A Funny thing happened on the Way to the Forum!

Tuesday 7th July

Today we entered the maelstrom of the eternal city in a period of a record breaking heatwave.

We ventured outside our safe haven hotel in suburban Marconi to the Rome underground, five stops on a very crowded train and walking out of the Colosso station to be looking straight at the Colosseum and the Constantine Arch ( in amazing condition compared with the rest of Roman ruins because of Constantine’s decision at the Milvian Bridge to see the cross of Christian faith as they way forward for the Roman Empire. Christian leaders made sure the arch was kept in good nick!)

As usual we boarded the hop on/off bus around Rome, this time in 35 degree heat and fierce Rome traffic.  Again we were reminded how amazing this city is..mixing up C21st buildings and technology with archaelogical ruins well over two millennia years old.

We spent much of our time today, after a city circuit on the red bus,   at the Capitoline Museums where a highlight was a special showing of a much discussed self -portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci under strict security and lighting. This frail parchment portrait, now quite faint, is disputed by the experts as a self-portrait because of the similarity with other portraits of famous philosophers and suggesting that Leonardo was deliberately  setting himself up as their successor. It was nevertheless  a powerful presentation.

The museums of the Capitolene Hill looking out over the forum of Roman ruins contain an amazing collection of sculptures, coins, jewellery, Renaissance paintings and ancient pottery especially early Greek pottery.  The “Hall of Triumphs” contains the Spinario – a life size sculpture of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot as well as the “Capitolene Brutus” a C5th sculpture of a very fierce gentleman. So many highlights including the famous sculpure of the “Capitoline shewolf ” suckling Romulus and Remus..mythological founders of Rome; the remarkable  life size statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and exceptional paintings including the controversial quite sensuous Caraveggio painting of a young John the Baptist as well as many other Italian Renaissance artists as well as a Rubens painting of the birth of the mythological Romulus and Remus.  The Museum itself is an archaeological dig and the presentation of this area was also a highlight. All of the ceilings of the Renaissance Palace have been restored with remarkable effect and the entire collection would be a week’s study not just the four hours we gave to it.

Constantine remembered! Who said I have a big head?
Constantine remembered! Who said I have a big head?
part of the Roman forum
part of the Roman forum
Marcus Aurelius in full flight. Not just an author of Meditations
Marcus Aurelius in full flight. Not just an author of Meditations and below Ann resting alongside of Neptune after slogging it out in high heat for 4 hours
Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf ..a famous symbol of Rome's foundation in the Capitoline Museum
Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf ..a famous symbol of Rome’s foundation in the Capitoline Museum

Neptune Capitolene Museum Rome

169 churches in Valetta Malta

Sunday 5 July  Valetta, Malta

We did not visit them all on this Sunday but we did enjoy sung Communion at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral where they happened to have 40 visiting Swedish catechumen students and their priest who gave an excellent address on discipleship. In addition we were treated to choral support from the visiting choir of Pusey College Oxford. Twenty young men and women who sang with passion and faith accompanied by their own organist who played some amazing Bach before and after the service. It was a friendly and very British affair in a historic, quite plain neo-Classical church.

An extraordinary contrast is the St John’s Catholic Co-Cathedral …an ornately Baroque masterpiece with a painted barrel ceiling, amazing tiles on the floor covering the tombs of famous Knights Hospitalers, an extraordinarily ornate sanctuary area and eight chapels equally rich in ornamentation, one for each of the “langes” or areas from which the  Hospitaler Knights came.  In addition the oratory contains the huge Caravaggio painting of the beheading of John the Baptist ( no photography permitted) and the smaller Caravaggio  painting of St Jerome writing. This is indeed one of the world’s most decorative Baroque cathedrals.

We were privileged also to participate in parts of  devotional services in the Ethiopian community church (which began at 8.00am and was still raging at 10.45am! Also the much more quietly decorated Baroque Church of St Francis and the relative modern music of the Carmelite Monastery church.

The National archaeological museum contains megalithic pottery and figurine remains dating back to 2000- 5000 BC as well as considerably more pottery remains from the Phoenician period of about 1000 BC.

The Garden area overlooking the harbour contains sculpted tributes to many heroes of Malta including Churchill amongst many others. Valetta is to be the 2016 Cultural Capital of Europe and it is easy to see why with even new buildings still being built in the style of the existing architecture which is uniformly stunning.  Valetta remains one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and certainly the city with the most consistently uniform style.

Monday 6th July:

Today was a travelling day flying Aegean Airlines to Rome over Sicily and the Italian coast.  We found the train to the city from the airport and a cab to take us to the Pullitzer Hotel on the outskirts of Rome. We are looking forward to being in one place for a week.

Ceiling of St John's Hospitallers Catholic Co-Cathedral ..paintings of Biblical themes.
Ceiling of St John’s Hospitallers Catholic Co-Cathedral ..paintings of Biblical themes.
Crusader famous knights of  St John's Hospitalers buried in the floor of the Co-Cathedral and covered with stunning ceramic tiles of the highest quality.
Crusader famous knights of St John’s Hospitalers buried in the floor of the Co-Cathedral and covered with stunning ceramic tiles of the highest quality.
The highly ornate sanctuary of St John's Co-Cathedral with gilt everywhere.
The highly ornate sanctuary of St John’s Co-Cathedral with gilt everywhere.
The much more staid decoration of St  Paul's Anglican Cathedral in Valetta in neo-classical style built with money donated by Queen Adelaide of British royalty fame in the C19th
The much more staid decoration of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Valetta in neo-classical style built with money donated by Queen Adelaide of British royalty fame in the C19th
Each morning in Valetta we awoke to this awesome view of a busy harbour overlooked by St Paul's sphere, the majestic dome of the Carmelite basilica and the St John's Catholic co-cathedral
Each morning in Valetta we awoke to this awesome view of a busy harbour overlooked by St Paul’s sphere, the majestic dome of the Carmelite basilica and the St John’s Catholic co-cathedral
A very early convertible fiat outside St Paul's Anglican Cathedral
A very early convertible fiat outside St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral

How to make a Maltese cross by speaking Australian

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.

Farewell To Greece …no fireworks and very sad to leave a country full of love, culture and friendship

Each evening we had a meal at our "local", The Collage restaurant (actually the menu was all Italian!);  We sat outside in full view of this wonderful small Greek Orthodox church ..a standard style repeated throughout Greece (on the islands with white walls and blue domes!).
Each evening we had a meal at our “local”, The Collage restaurant (actually the menu was all Italian!); We sat outside in full view of this wonderful small Greek Orthodox church ..a standard style repeated throughout Greece (on the islands with white walls and blue domes!).

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.

It’s all Greek to me…North and South in beautiful Greece

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.

28 – 29 June Adding up and adding down in Athens

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.