The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Thursday, October 29

Greece: Beautiful, Inspiring, Welcoming People

As we circle the town center, a whole table of men, including a cleric and bus driver, say good luck and wave a hearty farewell. One man runs to the car and gives us a cluster of grapes.  It's to "nourish your journey," he says.  

We are driving through the Peloponnese, It's a daring drive including way too many hair-pin turns and as we learned, many opportunities to get lost.

About 1 ½ hours into our drive, we take a wrong turn and find ourselves facing a narrow road climbing and plummeting from one peaks to a valleys over and over again. In the back seat, I keep my fingers crossed hoping that we don't meet a bus on the wrong curve.

Fortunately, we happen upon a town with five restaurants and it's lunch time! Lucky us. We ask for travel advice from our waitress. She tries to help but her English is not enough and our Greek is just about zero.

As we settle into lunch, amazingly a bus arrives. Apparently there's an Orthodox monastery nearby and the people are on a pilgrimage. The bus driver and several others speak English! It's a God sent. We're no longer lost.

We are in Greece. 
And with exceptionally welcoming people.

After 6 months of work in Macedonia with my colleagues at Public, an Association for Research, Communications and Development, I'm taking a vacation and the opportunity to celebrate my 70th birthday.

What an adventure to be in the cradle of western civilization.

My adventure begin in Athens. Good friends from Maine, Jan and Bruce, have traveled many hours through the night to meet up at the foot of The Acropolis.
We gather at a roof top terrace toasting our new adventure. With wine glasses lifted, we marvel at the sun slipping behind antiquity just as it has done for over 2500 years.

The Acropolis is in the center of Athens giving it a place of social and religious significance. Here we are climbing the same hills that Greeks climbed to worship their gods, especially Anthena and where they came in times of war to defend themselves. Here's a short video to learn more. 

Not too many tourist have arrived yet. So we can climb the “Rock” and take lots of pictures. Before I leave Greece, I'll have taken nearly 500 photos.

The Parthenon is being restored
Detail of an ancient Corinthian column

Skilled craftsmen turn stone into art
Exquisite details
Roman Agora - 1st century BCE

Now it's on to the Ancient Agora.  

We pass remains of the Roman Agora.  The Romans added on  to the Agora when the occupied Greece.  Hence the name.  

Both names means gathering place.  It was a marketplace and center of political, artistic and social life.

I try to imagine buildings where now only foundations and fragment remain.  

Looking from inside the Gymnasium towards the entrance flanked by columns made of athletes.

I sit on a stone ledge and imagine Socrates strolling down the cobble stoned streets and entering the gymnasium,  Maybe I'll join them.
Typical ruins in the Ancient Agora

Looking towards the Parthenon from the Ancient Agora

A temple in the Agora dedicated to Athena

Restored building hosting the Agora Museum
One building has been restored and houses a museum. It helps me visualize the monumental stature of the buildings.  And gives me a glimpse into the reality of everyday life. 

 Imagine creating such buildings with simple technology – levers, pulleys, hammers and chisels.

Of course, they also had a significant population of slaves to do the work. Estimates are uncertain, but during the “Golden Age” at least 40,000 and maybe as many as 80,000 slaves toiled in Athens. Much like in America, they were owned with few if any rights.

For me, it gives a deeper and shall I say a darker look into the buildings whose fragments I see in front of me. Learn more about slavery in ancient Greece. 

We rent a car and visit Epidavros located on the Peloponnese peninsula near Nafplio. This ancient city was a mecca for healing. With warm springs nearby and healing incantations offered by priests, miracles happened.

Throngs came and provided an audience for an amphitheater that accommodate 15,000 people. Here poets and playwrights shared their works and they still do during summer events.

A tour guide brings a group into the area.

She tells them to disperse among the rows of seats. I decide to do the same. 

Then she talks and asks if we hear her. I do. Then she whispers and I still hear her. Finally she takes a piece of paper and crinkles it. I hear it as if I was close, but I'm more than 20 rows away. The acoustics are perfect without electronics.

The ancient town surrounds the theater.  Foundations and columns outline where those in need of cures stayed. For me there is beauty in seeing stone that has been shaped millennia ago. I wander and take more pictures.

The ruins of Mycenae are not far away.  As we drive we are going back in time.  These ruins are before the development of Athens. We're talking Bronze Age. That's more than 3500 years ago.

I enter the acropolis through the Lion Gate. It's the largest surviving sculpture in prehistoric Aegean. 

Archeologists say the missing heads were likely made of gold.  
It is said that not only were the lions the symbol of royal power, but since the faces pointed outward, they intimidated those who entered.  Beware!
Impressive to say the least.

Inside, I see the burial circle where people of status were laid to rest. 

Interesting that these ancient people honored their dead immediately upon entering their acropolis. 

The foundations of buildings and other fortifications sketch the shape of this formidable citadel.   

Below the acropolis, royalty and other leaders are entombed in bee hive looking structures. Each slab of stone weights in at 5 tons and is offset to form the unique shape. 

Originally the “burial hives” were filled with jewels, swords and personal possessions. Then they were buried in mounds of earth - inside and out - to protect their contents. 

Still long ago, grave robbers found a way in.  They disposed of valuables and scattered the bones.  

Centuries later sheep herders came along and appropriated them as shelter for their flocks. The soot on the inside walls are testament that use as well as a distinct smell.  

What would a trip to Greece be like if it didn't include a visit to a Grecian island? We choose to go to Hydra.

We got tickets for the Ferry,  But before we catch a morning ferry, we happen upon crowds of refugees – the ones from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraqi.

Desperation has a face here. A mother clutches a crying child as hundreds spill into the road. Our taxi driver mutters, “Animals.” If I knew Greek, I might have taken him on. Instead I add it to my feeling of powerlessness.

A cluster of young men see a friend across the street. They yell and beckon for him to come over. One by one, almost as a ritual, they embrace him with a kiss on each cheek. 

I think of the words from a verse of Amazing Grace - “ lost but now I'm found.” Their huge smiles belay the situation and give me a hint of hope.

There's lots to think about as we cross the waters on a safe boat to Hydra.

Hydra is charming. The ferry leaves us off in the center of the town. No cars are allowed. Donkeys do the heavy lifting when needed. 

We settle in and take a lunch at an outdoor cafe.

Greek food is fresh and ever so tasty. Jan, Bruce and I share many a Greek salad made of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, red onion and olives. Sometimes I take a Rocket salad which adds arugula to the mix. There's no heavy dressing – just a little olive oil and a splash of vinegar.

Meals become a celebration of each day. We pour a glass of wine and let the conversation flow.  What's memorable for the day?  What happened that was unexpected?  

Sometimes, our new experiences trigger contemporary social and political reflections. We talk about the origins of democracy and our American elections. We debate abortion rights and euthanasia. We wonder about the refugees. So many things come to mind. Dinners often last until 10 pm.  Good food and good company...Perfect.  

How fortunate it is to share these moments with friends.

It's time for a swim. Even though it's October, the water is warm enough. 

I step into the turquoise blue water almost expecting my skin to be dyed. The color is amazing.

Splash, I swim through the crystal clear water. Below me, small fish scatter as I come close. Some are silver with stripes. Others are long and multicolor. 

I see a few brown-black sea urchins. Bruce warns me not to touch them because of their painful spines. 

I float along scooping handfuls of blue water.  Ah, it's so Wonderful.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” 

Why? Because we meet so many new and interesting people along the way.

Like the young archeologist who opened my eyes to the rocks and ruins of Greece.  He told me about an ancient wall painting that was recently discovered.  

Like the old man who insisted that I share some of his pastry as we sat together in a bakery. We never spoke, but we smiled a lot.  
I thought, “Maybe he doesn't have much, but he shares. I should be as kind.”

Like the cook at a cafe. She beamed when we complemented her. Her food was among our best including grilled fish, roasted goat and of course Greek salad. We learned that the cafe was a family affair started some 27 years ago with her husband and young daughters.

Like the school kids who gave me a high five after sharing an all English conversation.    

Like the restaurant owner who gave me a hand-written recipe for her very special Greek Chicken Pie.

Like the man who struck up a conversation over pizza at a road side snack shop. He was just curious and wanted to welcome us to his country.

Like the proprietor of our apartment in Kardamyli who told about how his town shuns commercialism and is haven for those who seek human connections in life.

Like the diplomat who stayed in a room next to ours in Nafplio. Surprisingly, he has Skopje roots and will visit next month. 

Like the woman at the photo shop who made it possible for me to keep taking pictures when my memory card was full.  She wanted to be certain that the new one was working so I took her picture, of course.

Like Jan, my good friend, who planned our trip with the help of Rick Steves and provided historical insights so that we all knew more about what were seeing.  

And of course, to the bus driver, cleric and the table of men who waved good luck when we were lost and gave us directions and a bunch of grapes to “nourish our journey,” 

On behalf of us travelers, I say sincerely, “Thank you!”

May we all be so welcoming to strangers who pass our way whether lost or not.

Friday, August 14

Never Has A Cold Beer Tasted So Good

One of the benefits of Peace Corps Service is the chance to visit neighboring countries and sometimes at bargain prices. 

I just landed a deal with Wizz Airline to explore Venice, Italy for four days. It's a short vacation, but then again it's only an hour-n-half hop away.

I arrive with temperatures soaring - 36 degrees Celsius. That's 97 degrees Fahrenheit! I'm hugging the coolness of shadows while walking the pedestrian paths towards my hotel. Google says it's a 15 to 20 minute stroll. 

What's making it difficult is the fact that there is no proper grid pattern in this city. Instead of streets, canals wander off of the Grand Canal.  They twist and turn like branches on a tree. 

I see my first Gondola.  Everything  is new to me, yet strangely familiar.  Images of Venice are in movies, advertisements and part of our 21st century sub-consciousness. 

Water-ways rule here.  No cars or trucks, bikes or scooters exist in Venice. Instead there are boats - lots of boats.  Besides gondolas, I see motorized taxis, barrages, water-buses, delivery boats, and fishing vessels.  

Every shop, market, restaurant and cafe must get its product via the water-way.  There's no other way unless you hired a porter to wheel your packages along the paths and across the bridges.  Many Venetians aspire to have a boat parked at their front door on the canal. 
There are paths. Some follow the canals and then veer off in another direction. Others open into a court yard and seem to disappear. It's a maze of confusion.

The affect is charming unless it's sweltering and you're feeling kind of lost and smothered in the heat.

I'm walking more slowly now.  The heat is oppressive.  Around a corner I spy a table and chairs in front of a cafe.  Gladly I shed my backpack and flop into a chair shaking with exhaustion.  Never has a cold beer tasted so good.  I want another, but think it's better to get a liter of water instead.  I guzzle it down.  

Refreshed, I ask directions. The waiter points down an alley to another path. I move onward. 

Imagine my delight when I see “La Forcola,” my hotel, less than 100 meters in front of me just over one of the ubiquitous pedestrian bridges.

Success!  Air conditioning...although it's struggling to keep up.

Late afternoon comes and I think it's the perfect time to explore. The heat is a little less and the setting sun gives a warm glow to the buildings.

I can easily see why Venice is a magnet for tourists. A Venetian tells me, “We use to think of ourselves as invincible to invading armies until tourists discovered us. Now we've been overwhelmed.”

I'm struck by the diversity of the invasion. I discover that extending a friendly hello usually starts interesting encounters. I meet people from China, Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Guatemala, Thailand and America. 

We are all different, yet one family.  As Mark Twain once remarked, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…”
Rialto Bridge filled with high-end shops and hordes of tourists

I buy a 72 hour pass on the Vaporetto, the Venetian Water-bus.  Learn more

I scramble on board to ride the length of the Grand Canal.  More details here. 

Seats are filled, but by the time we get to Rialto Bridge, I have a window for photo taking. 

Guide books urge getting lost in Venice.  They say that you really can’t get too lost when you’re on a island.  So I spend my days wandering.  When I get too hot I stop for a beer or another liter of water.   

What a pleasure to take photos and soak in more of the sights even as I soak in the heat. 
Steps from the canal

Street artists inspire me

Venice is known for masks.  Note the Dolphin!!

I love the colors

Striped poles give whimsy to Venice 
Art adorns buildings
New sights round ever bend in the Grand Canal
Night falls upon the Canal
Greeted in 15th century garb

One night I arrange for an opera.  It’s Verdi’s Rigoletto.  But instead of going to a theater, I make my way to the 15th century Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto.  See more images.

Tonight as the opera unfolds, the audience of about 60 will follow singers and musicians through various rooms.We all are enthralled.   The Bass holds a really low note as he walks pass me.  And then the Soprano’s voice reaches into the heavens. She’s only feet in front of me.  

It’s so intimate.  “Never have I experienced anything like this,” I think.  “This is how the rich and powerful enjoyed culture back then.  Unbelievable and here I am.”  
Another night I go to San Marco Plazza.  It's a huge space and has been the center of Venetian life since before the 12th century.
San Marco Cathederal
Relics of the Apostle St. Mark reside here although some say that they may have gotten confused with the remains of Alexander the Great when both bodies were stolen from Alexandria, Egypt. 

Whatever the truth, San Marco Plazza is rich in drama and history.  Learn more. 

I stroll into the Plazza. Even though there are many people here, it could easily hold three times more. I meet a couple from China. It's another of those brief encounters that make travel so interesting. We exchange pictures.

I listen to music. Three orchestras take turns serenading customers seated in front of restaurants. They've paid a premium to be there. Others, like me, listen from a standing position behind. A few couples dance to a waltz.

The highlight of my last day is seeing Venice at water level.  I’m making my way towards an outfitter known as Venice by Water to meet up with Phillip.    

Under the 1st of many bridges
I can't wait to slip into one of their kayaks. I change clothes and put on the life vest. Phillip goes over a few simple rules and we're off.

Step into the garden
The view from down here is amazing. When these homes were built, the main entrances were from the canal. 

 We cross under many pedestrian bridges. A young kid points to us and yells, “Ciao!” I yell back, “Caio, don't jump!” 

Many take our picture. I smile, wave and think, “What will they say when they show this picture back home?”

I look into a garden that's part of a front entrance way. It's been welcoming guest for centuries.

We're poised to cross the Grand Canal. It's kind of like crossing a four lane highway at rush hour. Gondolas, motor boats and water-buses wiz by.

We wait for a slight lull. I'm so glad that Phillip is guiding the way. “Stay to the left,” he says  “The motor taxis have right of way.”  Good advice, as one speeds by.
Me with Phillip after an amazing paddle

My kayaking time ends too quickly just as my time in Venice will end too soon. Tomorrow I fly back to Macedonia.   

It's been an exceptional vacation and I recommend it. 

Just don't go in August unless you love the taste of a cold beer on a sweltering day. 

And if you do, I know this place about a 100 meters from the Forcola Hotel.