Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Tooth Railway and the Massacre of Kalavryta

dscf3265It’s an early start as I head inland using a rack and pinion railway which has been in use for over 100 years. The 22 km line which climbs from sea level Diakofto to 900m Kalavryta was built by Italian Engineers at the end of the 19th century. Originally steam trains puffed their way up to collect minerals from the mountains and brought them back down to the sea port. However, today I’m riding in a modern, air-conditioned carriage powered by diesel.

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dscf3299Ten minutes into the journey, the conductor takes over from the driver who collapses on the back seat, sick or hungover? I’m not sure. A local woman is continually crossing herself which only adds to the tension. Luckily, the journey through the narrow gorge is quite spectacular and distracts me from the other problems. The train curves around the sheer rock faces, through tunnels and over rusty iron bridges as the Vouraikos River tumbles beside and below us. The train is assisted by the rack and pinion for the steepest sections and it is these ‘teeth’ which give the line its name of ‘Odontotos’. It takes an hour to reach our destination and the town of Kalvryta is still shrouded in low cloud.

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dscf3319While I wait for the sun to burn off the mist, I visit the museum which is housed in the former primary school opposite the station. Exhibits provide information about the massacre which took place here on the 13th December 1943. In retaliation for the shooting of 78 German soldiers captured by the ELAS resistance fighters, the villagers of Kalavryta were rounded up and held in the school. All the men over the age of 13 were then led up to a hill above the town and mown down by machine guns. Those who didn’t die immediately were finished off with a head shot.

dscf3304Meanwhile, the school was set on fire with the women and children still inside. Luckily they managed to escape, only to discover their men had been murdered and their houses burned to the ground. Over the next few weeks they buried the dead, some where they lay, others they dragged down to the cemetery and buried there. Then they had to survive the harsh mountain environment with no food and only the clothes on their back. Survivors tell their stories in a moving documentary video and personal possessions of the dead are displayed in glass cases: damaged pocket watches, identification documents and even a wallet with a bullet hole through it.

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dscf3340The mist has cleared by the time I leave the museum and I walk up to the hill where the massacre took place. It is marked by a huge white cross, surrounded by the graves of those buried there and large stone memorials inscribed with the names and ages of the schoolboys who perished. A total of 468 men and boys were slaughtered in this place. Back down in the main square, the clock face on the church is permanently fixed at 2.34, the time of the massacre.

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dscf3361During the return train journey, I sit in the last carriage with only the conductor and a local man for company (I notice that the driver has been replaced). Despite a sign saying the windows should not be opened, they don’t seem to care and I manage to get some great footage as the train trundles back down through the narrow gorge. As we descend, I can’t help but think of another similar massacre which occurred in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, southern France, on the 10th June 1944.

642 innocent men, women and children were also killed for revenge and the village remains undisturbed, capturing the moment that life ended in those streets.

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James Bond and the Monks of Meteora

I grew up in the 80s when Roger Moore was the popular choice to play James Bond. In the 1981 Movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’, the climax of the film featured an amazing rock climbing stunt with the monasteries of Meteora as its backdrop.

Apparently the monks were not that impressed with their domain being invaded and tried to disrupt the filming by hanging out their laundry during takes. In fact, the interior and some of the exterior scenes were shot on a set in Pinewood Studios, England.

 

dscf3123I set out to visit Meteora from the village of Kastraki where I hope to catch the 9am bus up to the highest monastery. It turns out that I’m over two weeks too late for any bus but then a miracle occurs. George pulls up in his taxi and offers to take me for only €3. He already has two Spanish girls in the back so I’m really just a bonus for him. He points out ruined monasteries as we swerve up the road and gives information about the monks and nuns who live in the monasteries which remain in use.

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We pull up at Megalou Meteorou just as two coaches are disgorging their loads, so I hang back and wait for the crowds to clear before descending and ascending the numerous steps. Megalou Meteorou is the highest and luckily the largest of the monasteries so it’s easy to avoid the other visitors. In fact, I’m surprised by how much there is to see. Various museums, a carpentry room, the smoke-blackened kitchen, a shop selling soap, honey and religious items, a creepy ossuary, as well as the main chapel, or Katholikon as it is known.

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The main theme of the 16th century frescos are the martyred saints who were killed for not renouncing their Christian beliefs. Scenes of their hanging, beheading, dismemberment and crushing with stones adorn the walls while haloed icons gaze up from their frames and incense fills the air.

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dscf3095A little further down the road is Varlaam, one of the earliest monasteries to be established in the region and with an impressive old ascent tower and modern electrical cable car which I get to see in action. Today it is only being used to transport building materials for restoration work taking place on the large exterior patio. These days visitors use the steps carved into the rock and bridges which span the chasms. However, when Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the 1950s he ascended by the ancient windlass mechanism. When he asked the abbot how often the rope was replaced, he was simply told, ‘When it breaks’!

dscf3114Very few monks now actually reside at the monasteries but there are a flourishing community of nuns living at Ayiou Stefanou and Roussanou. The steps up to the small but precipitous monastery of Roussanou are steep and the two bridges narrow and worn, but the nuns seem quite content there, producing honey and worshiping Saint Barbara, whose relics are kept in the chapel there.

 

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The Spanish girls declare that they are too tired to attempt the ascent to the last monastery on our route back to Kastraki so I climb up to Ayiou Nikolaou alone. For me, this monastery turns out to be the most authentic that I visit, with only one elderly monk in residence and a small katholikon that doesn’t actually have the gruesome scenes of martyrdom. Instead the walls are decorated with more positive scenes depicting monastic life and episodes from the Old Testament.

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As I climb up to the patio and bell tower at the very top, I can hear the monk praying in a back room somewhere, and when I see the stunning view back down the valley I can understand why all those years ago they chose the arduous task of constructing their places of worship on the top of these monolithic rocks. So they can be as close to heaven as possible.

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Metsovo and the Katara Pass

dscf3041Described as one of the most spectacular routes in Greece, I decide to attempt the Katara Pass instead of remaining on the efficient but rather boring motorway which crosses northern Greece. As a bonus, I get to explore the alpine town on Metsovo which clings to the mountain slopes. I scan for a car park as I descend into the heart of town but find none and so continue along the road as it gets steeper and narrower, eventually emerging into a large square surrounded by busy tavernas. There’s still no car park and the even narrower road where one is signed also has a sign in Greek which seems to imply the road is closed for 3 days. Frustrated, I drive back up out of town and eventually find a suitable place beside the road and walk back in.

dscf3037There’s a lovely church in the centre with gloomy icons and the scent of incense, and several souvenir shops selling wooden items and local food products including the expensive, local, dry white wine called Katoyi. The town certainly has an alpine feel with wood fires burning in the tavernas and people wrapped up against the cold in woollen hats and scarves.

dscf3055If I could find a suitable place to park for the night I’d stay and enjoy some local food but I reluctantly leave and drive up to the snowless ski resort and beyond into the desolate mountains. When I reach the road junction for Meteora, there’s a sign which says, ‘Caution – Crossing at your own risk.’ As this is still a main road, according to my map, I wonder what all the fuss is about. A little further on I find out.

dscf3051A rock slide has recently blocked the road but has now been cleared. Further still, I find areas of road which have been poorly repaired following subsidence and finally, just when I think I’m over the worst and nearing the top, I find snow. Not just a bit of melting snow beside the road, but thick icy snow all over it. I don’t know how far it goes and I don’t have winter tyres so I have no choice but to turn around and head back down the mountain to the motorway, much to the surprise of the fluorescent jogger and the two young chaps who have been Nordic skiing their way along the road behind me.

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The Gates of Hades and the Oracle of Zeus

dscf2955About 70 kms south of the port of Igoumenitsa, set above the Fanari marsh and the former Acherousia Lake, is the ancient site of Ephyra and the Nekromanteion. It’s no coincidence that the name gave rise to such words as necromancy as it comes from the ancient Greek meaning divination from a dead body. The Nekromanteion was a place where pilgrims came to communicate with the souls of those they had lost.

Homer wrote about the site in his ‘Odyssey’, describing it as,

Hades’ Kingdom of Decay, where the River of Flaming Fire and the River of Lamentation (which is a branch of the Styx) unite around a pinnacle of rock to pour their thundering streams into Acheron. This is the spot to seek out the souls of the dead and departed.

dscf2947The geography certainly fits and the vaulted underground chamber seems the perfect spot to commune with the dead. It’s a spooky place, lined with porous volcanic rock that dampens any echo. However, there is a dispute between the findings of the first Greek archaeologist and a later German one who believes the site to be nothing more than a fortified farmhouse.

When I visit the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina, where they have finds from the site on display and information about their uses, it seems that the scholars there agree with the German opinion, though I’d like to think that both could be correct.

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dscf2956Inland from the Nekromanteion, I arrive in the town of Glyki and follow signs to the source of the Acheron which lead me along a narrow road beside a fast flowing, spearmint blue river. The last section must be completed on foot along a narrow, muddy and slippery path. The gorge is quite narrow when I reach the end of the path but on the far side I can make out a small cave where a source emerges to join the main flow. I’m sure it’s quite a popular place in the summer, but I’m lucky enough to have it all to myself.

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dscf2977Next to the Via Egnatia motorway, which crosses northern Greece, is another well-preserved ancient site. Homer also wrote about Dodona and the Oracle of Zeus, while Herodotus describes its origins as the site where a dove from Egyptian Thebes settled in an oak tree and ordered that it be made a place of worship. The oracle apparently spoke through the leaves of the tree.

dscf2981Though the original oak was destroyed by Christian zealots in the 4th century AD, a keen archaeologist planted another at the remains of the Sanctuary of Zeus, allowing the legend to live on. Excavations also uncovered a huge theatre built in the 3rd century BC and one of the largest on the Greek mainland at the time.

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Dodona became quite a wealthy place as pilgrims from all over Greece came to consult the oracle. Their questions were written on lead tablets, some of which are displayed in the Museum in Ioannina. Questions relate to paternity, ‘Am I her children’s father?’ and theft, ‘Has Piestos stolen the wool from the mattress?’ I wonder what sort of questions people would ask today.

 

Getting to Grips with Greece

dscf3256Within the first 25 kms of arriving in Greece I have come across cows roaming free beside the road, a herd of goats in the middle of it, stupid dogs chasing trucks and a lot of roadside shrines. My guidebook informs me that they are not all indicators of road accidents. Some are marking the route to a nearby church or monastery, while others are in thanks to answered prayers or lucky escapes. However, having had first-hand experience of Greek driving habits, I’m not sure that I agree.

Firstly, the Greeks will park anywhere – sometimes a metre from the kerb or even in the middle of the road. On blind bends, while they have a quick coffee or directly outside Lidl, even though there is a perfectly good, empty car park a few metres away.

Secondly, all speed limits and road markings are completely ignored. It’s apparently fine to overtake despite the bends in the road and the double white lines along the centre. No one bothers to stop and check for traffic at junctions and, if you are a bit slower than the average Greek, you are expected to drive on the hard shoulder so they can pass you.

dscf3051Finally, the Greek road system is being completely overhauled, and has been for the last 15 years thanks to EU funding. A new motorway across northern Greece cuts through the mountains and others provide fast links to Athens. However, expect to pay for this privilege through tolls and expect all the other alternative routes to be completely unmaintained and occasionally dangerous. If time is more important than money then take the motorways and the impressive suspension bridge from the mainland to the Peloponnese, otherwise there’s still a ferry operating for half the cost, and the free minor roads are a lot more scenic.

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Having arrived in Greece from Italy, where the coffee is amazing, I’m finding it hard to get a decent latte. Even when the cafes have proper espresso machines, staff don’t really know how to use them. They also like their coffee very strong and very sweet. When I asked for no sugar at one café the barista decided to add condensed milk instead! It’s also impossible to enjoy a cup of coffee inside the cafes because there will always be some local guys sitting there smoking, It seems that EU non-smoking regulations have yet to reach Greece.

dscf2933Visiting Greece out of season has its benefits. There are no crowds, very little traffic and entry to the tourist sites is reduced. On the minus side, some of the sites are closed, or partially closed, as are many of the tavernas, hotels and campsites. Tavernas don’t really operate a menu out of season and there’s limited choice on offer but it’s still pretty amazing and I often wonder if I’m getting a share of the owner’s lunch. Another bonus is that I can pretty much park up anywhere for the night and nobody cares. I’m finding that the car parks at archaeological sites and small ports are the best spots though they are often frequented by stray dogs which howl through the night.

dscf2958So far the weather has been great, if a little on the cool side overnight, though I’m not sure for how long it will remain dry. The scenery is stunning. Pine covered mountains with deep gorges, valleys filled with olive groves and coastal tamarisk trees bent over by the wind. Sadly, the locals don’t seem to care about their countryside as I frequently find laybys strewn with litter and often illegally dumped building waste.

 

Holy Relics and the House of the Virgin Mary

I’m always fascinated by the relics revered in churches around the world and one of the biggest collections can be found in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

relics-romeAccording to my guidebooks, the basilica treasury holds the skull of John the Baptist, a leg of St George, the milk of the Virgin Mary, a thorn from Christ’s crown, some of his blood and three rocks which were used to stone St Stephen to death. In the small room that houses these relics, I’m unable to identify any of them as none are labelled. I think I can see a vial of blood and perhaps a femur but I can’t see anything that resembles a skull and you wouldn’t think that would be too hard to spot. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising as several other churches around the world lay claim to having John the Baptist’s skull, or at least a part of it. Rome, Damascus, Amiens, Mount Athos, Munich, and an island monastery in Bulgaria all supposedly have a piece of his cranium.

st-margaret-of-cortonaCatholic churches everywhere like to boast a holy relic or two as a means to draw in the pilgrims. Some even display a whole saintly body, like St Catherine in Siena and St Margherita in Cortona. Personally I find it a bit creepy and very unsaintly to display someone’s bones. It’s slightly better if they are concealed beneath a silver mask and some bejewelled clothes. Some of the reliquaries for displaying or containing pieces of bone can be quite beautiful but how many of these relics are actually the real deal.

st-maeks-bosy-stolen-mosaicFor example, the body of St Mark was stolen from a monastery in Alexandria by two Venetian merchants in 828 AD. Some historians and fiction writers will have you believe that they mistakenly stole the body of Alexander the Great. Either way, following a fire in 976 the bones were mislaid (probably destroyed) until an arm suddenly broke out from a column in 1094 and the body was miraculously rediscovered. It’s now sealed beneath the main altar of the basilica and out of bounds to scientists who may disprove its heritage.

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dscf2877400 kms south of Venice, in the town of Loreto, it truly is a miracle that anyone really believes that the house of the Virgin Mary was transported from Nazareth to Loreto on the wings of angels. Even if it is the actual former home of the mother of Christ, it’s far more likely that it was stolen by crusaders and transported across the Mediterranean on a boat. Despite the logic, millions of pilgrims flock to the fortified sanctuary to see the house and the black Madonna within who has become the patron saint of aviators. Apparently, Charles Lindberg carried an image of her when he made his famous trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and the crew of Apollo 9 took her image into space.

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No photos are allowed within the chapel created from the Virgin’s house, but not far away I discover the small chapel of Santa Anna in Recanati which has its own replica, complete with a few pilfered bricks from the original and an identical black Madonna.

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Belief in the power of these holy relics and miraculous events requires faith, perhaps even blind faith.

 

Return to Venice

dscf2731Last year, one of the main reasons for my tour was Venice. I spent 3 days there for only €140 and explored most of the main sites in the city as well as the islands in the lagoon. This year I’m just passing through, but I want to spend a day trying to find some of the less visited sites and explore parts of Venice that tourists just don’t have time to see. I also manage to find a convenient free parking place just 10 mins bus ride from Piazza Roma, the main point of arrival in the city.

dscf2569My plan is to stay north of the Grand Canal, exploring Cannaregio, Castello and Arsenale. However, first I have to battle my way along the Lista di Spagna, a busy artery from the station to Campo San Geremia. It’s here that I discover ‘Brek’, a self-service restaurant with cheap food and drinks and clean toilets. Finding toilets that you don’t have to pay for in Venice is hard and it’s usually less expensive to have a quick expresso and use one in a café or bar.

dscf2591In 1493 there were 137 churches in Venice and on the islands, and today there are a similar number. I find it quite hard to pass by one without popping inside. Of course, some of the larger churches and those with well-known works of art now have a fee, but there are smaller ones which are just as beautiful and which also have works by famous artists. The Scalzi is right next to the train station and, although it was badly damaged by a bomb in 1915, it was beautifully restored and some of the works in the side chapels survived. Not far away, in San Felice, there is a delightful painting by Tintoretto of St Demetrius.

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dscf2577The word ‘ghetto’ comes from the Italian for foundry and there was one on this tiny island until 1390. In 1516, due to the influx of Jewish refugees into Venice, the senate decreed that they should be isolated to the island. 400 years before the Germans segregated Jews, the Venetians had already created a divide, although they respected the Jewish community for their culture and knowledge. I’m rather underwhelmed by the Jewish Ghetto. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t armed guards and metal detectors. Around the campo there are several bronze reliefs by Arbit Blatas, a memorial to the 202 holocaust victims.

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dscf2601Ca’ d’Oro (Golden House) has overlooked the Grand Canal since 1434. Its golden decoration has long since disappeared and its previous owners (a procurator of San Marco, a ballerina and a baron) have too. The Palace is now filled with art which you have to pay €8.50 to see.

 

 

 

dscf2627However, next to it is the Palazzo Sagredo, a neglected building just 10 years ago but now a 4* hotel. I’m not dressed like a 4* client so I politely ask the receptionist if it is okay to see the interior and he kindly points to the grand staircase which is decorated with the ‘Fall of the Giants’ by Longhi. At the top there is a long wide hall with painted panels and a wonderful view of the Grand Canal. I have to tiptoe through the two breakfast rooms to reach the lavish ballroom, all the time wondering just how much it would cost to stay here.

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dscf2612A short walk away is the Rialto Bridge, still covered in scaffolding one year on. Next to it is the Fondacho dei Tedeschi, once a huge foreign traders market covered in frescos by Giorgione and Titian until it burned down in 1508. It became a post office in 1808 and served the community for almost a century before being abandoned for more modern facilities. It has recently been acquired by the Benetton family who have transformed it into a luxury shopping outlet on a par with Harrods in London, though a lot more chic. Having only opened in October 2016, few people have discovered the rooftop terrace offering amazing views over the city. The ‘red carpet’ escalators are pretty cool and the toilets are rather plush too!

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dscf2622dscf2651I cross the Rio dei Mendicanti into Castello and visit the hospital. I’m not sick, I just want to see the interior of the building designed by Longhena. It’s amazing that a fully functioning hospital still exists inside the 17th century structure. Next to it is the huge gothic church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, or San Zanipolo as it is known locally, where 25 Doges lie in ornate tombs. In the centre of the square is a large equestrian statue of Colleoni, Commander in Chief of the Venetian forces in 1454.

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dscf2672By the time I reach Arsenale my stomach is loudly demanding to be fed. The waterfront restaurants with their overeager waiters are a bit pricey but there are plenty of others along the wide Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. After a leisurely lunch I continue on to the island of San Pietro which is deserted apart from a few cats. The church here served as the main cathedral of Venice between the 11th century and 1807 when Napoleon decided to change things. The adjacent white stone bell tower looks as if it’s close to falling onto the church and the plaster ceilings of the cloister are crumbling and collapsing. I wonder what they are spending the entrance fees on.

dscf2674I follow the tall, thick, brick walls of the Arsenale until I reach the Great Gateway guarded by an assortment of lions stolen from various sites in Greece. At one time the Arsenale shipyards employed 16,000 men but now it’s rather quiet and hosts art and architecture exhibits for the Biennale.

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dscf2687dscf2695I decide to end my day in Venice by revisiting St Mark’s Basilica. The last time I was there I only had a fleeting glimpse of the interior as I was swept along with the crowds. This time I climb the steep stone steps up to the Museum and the large balcony overlooking the main square. It’s a fantastic view and, as it is late in the day, there are only a few other people and the four large replica bronze horses. The originals are just inside, along with some mosaic fragments and a bird’s eye view of the glittering, golden ceiling mosaics and intricate floor designs down below.

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dscf2715 I also pay a visit to the Treasury which consists of only two small rooms containing ancient gold, silver and glass religious objects and saintly relics. Sadly, I’ve left it too late to enter the sanctuary and see the burial place of St Mark and the Pala d’Oro, a 10ft by 4ft golden panel, decorated with precious stones and pearls. The original screen was created in 976 but over the next 400 years it was enlarged and embellished with plundered loot to become the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of Venice. Like an indication of last orders in a pub, the lights flicker and go out giving the basilica a rather spooky feel. Time gentlemen, please!

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It may be time to leave Venice but somehow I know I’ll be back. There’s still so much left unexplored and still so much more to discover.