Saturday July 4
We flew Aegean Airways from Athens to Malta airport and transferred to Valetta at the Hotel Osborne with the most amazing view over the city and ocean which I can’t show you because the Ozonemalta hotspot I bought for 24 hrs wifi doesn’t rate @bigpond.com so I can’t get my pictures from my phone. We look out at the vast dome of a mighty Renaissance Basilica rebuilt after war-time bombing and also St Paul’s Anglican Church with its high steeple and the massive St John’s Catholic church with its Caravaggio painting all lit up at night. Malta also has an evangelical Uniting church and 12 other churches in a quite small city. The remnants of Crusader architecture are everywhere because this was their last stand having been pushed out of Jerusalem, Palestine, Acre, Rhodes and finally ending up here.
The Maltese love saints days and celebrate with fireworks …all night intermittently from about 7.00pm until 11.30pm! They are not “lights” fireworks apart from one flash but they give out an alrighty bang fit to wake the dead and it echoes around the old fortress town. When they fire them together it feels like a wartime mortar attack! The streets are narrow, quaint and filled with interesting shops. The culture is a curious mixture of British and Maltese e.g. they drive on the left in right hand drive Skodas! There is much prehistoric history here as well and many quieter villages like Medina. We regret we did not allow more than three days to wander the streets and villages. Today (Sunday 5th) we are off to sung communion! at St Paul’s Anglican …part of the Co-Diocese of Gibraltar and Malta! Now there’s a gig for a bishop! I will keep you posted on the sermon.
Friday 3rd July
Today we had a “chill” day sussing out the Athens underground to the airport which is currently free owing to the financial crisis..Athens is providing workers free transport because they are unable to take out more than 40 euros each day. We took the wrong bus to Piraeus, eventually jumped out after good advice from locals and found an underground railway station and returned to base; found the right line for Piraeus and got there and realised it was not a good move for a relaxed day…it is a busy port city with five major island ferries and shops filled with chandlery and lots of industrial workers.
We came back to our favourite area, had a long lunch and Ann endangered our luggage weight shopping for amazingly good value quality shoes. The whole Syntagma Square was building up for the huge rally with the Prime Minister and we watched from our balcony as many thousands came into the city to hear him speak for the ‘no’ vote with national anthem, a choir and other items, and thousands of others to another venue for a ‘yes ‘ vote rally. The after “party” went on till 4.00am in the morning but it was a happy and good humoured scene.
BBC News has been full here also with the tragic news of the death of the Adelaide Crows coach. We have been stunned by this news and a thinking of his family. It is the only time we have seen Australia on any international news so far!
We will be sorry to farewell Greece ..its people are warm and friendly and care deeply for friendship; their culture and sense of history is everywhere and a spirit of ancient thought and intellectual conversation is highly valued. There is much of deep value here and I hoped it can be saved and enabled to flourish.
Tuesday 30 June, Wednesday 1 July, Thursday 2 July: It’s all Greek to me.
We have travelled the length and breadth of this very beautiful country by bus and enjoyed its mountains, plains, vast coastline and fruitful crop production. Pistachio nuts, sunflowers, olives and cotton grow in abundance here and Greece has more cotton per total acreage than any nation other than China, India and the US. We were also amazed by its mountainous terrain. Again per total land mass Greece is Europe’s third most mountainous country behind only Norway and Albania and ahead of Switzerland. Greece has a vast ski network in Winter
Highlights of our journey included the amazing Corinth canal cut through the isthmus early in the twentieth century by Hungarian engineers and saving shipping companies vast amounts of time and treacherous coastline shipping. From Corinth we journeyed south to the ancient Bronze Age Myceneaen civilisation remnants including the so-called Tomb of Agamemnon and the Lion’s Gate palace. These remains were excavated with the help of wealthy German entrepreneur Schliemann with the support of the Greek Government. They show a quite sophisticated culture dating back to 1500BC and earlier. Even when excavated many of the tombs found had been already looted centuries earlier but the museums have still collected many beautiful and sophisticated pottery pieces
We travelled further south to the extraordinary theatre of Epidauros which holds up to 10000 at a pinch and still hosts concerts today although the seating is legitimately rock hard. The acoustic quality is world renowned and the setting in a mountainous “bowl” of significant beauty was memorable. We travelled back to Athens following the eastern coastline with many attractive beach resorts.
Travelling north on Wednesday we consulted the Oracle at Delphi amongst the mysterious and gorgeous mountains of Parnassus, home of the Muses. Only the columns of the ruined temple of Apollo, and a small temple of Diana remain dating from the C7th remain along with another smaller theatre but yet again the setting was evocative and stilled the mind. Ancient Greek scientists, philosophers, dramatists, engineers and medical researchers were not content with just living and have left us a rich resource of literature and scientific and philosophical thought. We have dived in deeply and richly, If briefly, into the stories of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripedes and Aristophanes and our guides were very proud of their ancient lineage. Another insight was the site of the battle of Thermopylae where Leonides, King of Sparta with 300 men held off a massive Persian army in the third century BC long enough to enable the Greek army to escape and regroup and eventually defeat the Persians. We overnighted at Kalambaka at the base of the mighty sandstone rock formations of Metiora in Central Greece.
On Thursday we visited two of the Greek Orthodox monastic settlements built miraculously it seems out of these massive 70 million years of rocks to escape the rule of the Ottoman empire over Greece. Until the 1990s access was only by rope basket but today there is excellent access by road although there were still 154 large steps to the top of the Vaad Lam monastery. Ann’s leg injury was given a real work out here but she made it to the top. We were moved by the iconic chapel, tiny bridges over 2000 foot drops and jaw dropping scenery. The theological discussion was rich and in my limited experience the painting covering every inch of internal space was more Biblical than their Russian Orthodox counterparts with a surprising Old Testament emphasis especially on Noah and Adam and Eve. The playing down of the role of Mary was noticeable contrasting with the intensity of the Mariology evident in Catholic Spain but again as in Russia the closed wall of the iconostasis or covered screen separating priest from people except during communion I find a curious rejection of the torn veil of the Temple.
We visited a second beautifully rebuilt monastery of St Stephen, now a nunnery which was bombed in 1942 by occupying German forces because its Bishop had assisted the allies. The beautiful monastery has an excellent museum which contained many valuable uncial manuscripts of portions of the New Testament including a C6th papyrus mss and a C14th large collection of Aristotle’s works. Althogether there are six operating monasteries in Metiora
It was peaceful and spiritually uplifting to be “up in the clouds” at Metiora away from the incessant chatter and rallies in Athens leading up to this weekend’s referendum. Long queues form at every ATM and there is deep division in the community. The weather has been delightfully pleasant with even some rain in contrast with the heatwave being experienced in Spain.
On Sunday 28 June we farewelled our fledgling visit to Turkey and flew Aegean Airlines to Athens, the ancient heartland of Greece, city of 4 million (one third of Greece’s population..a population made up of 97% of Greek Orthodox) as Turkey is almost totally Islamic following the tragic follow up to WW2 (Read Bernieres: Birds Without Wings). Amazingly (thank you Hello World’s Moranda!) our Plaka Hotel is situated in the lee of the Acropolis and from our bedroom window we were humbled to be staring straight at the Parthenon perched on its still mighty hill and looking out over all 4 million of its Athens’ inhabitants. The site is lit up all night and is a majestic presentation.
We spent the afternoon wandering in the Plaka flea markets this time with no haggling ( a relief) but having to negotiate with evermore creative refugee African salesmen of selfie sticks (unhelpful)/umbrellas (helpful in the unseasonably showery weather)/handbags (uncertain origin)/whistling toys ( a la Bernieres again)/wierd balloons and silk scarves. It was wonderful to have a chill out day and our hotel also boasted a rooftop evening bar with even better views of the acropolis. All through the day we were serenaded with bells on the hour/half hour and some angelus bells from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral a block away. The building was unfortunately totally wrapped in foil and scaffolding inside and out so it was hard to get a feel for it.
Of course everyone in business was preoccupied with the uncertainty of the upcoming referendum regarding the European Union bail out debt and opinions were predictably divided with those that were coping much more positive than the graffiti artists and students at the Technical University. Police were vigilant outside the Prime Minister’s House, the Parliament and on the street. Demonstrations built towards each evening but the issues are very unclear. We were interviewed by Athens radio today (29 june) by journalists wanting to know whether our tourism decisions had been negatively affected which (so far) they haven’t. It was very sad to see so many closed shops in the suburbs on the way to Athens from the airport and today (29 June) all banks were closed and there were long ATM queues frequently with limited or no withdrawals permitted. On the street there was little impact and if anything the tragedy in Tunisia overshadowed everyone’s sense of what really matters.
Monday 29 June: Today we ventured on to the on/of double decker sight seeing bus for a 60 minute tour of the whole city and it is certainly a mixture. Many C19th neo-classical buildings of beautiful style including the university, library, government offices and embassy houses; many fine boulevards and normal chic shops; a small number of ancient ruins/Hadrian’s Arch/Temple of Zeus columns etc; a massive amount of graffiti especially in the student and arty areas. Civilised driving and little tension. We spent most of the day at the amazing new Acropolis Museum …a C21st presentation of the highest order delved deeply into Pericles’ dream of democracy which flourished and then struggled under Alexander and was finally destroyed by the Romans (bless their souls!)
From their we climbed the Acropolis hill under thankfully dark and occasionally wet skies and were awed by the sheer size and wonder of this area not far from the agora where Paul argued with the Athenians about the possiblility of the resurrection. It was curious to think through these things whilst the nation itself was again in danger of internal collapse from new superpowers.
On Friday 26th we arrived at 8.00am and had immediate access to our hotel (The Olympiat ) having paid for the extra night before; It was located in the tourist area very close to the Topkapi Palace/Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque). We slept till early afternoon then ventured out to wander the very narrow and busy streets around the Topkapi Palace. The shops here are largely tourist traps with jewellery, turkish delight, porcelain and restaurants predominant. The weather was pleasant..about 21 degrees and the vendors friendly if a little insistent! Our feeble attempts at haggling resulted in a draw (no sale/no buy!)
We found a “regular” pad near our hotel to eat (The Adorna Restaurant Winehouse) run with enthusiastic precision by maitre de Cem who provided before and afters on the house even when not asked for. We loved the fresh fruit, simple salads and sensational fish and meat dishes. The coffee…latte mainly milk; Turkish coffee mainly grounds in the bottom of the cup somewhat bitter but an acquired taste. I missed it when we left.
The overpowering microphone magnified muezzin calling us to prayer five times a day was a sound I will never forget…drowning out the trams and urban buzz. We were there in Ramadan and at 3.30am in the morning being close to the Blue Mosque and the city still it was an eerie and spiritually powerful sound which could not be slept through.
Saturday 27th June was a day I have anticipated for many years. The fifth century Hagia Sophia, 800 years a cathedral (the fourth largest dome after St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and the Florence Duomo), 500 years a mosque and for the last 80 years after the secularisation of Turkey by Ataturk a Museum. We had a tour for the day so avoided the queues and it was an emotional experience to walk through the vast doors and be immediately imposed upon by the vast breadth and height magnified by very low (now electric) chandeliers. It was emotional for both of us..I think Ann was fully aware how much this particular visit meant to me. For Christians the eye is immediately drawn to a now uncovered fresco of the Virgin Mary and child high up on one of the smaller dome ceilings …beautiful colours still, a quiet and reflective and very peaceful work.
Thoughts tumble …the clash of cultures..six massive Islamic circular plates attached awkwardly high on protruding columns all around the Basilica proclaim different names of Allah in massive letters; everywhere there are crowds with their inevitable chatter/photos/laughing/excitement but also much genuine interest and cameras at six paces; also everywhere scaffolding …high, ugly and intruding but reminding us that each generation must work to keep these ancient and epic monuments alive and in good order.
There is a mid-range gallery around the whole interior easily accessible by a mysterious graded passageway with burial sites in the walls and providing an excellent overview and a close up view of the now exposed Christian frescoes. Less than 20% have been exposed..the rest will gradually be done…perhaps! I confess to significant historical anger that it was Crusader knights on the way to the Holy Land who were the first to sack Constantinople and who weakened the city and effectively laid it open to attack from successive Islamic military assaults. Perhaps its fall to Islam was inevitable but the jealousy and massive division between the Greek and Roman churches and the eventual split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism has weakened and diluted Christian theology and life. We have lost too much of the mystery, the simple sense of awe and closeness to God and the emotional power of deep unity and there is danger in our hair splitting overly propositional letter based Western theology. I will never forget these moments and for me the Hagia Sophia ranks with Gothic Chartres, Cologne, Durham, St Patricks in New York and Baroque St Paul’s in London, Orthodox St Isaac’s in St Petersburg and the Sagrada in Barcelona as the iconic structures of Christian worship.
The rest of our Saturday was taken up with the Blue Mosque, still very much a functioning worshipping mosque, the underground water cistern with its vast collection of Corinthinan, Ionic and Doric columns which formerly watered the city, an informative if high pressure presentation of Turkish rug making and jewellery, the Hippodrome with its amazing collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman obelisks and columns and of course the famous Souk, the Grand Bazaar with its ultimate high pressure sales pitch where leather jackets were reduced from 4200 Euro to 1000 Euro. (Still no sale/no buy!); The Topkapi Museum was a vast collection of palaces and courtyards with beautiful gardens, amazing heavily guarded jewellery including arguably the world’s largest cut diamond and sensational fews over the city and the Sea of Marmara. We flew out on Sunday morning rather sad to say goodbye to Turkey’s friendly, busy, happy people.