Monday, September 27, 2010

A few Greek Islands

This morning I saw the Parthenon at dawn – from the breakfast restaurant. I was up there at 6.30 am, and the sun didn’t rise until 7 am. Yesterday I relied on my trusty guide books and my own sense of direction (and we know where that led). Today I was up early to join a tour. As one of my guide books says ‘Taking a tour has only one advantage – convenience. Otherwise, tours are costly, crowded, rushed, and likely to return to the city well before sunset.’ On all but the last count, my tour today fitted this bill. Nevertheless, it did what it was designed to do – it is the Greek Island tour for people who are not going to the Greek Islands, visiting three close to Athens: Aegina, Póros and Ỳdhra (Hydra – ‘eed-ra’).

The bus ride down to Piraeus, the port of Athens, gave a glimpse of the non-ancient parts of the city, both slick and poor. At the huge port, dozens of car ferries and other vessels were a reminder that about a fifth of the Greek land mass is made up of over a thousand islands, and in Greece you are never more than 120 kms from the sea.

Joining our vessel were several bus loads of happy tourists, enduring the ‘silly photo’ routine at the gangplank, and boarding to the strains of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, which happened to be the track playing on the muzak at that moment. The voyage out to the farthest island we were to visit, Ỳdhra, took about three hours, and was pleasant enough, if a little rocky.

Per the Rough Guide (who’s description of Ỳdhra induced me to take this tour):

The island of Ỳdhra is one of the most atmospheric and refreshing destinations in Greece. Its harbour and main town preserved as a national monument, it feels like a Greek Island should, entirely traffic-free (even bicycles are banned) with a bustling harbour and narrow stone streets climbing steeply above it.

Parked car on Ydhra
I enjoyed Ỳdhra. It has a horse-shoe shaped harbour, pretty houses, hot sun, lots of umbrellas over cafes, and donkeys. Because of the car ban, these are the only means of transport. ‘Taxi?’ the donkey-drivers called out. I posted a postcard of a donkey to Pandora at the local post office. Ỳdhra was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. Leonard Cohen bought and restored a grand old house here. I decided to lunch here for several excellent reasons: I didn’t trust the €10 boat ‘special’; I didn’t trust my stomach off dry land; it was hot and nice to sit in the lounge chairs that the waterfront cafes provided; and maybe Leonard Cohen had sat right here once, too. There turned out to be a downside to this decision: a margarita pizza made with what appeared to be slices of processed cheddar. Ah, well.

The on-board lunch was as deadly as I suspected, and I abandoned it early in proceedings. After lunch a Spanish speaking couple (I think they were from Costa Rica) came by. The lady asked me something I couldn’t understand, and seemed concerned. She urged her husband to try his rudimentary English. ‘Are you nice?’ he asked. ‘Er...are you...well?’ Wasn’t that kind of them? At least I could summon enough Spanish to thank them for their concern and assure them I was well. And nice.


Póros was less inviting than Ỳdhra, its cavalcade of motorcycles along the waterfront in stark contrast to Ỳdhra’s quiet donkeys. But I took a walk in its backstreets and found some lovely colours. The waterfront’s main feature is a clock tower on the hill, which, when you reach it, proves to be derelict as well as showing the wrong time.

Escher-esque? Temple of Aphaea

We sailed on then to a larger island closer to Athens, Aegina (or Égina). Here I opted for another bus ride, with a particular object in view: The Temple of Aphaea, 12 kms east of the town. This, said my guidebook, is one of the most complete and visually complex ancient buildings in Greece. It was built between 500 and 480 BC, slightly pre-dating the Parthenon. It is a very beautiful thing, sitting high up on a pine-covered hillside. The surrounding greenery gives it a very different feel to Athens’ Acropolis, and it does indeed have many of its bits intact. The Rough Guide suggests that it evokes an Escher drawing, and from certain angles, I agree with it. My second guide book (Interlink Travel ‘Ancient Greece An Explorer’s Guide’, which I can recommend) describes it as ‘a late Archaic Doric gem’, with which I also agree. It isn’t made of marble like the Parthenon, but of local porous stone, including limestone. As a bonus, there are spectacular views to Athens, Cape Soúnio, the Peloponnese and Ỳdhra. Lovely.

By the way, this temple once had carvings all over its pediment, and a frieze, just like the Parthenon. These are presently in Munich’s Glyptothek Museum. Our guide today said this was because German archaeologists were the first to restore the temple, and they took them off for safe-keeping. The Rough Guide says that Ludwig I of Bavaria ‘did an Elgin’ and bought them from the Turks. One wonders why there is not an outcry to ‘repatriate’ these ones. I am becoming more sympathetic to poor old Elgin.

Pistachios fresh from the tree. Almost.
Our visit to Aegina also took in a pistachio nut factory-farm, since this island is famed for its pistachio nuts. I did try them, though I am not a nut person.  They were salty and, er, nutty. And very fresh.

The boat then sailed on back to Athens, with various entertainments for the passengers to while away the voyage, such as Greek folk dancing and bad music. It was a 12 hour day, and you are lucky to get this report. Fortunately I fell asleep during the Zorba The Greek dance (the book of which was, by the way, written on Aegina, by Nikos Kazantzakis).

I am going to Mycenae tomorrow – a whole different millennium.

No comments:

Post a Comment