A glo­ri­ous past

Greece – the birth­place of the Olympics – is rich in her­itage, cul­ture, myths and leg­ends.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Story and pho­tos by VICKY OOI star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my

IN GREECE, there’s a story to be told ev­ery five me­tres! Or so says Alexan­dra Econo­mi­dou, a tourist guide. Af­ter merely a day in the com­pany of lo­cals and see­ing how the coun­try is chock-full of an­tiq­ui­ties and sites of his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance at nearly ev­ery turn, I’m a com­plete be­liever.

The world at large as­so­ciates Greece with the birth­place of the Olympics, gor­geous mar­ble, and the idyl­lic is­lands of Paros, Crete, Corfu and San­torini, and of course Zeus and the pan­theon of gods and god­desses. And thanks to Hol­ly­wood films, we get a tiny glimpse into the coun­try’s cul­ture (check out their loud and su­per­sized wed­dings as rep­re­sented by My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding) and his­tory (wit­ness the famed courage of the Spar­tans as fleshed out in 300).

How­ever, those movies have noth­ing on the sto­ries just about any Greek on the street can tell you if you ask. This I found out on a seven-day fa­mil­iari­sa­tion trip in Greece or­gan­ised by In­sight Va­ca­tions for selected Asian travel agents and me­dia.

Greeks live and breathe sto­ries that are a com­pelling mix­ture of his­tor­i­cal fact and mythol­ogy. These sto­ries are passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, around fam­ily din­ners, at the fire­side, as bed­time tales.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the Trea­sury of Atreus – a tho­los tomb, with a dome shaped like a bee­hive, from 13th century BC. Atreus was a Myce­naean ruler whose wife was se­duced by his brother so, for re­venge, he chopped up his brother’s chil­dren, cooked them and served them up to his un­sus­pect­ing brother at din­ner­time.

Like all an­cient build­ings in Greece, the tomb is an ar­chi­tec­tural marvel in its own right, with a 120-tonne mega­lith set 8m high over the en­trance. Myth has it that a Cy­clops (a race of one-eyed gi­ants) lifted it into place.

The leg­end of Cy­clops also fea­tures in the story of Agamem­non, who is most known for his role in the Tro­jan War, and his cas­tle in the Myce­naean acrop­o­lis (lit­er­ally trans­lated as “high city”). They are said to have built the 6m-thick fort walls at the cas­tle made with 20-tonne boul­ders.

Our guide in Myce­nae, Patti Staikou told us how the city was founded by Perseus, the son of Zeus. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve they have to-date only un­veiled 10% of this an­cient city near the port town of Naf­plio, which is about two hours’ drive from Athens.

While the Tem­ple of Askle­pios – where the Fa­ther of Medicine Hip­pocrates was a priest and ad­min­is­tered to the ill, and treated ail­ments – is real, as ev­i­denced by the dis­cov­ery of the old­est sur­gi­cal in­stru­ments dat­ing back to around 4th century BC, the “med­i­cal” mir­a­cles at­trib­uted to the sanc­tu­ary here are the stuff of leg­ends. One was about the oint­ment that helped a com­pletely bald man re­gain a full head of hair. An­other was of a woman who had been preg­nant for five years and fi­nally de­liv­ered a young child when she came to the sanc­tu­ary in the tem­ple.

Ac­cord­ing to Staikou, there are about 10,000 poly­the­ists who still gather at tem­ple ru­ins to­day for var­i­ous wor­ship rites.

In­nu­mer­able in­ter­est­ing sto­ries are also found at the many an­cient the­atres and sta­dia – feats of con­struc­tion and sport­ing achieve­ments.

We vis­ited a fine theatre in a town called Ep­i­dau­rus – not to be con­fused with epidu­ral, quipped our tour di­rec­tor Sab­rina Tsi­moni­dis – which is the old­est and most well-pre­served among more than 130 such the­atres in the coun­try.

Per­for­mances were held at the Ep­i­dau­rus theatre (which means semi-cir­cle) to en­ter­tain the pil­grims who vis­ited the Askle­pios sanc­tu­ary.

Two of Greece’s most well-known sta­di­ums are re­lated to the Olympic Games. Al­though the sta­dium where the first mod­ern Games held in 1896 is in Athens, the orig­i­nal site where it all started is in Olympia.

The tree-lined walk­way to the sta­dium in Olympia, which is es­sen­tially an open field sur­rounded by grassy knolls, is re­ally pretty. Pass­ing through the en­trance arch­way and fi­nally stand­ing on the field, I could al­most imag­ine the roar of the crowd and the emo­tions felt by the an­cient ath­letes!

Our guide on this part of the tour, Niki Vlachou ex­plained that the Olympics was in fact a re­li­gious fes­ti­val. The most im­por­tant fea­tures on the sprawl­ing grounds were the two tem­ples – one ded­i­cated to Zeus and the

other to Hera.

“The fes­ti­val was held in July, and the ath­letes or par­tic­i­pants were free Greek men. It was or­gan­ised dur­ing a time of on­go­ing civil wars to teach the people about peace, so a truce was im­posed one month be­fore the Games.

“The best of the best were selected and spon­sored by their cities, and the ath­letes had to step on bull’s tes­ti­cles and take an oath that they were 100% Greek and that they would not cheat,” she said.

The ath­letes, she added, would have trained for a year be­fore ar­riv­ing in Olympia, and they would train an­other month at the sta­dium. At all times, em­pha­sis was placed on at­tain­ing bal­ance be­tween body and mind, thus be­sides work­ing out in the gym­na­sium (yes, that’s a Greek word), the ath­letes at­tended classes on mu­sic, math­e­mat­ics, phi­los­o­phy and even astron­omy.

There was even a “five-star” ho­tel for the VIPs who came to the Games. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­lieve it was a two-storey build­ing that had 145 rooms with en suite baths and a swim­ming pool within its premises.

Based on records un­earthed of the Games in 776BC, there were 13 events held over five days. There were char­iot races and horse-rid­ing but the most glam­orous event and the fo­cus of the Games was the 200m race. And yes, they ran in the nude.

The Olympiad, said Vlachou, re­ceived a statue in his like­ness, an olive wreath and free food for life!

It was be­lieved that by around 500BC, there were about 200 cities par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Games which drew at least 45,000 spec­ta­tors.

What about women, some of you may ask. There was a sep­a­rate Games for them – just the sprint events – and only vir­gins par­tic­i­pated.

How­ever, all these came to an end in 393AD when the an­cient Games was stopped by the Chris­tian em­peror Theo­do­sius, who deemed it idol­a­try, said Vlachou.

Per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing story of Greece is about the mys­ti­cal Or­a­cle of Del­phi.

The or­a­cle was a woman who acted as the in­ter­me­di­ary for the spirit of Apollo, who is an­other son of Zeus and wor­shipped as the god of logic, rea­son and bal­ance.

People came from all over an­cient Greece to con­sult the or­a­cle – from mun­dane things like when to start plant­ing the next crop to life-chang­ing de­ci­sions – and the prophe­cies or an­swers would be in­ter­preted by prophets.

Del­phi was a holy site for 1,200 years, from 8th century BC. The sanc­tu­ary com­plex con­sisted of a gym­na­sium, tem­ple, al­tar and ap­prox­i­mately 3,000 stat­ues. When the site was dis­cov­ered in 1892, a whole com­mu­nity had to be re­lo­cated a kilo­me­tre away.

Orig­i­nally, the in­ter­me­di­ary was one woman who held au­di­ence once a year. But as the or­a­cle’s rep­u­ta­tion grew and the busi­ness side of it be­came just as im­por­tant, the num­ber of in­ter­me­di­aries in­creased to three or four and they held au­di­ence for a month ev­ery year.

Ac­cord­ing to one tale, a young man was in­formed by the or­a­cle that he would mur­der his fa­ther and marry his mother. To pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing, he ran away from home. Later, he killed the King of Thebes and mar­ried the queen, only to dis­cover that she was his mother.

“That is a story to il­lus­trate the philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion of whether people can change their fate,” said Penny Kolomvot­sou, our fourth and fi­nal guide on the tour.

“In this case, all the young man needed to do was talk to his par­ents and he would have found out that he was adopted,” she said point­edly.

These sto­ries are a link be­tween the Greeks and their na­tion’s glo­ri­ous past, and wo­ven into the fab­ric of their so­ci­ety to­day. Hav­ing been ruled by nu­mer­ous con­querors, such as the Ro­mans, Ot­tomans and Ger­mans, mod­ern Greeks have a rich nar­ra­tive her­itage.

This coun­try of 14,000km coast­line and 11 mil­lion people, is re­silient. De­spite ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an eco­nomic de­pres­sion over the last five years or so, the people re­main up­beat.

They cer­tainly know how to throw a party, they love their food, drinks, mu­sic and dance, and they are among the most gen­er­ous people I’ve come across in my trav­els. And they have a down-to-earth sense of hu­mour that is rare in this age when crude and acer­bic are more the or­der of the day.

Lately, Greece has seen a surge in Euro­pean tourists, es­pe­cially from Rus­sia, while the Ital­ians visit in sum­mer usu­ally stay­ing in camper vans and on the is­lands. Ac­cord­ing to Tsi­moni­dis, there is also an in­crease in vis­i­tors from China and South Korea.

Malaysians plan­ning to hol­i­day in Greece will not have a prob­lem com­mu­ni­cat­ing and get­ting around as English is widely spo­ken, even by mid­dle-aged shop­keep­ers. If not, one can al­ways fall back on hand sig­nals.

The mild weather in Jan­uary (it didn’t dip be­low dou­ble-digit) makes it as good a time as any to travel, if you don’t mind that some of the shops may be closed es­pe­cially on the is­lands which rely heav­ily on the tourist trade and their busy months are in spring and sum­mer.

I en­joyed a great many things about Greece, from its cof­fee, mous­saka (an egg­plant-based dish) and baklava (a nutty dessert), even the ex­pe­ri­ence of drink­ing ouzo (a spirit made from grapes and has 40% al­co­hol con­tent), to the breath­tak­ing sights such as the Me­te­ora tow­ers capped by 600-year-old monas­ter­ies near the town of Kalam­baka in the Thes­saly re­gion.

I marvel at how Athens has suc­cess­fully pre­served the iconic Parthenon and the Athe­nian acrop­o­lis on one side of the city while the other side has the em­blems of moder­nity in the form of global brands firmly en­sconced in its streets.

At the end of my 1,300km trip around the coun­try, I can hon­estly say that, above all, I en­joyed the rich sto­ries brought to life by the people of Greece.

In­sight Va­ca­tions of­fers two pack­ages to Greece: The Glo­ries of Greece which tours ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites and mu­se­ums, and the Trea­sures of Greece which fo­cuses on the is­lands. Tourists are also of­fered the choice of com­bin­ing the two. For more de­tails, go to www.in­sight­va­ca­tions.com or call Cor­po­rate In­for­ma­tion Travel (03-2091 9988).

His­tor­i­cal trea­sure: The Odeon of Herodes At­ti­cus Theatre along the walk up to the acrop­o­lis in Athens, where the Parthenon and Tem­ple of Athena are lo­cated. — VICKY OOI/The Star

Mag­nif­i­cent: Monas­ter­ies cap the tow­er­ing rocks of Me­te­ora, Greece.

the trea­sury of atreus, an ex­am­ple of a tho­los tomb which has a ceil­ing shaped like a bee­hive, circa 1250bC.

dancing, Greek style, at din­ner in Olympia.

Gold trea­sures in the del­phi mu­seum.

the fu­ner­ary mask of a Myce­naean ruler, com­monly re­garded as the Mask of agamem­non. (In­set) the an­cient ceme­tery, be­lieved to be the royal tombs, un­cov­ered on the cas­tle grounds of the Myce­naean acrop­o­lis.

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