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Translating Greece

[Photo: Susan Ecenbarger]

The shattered pediment and columns of the great Parthenon in Athens is being repaired. It draws tourists but does not always engage them.

Unless you have studied the history first, don't expect the ruins of ancient Greece to speak to you. As for the residents of modern Greece, prepare to make new friends.

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

ATHENS -- I have climbed the marble path worn smooth by millennia of use, and now I stand at the Acropolis, the architectural monument that surpasses all others in the Western world.

Here, 2,500 years ago, Plato and Socrates inquired into the nature of existence.

Today, however, about 100 tour buses have disgorged their cargo, and the questions being asked include "What year was this place built?" and "When do we have lunch?" and "Anyone know the score of the Manchester-Liverpool match?"

I walk over to the Areopagus, where Athenian citizens sat as a court of law, where Orestes was acquitted and Socrates was condemned. But there is no trace of these events on the bare rocks.

I seek shade in the shadow of the Parthenon, whose pediment and columns gleam in the sun. A guide cruises by with a dozen or more Japanese in her wake. Boredom is baked on each face.

George Mylonas, a Greek archaeologist, said the task of his calling was to "infer from withered flowers the hour of their bloom."

This is easier said than done.

History is the aphrodisiac of travel, and it draws millions of people to the Acropolis every year. But looking down to the marketplace where St. Paul preached, I ponder how one manages to take full advantage of such a communion with antiquity.

Great ruins often are confusing and disconcerting. The cadavers of ancient cities and their marble skeletons don't automatically summon to mind the great passions that rocked the cradles of civilizations.

Nowhere is this more true than in Greece, whose ruins are just that: uninhabitable and often scarcely visible.

Greece is a nation drenched in time, steeped in history. But what does it mean today? That's the 64,000-drachma question.

After two weeks in the country, ankle-deep in ruins and puzzling my way through broken bone-white columns, I came up with three rules for travel on the road to ruins:

1. Traveler, prepare thyself!

Study up on basic history. Greece is gods country, so learn about the myths. (They are great stories and wonderful entertainment.) Travel won't be broadening unless your mind is broad to start with.

2. Supplement your background once you get there.

In many Greek cities and towns, the local archaeological museum is the chief civic pride, the link to the glorious past. These museums provide reconstructions of sites and photographs of the excavation process. Frescoes and pottery give important information about how the ancients lived -- what they ate, what they wore, what they revered.

3. Limit your sights.

There's only so much you can absorb in a day, and there is a lot more to Greece than ruins. Today's living, breathing Greeks are also fascinating. There is a tradition of filoxenia (literally, love of strangers) displayed in boundless hospitality. And the word kopiaste (welcome) is on every tongue. Indeed, the relationship between host and guest is almost sacred.

* * *

At a small museum just outside of Athens, I am staggered by the artifacts of layer after layer of civilizations: Neolithic, Mycenean, classical Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, Venetian, Turkish.

Ian Vorres, the museum director, says many Americans cannot grasp the extent of antiquity in Greece.

"I lived in Boston for several years, and I remember high-brow New Englanders boasting that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower," he says. "I would think to myself, 'That's only 350 years ago -- a few hours ago in Greek history.' "

photo One of the ruins in ancient Corinth, a city of commerce and pleasure.

[Photo: Susan Ecenbarger]

It is a two-hour drive from Athens to Corinth, where St. Paul spent 18 months as a tentmaker and wrote his famous epistles decrying the Corinthians' "wicked ways." Today I walk among the heaped debris of history with Dr. George Williams, a Philadelphia archaeologist who has been working on the excavation of Corinth since 1962. He points to the bema, a marble podium from Roman times.

"It was from that platform that Paul was accused of sacrilege by the Jews of Corinth, about 51 A.D.," Williams says. "Homer called the city 'Wealthy Corinth.' And in the sixth century B.C., Corinth was flooding the ancient world with pottery, ivory statuettes and other products."

Williams, who spends six months a year in Greece and six months in Philadelphia, laments a loss of interest in the ancient world among many Americans.

"Computers and Walt Disney are taking us into the 21st century," he says, picking a pottery shard, examining it and tossing it away like a too-small fish.

"Western culture is being left behind. We don't know Achilles, we don't know the classics anymore. Americans come here and haven't a clue about what they're seeing.

"Before you come to Greece, you've got to make an investment. Study the history, the architecture, the mythology."

* * *

By noon, I'm feeling burdened and dizzy from an overdose of significant dates, important rulers and architectural dimensions. So I head for one of modern Greece's greatest institutions, the taverna, or cafe. There are tavernas everywhere, and they offer some of the best, freshest and most reasonably priced food in the world.

This one's in Napflion, a magnificent, elegant port town that is an excellent base for exploring the antiquities of the Peloponnesian peninsula.

I order a beer, which is delivered promptly by a woman whose brown eyes smile at me from a face of perfect wrinkles. She also gives me a plate of olives, tomatoes and sliced cucumber.

I munch and sip, and soon a plate of stuffed grape leaves arrives. I order another beer. Two cheese pies materialize. Then small pieces of grilled lamb on skewers. Then bread, olive oil, salad.

After nearly two hours, I ask for a bill. She brings me one for about $3: She has charged me for only the two beers. I protest. She insists. Then she brings me a glass of ouzo, the strong, anise-flavored spirit drunk all over Greece. I insist on paying more. She refuses emphatically.

I hide the equivalent of $10 under a saucer, but she spots it and stuffs it back in my pocket. I thank her and indicate that I like the ouzo. She brings out the bottle as a present. It's 90-proof and homemade. On the bottle she has written in ballpoint pen, "Ouzo from Pure Grapes."

Modern Greeks are as hospitable to visitors as were their ancestors, who believed that any stranger should be treated kindly because he might be a god in disguise who has come to test their virtue. My experiences made me wonder if some vestige of this superstition survives.

* * *

Refreshed at the taverna, I am ready for one of the all-star sites of ancient Greece: Mycenae, which thrived between 1700 and 1000 B.C. Its blood-soaked history was described by Homer, Aeschylus and Sophocles.

As I pass through the majestic Lion Gate, I try to imagine Agamemnon returning from the Trojan War in triumph only to be slain by his treacherous wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. I'm getting better at imaginging the past by viewing the present.

I climb up to the site of the royal palace. Only the floors remain, but burn marks from its destruction in 1200 B.C. are still visible on the stones. I sit and savor the view down into the surrounding plain, with its rectilinear fields and silver-green olive trees.

At ancient Tiryns, built in the 13th century B.C. and purportedly the birthplace of Hercules, I read in my guidebook that Homer described the city as "mighty-walled." Even today the Cyclopedian walls are impressive: 60 feet thick, with some individual stones 10 feet square. No wonder the ancient Greeks thought that human hands could not have moved these stones and ascribed the work to giants such as the mythical Cyclops.

At nearby Epidaurus, I take a seat halfway up in the theater where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides watched their tragedies performed at a time when the rest of Europe's tribes were giving up their nomadic existences. The acoustics are legendary, and to prove the point, an Italian tour guide stands in the center of the stage and drops a coin. From 50 yards away, I can clearly hear it strike the sandy floor.

On the road back to Napflion, I stop to buy Nemean grapes, reputed to be the best in Greece. A man sells me a huge bag of pale green grapes, washes them and charges me about $1 a pound. Then he throws in a couple of extra clusters.

* * *

Next I fly to Crete, a gaunt, Biblical island and a sliver of Greece that is 300 miles from Libya on the North African coast.

Crete gave birth to Europe's oldest civilization: The Minoans thrived first on Crete (roughly 3000 B.C. to 1200 B.C.), and their fleet dominated the Aegean. The culture and influence spread to mainland Greece, Egypt and Asia.

I am joined by George Spiradakis, one of about 2,500 registered Greek guides who are trained for three years and must undergo a six-month apprenticeship before being certified. A registered guide costs about $100 a day, a relative bargain if you can split the cost, and a guide will increase your understanding of the experience exponentially.

The major site on Crete is the palace at Knossos, built 16 centuries before the birth of Christ and 10 centuries before the marble was quarried for the Parthenon. Unlike most other sites, Knossos has been reconstructed extensively, imaginatively and colorfully.

The work was done at the beginning of the 20th century by Arthur Evans, a wealthy Briton and amateur archaeologist. The reconstruction is controversial, and Spiradakis tells me that the most accurate thing to say about it is that it shows us how a Minoan palace -- this one contains 1,300 rooms on several levels -- may have looked.

Spiradakis, standing at the foot of the grand staircase, says, "One reason that we know so much about the early Minoans is that they were brilliant potters, and pottery is the great tool for understanding ancient societies because it is durable and less likely to be looted than jewels."

In the taverna in the village of Vrachasi, I exercise what is an almost universal right in Greece by going in the kitchen and asking, "What did you cook today?"

The owner uncovers various pots and casseroles and describes each: mussels in oregano sauce, fava beans in tomato sauce, goat meat wrapped in parchment paper, baked whole fish, cumin-flavored rice.

As we have several times before, Spiradakis and I clink our wine glasses and proclaim "Yiassis!" (Cheers to us!).

* * *

I forsake yet more ancient sites and opt to commune with the living in Crete by driving across the Lassithi Plain, where hillsides are terraced to make level fields for cultivation and windmills with white canvas vanes pump water from wells for irrigation.

Whitewashed houses dripping bougainvillea and geraniums are clustered in tiny villages that are so close, as you leave one, you can see the next. Each has a special charm.

Neapolis: A shop is devoted to maintaining and repairing stills to make raki, a grape-based, distilled liquor like Italian grappa. The proprietor tells me that because it is harvest season, he can't keep up with the demands for repairs. Widely believed to be good for the digestion, raki is tested by throwing a shot on the fire beneath the still. If it explodes, the batch is good.

Zenia: I see an old man carving a spoon and wearing the traditional men's outfit on Crete: black knee-high boots, black trousers cut baggily in the rear, a black shirt and a kind of black sweatband hung with fringes and beads. He is sitting in a rickety chair surrounded by mountains of wood shavings.

His wife, about 4 feet tall, cadaverous with age and draped in a black woolen shawl, emerges from a doorway carrying a tottering tray of raki and figs, which she offers to me while smiling. She has one tooth.

Rousakiana: A pickup truck is parked on an incline. Its bed is brimming with grapes, and two men are stepping on them. The juice runs from the truck to an improvised sluice that leads to vats. This will be the family wine supply for the year.

As I'm eating in a taverna in Psihro, I play a mental game, trying to list the modern allusions to ancient Greece that exist in our language: Achilles' heel, platonic love, Oedipus complex, Trojan horse, marathon, Hippocratic oath, Pandora's box, draconian, epicurean, herculean . . .

On my last day in Greece, Spiradakis comes to see me off at the airport. I ask him if he has advice for Americans coming to Greece.

"Tell them if they're coming here for the three S's -- sun, sea and sex -- there's no need to make any preparations. Just bring lots of sunblock.

"But if you want more, you will have to do some work. You cannot play with the history of a place. Civilization and culture are too important."

If you go

READING: I used Lonely Planet's guidebook on Greece and found it superb. An unusual and especially helpful group of books are the Greece volumes in the Illustrated Guides to the Ancient World series published by Gnosis. Each has drawings and photographs of ancient sites with transparent overlays depicting what archaeologists believe the original looked like.

The guidebooks contain sections on Greek history, but if you want more, A.R. Burn's History of Greece is concise but thorough. One of the best books about modern Greece and its people is Portrait of Greece by Nicholas Gage.

GUIDES: Licensed guides are available for individuals and groups in all areas of Greece. They cost between $100 and $150 a day. Arrangements can be made through the Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022; call (212) 421-5777, fax 212-826-6943. The Web site is LANGUAGE: English is taught as a second language in Greek schools, and it is widely spoken in hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations. Nearly all museums have English descriptions of exhibits.

-- William Ecenbarger is a freelance writer living in Lancaster, Pa.

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