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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Monemvasia – The Gibraltar of Greece

 Monemvasia1

Somewhere along the stretch between Sparta and Monemvasia, we come to a sudden halt as a Greek shepherd guides his sheep across the road. The scrawny creatures follow their master with an outstretched crook and a whistle to safety. My friends – Fiona, Rosalinde and Liz - and I sit in the car, and patiently wait for the sheep to cross.

 

It will take approximately four hours to drive from Athens Airport to Monemvasia, we had read on a travel website. When we contacted Toula Georgakopoulou, the owner of Gialos Beach Apartments, we were told “Three and a half.”,

 

It’s a six hour drive to reach our destination.

 

Along the spectacular 333 kilometer (207 mile) drive through winding roads to reach the south-eastern Peloponnese region of Greece we conclude that some people must drive really fast in Greece.. Mountains climb and dip into valleys covered with orange trees and grape vines. Bends in the road occasionally bring us to the coastal edge, and as we drive parallel to the blue Mediterranean Sea we see Greek Islands on the horizon.  Stopped and waiting patiently for the sheep to cross, we realize there is no reason to complain and we can only smile because we know we have discovered an authentic part of Greece.

Monemvasia 

 

Monemvasia7We quietly gaze as an enormous rock suddenly comes into view on the Peloponnese coast. Sheer cliffs rise 300 meters (984 feet) from the sea. We have arrived at Monemvasia. It is possible to see why this 7th century Byzantine fortress is known as The Gibraltar of Greece by tourists and Kastro (Castle) by the locals. We spy the narrow causeway connecting the fortress to the village of Gefyra. Literally meaning Single Entrance, Monemvasia’s true namesake is clear.

 

 

 

Monemvasia2Although it is possible to stay on the Rock itself, we opt to stay at Gialos Beach Apartments 4 kilometers (2 ½ miles) outside Monemvasia. No crowds, no noise except for humming cicadas, perfect tranquility. For longer than the six hour car ride we had envisioned ourselves sipping piña coladas while lounging on deckchairs in the shade of olive trees. The apartment is basic, but has all we require for a comfortable stay, not to mention the 25 meter (82 feet) walk to the water’s edge. Toula warmly welcomes us when we arrive at our apartment in the evening and, sensing our enthusiasm about trying the local wine, she fills an empty soft-drink bottle to sample.

 

The next morning we awake to pastries from Toula.  After breakfast she opens a map and circles the necessary sights for The Peloponnese novice. Sparta and the Byzantine settlement of Mystras are both highlights, especially for those that love history.  

“And,” she says, “If you want a beautiful beach you must go to the island of Elafonissos. It is paradise.”

 

Our explorations begin in Gefyra. We discover Kamarinos Bakery with piles of flaky baklava. Oozing with honey and nuts, there are enough varieties for us to try a different one each day of the week. The woman at the  bakery, points to a mountain of crescent shaped biscuits. “Amygdalota,” she calls them. “Monemvasia is famous for these.” The recipe for these delicious treats made from almonds, rosewater and sour orange trees has been passed down the generations for two centuries.

 

Our meanderings around Gefyra lead us to a sign advertising glass bottomed boat trips. The owner is difficult to pin down - probably sipping coffee in a cafe we conclude from having already seen a multitude of Greek men chatting and whiling away the hours. Finally we get hold of him by phone and he comes instantly.

 

 “Youse want to go on boat. I takes you. I goes fast and then we stop for good photos.”

Monemvasia5Our enterprising fisherman turned tour guide, certainly goes fast. And true to his word, he stops so we can take photos of Monemvasia from all its impressive angles. It turns out the fortress isn’t the only attraction. Our guide stops to introduce us to a fisherman on another boat. His unshaven friend, cigarette dangling from his lips, proudly poses with his catch of the day while we capture him on film.

 

Later we drive over the causeway to Monemevasia, park the car and walk through the dark, narrow entrance.  We emerge into hot, bright sunshine.  Temporarily blinded, the streets slowly reveal shops filled with jewellery, spices and souvenirs as we steadily climb the sloping cobbles of the lower town. Stray kittens playfully tumble under cafe chairs and curiously sniff at our foreign skin.

 

 

 

 

Monemvasia3Sturdy footwear is necessary for exploring Monemvasia. It is an uphill hike to reach the top, but we revel in the walk. Fragrant jasmine and vibrant pink bougainvillea trail out from crevices of stone and terracotta buildings, paths zigzag up the hill and lead through a tunnel still retaining its original ironbound gates. At the pinnacle of upper Monemvasia and among ruins of houses and cisterns, stands St Sophia (Hagia Sophia) Church. Built by the Bzantines in 1150AD, the church crowns this enormous rock. With a backdrop of blue sky meeting brilliant blue water I scan the ground for a fragment of broken pottery to take home.

 

Later that week, we venture off to Patriko Restaurant situated close to the tiny village of Agios Ioannis. We arrive and choose a table overlooking the still, sapphire Mediterranean. As our waiter approaches, we whisper to each other, “I bet his name is Nick, every man in Greece is called Nick.” That’s our theory anyway. With an engaging smile, the waiter greets us, “Good evening my name is... Nikos.” We snigger softly.

 

It’s a quiet evening and just two other tables are occupied with customers. Nikos circulates, takes a seat at each table and engages in friendly chatter. We find this charming and return a few nights later. Instead of ordering one meal each, we order two of every item listed on the entree menu to share: creamy tzatziki, lightly battered calamari, spinach filled spanakopita and so much more. After stuffing ourselves to bursting point, Nikos comes to chat.

 “Tomorrow,” he announces, “Is my wedding day!”

 

A group of single girls on holiday, our desires are dashed as we realise this gregarious man is not eligible. Our disappointment turns to enchantment when he says, “You are welcome to my wedding!”  

 

We squeal with delight at the thought of experiencing a genuine big, fat Greek wedding, but suddenly remember- tomorrow we return to Athens to fly home. Despite our disappointment, we decide it’s delightful even to be asked.

Monemvasia6 

We begin our drive north at an incredibly early hour the next morning. Saddened to leave Monemvasia and wishing we could stay at least one more week, we watch our holiday disappear as we round the corner. The memories of lazy hours by the beach, fascinating historical sites, colorful characters and fabulous food are still forefront in our thoughts. And as we arrive at the airport, we realize that we have absorbed a bit of Greek tradition. Even with a herd of unruly goats blocking the road, we reach Athens in only four hours.

Monemvasia4 

 

©Sally Dixon

Photos by Rosalinde Joosten and Fiona Wardle

 

 

For further information:

Monemvasia Travel Information:

http://www.monemvasia-online.com/ 

http://www.greeka.com/peloponnese/monemvasia/

 

Gialos Beach Apartments and Goulas Hotel : http://www.gialos.gr/

 

 

 

 

Published in interest
Monday, 25 October 2010

Budget Greece Tour

Article Athens TheatreBefore visiting Greece, my first thoughts always consisted of the islands when thinking of the country, but the Cosmos’ “Best of Greece” historical tour (www.cosmos.com) opened my eyes to the beauty and wonder of the mainland. After visiting such places as Athens, Olympia, Delphi, Sparta and Metero on the mainland, I realized Greece’s culture, cuisine and history equals its recognized beauty.

Article TourGroupOur tour of Greece had a range of travelers from Australia, England, Canada, Cuba and the United States.  People signed up in singles, pairs and with their families, so the age-range spanned anywhere from 13 to 65. In the 10-day period of the tour, our group of 22 people (which I found out is on the smaller side of most tour groups) were able to bond in a way I haven’t remembered since overnight camp.  More than just the tour itself, the people were also an experience.

Yanni, our tour director, was a wealth of information. Every day we would stop the coach bus for lunch, and Yanni would excitedly tell us the restaurants specialties, which I always made sure to try. On our way from Athens to Epidaurus, Yanni Article GoatSoupsuggested we try the fried small fish plate, a dish in which the fish become so soft that the bones are completely edible. Traveling between Kalambaka and Athens, on Yanni's suggestion, I had a spectacular goat soup.

Our first and last stop was the bustling city of Athens. There are 10.5 million people living in Greece and almost five million of them live in Athens. And within Athens, the Athenian Acropolis is a sight to behold: Although there are restorations currently around the Parthenon, you can still get a real feel for the size of the area and of the surrounding buildings, treasuries and theaters. "Acro" in acropolis means highest point, and "polis" means city. Many of the larger cities in Greece each have their own acropolis, although none is as large as the Athens acropolis.

Article AthensAcropolisMuseThe Acropolis Museum, which is situated nearby, was built only a year ago and holds multiple ruins and preserved statues. It's impossible to dig anywhere in an ancient city like Greece and not discover a new ruin, which is exactly what happened when the Acropolis Museum was erected. In order to preserve their new findings, the museum was re-designed to stand on concrete stilts with multiple glass floors to see straight through to a preserved history.

Article CorinthCanalFrom Athens we toured the Peloponnese, a large peninsula south of the Gulf of Corinth. It forms most of southern Greece and is known for its ancient wonders and mythical triumphs. After crossing the Corinth Canal (completed in 1893), we journeyed west to Nafplion, the 1830’s center of Greece and the current capital of the province of Argolida. According to legend, the city was named after its founder, son of the God of Poseidon.

On the way to Nafplion we stopped at Epidaurus, known for its natural springs; It was the most brilliant center of healing in the ancient world. Worshiping the gods of healing in Epidaurus goes back to the prehistoric Mycenaean period. The site contains a Greek theater which seats 14,000 people and is one of the best preserved theaters from ancient Greece.

Yanni told us a fact about of the theater’s ancient construction: that you can sit in the furthest row and hear a coin drop on the stage floor so clearly that you would think it was three feet from you. Needing this to be proven, I climbed the rows of stone seats to the highest point and listened hard when someone dropped a euro on the ground floor. Amazingly, the resounding “cling” that rang through the theater was crystal clear, like I dropped the coin at my own feet.

 

 

In the city of Sparti, there are many stories about the Spartan clan, most well-known for their aggressive nature and devotion to their city. There is even a monument marking the spot where 300 Spartans, along with 700 other Grecians, fought an estimated one million Persians (this war was recently highlighted in the movie “300”, starring Gerard Butler). The city of Sparti comes alive at night with lots of restaurants, café’s, and shopping.

Mystras, a fortified town on Mt. Taygetos, overlooks the ancient town of Sparta. In Medieval times, during the 14th and 15th centuries, Sparta flourished and served as the capital of the area. Our entire tour group walked to the top of this mountain although the summer heat outside was intense, marveling at the preserved city composed of a church, a palace, city streets and water ducts. It was inhabited through the Ottoman period and was abandoned in the 1830s when the new town of Sparti was built.

Article CoastalGreekTownCoastal Greece is mesmerising: The water is royal blue, and driving around the coast past mountain ranges, fishing farms and olive groves reveal how the Greek people have learned to live off their environment. I was under the impression that Italy had the cornerstone on the olive market, but olives are big business in Greece. Each olive grove is named after the city in which it resides. For example, the popular dark aubergine Kalamata olive often used in Greek salad grows in the city of Kalamata. On the way to Delphi, we passed a grove containing 13 million olive trees.

Olive oil has long been considered sacred; it was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples as well as being the "eternal flame" of the original Olympic Games. Before medals were provided to Olympic winners, victors in ancient games were crowned with olive tree leaves.

The original Olympic grounds area is a vast space now in ruins in the Greek city of Olympia, and held in honour of the Greek God, Zeus. Part of the ancient Olympic grounds consisted of a large temple for Zeus, which housed a massive statue of the God to watch over the games. It is one of the great seven wonders of the ancient world. Unfortunately, only the Great Pyramid of Giza is left standing out of the original seven wonders.

The exact start of the Olympic Games is shrouded in myth and legend, but records show they began in 776 BC. The ancient Olympic Games continued until AD 393, after which it was moved to different cities around the world. The torch tradition was always done in front of the Goddess Hera’s temple and continues there before each modern Olympics. There were much fewer sporting events held during the ancient Olympics, and originally only free Greek men were allowed to enter. Many sports consisted of gymnastics and were completed naked. The Greek etymology of the word ‘gymnos’ means exercising and competing in the nude.

Article MedivalTown

There are few modern wonders in Greece, but recently the Rion-Antirion Bridge was completed, connecting the Peloponnese with continental Greece, which is where the tour progressed towards Delphi. The bridge’s original vision was designed in 1889 and finally became a reality on Aug. 7, 2004 to the final tune of 770 million euro ($978.5 million). It is one of the only bridges worldwide built over a tectonic plate and therefore uses the latest technologies to hold up its length of 1.4 miles. The true glory of the bridge was celebrated the day after its completion as the Olympic Torch passed over the bridge on its way to Athens.

 

 

Article Delphi OracleTempleWhen traveling the mainland of Greece, it’s imperative to see the city of Delphi, the location of the ancient, all-knowing Oracle. The sanctuary of the god, Apollo, extends over a series of terraces in the foothills of Mount Parnassos. The area was originally inhabited during the Mycenaean times (14th – 11th century BC), when “Ge,” or “Earth,” was the main deity worshipped. From the 9th century BC to the 2nd century

AD, this settlement began worshiping the god

 

Apollo, whereby stone temples were built and people from across the lands, including other countries, would visit to get answers from the Oracle.

Some worshippers, like peasant women, would ask the Oracle, “Am I having a boy or a girl?” While Kings of nations might ask, “Should I go to war?” The answer would come in time depending on the wealth of the asker: The wealthier you were the longer your answer took. Payment would come in the form of animal sacrifice, jewels, food, gold, bronze and silver statutes, and each day, worshippers would take their offerings to the god of Apollo. But it was worth it because the Oracle was always right. Priests and their helpers would listen carefully to the worshippers and answer in such a way that they were never wrong. For example, to answer a woman’s question about her pregnancy, the Oracle could answer “Boy not Girl,” and it depended on where the listener placed the comma that decided the outcome. Many decisions and initiatives were made because of the Oracle’s answers.

Article MeteoraOur last stop before returning to Athens was the city of Kalambaka, where the majestic rock formations of Meteora are. Geologists say this area was completely underwater seven million years ago, forming an array of grey rising rocks full of caves, which are now topped with monastic buildings. This area is also a well-known site for rock climbers to test their skill and take in the scenery, which to me truly resembled “a land before time.”

The buildings house monks, priests and nuns who live a simple life above the land. Anyone who wants to shed their past lives are allowed to live amongst the monks in exchange for helping their new community with whatever skills they have to offer for however long they choose to stay there. And if living with the monks is not enough solitude, visitors can go one step further and live as a hermit in one of the many caves, six of which were occupied when I was there.

We visited St. Stephen’s Monastery, which included two churches: one old and one restored with amazing accuracy and beauty. The older church was last used just before World War II when, during the war, the paintings in the church were defaced and left that way.

Before heading home, there was one last thing to do: tipping your tour director and driver is an added expense to remember. From my research anywhere from two to four euro a day for your driver and three to five euro a day for your tour director is considered fair.

When taking a tour, it’s important to take into account the importance of schedule. Tours often include early mornings and only pockets of free time. This tour of Greece did allow for more free time than other tours by giving a great balance of excursions versus down-time, but each day started with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call. And similar to being on a cruise ship, many excursions cost extra. It’s important to find out which museums, excursions and meals are included in your original tour price to get true understanding of cost.

Article Athens Acropolis

An educational tour becomes a perfect way to see it all and get more value for your money. And at the end, I realized that Greece really is much more than just the Greek Islands and the ruins of a distant culture.

©Stephanie Hiltz

Stephanie Hiltz, food and travel writer; www.chefytephi.com

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