February 23, 2011
Our hotel hopping tour of the Peloponnese continued today as we left Nafplio and headed towards Kalamata. Before we left Nafplio we drove up to the Palamidi Castle which overlooks the town and which we hadn’t had a chance to visit properly in the afternoons because of the rain. We decided not to look around the fort itself but from the top of the hill we saw the town clearly spread out beneath us with the harbour and Bourtzi Fort at the edge.
Before we got to Kalamata we were planning to stop at the ruins at Mycenae, another ancient site and another on the UNESCO hit-list! Ancient Mycenae was the most powerful kingdom in Greece for around 400 years from 1600 to 1200 BC and had Mycenaean culture had an effect on many other places across Greece. Mycenae is also well-known due to the works of Homer, who mentions the “well-built Mycenae, rich in gold” in both the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad”, written in the 9th Century BC. Of course, these poems were thought of as poems of legend until the 19th Century when an archeologist called Schliemann struck gold at Troy and then Mycenae around 1870. According to legend, Mycenae was founded as a city by Perseus, the son of Zeus whose greatest heroic deed was the killing of Medusa. Historically, the site of Mycenae has been settled since at least the 6th Century BC but by 1200 BC the city was in decline and a giant fire at the main palace around 1100 BC caused the end of the ancient city as it was then known.
As we approached the site we could see the ruins up on the hillside and it certainly looked impressive. We started off in the small museum which had some good explanations on Mycenaean culture and history and the obligatory array of pots, bowls and jugs! The entrance to the city was marked by the Lion Gate, where two large lion statues (missing their heads) which were believed to be the insignia of the Royal House of Atreus. The ruins themselves weren’t as impressive up close as they were from afar as much of the effect was lost once you were up close. Many of the ruins were barely foundations and this meant that you couldn’t tell what you were looking at. As we worked our way up the hill though we got some good views looking back down and were able to make out some of the major areas, such as the large grave circles, the merchant’s houses and the artisan’s quarters. Like all of the ancient cities, the main buildings were set atop the acropolis (I’ve just learnt that “acropolis” means “highest city” or, literally, “city on the extremity”). Here we found the throne room, megaron (great hall) and the great court which made up part of Agamemnon’s Palace. Having complained at the reconstructions at Knossos, it is almost hypocritical of me to complain that there was little to see here but the truth is that the higher up you got, the more you were able to see and the bigger picture that was visible.
Back down near the entrance we were able to go and visit the tombs of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon and Aegisthus was her lover. When Agamemnon returned from defeating the Trojans in Troy with the Trojan princess, Cassandra, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra killed him before they were later murdered themselves by Agamemnon’s daughter and her brother. The tombs were quite interesting and although there was nothing to see inside them the shape and design of them was quite cool, particularly the domed roof which was not visible from ground level as it is hidden under the soil. Just outside the main gates was also the Treasury of Atreus, which was the tomb of Agamemnon which was another immense bee-hive shaped chamber.
As we sat in the car park outside the Treasury, we finished off the dips and leftover bread for our lunch before setting off for Kalamata. Having now seen Corinth, Epidaurus and now Mycenae in quick succession it is interesting to see how different these cities and kingdoms all were even though they were so close together. I appreciate they didn’t have cars in Ancient Greece but within 2-3 hours driving you could easily drive between all three of these places and yet their history, culture, myths and designs are all so varied. Even if some of the things at the sites themselves aren’t that noteworthy (which to me, some definitely aren’t) this alone is enough to make you wonder about how the civilizations ran and how their rulers operated with other “kingdoms” so close by.
Once in Kalamata we had some difficulty finding our hotel but only because of a huge truck blocking the tiny road we wanted to drive along and the one-way system in place near the harbour here. The roads are so narrow that a one-way system of course makes sense but is no bloody use when you are new to town! Having finally checked in and got comfortable we decided to head to the supermarket to get some lunch for the next couple of days and whilst in the supermarket we discovered the delights of the Craft Microbrewery beers! We had read about them but hadn’t seen them anywhere so we decided to each buy a box with six different beers in so we could try the whole range. We had to play around with the boxes a bit and steal some from the shelves to make a full set of six but we didn’t see it as real stealing as we were putting six beers in a box and paying for them!
Back at the hotel we decided to try some of the beers and we started with the Pilsner. It was at this point that I realised that all the bottles were 330ml and the Pilsner I had swapped for on the shelf in my box was 500ml. So here is my confession – I stole 170ml of Craft Pilsner Lager from an AB supermarket in Kalamata. Please forgive me! After the quite drinkable pilsner, we tried the Red Ale which was much nicer. For dinner we found a small, empty family-run restaurant where we were met with a menu that didn’t have half the stuff on it! We’d become accustomed to this now so this wasn’t an issue and from our options I picked the roast chicken and potatoes and Elizabeth had cod with “garlic sauce” (cold garlic mashed potatoes smothered in olive oil). I did get to try some Kalamata olives, too! I don’t think she was impressed with her food but mine was OK if a little oily. Back at the hotel we tried to find a decent film on our only English channel but it turned out to be some crap Schwarzenegger thing so we both went to bed!
February 24, 2011
Today we woke up to some heavy rain but we didn’t let that stop us getting up, getting breakfast and heading out. We had quite a long drive in the rain to Mystras but even through the grey clouds and the heavy mist and fog we had some amazing scenery as we drove through the hills. The road was very up and down and windy and there were sections of the road which went through tunnels cut into the rocks. The view along the road when these tunnels appeared was quite impressive and I hoped the rain would stop by the time we came back. The drive took around 90 minutes and the weather hadn’t cleared up. The city of Mystras dates from the Byzantine era and is spread over the hillside outside the current town of the same name. We parked at the top and weren’t sure whether we were in the right place as we couldn’t see any entrance. We could see a great big fort but nothing much else so we carried on down the hill and eventually found the main entrance. From here we could see the buildings and ruins of the city leading up the hill ahead of us. Despite the weather we persevered and went and paid the entry fee to go in.
The entry was certainly worth it as the city was great to walk around and the buildings and scenery were very dramatic. As we walked around the rain gradually died down a bit and the fog came and went at various times for me to get some pictures of the various churches and ruins and the monastery at Mystras. From the bottom of the site we worked our way up, stopping at the small museum housed inside the Ayios Dimitrios church. The church building was quite cool and the museum was very interesting despite not having much in the way of artifacts. It did tell a bit about the Byzantine culture here and how many things found here were obviously influenced from more Western civilizations, including clothing and even how women wore their hair. Further up the hill we found the churches of Evangelistria, Ayioi Theodoroi and Hodigitria. Only the latter was supposed to be open but we were able to have a look inside Evangelistria, too. The brickwork was amazing and even with the frescoes having worn away in many places it still looked spectacular. The churches from outside were even more impressive as you could see the bright red tiled dome roofs spread across the hillside leading up to the larger buildings. We headed next for the Church of the Pantanassa which is within the walls of a working convent. The convent was similar to those we had seen at Meteora although the setting was nowhere near as dramatic. The dark church had quite a depressing aura about it but I think this was as much to do with the tiny nave and lack of sunlight as it was to do with the church decoration or atmosphere. Some of the frescoes were well preserved and have existed since the 17th and 18th Centuries.
The furthest point up the mountain we reached was the palaces. We were not able to enter these as they were undergoing renovation but the outsides looked really impressive and some of the buildings were over 700 years old. We walked a little bit further up to try and reach the Church of Ayia Sophia but having already taken a wrong path earlier we were struggling to see where this church was, especially as the mist had decided to roll in once more. As we started to work our way back down to the exit the mist started to clear and we had some great views up to the palace and the convent and the site on the hills really opened up. For about five seconds the rain even stopped although that was hard to notice with the drips coming off my head! We were soaked by the time we got back to the car but we were glad we’d made the effort to actually walk around the site as it was very different to the ancient ruins we’d seen and the architecture and setting was superb.
As we drove back up the hill we got some great views over the site from the road, too, and as we reached the top we were able to see the kastro amongst the mist. We decided not to visit the castle though as we were now free of our wet coats and sweaters and were warming up nicely in the car, not to mention we knew we’d have crappy views when the fog returned!
As we drove back the rain continued so the windy drive continued to be both fun and treacherous at the same time. The nice scenery was dotted with hairpin bends with endless drops and no barriers whilst the oncoming traffic drove in a manner that can now only be described as “Greek”. This basically means they drive too fast, drive on whatever side of the road they please, overtake on blind bends, have no concern for road laws and ignore road signs and traffic lights. Pretty standard fare, really. Having driven in Greece a fair bit now I am at least getting used to it and have even started to copy some of their bad habits, much to the displeasure of my nervous passenger! Despite my new bad habits it is still bloody annoying coming round a bend to find some idiot cutting the corner, chatting on the phone or smoking a cigarette, taking no notice and heading straight for you. It’s fun, it really is!
When we got back to the hotel we had the pita breads and dips we’d bought yesterday for our late lunch before deciding to try some more of the beers. We’d bought six and had two yesterday so today we started with the Weiss Beer which was the best so far. As this one was so good we decided we’d keep going and moved onto the next one, called Smoked Lager. The name indicated something we thought we might not like and once we’d opened them I could immediately smell the smokiness. Both of us tried one mouthful before we poured the rest down the sink. I think any regular readers will know we’ve tried a lot of beer on our trip and this is the first one we have flat out refused to drink. THAT is how bad it was. It tasted like charcoal/barbeque and the aroma certainly didn’t help. The Craft website calls it says it is made from specially smoked malts, has a unique flavour and is highly drinkable. The first two are certainly correct and the latter is certainly a load of rubbish! To take the flavour away we moved on to the basic Athens Lager which thankfully was drinkable and much more appealing!
In the evening we were running out of ideas for dinner. The thought of Greek food has not lost its appeal but the fact that every time you look at a menu and half the stuff is not available is getting a bit tiring! We decided to go for pizza and the first place we looked in was offering an all you can eat special for just €5 each so we decided that was too good to miss! We decided to order a meat feast type thing first with peppers and mushrooms (we asked for without but Elizabeth picked them off!) and were expecting one to share so we could order a different one afterwards. However, we got two LARGE pizzas with loads of ham, bacon and Greek sausage toppings and we didn’t even finish the one each we got. How big are the Greek’s appetites to eat their way through this bugger and then order more? Maybe the special offer of “all you can eat” was only available to tourists knowing they aren’t gluttonous pigs!