Friday, October 30, 2015

October 28th – Olympian Excellence

The ancient Greek site of Olympia is probably just as interesting for its historical significance, as it is for the ruins themselves. It's once wonder-ful (it was home to one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the world) array of temples and treasuries have been repeatedly damaged by man (by the Christian Byzantines who didn't approve of pagan temples), and by nature (in a whole series of earthquakes, floods and mudslides).

What's left, is most impressive in its size – when you see the enormity of its scattered pieces of columns and then extrapolate upwards, then those ancient temples must have been amazing constructions when they were in one piece.

The most evocative part of the site is the old Olympic Stadium – where 40,000 spectators would have roared on the sprint races. To get connected with the ancient games, Tracy made me get down on the old starting blocks, and re-enact a sprint. Actually, I was quite impressed by the speed that my old bones got me up to, although after about 20 metres I was already puffing badly, so I sensibly stopped before I had the embarrassment of pulling a hamstring or just collapsing.

I then limped over to the site's museum to be re-invigorated by the quite amazing quality of the sculptures on display. Looking at the re-constructed sculptures from the pediment of the Temple of Zeus, it was hard to believe that these weren't modern copies, they were that perfectly preserved. Our guide explained that when the temple fell down, the statues would have landed in the soft mud that had engulfed the site, and so their soft landing meant that they were hardly damaged.

Without doubt, the highlight was the breathtaking sculpture of Hermes, whose polished marble had been sculpted by Praxiteles 2,500 years ago. In its subtle power and beauty, it was a similar feeling to standing in front of Michelangelo's David in Florence. In fact, the longer I looked at it, the more it reminded me of David – in the carefree pose, athletic build, and self-confident stare of Hermes. In fact, it was so similar, that I thought Michelangelo must have been directly influenced by Praxiteles's masterpiece. But the statue was only discovered on the site in the 1870s. It goes to show that genius is a timeless quality – two masters of their art, separated by 2,000 years, producing work of such incredible power.

Having left the room, I felt compelled to go back two more times just to get another glimpse of it – art doesn't usually have such an effect on a heathen like me. This was the embodiment of the Olympian Ideal, or at least the Ideal Olympian.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

October 27th – A Mountain to Climb in Nafplion

As you catch the tender in to Nafplion, the most noticeable thing about the town is that the steep hill behind it is dominated by an impossibly-situated castle, that looks like it's about to slide down the precipitous slopes at any moment. Every time I've visited the town, I've made an excuse not to climb up there, and always said, "next time". Well, today I ran out of excuses, and we made that epic climb.

So, we huffed and puffed our way up the 800 thigh-aching steps to the castle, all the time cursing those Venetian soldiers for even thinking of building a castle in such a ridiculously steep place. But, the tremendous views over the town and the sea (with the Silver Spirit looking serene in the background), were enough to keep us going.

As we climbed, it was odd to think that this little Greek town was one of the final battlegrounds between the great Venetian and the Ottoman Empires for mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean. Nafplion had changed hands twice between these 2 great rivals, before the Venetians decided to spend huge amounts of money on building this formidable castle between 1712 and 1715. But, this was to be the last ever overseas construction undertaken by Venice; because, just before they'd completed the huge complex of bastions and fortifications, the Ottomans attacked. Ridiculously, the Venetians had left a force of just 80 men to defend this enormous fortress (scarcely enough to even keep a look out over its long lines of walls), and the Ottomans won without a fight.

The fortifications started about half way up our climb, and we followed the snaking lines of crenulated walls up to the huge main bastions – the walls were so tall and thick, and the natural defences of the slope so comprehensive, that you think that the Venetians could have put up more of a fight. If the Ottoman attackers had been as tired as I was by now, there was no way that they'd have been much of a challenge.

As you'd expect, coming down was much easier, and we headed round to Nafplion's small beach on the other side of the headland. Here, sheltered from the wind, it felt like we'd reached paradise – if we'd thought to bring our swimming costumes, we'd have joined the bathers cooling off in those inviting clear blue waters. It was so warm that it was hard to believe that it was the end of October.

We then followed the path along the coastline back into town and went for a relaxing drink in the main square. Well, I say relaxing, but the incredible noise from loads of out-of-control kids (it's half term) screaming and shouting in the square while their coffee-drinking parents ignored them, took a little of the gloss off the serenity of Nafplion's location.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful part of the world, and it's now been added to Tracy's list of places she'd like to stay for a month or two.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

October 24th – Rhodes Without The Tourists

At times in Rhodes, it can feel like the island has become a bit of a victim of its own success. Package tourists flock here for its beaches and warm climate, while cruise ships are attracted here by its combination of ancient sites and the fantastic medieval heritage of Rhodes Town. That means that in the height of summer, or when a couple of the huge megaships are here, those narrow medieval streets can get a little too packed with the holidaying masses.

However, coming at the end of the season and being the only ship in town, is the perfect time to visit this fantastically well preserved Old Town. On a warm and sunny morning, we strolled the atmospheric cobbled streets of Rhodes Town, without having to share them with anywhere else – I don't think that I've ever seen it look better.

We then decided to do a full circuit of Rhodes Town's formidable defences, walking around the grassy moat, surrounded on both sides by huge stone walls towering above us. In places, the walls were pockmarked by canon fire from the many sieges that the Knights of St John had to endure, before they finally had to give up against the massive forces of the Ottomans in 1522. From the large numbers of huge stone cannonballs (measuring at least a foot in diameter) littering the grass, you could see that there had been some ferocious battles here. It was strange to think that this peaceful stretch of grassland, would once have been a killing field – anyone caught in the crossfire of that moat would have been a sitting duck.

Fortunately, we'd timed our return to the ship for lunch perfectly, because, an idyllic morning of sun, history and exercise, gave way to an afternoon of apocalyptically bad weather, as a huge thunderstorm moved in and dumped an enormous amount of rain on the town. At least we had the morning.

Rhodes without the tourists (and without the rain!) is a wonderful place.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

October 23rd – A Biblical Downpour in Antalya

For a place that likes to boast that it gets 320 days of sunshine a year here, it certainly can rain in Antalya. For most of the day, the rain was bouncing off the pavements in a torrential rainstorm that you'd expect to find in the tropics rather than on the Turkish coast. It all seemed to make sense that Turkey was the place where Noah's Ark came to rest after the great biblical flood.

Yet, strangely enough, we were actually quite lucky with the weather for our tour to the ancient Roman cities of Perge and Aspendos. All the time we were on the bus, the heavens opened and the streets were mini-rivers. Yet, somehow, every time we got off the bus, the rain miraculously stopped and we were able to explore without getting drenched.

Our first site was the magnificent ancient theatre at Aspendos – the best preserved theatre to have survived from antiquity. With its steep banks of seats (capable of seating 15,000) and its huge, multi-storey stage back-drop remaining in its entirety, this place effortlessly transformed you back to the days of ancient Rome. It was a quite wonderful sight – as I was leaving, I kept on having to turn round, to get one more glimpse of this amazing theatre.

Then we moved on to the ruined city of Perge, which was at its height in the 2nd century AD. I haven't been here for about 5 years, and at the end of my lecture on it, when I was waxing lyrical that it was better than most ancient sites you can find in Greece or Italy, I suddenly got worried that I'd oversold the place. However, I shouldn't have worried, because it was every bit as good as I'd remembered; plus, we were pretty much the only people there, which made it even better.

It was the sophistication of the Roman town planning that really impressed – with a theatre for 10,000, a huge stadium for 12,000, and an enormous bath complex of fountains, saunas, and under floor heating. Running alongside its long main street, lined with colonnades, was one long succession of fountains and a controlled stream of running water. Not only did it look beautiful, but it would have enabled the Pergeans to wash down their street whenever they needed to, and kept them cool in the heat of summer.

The thing that strikes you on a visit to Perge, was how did a city that was as large, as sophisticated, and as comfortable as this, suddenly lose its significance to such an extent that it was abandoned and forgotten about? Because, with the fall of the Roman Empire, and without the benefit of Pax Romana, the trade that was the lifeblood of the city stopped abruptly (not helped that the river which brought much of that trade silted up too).

The ancient sites we've seen over the last couple of days are wonderful proof that Turkey (or Asia Minor as it was then) really was at the centre of western civilisation 1,800 years ago. Let's hope that the torrential rain that somehow got even heavier in the afternoon, didn't wash them away.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

October 22nd – Dodging the Showers in Alanya

These days, Alanya is a fairly bog standard holiday resort, catering mainly to the German and Scandinavian package holiday market. However, as ever in Turkey, underneath all the modernity, there's layer upon layer of fascinating history to discover.

In the morning, we joined the tour travelling along the coast to Side (pronounced See-day) to visit its ancient ruins, dating from the time when it was a thriving Roman provincial city. On the way, we passed hotel after hotel after mega-resort proliferating along this over-developed stretch of coast - its attractiveness(!) wasn't added to by the torrential rain, the threatening black skies, and the thunder and lightning.

However, with the tempest miraculously stopping just as we arrived, the ruins at Side didn't disappoint, even though they've been almost swallowed up by the tourist industry that surrounds them. Strangely for an ancient site, the set of majestic temples, baths, agoras, columns and theatres are all broken up by lots of modern restaurants, shops and tacky souvenir stalls lining the traffic-clogged streets. These streets were chock-a-block with the holidaying hordes, who, seeing as this was most certainly not a beach day, had come en masse to Side.

We visited the evocative ancient baths, which now house an excellent museum of wonderful statues and sarcophagi that attest to this being a wealthy and sophisticated Roman city in the 2nd century AD. But, the most impressive relic of ancient times was the magnificent theatre. It was originally built into the side of the hill by the Greeks, and when the Romans came, they decided to enlarge it by adding extra tiers of seats supported by huge arched vaults. Seeing this ancient pleasure palace surrounded by thousands of modern pleasure-seekers made it feel like not much has changed in the last 2,000 years – it's all about keeping the masses happy and entertained.

Just before the heavens opened again with avengeance, it was time to head back to Alanya, where we got absolutely drenched getting back on to the ship. But, having dried out, the weather cleared a little too, so we ventured out to see what the town had to offer.

It's actually quite an attractive place, with long sandy beaches, a low-key bazaar, and a huge medieval castle on the headland overlooking it all. I doubt it's such a pleasant environment at the height of summer, when I'm sure it gets as jam-packed as Side was this morning, but on a grey afternoon at the very end of the season, it had an agreeably laid-back atmosphere.

Of course, that precipitous castle high above is a challenge to the cruise passenger who wants to combat the weight gain of too many pre-dinner champagnes and 5-course dinners, so we decided to work off a few calories, by climbing that steep hills that lead for the 2 miles up to its peak. So, we followed the snaking lines of ramparts, stumbling our way up those thigh-achingly steep paths to the top – on the way enjoying some amazing views over the town and the ship below.

Our destination, the 13th century castle, was more about the physical challenge to get up there than what you actually see at the top; but, you get a feel for the dangerous times when it was built, just from the fact that they chose to build the fortress on such a ridiculously tall hill.

Having climbed our Alanya Everest, that well-deserved glass of champagne tonight, will taste just a little bit more guilt free.

October 21st – Crusader Castles in Cyprus

We arrived on the shores of Cyprus on the same day as a boatload of desperate migrants from Syria washed up at the British base of Akrotiri – a reminder that this island's history has so often been dictated by what's happening in the Middle East (Syria is only 62 miles away after all).

As confirmation that turmoil in the Middle East is most certainly not a new thing, today I went to see the rich legacy of the Crusaders here on Cyprus. Having first been thrown out of Israel, and then ejected from Syria by the Arabs, the Knights of St John ended up having to set up camp here on this idyllic island back in the 13th century.

First we went to see the sturdy castle at Kolossi – an impressive piece of medieval military construction. In their time here in Cyprus, the Knights set up sugar plantations (according to our guide, their sugar mills produced enough sugar to keep the whole of Europe supplied every year), and they also got involved in wine production too. Being the Knights Hospitaller, they were obviously following sound medical advice that a spoonful of sugar and a regular glass of red wine were good for the health.

We then moved back to Limassol, to visit the castle there. The castle bore the traces of many of the various powers who have ruled the island. The gothic arches dated from the first Crusader castle here (this was the place where Richard the Lionheart of England had got married when he briefly ruled the island); its defences were then reinforced by the Venetians when they took over in the 15th century (defences that couldn't protect them from the Ottomans when they attacked in the 16th century); the Ottomans then enlarged the castle and left Arab inscriptions on its bastions; while, even the British had a go when they took over in the 19th century, leaving a plaque with "VR" on the outside, to remind the islanders that they were living in the Victorian age.

But, now that the Cypriots are finally in charge of their own destiny, they appear to be doing a fairly good job of it. It's been a fairly challenging last few years since the Greek financial crisis threatened to take down Cyprus's economy, but at least Cyprus appears to have turned a corner. Unemployment is still uncomfortably high, and the empty shops and graffiti on the back streets have similarities with what's happening in the cities of their Greek big brother; but, there isn't anything approaching the same sense of urban decay that we've found in Athens.

In fact, as a sign of Limassol's burgeoning economy, I went down to the sparkling new marina development that's taking place in front of its old Crusader castle. Admittedly, the luxury villas haven't been selling as quickly as they'd like, but the luxury shops and new restaurants that have opened up are a sign of an economy on the rise. I'm sure that the developers hadn't planned that these prime dining spots would be filled with the likes of KFC, Pizza Hut and Wagamama, but they've got to start somewhere.

Our guide told me that the great thing about Cyprus is that it has all the spontaneous vitality of Greece, but combines it with some of the efficiency and punctuality of the British. To a British person who loves the Greek way of life, that's a pretty impressive combination.

PS We've also included a couple of pictures from Tracy's trip to Larnaka, where she encountered the bones of Lazarus, who apparently was so delighted to be brought back from the dead, that he went on a Mediterranean cruise, and ended up living (and obviously dying) in Cyprus.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October 17th – Treated Like a Leper in Crete

Most visitors to Aghios Nikolaos normally head off to the spectacular Minoan ruins of Knossos, but instead I went off to visit the evocative little island of Spinalonga – home to a formidable Venetian fortress, and also home to a tragic leper colony in the first half of the 20th century.

The great thing about Spinalonga is that it's got such a fascinating backstory. As you explore its impregnable ramparts and battlements, you can get lost in the history of the titanic struggles between the Venetians and Ottomans for control of the Eastern Mediterranean. The rest of Crete fell to the Turks in 1669 (only becoming united with Greece in 1913), yet somehow this superbly defended island hung on grimly for a further 45 years.

But, perhaps what gives Spinalonga its greatest interest, particularly on a human level, was that it was home to a grim leper colony from 1903, to a recently as 1957. In a time when very little was known about how to treat leprosy, the only way to deal with an infected person, was to pack them off to remote islands, and pretty much leave them to it. As they were torn away from their families, never to see them again, the suicide rates were high.

At their peak, over 300 lepers would have lived on the island, in a community that mirrored life in "the real world" – there were churches, shops and bakeries all run by the lepers. Gradually, the Greek authorities made efforts to improve the quality of life of those poor lepers, supplying doctors and medical supplies, and the island even had electricity before the towns across the waters on the mainland did.

There was an eerie feeling to explore its deserted streets lined with semi-collapsed buildings and to imagine the torments (both physical and psychological) of those poor lepers, knowing that their condition was only likely to deteriorate, and that they were going to die exiled out here on this desolate spot.

The phrase, "being treated like a leper" has never meant so much as after a visit to Spinalonga.

PS – The Silver Wind was also docked in Aghios Nikolaos alongside the Silver Spirit, so we did a long walk around the harbour to get a picture of these two sisters together.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

October 16th – Piraeus Archaeological Museum

The busy port of Piraeus doesn't always give the best introduction to Athens. Its streets are clogged with traffic, and parts of it look pretty run down and a bit seamy. So, we've always tended to head straight out of Piraeus, as soon as we've got there – but, today we decided that we'd give it another try.

On the previous cruise, a passenger had asked me if I'd been to the Piraeus Archaeological Museum, and I was ashamed to say that I hadn't, so today was about rectifying that. The museum isn't large, but it's well worth a visit. In fact, because it's not so big, you tend to look in more detail at its exhibits, and you get much more from them. Inside, there was a good collection of funerary reliefs and votive sculptures (the kind of thing you'd walk straight past in a larger museum without noticing the finely skilled sculpture), but the star attraction was some amazing bronze statues that were discovered in Piraeus in the 1950s.

These larger-than-life statues had been put into an underground storeroom when the Romans were attacking in the 1st century BC, and had then been forgotten about for the next 2,000 years, until some post-war building work uncovered them. The quality of the work was fantastic – every fold of the toga in wonderful detail, the fingers and toes so incredibly lifelike, while their eyes followed you around the room unnervingly. It really did feel like they could spring to life at any moment.

With a museum as good as this, I won't be dismissing Piraeus as just somewhere to get out of, any more.