Monday, December 10, 2012

Greece, Day Nine

(Rick's words are in black; Jenese's words are in blue.)

We began our day with the usual complimentary breakfast, but with the added treat of fresh figs in our yogurt and honey.  Those would be the figs we purchased from a fruit cart the previous day.  Wow, that's a good combination.

It was my very favorite breakfast of the trip.

A young guy wearing an army surplus jacket delivered our rental car to the front of the hotel and met us in the lobby to take care of the paperwork.  Initially, he offered to drive us to the outskirts of Athens before handing off the keys, which sounded great to me, since my anxiety over driving in Athens traffic was building by the minute, but he ultimately decided that it made more sense for me to join the fen of Fiats and asphalt (but no honking) right were we were at.  That's because the street running in front of the hotel would become the highway that would take us all the way to Corinth.  "Just go straight, straight, straight," he said more than once.

I had read that there would be toll booths along that highway, but I didn't know whether I would need exact change for the tolls, so I asked the guy.  I should have been more precise, because he got down to basics, drawing a diagram of a toll booth and explaining how to stop and pay the attendant.  I wanted to say, "Oh, I know what a toll booth is.  I'm from Oklahoma."

He took us out to the car, which was a little Fiat just like the one we rented on Rhodes, except that it was silver and the interior was dustier.  (Our raspberry Fiat was the cleanest rental car I'd ever seen.  And no wonder:  The owner of Zeus started scrubbing the thing down almost as soon as we dropped it off.)  He started to explain how to put it into reverse, but we stopped him, telling him that we were experienced Fiat drivers.  Do we look stupid, or something?

He laughed when we explained how we'd come by our expertise.

He left us and we arranged ourselves in the car and checked multiple maps, including the one on the iPhone, before deciding it was go-time.  That's when I realized I didn't have the key.  A five-minute search ensued: seats, floorboard, backseats, bags, pockets.  Giving up, I decided to go to the front desk to call the rental company to tell them that the idiot who brought us the car ran off with the key.  As I started to walk away from the car, I spotted the key still in the door.  Oh.

You're welcome.  It's easier to spot stuff when someone else suggests it.  Now, would everyone like to hear the song I made about our raspberry Fiat?  I've been waiting for an opportunity to share it with you.  Now would be a good time, since we're going to be in the car for a while.  You can probably guess the tune.  Sing with me! 

Back in the car, we looked ahead and noticed a road angling off to the right and a sign containing the Greek word for Corinth pointing in that direction.  We drove a raaaaasberry Fiat . . .  This prompted a debate about the meaning of "straight, straight, straight," with me ultimately deciding that "straight" meant straight, regardless of the sign.  There were objections from the co-pilot seat, but I put the car in gear, took a deep breath, and merged into the most dangerous traffic in Europe.

 The kind you find at E-U rent-al car stores . . .

It really wasn't bad.  The traffic flowed smoothly, everyone stuck to their lanes, and I never had to make any turns.  We went "straight, straight, straight" until Athens was behind us.  Raaaaasberry Fiat . . .  The sea came in and out of view on our left, and then we started passing through long tunnels bored through the beige limestone.  The traffic really thinned out and I was surprised by how few exits or crossroads there were.

Really was small, but we wouldn't pay for more . . . 

This made the sight of the toll booths all the more surprising.  The road suddenly widened to about fifteen lanes, with just as many booths straight ahead.  They were clean and modern looking, with slick digital directional boards.  I don't think all of them were manned, but most of them were.  I've never seen so many toll booths in one place.  (Obviously, there were no lines.)  Raaaaaspberry Fiat . . .   Farther down the road, we came upon an identical row of toll booths, but these were all dark -- the best kind of toll booths.  Maybe austerity measures have taken a whack out of the toll booth worker corp.  (When a government starts laying off tax collectors, things are getting really bad or really good, depending on your perspective.)  I think I loooo-o-o-ove you . . .  Of course, if they would simply move half of the workers from the first row of toll booths to the second, everything would probably go just as smoothly.

Wasn't that fun?  I had to amuse myself while we were driving on Rhodes, because Rick couldn't stand the distraction of incomprehensible Greek radio in the midst of nerve-wracking Greek traffic.  I didn't make up a song for the silver Fiat, though.

Our first tourist stop of the day was the Corinth Canal.  It's a canal that connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf and the Aegean Sea.  The canal consists of a single channel 26' deep, excavated at sea level (thus requiring no locks), measuring 20,820' long by 81' wide at the top and 70' wide at the bottom. The rock walls, which rise 300' above sea level, are at a near-vertical 80° angle.

The canal has a fascinating history, almost none of which we were aware of when we were there, since we were on our own without a Dino.  I've since learned that the canal was first proposed in the 7th century BC, first attempted by Nero in 67 AD, but not actually completed until 1893.  The project was considered a failure at the time because so few ships opted to utilize it due to the narrowness of the canal and the strong winds.  Today, even fewer ships utilize it, most of which are tourist boats.  It's still impressive to look at, though.

We drove over the bridge and parked in front of the Greek equivalent of a Stuckeys or a Flying J.  There were already a couple of buses parked there, which had brought in loads of Greek teens on a field trip.  Those same teens were now clogging the narrow pedestrian section of the bridge, so it took us a while to worm our way to the middle so that we could pier over the rail.  We then continued across and then crossed back over the twin bridge going the other direction.  I spotted a bungee jump office, which was tempting, but it didn't seem to be operating at that moment.  Before hitting the road again, we went inside the store to browse among the touristy knickknacks.  We bought a bag of white figs, which Rick Steves recommended that we try.

The restrooms were so clean that Rick left a tip for the janitorial staff.  Really.

From the canal, instead of backtracking and getting back on the highway, we continued driving west, hoping we could reach Corinth this way.  Sure enough, we ended up driving through the new city of Corinth (Korinthos), which is a dull-looking place, and then finding signs that directed us to Ancient Corinth, which is several miles outside of Korinthos.

Ancient Corinth is an inhabited town of several thousand.  The ruins of 1st-century Corinth, which is what we were trying to get to, are at the center of the town, but finding those ruins was not easy.  There were road signs, but at some point they just stopped, so we must have misconstrued the pointed direction of the last one, causing to get lost.  We shot through Ancient Corinth and then turned around and just started driving around aimlessly.  We started seeing signs for a castle, indicating it was located at the top of the mountain that rises above Ancient Corinth.  We knew nothing about there being a castle in the area, but we decided to check it out, thinking that we might be able to spot the ruins from atop the mountain.

Another unlooked-for Greek treasure!

The castle turned out to be a massive fortified citadel called Acrocorinth, which is also the name of the mountain.  It certainly dwarfed any of the castles we had seen on Rhodes.  It was continuously occupied from archaic times to the early nineteenth century.  The highest peak on the site was home to a temple to Aphrodite during the time that the Apostle Paul was at Corinth.  (It would later be used for Christian worship.)    The citadel was heavily fortified during the Byzantine Empire; then became a a fortress of the Franks after the Fourth Crusade; then the Venetians; and finally the Ottoman Turks.  You can see the remains of construction from all these eras, but there were very few explanatory signs and we had no guide, so once again we were clueless as to what we were looking at.  We just wandered around (for free!), repeatedly saying, "Cool!  Look at that!"  We didn't even make it to the remains of the temple to Aphrodite, since we didn't know it was there.

Of course, the view was spectacular.  We could see far out into the Gulf of Corinth.  Also, just as we had hoped, we were able to look over all of Ancient Corinth below us and spot the ruins we had been searching for.  Actually, we spotted them when we were only half way up the mountain.  We saw columns and tourist buses, which was all that we needed.

Ancient Corinth exceeded all of my expectations and ended up being one of my favorite sites on our trip.  I didn't think there would be a lot to see there, and that it wasn't a big tourist draw other than for bible tourists.  It turned out that the archaeological site was quite extensive, with a lot of structures that would have been in existence during Paul's stay in the city.  Pottery suggests that the site was occupied as far back as 6500 BC, but the Corinth of Paul's day was distinctively Roman, having been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and then rebuilt under Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

It's a bit difficult to picture it as it might have been, as you walk between the foundations left intact, and the rubble gathered into neat piles.  I found myself wishing for a three-dimensional model.

The site is dominated by the Doric temple of Apollo, built on a rocky hill.  Seven columns are still standing.  The main agora runs to the south of the temple, flanked by a series of shops and stoas.  There are the remains of sanctuaries, temples, theaters, fountains and public buildings.

Temple of Apollo with Acrocorinth in background
For us, the highlight was the bema (tribunal), which is a platform from which Roman officials would have passed judgment on legal matters.  It stood along the south edge of the agora's central section. It is from here that Paul spoke to the Corinthians as recorded in Acts 18:
And when Gallio was deputy of Achaia, the Jews with one accord began an insurrection against Paul, and brought him to the judgment seat, saying, “This fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to the law.” And when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said unto the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would have it that I should bear with you. But if it be a question of words and names and your own law, look ye to it; for I will not be judge of such matters.” And he drove them from the judgment seat. Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the judgment seat. But Gallio was concerned about none of those things.
(Gallio was the son of Seneca (a Roman rhetorician ) and the elder brother of L. Annaeus Seneca ( Roman philosopher). At Rome he was adopted by L. Junius Gallio, a well-known rhetorician, from whom he took the name of Junius Gallio. Archaeological evidence has been found confirming Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia, just as the book of Acts had recorded. At Delphi, archaeologists found a stone which might have once been attached to the outer wall of the Temple of Apollo. Inscribed in it is a copy of a letter from Claudius to the city of Delphi, naming Gallio as proconsul of Achaia.)

It was a thrill to be able to stand on the spot where this encounter took place.  (Although, there is a minority view saying that this would have taken place at another building in town that served as a basilica.)  There were a man and two woman there who were obviously aware of the bema's significance and were excited to be there.  The man was deaf, so Jenese assumed the women were, as well.  Using sign language, she asked one of the women to take our photo.  The two of them signed back and forth until Jenese got overwhelmed and the woman started speaking, explaining that she's not deaf.  We learned that they were Jehovah Witnesses from New Zealand.

Well, the interpreter was from New Zealand, but the gentleman was actually from Denmark, I believe.  And they used American Sign Language!  Small world, this.

The Bema
They were not the only tourists drawn to Corinth because of the biblical connection.  There were quite a few tourists there, many of them American, who had that church-going look about them.

I never thought I'd get to be a pilgrim, of sorts.

We spent a great deal of time at this archaeological site.  We walked the Lechaion road, which was a paved street that led from the agora, through a monumental propylon, to the port.  We could imagine Paul walking down that street, past the shops and the and the Peirene fountain (which the ancient Greeks believed to be the favorite watering hole of Pegasus).  We didn't have a Corinth audio guide by Rick Steves, but we had something even better -- a podcast of Dino Roussos at a Harding University lectureship, describing Ancient Corinth.  (It can be found on iTunes.)  It was not as good as having Dino actually with us, but it informed us of some facts we otherwise would have missed.

Peirene Fountain (baths)
For instance, archaeologists discovered an inscription dating to the 4th-century AD identifying a synagogue at Corinth.  This is after the time of Paul, but it confirms that, at least at that time, there was a large Jewish population in the city.  Also, near the theater, there was found  an inscription dating to the 1st century that reads: “Erastus in return for his aedileship [position as magistrate] laid [the pavement] at his own expense."  In Romans 16:23 Paul conveyed greetings to the Roman church from several people, one of whom was “Erastus, the city treasurer.” Since Paul almost certainly wrote Romans from Corinth, Erastus was probably the treasurer of the city.   Jenese and I visited the theater, which is away from the main archaeological site, but we did not find the Erastus inscription.

Lastly, we visited the museum, which contains a wide assortment of archaeological finds yielded by excavations in the area.  (The largest archaeological heist in history occurred here in 1990, with the stolen objects ending up in Florida.)  It was the usual stuff, except for a collection of various sculpted body parts, including genitalia.  These items are votive offerings recovered from the temple of Asklepion (according to a website I just now found), the god of healing (from which we get the modern symbol for medicine with the staff and the serpent).  It is not known whether they served as offerings meant to solicit healing that had not yet happened, or as thanks offering for healings of a particular part of the body.  It is in 1 Corinthians that Paul talks about the body of Christ and speaks of various body parts in doing so. I wonder whether Paul had seen these clay body parts being made in shops in Corinth.

When we arrived in Greece, our somewhat fuzzy itinerary called for heading west from Corinth to Diakofto, where we would go on a scenic ride through the Vouraikos Gorge and up a mountain via a rack railway.  But Dino told us there was no way we could do that and also see Corinth on the same day, unless we started at 6 a.m., so we nixed that plan.  Instead, we followed Dino's recommendation, which was to head south to Mycenae.  This took us through arid, sparsely populated mountains.  Although we we continued to travel on a highway, we did not pass through any cities, but only small towns and clusters of houses.

And beautiful groves of orange trees, laden with green fruit.

I knew I would be seeing some really old, busted-up stuff in Greece, but I had no idea I'd be walking through a still-standing gateway that dates to the 13th-century BC.  (To relate this to Bible history, it would be just before the time of King Saul.)  This is why Mycenae was amazing.  It was the center of the Mycenaean civilization that existed between the 16th and 12th-centuries BC.  The Mycenaean acropolis housed the royal house of the Atreidae and their people.  If that's not old enough for you, how about archaeological finds made on this hill that go back even further, possibly to the dynasty associated with the founding father of Mycenae, Perseus and his descendants, down to the king Eurystheus, who imposed the "twelve labors" on Herakles (Hercules)?  The dynasty of Atreus and his descendant, Agamemnon, who led the Greek expedition against Troy, followed.  Consult Homer for further mythical details (or Hollywood for myths of myths).

I still can't wrap my brain around just how very ancient these stones are.  And we could touch them!  I had to wonder about the lives of these long-dead people, and what life would have sounded like, in this citadel.  We were almost the only tourists there, and it was very quiet, except for the occasional clanking of goat bells on the high hills surrounding us.

Lion Gate
The gate I referred to is known as the Lion Gate, because covering the triangle above the lintel is a relief group of two lions.  After passing through the gate and entering the citadel, you pass a "Grave Circle A," which was a cemetery of royal tombs dating to the 16th-century BC.  This was the most discernible structure within the citadel -- everything else was just short rock walls and foundation stones.  You could also descend the original steps leading down into the cistern that the Mycenaeans used as their water supply within the defense walls.

Fearless explorer Rick actually descended the steps for some way into the darkness, muttering about how we should have brought flashlights.  Less-than-courageous Jenese stayed on the steps that still see sunshine, nervously waiting for the "YAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!!!" that would herald the stumble and fall of the aforementioned explorer into the abyss.

Grave Circle
Looking out from the cistern
Once we finished our self-guided tour of the citadel, we walked through a really nice, modern museum, designed in a way to blend into the landscape.  It was filled with objects dating to the 16th-century BC. and beyond.  Except for one other couple, we had the run of the place.  The staff appeared to be on a perpetual coffee break in the outer courtyard.

Entrance to tholos tomb
Inside the tholos
A quarter mile back down the road we had driven in on was the Treasury of Atreus or Tomb of Agamemnon.  It is a "tholos" tomb that dates to 1250 BC. (which predates Atreus and Agamemnon).  It is formed of a semi-subterranean room of circular plan with a corbel arch. With an interior height of 44' and a diameter of 47.5', it was the tallest and widest dome in the world for over a thousand years after its construction.  The lintel stone above the doorway weighs 120 tons, the largest in the world.  You can't fully appreciate the scope and size until you walk to the center in the semi-darkness (no artificial lighting) and look up to the tip of the conical ceiling where bats undoubtedly roost.  The sound of the rapid-fire echo of my footsteps bouncing off of the curved walls added to alien look and feel of the place.  (Again, Rick was drawn to a deeply dark antechamber, which he felt compelled to enter.  I guess I'd better start packing flashlights, if only for my own peace of mind.)  I was so impressed that I decided to put off dying until I can afford a tholos tomb of my very own.  Maybe I can be buried in the Bartlesville mound beneath the water tank.

Leaving Mycenae, we continued further south, passing through miles and miles of orange groves, until we arrived in the seaport town of Nafplio on the southern coast of the Peloponnese.  Nafplio was the capital of the First Hellenic Republic, from the start of the Greek Revolution in 1821 until 1834.

We still didn't have our fill of fortresses on this trip, so we headed straight for the Fortress of Palamidi, which is on the the summit of a hill above the city.  It was constructed by the occupying Venetians between 1711 and 1715, but fell into the hands of the Ottomans before it was completed. It is composed of a complex of bastions, munitions depots, food storage areas, barracks, moats, and other cool stuff such as these, all in movie-set condition.


It was already getting late, so we feared it would be closed, but the gate was still open.  The man at the ticket window told us they were closing in 12 minutes and we should come back another day.  This would have dissuaded us, but for the inspiration of a family who entered just ahead of his.  "If they can see all of Palamidi in twelve minutes, then so can we."

Lion of Venice at Fortress of Palamidi
We practically sprinted down and up cobbled walkways and stairs, going from bastion to bastion, pausing only briefly to take in the panoramic view of Nafplio and the bay, complete with another castle on a little island, from the fortification wall.  We even managed to waddle through a small passageway that lead to a windowless quadrangular room that is known as the "prison of Kolokotronis."  It wasn't exactly a dungeon, but it was small and dank enough to make you shudder at the thought of being shut up inside.  Only after returning home and studying the brochure we were handed did I learn that it was never a prison, but merely a gunpowder magazine.  Fooled again!

Inside the Bastion of Agios Andreas at Palamidi
View of Nafplio from Fortress of Palamidi
Nafplio has a lot of small museums and galleries, but it was already getting dark when we finished our dash through the fortress, so we drove to Old Town to look for a place to eat.  I hadn't been impressed with the look of Nafplio, but that changed after we parked and entered the pedestrian zone of Old Town, which occupies a peninsula extending into the Agrolic gulf.  There are a lot of cobbled alleys winding through attractive neoclassical buildings and mansions and beneath Venetian balconies.

Very scenic.  I can definitely see why Mr. Steves recommends staying a night or two.

Looking for the caf├ęs listed in our Rick Steves guide, we walked along the port.  We found one in our price range with outdoor seating under a large canopy and with a view of the sea, reminding us of the Ostria taverna on Patmos.  The deja vu continued with our meal:  Gavros (deep-fried sardines), calamari (fried instead of grilled, this time), taramosalata (that wonderful fishy dip), with toasted garlic bread.  One of the few differences between these eating experiences was that at Ostria, the beggar at our feet was a roly-poly dog, whereas at this place, it was hungry cats.  When the waiter's back was turned, we would toss gavros to the cats.  We were competing against another generous diner several tables over to see who could offer the most appealing scraps.

One, jet-black, would stare you out of countenance with its yellow eyes -- you could feel it willing you to toss another tidbit.  The other, a brindle and white, sat at my feet, gently reminding me of its presence with a soft pat of its paw on my leg.

We had noticed a large number of confectionery shops in Old Town and thought this would be the perfect night (and maybe our last opportunity) to treat ourselves to some authentic Greek baklava, but the our waiter blew our plan by bringing us two pieces of complimentary cake.  It tasted of lemon and was soaked through with some type of syrup.  It was too sweet for us non-sugar eaters, but it had a good flavor, so we cleaned our plates.

Rick had stepped inside to visit the men's room, when the waiter materialized with the cake.  "What's this?" I asked, laughing in surprise.  "On the house!" he answered.  It was a tasty mystery.

It was now raining, which is an infrequent event in October, and especially this year, when Greece has been experiencing a drought, just like Oklahoma.  We hoped to wait it out, but soon gave up and made the long wet walk back to the car.

It was bound to happen, at some point.

We thought about returning to Athens by driving along the southern coast in order to avoid backtracking, but we were unsure of how long that would take, and we wouldn't be able to see anything in the dark anyway, so we decided to simply go back the way we came, through the orange groves and past Mycenae.  It rained off and on, but there was very little traffic, so it wasn't bad.  I spotted a roadside fruit stand that was still lit up, so I pulled over, hoping to replace the honey stock that was pilfered by the airplane baggage handlers.  An elderly man emerged from a cafe on the other side of the road and quickly came over.  He was one of the few Greeks I met who spoke no English, but this was no barrier to my purchase of two large jars of thyme honey.  (They were cheaper than the honey we had seen in the Athens touristy shops.)  I said good-night in Greek, and he said it back to me with a smile, and I hurried back to the car where Jenese was waiting.

Our only other stop was a gas station just outside of Athens, where a female attendant helped me with the delicate exercise of filling the gas tank to the level where it was when I got the car and not a bit more.

The man who'd forked over some money to tip a restroom janitor was now explaining to the attendant why he only wanted 8 euros' worth of gas.  I stayed in the car.

Once we hit Athens traffic, my anxiety level shot back up, but all I had to do was drive "straight, straight, straight."  We passed our hotel, which caused some panic, but then immediately hit a roundabout, allowing me to turn around, return to the hotel, and park the Fiat where it had been that morning, all as if on purpose.


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