Tuesday, October 6, 2015

October 5th – Taking it Easy in Kusadasi

The reason that ships call in at the Turkish port of Kusadasi, is to visit the fabulous Roman ruins at Ephesus. However, seeing as we're coming back here next week, we just decided to do a bit of a walk around town.

40 years ago, Kusadasi was just a small fishing village, but since the tourist world discovered it, it's exploded with developments, and become a crowded modern resort, mostly built out of concrete. However, it's not without its charms, and its bazaar (which is the second largest in Turkey, after Istanbul), doesn't have the same level of hassle as most Turkish bazaars. Here, most of the shopkeepers have learnt that western tourists generally don't like being poked, prodded, dragged into shops, or being conned into going inside, so they just make a joke and appeal to your sense of humour.

If you do go inside, you quickly see that most shops are full of fake goods at low prices – named brands of copied watches, clothes, bags, perfumes and anything else that they're able to rip off. We asked one shopowner how they manage to get away with it, without being sued by the companies – he said that when a brand sends in their lawyers, the shop has already been warned by the police to take that particular brand off their shelves and hide them. Whether that's true or not, these shops have being selling fakes for 30 years plus, and they show no sign of stopping.

Having decided not to contribute to the counterfeit industry, we stopped for lunch and wifi at the new yachting harbour – more frequented by locals than tourists, so no "All Day English Breakfasts" on offer. Being the sad people we are, we took advantage of the wifi to catch up with the most recent episode of Downton Abbey – sitting by the sea and catching the warm sea breezes, made our viewing even better.

We promise to be more cultured next time we come to Kusadasi!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

October 4th - Ancient Ruins and Ancient Donkeys of Santorini

As I said yesterday, I wanted to have a break from archaelogical sites, so instead I sent my trusty photographer out whilst I relaxed!!!

Attached are a few photos of her encounters with the donkeys of Santorini and from the ancient town of Akrotiri.

Akrotiri was buried under a thick layer of ash after the explosion of the Santorini volcano in c1450BC. About half of the village has been discovered but only a small percentage of that has been excavated, as the Greek government don't have the funds to continue with it at the moment.

What the archaelogists have discovered is that, unlike Pompeii, (where the bodies of many people were found), the locals appear to have had sufficient warnings, in the form of earthquakes, to ensure they gathered their belongings and fled. So apart from a few large pots and frescoes, there haven't been a huge number of finds...yet.

It is a wonderful site, and unlike what we saw at Knossos yesterday, everything you see here is all genuine, no reconstructions. Multi-storied houses, water cisterns, a loo with an s-bend, all very sophisticated for 3,500 years ago.

So, thoroughly rested, I'll head off again tomorrow!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

October 3rd – De-constructing Knossos

Today we visited the beautiful little town of Agios Nikolaos, Crete. While Tracy was exploring the enigmatic island of Spinalonga (home to a Venetian Fortress and a more recent leper colony), I was paying a visit to Knossos, home to Europe's first urban civilisation, the Minoans.

Maybe it was because I'd been to the more tumble-down ancient sites of Delphi and Mycenae the two days before, but the reconstructed temples and buildings of Knossos seemed more artificial to me than on earlier visits. Previously, I'd found the reconstructions pretty helpful in getting a stronger idea of what the site would have looked like in its hey-day, 4,000 years ago; but this time I was struck by how much artistic and architectural licence those Victorian archaeologists must have used in putting together their idea of what the palace could have looked like.

The other thing about their reconstructions is that they used concrete to fill in the gaps between the multi-storey buildings when they put the piles of rocks back together again. However, that concrete has proven to be a lot less durable than those 4,000 year old rocks, and is already deteriorating fast. If the money can be found, those restorations need to be restored.

However, it's still mind-boggling to think that this was a palace complex of over 1,000 rooms, set over 5-levels – no wonder that the legend of the labyrinth arose in a period when a building of one or two rooms would have been an architectural marvel in the rest of Europe.

Our guide told us gave us an interesting perspective on how old they were – they were as distant in time from the age of Julius Caesar, as he is distant from our time. But, most of all, a visit to Knossos reminds us of just how advanced the ancient Minoans were – artistically, architecturally, and culturally, they were an enormous step on from anything else that Europe had to offer.

It was another fascinating visit, but I might give myself a break from ancient ruins tomorrow......

Friday, October 2, 2015

October 2nd – Epidavros and Mycenae

This cruise is showing us more ruins than a demolition worker sees in a year. Today, from the charming town of Nafplion, we visited two ancient sites, separated by a thousand years, but joined by their magnificence.

The splendour of Epidavros was immediately apparent – an enormous ancient Greek theatre that still seats 14,000, and is so well preserved that it looks like a film set. The acoustics are incredible – I ran up to the very top row, yet we could still hear a whisper from the stage. Our guide screwed up a piece of paper on the stage and I could hear it at the back row like it was 5 metres away. Those ancients knew a thing or two about theatre design.

Next, we moved on to ancient Mycenae, the birthplace of Greek civilisation on the mainland. The site was more impressive for its setting (on a rocky outcrop overlooking the vast plain of Argos), and for its significance (the finds we saw in Athens from the excavations here were some of the best the National Archaeological Museum had to offer), than it was for what's survived the 3,500 years since the golden age of Mycenae. But, in amongst the ruins, the huge lion gate, and the size and architectural complexity of the beehive-shaped Tomb of Atreus were a reminder of the times when King Agamemnon was leading the Greek forces against the Trojans.

That's the thing about Greece – it's the stories and legends behind its ancient sites that make them so fascinating to visit. Turkey and Italy may rival it for monuments, but the legends really come alive in Greece.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

October 1st – Consulting the Oracle at Delphi

To the Ancient Greeks, Delphi was literally the centre of the world, and for me, it's always been a place that I've wanted to go to. The strong winds that had blasted us in Limnos meant that our call in Mykonos had to be cancelled, which gave us an extra day in Pireaus, and time to make the 3-hour trip out to this truly evocative site.

There are so many legends and historical stories attached to Delphi and to its mystical Oracle, which doled out dubious advice to the Ancient Greek world – prophesies which were totally open to interpretation, but which were used as justification to embark on anything from wars to love affairs. It all sounded like the work of a corrupt spiritualist being paid huge sums to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear, but the power of the sanctuary was unrivalled.

The stirring setting of the place alone was enough to give the place a certain mystery – carved into the steep hills of Mount Parnassus, 600 metres above sea level. While, even allowing for the site being ravaged by various attackers, and by numerous earthquakes and landslides, the ruins gave a strong impression of what must have been the richest sanctuary in the ancient world.

To gain access to the famed forecasting skills of the Oracle, each city and island had to present the gods with enormous riches, which were stored in magnificent treasuries, that were in an unofficial architectural competition with each other. Most of them are only at foundation level these days, however the Treasury of the Athenians had been reconstructed to give us a hint of the opulence of this site.

Aside from the atmospheric theatre carved into the steep hillside and the long stadium even higher up the hill, the most impressive feature was the huge Temple of Apollo where the Oracle herself would have uttered her hallucinogen-inspired sayings, that were then re-interpreted and passed on by the priests to the eager recipients.

After the site, we also had a quick visit to the wonderful Delphi Museum – this was just a small selection of what's been found here, but it was one of the better ancient collections that I've been to – the amazing bronze statue of a charioteer is unique in its detail and preservation.

I've been to many ancient sites, but this has been one of my favourite – for its significance, for its setting, and for what has survived the millennia. I really enjoyed my journey to the centre of the world.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September 30th – Athens, Ancient Triumphs and Modern Tragedies

As we walked from the Metro, we were greeted by two heartrending signs of Athens' modern struggles. A couple of scruffy-looking toddlers played in the street ahead of us, and one of them fell flat on his face yet hardly let out a cry. As we picked him up, his father ran over to apologise and explained (in perfect English) that they were refugees from Syria, and that every time he fell asleep, the children ran off. We turned the corner to come across a group of about 10 people living out there on the street – it made us feel sick with sorrow at the plight of these poor people.

Then, about 15 metres further up the street, crouched between two cars, was a drug addict injecting himself, while an old man walked past shaking his head. Greece has had such a hard time of it over the last few years, and if any city didn't need to be hit by the migrant crisis, it was Athens.

You can walk down Athens' busy main shopping street, and it's like the financial crisis and the refugee crisis weren't really happening, but just head a few streets back and it's another world – one of beggars, refuse on the streets, and so much graffiti that it takes your breath away. If one industry is doing well, it's got to be the aerosol trade.

Yet, somehow Athens isn't a depressing place – it has its troubles, but life goes on, as best it can. So, being tourists, we carried on with doing touristy things, and we paid a visit to the remarkable National Archaeological Museum, full of the most amazing array of ancient sculpture, carvings and jewellery you can imagine. Looking at some of the exhibits on display, it was incredible to think that these fantastically skilled statues were over 2,500 years old.

Seeing all this classical artwork, and walking around in the shadow of the magnificent Acropolis is a constant reminder that Athens was once at the very forefront of Western Civilisation – golden days that seem further away than ever these days. The fact that it's down on its luck at the moment is staring its visitors fully in the face, but I can only hope that this wonderful city can get back on its feet again.