Monday, July 6, 2009

GREECE





GREECE



Zack at the Parthenon


Zack and I named our trip to Greece EF HARRY STO ENNAE GREECE. This translates as “Thank you, Greece.” We sincerely meant this because the people in this cradle of western civilization were very generous and giving wherever we went. And the Greeks love children. I can’t count the number of times that Zack had his cheeks pinched by old and not-so-old women alike.


Monastery on top of huge boulder-rope system used to bring supplies up


One of the most fascinating places we visited in Greece was Meteora. This is one of the most surreal, awe-inspiring and beautiful places in the world. It is among my all-time favorite destinations. The most conspicuous feature of Meteora is the massive natural stone towers that rise abruptly from the surrounding Thessalonian plain.


Closeup of rope pulley system from the bottom of stone tower


Monks first ascended these towers around the end of the 11th century and began building monasteries atop them. Rising as high as 1800 feet above the plain, these monasteries could be reached only by ropes or by ladders strung together over almost inconceivable lengths. It strains the imagination to comprehend how the monks lived on these heights, let alone how they built the massive monasteries there. Recently, one of the remaining six monasteries, closed to the outside world for much of its existence, has been opened to the public. In it, we got both a glimpse of monastic life and a look at the tremendous view that must have helped reinforce the monks’ spiritual separation from the outside world. Ancient manuscripts and frescos abounded inside. We saw the ropes and pulleys that monks still use to draw baskets of food and other goods up to the monastery as they have for centuries. Our tour guide, Marina told us, that “to live in the shadow of these rocks is life-changing.”



Marina, our amazing tour guide


Thanks to her encyclopedic knowledge of Greek history and mythology, our tour bus became a “university on wheels.” Marina constantly gave us little lessons; and she always seemed pleased with Zack because he was the only one on the tour who could answer nearly all of the questions she asked to test our knowledge of Greek mythology.



The Olympian race


One of the best-known historic places we visited was Olympia. There, in the spirit of the original Olympics, Marina organized a race for the children in the group. It was held on the same track and in the same stadium that the ancient Greeks had used – and Zack won the boys’ race! Marina arranged an authentic award ceremony, much like that of the ancient Olympic games. She had the winners of the boys’ and girls’ races stand on top of ancient stone pillars and then placed crowns of laurel on their heads. (In the original games, the crowns were made of olive leaves, but Marina used laurel for them since laurel trees now dominate the area,) We all applauded after she crowned the blushing children. It felt like an authentic Olympic ceremony, and now Zack can tell his friends that he raced in Olympia.


The winners getting ready to receive laurel crowns


After touring many other historic sites, we returned to our starting point of Athens. I thought the highest point in Athens was the Parthenon, but was surprised to find that it is Lykabettos Hill. Lykabettos had intrigued us ever since we first arrived in Athens since it towered over the city. We walked nearly to the top, and I must say that this was the most exhausting uphill trek of my life.



Up the thousands of steps






Up higher and higher


When we had hiked to the end of the tourist trail, we boarded a funicular, an automated, glass-sided elevator. It carried us the rest of the way up the mountain as we viewed the countryside from the funicular’s mountain-hugging rail. There was a beautiful Byzantine church at the top. From this vantage-point, we were actually looking down at the Parthenon.


Finally, we reached the top




The top!


Zack was upset that at the end of the trip because nothing weird had happened as it had for his cousins, Marcy and Beth, on their journeys (the “Olympic” victory notwithstanding). He was thrilled with the trip but wanted something strange and exciting to happen. Then, the night before our flight out of Athens, loud street noises wafting through our bedroom window awakened us. Horns honking, people singing and screaming, and general chaos prompted us to creep out of bed and peer out the window. Through our ever-so-slightly-opened curtain we saw hundreds of people walking and dancing arm-in-arm down the street. A few cars with horns blaring accompanied the crowd. We thought Athens was being invaded. We turned on the TV, and even though we couldn’t find an English broadcast, we gathered by what was shown that Greece had won the world soccer championship. Zack was smiling the next morning at 4 AM when we greeted our taxi driver since the trip was ending with an unusual experience if not the truly weird one he had hoped for. His smile disappeared, however, as we zoomed to the airport at record speed. It seems the driver had been up all night celebrating the championship (and probably drinking ouzo), and apparently wanted to test his high-speed driving skills on the new highway built for the upcoming Olympics.

When we got back to the States, we were greeted by a huge snake that had decided to occupy the bottom of my van sometime during the two weeks we were gone. It dropped from the back just as we left the airport. So, Zack got his truly weird experience after all – at the very end of the trip.


Epidaurus-we are not able to duplicate the acoustics in this open air arena today


Bougainvillea shrub/tree on the island of Hydra

Artists creative door to studio in Athens


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