Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Sacred Rocks of Meteora

Undoubtedly the most spectacular natural wonders we encountered on our 1997 dream trip to Greece were the monastic mountain retreats sometimes known as the Sacred Rocks of Meteora. Relics of an ancient river bed in the foothills of the Pindos mountain range in central Greece, a cluster of super jumbo-sized boulders became hide-away homes for medieval monks. Teetering like darkened bowling pins behind a pair of sleepy villages, they were called Meteora because they looked like meteors suspended above the landscape. Greek Orthodox monks clambered somehow to the tops of these huge rock faces to escape annihilation by invaders. As many as 14 mountain top communities were founded, access being made mostly by ingenious hoisting mechanisms. Half a dozen only remain operative today.
We visited two of them on a memorable late October morning with snowflakes falling on a steeply curving mountain access road.

Our seasoned tour bus driver, we learned after alighting close to one of the mighty rockbound monastic structures, had never encountered snow in that area. Given the scarily steep and curvy roadway, we were so glad that he kept a steady hand on the wheel.
Our first stop allowed us to see St. Stephen’s Monastery, the most accessible of these remote retreats, where instead of steps visitors could simply cross a small bridge to reach the entrance.

We did not go inside but wandered outside, marveling at the solidity of this sprawling structure nowadays occupied by a small community of nuns.
Other still occupied hill top monasteries spotted along the roadway were known as the Monastery of Varlaam, the Monastery of Rousanou, the Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas and the Holy Trinity Monastery.

A lung-challenging 250-step climb up the sheer mountain face took us to the cozy confines of the Great Meteoron Monastery, the largest of the group. Ladies were warned to wear skirts that covered their knees. One who tried ignoring the command had to be lent one from a supply closet before being admitted.

 

Monks sometimes boarded suspended cable cars to move between sections of the monastery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A byzantine chapel inside displayed richly coloured tableaus depicting the most horrendous forms of martyrdom experienced by the saints of early Christendom.

We couldn’t help wondering whether they served to inspire monks to stay and pray or to run away and take their chances elsewhere.

Touring Greek Historic Sites

Embarking on a 1997 bus tour of Greece, itself a novel experience for us inveterate drive-yourself travellers, proved interesting and unexpectedly pleasant. It was a nicely compatible group, mostly from the United States, plus seven Canadians, four Australians, a family from India, and a few young people from Malaysia. Our hostess guide was Stella, a vivacious Greek lady with a unique background as a teacher with degrees in architectural history and English literature. From her we gained a whole new appreciation for the incredibly diverse impact of Greek culture upon modern civilization.

The spectacular Corinth Canal, one of our first highlights, allows shipping between the Peloponnese peninsula and the Greek mainland.

 

Another destination was the imposing base of the ancient Mycenae civilization dating from about the 15th century BC.

 

Other notable sites visited along the way included Olympia where the first Olympic Games were held. One of our tour group insisted on walking the entire course while most of us clustered close to the entrance way.

Of all the historically important sites we visited, one of the most awesome to behold was Delphi, revered by the ancients as the centre of the world and home of the supreme oracle to which both the mighty and the multitudes flocked for enigmatic guidance.

Perched high among the crags of Mount Parnassos, the site is inspiring in its lofty grandeur.
Proud remnants of the Temples of Apollo and Athena stir the soul with imaginings of the thousands who journeyed to this remote and frightening mountainside to worship ancient deities.
This is classic earthquake country. It is said the messages of the Delphic Oracle were expressed in the garbled mouthings of maidens swooning from volcanic vapours rising in mountainside caverns.

It took a council of elders to analyze what these meant and they, like so many modern committees, usually produced an interpretation capable of supporting opposite views on any particular issue.

Fans of public speaking venues had to be overwhelmed at Epidaurus where phenomenal acoustics rendered the softest whispers to be heard throughout this huge amphitheatre.

Athens and Its Environs

Our 1997 tour of glorious Greece began on a sunny October day with a splendid walkabout taking us through city streets to the heights of its three most prominent hills.

At the outset, we came upon a quaintly costumed changing of the guard ritual outside the Greek parliament buildings, and a nearby protest demonstration. It was just like home! The protestors were unionists staging what purported to be a one-day general strike. Police outnumbered protestors and, judging by the steady surge of Athenian traffic, not too many residents took much notice.
A finely crafted statue stood at the edge of a commercial area, but without an identifying inscription.

Athens, like many great cities, is dominated by its hills. The Acropolis, of course, crowned by the ruins of the majestic Parthenon, is most central and awe-inspiring either up close or from afar. Lycabettus Hill, a narrow pinnacle of rock, reached on its steepest slope by a funicular, offers a panoramic view of the capital.

Another, known as the Hill of the Muses, offers a closer view of the Parthenon which, after surviving more than two millennia, was partially destroyed by Venetian cannons firing from that vantage point. The Parthenon, otherwise known as the ancient Temple of Athena Parthenos, was then being used by occupying Turkish forces as an armoury.

A unique feature of the Athenian urban landscape is the almost total absence of skyscrapers. Guides told us they are banned to preserve the dominance of the ancient ruins. A handful of high rises did break through during lapses in bureaucratic vigilance due, one suspects, to the cunning artifices of some wily public affairs lobbyist.

While in Athens, we took advantage of two extra excursions laid on by our Trafalgar Tours hosts. The first was a bus tour which began badly with a horrendous rainstorm that continued until reaching our destination. Happily, as we reached Cape Sunion, storm clouds moved swiftly away to allow brilliant sunshine to show off the glorious Temple of Poseidon, one of the best preserved ancient ruins in all of Greece.
Dramatically situated on the coastal cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea, the Temple dates back to 444 BC. Today, all that remains is a series of gleaming white marble columns, standing proudly atop the cape. Only 16 of the original 34 Doric columns remain, one of which is famously inscribed with the name Lord Byron.
Colourful indoors entertainment greeted us in a delightful Greek folk music cabaret on the shores of Athens’ port city of Piraeus.

Festivities began with a serving of liquid refreshments, inevitably including a taste of ouzo – some of it furtively shared with a garden plant.

 

 

 

Costumed waiters tended our tables while entertainers performed colourful Greek folk dances.

A beaming bouzouki player was for us the star musical attraction.

Winning The Big One

What a great feeling that was! Capturing the grand prize – a Trip for Two to Europe – was a dream come true back in the winter of 1997. It was the National Press Club’s European Union Night, an annual social highlight for me and my wife Madeline. In more than 30 years as a Press Club member, a big win like this had never before come along.

The prize: two Business Class tickets on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Amsterdam and any Common market country and return. Just one catch: travel would be according to the availability of space at the time of booking, and limited to low season periods – in April/97, between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15/97, or between Jan. 15 and March 15/98.

Official occasion for this prize draw was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome which created what used to be called the Common Market, now known as the European Union. By 1997, this multi-cultural, multi-national economic entity comprised just 15 member countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Its membership rose in later years to 28 until Britain’s “Brexit” decision this year to drop out.

Flight tickets only being covered for our trip, the choice of destination was easy. What EC country was farthest away from Canada? Greece. We’d been to half a dozen European countries before then, but had never gone that far. A little checking confirmed that a stopover in Amsterdam would be quite OK. So that’s what we did – 16 days in Greece plus one week in the Netherlands and Belgium. As for timing, mid-October to mid-November was the best we could get. Given helpful advice by CAA travel consultant Cheri Rice, we opted for two British-based Trafalagar Tours Best of Greece features, a one-week bus tour plus a one-week Aegean cruise. Costs were not exorbitant, and proved to be good value indeed.

Travelling in effect as standby passengers, we couldn’t get flight confirmation until a few days before departure, so we booked into Athens two days before our scheduled bus tour. This worked out fine, giving us time on our own to stroll about the busy streets and absorb the sometimes smoggy atmosphere of the ancient Greek capital. A taximan unexpectedly greeted us at the airport and drove us free of charge to our hotel. There, our tour coordinator, London-born Samantha, told us about walking routes that kept us busy for the few days we had in the city.

Within sight of our hotel were not only the magnificent Acropolis crowned by the famed Parthenon but also some Roman temple ruins. We walked everywhere, relishing the opportunity to see an ancient city still thriving with vibrant commercial activity in its Plaka business centre and milling tourists clambering over widespread historic sites.

Bye Bye To Plastic

It says here in Google: Plastic bags were invented as an alternative to paper grocery bags in the late 1970s to protect trees and prevent clear-cutting of our forests. Plastic bags are a by-product of natural gas extraction and provide an environmental solution to the burn off of this gas during the refining process.
Now, there’s quite a twist to the virtually universal view that plastic products are ruining the environment, and urgent steps are needed to minimize their use.

plastic waste

plastic waste

Plastic bag use in supermarkets earned my wrath some decades ago when I composed this little commentary as a newspaper contribution, regrettably rejected for publication:

In the Bag … Please!

Does anyone remember going to the store in the B.P. era (Before Plastic)?
We used to do all our food and necessaries buying at the neighbourhood general store, except when we went to the butcher shop for sausages and liver and other good meat stuffs, or to the fish shop for cod or halibut or whatever. We carried home the groceries in small paper bags, the fish covered in wax paper and the meat wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with a string.
The more ancient among us can recall going off to the store bearing our own containers to be filled with various provisions. Flour and sugar were poured out from 100-pound sacks or bins hidden behind the counter. Empty glass milk bottles were refilled after the store keeper made sure they were whistle clean. Containers were presented for buying measured quantities of beans and peas and other dry products. Going to the store was always an adventure for the younger family members.
Buying a jug or bottle of molasses was the biggest treat of all. The store keeper pumped it out of a huge puncheon that looked 200 years old. We got a chance to taste the runny stuff at the top of the bottle on the way home. Then when we got there, we’d get a spoonful spread on thick home-made bread. Yep, them were the good old days!
Lots of things have changed since the dingy but comfortable old grocery stores gave way to today’s glossy, efficient but woefully impersonal supermarkets. Most everything one needs is pre-packaged. Glass milk bottles have given way to plastic bags. And molasses comes only by the carton.
Supermarkets used to give customers big sturdy paper bags for carrying their groceries to the car or the bus stop. Then plastic came increasingly into vogue. Many stores now use it exclusively, but some continue to offer a choice.
In our neighbourhood emporium, the checkout routine goes something like this:
The cashier – for some reason it’s always a young lady – checks the order through promptly and passes it on to a much younger stacker -invariably a callow boy gaining his first experience in putting anything whatever into a bag.
“Paper or plastic?” the stacker asks, clutching a fistful of the paper-thin plastic variety.
“Neither, thank you.”
The kid looks up in open disbelief to find himself handed a couple of cloth bags. Nodding in bewilderment, he lays the cloth things aside and stuffs the first purchase item into a plastic bag.
“Use the cloth bags, please”.
“Oh,” with an uncomprehending half-grin. “Oh, yeah.” He picks up a cloth bag in one hand, clutches the plastic bag and contents in the other, and drops them inside.
“No, we don’t want the plastic bag.”
“Huh! Oh, yeah. Sure.” All too unsurely, the plastic bag is removed and reluctantly disposed of.

canvass shopping bag

canvass shopping bag

Left to his own devices, the kid proceeds to bag the purchases on a first-come first-stuffed basis, regardless of size, shape, weight, volume or racial origin.
If grapes come through first – grapes go in the bottom of the bag. Dish detergent next – plunk it on top of the grapes. A package of sausages next. It can go on the detergent. The assembly line must go on.
The cloth bags that environmental awareness has produced are of sturdy make and usually capacious size. They can readily hold a pretty sizeable load. When they’re allowed to. But not if the standard supermarket stacker can help it.
In his eyes, no bag is made to carry more than three, and preferably two, items. Given a purchase of eight items, cloth bags are burdened with two each, whereupon the lad, sighing with great relief, reaches for the treasured plastic to make up the balance in proper manner. By this time, customer patience has worn too thin to raise further objection, so the plastic stays.
There’s one small consolation. It can at least be used to hold all the other plastic bags the supermarket blessed us with before. We can drop them off at the recycle bin to be made into more plastic bags the supermarket will need to keep the busy little stacker happy.
Oh where oh where are the molasses jugs of yester year?