Travelling in Greece brings to mind the opening lines of Harry Nilsson’s song, Remember:
‘Long ago, far away, life was clear, close your eyes…’
Everything here seems to have been glorious but it was all ‘once upon a time’.
It had a good run; from the eighth century BC, right up to when the Romans started getting a bit uppity over eight hundred years later. The first couple of centuries are known as the Archaic Period, and when Steve and I fetched up at Drepano, we were delighted to see a sign for an Archaic Temple just around the corner. Sadly, we were somewhat less delighted when we found it.
The signs had been proud and proclaiming on the main road, but as we’d got closer to the site, they’d become vague, unhelpful, and pointing in distinctly off-hand directions.
When we eventually found it, we understood why – they clearly wanted you to know they had a Temple, but they just didn’t want you to see it.
Because said Temple was, in fact, a triangle of grass with a few rocks and a couple of holes in it, on a slope behind the church. The sort of place where all the rubbish blows, and people dump their old beer cans and Xmas trees, and dogs go to poo. Not very Templey. I genuinely mistook it for a bus-stop.
But who cares, because after the Archaic Period came the Classical Period, and this is when Greece really got its shit together.
We waited until my son, Joe, came to stay and then we shot off to Mycenae. Here they have three Tholos (or beehive-shaped) tombs, and it’s also where the great golden mask of Agamemnon was found.
Steve made a ‘find’ of his own; scratching in the dirt on a pathway he picked up a tiny piece of painted pottery, circa 1200 BC. Joe adored the serenity of the Tomb of Clytemnestra, with its high, domed roof made of intricately over-lapping brickwork. And, in the museum, I found more of the strange little Grecian figures that I have come to think of as Nipple-tweakers. Happy days.
You’ve heard of Hercules defeating the Nemean Lion? Well, this is where the legend takes place, and we thought it’d be a good place to visit. The story goes that, as the first of his ‘labours’, King Eurystheus sends Hercules off to kill a certain lion that has been causing havoc in the area, and to bring him back the skin as proof.
Fair enough, you think? No, not really – this particular beast has fur that is impenetrable, and claws that can cut through both swords and armour, which just shows what he thinks of Hercules.
Now, the H-man has been told about the lion, but he’s as thick as two short planks and tries to shoot it with arrows, which naturally just ping off. To give him his due, he doesn’t quit, and eventually corners it in a cave and chokes it to death. Round one to Hercules.
But now he has to skin it. Having totally forgotten (again) about the strength of the animal’s fur – it having been, ooh, minutes since the arrows bounced off – he tries to cut it with a knife. Epic fail. Aha, he thinks, I’ll sharpen my knife with a stone. Fails again. This goes on for some time, until Hercules tries to hack it off with the stone. Not a lateral thinker, our Herc.
By this time the Gods are all placing bets and pissing themselves laughing. Zeus is wiping tears from his eyes, muttering, ‘he’s the gift that keeps on giving’. But Athena has had enough, and drops down to Earth to give him a nudge in the right direction.
‘That’s quite a lion, you’ve got there,‘ she says.
‘I know, right? Got claws that can cut through armour, too. I’m bloody heroic, I am.’
‘Cut through armour, can they? Wow, that’s really sharp.’
‘Yes it is, and now I’ve got to skin it, and look what it’s done to my best knife? It’s all bent up.’
Athena tries again. ‘If only you had something here that was sharp enough to cut through armour – that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?
‘The stone didn’t work either,’ says Herc, completely mystified.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake, use the claws, the claws! Seriously, what is wrong with you?’
And that’s exactly how it happened, and I personally think this story has something that every one of us can identify with.
There’s a sunken city off the coast near Epidauros, which you can swim out to, that’s a couple of thousand years old. So we took a drive out to that, only to discover that neither of us can swim that far, or that deep – not with a snorkel, anyway. So we trollied into the local town and went looking for ice-cream instead.
While I was deciding if mine had ever actually met a strawberry, we got befriended by a lovely young couple and an older chap; Sarah, Patrick and Petyr. They were looking to buy a boat to set up an island-hopping business. Sarah was a Brit who’d gone to the States to study acting, and had then gone on to be a singer/songwriter. She looked about twenty-two. I couldn’t work this out so I turned to Patrick and enquired if she wasn’t too young to have given up on one dream already? She laughed and said she was older than she looked, but he said, ‘I hope she hasn’t given up – I love hearing her sing.’ He looked so totally besotted I nearly hugged him. Best I could do was choke out, ‘Well, he’s a keeper,’ and then float off feeling awed by how sweet they were.
Further up the beach we saw a young lad who’d caught a small octopus for his dinner. Apparently, to tenderise the hard muscles which serve instead of a skeleton, it has to be beaten about fifty times on a rock. When we caught up with this lad he’d been dragging it up and down a well-worn rock for at least half an hour, liberally dousing it in sea-water. He looked exhausted.
Of course, there’s more than just a sunken city here. There’s plenty of other ruins including an amphitheatre, cos you’ve got to see at least one, haven’t you?
BUT OLYMPIA, THO
If you’re not going to Athens (which we are not), then the next best place for Classical Greek stony stuff has got to be Olympia. A lot of the temples fell down in an earthquake, but even seeing the size of the blocks that made up the columns is impressive. I really liked that one of the buildings in the surrounding (massive) complex was said to echo whatever you said, seven times.
They light the Olympic torch here, and you can still run down the original 100 metre(ish) track. So I made Steve run with me, whilst workmen and other tourists looked at us pityingly. So am I now an Olympian? I think I am.
But the best bit for me was the museum – lots of muscles and beautifully draped cloth.
And stuff that was just plain interesting (this little lion probably never met Hercules – he’s too smiley).
And how come glassware can survive for over two millennia in the ground here, but every time we get back to England it’s another trip to Ikea for us?
I’ll leave you with this – a photo of me crossing the finish line at Olympia, that totally belies the twenty minutes of red-raced gasping for breath that followed, or gives any hint about the bit in the middle that I had to walk. Thanks for reading. Ciao xxx