Athens, London and Easter: April 5 2010
Barefeet was in great shape so off we went for a bit of land travel (Mar 17). We arrived in Athens and quickly dropped our bags at our studio apartment (www.athensstudios.com) before meeting Caitlin and Manolis at their local kafeneio. We caught up on activities since we were last together in August and leisurely nibbled our way through delicious veal in tomato sauce, octopus in garlic sauce, french fries and greek salad (Olympian Kafeneio, 9 Anapfseos Street). The sun gradually lowered below the horizon and we caught our first glimpse of the Acropolis. Ooohhh, we never cease to be wowed by this ancient site that reigns over this modern city. The sun had fully set when we grabbed a drink at a sidewalk table below the new Acropolis museum. The top floor glowed with light giving a glimpse of the treasures held inside...a display of the Parthenon frieze laid out in its original arrangement. The result is layers of carved panels suspended above so that you look up at them just as you would have done if you had visited the Acropolis when it was the thriving center of Athens life in 5,000 B.C. Spectacular!
Temperatures were a bit warmer in Athens than they had been in Corfu; however, they were still pleasant to tromp around the Acropolis (Mar 18). We especially enjoyed walking down along its northern and southern slopes. The paths were practically deserted of tourists and often shaded by large trees. Along the path were carved-out niches located below the main temple (to Athena). The niches housed shrines to "lesser" known figures such as Apollo, Pan and the Nymphs. But this was just the tip of the iceberg for our explorations of the ancient sites of Athens. We continued with visits to the Temple of Hephaistos, the ancient agora, the tower of the winds and the stoa of Attalos (Mar 19). A mid-day "snack" helped to give us added fuel to continue our travels. The souvlaki at Thanasis in Monastiraki was terrific...and we were praised by a patron of more than 50 years for our choice amongst the millions of options (69 Mitropoleos).
We slowed down a bit on March 20 with a single tour stop at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbati, www.benakigr). It was a fabulous museum with enough explanation to enlighten us but not so much to drown us. It is a stunning private collection which covers the entirety of Greek history; from the Neolithic era through to the 20th century. The more than 20,000 items include a vast array of treasures...such as gold jewelry, rich costumes and Lord Byron's writing desk and two pistols. The Acropolis Museum could learn a thing or two from the Benaki's use of concise yet illuminating descriptions of eras and objects.
We walked and walked...with legs and feet happily resting from time to time over a frappe in Kolonaki. As we watched the stylish parade of passers-by it quickly became clear that this "people watching" is a Greek sport enjoyed by all. Chairs unabashedly face the sidewalk spectacle so that you sit beside your companion rather than across from one another...no one is willing to have their back to the action. Boots are often high up to the knee and perched on spindly heels; sunglasses and handbags are a statement unto themselves and nonchalance is taken to a new level...we call it the European slouch. We introduced cousins Treva and Elena to the spectator sport when they arrived as their first lesson in Greek culture (Mar 21). They loved it and immediately fell into step with us on our continued explorations. We all giggled as we passed the tights-wearing palace guards and energetically conquered the Hill of the Pnyx (Mar 22).
But enough of Athens for the moment. We rented a car and made two day-trips; one out to Mycenae and Nafplio and another out to Delphi and Arachova.
Mycenae is approximately 2 hours southwest of Athens (Mar 23). We never tire of the lion gate or the spectacular vistas from this long held stronghold of 2900 years (begun in 3000 B.C.). After soaking in the magic of Mycenae we drove a few miles to the seaside town of Nafplio. Again we lingered over a wonderful meal in the postcard perfect town square. A bit of wandering through the tiny alleys before we were back on the road for our return to Athens. The next day we headed northwest 2.5 hours for Delphi (Mar 24). Delphi is often referred to as "the big enchilada of Greek sites." We would not disagree. The site is nestled in the mountains of Mt Parnassus and the chosen by the Greeks as the center of the ancient world. Everyone who was anyone in the ancient world made pilgrimage to Delphi. Once arrived the pilgrims built elaborate treasuries and filled them with priceless offerings as thanks to Apollo and the Oracle. Our mouths gasped at the beauty. Later, we headed to the quiet Sanctuary of Athena before snaking our way along the roads to Arachova for lunch. Arachova is a mountain town built of stone buildings. The high season here is in the winter when the Greeks come for skiing. We were charmed by the place.
March 25 marked Greek Independence Day. Flags waved from every point and young and old turned out for the military parade. We had a bird's eye view of the parade in Syntagma Square from Treva and Elena's hotel room at the King George II. Grand stands were just outside the window which made for a perfect spot to view the uniformed procession. Sadly, this was our cousins last day in Athens but what a marvelous trip we had.
March 27 we flew from Athens to London. Immediately upon arrival we knew we were in a new place...it even smelled different. We made a bee line for a pub and had a relaxing meal at the civilized hour of 6pm...awesome. The Blades hotel was in a neighborhood packed with friendly, relaxed pubs so it was no trouble to find one (www.blades-hotel.uk, Pimlico tube stop). We explored London on foot...awed by the stunning architecture of buildings that were built at the same time as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The London buildings are still in active use...as opposed to Angkor Wat that has been all but swallowed by the past and the jungle. We visited the British museum...humbled by the beauty of the Elgin marbles (from the Acropolis), viewed THE Rosetta stone and were charmed by the modest collections of curiosity that started the museum in 1753 (www.britishmuseum.org). But it was not all buildings and sites on this visit. We connected with Suzi from s/v Barraveigh who we spent months sailing with in the Pacific. It was a great reunion and we topped off the night with the Duke vs. Baylor game...really fantastic...and a win for Duke.
Although feeling a bit weary we signed up for a 1.5 hour tour of Westminster Abbey (Mar 28). It was spectacular! Founded in 960 A.D. it has been the site of coronations since 1066; 3000 bodies are buried beneath the floors and history positively oozes from each block of stone. Our heads were spinning (www.westminster-abbey.org). But we did not end our day there. That night we had a wonderful night of theatre. We saw War Horse which wove a story of a boy's love for his horse from farm to war and back again. Music lent a feeling of melancholy and the horse was a puppet manned by three puppeteers. But no joke, all we saw was the horse...twitching ears and flicking tail...truly moving as if it was real. Amazing!
Finally, the big day came...the arrival of Erin's sister and her family (Mar 30). It has been 2.5 years since our last visit but we picked right up where we had left off. Except of course for Erin's nieces who have grown soooo much. Thank heavens the aging and growing clock no longer applies to us...tee, hee, hee. It was a chilly and damp afternoon of walking and talking...trying to keep all awake until at least 7pm in the hopes of changing internal clocks from California time to London time. The girls posed with the enormous lion statues at Trafalgar Square and decided pubs were boring...but the adults enjoyed themselves. We spent more time in Harrods's than at the Tower of London...temperatures close to freezing encouraged indoor activities (Mar 31). A bit of a rest was followed by an amazing Indian dinner at Tamarind (20 Queen Street, Mayfair, www.tamarindrestaurant.com). We sat at a round table which kept all included in the conversations...and the food...wow. We had the tasting menu...varied spices and sauces tantalized our taste buds. And the final little sweet was a mint leaf brushed with white chocolate...holy cow that was divine. We'll have to try that one at home. It was hard to say goodnight at the end of the evening but, hopefully, it will be less than 2.5 years before the next rendez-vous.
Back in Greece and the atmosphere has totally changed (Apr 1). The flight from Corfu to Athens was almost empty; however, the flight from Athens back to Corfu was packed...and the din of conversation meant there were many happy reunions already underway. It was Easter in Greece and that outshines even Christmas...especially in Corfu. Candlelight processions, traditional foods, marching bands, pot smashing and fireworks are all part of nearly a week of festivities. Our focus was to witness the pot smashing...yes, the pot smashing. Terra cotta pots are filled with water and dropped from windows onto the streets. Okay, we had heard about it for months but to witness it was something else entirely. We headed into town on Saturday morning and positioned ourselves at a "T" intersection in old Corfu town just behind the Liston (Apr 3). Holy cow! The air was electric! Marching bands and religious processions culminated in the center of town late in the morning. Gold fringed maroon cloths hung from windows from which a pot(s) would be dropped. It was a sea of maroon. The camera was ready but we really did not know what to expect. Well, at the stroke of eleven (on the dot) the church bells peeled and the pots began to FLY! Small ones, big ones, painted ones and ENORMOUS ones. Stand back or risk a pot on the head or water splashes (the water does not have any significance other than to make a louder sound upon impact). Window pot tossers egged on the crowd for louder and louder cheers. Fantastic!
The origins of the pot smashing tradition are a bit fuzzy. However, the most often repeated tale is that it is based on the Venetian custom of New Year's Day...tossing out old clothes and old household items in anticipation of new ones in the new year. The Corfiots have adopted the practice and saved it for their most sacred holiday...Easter. Pots are filled with water, tossed from windows and smashed onto the streets. Shards are later collected for good luck for the following year. It was quite special!
Kalo Pashcha! That's Happy Easter in Greek and it all started at midnight with fireworks, bells and guns going off. We watched several firework displays from the balcony at Martin and Tracy's place. As the sun came up it was clear that Mother Nature had pulled out all the stops and provided a stunning Easter day for Corfu (April 4). We drove around the island passing village after village with whole lambs roasting on the spit...the air everywhere was scented with it...as well as blooming flowers and the sea. Views on this clear day were 360 degree panoramas! But enough looking around. We headed over to an ex-pat's home for a lamb feast. We all nibbled on lamb and potatoes and countless other deliciously seasoned bites. Holy cow...then the desserts came out. We had our first banoffee pie...a fabled pie of caramel, bananas and whipped cream. It was awesome! Easter will never be the same again.
Although the good weather on Corfu is tempting us to stay...off we go again for a bit more land travel. This time we are headed for Croatia and mainland Greece with Erin's parents. We will be back to Barefeet April 21 when we will do our last tasks and projects before making our way west toward Gibraltar.