Traveling Classroom Foundation
Tuesday July 16th 2019

Myth & History

It is often difficult to separate legend and myth from history. This is especially true on Naxos, because of the various groups of people who inhabited the island. Different peoples have diverse stories and legends, but these stories become entwined over the centuries.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned the myth recounting how the god Zeus was raised on Naxos. According to legend, Zeus fell in love with a mortal, Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, and from their union sprang Dionysos, god of wine and revelry (also of death and rebirth). According to myth, he was born on the island of Naxos and reared by local nymphs (woodland spirits). Dionysos grew to love the island, and used his power to make it a fertile, happy place, giving it rich vineyards that produced good wines.

If we look at what history and archaeology tell us, we can begin to see some reason behind the myths. People have lived here since the Stone Age. Around 3200 BCE, the Cycladic civilization began to flourish on these islands, producing sophisticated sculptures in marble and many trade goods to sell throughout the Aegean. During this period Naxos supported a big population. At excavations near town, we found a developed city with square houses and tiled roofs.

The ancient Cycladic people never heard of Zeus or the Olympian gods. In fact, no one knew of these myths, because the religion connected with them did not exist. Their religion focused on the life-giving forces of the earth that sustained them (changing seasons, fertility of the land, abundance of herds, birth of children, and so on). Because these were thought to be feminine attributes, Nature was venerated in the form of a female figure. In many Greek museums are beautiful marble idols of a “Great Mother” goddess, who had many different names.

Cycladic mother goddess idol (circa 4000 BCE)

The children of Mother Earth met in the open air to acknowledge the bounties of the great deity and their dependence upon her gifts. The ceremonies observed at these festive seasons consisted for the most part in merry-making and in general thanksgiving, in which the gratitude of the worshipers found expression in song and dance, and in invocations to their deity for a return or continuance of her gifts.

Their world changed abruptly after the gigantic volcanic eruption of Thera (Santorini), at the southern end of the Cycladic group of islands. This eruption wrecked the island and caused tsunami waves that devastated cities and shipping ports hundreds of kilometers away on the Minoan island of Crete, ending their dominance in Aegean shipping and trade. Mycenaeans from mainland Greece seized this opportunity to take over Minoan trade routes and territory in the Aegean. The old civilization of the Cyclades faded away.

According to ancient historians, Naxos was first inhabited by Thracians, who dominated the island for centuries. Later, the Carians came from Asia Minor lead by King Naxos, who gave his name to the island. These peoples were displaced by invading Mycenaean warriors. In turn, centuries later, Mycenaeans were replaced by Dorians, and then came the Ionians (all part of the Hellenic or Greek people). Sorting out these different groups can be confusing, especially if you are reading legends and myths from those ancient times.

Perhaps we can try to unravel the myths. For example, Dionysos – who is closely associated with Naxian legend – is not one of the original gods of Olympus. Dionysos is a Thracian god (perhaps even imported from Asia Minor) who was adopted by the Greeks. His mother, Zamela (Semele in Greek), was worshipped as an earth goddess in Thrace. That same goddess also is associated with Demeter, the Greek goddess who influences the seasons and the crops of the earth. She is linked also with Ariadne, wife of Dionysos, whose death and resurrection symbolize the rebirth of nature in spring. Even more peculiar, Dionysos is sometimes identified with both Zeus and Apollo (a god introduced by the Dorians, who later ruled Greece).

So, with a very small cast of only two deities, we can see how the legends of one civilization might influence the next, and the next, over many centuries.

Finding evidence from the past involves some travel around the island. We drive through the village of Melanes, and then a short distance into the hills until we find a sign that directs us to the “kouros.” We descend into a small valley in which there is a farm with lush gardens, fruit trees and olive groves. Some of the gnarled olive trees here are centuries old (they can live 500 years), so it is a fitting place to search for ancient artifacts.


Ancient olive tree

On a hillside at the edge of the olive grove lies a giant, unfinished statue known as “The Ellinas.” This kouros (which means young man) began as a block of marble cut from the hillside quarry during the 7th century BCE. To reduce shipping weight to the sculptor, who planned to create a kouros, a quarry worker roughed out the shape. However, one leg was broken somehow and the stone became worthless to the sculptor, so it was abandoned where it lay.

The giant unfinished kouros at Melanes

A curious thing about kouroi (plural of kouros) is that they all look about the same. These are not representations of any gods. They are statues of an idealized young man in a stiff pose, with arms held straight down next to the body. There is one exception to this rule, and it is here on the island of Naxos. At the northern tip of the island, near the village of Apollonas, is the unfinished statue of a bearded god with one arm bent at the elbow and hand extended. It is ten meters tall and is widely considered to be a statue of the god Dionysos.

Apollon Kouros

Dionysos Statue of Apollonas

These kouroi were made at a time when Naxian society was rich, and an acropolis crowned the hill where the Venetian castle now stands. The people lived well on the profits from agriculture, cattle, fishing and commerce. In 734 BCE, Naxos loaned its fleet to another kingdom for transporting settlers. In addition to getting paid, the island named one of the new settlements. This settlement is now the Sicilian town of Naxos in Italy.

By this time in history the religion and myths of the Olympian gods were established, and wealthy lands like Naxos could afford to build larger monuments and temples to the gods. One of that is most obvious to people arriving at Naxos is the huge marble gate – the Portara – on a small island in the harbor. This was the entrance of a large temple that Venetian conquerors disassembled and used for building materials in their castle. The 20-ton blocks of the Portara were just too big and heavy to move.

The Portara is part of a temple built in the 6th century BCE

Because this gate faces Delos, the island dedicated to the worship of Apollo, some have called it the Delion (temple of Delian Apollo), but other scholars believe it was a temple of Dionysos, patron god of the island. Before the Venetians tore it down, native islanders used the temple as a Christian church.

It is impossible to say how many of the old ways continued into the Christian era. However, in the mountain villages of Naxos some elements of Dionysiac worship survive, especially during the period of carnival before Easter, when costumed young men with bells around their waists (the “koudounatoi”) dance through the hills, singing and making merry.

One of the most important finds in recent years is the temple dedicated to Demeter (or Damater – which means “mother”), who is often connected with Dionysos. We drive there on a tractor path from the farming town of Ano Sagri. The brilliant white temple stands on a hill overlooking the Tragaia, the great central valley of rich farming land. Experts consider it one of the finest Ionic monuments in the country. I can see why.

Temple of Demeter was built in farming area

Although the temple is not intact, the missing parts were found nearby and are carefully numbered and stacked in neat rows. Specialists are now in the process of reassembling the temple. Walking around the building, we can see how the pieces are fitted together, and where new marble has been used.

This temple is built over a much older temple. Excavations around the site reveal the foundation of the earlier structure, as well as stone pits used for offerings to the goddess. The celebrations honoring Demeter were especially large at harvest time, when the farmers would bring offerings of produce from their fields and place these in the pits in front of the temple.

Offering pit in front of the temple

One of the most intriguing features of this temple is its construction. It is made entirely of marble, which is an amazing feat. Most of Greek architects through the Golden Age used a variety of building materials, focusing on marble in the visible walls and columns, and using red clay tiles for the roof. However, a Naxian stone worker discovered a way to produce roof tiles using marble. So the entire temple, including the roof, was built using glowing white marble. At the nearby museum we are pleased to see samples of the white roof tiles, as well as a wonderful full-scale model (using real marble parts), which demonstrates how the roof system was made.

Scale model shows how the temple was built

On our return through Ano Sagri, we see a small sign pointing the way to the Byzantine church of Ayii Apostoloi (Sainted Apostles). Because it is one of the oldest churches with iconic wall paintings, we decide to visit. We park along the road without considering how far we might have to walk. It turns out to be about a kilometer down a steep path, and then along a goat trail to a hay field overlooking the valley. We climb over a rock wall at the rear of the tiny church and walk around to the front. Before going inside the church, we turn to look out across the valley. To our surprise, we are looking down on the temple of Demeter far below.

The church of Ayii Apostoloi on a hillside in Ano Sagri

Inside the church, we find candles lighted by farmers, and small glasses filled with home-made wine – offerings from the harvest given with prayers for a better crop this year. The ages pass by and new temples are built above the old, but people are the same.

Towers of Naxos, Part 2

We begin the day with preparations for another journey through the hill country of Naxos in search of old fortified towers built by the Venetians. Immediately after leaving the main ring road of Naxos Town we are traveling through rich farm country, where vegetables, olives and wine grapes are grown commercially. This is important to recall when reading about Naxian history (or any history for that matter) because events affecting people often arise from the greed of others.

This island has always been self-sufficient because of its central location in the Cycladic islands, its size and its natural resources. Even the ancient writer Pindaros called Naxos “liparana” (fatty). From antiquity the island was famous for its fruits, olive oil and wine. Poets have compared its wines to “nectar of the gods.”

Under the peaceful rule of the Eastern Roman Empire at Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), the Naxians grew wealthy by selling their produce and goods, especially the fine white marble that makes up more than half of the island. During the Byzantine era many monasteries and churches were erected in the hills – sometimes over the ruins of temples dedicated to the ancient gods – while merchants built fine homes near the ports.

This was too good to last during troubled times. An era was ending. It is one of the ironies of history that the demise of the Byzantine Empire was hastened not by invasions of Arabs from the east or barbarians from the north, but by fellow Christians from the west. In 1095, the First Crusade set out from France – the first of several crusades over the next two centuries – to liberate the Holy Land (Palestine) from the Muslims. These crusaders were a rough and rapacious bunch who desired the riches they saw in eastern lands. Not content with “liberating” Palestine, where they had to keep fighting the Islamic people who lived there, they set about attacking and looting the now weakened Byzantine Empire.

In 1024 Venetian invaders established the Duchy of the Aegean, with its capital at Naxos – the wealthiest of the Cycladic islands. They had a strong foothold in Greece by 1196, when the Byzantine emperor Alexius asked Venice to help defend against the Normans who had invaded Greece. Being shrewd businessmen, the Venetians agreed on the condition that they could use Byzantine trade routes and be exempt from taxes. Over the next few centuries they acquired all of the most strategic Greek ports, and became the wealthiest and most powerful traders in the Mediterranean.

Venetian rule drastically changed the lives of Naxians. They went from being independent farmers and businessmen to working under the domination of a foreign power. It is not surprising that Venetians built fortresses to separate themselves from the people they ruled.

Things got even worst in 1204, when knights of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and carved up the empire into feudal states run by self-styled princes. Afterwards there was constant fighting over territory, and none of this squabbling was good for Naxians. Their homes and lives might be lost whenever another foreign prince tried to take the island away from the Venetians.

However, the rule of Venetian dukes in Naxos survived until 1564, when the Ottoman Turks invaded. Yet, Naxians lived in greater fear of Europeans than of the Turks. Turkish administrators on Naxos were mainly interested in collecting taxes for the sultan, so they did little to disrupt normal commerce. The people of Naxos built monasteries, churches and schools, and went about their business. However, European nations wanting to undermine the Ottoman Empire often behaved like pirates ā€“ attacking and looting Greek towns under the rule of Turks. In those times, Turks used the Venetian fortresses for protection against French and Venetian raiders.

Not far from Naxos Town, we come to Galanado and shortly arrive at the Belonia Tower. We expected something a bit more fortified. This place appears to be a home. In fact, it is a home with a nice walled garden filled with pretty flowers. Venetians wanted some style in their defenses, especially if they had to live in these forts. Looking a bit more closely we can see that the garden wall is thicker than necessary and the house would probably withstand cannon fire. To get to the door, one must walk up a flight of stairs. This would not be possible in the original design.

Unlike other Naxian towers, the Belonia Tower is like a house

The standard design of a Venetian tower includes a stone ladder to the balcony of the second floor, where there is a main entrance. In some towers the ladder doesn’t reach to the entrance and a wooden draw bridge is extended. This, of course, would be raised during an attack. Towers had auxiliary spaces, warehouses for storing the harvest and other supplies, and stables for animals. There was also a large reception room, which we saw at Crispi Tower. In later years some towers added more floors and better living space.

The next tower is the foreboding Oskelos in the Polihni area. We drive up a gravel track no wider than our car to reach the site on the side of a hill, where there is now a farm. Like Belonia Tower, it has a commanding view of the surrounding area down to the sea. However, Oskelos Tower makes no pretense about being anything other than a stone fortress. There are only a few small windows high up on the tower, and a large number of slots that might have been for guns. It is not the sort of place you would want to attack.

Oskalos Tower is under renovation, perhaps for use as a home

After visiting Oskalos, we travel northward to the town of Apeiranthos, high on a mountain ridge beyond the village of Filoti, where we stopped yesterday. It is not possible to drive into the village, because there are no roads – only alleys and narrow corridors that twist and turn between homes and shops. We park on the road outside Apeiranthos and walk. Entering the village, we are impressed that the walkways are paved with marble and a large number of the buildings are constructed of marble. We are surrounded by white stone. It makes sense when we stop to consider that marble is a common rock in this area.

Marble buildings and paving in Apeiranthous

Not far into Apeiranthos, we come to Zevgolis Tower, the most prominent feature of the village. Being Venetian, it is different looking than any of the local architecture, and it is made of a harder stone than marble. Supported by a huge arch, the tower is perched firmly on the edge of a cliff overlooking the agricultural valley below. It seems completely inaccessible from below, so we decide to see if there is a way to get a closer look.

Zevgolis Tower is built solidly on bedrock

We climb up very steep and narrow passages, always trying to move closer to the tower. Finally, we find stairs that lead up to a stone wall and a large, heavy door. This appears to be the main entrance of the Zevgolis Tower, but we are not certain. The place is a private home now, and many changes have been made over the centuries. Even so, it would still be difficult for armed soldiers to break into this tower.

Exploring the village of Apeiranthos is no easy thing, because there are no maps or signs to help us through this complicated maze. By pure chance, through a series of turns and guesses, we eventually find our way (by a completely different route) back to the place we started. From there we locate a small cafe and stop for lunch.

Getting through the maze of village lanes

We continue northward, driving along a road cut into the mountain ridges and looking down into deep valleys, terraced for farming. Finally, we reach Cape Stavri, the northern tip of the island. From the edge of a windblown cliff, we can look across the sea to Mykonos and other nearby islands. It is only a short drive from here to our next destination.
Ayia Tower is crouched upon a precipice like a giant watchdog, staring at the sea. As we hike down the dirt path to the tower, we hear eerie chanting in the wind – like voices from the distant past. Arriving at the tower, we can finally locate the source of the chanting. Below us, in a forested vale hidden from the road, is a tiny church and monastery. The monks are singing a liturgy.

Ayias Tower is built on a high cliff overlooking the sea

The tower is typical of medieval defensive design. It has a narrow, steep stone stairway climbing to a second story entrance. The doorway is little more that a hatch – making it very difficult for armed soldiers to break in. There are only a few small windows (probably used only by guards), and none of these is below the third story.  Looking at this defensive fortress on a remote cliff, far away from the nearest village, I wonder why people chose to live here. An even more interesting question is why they continued in this lifestyle for so many generations.  It seems more like a prison than a family home.

Around the tower are other surviving buildings. Without more investigation, it is difficult to say how they were used. In the case of one building it is obvious. There is a large grinding stone in the center of the building, and a cylindrical stone roller lying in the corner. This was where grain was milled to make flour. After exploring the tower site, we turn south for the return journey to Naxos Town. The road continues through farming land, much of it planted in olives or grapes on terraces above the sea. There seem to be no proper villages in this area – only the occasional cluster of farmhouses.

Along the road near Hilia Vrisi Bay, we happen upon a donkey tied under a shady tree. There are stairs leading up from the road to a small cafe with a large shady arbor covered by grape and trumpet vines along the front of the building. After our long day, we cannot resist. We park near the donkey, who watches as we climb the stairs.

Sitting under the arbor and drinking coffee, is the farmer who owns the mule. Otherwise the place is empty. An elderly lady comes out and asks what she can bring for us. We smile gratefully and sit at a table in the cool shade of grape vines.

Towers of Naxos, Part 1

Arriving in the port of Naxos, the first thing that you notice about the town is a large cluster of houses around and upon a substantial castle built upon a hill. This is a reminder of how dangerous it was to live in this part of the world – almost since the first human settlements were built.

The large Venetian castle looms over Naxos Town

There has seldom been a time in history when Greece was not being attacked, either by other Greeks or foreign invaders. Periods of relative peace generally lasted not more than a few centuries – and then only under the rule of conquerors. Because of this, it was prudent to erect some protection against invaders. On this island alone are more than thirty defensive towers, not counting various castles and fortresses – nor the ancient fortified cities that now lie buried under our feet.

As we leave the ferry and walk towards the kastro (castle), we are met by Dimitri, who has a small bus that will take us to our studio apartment near Ayios Giorgios beach at the south end of town. After several renters are on the bus, Dimitri drives through a confusing maze of one-way streets and delivers us to his sister, Anna, who shows us to our apartment. It has a bedroom, bath and a separate kitchen with dining table. Even better, there is a little balcony overlooking the neighborhood, with a table and chairs for outdoor dining. This is especially nice in the evening, when a cool breeze is blowing. We spend the rest of the afternoon doing what we always do on the first day: finding the local bakery, grocery store, butcher and produce market. Happily, all these are within a hundred meters of our door.

In the morning we walk back to the waterfront, determined to explore the castle. There are many different routes into the castle, because the town has grown up around the foot of the hill and climbed up the steep rock walls that once served to discourage attacking armies. Some houses actually cling to the walls of the citadel. As we climb endless steps through narrow passages and tunnels, winding around homes and tiny shops, we often think we have lost the way. Then we see another small sign pointing the way to the top.

Narrow lane in the castle neighborhood

At the top of the castle, the first thing we see is the Catholic Cathedral built in the Middle Ages. This is noteworthy in a country that is almost entirely of the Greek Orthodox religion. The reason is simple: hundreds of years of domination by Venice – a Catholic country. Not far from the cathedral is the place we came to see, the last of five towers on the Venetian fortress. Crispi Tower was named for the last Venetian dukes who used it as a home. Several of the rooms are open to the public, and these provide a fascinating insight into the lives of the rich and powerful during the 13th century.

Crispi Tower in Naxos castle

The floors are stone, which was probably covered with rich carpeting, and the plastered walls were once richly painted, as were the beamed ceilings high above our heads. The kitchen is a marvel of modern conveniences, with a well that allows one to pull up buckets of water, and a marble sink built into the wall.

Modern 13th century kitchen sink

An indoor well provides fresh water for the kitchen

Outside the back door, in a corner of a large terrace overlooking the town and harbor, is the outdoor toilet (in the stone flooring is a hole that connects with the sewer). There is no evidence that users had any privacy – other than being above the view of the town folk on the streets below.

Some might say the Venetians enjoyed a better lifestyle than the conquered Naxians. They may have felt safe behind castle walls, protected by armed soldiers – but were they really? What was the fate of the great fortresses and the many rulers of Naxos? We decide to investigate at different towers scattered around the island, so we arrange to rent a car from our landlady’s cousin.

The oldest tower on Naxos is far older than the fortifications of any conquering army. It is the tower of Heimarros built during Hellenistic times above Kalantos Bay in the southernmost part of the island. We start early in the day, to avoid the heat, but this does not help. We go eastward from the capital, with the rising sun in our eyes as we drive into the foothills. Continuing to climb on twisting roads – occasionally slowing to a crawl in tiny hillside villages – we finally stop for a rest at Filoti, on the lower slopes of Mt. Zas (Zeus), the highest mountain on the island.

According to legend, Zeus was born in Crete but grew up on the island of Naxos, from where he set out to gain his Olympian throne. One of his names is Zeus Eubouleus, protector of the Naxians. The cave of Zas, high on the mountain, was long a place of worship. Now there is an Orthodox church on the top of the mountain.

Under a platanos (plane) tree in the middle of town, we sip coffee frappes and enjoy a cool mountain breeze before continuing our journey. There is a Venetian fortification in Filoti, the Borotsis Tower, but we pass it by on our way to older history.

Open air tavernas on the main street of Filoti

The road south from Filoti climbs along the mountain range that runs the length of Naxos. There are no other villages, only an occasional farm and sometimes a flock of goats grazing at the edge of the road. When we slow to watch, they quickly jump up onto the rocky cliffs and gaze at us from above. Farther and deeper into the mountains, we begin to wonder if we will find the ancient tower … and then we run out of pavement as the road narrows and turns to gravel. Still we continue.

Not much farther along the gravel road we come to the Heimarros tower on a hillside. It is an impressive white tower built entirely of marble and surrounded by a walled enclosure. The scaffolding around it indicates repair work is being done – perhaps to replace some of the marble blocks missing at the top.

The White Tower of Heimarros

Several ancient buildings have been excavated at the site; these appear to be living quarters – perhaps barracks for soldiers. Nearby is a Byzantine tiny church, so small that it looks as if no more than a few people could fit inside. Stacked everywhere are carefully numbered building stones from ruined structures, waiting to be reassembled like a big jigsaw puzzle.

Ruins of soldiers’ barracks near the watch tower

Tiny Byzantine church at Heimarros

The tower was originally built to provide an early warning system for the people of the island. It looks down on Kalantos Bay and out to the sea. From this position, watchmen assigned to the tower could see pirates or the ships of invaders approaching the island. When this occurred, a beacon fire was lighted on the top of the tower. Another team of soldiers, stationed high up in the mountains, would see the signal and immediately light another beacon fire, which would be seen by the next watch station. Within minutes of sighting danger from the Heimarros tower, the entire military of Naxos could be alerted and then mobilized to defend the island. If you have seen the film “Return of the King” in the Lord of the Ring trilogy, you know how beacon fires were used.

The white tower was erected to protect the towns and people of Naxos, but that was long ago – before the arrival of the Crusaders. Most of the Venetian towers of Naxos were built to protect foreign rulers from the Naxian people and any outsiders who might want to drive them away. These towers were built to as homes for ruling families, as well as defensive fortresses. Several are still used as homes.

We will visit those towers, but not today. It is a long drive back to Filoti, and still farther to Naxos Town. Tomorrow is another day.

Piraeus . . . Once Again

We have come to the last day of our visit to Kefalonia. Usually, we load our backpacks, carry them down to the ferry landing, and then compete with other passengers for available seats. Fortunately, upon arriving in Sami, we learned it is possible to take a bus to mainland Greece. All we do is take our backpacks to the nearby bus station, where they are stowed in the cargo hold of an Athens-bound bus. Then we sip a morning espresso and wait for the ferry – no fuss, no bother. When the ferry arrives in Patras, we climb onto our bus and ride in air-conditioned comfort.

Arriving in Athens is another story altogether. The Kifisos bus station (the one for all southern bus routes) is a huge portal jammed with dozens of buses and hundreds of local taxis continuously coming and going, while thousands of people carrying luggage try to avoid the traffic. Instead of paying a taxi to drive us to the port of Piraeus, we decide to take a local bus to the nearest Metro station. The electric train takes us directly to the port, and we quickly walk up the block to the little hotel where we will spend the night.

KTEL bus station on Kifisos can be a strange and confusing place

After leaving our gear in the room, we venture out again to get our bearings and to find out exactly where to catch our early morning ferry to the Cyclades. Happily, the dock is just a short walk across the waterfront boulevard of Akti Miaouli – named for Andreas Miaoulis, who commanded the Greek naval forces during the War of Independence.   even closer to our hotel than the train station. Pleased with our brilliant choice of hotels, we go looking for places we can go for dinner tonight.

No sensible person would choose the Piraeus waterfront for evening dining. In fact, it looks like the last place anyone would want to be at night. Even in the bright afternoon sunshine, it is a gritty, down-to-business sort of city where everything and everyone has some connection to the port. All the city roads seem to feed into the port, where freighters, cruise ships and ferries are waiting to carry away their cargo of passengers and goods. Along the waterfront, are many invitations on signs and billboards, and often from men standing on the sidewalk in front of ticket offices: “Mykonos, Paros, Santorini, Crete: Buy Your Tickets Here!”” Book your cruise to Turkey.” “Special Prices!”

Piraeus Docks

The docks of Piraeus are always crowed with ferries

Piraeus is the largest passenger port in Europe.  About 20 million travelers pass through its gates each year, usually on their way to another travel destination. We have been among those millions more times than we can count. Piraeus is a temporary stopping point, a chance to grab something to drink, a bite to eat, put one’s bags down for an hour, maybe two, before shipping off. Once in a while, such as when the ferry workers go on strike, travelers must stay longer than planned. But no one seems to intentionally stay near the waterfront for any longer than necessary.

But this is only a small piece of the city. Since we have friends in Piraeus, we know some parts of the city that most travelers never see. We also know a bit more about the history of the old city, which was the same bustling place 2500 years ago as it is today. Then and now, Piraeus was the main port of Athens, the biggest in Greece and one of the most important in the Mediterranean Sea.

Themistokles was the first to realize the importance of Piraeus to the city of Athens. He turned it into the city’s main port, instead of the Gulf of Faliro, which was used by the Athenians until the 5th century BCE. Wanting Athens to have a fortified port he built the wall of Piraeus. Later Pericles completed the fortification by building the Makra Teiche (Long Walls), which protected both sides of the road all the way from Piraeus to Athens.

The city of Piraeus was planned by Ippodamos of Melos, and built in the middle of the 5th century BCE. Ippodamos’ designs were used as guidelines for re-planning the city in 1834, so it is in some ways the same as it was. Thousands of years ago one could sit on the crowded docks and watch men unloading cargo from distant places – eels from Boeotia, apples and pears from Euboea, garlic from Samothraki, mattresses from Corinth, cheese from Sicily, and sailcloth, fabrics and papyrus (paper) from Egypt.

For centuries this city has seen people and things come and go, from both ancient worlds and new. On the waterfront one can here any number of languages among the crowd, and the merchandise is as diverse as the people. On the streets behind the harbor, hidden away by tall buildings housing the offices of shipping companies, banks, and captains of commerce, there are tiny shops selling goods from every corner of the Mediterranean world. The locals go about their daily errands and chores before the afternoon meal and nap. At the coffee houses, old men drink Greek coffee from small cups and stare at passersby. But every so often the loud bellow of a ship’s horn reminds everyone that the dock is not far, and that another trip is about to begin.

Piraeus Ferries

Ferries departing for distant ports

Our next journey begins again tomorrow.

Caves and Villages

During the Stone Age, before anyone had houses (and long before castles were built), Kefalonians lived in caves. There was plenty of cave space to go around, because the island is mostly made of limestone, a rock that tends to dissolve when exposed to water for a long time. The action of water and frequent earthquakes combined to make holes in the rock – caves where people found shelter from the weather and wild animals.

Kefalonia Map

Map of Kefalonia and Ithaki islands

A few kilometers up the coast from Sami is Karavomylos, an ordinary village with a very peculiar feature. Next to the local beach is a brackish lake that emerges from underground channels which flow under the entire island. From the western coast near Argostoli, it takes two weeks for the water to course through underground channels and finally surface at Karavomylos. The flow is so steady and strong, it powers watermills on both sides of the island.

Not far from this lake is the Melissani cave, with its underground lake formed by the same water channels. It is a unique cave structure 160 meters long and 40 meters wide, with stalactites 20,000 years old. The roof caved in long ago, so you can peek in from above. However, it’s much nicer to take a boat inside. From the boat we can see the brilliant colors of the deep water as the sunlight falls through the hole in the roof. There are also dark corners and ledges that make the cave seem very mysterious. This is probably why the ancients used this cave to worship the god Pan and various nymphs here (nymphs always seem to be associated with watery caves and hidden springs).

Entrance to Melissani Cave

Inside Melissani Cave

Farther inland is Drogarati cave, which begins high in the hills and descends into the ground 95 meters. It is truly a phenomenal cavern, with beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations that give us the feeling of being inside a huge melting crystal. According to a local myth, the cave owes its name to a dragon thought to live there. Perhaps in the old days local folk thought the dragon’s fiery breath had melted the interior of the cave.

Great chamber in the Drogarati cave

It is also called “concert cave” because of its wonderful acoustics. The main chamber of the cave, which often serves as a venue for concerts, is about 100 meters long. There is an area where massive stone blocks have broken away from the ceiling, forming a natural stage decorated with milky stalactites. It’s too bad we won’t be around for the next show.

Having developed a taste for cave exploration (with so many being available), we decide to drive down the eastern coast of the island to a town called Poros. In the hills near Poros is Drakaina cave, which was used by people for thousands of years.

Traveling a winding road through the Kokini Rachi mountains, we notice that many of the villages along the way have names ending in “ata” – Janetata, Katapodata, Grizata, Zervata, Koulourata. Each village is just as intriguing as the previous one, with neat houses and pretty churches, encircled by cultivated fields, vineyards and orchards. They seem to use all the soil that can be used to grow crops. We slow down and sometimes stop to see the sights, and we keep trying to remember the song from Lion King with a similar name.

Mountains of Kefalonia

The mountain country of Kefalonia

When we arrive at Drakaina cave, we can see that the archaeological excavations are still in progress, and the area has been fenced off to prevent visitors from tripping over carefully a measured site grid marked off by string tied to stakes. Earlier studies of the cave have revealed artifacts from the later Neolithic (Stone Age), through the Helladic, Archaic and Hellenistic periods. However, the character of occupation changed dramatically over the ages.

During the prehistoric times it was used as a shelter for people and their flocks. Archaeological research has uncovered utilitarian ceramics (such a jugs and items for household use), as well as evidence of intensive stone tool production. There is also evidence that residents had organized the cave space by constructing walls, hearths, and floors – family homes.

Archaeological investigation in progress at Drakaina cave

In historical times the cave served as a shrine dedicated to the worship of nymphs and the god Pan. Archeologists  made some rich finds, including ceramics (cult vase and votive offerings, some imported from Corinth and Attica), figurines, mostly of female deities, few lamps, as well as animal bone remains, a result of sacrifices to the deity. The repeated use is also proved by the presence of offering pits.

As much as we would like to, we cannot wander about the site. In addition, the sun is beginning to drop towards the peak of Roudi Mountain in the west. When the mountain passes fall into shadow it will be more dangerous driving a twisting and unfamiliar road.

We decide it would be safer to return to Sami while there is still light. All the way back we are still trying to remember that Lion King song.

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