Sunday, December 30, 2018

Greece | Saronic Gulf | Hydra

Hoping to escape the end of the year hubbub in Athens I wandered out to the island of Hydra in the Saronic Gulf, about 50 miles south of Athens and just over two hours by one of the “Flying C” catamaran ferry boats. Apparently this place is hugely popular in the summer but it is very quiet right now. After the last boat of the day heads back to Athens the harbour area is pretty much deserted.
Hydra  (click on photos for enlargements)
Harbour of Hydra
Quiet cafe at the harbour
Equine Transport
No cars allowed on the island, so if have heavy luggage to take to your hotel, or you are unable to walk, you have to rent a mule or a horse. Of course all I had was a small easily carriable portmanteau, and I am still able to walk, so I did not avail myself of equine transport.
Old Fortifications. Hydra played a prominent role in the 1821 War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks.
Coastline east of Hydra Town
View from my hotel room

Addendum: I thought I had picked out Hydra at random from a list of Greek islands easily accessible from Athens, but I kept having this nagging suspicion that I had heard of it somewhere before. Not until my third day on the island did it suddenly occur to me where I had first encountered Hydra. It is mentioned in the book The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller, which I had read in college, along with the Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus, Plexus, NexusMiller had a lot to say about Hydra. Here is just a sample:
Our destination was Hydra where Ghika and his wife awaited us. Hydra is almost a bare rock of an island and its population, made up almost exclusively of seamen, is rapidly dwindling. The town, which clusters about the harbor in the form of an amphitheatre, is immaculate. There are only two colors, blue and white, and the white is whitewashed every day, down to the cobblestones in the street. The houses are even more cubistically arranged than at Poros. Aesthetically it is perfect, the very epitome of that flawless anarchy which supersedes, because it includes and goes beyond, all the formal arrangements of the imagination. This purity, this wild and naked perfection of Hydra, is in great part due to the spirit of the men who once dominated the island. For centuries the men of Hydra were bold, buccaneering spirits: the island produced nothing but heroes and emancipators. The least of them was an admiral at heart, if not in fact. To recount the exploits of the men of Hydra would be to write a book about a race of madmen; it would mean writing the word DARING across the firmament in letters of fire.

Curiously, several years ago I bought a Kindle version of The Colossus of Maroussi with the thought of rereading it, but for some reason I never got around to it until now. It has been sitting in Kindle Cloud all this time, apparently just waiting for me to reach Hydra myself.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Greece | Athens | Acropolis | Winter Solstice | Full Moon

Wandered on to Athens to celebrate the Winter Solstice at the Parthenon, on top of the Acropolis. The Winter Solstice occurs in Athens at 00:21:42 on December 22. Of course the Acropolis is closed at night, so I had to be content with performing my orisons on the afternoon of the 21st. 
View of the Acropolis and the Parthenon from Mouseion Hill (click on photos for enlargements)
The Parthenon. Unfortunately the Parthenon seems to to be in a permanent state of renovation; hence the cranes and scaffolding.
On the night of the 21st there was also a spectacular Full Moon over the Acropolis. Lunatics and devotees of Selene were out in force. 

Selene, the Goddess of the Moon
Selene and her Boy Toy Endymion

Selene and Endymion. The poor guy never knew what hit him.
View of the Acropolis from the balcony of my hotel room

Thursday, December 13, 2018

North Macedonia | Skopje | Stone Bridge

Macedonia Square with statue of Warrior on a Horse (Alexander the Great, but don’t tell anyone). Click on photos for enlargements. 
The northeast side of 435 foot-long and 250 foot-wide Macedonia Square faces the famous Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, across the Vardar River.  The 241 mile-long river, which drains at least two-thirds of the country and divides the city of Skopje into two parts, finds its source only about eighteen miles to the northwest of Skopje, near the Kosovo border, but loops far to the south before heading north to Skopje, picking up many tributaries along the way, including the sizable Treska River (home of the famous Matka Canyon resort area), which flows into the Vardar 4.5 miles upstream from downtown, and has already grown into a sizable stream by the time it flows through the city. The river continues on to the southeast and crosses the Greek border near the town of Axioupoli, where is suddenly takes on the Greek name of Axios River, before flowing into the Aegean Sea west of the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The meaning of “Vardar” is much debated, but the name it probably based on an ancient Proto-Indo-European word meaning “Black Water”. 
The Stone Bridge
The Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, across the Vardar, has become a symbol of Skopje and is found on the city’s coat-of-arms and on the city flag. 
Skopje-coat-of-arms
According to an historical signpost on the bridge itself, the Kameni Most was built by order of Ottoman Sultan Murad II during the years 1421–51 on the foundations of an earlier bridge dating to the sixth century when current-day Macedonia was part of the Byzantine Empire. Other sources suggest, however, that the bridge was by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror between 1451 and 1469. Perhaps both sultans had a hand in its construction. As for the earlier bridge, the historical record is unclear, but since it was built in the six century, it is interesting to speculate that it was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565), who was born in the village of Tauresium (now called Taor), twelve miles southeast of current-day Skopje. In any case, as part of the Skopje 2014 Project an imposing 16.5 foot-high white marble statue of Justinian sitting on his throne has been installed on the bank of the Vardar River just a hundred feet north of the bridge. It was made in Florence, Italy, reportedly at a cost of over just over one million euros.
Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565)
Justinian

Justinian is perhaps most famous for building Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (Istanbul), to this day one of the world’s most magnificent edifices (it was first a church, then a mosque, and now a museum), and for marrying the notorious ex-prostitute Theodora
Interior of Hagia Sophia
“Glory to God, Who has deemed me worthy of fulfilling such a work. O Solomon, I have surpassed thee,” Justinian reportedly said when entering the newly completed Hagia Sofia for the first time. History does not record what he said after entering Theodora for the first time. 
Four of the twelve arches of the Stone Bridge

The bridge built by the Ottomans was heavily damaged during an earthquake in 1555 and eventually repaired. Further repairs and renovations took place in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, with the last update in 1994. In 1944 Nazi troops who had invaded Macedonia rigged the bridge with explosives, intending to destroy it to cover their retreat, but this plot was foiled and the bridge survived.The current bridge, 702 feet long and twenty feet wide, consists of columns of huge stone blocks divided by twelve semicircular arcs.
View downstream from the Stone Bridge, toward the Bridge of Civilizations in Macedonia, also known as the Eye Bridge.
View upstream from the Stone Bridge. Another pedestrian bridge is under construction.
About two-thirds of the way across the bridge is a column containing a mihrab, or prayer niche, apparently pointing in the direction of Mecca, dating to 2008, although there may have been an earlier version.
Prayer niche on the bridge
A bit further on, on the other side of the bridge is an historical signpost marking the spot where the illustrious Karposh, the Christian leader of an anti-Ottoman uprising in 1689, was executed by the Ottomans. The northern end of the bridge debouches onto Karposh Square, named after the Macedonian freedom fighter.
Sign indicating where Karposh was supposedly executed
Northern end of the Stone Bridge debouching onto Karposh Square
Statue of Karposh
Statue of Karposh
Statue of Karposh

Sunday, December 9, 2018

North Macedonia | Skopje | Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia


At the northern end of the famous Stone Bridge across the Vardar River in Downtown Skopje, in Karposh’s Rebellion Square (more on the illustrious Karposh later), and just in front of the apartment building where I am staying, is the charming Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia.
View of the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia from the window of the my apartment (click on photos for enlargements)
Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia 
Mother and Child
Mother and Child
Pregnant Mother-to-be
Fountain Pool
The pool of the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia. The fountain is apparently turned off in wintertime. Is it just my imagination, or is the fountain pool shaped like an enormous Vulva?

Friday, November 30, 2018

USA | Pennsylvania | Allegheny Mountains | Deer Season

Just checked out the on-line version of the local newspaper in the area where I was born and grew up. Seems that deer season has just began and the paper was engaging in one of its most hallowed traditions: posting photos of successful hunters and their deer. Deer hunting is a huge deal in this area. They don’t even have school on the first two days of deer season because if they did no one would show up. Looking at the photos one thing struck me as unusual. When I lived in the area I did not know any girls or women who hunted deer. Now apparently female hunters are quite common. I can just hear the girls now: “If boys can hunt deer why can’t we?” Here is a sampling of the photos:
Grace Leiford, age 16 (click on photos for enlargements)
Emma Carter, age 15, from Shanksville. Yes, that’s the Shanksville of 9/11 notoriety.
Another unusual thing: when I lived in Pennsylvania you had to be at least 12 years old to hunt legally. No more, apparently: witness Lily Ream, age 11.
Lily Ream, age 11
(Addendum: I received this update from a local informant: “Pennsylvania has a Youth Mentor hunting program, if a child is accompanied by an adult license holder, there is virtually no age minimum. It's a Game Commission initiative to help encourage the next generation off their phones and tablets and become the next generation of license buyers . . . We need all the hunters we can get, there are more and more expensive deer vs. vehicle accidents.”

This is the most amazing photo, however. Six-year-old girls are now hunting deer? What kind of rifle was she using? The recoil of your average deer rifle would knock most six-year-olds flat on their behinds. Must be one tough little six year old. No one is going to mess with her when she get older! 
Libbie Boozer, age 6
Oh how I wish I was growing up in this area right now. What could be more romantic than to ask a girl out to go deer hunting together on the first day of deer season? Bonding over a freshly killed buck! Much, much better than the stupid Prom!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

North Macedonia | Tikves Wine District | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery | Stanushina


I Mentioned Earlier that I drink only wines indigenous to the place I happen to be at the time. At the moment I am staying at the Popova Kula Winery in the Tikves Wine District of Macedonia. In addition to making wine from the more famous varieties of grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc, all of which originated outside the Balkan Peninsula and have been replanted here—the winery also features several wines indigenous to the Balkans. It also features one wine indigenous to Macedonia itself. This wine, known as Stanushina, is made from a variety of grapes which originated in the Tikves Wine Region of Macedonia and to this day is grown nowhere else. The Popova Kula Winery claims to be the only winery in Macedonia—and thus the world—to make wine from this grape. This is a truly indigenous wine, and sampling it is the main reason I have come to Demir Kapiya. 
Stanushina (click on photos for enlargements)
A bottle of regular Stanushina (there is also an aged-in-oak-barrels version) cost $4.43 at the winery store. Although the weather is cool—in the 50ºF—and rainy, with surprisingly strong gusts of wind sweeping down the Vardar Valley, I retire to my balcony with the wine and an assortment of walnuts, figs, and dried apricots that I bought at the Old Bazaar in Skopje. I am perfectly comfortable in a Mongolian Cashmere sweater. The wine is light scarlet in color, fruity and flowery, with a mouthful of cherries and hints of strawberry and raspberry. As often happens when I drink wine—especially light, fruity wine, my thoughts turn to Omar Khayyam (1048 a.d. – 1131 a.d.). Most famous in the Occident as a poet—he is the “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou” guy—in Persia itself he is best known as a Mathematician and astronomer. 

As I started on my second glass of Stanushina I began to recall quotes and poetry by Omar Khayyam:

Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine and roses. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.
So much wine I will have drunk that its perfume
Shall stream from my tomb once I am laid to rest.
And when a true believer passes by
The aroma shall overwhelm him with drunkenness.
 A glass of wine is worth more than the entire kingdom of China.
Before death springs upon you unannounced 
Make sure to ask for the finest of vintages.
Something in my third glass of Stanushina triggered thoughts about the legend involving Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, who was the vizier of the Seljuq Empire from 1064 a.d. to 1092 a.d., and Hassan-i Sabbah (1050 to 1124), the Nizari Ismaili who founded the notorious sect of the Assassins. According to the legend—admittedly the historicity of this tale has been questioned—the three men while still young swore a pact of eternal friendship, vowing that if one of them rose to prominence he would help the other two in whatever way he could.  Nizam al-Mulk achieved achieved power first by becoming vizier of the Seljuq Empire. He then offered both his friends important positions in the Seljuq government. Hassan-i Sabbah accepted a government post but Omar Khayyam declined, preferring instead to stick to his study of mathematics and astronomy and to his devotion to women, poetry, and wine. Nizam al-Mulk eventually decided that Hassan-i Sabbah had become too powerful and was threatening his own position in the Seljuk court. He then engineered a plot to have Hassan-i Sabbah removed from office and disgraced. Hassan-i Sabbah never forgave Nizam al-Mulk for this betrayal. Years later, after he had organized the Assassin sect at Alamut in Iran, Nizam al-Mulk was the very first victim of Hassan-i Sabbah’s trained assassins. When I was in Iran I visited Alamut and also the tomb of Nizam al-Mulk in Esfahan. Unfortunately I was unable to visit the tomb of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur. I was still ruing this omission when I finished the bottle of Stanushina.
Entrance to the tomb of Nizam al-Mulk in Esfahan, Iran

North Macedonia | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery


I only indulge in two kinds of alcoholic drinks—airag (fermented mares’ milk) and wine (please don’t get me started on Low-Life Beer Drinkers). Airag is found throughout Inner Asia but is perhaps most common in Mongolia, with Övörkhangai Aimag arguably being the Airag Capital of the World. As for wine, I drink only wine indigenous to the place I happen to be at the time. 

During my last three months in Mongolia I had not been to the countryside, where the best airag is found, even once, and none of my usual sources brought any airag to my Hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, so I had not been able to partake of this stimulating and healthy (it is jam-packed with vitamins and minerals) beverage. And there is no wine indigenous to Mongolia (I am not counting a dubious Mongolian-produced wine made from unidentifiable “fruits”), so basically I was on the wagon for three months. 

I am now in Macedonia, however, which boasts of a number of indigenous wines. “Indigenous” can mean a number of things. It can simply mean locally grown wine, regardless of the variety of grapes used to make it. Macedonia produces all the usual suspects where wine is concerned—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc., but all of these varieties of grapes originated outside of the Balkans and have been replanted here. I am not concerned with these. Macedonia also produces wine made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, of which Macedonia is a part, including Vranac, Žilavka, Temjanika, etc. Not being a stickler in these matters, I am willing to drink wine made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, if not necessarily Macedonia. However, Macedonia also has at least one wine made from a variety of grapes which originated within the current boundaries of the country and is reportedly grown nowhere else. This is truly an indigenous wine and one of the most interest to me. 

Eager as I am to further explore the city of Skopje, I decide I first better visit one of Macedonia’s famous wine districts and continue my research on indigenous wines. My attention focuses on the Tikves Wine District south of Skopje and more particularly the town of Demir Kapiya at the southern end of the district, not far from the  Macedonia-Greek border. The Popova Kula Winery in  Demir Kapiya produces a number of wines indigenous to the Balkans and at least one indigenous to Macedonia and also has an on-site hotel and restaurant. I had been here before in the summertime but was eager to visit again in late fall when I hoped it would be less crowded and I could concentrate more fully on my researches. I book a room for five nights, thinking to this will be enough time to complete my studies and effect a wine cure. 

The bus for Demir Kapisa leaves the Skopje bus station at 11:00 a.m. The four-lane turnpike south travels along the Vardar River, first passing through a scenic Veles canyon before emerging out into the rolling hills of the Tikves Wine District, which covers about 2000 square miles and is on roughly the same latitude as the Bordeaux region in France, the Tuscany region in Italy, and the Napa Valley region in California; in short ideal wine country. About forty-seven square miles of the area is actually covered with vineyards, which are maintained by thirty-seven different wineries.

Vardar River and the Veles Canyon south of Skopje (click on photo for enlargement. Photo by Корисник:Македонец.
Tikves Wine District shaded in red
Vineyard-covered rolling hills of the Tikves Wine Region in summertime
After stops at bus stations in the small cities in Veles and one other town whose name escapes me at the moment we finally arrive at the outskirts of Demir Kapiya, a sleepy little town of 3,725 inhabitants, where I am unceremoniously dumped off at a parking lot. I hike into town and track down a taxi to take me to the winery, about a mile and half away. 
Demir Kapiya. Photo by Rašo.
We don’t need your passport,” the receptionist at the winery inn tells me. “We still have your ID information from your last stay.” When I was here the last time, in the month of August, the place was packed—I wanted to stay a day or two longer but was unable to extend my reservation—but now I am the only guest. My spacious room has hardwood floors, a sitting area with a table and chairs, a balcony with a great view of the vineyards in the foreground and the mountains to the south, and, most importantly, a large desk with adequate lights. I settle in and begin my researches. 
Popova Kula Winery Inn and Restaurant
View from my balcony in summertime
Vineyards in summertime
Grapes in summertime

Sunday, November 25, 2018

North Macedonia | Skopje

When residing in Mongolia I usually do not break out my winter coat until temperatures fall to –10ºF or colder. Until then a down jacket is usually sufficient. A few days ago the temperature dropped to –16ºF. As I was digging out my winter coat a thought hit me. Instead of breaking out the winter coat why not just head for warmer climes? I checked the weather in various cities and discovered that it was a relatively balmy 62ºF in Skopje, Macedonia, a city that I had visited before and found quite appealing. I immediately booked a Flight On Turkish Airlines to Skopje. The plane left Ulaanbaatar at six o’clock the next morning. After an eleven hour flight (including a one hour layover in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) I arrived in Istanbul, where I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and  early the next morning caught the one hour and fifteen minute flight to Skopje. From the airport I took a taxi to my hotel in the Stara Charshiya, the old bazaar quarter of Skopje. 
Macedonia, in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula (click on photos for enlargements)

Macedonia, a former province of Yugoslavia and now an independent country, is officially named the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, an unwieldy name that pleases nobody. Attempts to change the name are now underway (more on this extremely contentious issue later). Located in the heart of the Balkans, Macedonia—most people use the shorthand name—is surrounded  by the countries of Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece and covers 9,928 square miles, making it slightly bigger than Vermont and slightly smaller than Massachusetts. Put another way, sixty-six Macedonias would fit inside the borders of the state of Alaska, and sixty-one within the borders of Mongolia. The population is roughly 2,100,000, with 507,000 living in Skopje. About 65% of Macedonians are Christians; 35% are Muslims. As of 2012, the country had 1,842 churches and 580 mosques. The vast majority of the Christians belong to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which became autocephalous, or self-ruling, in 1967 and is not officially recognized by any of the other branches of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—for the moment.
The city of Skopje is divided into two parts by the 241 mile-long Vardar River, which drains at least two-thirds of the country. The Vardar starts only about eighteen miles to the northwest of Skopje, near the Kosovo border, but loops far to the south before heading north to Skopje, picking up many tributaries along the way. It has already grown into a sizable stream by the time it flows through the city. The river continues on to the southeast and crosses the Greek border near the town of Axioupoli before flowing into the Aegean Sea west of the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The name “Vardar” is probably based on an ancient Proto-Indo-European word meaning “Black Water”.
Center of Skopje. The Stone Bride can be seen in the middle.
The boisterous Varder River
The Stone Bridge connecting Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje, to the Old Bazaar, where I am staying, is the oldest bridge in the city. The 702 foot-long, 20-foot wide bridge was built by order of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror between 1451 and 1469 on foundations of an earlier bridge dating to the time of the Roman Empire.
The Stone Bridge
One of several pedestrian bridges across the Vardar
Statue in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. It is generally thought to be a statue of Alexander the Great, although that is not its official name. More on this later . . .