From most places in Europe, at least, Greece is a very accessible destination. A couple of hours on a plane (around four for the furthest countries) and you’re in Athens. Starting this month, there are even direct flights to some islands, such as Corfu and Crete.
June is an ideal month to visit: cool enough to wander about ancient sites, warm enough to swim. Still green, but with summer blossoms such as oleander and bougainvillea in full bloom. School’s not out yet, so it’s still pretty quiet and prices are lower than in the high season.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Athens itself, and there are many beautiful mainland sites worth a visit, such as the Meteora or Mycenae. However, one of the most fun things to do is catch a boat to an island.
Get a room by the beach.
Watch the sunset. Wispy clouds and lavender mountains.
Sit by an ancient olive tree.
These pictures are from Thasos, a large, wooded island in the North Aegean. But with a couple of hundred inhabited islands to choose from, there’s something for every taste.
In Ancient Greek religion, Estia or Hestia (/ˈhɛstiə/; Greek: Ἑστία, “hearth” or “fireside”) is a virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the home, and the state.
It was a difficult start to my road trip to the seaside town of Galaxidi. The rain poured down, washing out the view on all sides. A few bare branches were the only things visible as I tried to keep the car from aqua-planing on the turns. A two hour trip took a while longer but, as we emerged on the top of the mountains above Itea the sky cleared and a few rays of brilliant sunshine pierced the clouds.
The charm of Galaxidi was restored, and so was my mood, over a cup of mountain tea taken at the hotel with some of the other visitors. We were all here for the annual cutting of the traditional vasilopitta at the Estia Agios Nikolaos, (https://www.estia-agios-nikolaos.org), a community where adults with special needs live, work and share their free time together with those caring for them. In this, Estia Agios Nikolaos is quite unique, and not only in Greece. It is also one of the few such communities worldwide which is not affiliated to one particular religious faith, and this inclusiveness is the main point of attraction for people all over the world who come to live and work here, making Estia a vibrant and exciting place.
Everyone had dinner together at a wonderful seaside taverna. I sat next to Clara (German, speaking fluent Greek) and Maxime (French, having just signed up for his second year, rapidly improving Greek), two vivacious and inspiring young people, who talked about their work with enthusiasm. Also present were numerous locals, such as the pharmacist who donates all meds for the community, and a lady who provides fish from her fish farm once a week. And, making a star appearance, was Estia’s first baby, Mia, born to a couple who work as carers – a source of endless fascination and delight for all.
Next morning, after a delicious breakfast of home-made delicacies and a walk in the port, we drove to Estia, where everyone was gathered in the assembly hall.
The festivities started with a couple of songs (this video might look as if it’s facing sideways, but it will right itself once you click it. The mysteries of technology…)
Then the cutting and sharing of the vasilopitta.
We visited the ceramics shop, where colorful creations were on offer.
The wonderful vegetable garden,
complete with scarecrow,
and free-range chickens.
And finally one of the four residences, which in total cater for 45 people, of whom 22 have special needs (at the moment there is space for two more.) In ‘Estia Agios Nikolaos’ all the members live in small family structures, which comprise 6-9 special needs guests, 2 to 3 professional caregivers and 2 to 3 volunteers.
The entrance with its cats and box of fresh home-grown veggies.
A cozy living area
Complete with music corner
A large dining table for communal meals
A lovely kitchen
And a well-stocked larder.
We went on to visit another building which is used for various activities, fronted by a shady terrace for barbecues and ad hoc concerts. This doubles as the Kafeneion (café), a gathering place for Sunday coffee with the locals and evening parties.
A brand new kitchen, designed by an architect friend and donated by IKEA (the floor had been freshly washed), will be used for the new bakery and pastry workshop.
And there is a loom for weaving
Maren, who is German, is responsible for one of the houses and took us on tour, while explaining that the residents really look forward to their activities each morning after breakfast: either working in the garden or in the pottery and jewelry workshops.
The afternoons are devoted to music, exercising, walking, and in the summertime, swimming in the sea nearby. Besides the staff, there are professionals (most of them on a volunteering basis) providing specific therapeutical activities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, gymnastics and music therapy.
During the weekends, individuals can choose the activities they would like to participate in. There are various artistic and spiritual pursuits on offer, in connection to the local communities, such as outings to musical events, theater and cinema, church attendance and participation in local celebrations. Every Sunday late afternoon, the entire community gathers in the Kafeneion for cake, music and games, often hosting visitors from the local community.
Each new resident is taken in for a month’s trial, to see how well he or she will fit in. Most adapt well, some don’t. After the extensive mutual screening there is a mandatory period of at least one month when the potential resident returns to his/ her home so that each side, resident, family and the Estia team can calmly make up its mind. Sometimes parents find they miss their child too much, and prefer to keep them at home.
Residents join in on outings and trips whenever possible and have even been abroad, which I found impressive, due to the logistic problems needing to be solved.
The cornerstone principle of ‘Estia Agios Nikolaos’ is that “each person is unique and can be helped to develop his or her unique capabilities in a nurturing environment via creative work, artistic stimuli and direct interaction with nature.” Efforts are made to treat each person as an individual – the girl who made a friend in town goes for sleepovers to her house and is allowed to invite her in turn, those who don’t like to sleep after lunch are not made to have a siesta, and so on. Such an anthropocentric approach is quite revolutionary in what remains, in essence, an institution.
Giovanna Kampouri, the president of the foundation which supervises the organizers, explained the community’s vision:
“For our residents with special needs, Estia Agios Nikolaos is often their only family and home. Many of them do not have a family that can care for them, and very sadly, most will face the trauma of losing their parents. It is our mission to be able to provide them with a lifelong, stable and loving home. The biggest challenge will come when the first residents will age (in the case of those with Down Syndrome, with dementia). We are now starting to study what it will take to build our 5th home, with special facilities for this group. We need to solve many issues for this, in addition to money, and particularly Greek legal requirements and infrastructure.
On a day to day basis, in the middle of the crisis, Estia has not only survived but managed to thrive, thanks to the love and generosity of an ever widening circle of supporters in Greece and abroad. I believe that this is thanks to its message of inclusiveness, which is filling a growing need in all our societies (to balance the opposite trend of nationalism and xenophobia) We are thankful for this, as we need to continue and to expand our possibility to provide life-long care for our residents. Due to the crisis, the ability of many of our residents to compensate for the patchy payments by EOPYY(social security) been reduced, and we have been able to fully cover this and to even offer full ‘scholarships’ to new residents from every part of Greece.”
And of course, the work is never done. There are plans for acquiring more animals, such as bees and a donkey, building a wood-fired oven, planting olive trees.
I left feeling invigorated and inspired – some truly remarkable work is being done here. If you want to know more, and meet the principals of this story, watch the wonderful video made by Marianna Economou.
In 1900, Greek sponge divers came upon a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera. From a depth of 45 meters they retrieved numerous large artefacts, including bronze and marble statues, pottery, unique glassware, jewellery, coins and various other objects. Among them was a lump of corroded bronze and wood which went unnoticed for two years, while museum staff worked on piecing together the larger statues.
One such was the Antikythera Ephebe, dated 4th century B.C., who now stands in the archaeological museum of Athens.
After some time the above-mentioned ‘lump’ was examined, but investigation led nowhere until 1971, when British science historian and Yale University professor Derek J. de Solla Price and Greek nuclear physicist Charalampos Karakalos thought to use X-ray and gamma-ray images.
They thus discovered the now famous Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek analogue computer and orrery used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendar and astrological purposes. It could also track the four-year cycle of athletic games which was similar (though not identical) to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games.
It is a complex clockwork mechanism composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears.
Since then, underwater excavations have resumed on the wreck, a large 50-meter ship sailing from Asia Minor to Rome in 1BC. This year on 4 October, an international team excavating the site announced that during a 16-day dive season the previous month, they had found several major statue pieces, including two marble feet attached to a plinth, part of a bronze robe or toga, and a bronze male arm, with two fingers missing but otherwise beautifully preserved. A slim build and “turning hand” gesture suggest that the arm may have belonged to a philosopher, according to archaeologists.
Below is a fascinating film of the expedition, giving a glimpse into what it’s like to be a part of such discoveries. Teamwork, bolstered by technology and plain old elbow grease.
As a follow up to my post Old Athens, I thought I’d write a few words about EdwardDodwell (1767 – 1832), an Irish painter, traveller and archaeologist, who travelled widely in Greece, making exquisite paintings in the process.
Edward Dodwell was born in Dublin to an ancient and wealthy Irish family, and studied Classics and Archaeology at Trinity College, Cambridge. Being in possession of a large fortune and free from professional commitments, he dedicated himself to the study of Mediterranean cultures.
Dodwell travelled from 1801 to 1806 in Greece, which was then a part of the OttomanEmpire.
In 1801 he sailed to the Ionian Islands and the Troad with Atkins and the well-known traveller William Gell. In 1805 he visited continental Greece in the company of the painter Simone Pomardi, during which time they produced almost one thousand illustrations. These bring to life a vanished world that, since then, have enchanted European travelers and inspired their passionate pursuit of classical antiquity.
“Almost every rock, everypromontory, every river, is haunted by the shadows of themighty dead,” Dodwell wrote, conveying with aesthetic sensitivity the discovery of each place, the journey of exploration of an unknown landscape; and managing to combine monuments, history, and contemporary life.
Dodwell’s paintings contain an immense wealth of information on Greek public and domestic life during the years before the War of Independence. He was often invited to stay in the houses of prominent Greeks.
Apart from archaeological issues, he wrote about the dances, music and games of the Greeks, as well as about local insects and birds.
His observations are varied – he notes, for example, the presence of a number of black slaves in the town of Patras and elsewhere, writes of Ali Pasha’s extortions, and lists the products peculiar to each region.
Dodwell was in Athens in March 1805, while Lord Elgin’s crews were pillaging the sculptures of the Acropolis monuments.
Dodwell published A Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece (1819); Views inGreece, with thirty colored plates (1821); and Views and Descriptions of Cyclopian orPelasgic Remains in Italy and Greece (1834). These books are still of value to archaeologists today.
He subsequently lived in Naples and Rome, and married a woman thirty years his junior. Unfortunately he caught an illness and died in 1832, while exploring the mountains of Italy. His large archaeological collection, of coins, 115 bronzes and 143 vases, kept for a time in his house in Rome, was later sold to the Munich Glyptothek.
Today Athens is a large, bustling city with a population – suburbs included – of over three million. It has its own particular Greek flavor, of course, but it also has many common characteristics with other European capitals: a lot of traffic, pollution, the usual ubiquitous shops, restaurants, cafés, museums, opera houses, theatres, squares and parks.
Athens, however, is a relatively new city, which evolved, in the 19th century, from a regional town of the Ottoman Empire to the capital of the new Kingdom of Greece. After the liberation from the Turks, it was a ruined and semi-abandoned town. But King Otto, the young Bavarian prince sent over by the Allies, declared it a capital, and in 1834 its reconstruction began, under architects Stamatis Kleanthis, Edouard Shaunert and Leo von Klenze, the king’s counsel.
It was then that the neo-classical buildings which even now give the city distinction were erected, starting with the Royal Palace, which was paid for by King Otto’s father, the king of Bavaria, as a personal loan to his son. In 1934, after extensive renovation following two fires (the royal family had meanwhile moved to a new palace), the building became the House of Parliament.
The University of Athens was designed by the Danish architect Hans Christian Hansen and built with financial support from the king, the king of Serbia and various prominent Greeks.
The Athens Cathedral was also initially designed by Hansen, but finished by Greek architect Dimitris Zezos, who added Byzantine aspects. The church was partly built using material from abandoned Byzantine churches.
There were many other public buildings built at that time, as well as private residences.
Fast forward to circa 1917, after the first war, when the following photos were taken by our French Allies.
Cattle at the temple of Hephaestus.
Cooking with a view of the Acropolis.
A neighborhood near the center.
A shopping street with a mosque in the background.
Buying grapes. Some men still wore traditional clothing.
Children playing in the streets of Plaka, beneath the Acropolis.
Coffee in the garden of Zappeion. In the early twentieth century, Athens was still a provincial town of circa 180.000 people.
Constitution Square: The large white building on the right was built in 1842 and since 1874 houses the Grande Bretagne Hotel, where history has been written many times over and which is still today one of the great luxury hotels in the world. In 1888 it was one of the first buildings in Athens to have electricity installed.
One of the main commercial thoroughfares, Stadiou Avenue, in 1935.
During WWII, Athens came under German occupation.
The city suffered great destruction and famine, exacerbated by the civil war which exploded following liberation from the Germans, and which raged until 1949 (my parents always told us this was much worse than the German occupation).
A British soldier in Athens during the civil war.
Children singing carols in the early 1950s. Ill-fitting coats, heads shaven against lice, but at least these two have shoes on.
The ice-cream man. Many years later, a man on a bike pushing an icebox still came into the park where we played when I was a child. I vividly remember our excitement, and the smell of the ice as the heavy lid was lifted, and we bent over the box to make our choice: vanilla or chocolate, on a stick or in a cup. It was a real treat.
This is far from pretending to be a comprehensive overview of the long and complicated history of Athens. I just happened upon these old pictures and thought they gave off a charming aroma of time passing.
Syntagma (Constitution Square) then…
All images are fromGoogle. Since most are old, it wasdifficult to attribute credit.