Saturday, August 26, 2017

Greece | Thessaly | Kalambaka | Meteora

 Update 08 / 27: USA Today has a story today about Locales Where “Game Of Thrones” is filmed. Meteora is conspicuously missing. The Greek Orthodox authorities and local monks nixed the idea of filming at Meteora, at least according to local informants (see below). The Greek Orthodox Church has near-complete control of Meteora. Even the Greek Air Force is not allowed to fly over the area below a certain altitude, again according to locals. 

Took the train from Thessaloniki south to the province of Thessaly and the town of Kalambaka, located just below the famous Meteora monasteries.
View from my hotel in Kalambaka (click on photos for enlargements)
View from the town square of Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
View from Kalambaka
The 16th century Monastery of St. Stephen, in the middle of the photo, from Kalambaka. It is now a nunnery.
Monastery of St. Stephen
Kalambaka from the Monastery of St. Stephen
Four of the six now active Meteora monasteries can be seen in this photo.
Three of the monasteries
Two of the monasteries
Varlaam Monasteries, founded in 1541
Varlaam Monastey
Another view of Varlaam Monastery
Another view of Varlaam Monastery
Another view of Varlaam Monastery
Grand Meteora Monastery, founded in mid-fourteen century
Remains of Grand Meteora Monks
Remains of Grand Meteora Monks
Monastery of Rousanou, also known as the Monastery of St. Barbara, founded in the sixteenth century. Now a nunnery.
Monastery of St. Barbara


Monastery of St. Barbara
 On the pinnacle to the left is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, founded in1475
Monastery of the Holy Trinity
If this monastery looks familiar, it is because a Famous Scene in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only” was filmed here. Locals claim that Meteora’s reputation as internationally famous tourist attraction was spawned by its appearance in the 007 flick. Reportedly the current TV program “Game of Thrones” wanted to film here in Meteora but the monks, after witnessing the hubbub surrounding the Bond movie, refused to give permission. I have been told by locals, however, that some digitized images of Meteora were used as backgrounds in  “Game of Thrones” (I do not know for sure because I myself have not seen the show).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Greece | Thessaloniki | Alexander the Great

The train left Athens on time at 7:18 a.m. and arrived at the train station on the western outskirts of Thessaloniki forty-six minutes late at 1:27 p.m. According to my GPS my hotel near the center of the city was nine-tenths of a mile away. I had planned to walk, but that morning in Athens I had checked the weather forecast and discovered that temperatures were expected to reach 100º F. by mid-afternoon. The forecast for the next day was 105º F., which would tie the highest temperature on record for the date. There was a long line of taxis at the train station,  and after being staggered by the heat when I stepped off the train I was sorely tempted to take one, but I finally decided to stick to my original plan and walk. I had this fantasy of entering the city on foot through one of gates in the fourth-century walls around the city, as if I was a humble pilgrim wandering through the domains of Byzantium. Of course if I started feeling queasy from the heat I could always hail a taxi.

Following the arrow on my GPS through several side streets and alleys I finally arrived at the Letalia Gate, which was one of the four major entrances to the ancient city. The monumental tower that housed the gate is long gone, although the ruins of the old fourth century walls can be seen to the north and south. 
Fourth Century walls to the south of the old Letalia Gate (click on photos for enlargements)
Fourth Century walls to the north of the old Letalia Gate
Busy Agiou Demetrioui, one of the main east-west trending streets through the city, now runs  through the gap in the city walls. Just inside the walls, to the south, can be seen the domes of the 14th century Church of the Apostles, one of the fifteen or so Byzantine-era churches in Thessaloniki that have survived to the present day. Had I been a fourteen century pilgrim I probably would have headed straight to the church to give thanks for my safe arrival in the city, but now I was more concerned with getting to my air-conditioned hotel. I will return however. I am visiting Thessaloniki not on business nor because, as one web site claims, it is the “hippest city” in Greece, chock full of boutique hotels, chi-chi cafes, trendy restaurants, and overflowing bars and discos, but instead to wander at random and daydream among the city’s Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman-era monuments and ruins. In short, I am an unapologetic antiquarian and an unrepentant flâneur.

I proceed east along Agiou Demetrioui until the arrow on my GPS veered sharply to the right, then turn south on Ionos Dragoumi. After a few blocks I arrive at the Pella Hotel, named, presumably, after the town of Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, located twenty miles west-northwest of Thessaloniki. Reviews on the internet damn this place with faint praise; it is “adequate”, “acceptable”, “simple but clean”, “good for an overnight stay”, etc. Back in the 1950s it may have been a pretty ritzy joint. Now it appears to be the haunt of lower-tier traveling salesmen, down-market tourists, and grubby backpackers splurging on a bed, shower, and air-conditioning. The receptionist was certainly cordial. I was a bit taken back by her effusiveness; for a second I had the strange sensation that I had been here before and that she were welcoming me back. Unusual for a hotel in the Eurozone, she did not ask for any ID. Despite the warm welcome I am exiled to the seventh floor, but I heave a sigh of relief when I see the perfectly adequate desk and chair and the nearby electric outlets. At least I can work comfortably on my computer. The narrow single bed is, in a word, acceptable, and the pillow is firm and chunky and can do double duty as a meditation cushion. The air-conditioning works and there is even a small balcony. After storing my portmanteau in my room I walk down Ionos Dragoumi to the harbor area and then turn left on the esplanade along the sea.
Aristotelous Square, which extends north from the Esplanade
The Esplanade
Finally I reach the statue of Alexander the Great (356 b.c–323 b.c.) One of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cassandros, founded  this city in 316 b.c. and named it after his wife Thessalonica, who was the daughter of Philip II of Macedonia and Alexander’s half-sister. Alexander was the son of Philip and the notoriously snake-loving Olympias (so memorably played by Angelina Jolie in the 2004 epic Alexander), while Thessalonica was the daughter of one of Philip’s other wives. Alexander the Great had, of course, died seven years earlier in Babylon, so he never got to see the city named after his half-sister Thessalonica.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Monday, April 17, 2017

Universe | Center | France | Mongolia


Update 6/27/17: Improbably enough, Salvador Dali is Back In The News.
MADRID — A Spanish court ordered the exhumation of the corpse of Salvador Dalí in order to Settle A Woman’s Claim to be recognized as the daughter of the Surrealist painter. The court said that DNA testing should be done on Dalí’s corpse because no other remains or belongings were available that could allow a proper examination to settle the paternity claim. Pilar Abel, a Tarot card reader, wants to be recognized as Dalí’s daughter, born as a result of what she has called a “clandestine love affair” that her mother had with the painter in the late 1950s in Port Lligat, the fishing village where Dalí and his Russian-born wife, Gala, built a waterfront house.
Dali died in 1989. This paternity claim is of some interest because Dali was widely believed to be impotent. See 10 Depraved Secrets Of Salvador Dali. Also see his autobiography, The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali. If you need still more evidence of Dali’s douchebaggery see The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí

One question: will there be a second public viewing of the body, perhaps at his Museum? That would be a truly Daliesque event.
The Train Station at Perpignan, by Salvador Dali (click on photos for enlargement).
At 4:21 pm on August 27 1965, Salvador Dali proclaimed that the Train Station In Perpignan, France, was actually the center of the universe. With all due respect to Mr. Dali, I beg to differ. I have long maintained that the Biger Depression, in Gov-Altai Aimag, Mongolia, is the navel of the World and the center of the Universe.
View from the Biger Depression, Gov-Altai Aimag, Mongolia
 Legendarily huge potatoes from the Biger Depression, the center of the Universe

Monday, March 20, 2017

Greece | Old Corinth

Wandered over to Corinth, forty-five miles east of Athens but slightly longer by train. Corinth is located on the west side of the 3.5 mile wide isthmus that separates the Peloponnese Peninsula from the Attica region around Athens and the rest of Greece.
 (Click on images for enlargements)
My main interest is visiting the site of the old Temple of Aphrodite, located on the top of 1876-foot peak of Acrocorinth, just east of the town of Old Corinth. There is a metro to the Larissa Train Station, which serves trains running to the north, and from here you have to take a train another fifteen minutes or so to a another station that handles trains running south to the Peloponnese.  The trip to Corinth takes about an hour.

From the Corinth train station I took a taxi to Old Corinth, the village located near the archeological park that hosts the ruins of ancient Corinth. The modern city of Corinth, to the west of the station, is a relatively modern reiteration of an older city destroyed by earthquakes in 1858 and 1928 and is apparently of little interest to tourists or flâneurs. The cab driver, a man in his fifties, asks me where I am from. I say the U.S.A hesitantly, since nowadays you never know what kind of reaction you are going to get. Americans have not been the most popular people in the world for the last decade or so, and now your interlocutor may have relatives who just got thrown out of the country. “Oh, what state?” he asks. I did not want to get into a long explanation of where I have been for the last twenty years, so I say Alaska, the last state I lived in when I was in the States. “Alaska!” he shouted. “That is one of my favorite places. Never been there, of course, but I have watched many shows on travel channels and many youtube videos about Alaska. My dream is to visit Alaska some day. Have you been to Kodiak Island?” I told him that I actually lived on Kodiak Island for a couple of years. “Really? Did you ever see any Kodiak bears.” I said that I had seen many of them and had even been false-charged by Kodiak bears twice. “The other place I want to visit is Denali National Park. Have you been there?” This was getting weird. Actually I had written a book about Denali National Park. I did not tell him this but I said, yes, I have been to Denali. Then, to get him off the subject of Alaska, I asked if many people visit Corinth in the wintertime. “No so many, most come in the summer time,” he said and then added, “Are you here because of the Apostle Paul? Most people come here because of Paul, you know, following Paul’s footsteps.”

After visiting Paphos, on Cyprus Island, where according to legend he got whipped for proselytizing Christianity, and Athens, where he pontificated on Areopagus Hill, Paul had wandered on to Corinth: "After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth."– Acts 18.1. Paul ended up staying eighteen months in Corinth during his first trip to Greece and may have returned here on a later trip to Greece. He established a church here, and eventually wrote two letters to the Corinthians advising them on how to practice their faith: Corinthians I and Corinthians II, now found in the New Testament. I tell the driver that actually I have come to Corinth to see the Temple of Aphrodite and the ancient fortress on the top of Acrocorinth. “Ah,” Aphrodite, do you know she was born on Cyprus Island?” I was going to tell him that I had been to the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus Island just before coming to Greece, but I was afraid he would not believe me. 
Main street of sleepy Old Corinth
Old Corinth is a small village with one main street lined with cafes, gift shops, art galleries, and a few stores for the locals. In the middle of the tiny town square a huge yellow dog is taking a nap.  When the cab driver blows his horn to make him move he just he raises his head, states balefully at us, then lowers his head and goes back to sleep. We have to drive around the dog. My guest house is right on the main street. When we pull up out front a woman from a herb shop across the streets comes out and yells, “Are you here for the hotel? I will call the manager.” The manager is apparently at his restaurant a bit further up the street. The guesthouse turns out to have four rooms and I am the only guest. In the courtyard is an orange tree festooned with oranges. The manager tells me to help myself to the oranges whenever I want any. I stash my portmanteau and even though the skies have darkened and there is already a slight drizzle I head for the ruins of the ancient city of Corinth at the edge of the current village, just below the slopes of Acrocorinth.

Ancient Corinth became an important city because of its strategic location on the very narrow isthmus that connects the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland. By portaging across the 3.5 miles wide isthmus the long and dangerous sea voyage around the southern end of the Peloponnese could be avoided. As early as the 6th century B.C. a stone-paved highway had been build to accommodate travel between the Saronic Gulf on the east and the Gulf of Corinth on the west. The Greek geographer Strabo (56 B.C.–56 A.D,) elaborates on this:
Corinth is called "wealthy" because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of merchandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other . . . it was a welcome alternative, for the merchants both from Italy and from Asia, to avoid the voyage to Maleae, land their cargoes here. And also the duties on what by land was exported from the Peloponnesus and what was imported to it fell to those who held the keys. And to later times this remained ever so.
The main ruin from ancient Corinth is the Temple of Apollo, dating to around 550 B.C.  It originally had fifteen columns on each of the long sides and six on the two facades, for a total of forty-two. Only seven are standing today. The columns are unusual in that each are carved from a single piece of stone, instead of being made up of stacked column drums. 
 Temple of Apollo, with the peak of Acrocorinth in the background
 Temple of Apollo
 Temple of Apollo
Temple of Apollo
The original ancient Corinth was sacked in 146 B.C. by Roman commander Lucius Mummius and most of the buildings were destroyed. In 44 A.D. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city and populated it with Roman colonists. Most of the remaining ruins in the archeological park date from this Roman period.
 Roman-era ruins of ancient Corinth
Probably the most visited ruin is that of the Bema, or rostrum, where Paul  publicly defended himself from allegations made by the city’s Hebrews that his teachings about Jesus of Nazareth were contrary to Mosiac Law. The Roman pro-consul Lucius Julius Gallio ruled that Paul had not in fact broken any Roman Law and so was allowed to go on proselytizing. This was the real beginning of Christianity in Corinth. Of course the historicity of this whole episode, along with many other events in Paul’s life, has been questioned. See Corinth—Where the Apostle Paul Never Trod.
 The Bema. speaking platform, where the Paul the Pontificator is said to have defended himself,
 The top of the Bema
On the top of the Bema is a monument inscribed with a quotation from 2 Corinthians: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparision.”
By now the drizzle had turned to rain, so I retired to the small but well appointed museum adjacent to the ruins. The museum was established in 1932 by the American School of Classical Studiers and funded by American philanthropist Ada Small Moore of Chicago. The place is jammed with a Chinese tour group of at least fifty people on a day-trip from Athens. Their big bus is parked outside. 
 Museum courtyard
Statues in the museum courtyard
This museum was once victimized by a daring act of thievery. On the night of April 12, 1990, robbers broke into the museum, bound and gagged the guard, and then proceeded to cart off 285 statues, vases, glass vessels, jewelry and other ancient works of art of inestimable value. They also stole 1,000,000 drachmas in cash on hand to pay the salaries of museum employees. Nine years later, in September of 1999, the F.B.I., working in cooperation with Greek police, founded most of the artwork in plastic boxes in a fish warehouse in Miami, Florida. The items were returned to the museum and can be seen there today. None of the published accounts say who was responsible for this caper, or how the stolen items got from Corinth to Miami. 

I had planned to climb Acrocorinth in the afternoon but by the time I left the museum the mountain was completely fogged in, and rain was falling even harder, so I retired to my hotel room where I was soon engrossed in Anthony Everest’s scintillating and at times even titillating The Rise of Athens.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Greece | Athens | Mouseion Hill | Hill of the Muses

Wandered up 485-foot Mouseion Hill for a panoramic view of the Acropolis. The hill got its name from the 6th-century BC poet and seer Musaios, who was supposedly buried on its summit. Because of its association with Musaios, reputed to be the son of the legendary minstrel Orpheus, it is also known as the Hill of the Muses. Part way up I passed by the Prison of Socrates, where, according to legend, the great philosopher was confined before he was forced to the drink the Hemlock.
 Prison of Socrates (click on photos for enlargements)
Socrates was an enigmatic character, to say the least. He was born not far from Athens in 469 B.C., the son of stonemason who aspired to be a sculptor. His mother was a midwife. Socrates too may have worked for awhile as a stonemason before finding his true calling as a free-lance philosopher and teacher. With thick lips, bulging eyes, and a pot-belly, he was a notoriously unattractive figure. He seldom bathed or washed his clothes and went barefooted most of the time. His wife, the shrewish Xanthippe, henpecked him unmercifully. He apparently managed to father three sons with her, all of whom turned out to be dolts, but his main interpersonal relationships seemed to be with young men. It is unclear if he served solely as an intellectual mentor to the young men who flocked around him to hear his teachings or if he also had sexual relationships with at least some of them. In Athens at the time it would certainly not have been unusual for a married man like Socrates to have young male lovers. Many married men, we are led to believe, preferred the company of young men or boys and only coupled with their wives for purposes of procreation. When they just wanted to get their rocks off they preferred other males. In any case, Socrates had ample opportunities to meet young admirers. One of his students, Xenophon, who had became smitten with Socrates at a young age, wrote that:
Socrates was always in the public eye. Early in the morning he used to make his way to the covered walkways and open-air gymnasia, and when the marketplace became busy he was there in full view; and he always spent the rest of the day where he expected to find the most company. He talked most of the time and anyone who liked was able to listen.
In this way Socrates acquired a large following, especially among the aristocratic young of the city who were thrilled by his charismatic personality and provocative teachings.His influence on the young and the ideas he was putting into their heads eventually aroused the suspicions of some important people. Finally a politician by the name of Meletus had the philosopher arrested. The charges read:
This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.
At that time trials took place at some public forum, probably in the open air, in front of a very large jury. Important trials had a jury of 1,501 citizens; even private suits were heard by juries of from 201 to 401 members. The jury cast its ballots in secret and fifty percent of the votes plus one were needed for a conviction. We do not know the exact size of Socrates’s jury, but he was found guilty by a majority of sixty votes. At that time both the prosecution and the defense could suggest a punishment and the same jury that decided the case could choice which one they preferred. The prosecution demanded death. Socrates, rather cheekily, first suggested that the proper punishment for his supposed offensives would be a government pension for the rest of his life, since he was, in his own opinion at least, a benefit to society. Then, acting on the advice of Plato and other close friends, he suggested a fine of 3000 drachmas. The jury was not amused by his insouciance; more voted for the death penalty than had voted for his conviction.

The sentence may have been carried out here at the prison where he was supposedly held prior to the trial. Other sources suggest he died in another prison in the ancient Agora. In any case, in the presence of several close friends and disciples (Plato, who was ill at the time, did not attend) Socrates downed the concoction of poison hemlock. The bystanders broke down in tears. One of those present, his disciples Phaedo, left an account of Socrates’ reaction:
“Really, my friends, what kind of behavior is this? Why, that was my main reason for sending away the women, to prevent this sort of commotion; because I am told that one should make one’s end in a peaceful frame of mind. Calm down and try to be brave.”
Phaedo goes on:
This made us feel ashamed, and we controlled our tears. Socrates walked about, and soon, saying that his legs were heavy, lay down on his back—that was what the prison warden recommended. The man (he was the same one who had administered the poison) kept his hand on Socrates, and after a little while inspected his feet and legs; then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. Socrates said no. Then he did the same to his legs; and moving gradually upwards in this way let us see that he was becoming inert and numb. Presently he touched him again and said that when it reached the heart, Socrates would be gone. The numbness was spreading about as far as his groin when Socrates uncovered his face—for he had covered it up—a nd said (these were his last words): “Crito, we ought to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius. Make sure it’s done. Don’t forget.” “No, it shall be done,” said Crito. “Are you sure that there is nothing else?” Socrates made no reply to this question, but after a little while he stirred; and when the man uncovered him, his eyes were fixed. When Crito saw this, he closed the mouth and eyes. Such was the end of our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.
The citizens of Athens eventually had a change of heart. Meletus, who had brought charges against Socrates, was eventually tried and executed for his role in this sorry affair. Another of his accusers, Anytus, was exiled to a backwater port on the Black Sea, where he was eventually stoned to death by an angry mob. Meanwhile, a statue of Socrates by the famous sculptor Lysippus was erected in Athens. And of course, it is Socrates that we are still talking about today, 2500 years later.

Continuing on up the trail to the summit of Mouseion Hill, thoughts of Socrates still reverberating through my mind, it occurred to me that there are a few modern philosophers who might benefit from some time behind bars in Socrates’s Prison; for example, the notorious Post-Modern Neo-Nihilist and cyber-sphere gasbag David Weinberger. At least Weinberger, famous in college for his Dionysian revelries and unbridled bacchanalias and infamous as a shamelessly slavish sycophant of the insufferable German doofus and dingbat Marty “I Invented Being and Time and If You Don’t Like It Bite Me” Heidegger, would have time while behind bars to rethink his rebarbative theory that Everything Is Miscellaneous. Socrates was forced to drink the Hemlock, but Weinberger continues to walk the streets of America a free man. Where is the justice in that? I might add that Weinberger is also an avowed foe of the otherwise beloved Dewey Decimal System and a perennial front runner on Bucknell University’s list of Worst Dressed Alumni. 
View of the Acropolis and the Parthenon from part way up Mouseion Hill 
 View of the Acropolis and the Parthenon from near the summit Mouseion Hill
As mentioned Mouseion Hill is also known as the Hill of the Muses. For centuries poets and song-writers, including Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, have come here to perform and seek inspiration. Also see One Irish Rover.
Van Morrison and Bob Dylan on the Hill of the Muses (not my photo)
 The trail continue on to the ruins of the mausoleum and monument of Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos 65–116 AD), a well-known prince of the Kingdom of Commagene, on the summit of the hill. It is not clear, but the monument may stand on the older grave of Musaios.
 See Commagene on the map (in pink)
Although born in Commagene, Philopappos spent much of his life Athens and was well-known as a benefactor of the city. He was a boon companion of the Roman Emperor Trajan and Trajan`s successor as emperor Hadrian. After he died in 116 his sister Julia Balbilla and prominent citizens of Athens erected this monument in his honor on the summit of Mouseion Hill.
Ruins of the mausoleum and monument to Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos