Traveling Classroom Foundation
Friday September 22nd 2017

Land of Centaurs

Yesterday, we caught a bus from Athens to Volos in the Magnesia district. It was a four-hour ride, with one stop for lunch in the middle of the afternoon (at which time everyone was gnawing on the armrests).

Volos, the capital of the Magnesia Prefecture (district) is the second-largest city in Thessaly and the third busiest commercial port in Greece. Magnesia is wrapped around the Pagasetic Gulf, a protected body of water separated from the Aegean Sea by a long peninsula. Volos faces the crystal-clear waters of the gulf; behind it rise the evergreen slopes of Pelion mountains.

Rebuilt after earthquake damage, Volos is very modern

We arrived in Volos a little after 4:00 PM. It was not especially hot, but the humidity seemed much higher than in Athens. As the bus station is outside of town (which seems sort of silly), we decided to telephone to the local hotels rather than shoulder our backpacks for the long hike into town. We found a hotel on the waterfront, right across the docks from the fishing fleet and ferry terminal. The name of the place is Iason — which means “Jason” of Argonaut fame. From our balcony we can look southward across the Pagasitic Gulf and eastward to the peninsula that encloses the gulf.

Near our waterfront hotel is a monument to the voyage of the argonauts

Pelion, land of the legendary Centaurs, the site chosen by the ancient gods for their weddings and celebrations, rises in lush magnificence to the northeast of Volos. It was here that the centaur Chiron, the wise teacher of demigods and heroes, gave his pupils daily instruction in the proper care of body and soul. Here, too, the first beauty contest took place between Thetis and Eris (the contest which eventually lead to the Trojan War).

“Many leaved” Pelion was an inspiration to Homer, Pindar and Euripides but also to the more modern popular muse who sung of the unquenchable desire of the Greek people for freedom. The highest peaks of Pelion (Pliasidi and Pourianos Stavros) are in the northern part of the range. Its inaccessible eastern flank, with the Aegean stretching out into the distance like a vast mirror, comes to an abrupt end in the sea, creating wildly beautiful rocky shores. Conversely, the tranquil, calm coast of the western flank on the Pagasitic gulf is much easier to reach and encourages shipping activity.

Some villages on Pelion seem inaccessible to the outside world

Pelion’s picturesque villages, sometimes clinging to wooded slopes or perched on steep bluffs, sometimes hidden away in verdant ravines, are so much a part of the scenery that, seen from a distance they create the impression of having “sprouted up” along with the trees. The distinctive traditional architecture of the old houses with their narrow windows and decorated walls, stone stairways and roofs of grey or greeny slate; the Byzantine churches with wonderful wall paintings and icon screens; the winding cobbled paths, sculpted fountains, courtyards redolent of basil and gardenia; squares paved with huge flag stones where the cheerful bubbling of a little brook is never absent … all typical features of a Pelion village.

We have explored much of downtown Volos, but are fairly restricted in what we can accomplish here. The notable archeological museum is closed for upgrades (in preparation for the 2004 Olympics) and most of the really good archeological sites are outside of the town. So, this afternoon we are going to rent a tiny car and spend the next several days driving to important places on Pelion and the Mycenaean ruins (the ancient city of Iolchus) south of here.

Around Paros

Lying in the center of the Cyclades cluster, Paros is the equivalent of New York’s Central Station for Greek ferries. Located at a distance of 95 nautical miles from the port of Piraeus, the island has about 11,000 permanent inhabitants and it plays host to more than a half million tourists every summer. Arriving at peak season (all Europeans begin vacations on August 1st), we were fortunate to have friends on the island.

As usual, we have a small house by the sea near the villa of our friend Lambis, the local butcher. It is about a kilometer walk along a seaside path into Parikia and the agora (shopping area). Every day we have walked to town (rental cars were absolutely unavailable when we arrived), and sometimes we catch a local bus to take us to some other villages around the island … Naoussa, Piso Livadi, Aliki, Dryos, Lefkes.

Naoussa is a town very familiar to us, but also mysterious. Like Parikia, Naoussa was designed and built in the form of a maze to confuse raiding pirates, who plagued the islands for many centuries – even into the late 19th century. No matter how many times we have visited the town, we can always discover something new as we become lost in the back streets of the maze.

The same is true of the inland towns, though not to the same extent. For many years the town of Lefkes served as the capital of the island, since it was perched high in the hill country and far from sea raiders. However, even this town maintains some of the same protective maze designs that are seen on coastal villages.

Aside from the flood of tourists, which we try to avoid as much as possible, Paros is about to have the biggest celebration of the year … the religious festival of the Assumption. Here on Paros the festival is grander than almost anywhere else in Greece because of the Byzantine church of Ekatontapyliani (Church of 100 Doors). This church may be the oldest continuously operating Orthodox church in existence. The original part of its structure (it is actually formed of several integrated churchs) was built in the 4th century.

We are looking forward to the festival. In the meanwhile, there are many other things to see. In addition to the archeological sites, Frankish ruins and Byzantine buildings, we have attended several cultural events, art shows and gatherings of foreign residents (many of whom are painters, poets and novelists).

It is good that we have many options because the beach is not a big attraction just now. The meltemi winds have dominated the weather since our arrival. Although this moderates the effects of the hot sun in a clear sky, it also whips up a heavy surf that makes casual swimming almost impossible.

We hope that the wind will die down before long.

National Gardens

It seems to be a good day for a walk; not too hot and the humidity is tolerable. We have decided to go to Syntagma Square and then explore the shady paths through the National Gardens, south of the Parliament. At the square we make a detour to see the archeological exhibit in the Metro station. This may seem to be a rather strange place for a museum, but it makes perfect sense.

Syntagma Station is a showcase train station for the new rail line, which greatly expands and modernizes the Athens subway system. In the course of tunneling for this new line it was frequently necessary to stop work in order to allow archeologists to inspect artifacts and antiquities uncovered during the excavation. These antiquities have now become part of a wonderful exhibit that commuters can pause to visit. The exhibit catalogs the layers of civilization — from early Greek to later Roman — unearthed by the Metro project.

After spending some time in the cool underground museum, we emerge on Amalias Street in front of the National Parliament (the Vouli). Fortunately, we have arrived just in time for the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. The honor guards are Evzones, a highly trained elite corps dressed in the traditional mountain costume, with tasselled caps, kilt and leggings.

There are two Evzones standing at attention in the shade of small guard houses (rather like the royal guards at Buckingham Palace in London). Three soldiers dressed in regular army uniforms position themselves in front of the guards and, on our left there were three more Evzones marching along Irodhou Attikou enroute from their barracks. When they arrive at the guard station, the Evzones on duty begin a strange, high-stepping, slow-motion march away from their guard houses. The two new guards also commence a precise ballet of marching steps and rifle handling.

Finally, the new guards move into position in front of the monument and those who have been relieved fall into formation behind the Evzone who brought the replacements. They march off to the cadence of clicking cameras and under the watchful eyes of the three soldiers in regular uniforms (they were sergeants, so I guess they were evaluating the guards).

When the ceremony is completed, we walk to the entrance of the National Gardens. This park, once the private garden of Queen Amalia, is more like a varied forest with occasional duck ponds and shaded picnic areas. In the southern part of the park is the Zappieon, in which the builder combined Doric and Ionic elements to produce a structure that reminds one of a classical temple or a fabulous palace. In fact, this building was constructed to provide conference space for international business meetings. Happily, it is open to the public, so we can wander about in the building and marvel at the brilliant colors used to design the walls and ceiling. Most people don’t realize that the white marble temples and statues we see in photos and in museums were not intended to be white. When they were first built, these buildings and decorations were painted very much like the Zappieon — in bright blues, reds, yellows… After the cool interior of the Zappieon, we find that the sun is very hot now.

We walk through the woods and across to the southern entrance of the park. Here we pause to see the unfinished temple of Zeus Olympeon and Hadrian’s Gate, the eastern entrance to the city during Roman times. By this time it is a bit late to explore further … and we are getting tired. The problem is that we are at the eastern base of the Acropolis and our hotel is on the opposite side. It is impossible to climb over the famous rock, so we decide to hike around the southern perimeter.

The first thing we pass is the famous Theater of Dionysus, where the greatest plays of ancient times were performed for large and appreciative audiences. Farther along, past a stoa and several minor temples, we pass the Odeon of Heroditus Attikus — another famous theater. This one was built in Roman times by a wealthy patron of the arts. It is still used for theatrical and musical productions throughout the year. Finally, trudging down the hill on the far side of the Acropolis, we find ourselves at the Thession temple. By this time we are very wearly and ready for a break. We find a small sidewalk cafe under the trees and order much water and soft drinks, as well as some snacks to rebuild our energy. After resting here for a half hour or more, it should not be much of a walk through Monistiraki to the Hotel Cecil.

First Day in Athens

After checking into the Hotel Cecil, our first order of business is sleep. The journey from Seattle to our hotel room took about 30 hours, during which we managed only snatches of sleep in the terminals and aboard airplanes. We are exhausted and irritable, and entirely unable to continue without rest. Later in the day, rested but still suffering from ‘jet lag,’ we explore our neighborhood. Our hotel is located on Athinas Street, just few blocks North of the Monastiraki Metro station and the Plaka, and a short distance South of the Central Market where you can buy every manner of produce, from flowers and fruits to cheeses and octopus and meats. The buildings along our street are mostly neoclassical structures built around the turn of the 20th century, when the old city of Athens (which was mainly the Plaka and the areas aaround the Acropolis) began to grow. Many of these old buildings, including our hotel, have been restored to their original beauty. However, many more are neglected and rotting away in the upper floors. It is an odd sight: the ground floors of these buildings house thriving stores while the upper levels are empty … settled only by pigeons. In the evening we go to the Plaka in search of food. The shopping district (agora) of old Athens, the Plaka is still a bustling merchant district — although it caters mostly to tourists now. It is interesting that the crowds are smaller than usual this year, probably because of the terrorist attack last year. We find our favorite gyro place and settle down to eat and watch the steady procession of people passing by on Metropoleon Street.

Off and Away

Here we are on Wednesday, waiting for the shuttle bus that will take us to SeaTac. We will take British Airways Flight 48 to London. It leaves at 6:10 PM, which means that we will be flying overnight to Europe. With all that happens aboard a commercial airplane (people eating and walking about and watching the movie), I hope I can get some sleep. We will be landing tomorrow morning at Heathrow Airport. From there we catch the underground into London. The plan is to visit the London Museum — especially the Greek antiquities exhibit. I’m certain we will be seeing other sights, but we will have to wait and find out. It will be an adventure! We will probably have to wait until we arrive in Athens to connect to the Internet and give you the next update. However, you can write to me and leave a message or ask a question.

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