Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Travel and Living- Chapter 3-A place under the sun---Greece


From a miserable, dark, grey sky to a bright yellow blue sky, this is how the city of the Gods, Athens, welcomed us. Greece had always been on my mind and landing on the land, for real, was an ethereal experience for me. The land of Alexander the great, the land of Apollo the Sun God, the land of Aphrodite the Goddess of love, beauty! A forbidden mystical world for me had suddenly become more realistic and I was in complete awe of it! Greece is a country which is made up of 7000 islands but only 300 of them are inhabited. It is a country which is patriarchal in nature. It has about 24 monasteries which are followers of Orthodox Christianity. Except for the all women monasteries, these Orthodox monasteries are forbidden for women.

Day 1: Delphi

If you love the mountains and its hair pin country roads, then you are in for a treat here. I loved everything about the journey from the hotel to the site of Delphi. The vast stretches of Olive trees, the deep plunging gorges, the array of similar looking houses on the mountain slopes, the archaeological remains of past grandeur here and there, the sound of the falling and crashing of the water from the mountain streams, the daunting mountains rising above our heads! I have been to a collection of mountainous places, but the thought of scaling the heights of Alexander the great and the like, made this place and Greece on a whole relatively more special. I am not a history buff, but you don’t have to be a history geek to appreciate the beauty of this place. Standing on the remains of the ‘Temple of Apollo’ gave me a sense of euphoria and ecstasy. A mortal among the immortals! A sanctuary in the arms of nature’s breadth taking beauty, surrounded by the tall Parnassus mountains, almost 600 ft. above sea level, with rocky bald patches and a seamless green Olive trees horizon, complete with a small stream which promises of a legendary ‘water of youth’, Delphi is definitely a place to be. And if you want to have a traditional Greek meal after the enchanting visit, then ‘Gala Delphi’, a small traditional looking yet inviting restaurant is the place.

Day 2: Thessaloniki

Our day started with an early morning flight to Thessaloniki. We were greeted by a charming Macedonian lady, Dimitra. Yes we booked a private taxi as we made this trip in a not so tourist season. Infact, tourism in Greece picks up from May onwards and continues till August. So soon we were on our way to Vergina. Set in the foothills of Mount Pieria, Vergina is the home of tombs for the Greek Kings something similar to the pyramids of the Egyptians. It is said that it contains the tomb of King Phillip II, father of Alexander the great. It is said that Alexander’s mother, Olympias wanted her son to become the emperor. It was a formidable wish which could only be realised through the death of the present king. So she conspired, the murder of the king and her husband by recruiting one of the king’s bodyguards, on the day of her daughter, Cleopatra’s wedding. The grandeur of the Greek Royalty can be seen here in the tombs turned museums. The site is located beneath the earth with a Doric style entrance. It was planned by the Greeks in a way to preserve the remains of their Kings, Queens and their descendants in order to preserve the legacy. Unlike the Egyptians where they mummified the bodies, the Ancient Greeks always cremated the bodies of their Royals. Then they used to find the remaining bones, wash them with red wine, put them inside urns and then build tombs. Even today the tradition of digging out the remains of the bodies after burial and washing them with red wine and then reburying them is a Greek tradition. Also like the Egyptians, ancient Greeks used to bury food, jewellery, and four live horses along with the bodies for service through the after live. It was fascinating to see the level of intricate décor the headboards of the bed had. From gold leaves and flowers to chryselephantine designs. The enchanting display in the museum to the engaging narration of Dimitra, this trip to Vergina was not only riveting but also enriching. The gold wreaths, the gold urns, the remains of the objects buried for afterlife, the fragments of the tapestry used, the terracotta toys, the armoury of the kings, the bewitching frescos on the façade of the tombs and the feeling and emotions of the Greek Archeologist, Manolis Andronikos, Vergina had it all, especially for my husband who is a part time history buff commonly mistaken as a history professor.

We then moved on to Pella which was the capital of the ancient Macedon. The road to Pella from Vergina is another treat for the eyes. The rising snow-capped peaks of Mount Olympus in the horizon to pink cherry blossoms on either sides of the roads, from unending stretches of Olive trees to the bright blue sky, it was a journey well made. Pella was a port in ancient times and was well connected with the Thermaic Gulf. It was the Royal residence. The level of aristocracy enthralled us with the amount of area each room covered completed with white and grey pebble mosaics depicting different themes. The Greek baths also donned this archaeological site. The Greek baths were a bit different from the Roman baths. Roman baths have a common place of bath which is a circular bath tub with everyone sitting inside communally. However, Greek baths had separate rectangular soaking areas with a small cylindrical plunging hole at the end of each for dunking in the feet. There was also an underground system for purifying drinking water in the site. With the outlet a little raised than the inlet for the sedimentations to settle down. As we headed towards the airport to catch a flight back to Athens, we caught a glimpse of the throne of Zeus in the distant horizon. An arc shaped peak amid two high rising triangles.

Day 3: Rhodes

The day started with an early morning flight to the island of Rhodes. Situated in yet another picturesque location, Rhodes is house to one of the country’s biggest butterfly parks. A small water fall cuts through the entire perimeter of the park with a wooden bridge here and there. Set in the midst of a lovely green forest, this butterfly park is swarmed with millions of butterflies in the summer months. Since we were a bit early for these tiny visitors, yet we could imagine the veracity of the flurry population that would inhabit this place in a month’s time. It is said if you come to this place with a white t-shirt on, then by the end of the day it would be a colour wash. The spectacularity of this idea made us think of a revisit to this place soon! Anyway, Rhodes is famous historically for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A giant statue which once donned the gateway to the harbour can be seen in the museum nearby. It also houses the Palace of the Grand Master of Rhodes. ‘Rhoda’ a typical pink flower inhabits this island. Whether the Acropolis in Lindos, or the site of ancient Kamiros, the island of Rhodes is a must visit place if you want to see more of the medieval times in Greece. The walk to the Acropolis in Lindos is absolutely stunning. A bit of a trekking in the periphery of the simmering blend of the blue and sea green water of the Aegean Sea is the most fascinating experience I can remember. A view of the white walls of the houses on the fringe of the volcanic mountains commemorating with the blue sky in the horizon is enticing ad infinitum.

Day 4 and 5: Athens

There is more to Athens than the mammoth Parthenon. The lively street life, the small cafes spilled across the streets, the flea markets in every corner, the shops swarming with colourful souvenirs, stores with dangling leather bags and shoes. Everywhere you turn is life what you see. It was very unlikely given the current condition of the economy. But tourism is what is sustaining the country as a whole. So everywhere you see are people who want to make ends meet hence, genuine welcomes is what you see in their eyes. Freshly coated white walls, to decked up yachts in the harbour, I loved everything about Greece. The capital was no different. Half of the country’s population squatters this capital city with an addition of all the visiting tourists. Hence, the streets are a bit crowded. But we did not mind the crowd because we crave to see people in the place where we live. Athens has been the capital of Greece since 1834 and is surrounded by four mountains. Multinational cuisines daunt the capital city along with the traditional Greek cuisines. The change of guards in front of the Syntagma or the Parliament square is another thing to watch for. It is not very elaborate like you might find in the Buckingham Palace in London; however, the costume of the guards to the leg and foot movements is what makes this a class apart. It is said that there are approximately 400 pleats on the dresses that these guards wear. The Archaeological sites in Athens are situated quite closely, hence, a walking tour is the best way to explore the lanes and the by lanes of the city.

Day 6: Mykonos  

The island of Mykonos can be reached by a 4 hours ferry ride. It is a lovely journey to be made among the islands. Mykonos is also called as the ‘Ibiza of Greece’ given the vibrant night life, the beach front swarming with little cafes and eateries serving traditional Greek delicacies. The view of surreal sun gently disappearing in the prodigious Aegean Sea from the windmills is a feast for the eyes. One can also have a panoramic view of the town or ‘Chora’ after sunset with the lights illustrating an out of the world experience. The neighboring island of Dalos is just 2 kms away and is also a good place to visit. Mykonos is said to be the ‘Jerusalem of the Pagans’. We had rented a place here for a day to get a feel of the prominent night life in Mykonos. Set amongst the many white washed walls with blue windows, our apartment opened up to the striking view of the blue waters of the Aegean Sea with an occasional view of the white sails of a faraway yacht drifting idly in the middle of nowhere. Probably what we were savouring from the coast, it was emancipating from the sea. 

Day 7: Santorini

Even at first glance, Santorini was an island which stood apart with aloof dignity. Although the whole of Greece is marked with nonpareil beauty, yet this island eliminated an ethereal power of mesmerizing anyone. Set on top of a volcanic isle, home to the world famous 300m high Caldera cliffs that plummet into the Aegean Sea, this classic Greek white walls with a blue dome island emits more colours than meets the eyes. A bit of exploring around and you will notice the burnt orange and blood red, royal purple and butter yellow, electric green and pastel pink. Santorini’s porous volcanic soil provides a sanctuary for vineyards. It also helps in providing the island with a kaleidoscope of colourful flowers, bushes and grasses. A local bus ride from the town of Fira to the town of Oia will give you a vantage point in catching a glimpse of these wildflowers dotted landscape. The winding roads along the coastline of the Aegean Sea with stunning patches of the landscape are not only serene but also unbelievably magnetizing.   

Day 8 and 9: Crete

The last leg of our riveting Greece trip ended in the largest and the most populous Greek island of Crete. Crete is a mountainous island with numerous small islands, islets and rocks hugging the coastline. The island has a number of gorges too. But we chose to stick to the mainland Crete and its harbour, the Port of Heraklion. The climate was very typical Mediterranean type with crystal clear water and warm wind blowing into the land from the sea. Thronged with scores of eateries and shops, the harbour front is the most sought after place in the island. Very similar to Athens, the Archaeological sites in Crete are situated quite closely hence, a walking tour will suffice the need. Lastly, wrapping up the trip included a classic Greek starter of Chicken Souvlaki with Greek Yogurt followed by Grilled Chicken with baby potatoes and Greek Salad and ending the meal with a vanilla strawberry mousse with chilled ‘Raki’, an unsweetened, anise flavoured alcoholic drink thereby solemnizing the eternal trip to Greece!!!