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?

Monday, December 3, 2018

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


It is my fourth day at the Popova Kula Winery, a Thursday, and I am still the only guest here. I checked on the internet and discovered, however, that this coming Saturday night the place is full-up with no rooms available. Luckily I am checking out Saturday morning. Incorrigible misanthrope that I am, I have been enjoying the solitude. Meanwhile I am continuing my investigations of the local vintages. The winery produces eleven different kinds of wine:
—Stanushina
—Vranec
—Prokupec
—Cabernet Sauvignon
—Merlot
—Sauvignon Blanc
—Temjanika,
—Chardonnay
—Zilavka
— Muscat Ottonel
—Muscat Hamburg
Stanushina, Prokupec, Vranec, Temjanika, and Zilavka are made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula; these are the only varieties I am interested in. God forbid that I should come to Macedonia just to drink Cabernet Sauvignon or—horrors!— Merlot! 

According to archeological findings, grapes has been grown and wine produced in the area of Demir Kapiya for at least the last 3600 years. The modern history of viniculture in the Demir Kapiya area began in 1927 when King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (1888–1934) built a winery here to produce wine for the exclusive use of his royal family. Experts assured the king that of all possible locations in his kingdom, which covered a good part of the Balkan Peninsula, including modern-day Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, this area was the most fertile and best suited for growing grapes and producing wine. He named the property the Winery of The Queen Maria in honor of his wife, Maria Karadjordjevic. The king hired the best vintners available and the winery was soon producing wine of extraordinary quality. Unfortunately King Alexander Karadjordjevic was unable to enjoy the fruits of his vineyards for long. On October 9, 1934, during a state visit to Marseille, France, he was assassinated by Bulgarian revolutionary Vlado Chernozemski.
King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (click on photos for enlargements)
The subsequent history of the winery is a bit hazy, but apparently it continued producing wine in the decades thereafter, except during the world wars and various local upheavals.  After the Second World the Royal Winery, along with other wineries in what was then Yugoslavia, were nationalized. Over 30,000 families who owned small private vineyards continued, however, to supply grapes to these wine making facilities. It was these people who are credited with  maintaining the high quality of local viniculture during the following decades. After the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the emergence of the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia as an independent country most if not all wineries were privatized. The royal winery in Demir Kapiya was privatized in 1994 and is now known as the Royal Winery Queen Maria. The current winery has an on-site restaurant and rents out rooms, apartments, and for high-rollers the former villa of Queen Maria Karadjordjevic.
King Alexander and Queen Maria
The Popova Kula Winery is built on lands that once belonged to the Royal Winery. Construction of the winery itself started in October of 2004 and was completed in August of 2005. Construction of the winery restaurant and hotel was not completed until 2009. The name of the winery, “Popova Kula”, means “Priest’s Tower”. Apparently during the time of the Roman Empire an important road ran through the grounds of the current winery. A large tower served as a checkpoint on the road, and this eventually became known at the Priest’s Tower. This original tower was eventually torn down, but the winery has erected a new 55-foot high tower its honor. This tower has become the easily recognizable symbol of the winery. 
Popova Kula Winery

The “Priest’s Tower” of Popova Kula
Curious about this Roman road, I went down to the lobby and questioned the receptionist, a charming woman in her thirties. She in turn questioned one the local workmen who happened to be handy, and this guy said the Roman road in question was the famous Via Egnatia dating to the time of the Roman Empire, which ran from Durrës in what is now Albania east 696 miles to Constantinople, right across the heart of the Balkan Peninsula. This was certainly intriguing. I had already visited numerous cities and towns on the old Via Egnatia, including Thessaloniki, Kavala, and Kastoria in Greece and Orhid in Macedonia but I was under the impression that the old Roman road passed through the Balkans a good bit south of Demir Kapiya. The receptionist called the local wine museum and the woman at the museum suggested I stop by for more information. So I hiked a mile into town and found the museum, a modest two-room establishment in downtown Demir Kapiya. The woman in charge informed me that the Roman road through Demir Kapiya was not the Via Egnatia itself but a side branch of the main highway. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to discover that Demir Kapiya was in fact linked to the hallowed Via Egnatia. I harbor the sneaking suspicion I have traveled this road in a previous lifetime. 
The Via Egnatia in red. The northern extension in green may be the one that passed through Demir Kapiya.
Via Egnatia near Kavala. Photo by Philipp Pilhofer
After trekking a mile back from the museum to the winery I retire to my balcony to sample the wine of the day; in this case Prokupec, a wine apparently indigenous to what is now Serbia but also grown in Macedonia. 
Prokupec

From my balcony can be seen the Iron Gate, a gap in the mountains through which the Vardar River flows. The Iron Gate marks the southern boundary of the Tikves Wine Region. It also gives its name to the town just to the north—Demir Kapiya, which in Turkish means “Iron Gate”.
View from my balcony. The Iron Gate is the gap in the mountains in the middle of the photo. The town of Demir Kapiya (Iron Gate) is in the foreground.
A view of the Iron Gate from Popova Kula vineyards
Another view from my balcony

Halfway through my first glass of Prokupec my thoughts drifted, perhaps inevitably, to the Persian Poet Rudaki (858 a.d – 941 a.d.), the favorite poet of the Samanids of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan. The Elton John of his Age, at one point Rudaki owned two hundred slaves who attended to his needs, and a hundred camels were necessary to carry his baggage when he traveled. His verses, it was said, filled a hundred volumes; he reportedly wrote 1,300,000 couplets. Almost all of his work has been lost. Unfortunately, the poet came to a bad end. He may have fell under the sway of the Ismaili Sect, considered heretical in the domains of the Samanids, and he eventually fell out of favor with the court. His lament:

Who had greatness? Who had favour, of all people in the land? 
I it was had favour, greatness, from the Saman scions' hand; 
Khurasan's own Amir, Nasr, forty thousand dirhams gave, 
And a fifth to this was added by Prince of Pure and Brave; 
From his nobles, widely scattered, came a sixty thousand more; 
Those the times when mine was fortune, fortune good in plenteous store. 
Now the times have changed--and I, too, changed and altered must succumb, 
Bring the beggar's staff here to me; time for staff and script has come!

He reportedly died in abject poverty. Perhaps in his final days he repeated one of his couplets:

Were there no wine all hearts would be a desert waste, forlorn and black, 
But were our last life-breath extinct, the sight of wine would bring it back.
Rudaki
A white wine, Zilavka, that I tried earlier. It is also indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula. I am not a big fan of white wine,  but this one was not bad at all.  It was flirtatious but not presumptuous; sassy, without being impertinent. 
Another view of the winery