Mystras, a Byzantine city

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.

The view of the fortified town from the road

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.

 

The view of the church of Pantanassa  from above

Wild flowers and butterflies were abundant, and the only sounds  were the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees.

 

The view of the Palace complex from the top

It is a magical site, like so many others in Greece.

 

The Palace complex is being restored

The city contains a number of beautiful churches, in different states of preservation.

Icons in the small but beautiful church of Aghia Sofia

Looking out

And a view of the lovely Monastery of Pantanassa

Photo: Wiki commons

An old map of the city

Photo: Wiki commons

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.

 

The start of the Greek summer

May is a beautiful season in Greece. Not too hot yet, brilliant sunny days interspersed with the occasional shower, a pure transparent sky.

 

The sea is still a little chilly but, once you’ve warmed up in the sun, the initial shock only lasts a few seconds. And the sense of well-being afterwards lasts for hours.

 

The sun is good for replenishing Vitamin D, and the heat seeps happily into the old bones.

Below, fishermen mending their nets

Athens, too, is showing its best side. Cafés have opened their terraces, although people are still wearing masks in the street. And the bougainvillea is out in all its glory.

 

I’ve been volunteering to teach Greek online to a bunch of boys (unaccompanied minors in a refugee shelter belonging to the Home project, about which I posted a while ago) and we finally got a chance to meet in person, which was lovely.

Philopappos monument. Photo: Wikipedia commons


We went for a hike on Philopappos hill. This large park, which is known for the beautiful landscaping and stone pathways created by architect Dimitris Pikionis, is the home of many indigenous bird and a great variety of plants and trees. It is a favorite promenade of Athenians and presents the visitor with great views of the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens and the Aegean Sea that surrounds Attica. In 115 AD, a monument dedicated to the exiled Roman Prince Gaius Julius Antichus Philopappos of Commagene (a region in ancient Armenia) was erected on top of the hill. 
After his exile, Philopappos settled in Athens, became an Athenian citizen and held religious and civil offices. He was considered a great benefactor and was highly esteemed by the residents.


Best of all, the backdrop: the Parthenon, under a  brilliant Attic sky. 

A figure from the past

Recently I came upon an article about the ”pizzardone”, as traffic policemen in Rome are known (due to the shape of their helmets, nothing to do with pizza!) They elegantly direct traffic while perched on a pedestal in central spots, such as the Piazza Venezia.

This brought back amusing memories, since we also used to have traffic policemen in Greece, at most major crossroads in the cities. In the very beginning they stood in the road, which must have been terrifying, given Greek driving habits. Then they were put on a dais, which eventually evolved into the cylindrical so-called ‘Barrel’.

They were a respected presence in their area, in their white gloves and white diagonal sash; some even acquired a measure of fame, like Mr. Nikos Kostakis, who for many years was a cult figure on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. He was known for his impeccable manners, stern but unfailingly polite approach and perfect control of the flow of traffic. Impervious to weather conditions, in later years he was offered a desk job, but declined, preferring the outdoors and his daily contact with the public.

Mr. Kostakis, known as ‘the man with the moustache’

Later came the tradition of gifts deposited around the barrels by an appreciative public at Christmas and Easter. This tradition was inadvertently started in 1936 by the king, King George II, who stopped his car in front of the palace to wish the traffic policeman a Happy Christmas and left a gift of wine. This was copied by the public and became a custom. People gave what they could, sometimes just sacks of potatoes and baskets of eggs.

 

Bad photo, but I couldn’t resist the live turkeys!

Along with wine there were seasonal sweets such as kourabiedes, and toys for the policeman’s kids. As the years went by and Greeks became more affluent, the gifts became more valuable. Local shops joined in and donated household goods such as mattresses, boilers, or even refrigerators! The gifts would be taken to the police station and balloted out to all.

Photo Dimitris Harisiadis (from the Benaki Museum Archives)

 

This is all history, but I remember well our own barrel, and my mother wrapping a crate of wine in red crepe paper with a big bow. Like everyone else, we’d stop the car right in the middle of the junction, and she’d get out to deposit the crate at the base of the barrel, and wish the man on duty a Happy Christmas or Easter.

 

Most hilarious, though, was that at Easter the police saw fit to turn the barrel into a giant Easter egg, from which the poor man would emerge like a newly hatched chick.

 

So sad all this has been replaced with mere traffic lights.

 

Snow on ancient stones

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 Parthenon

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

 

 

An overview

 

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.

Athens turns up another treasure

Aiolou Street is named after Aeolus, God of the Winds, and is the first street to have been paved in Athens in the 19th century. It it to this day a major shopping street in downtown Athens, and it is in its sewage system—which has been undergoing a maintenance overhaul—that workers discovered a bust of Hermes, herald of the gods.

 

The marble head is bearded and with his hair in strictly arranged curls. In good condition, it was found a mere 1.3 meters under the road surface.

The bust dates from around 300 BC, and is believed to have been part of a stone pillar serving as a street marker. These pillars were called Hermae, and were used as markers and also to impart good luck to travellers, and ward off harm or evil. They were placed at crossings, country borders, in front of temples or public buildings such as libraries, gymnasia, and palestrae, and also in front of houses. They were quadrangular and plain, with the head sitting on top; sometimes male genitalia were carved at the appropriate height. They were called Hermae because the head of Hermes was the most common, since he was the protector of merchants and travelers. However, the heads of other gods and heroes, and sometimes distinguished mortals, were also frequent.

 

Photos from Google

Music will not be stilled

Not to be cowed by the pandemic, the Greek National Opera turned to the Internet to present its Online Festival, curated by Giorgos Koumendakis, and under the aegis of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The Festival was a big success: each of its video performances attracted tens of thousands of viewers and many positive comments from across the globe.

 

Source: GNO/Andreas Simopoulos

The first part, entitled Exit: Spring,  streamed from 17th May to 30th June 2020, and offered eleven new music, opera, operetta and music theatre video-performances created during the pandemic, as well as one recorded dance performance.

Below, a video of ‘When will, when will summer come’, by the GNO children’s chorus concert, conducted by Chorus Mistress Konstantinos Pitsiakou.



The 2nd part, titled Counterpoints, was streamed online from 27 September to 31 October, and its aim was to shed light upon the relationship between Greek music and architecture. Emblematic buildings of Athens were connected to great works from the historical repository of Greek music, from the Cretan Renaissance to the present day.

The Festival was filmed at some of the greatest buildings of Athens, such as the Church of the Holy Apostles at the Ancient Agora, the Gennadius Library, and the Athens Conservatoire, amongst others.

 

Photo Credit: G. Domenikos

In one example, three of the most celebrated works of Greek art music written during the interwar period were performed at the Gennadius Library by mezzo-soprano Margarita Syngeniotou, accompanied on the piano by Apostolos Palios. These were:
• Yannis Konstantinidis’ Songs of Anticipation
• Manolis Kalomiris’ Should I Speak? set to poetry by Kostis Palamas
• Dimitri Mitropoulos’ 10 Inventions set to poetry by Constantine Cavafy

The closing act, Zeitgeist, written for string quartet by distinguished Greek modern composer Christos Hatzis was performed by musicians of the Greek National Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Miltos Logiadis, at the Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos”.

 

Some of the  videos of the performances are available on YouTube. 

September light

The world around us feels extremely weird at the moment: people wandering around in masks, unreliable information buzzing about our ears, uncertainty about the future. Political leadership is underwhelming, to say the least, and crime has increased, sometimes taking on strange manifestations: all over France, horses are being maimed and killed in their fields, for no discernible reason; in Canada, a cable was cut, sending numerous gondolas plunging into the forest below. What can possibly possess people to think of doing such things? 

The news in general makes for uncomfortable reading.


Due to the circumstances, I have not been gadding about to art shows or going on road trips—thus I have been uninspired to write. I took a break and just enjoyed other people’s posts; lazy, I know—but, after all, it’s not homework!


My refuge, as always, is nature. In Greece the light has subtly changed, heralding the coming of autumn, although the temperature is still high: it’s yellow and mellow. The pomegranates are ripening on the trees, so are the olives. The bougainvillea is blazing.  The house is full of baby geckos. I will try to capture some of this with paint and paper
; meanwhile, enjoy these few photos.

 

Listening to bees buzzing around I thought what fascinating creatures they are: I recently read an article describing how scientists are “scent training” honeybees like search dogs. They believe establishing long-term memory scents in bees could help boost crops like almonds, pears and apples.

Honeybees were given food scented with odours that mimicked sunflowers which then altered their choices about which plants to visit. Isn’t that amazing?


Also, I find the scent of jasmine irresistible—so subtle but bewitching. I’m digressing, I know, but I just wanted to reconnect: a few people have told me off for the radio silence. I’ve got a couple more interesting posts on the boil, so stay tuned! 

A wonderful discovery

Yesterday we celebrated the Epiphany in Greece (new followers can read about it here), so it seemed like a good time to mention a wonderful discovery made at a church in the village of Tsivaras, 17 kilometers east of the town of Chania, in Crete.

The finding concerns a religious icon, which is believed to be an early work of master painter El Greco.
El Greco, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was born on October 1, 1541 in Heraklion, Crete. However, the artist spent the bulk of his life in Italy and in Spain, where he created his best-known works.

Photo:Google


 

The finding was announced by Byzantine history expert Michalis Andrianakis at a recent archaeology conference. It concerns a double icon, of the Virgin and Saint Catherine, and Byzantine experts have been studying it for many years.

According to Andrianakis, “The icon was located at the apron of the temple of the church which was built in the 1880s. It was cut in half so it would fit on the temple and the bottom part where the signature of the artist would have been was discarded.”

He thinks that several elements in the icon are specific of the El Greco style, one of which are the pigments that were used.

Autumn Light

 

I’ve been too busy to write much lately (only one post in August—shame on me!) and the news this summer has been depressing again, with multiple forest fires and droves of immigrants arriving on the islands. However, the change in government has brought a measure of optimism to the country. The general consensus seems to be that they are at least trying hard to make a difference, and the reaction to events is faster and more organized. So fingers crossed.

 

 

Also, the last few days have been like a mini holiday where I’m taking the opportunity to enjoy the end of the summer. It’s a lovely time of the year, still warm but with a breeze and a hint of chill in the evenings. The light is mellow, the sea is silky and the sun does not scorch.

 

 

This is Schoinias Beach near Athens. Children went back to school yesterday, so it’s nearly empty.

 

 

The beach is edged by these wonderful pine trees called koukounaries

 

 

Beyond the sea, lavender colored mountains.

 

 

Elsewhere, tree branches are bowing under the weight of ripening olives,

 

 

And pistachios.

 

 

 

A magical time of the year in Greece.

 

 

Athens Open Air Film Festival

When we were kids, we couldn’t wait for summer to come so we could frequent the local θερινό, or open air cinema. We were allowed to go on our bikes, we bought paper cones of passatembos (pumpkin seeds) to munch on, and watched old movies—faded Louis de Funés  comedies, old Greek films in black and white—while sitting on rickety canvas chairs, surrounded by jasmin and bougainvillea. If our parents came along, we could hope for ice cream or a late dinner of souvlakia (kebabs) at the neighborhood taverna.

Nowadays, this summer outing is as popular as ever, but with added levels of comfort. Better chairs, little tables where you can set your drink, a proper canteen dispensing cold beer and soft drinks, popcorn, nachos, hot dogs and the like. And all the latest films.

 

AOAFF20 Romaiki Agora / Thalia Galanopoulou

 

Not many countries have open air cinemas, either because the weather cannot be relied upon, or because it doesn’t get dark until too late. In Greece, there’s one in most neighborhoods (islands included) with an affordable ticket price. As an activity for a warm summer’s night, it doesn’t get much better than this.

For the past nine years, Athens has gone one better, and organizes an Open Air Film Festival, that aims to link the discovery of films with that of different, possibly unknown, corners of the city. Big screens are erected in well known locations as well as unexpected places in the urban landscape, such as archaeological sites, squares, parks and pedestrian areas. The list of films includes timeless classics, indies and blockbusters, but there will also be concerts, short film premieres and other events.

 

 

The festival is aimed at both locals and tourists, and the events are free of charge. This year it started on June 5th with a screening of Fellini’s AMARCORD at the Roman Agora, and will end on August 28 with Terry Gillian’s BRAZIL at the Kolonos Theatre. For those of you in Greece, the program can easily be found online. Enjoy!