Thursday, 22 October 2015

Of World Affairs, youthful buttocks, sun baked mermaids and plastic ice cream monsters.

Tuesday 20th October

Today had been a day of multiple realities. We woke to the manicured loveliness of Ionian Beach, but soon were driving through the tatty outskirts of Pirgos, uncollected refuse sacks piled up on the roadside and rubbish strewn across lay-bys and the forecourts of closed-up factories and petrol stations. At traffic lights ill-clad children gadded about among the cars begging for change. I suppose it would have been surprising to find no evidence whatsoever of the events that have kept Greece in the headlines over the past few months; first the debt crisis and now the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the northern Aegean.

Indeed, there have been other more sinister symptoms of the Syrian conflict since we reached the Mediterranean; both here and in Puglia, every day, in groups of two or three, F15s have roared across the blue sky heading southwards over the sea. My guess is, if they are not coalition jets heading off to attack ISIS, then they may be USAF aircraft heading eastwards as reinforcements. Yesterday especially, on such a beautiful day, the incorrigible force that draws humanity into internecine violence and war seemed utterly absurd, and the affairs of the world, so immediate online, felt remote and scarcely real as we gazed out at the calm sea under a cloudless sky.

In truth the momentous and the mundane are inexorably intertwined; my thoughts may have been drawn towards the momentous, but the immediate task in hand was to find a Lidl and arrive unscathed after negotiated the narrow streets of central Pirgos. I think, on balance, driving here is slightly less fraught than in Italy. Greek drivers seem predictably unpredictable, whereas Italian drivers are unpredictable in an entirely random way, which has to be worse! Anyway, the morning was successful in so much as I failed to collide with a Greek taxi, we successfully replenished supplies at Lidl, and Gill found a Vodaphone nymph in the foyer, and purchased a Greek data SIM.

Back in the day, such good fortune would have required the sacrifice of least a couple of cockerels to thank the goddess of mobile networks (Perfektaphone), but in these more relaxed modern times, we just kept the shrink-wrapped chicken and gave thanks to the Olympians later by eating it cooked up in a yummy paella.

Speaking of things Olympian. That's where we were headed after lunch - Olympia. It's only a 20 minute drive into the hills beyond Pirgos, and we timed it just right, the car park was almost empty. The site itself consists of the extensive remains and an archaeological museum.

The road to Olympia

Modern Olympia consists of hotels and souvenir shops

The museum is a stylish modern building
My favourite small museum is the Athens Archaeological, but this one at Olympia is almost as impressive. Not because it's packed with masterpieces, in fact, it's great because it's not. The date of the first Pan-Hellenic games at Olympia according to ancient writers was 726BC. The site at the confluence of the rivers Alfios and Kládhios had been sacred to Hellenic tribes  centuries before this. Consequently, the museum is full of artefacts from the Mycenaean period up until Late Roman times when pagan sites were destroyed as Christianity became the official imperial religion. There are all sorts of things on display, from fine jewellery and vases, through to weaponry, domestic utensils and agricultural tools. The finds are displayed chronologically and well labelled.

Hoplite helmets

Red figure vases
These ceramic figures were over 2500 years old.
In amongst the artefacts there are some large scale sculptures, including three which are world famous. First are the pedimental sculptures from the large Doric Temple of Zeus on the site. Each of the figures is almost twice life-size and represent the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths. It is carved in the simple, idealised forms of early classicism's so called severe style.

Each figure is more than life-size

A centaur
A 'kouros'in the early classical severe style
The second major work dates from the later 5th Century. The Nike of Paionis is one of the iconic works of the high classical era. The goddess of Victory is shown with her garments streaming out behind her, the contours of her body revealed through the diaphanous folds of her chiton. This virtuoso treatment of marble was not really matched until the mid Seventeenth century by Baroque sculptors such as Bernini. It is also, as I mentioned to Gill, the very first example in the world of a see-through Nike, amazing to think, they had not even discovered Nylon.



The final masterwork is 'Hermes and the infant Dionysos' by Praxiteles, along with Phidias, he is generally regarded as the greatest of the Ancient Greek sculptors. This sculpture dates from a few decades later than the Nike. It shows greater naturalism, but less energy; it is softer, more effete perhaps, than the earlier two. It marks a transition between the classicism and the Hellenistic style that emerged in the time of Alexander the Great.


Just how skilled Praxiteles and his contemporaries had become at representing the human form was demonstrated by accident. Gill's Moto phone camera did not deal too well with the colour temperature of the museum spots-lights. The pictures we took of the rear of the sculpture rendered the surface colour, not as white marble, but as a reddish flesh tone. The resulting image looks more like a nude photograph of a living body than dead marble. The realism is uncanny.


At the moment I am reading Bettany Hughes', 'The Hemlock Cup'. It concerns the death of Socrates, and how the philosopher was both a product of, and an irritant to Athenian experiments with democracy. She writes at some length of the Athenian's obsession with the male body beautiful and its significance, sacred and profane. Sculptures like Praxiteles' 'Hermes' are quite literally the embodiment of these ideals. They can seem strange to us, which in itself is a little odd, as our culture has just as powerful an obsession with the unclothed female form; we commodify, fetishise and objectify it as much as the Ancient Greeks obsessed over their Kouros. Comparatively, I suspect our motivation leans largely towards the profane than sacred in this regard!

Oh dear, I did not mean to write an essay. I blame Dr. Ling!... Anyway, the site itself is equally marvellous, but instead if going off on one I will post a pile of photos with a caption or two. This only possible because Gill is well organised. Like a complete plonker I did take my camera, but failed to put an SD card in it.

The Olympia site occupies a lovely verdant valley

The large Temple of Zeus in the middle of the site was vandalised by Early Christians, then collapsed completely after an earthquake in the sixth century.

I presume this colonnade was re-erected.
More decaying antiques

Can you tell your Doric from your Ionic?

The original Olympic stadium. Usain Bolt could cover the length of the running track in les than 20 seconds, but he is allowed to wear clothes....

Good timing, as we left, the hoards arrived.
As we left the site in mid afternoon we passed scores of tour bus parties all led by a long suffering guide holding a placard with the tour number. Most had the initials MSC in them, and then a number, we got up to batch 24 before we stopped counting. The significance of this would only emerge later.

We debated as we headed back towards Pirgos which wild camping, spot we should head for. In the end we opted to use the harbour side at Katakolo. This is what our 'Rough Guide' says of the place, "somewhat more enticing, a decayed, ramshackle old port, with good beaches nearby." Equally the book noted how the place had gone into decline since improved roads to Patras had meant it no longer was the worlds foremost (only?) export centre for currants. In passing the book mentioned that latterly cruise ships berthed here so passengers could visit nearby Olympia.

It was an inspired choice. Soon we were parked up next to three Dutch vans, all, like us, studiously ignoring the 'No Camping' signs. The port was a bit ramshackle, the last resting place of venerable sailing craft, old enough to have a hand carved mermaid supporting a cracked bowsprit.



 Most spectacularly, however, was the sight of the MSC Musica moored opposite us on the other side of the harbour. Gleaming white, this cruise ship is huge, 36 feet short of 1000 feet in length, with accommodation for 2,500 passengers, 900 crew, a mind boggling sight, as if USS Enterprise had crash landed in Whitehaven. Now we understand where the the MSC badged tour parties at Olympia had originated from...



As evening fell the ship gave a few ear-splitting blasts on her hooter, summoning stragglers from the port's tavernas. A tug appeared at the stern. Slowly the brightly lit, mountain of a vessel edged backwards out of the port, appalling euro pop drifting through the warm air. As it slipped into the night the small bunch of motorhomers who had gathered on the quayside to see it off went indoors. 

None of us, we agreed, envied the packaged luxury of Musica; few of the passengers I suppose would envy our mode of travel - each to their own.

Don't have to dress for dinner, don't follow anyone else's itinerary, never queue for lunch, or have to be polite to a Daily Mail reader...and I get to drive it - no contest.
Coalition jets, dispossessed children, an ancient sanctuary, a ruined, beautiful goddess, a sun-bleached mermaid, it's been a strange day, even before you factor in the terrifying ice cream monster.


and you thought Ancient Greece was a strange place haunted by terrifying mythical beasts...

Sent from my iPhone

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