Thursday, May 17, 2007

Suspended In The Air

It's good to be back in Europe. The more I travel the smaller the differences between European countries and the greater the similarities become, especially the little things that I've missed in the wilds of Asia. It's not that the public transport is better or more punctual, it's that people allow others room to get off before getting on themselves (anyone who's been on a train in India will know what I'm talking about); it's not that food in shops is of a better quality (it often isn't), it's that you don't need to ask the price of every single item and be suspicious of being overcharged; and it's not even that the toilets are cleaner (personally I don't really care), it's that even the public toilets have paper; but best of all no matter what you are buying, no matter how small, every shop has change and there's no need to go running round the neighbours to break down a 10 euro note. Though perhaps things are a bit too clean and sanitised here as I've just discovered that I suffer from hay fever, something that didn't afflict me in the grubbier parts of Asia.

British mythology is rather anaemic compared to its continental cousins, which is probably why, as children, we are reared on ancient Greek legends instead. For us they're just rather colourful stories and little else, but travelling through Greece makes them more real. Just driving along, every corner of the country seems to have mythic connections - there's the spring in which Achilles was dipped as a baby; there's the crossroads where Oedipus killed his father; and this is the temple of the Delphic Oracle. For the ancient Greeks there was nowhere as important as Delphi, for then it was, quite literally, the centre of the world, and there was even a special stone to mark the exact spot (Delphi joins the select club of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, Cusco in Peru, and Jerusalem, each of which was considered to be the exact centre of the universe by the local people). The Oracle was the most most important figure in the Greek world, handing out ambiguous predictions and always consulted during the most important political disputes. Sadly little remains of the glorious temple of Apollo and its vast wealth, but the site still retains a certain mystique as it hugs an only-mildly-steep slope below the towering cliffs of Mount Parnassos, and from its lofty position commands a breathtaking view all the way down to the Gulf of Corinth. The sparsely populated mountainside is also an ideal place to camp out (a combination of rising accommodation prices and dwindling funds are making this my first choice option) despite there not being enough level ground to set up a tent. The pleasant climate, great views and clear, starry skies made a simple mat ample for my needs, although the cheeky owl in the tree above me needed to be taught some manners for waking me up in the middle of the night with his impertinent hooting (or perhaps he was sent by Athena to scold my cheapskate behaviour).

From Delphi I managed to hitch north to the gravity-defying monasteries of Meteora, immortalised in pop culture by the James Bond caper For Your Eyes Only. The name means "suspended in the air", and although the epithet could be used for much of Greece (which I am informed is 75% mountains) it is particularly fitting here. Over a small area, and seemingly out of nowhere, massive sandstone pillars reach skywards. Already 1000 years ago the spot was popular amongst anchorites trying to get away from it all and over time monastic communities were set up. During Ottoman rule they were a bastion of Greek Orthodox culture and today, due to the combined attractions of the natural scenery and immaculately preserved churches (with undoubtedly the best Orthodox frescoes I have yet seen), they are one of the country's biggest tourist draws. Unfortunately that is the one drawback of the place as the asphalt roads that now connect all the monasteries allow busloads of tourists to be disgorged beside modern, wide stairways that lead to the summits. The erstwhile magic of their isolation has been heavily tarnished. Still, it is possible to get away from the masses and get lost (literally) amongst the alleyways between these natural skyscrapers and forget about the modern world for a few hours just like the tortoises that crash through the undergrowth oblivious to everything else, safe in the knowledge that they are protected by their shells.

On a rather unrelated note (and being too lazy to try to seamlessly bridge two disparate topics) I noticed something in one of the monasteries that made me laugh and cringe in equal measure. In a small history and folklore museum there was a display conflating the glory and achievements of the ancient Greeks (which are undeniably many) with the Greek Orthodox church and Byzantine empire. Among the many claims made are that the Byzantine Orthodox empire [sic] is the spiritual, moral and mystagogical inheritor of ancient Hellenism and that it provided the "moral principles and values of the universe". Dramatic hyperbole aside it is important to note that there are civilisations more ancient than the Greek that gave the world such things as writing and codified laws, but more importantly that it was the Byzantine church that destroyed and desecrated the heritage of the ancient Greeks (most probably being responsible for the destruction of the library of Alexandria), and any writings that survived were handed down to us via the Arabs. Similarly the Ottoman Turks were described as bloodthirsty, torturing atheists. Now personally I find nothing wrong with pride in one's country and heritage, but such misrepresentations only breed ignorance and bigotry. I'm very curious to see how much these views are shared by the average Zorba on the street.


1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

Lucky you, travelling through Greece. I have only been in the Athens/Piraeus area and a bus day trip to Delphi, which I thought was wonderful. Do you buy any souvenirs while you are travelling? And if so, how do you carry them .... backpacks aren't very big.