's salad. (It is wiser not to enquire too closely about the contents of taramasalata.) The group as a whole was split between two tables at the restaurant - ours with seven on it and the other one with eight. We were eating outside in the warm Athens air while inside, clearly visible through the ornate railings, a Greek wedding celebration was taking place accompanied alternately by ersatz versions of up to date pop music and authentic versions of traditional bazouki music. I chewed on the highly salted cheese and considered the initial opinions I had formed both of my fellow tour members and the city in which we had spent the day.
Jenni, the tour leader, had met us at the airport - a model of personable brisk efficiency. She was in her early twenties with short dark hair, a nice smile and the kind of tan that only holiday guides can get other than from a bottle. Throughout the day she had done exactly what all good tour leaders should do, which is to say that she had organised everything invisibly and given the totally false appearance of having done nothing. Tour leaders have a terrible job. There is so much work that they have to do, especially on the first and last days of a tour, but they must still be around whenever you want them and look as if they are having as much fun as the punters even when they aren't. Jenni was managing the trick with skill. From the airport, at two O'clock in the morning we had transferred to our Hotel, the Hotel Evripides in Athens. During the bus ride I had talked briefly to a couple of people but had no chance to form an opinion about them and had not seen any of them since then until the start of the meal.

We had arrived at the hotel at about three in the morning local time and the hotel seemed to be fairly basic by normal standards which made it positively palatial by the standards of trips I was used to. The only real problem with it, the reason for which would not become apparent until our return visit, was the noise. Considering that it lay at the junction of a minor side street and a very minor back street it sounded as if it was in the middle of a monster truck racing circuit. A swift night-cap of John's booze deadened the noise a little but not enough to make sleeping easy so that our already brief rest was broken into ten minute fragments of almost sleep.

Then the alarm call came and it was time to be up and about to visit the Acropolis which is of course more or less mandatory for Athens first-timers. The Acropolis is probably the best known ruin in the world. Started in the 14th century B.C. and demolished and rebuilt with astonishing regularity until about 400 B.C. it has an image identifiable the world over. The fact that all modern Greek buildings seem to be in a state of similar disrepair simultaneously sums up the abilities of the ancient and modern Greek builders. Every conqueror of the Greeks has had a go at a bit of DIY modification to it.. The Parthenon was modified slightly by the Christians into a church of the Virgin. The Franks built a new palace around the Propylaea which was in turn occupied by the Aga when the Turks occupied the country. In 1466 a minaret was added turning it into a mosque and in 1678 some rather more heavy duty alterations were done accidentally when the besieging Venetians hit the Parthenon with a cannonball which would have had less effect if it hadn't been being used as a gun-powder store at the time. Having captured it the Venetians tried to remove some of the statues to send home but managed only to break them in the attempt. The efforts of our own Lord Elgin in the early 19th century to 'acquire' statues and antiquities at a knock-down price stripped away all of the good stuff and managed in the process to give his name to the Elgin Marbles which have lived in the British Museum ever since. From 1855 onwards the Acropolis has once more been in the hands of its rightful owners, the Greek people, who have made considerable efforts to restore it to its original form. Their lack of faith in ever retrieving the Elgin marbles is shown by just how many of them they have had re-carved from modern marble and replaced in situ.
We were joined at the gate by our guide for the tour who spoke with the kind of over-precise English that only foreign tour guides ever really manage.
"Please take every possible care when you are walking, the marble steps are sometimes extremely slippery." she said cheerily leading us up the sometimes extremely slippery marble steps. Once through the gate the ruins are the second thing you notice. The first thing is the crowd of people that you are going to have to get through to get to them. These may be impressive ruins but the thousands of people that fill them are more impressive, representing as they do almost every nation on Earth all gathered to look at the ruins of a long dead civilisation. There was an air of smugness about them, an air of 'that couldn't happen to us'. I wonder if the ancient Greeks used to run guided tours to the ruins of Atlantis ?

Once you have managed to get through the entrance, which is the major bottleneck, the people thin out a little into more clearly defined scattered tour groups, each one following its own guide speaking the appropriate language. You can take a moment to survey what is certainly a spectacular sight. The most impressive building in the Acropolis is the Parthenon. This is the one that you always see on post cards, the rectangular array of columns perched dramatically on top of a hill with the visitors artfully air-brushed out. At the moment it is being renovated and reconstructed so that bits of it are scattered around like numbered Lego bricks waiting to be slotted back into place. So as not to spoil the viewing pleasure of the public the crane which sits inside the Parthenon and which will be used to pick up these pieces, has been painted in the same shade of grey as the marble of the monument itself. It hardly shows up on the photographs at all.
Away to the left as you approach the Parthenon are the restored temple of Athena, the restored Caryatides and the restored Erechtheum - all restored because of the previously described incidents of war, occupation, vandalism and outright theft. There is also museum on the site in which all of the best of the surviving original pieces are displayed.

After the Acropolis our brief guided tour took us back to the city via various other sites of interest. ("This is the hill where Saint Paul preached to the Corinthians, that is the best preserved temple in Greece and is dedicated to Phoebus, this is a large hole in the ground.") We were then left to our own devices for the afternoon..
The two Johns - who knew each other already -, myself and Drew sat at a pavement eating Souvlaki. The second John was a tall amiable bearded bird-watcher. Throughout the trip he would suddenly raise his ever-present binoculars to his eyes to track a distant, almost invisible, speck and then declare in satisfied tones 'Greater Crested Warbling Grebe' or some such thing. He was also a classical music buff, as was John number one who corresponded with him and exchanged tapes from time to time in spite of a major schism on the subject of Beethoven. Drew was a quieter one, harder to fathom although apparently easy-going enough. Even at the end of the holiday I had little more idea about him than I did there, right at the start.
The tables had been laid out in a row along the low railing topped wall that surrounded a churchyard filled with orange trees whose branches were bent low under the weight of the fruit and the blossom. No sooner had we started to eat than a thin cat with large sad eyes came from the church and put its head and paws through the railings. It 'maeioud' and then waited politely. John the birdwatcher peeled a piece of pork from the skewer and dropped it onto the wall. The cat delicately picked it up and ate it. Then it disappeared for a moment before reappearing with a friend. Between them they probably ate as much of our lunch as we did although both of them refused the slices of lemon.

We took an after lunch stroll down through a market which seemed to be the Greek equivalent of a particularly down market car boot sale. Stalls selling bits of broken cameras were laid out next to stores with cardboard shoe boxes full of used telephone cards. A wooden doll in Victorian clothes had been placed on a rocking chair overlooking a table laid out with seedy Greek pornography showing semi-naked young men with rippling muscles. At other stalls second hand clothes and shoes were piled higgledy-piggledy into mountains that people were burrowing into like miners in search of gold lamé. At one end of this street was the entrance to the temple of Phoebus where the ticket kiosk appeared to be unmanned so that we strolled in without paying the 400DR asked for on the notice. This temple is small but exceedingly well preserved, in fact it is in considerably better shape than the section of modern Athens which surrounds it. It is in the centre of a park which has been landscaped around a number of excavations. We wandered round taking photographs until it was four O'clock when the park closed then we went back to the real world in search of a quick drink in a shady taverna.

Another cat was begging. I tossed a piece of my mixed kebab a few yards away and it followed it leaving me alone. I had already come to realise that Athens is the cat capital of the Universe. While I ate I flicked my eyes from person to person in our group trying to summarise them in my mind and checking that I could recollect their names.
There were three Johns. The first, my current roommate, was a camera shop manager from the Wirral and was a friend of the second who was an architect and bird-watcher. Drew was an enigma. Keith was an average height average weight I.T. manager. Roy and Louise were a couple of ex-hippies who had, as ex-hippies do, mutated into barn dancing folkies. The third John and his wife Angela were a pleasant couple with a cheerful good humoured outlook. Jenni was the tour leader. She had short dark hair and an efficient way about her. Kate was a small thin slightly older lady from Canada. Ann was about my age with a nicely dry northern sense of humour. Caroline had a boyfriend somewhere in England and a self-possessed manner. Kristine was a pleasant enough thirty-something. Simon, a Wolverhampton train spotter with a patronising ‘matey’ attitude towards the locals was missing having chosen to eat elsewhere.
I went back to my dinner and tried very hard to ignore the small army of cats that had now gathered.

1 comment:

jean said...

Hi, really enjoyed your article, especially insights on your tour leader Jenni "had organised everything invisibly and given the totally false appearance of having done nothing."

I think tour guide/leader is hard yet interesting work if one could make it. We got a site, providing online tour guides booking. With your experience, if you could share some thoughts, that would be great. :)