An old friend whose husband is Italian organised a painting trip at their house in Tuscany and I got an invitation which I could not, as one can imagine, refuse. The house is on remote hillside near Pisa, with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. This was still mostly green, with patches of yellow slashed by the dark green spears of cypress trees. The weather was brilliant throughout.
The painting experience was spread over two weeks, in order to accommodate all aspiring artist friends, and sadly on the days I was there, the artist who was to teach us was absent—leaving me in the position of being the most experienced guest.
However, while I did not get the opportunity to learn from someone else as I had hoped to do, it was so much fun to paint—and eat—with others in such beautiful surroundings that I really could not complain.
One day we took the opportunity to drive to Florence, where we went around the Palazzo Pitti. I had visited this museum years ago and I can report that nothing has been done to it since. With the new style of curating now prevalent, I found it extremely old fashioned. Rows and rows of dark paintings of the Virgin Mary against a wallpaper of dark red stripes. More rows of Allegories in the next room. Rows of portraits of unattractive people. Heavy frames with the names of the artists on tiny bronze plaques—I had to lean right in to be able to read them and, every time I did so, I set off the alarm!
However, the views from the windows were stunning.
We went through a multitude of rooms, one after the other, badly lit and even more badly ventilated, which tired me out and made it hard to seek out the treasures—for, of course, the Palazzo Pitti is full of treasures-
-such as frescoes to die for around the ceilings, and, above all, the incomparable Titians.
After lunch in a small tratoria hidden away in a side street, we walked in the Bardini Gardens.
And I cannot finish this post without a mention of the food—Italian food being, to my taste, the pinnacle of deliciousness.
A silver lining of the pandemic has been the lack of visitors in historic sites, and May is a perfect month for exploring Greece, since it’s not too hot yet.
A recent road trip to the Byzantine city of Mystras involved a hike up to the fortress during which we only met a handful of other visitors.
Mystras is a fortified town in the Peloponnese, built in 1248 by Guillaume II de Villehardouin, ruler of the Frankish Principality of Achaea. In 1259, William of Villehardouin was defeated and captured, along with many of his nobles, at the Battle of Pelagonia, by the forces of the Nicaean Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Two years later, the Nicaeans recaptured Constantinople, putting an end to the Roman Empire and establishing the Byzantine Empire. At this point, the emperor concluded an agreement with the captive prince: William and his men would be set free in exchange for an oath of fealty, and for the cession of Monemvasia, Grand Magne, and Mystras. Thus henceforth Mystras served as the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which period the city prospered, culturally as well as practically, producing silk, citrus fruit and olive oil which were exported to Western Europe.
Wild flowers and butterflies were abundant, and the only sounds were the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees.
It is a magical site, like so many others in Greece.
The city contains a number of beautiful churches, in different states of preservation.
And a view of the lovely Monastery of Pantanassa
An old map of the city
The hike made us hot and thirsty, so we descended to the village. After ice cold drinks under the shade of mulberry trees in the village square, we repaired for lunch to the village of Kastori. A small taverna with a garden full of roses at the back provided us with an excellent Greek salad and a simple meal followed by a bowl of cherries from their tree. This fortified us for another, this time shady, hike by a stream in the forest at the feet of the majestic Taygetos mountain.
While people who live in northern countries are getting heartily sick of snowy conditions, in Athens deep snow is so rare and lasts so little that it’s a cause for celebration. Schools stay shut since anyway many of the roads are closed, and everyone just makes the most of it.
A friend who is fortunate enough to live downtown, close to the Acropolis and the ruins of the Parthenon sent me these wonderful photos.
The entrance to the Odeon of Herodotus Atticus
Did the Ancient Greeks make snowmen? It’s very probable.
The Tower of the Winds was built around 100 – 50 BC by Andronicus of Cyrrhus for measuring time.
At the foot of the rock
Flying the flag on the walls
Lemon sorbet: this one was taken by my sister in her garden
All other photos by Eugenia Kokkala-Mela, owner of the wonderful HEROES shop at the foot of the Acropolis.
And the best of it? Tomorrow there will probably be brilliant sunshine, and all traces of slush will vanish.
Fred Boissonnas (18 June 1858 – 17 October 1946), a Swiss photographer from Geneva, made several trips to Greece between 1903 and 1933, documenting all aspects of the country using notes, drawings and especially photographs. He published 14 photo albums dedicated to Greece, many of which belong to the thematic series entitled L’image de la Grèce (The Image of Greece). He travelled around the country, visiting archeological sites as well as remote villages—the first foreign photographer to do so. His aim was to contribute to the identity of Greece in Europe.
Boissonnas persuaded the Greek authorities that his photographs would enhance the country’s political, commercial and touristic image abroad.
Looking at these pictures, one can be forgiven for asking, how?
Certainly, they are wonderful and picturesque daguerreotypes, but they portray a poor though beautiful country, where the traveler could hardly expect to find many comforts.
Cities with roads still unpaved.
Barefoot village children.
Mostly small and unprepossessing houses.
Because the photos are in black and white, they cannot show the pure blue skies, the sunny landscapes.
The people in the photographs are unsmiling, being unused to posing, so the natural friendliness and hospitality of the Greeks is difficult to discern.
Also at the time people did not lounge on beaches in bikinis, getting a tan, so these are as far from contemporary travel photography as one can imagine.
However, they are a document of those years, and as such fascinating. The clothes, the landscapes with few signs of human intervention, the simplicity of life.
At the time the photos did serve the purpose of promoting Greece to foreigners, and Boissonnas was financially aided and personally supported by prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, to whom his publications were dedicated. These were sent to all Greek embassies and the prominent political personalities of the era.
Exactly 185 years ago today, Athens was proclaimed the capital of Greece. I found this very interesting article by Greek journalist PhilipChrysopoulos in the GREEK REPORTER. As it was possible to reblog onto Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, but not to WP, I copied it verbatim, including the photos.
September 18, 1834: Athens Becomes the Capital of Greece
By Philip Chrysopoulos -Sep 18, 2018
When Athens was officially declared the capital of the newly established Greek State on September 18, 1834, it was a small village of 7,000 residents living around the Acropolis Hill.
Following the assassination of Governor Ioannis Kapodistrias in the Peloponnesian city in 1831, Greece’s first politicians had to decide where the new government and first parliament would be established. At the time, Athens was an area of ancient, Byzantine and medieval ruins with makeshift houses around them, all around the Acropolis Hill.
The decision was far from easy. Personalities of the time, politicians, as well as architects and city planners took part in the debate, trying to influence developments and the final decision. The cities proposed were, among others, Corinth, Megara, Piraeus, Argos, as well as Nafplio again.
Eventually, Athens won the race and in September 18, 1834 it was officially proclaimed “Royal Seat and Capital”. The main reason was the city’s glorious history as the cradle of Hellenic Civilization. According to historians King of Bavaria Ludwig I was influential to the decision as he was a great admirer of ancient Greece.
Athens circa 1890
However, the city was not prepared to carry the weight of the capital of the new state. It was more of a town than a city, with 7,000 residents and 170 regular houses, as the remaining Athenians were living in huts. Furthermore, the battles that took place in Athens had left many ruins. By comparison, at the time, the population of Patras amounted to 15,000 thousand, while Thessaloniki had 60,000.
Athens stretched around the Acropolis (from Psiri to Makrygianni), having as its center the area of Plaka (the Old Town). One of the major problems of the new capital was the lack of a water supply system, as well as the absence of public lighting and transport, while there was a complete lack of social services.
Greece’s first king, Otto of Bavaria, commissioned the reconstruction of the devastated city to Greek architect Stamatis Kleanthis and the Bavarian Leo von Klenze with a strict order not to damage the archaeological sites. For the protection of antiquities, Otto issued a decree prohibiting the construction of limestone at a distance of 2,500 meters from ancient Greek ruins, so that antiquities could not be damaged.
Within four years, about 1,000 houses were built in Athens, many of them makeshift, with no architectural or street plan. Otto banned quarrying in the hills of Nymphs, Achanthos (Strefi), Philopappou and Lycabettus and issued decrees with the strict order to immediately demolish every house built near archaeological sites and everything built on the outskirts of the Acropolis Hill.
The strict measures regarding building houses made Otto lose his popularity with the poor masses, but he insisted on issuing other decrees.
In the years to come, Athens became the pole of attraction for Greeks, who arrived in the capital from all parts of the country. In 1896, Greece hosted the first modern Olympic Games. By that time, the picture of the capital was radically changed. It had expanded and now was a city of 140,000 residents with great buildings and important archeological sites, and the commercial and cultural intellectual center of the country. A true capital.
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.