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Myths and Moors
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Myths and Moors
  Athens Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton . . .

med__red_sunset210.jpg It was September and for seven days and seven nights the Aeonian and Aegean seas were calm and the breezes hardly blew. It rained once briefly and even then the stars were visible. One night Apollo, the god of light, entertained the passengers on board the Stella Maris. Bolts of lightening flashed across the sky with such intensity, the sea shimmered with gold flecks and the moon disappeared. On . . . off . . . on . . . off . . .
Our ship wasn't glamourous or gigantic like the modern floating hotels of today, however with only 160 guests and one seating for meals, after just two days on board, everyone was nodding and smiling at one another.
The shore excursions were phenomenal. We explored ruins from the days of Greek mythology and traipsed through a honeycomb of crooked streets and alleys between white-washed buildings that seem to grow right out of the volcanic rocks that make up the Greek Islands.
Our first offshore adventure took place before we left the dock in Athens, one of the world's oldest cities. It was a regular busy and crowded Saturday folks socializing, eating, drinking, shopping . . . We were enthralled and completely absorbed in the atmosphere, especially around the Monastiraki, a flea market maze of brick, stone and glass, decorated with plastic parrots, Greek icons, and garish tee-shirts.

Greece_Cats_210.jpg As we made our way around the cartons, cats and crates, in the direction of the Acropolis, a gauntlet of old women flipped beautiful hand-embroidered cloth at our feet and blew wooden train whistles in our ears, their eyes pleading with us to buy.
Higher and higher we climbed, looking over our shoulders periodically, as the ancient city, the harbor and the gulf came into panoramic view. Up steps, through narrow alleys, past more shops, by more tavernas (taverns), until we reached the entrance grounds. (Tour busses arrive at the site from a different direction, but our group decided to walk.)
Mythology may seem like a fairy tale to us, but in the days of antiquities it was a part of daily life. Each city ( sanctuary) devoted itself to a particular god or group of gods for whom the followers built temples of worship. Of the more renown ones--the Acropolis, Delphi and Olympia --the most magnificent is the Acropolis. Columns, arches, even roofs of the ruins are still in place (some held together by scaffolds and nets, as preservation projects continue). Built for the goddess Athena, these divine remains are as impressive as the pyramids and much more significant to the western world. After all, this is the birth place of democracy, the foundation of European Civilization.
Dozens of cats forage around the timeworn blocks and judging from the cat statues and cat postcards everywhere, they, too, are a part of the mythology. They were delightful, although shabby and wild looking.
Our next ruin was Delphi, an ancient sanctuary six miles inland from the port city of Itea on the Gulf of Corinth. This holiest of all sites, once the center of the world, was dedicated to the god Apollo. It sits hidden from view, surrounded by pine trees and the oleander bush. Crumbling stone walls and pitted columns covered with hints of paint are the only remains. Because of theft and natural erosion, most of the important statues and artifacts were moved to the adjacent museum.
Some visitors came with thick books and studied the artifacts as if preparing for an exam. Others, like me, sat back pensively and simply admired the pieces of bronze and stone.
Our third ruin was the site of the first Olympic Stadium, located on the Peloponnese. The Peloponnese was inhabited in the 3rd millennium, but exactly when the games began (held in honor of Zeus), is not clear. The first recorded game was in 776 BC and the last game was in 393 AD. Fanatical Christians destroyed the site shortly after and what they didn't destroy the powerful earthquakes of 551-2 finished off.
The site, covered in silt, wasn't excavated until 1829. Led by a French research team, the finds were transported to Paris where they grace the Louvre Museum. A German archaeological team had a turn between 1875-81. The French revived the games in 1896 and Athens was the first host city. Today, the games are held in all parts of the world and all nations participate. But, if it wasn't for the guide's elaborate description, the site would be just a field of rubble, because here too, most of the real treasures are in a museum.
We were eager to bring home a trinket or two and we found plenty of replicas in the jewelry and souvenir shops in the village of Olympia. Alex, the clerk at Evangelo, a jewelry shop, suggested an owl, the bird of Athena, for my niece back home.
For a little town, Olympia was crowded and noisy. Alex bragged profusely about his friend's tavern by the Kladieos River. "The tables sit on grass away from the crowds. They are shaded by orange trees and for music you can listen to the chirping frogs instead of honking horns." As heavenly as "Kladieos" sounds, the noisy ' taverna' that sits on a cement sidewalk, next to the smelly traffic and in the way of the pedestrians, is very popular.
Although commercial and expensive, and filled with tourists, our island ports of call were never disappointing.
Vathy Harbor, Ithaca, our first port, was a sea of tables painted the traditional blue and white. Hordes of foreigners were everywhere drinking beer among the locals, walking on the beaches, buying tee-shirts in the shops, looking over the arts and crafts and examining the post-earthquake architecture. I was told there wasn't a spot in Greece where you wouldn't find a tourist.
Not so. Uta, from Germany was on her fourth cruise with Epiritiki She led me to a little strip of beach where there was nary a soul except the two of us and then up a narrow hilly street where we intruded on two men deeply involved in a card game.
The Island of Corfu, our second port, was a maze of cobblestone streets with white and blue houses, white and blue churches and white and blue alleys--some narrower than corridors in motels. Wrought-iron galleries overlook shops crammed with carpets, perfume, vases, alabaster and furs, and mythical figures in sexually graphic exaggerated shapes and poses. The vendors proudly display these erotic replicas since in Greek Mythology procreation and fertility played a major role and the statues are considered appropriate and natural. Or perhaps they are trying to get our attention.
Private yachts, fishing charters and car-toting ferries packed the waterfront on the island of Zante. Services offering tours, sight-seeing flights and lodging lined the docks. Me? I sipped a a cool frothy frappe (mix Nescafe, ice, sugar and cream and shake shake shake) at a dockside taverna and watched the ferries load their cargo. It was a very simple procedure. A big plank dropped down and on went the cars. Ironically, a tow truck pulling a wreck hit another car. The ensuing exchange was akin to watching a foreign movie.
We spent a whole afternoon and evening on the beautiful island of Crete. Here too, the streets are hardly wide enough for the smallest car (but look out, they try!). The custom of closing shops for a couple hours mid-day left the streets bare and easy to explore. We could stare at the merchandise in the windows without shop owners hassling us. At night it was the waiters at the sidewalk cafes that vied for our attention. As we walked by they boldly beckoned, tempting us with their very own specialties. Souvlaki, dolmades, grilled fish, Greek salad, gyros . . . Mmm, the food is so delicious!
Santorini Island, the result of a 1600 BC volcanic eruption, is the most photogenic, mainly because of the way the buildings stick precariously to the mountainside. We shuttled to the docks and had three choices to get to the village which sits on the top foot, donkey, or cable car. Many tourists chose the donkey. It was a very steep climb. The expressions on the riders' faces ranged from fear to laughter. The timid ones hung on for dear life and were not in control of the beast at all. I followed the trail on foot. I had to watch my step and stay alert so as not to get trampled by a herd of donkeys.
The first things we saw approaching Mykonos were the whimsical windmills on the hill. Next we saw the shallow harbor. It looked like a wiggling wading pool with blue, yellow, and green boats. As on all the islands, the cobblestone streets were clean and painted the familiar white with blue trim; church doors gaped open and the whitewashed buildings dripped with flowering oleanders. As on all the islands, hidden alleys led to fish markets, fruit stalls and flower kiosks. However, the atmosphere on Mykonos was different from the other islands. The unusually blase and sophisticated clerks, particularly those selling hand-painted tee-shirts and French and Italian fashions, left us alone.
Our last port of call was Nauplia, a lovely neoclassical city on the Peloponnese. According to the brochures, it is the most well-preserved city in Greece. It certainly is fertile. Some streets are so thick with the bougainvillea tree, the branches create a flowering arbor from one side of the street to the other.
It was midday and the shops' owners were shutting down for their afternoon break. Up came the awnings, in went the stand of postcards, the rack of clothes, the trays of trinkets and out went the lights. At the same time, outdoor tavernas began to fill.
It was the start of another end of the day in Greece.

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