Classic Greece and the Greek Islands

November 25, 2008 by Julie Perry Nelson

My husband, Bill, and I spent two weeks (November 7 to 21, 2008) in Greece and sailing around the GreekIslands.  We visited 8 of the Cyclades Isles.  It was a wonderful experience.  We flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Frankfurt to Athens where we were met by our tour leader and taken to the hotel.  There were 21 people in our group from all over the U.S.; a nice diverse group.

The first day we walked to the Acropolis and all around the Parthenon, by the Erechtheion (the most sacred of the structures).  The Porch of the Maidens on the Erechtheion (5 female figures that are used as columns to support the structure) is spectacular. Lord Elgin took a sixth one to decorate his mansion but later sold it to the BritishMuseum.  We saw Mars Hill near the Acropolis.  On Mars Hill, in ancient times, there was an altar dedicated to the Unknown God.  St. Paul preached there to judges of Athens and talked about Jesus as the Unknown God (I thought that was pretty clever).  However, it took 600 years to convert the Athenians to Christianity.  Pope John Paul II said Mass there.  Bill and I walked on to the ArcheologicalMuseum—just spectacular.  It is hard to believe that items that old could survive that long and be in such good condition.  Then I went to Mass at St. Denis Catholic Cathedral.

We drove through mountains and little towns, along the Ionian Sea and DelphiHarbor.   We walked around the ruins of a temple dedicated to Athena.  We overnighted in Arachova, a very picturesque town.  We had a Greek cooking lesson and then for dinner were served the food that we prepared.

We visited the Museum of Delphi where we saw “The Charioteer,” a famous bronze statue prepared by the lost wax method.  There was also a wonderful sphinx.  We walked to Apollo’s Sanctuary the site of the Oracle of Delphi, the most important shrine in Greece. The shrine dates back to 1400 BC and was built around a sacred spring. Delphi was considered to be the omphalos – the center (or navel) of the world.  Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, in exchange for gold, answered questions about the future.  There was a 5000 seat theatre and treasuries to hold the gifts to the Oracle.  Bill and I walked on to the top of the hill where there was a stadium where games were held.  From there we could see the Bay of Itea and olive groves.

We drove over 4 hours to reach Kalambaka.  On the way we stopped at an icon workshop.  We were given a tour and shown how the wood and canvas are prepared for painting.  We watched an artist at work.  I bought a couple of icons (the Blessed Mother and St. Paul) and they were signed by the artist.  In Kalambaka, I visited the Church of the Assumption (9th – 11th C).  It contains frescoes by Neophytos, a 16th century monk from Crete.  It is interesting to me that all Greek Orthodox churches have paintings of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin.  I didn’t learn the origin of that practice.  That evening, we had a Greek lesson which was most interesting.  There are many English words that come from the Greek.

A highlight of the trip was visiting the monasteries of Metreora.  These monasteries, some of which date back to the 16th C, are built on the top of “towering rock formations.”  One of them appeared in the James Bond movie, “For Your Eyes Only.”  We visited two of them; one dedicated to St. Barbara which has 30+ nuns and the other dedicated to St. Stephen.  That evening we went to a local restaurant (delicious food!) and were entertained by a young man who played a traditional stringed instrument.  Some of us danced.

We had a long drive from Kalambaka to the port of Pireaus where we boarded our sailboat, the Panorama.  Another group was also on board making 35 passengers and 18 crew.

We sailed first to the island of Tinos which is mountainous and has about 40 whitewashed villages.  We visited the Church of the Virgin (another Assumption!) and saw the ancient icon of the Virgin Mary which was recovered under miraculous circumstances in 1823. Later we sailed to Mykonos.  We took a bus to the old port and walked around.  There are many windmills and churches.  I had my first Greek coffee which was quite good. Then we sailed to Paros where they used columns and pieces of temples and buildings to build new buildings.  Paros had a temple to Poseidon in ancient Greek times.

Santorini was the next island we visited.  It is the remnant of the rim of the caldera of a volcano which erupted in 1600 BC.  We visited the island of Fira on the caldera rim, about 1000 feet above the water.  We had the choice of riding a funicular or riding a donkey—I chose the donkey.  The museum there is spectacular—pots and other artifacts from 17thCBC, much of it from excavations at Akrotiri, an ancient Minoan city buried by volcanic ash.  We took a bus to Oia—the old city.  It was absolutely beautiful with white buildings and blue-roofed churches and a lot of volcanic rock.  We took the bus back to the funicular, then the funicular down, and a tender to our boat.  We had an evening of wine tasting and then dinner.

We sailed to Naxos which is the largest and most mountainous of the Cyclades islands.  MountZas, 3,294 ft, is there.  This island was sacred to Dionysos and still produces excellent wine.  We drove to the village of Kournocharie and then walked a little over an hour to Melanes with lots of fruit and olive trees.  We saw the kouros (young man) – a ancient, huge statue carved of marble lying on the ground.  He has a broken leg and that is why he was not transported from that place.  Our “home cooked meal” was in a family restaurant.  Delicious food.  We also had music and we danced.  That evening, we had “Greek night” and a group of young people come from Melanes to dance for us; we also danced.

The next island we visited was Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.  The island is not inhabited now.  There are extensive ruins with much more to excavate.  It reminds me of Pompeii: houses, stores, columns, mosaic floors, frescoed walls, statues.  There are 4 lions that are striking.  Then on to Syros where we had a walking tour.  After the tour, some of us walked to the Church of the Assumption where there is an early El Greco painting of the Dormition of the Virgin, painted when he was 19 or 20.  Bill visited the Casino and came out 10 euros ahead.

After a walk in the morning, we sailed all day and docked in Poros about 6 pm.  We had the captain’s cocktail party and dinner that evening.  After a morning walking tour of Poros, we had lunch and our disembarkation briefing.  Our wakeup call was at 2:30 am, breakfast and luggage out at 3, and to the airport at 3:30!  On our last evening we had a couple of men come and dance; they were really good and got us all involved.

We arrived at the airport and flew to Frankfurt where there was a storm and we had to stay in a holding pattern for awhile.  After a short connection time, we boarded our plane for the 11 hour flight to Los Angeles.

It was a wonderful trip.  Educational, spiritual, relaxing, and entertaining.  Great Greek food and drinks (although you can have ouzo!).

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