At University I fell in love with a vision of an ideal sunlit civilisation – Ancient Greece. (See blog 3.30.09). Over the years that vision has dimmed but niece Jenny is in Athens at present and I’ve been reading peterspilgrimage’s blog – his trip around Classical Greece sites. His photographs jogged my memories. I suggest you look at them and I’ll let you read his text for descriptions that I recall as I sit at at my computer desk.
Years ago, inspired by those studies, I’d taken a similar tour, twice, once in late spring so enjoyable that I did another, this time in late autumn. Leaving Athens, both buses followed roughly the same route as Peter’s, Corinth, Mycanae, Epidauros, Olympia and Delphi. Peter’s photo of the Corinth canal is very similar to the slide I took during my first trip in 1970. I also took a photo of a site in the old abandoned ruins of ancient Corinth, which the guide claimed was the synagogue. St Paul preached there, she said. Peter doesn’t mention this. At the time I thought it was a long bow.
In contrast, the presence of king Agamemnon at Mycanae felt real. From that inland citadel he’d led the Greek army to Troy. I’d seen the large amount of gold, including the death mask in the Athens Museum, taken from this site. Looking at the jumble of archaeological diggings, those lectures about palace politics and the great wealth of the court made sense of that old Greek family drama, fratricide, matricide, the psychology of relationships. Behind the Lion Gate emotions, lusts and ambitions were pitched high
Both my tours stopped at Nafplion for the first night. Our hotel windows looked out at the wharf and the little Venetian fort in the harbour. Having grown in confidence we took time out from the second tour to spend two nights there. Instead of having a meal at the hotel we explored the city and had dinner at a little taverna. Learning we were from New Zealand we were treated royally – they had memories there of our soldiers.
My first wife was a geographer so on our full day we hired a full-time cab. The driver took us high into the hills to his home village where his family were harvesting olives – the time-honoured method of threshing the trees, tarpaulins spread underneath them. I’d seen vases decorated with the scene in the museum that had been made long before the Romans landed in England or humans walked upon New Zealand soil - and processing them. We had a picnic lunch under the olive trees.
He drove us on to Epidauros, a vast amphitheatre, still-used. The tour trips meant tourists galore. On this third visit we had the place to ourselves. The atmosphere was one of solemnity and celebration. Thousands of plays, human hopes and dreams and hates and struggles, portrayed down the ages. The continuity of human existence. I recited Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ speech in the centre of the stage. High up in the seats my wife said each word was crystal clear. As Peter says in his blog those ancient Greeks knew about acoustics. Our first visit there was accompanied by sustained gunfire in the hills, the colonels were still in power, obviously an army practice. During the second they’d been ousted. There was country silence. It seemed a renewal.
From Nafplion the buses crossed to the west side of the peninsula. At a small town stop we bought fresh cherries. [Et Al Arcadia Est – a once learnt Latin phrase sprang to mind as we crossed the province with that name as we gluttoned on cherries in the bus]. At Olympia there was different vegetation, pine forest rather than the bare hillsides of the east, obviously more precipitation. Every time I see cyclamens, they stir a memory of dozens of the little native cyclamen in those pines around the stadium ruins in Olympia - a revelation that our favourite garden blooms are human developments from nature’s store. I’ve been told that large numbers of these little wild cyclamens flower in season under the old olive groves in the Garden of Gethsemane. There were also large toadstools at Olympia. I cannot say for Gathsemane.
Peter’s blog reveals the same jumble of ruins and awesome stadium that I saw long ago. I stood at the starting line with its foot-holds and imagined the scene of ancient, naked Greek men lined up for their race. The games began about 2,700 years ago. They were closed down with the advent of Christianity.
Peter’s photographs reveal one big change. The roads. After we left Nafplion the roads were narrow and tortuous. Now there are super-duper highways, part of a European trucking and tourist network. We crossed the western end of Saronic Gulf to get from Olympia to Delphi by ferry Watching the waves roll underneath I commented upon the wine-dark sea to the surprise of a British scholar beside me. I think he had visions of uncouth Antipodeans, who had never heard of Homer. Now, there is a suspension bridge across the Gulf. .
Delphi was truly awesome. Apparently in the old days the priestesses would eat bay leaves before issuing their prophecies. This could explain their trance-like state, as the leaves are mildly narcotic. I'll let Peter's blog give the background except to say the Bronze charioteer is the best statue I've ever seen. And boy, can it rain on Mt Parnassus. For the rest, let this poem suffice to sum up an amalgam of my two visits. Again we stayed two days.
Eagles at Delphi
They say that eagles float at Delphi
in winter once
a seagull settled on a misty pillar
& in a lazy summer at the stadium
a stoat sprinted through the poppied ruins.
My tourist's awe was excited by
a retsina-sleep destroying thunderclap
brochures don’t mention rain on Parnassus.
& a donkey's sullen bray awoke me
shattering every droplet on the oleanders
reverberating down the steep and rusty
slopes to the sodden plain of Amphissa -
a postcard scene.
Our Franz Josefs chapel's such a site
a decaying glacier through an altar window)
where one fern-damp, rain-swept night
I preached in the decline of my belief.
A flippant fantail stole my sermon.
those blue dry minarets of Ishfahan –
such sun seeking tiles
camel bells & jasmine, Maidan roses
eyes downcast above the veil
raucous crows, their ceaseless quarrelling
& children cross-legged chanting
I remember these and what they said of eagles
my oracle at Delphi
was an aged & tattered donkey
The poem. of course, chases a different target. It was written in the 1970s when I was facing the inevitable acceptability of my agnosticism. Delphi, the old Greek oracle site. A church in New Zealand. Muslim boys chanting the Koran and those magnificent Ishfahan mosques. And the donkey – echoes of Chesterton’s famous poem echoed around my mind. Christ had ridden a donkey into Jerusalem. I, despite having seen all these tremendous views and the experience of them, was minus that rider. Also missing was the 'eagle', a metaphor for the 'glory that was Greece. Eagle carries much symboism as does donkey. Looking at it now with hindsight I think the poem stresses sensory experience without the leavening effect of the mind.
Peter’s pilgrimage took him on to a famous monastery. Alas my travels did not take me north of Delphi. But thanks for the memory. It’s been great to traverse that tour again.
I learnt something about the psychology of bus travel. People tend to sit in the same seats they occupy the first day. If you hop on and off a tour you take what seats are left, usually near the rear of the bus. That's where the fumes and the not so serious travelers congregate.