Saturday, September 21, 2013

Greece - Napflion. Actium,Meteora, Thermopolae and Platea

Napflion once more, my favourite Greek town, for a couple of days swimming in the sea, good food and wanders around the old town before heading north for a round trip up the west coast to Nicopolis, across to Meteora and down the east coast via Thermopolae and Platea. Going back to Greece, as I do often, is to rediscover history and enjpy the good life. It really is my Arcadia. If you've never been to Napflion,it's an old town that sits on a peninsula below a huge Venetian fortress looking out across the bay of Argos to this small fort defending the harbour. It's within hitting distance of Athens, Mycenae, Tiryns, Troezen, Olympia and dozens of other famous archaeological sites.
But it's a real Greek town with a lively culture of its own and agreat for a stroll or two in the evening. A shadow puppet show in the main square kept the kids, and me, amused and I think this was an art practiced by the gypsies, before begging became their main occupation. Despite the economic crisis, and in Greece the word 'crisis' is no exaggeration, they still hold regular public events.
The main square here, in the old town, is what every town centre should be, a meeting place ringed with cafes and children playing in the centre. This has become a special place for us, as we’ve come here many times over the years.The crods that used to throng here have gone, as on the whole the Germans don't come and the Athenians have found themselves short of cash. To be honest, I rather like this, as it reminds me of the Greece I knew 35 years ago.
Plenty of good food to be had in Napflion! Traditional taverna fare is as good as you'll get anywhere but there's also more cosmopolitan Italian restaurants and fish restaurants along the seafront. For me it's Greek Salad, Tzesiki, Beans Giagantes and Veal Stefado all the way. A carafe of quaffable red wine is 3-5 euros. It's Speptember, therefore a litle off-season so hotel rooms are cheap - 50-60 euros.

North then west to Patras, along a road that can only be described as a the wacky races through 100 kilometers of roadworks. I’ve never seen so many EU signs, with sums from 600k to 110m. Everywhere, there’s a new motorway, road, bridge, museum, monastery or building being restored, at great expense.
Astoundingly, we cross the magnificent Patras bridge without spotting a single other car. Why? It’s 13.20 euros one way and there’s competing ferries running below. But that’s nothing compared to the huge motorway going from Igoumenitsa heading east straight through several mountain ranges. It’s a series of tunnels and bridges across valleys and through mountains, with only a trickle of traffic. This cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of euros. Subsequent EU audits have shown that many of these roads are hopelessly over-engineered, motorways where simple expressways would have sufficed. Vastly overestimated traffic numbers.
Then there’s the new roads that just stop, the half-finished restorations – a million monuments to folly. We hear a lot about the Greek crisis but precious little about its causes, even when they are there to be seen. This trip has given me a solid dose of euro-scepticism.
Stopped here for a spell on the beach on the west side of te town,then tzsesiki and calamaris lunch overlooking the tiny harbour. This is where Cervantes lost the use of his left arm, in the Battle of Lepanto, famously claiming after the success of Don Quixote, that he "had lost the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right". He also spent five years in slavery after being captured by Algerian Corsairs.
Those were the days when novelists lived a life and didn’t do creative writing courses, Booker Prizes and Book Festivals. Is there anyone in contemporary literature doing anything near the scope of Don Quixote? It’s still a warlike town with a fortress looming over the square and a tight, little, fortified harbour. The Spanish have paid for a statue of Cervantes, looking every bit the faux, gay cavalier and not at all the hero of Lepanto.
On to Mesologi , another literary giant died here – Byron – who has a statue just inside the fortified walls, beneath which lies his heart, the rest having been shipped off, against his wishes, back to Newstead, his family pile in England. Another example of a writer who actually did something heroic, rather than just wield a pen. No poetry readings and Book festivals for this lad. Why are our modern writers such a pasty lot of wasters, paddling about in their own, little, comfortable ponds?
Beside his statue is a mound, where the defenders are buried. It was completely empty when we visited but it was heartening to see that so many people from all over Europe rallied to the cause, which was really French Revolutionary fervour.
A stunning site, high up on the side of the mountains, the Greek city that is mentioned in Homer, as having sent ships to Troy. The walls form almost a complete circuit with 36 towers and 7 gates. There’s a small theatre at the west end with a huge view out to the Ionian Sea. Not a soul here.
Augustus sends Mark Anthony and Cleopatra packing and starts the age of Emperors. One of the most famous sea battles of all time. We found a room for 35 euros a night, up on the cliffs overlooking the site of the battle and watched the sunset over the spot where Augustus & Agrippa fought Anthony & Cleopatra. The battle was fought in this very month (September) two and a half thousand years ago.
Augustus was so pleased with himself that he built a city here to celebrate his victory in 31 BC and populated it with locals from miles around. It was a typical Imperial gesture, as the site had no water an aqueduct, which we spotted miles north, had to be constructed to water the city. The guidebook I have suggest that it was a foolish gesture but when you see the site, with its two harbours, one on the Ionian Sea to the west, the other on the Amyenkikos Gulf to the east, you can see that his vision and achievement of uniting the west and eastern Roman Empires makes sense. Many Emperors were to come through this city in the coming centuries, including
Inhabited for 600 years it was repeatedly attached by those northern lads, the Goths, Vandals and Bulgars. You can see hurried fortifications with this pile of column drums. It is a true Roman city in that it lasted through into Byzantine times, still Roman, despite the Gibbon propaganda. Indeed, the Byzantine walls are still huge.
Augustus’s Camp
Difficult place to find as it’s not signposted but as you wind your way up through a small village you come to the enclosed and locked site. You often find this in Greece and I always just jump the fence. Boy, what a site. High above the sea, it affords a perfect vantage point for the battle. You can sit here on the very spot that Augustus sat to see Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s fleets trapped by the Augustan ships, hen Cleopatra fleeing south, followed by a defeated leaving Anthony. Augustus, at that point was master of the Roman Empire and hounded Anthony and Cleopatra to their eventual suicides and the murder of their children
This inscription has been found or at least many fragments, which are lined up.
Behind the fragments of this inscription, there is a stone wall with large blocks and slots for ships’ rams. There were 33-35 of these captured rams – spoils of war. Can you get any closer to a 2000 year old sea battle than this?
A walk through the pines takes you to what must be the finest position for a city in the whole of Greece. We had the place to ourselves and what a place. Set on a ledge in an amphitheatre of rock it overlooks the Ionian Sea. But it's a Hippodamian plan, namely a grid system. There'e an ampithatre shaped public meeting place overlooking the agora - how Greek is that, and you can walk through the streets or up to the thetare just as they did in the 4th C BC.
The agora is flaked on the other two sides by stoa  The views are beyond belief. The guidebooks suggest that the main building with its superb masonry, was a hostel for visiting dignitaries. I prefer the other archaeological view that it was a shopping mall, on the ground that it’s right next to the agora, and no building of such size would have had such a limited purpose on such a tight site. The theatre, high on the hill, must have been a wonderful experience, as it looks out to sea.
You have to climb high into the mountains to reach the site but it's one of the most rewarding trips you'll ever make. Set among the pine trees, the smell of resin wafts through the city. Perfect place to stop for some coffee.
Behind the city on a cliff you see a rather odd monument to the women who danced off the cliff with their children when cornered by the Ottomans. This was in the early 19th C. The east-west struggle continues.
Lovely beach, where we stopped for a calamaris and sardine lunch and a swim.
My mate Pete tells me that modern scholarship casts doubt on the ‘underworld’ idea, preferring to see it as a fortified farmhouse.
It’s been 35 years since we were here and it’s even more spectacular that either of us remember. This time we weren’t camping but had a room in Kastasis with a view towards the pinnacles. From cave hermits to monasteries in the sky, these retreats chime with the idea of a monastic tradition that values isolation from worldly affairs. Once you’ve climbed and climbed you feel the contemplative effect of being so high and remote from the world below. Unfortunately, the busloads of visitors to the main monasteries spoil the effect somewhat but these are still working monastic communities, that return to worship when the crowds have gone and the doors locked.
What can I say. Leonidis and the 300, defend the pass to the last man (well the last two) and hold up the Persian army long enough to save Greece at the subsequent Battle of Platea. It’s quite moving, the hill where the defenders are buried is still there and a handsome statue of Leonidis stands, spear in hand. When Xerces asked him to lay down his arms, he replied, ‘come and get them’!
Having visited the great Mycenaen cities of Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos, this is something completely different, a huge 3Km walled enclosure that once stood on an island. Not mentioned by Homer, it’s a bit of an ancient mystery. Modern theories seem to suggest a defensive enclosure in times of threat.
Nothing much of historical interest to be seen in Thebes, as the modern town is built upon the ancient city.
Gil's done a hell of alot of driving over the last few days and has had enough of city walls. A few kilometres off the main road and just below the modern village lies the ancient Greek Town of Platea and just below that the site of one of the most significant battles in history. The defeat of the Persians in 480 BC. You can look down on the plain where the Persians were camped and stand where the Greeks stood before their victory.
The Plateans (1000) had come to the aid of the Athenians (9000) at another great rout of the Persians (25000)under Xerces, in 490 BC at Marathon, the news delivered by a runner who promptly dropped dead. The Plateans didn’t fare so well in the Peloponnese War, stuck between the nearby Thebans and the never ending enmity between Sparta and Athens.
The walls are still there with a few towers and against one of these towers lay some wreaths, celebrating the victory. It’s a remote place and we were the only one’s there, making it even more evocative.
The road goes through the pass defended by the Eleutherai Fort, whose walls still stand. The road is rammed with trucks avoiding the expensively built toll roads out of Athens.

Last two days in Napflion were spent swimming in the glass clear waters. tinged with some worrying doubts about the future of Greece. The evidence for massive overspending by the EU is everywhere and clearly did not result in a sustainable economy, but something more sinister is happening. Golden Dawn, or at least a member, stabbed to death a left-leaning musician in Athens today, and the public sector is largely on strike. It’s hard to form a clear opinion on the public sector thing, as it was so massively corrupt but fascism is another matter.
Note this graffiti on a building on the main road into Napflion. We shouldn’t imagine that fascism was very far from the surface in Greece – its military juntas, aided by the CIA,