Category Archives: Greece

• Old Town of Corfu

Visit: 1st June 2015

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Old Fortress, Corfu

Located in the Ionian Sea just off the coast of the Balkan Peninsula where Greece meets Albania, Corfu is the Hellenic Republic’s seventh largest island. Natalie and I had a whole day to spare in Corfu’s old town on our way back from a couple of days on the nearby island of Paxos. Only reachable by boat, Paxos is less than 2% of the size of Corfu – but twice as charming. It was whilst we were there that Ross proposed to Louise on the shores of Plani Beach whilst Natalie and I filmed from afar. We spent four nights on Paxos, in both our rented villa near Lakka – in the north of the island – and in an apartment in Gaios – the capital, in the south.

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Plani Beach, Paxos

It was the day of our flight home and the two of us had got up at 5.40am to catch a boat leaving Gaois’s New Port at 7. Although we had expected it to deposit us near Corfu’s old town – from where we had caught the boat over to Paxos four days earlier – it ended up dropping us off at a place called Lefkimmi, on Corfu’s southern tip. The Old Town of Corfu (where the airport is also located) is about halfway up Corfu island, on the eastern side, and the ferry company had, it transpired, arranged for a minibus to take us passengers the rest of the way by road.

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Old Fortress, Corfu

On arrival at Corfu town we pepped ourselves up with a Greek coffee and some lukewarm quiche before heading over to the first of its two imposing forts. The Old Fortress, as it is known, dominates the city’s east side and commands a wide lookout over the sea. It was fortified by the Venetians, to whom Corfu was annexed at the end of the 14th century. The Republic of Venice held onto the island from 1386 all the way up until 1797, which gave them plenty of time to make their mark.  But they were not the first to build a fortress there – indeed the fort’s origins date back to Byzantine times, from about the 6th century.

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The top of the fortress isn’t much to look at (that is it, above), although it was immortalised in celluloid in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (in which the Mercedes of the bad guy, Emile Locque, gets pushed off a cliff by Bond). You may remember that I spotted a Bond scene when we were in Istanbul. Well, I’m not really a Bond geek so I must admit that I didn’t notice the Corfu titbit myself – that fact is from Wikipedia.

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Corfu Town Hall

After coming down from the Old Fort we wandered through town and had a drink. It is here I admit that Corfu isn’t really the most pleasant WHS out there. It has its charms, but the city is thronged with tourists (ourselves included, obvs) and shops selling tat. Given the narrowness of the streets it feels pretty crowded walking around, making the castles a pleasant respite from the bustle. I wondered if Valletta – a city that seems to have much in common with Corfu, in terms of its history and its character – is similar in the summer. We felt we might have been lucky after all to have had such cold, wet weather when we visited over New Year, since it meant we had the place more or less to ourselves.

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In the heat of the day we proceeded to hike up the hill at the other end of town to reach the top of the ‘New Fortress’. This one was built from scratch by the Venetians, although the buildings that exist within the fortress were put up by the British. This fortress is more imposing than the Old one, but even harder to get a decent photograph of (see below). Although entrance is free, tourists are tricked (ourselves included) into paying €3 by a wily group who stand by the entrance and offer you a “free” drink if you pay them for admission. There I encountered some of the worst toilets I have ever set foot in – comparable to something out of Trainspotting. Ross would have loved it.

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The climb is worth it, though, because it affords a better view of Corfu than does the Old Fortress. We spent a while talking to a fellow Brit, who had disembarked a cruise ship on a Venetian-themed tour of the Mediterranean, and we swapped tips on historical tourism.

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With the sun sinking down in the west, it was time to make our way back to Ioannis Kapodistrias Airport to catch a child-filled Thomas Cook flight back to Gatwick. We had had a great trip, of which Corfu was really just a footnote – but it was good to have seen the city and to have been able to spend Euros in Greece for what may have been the last time!

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• Acropolis, Athens

Visit: 15th February 2015

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Athens. A city rich in history; one that has been inhabited for at least the last 7000 years, and an important place since the Mycenaean era (forerunners of Classical antiquity) of around 1400 BC. Despite the city being littered with important archaeological finds, UNESCO limits the designation to the Acropolis – an ancient citadel located on a rocky outcroup in the centre of the city.

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I went with Natalie to Athens for a long weekend that included what turned out to be Valentine’s Day. Our trip gave us two and a half days, which turned out to be quite sufficient for seeing the city’s main sites, both WHS and not. I was also keen to gorge on Greek food, particularly the cheeses and olive oils for which the country is known.

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We visited Athens at a time of ongoing uncertainty as to the country’s fiscal future. As of today’s standpoint it is still unclear whether Greece will be able to come to an agreement with the troika of the IMF, ECB and Eurozone to extend its debts or whether the radical new left wing government will lead the country into a chaotic Grexit from the single currency and indeed the EU. For what it’s worth my guess is that an accommodation will be reached that involves the troika giving ground and Greece’s day of fiscal reckoning being again postponed, but I have of course no real confidence in that prediction! It was interesting walking past Syntagma Square – the site of Greece’s parliament – to see the protesters with their banners decrying the troika’s de facto chief, Germany’s Angela Merkel, for her insistence that the Greeks continue to walk the path of austerity.

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After an unsuccessful attempt to visit the National Archaeological Museum on the afternoon of our arrival, the first sight we really saw was on Sunday morning, when we started by visiting the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Athens offers a very reasonably-priced ticket that for €12 allows you entry to ten different sites, including the Acropolis.

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The Temple of Zeus stands as the tallest of all of Athens’ temples, and – though less well-preserved than the Parthenon – it still retains its majesty. The Corinthian columns stand 17 metres tall and are made from Pentelic marble. The temple took a long time to build, being constantly interrupted by changes of government and moves from tyranny to democracy and back again. It was eventually completed under the authority of the Roman emperor Hadrian in AD 132, to whom was dedicated a triumphal arch that stands nearby. Through the arch you can see the Acropolis.

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Walking up to the Acropolis from its south slope we passed the Theatre of Dionysus. This open-air theatre was dedicated to the god known to the Romans as Bacchus – the patron of wine and drama. It was in this theatre that the works of Sophocles and Euripides would have been premiered, and you can still sit on the marble benches. It was quite an amazing place to be.

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Carrying on up the hill we passed another theatre – the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. A more recent build, dating from 161 BC, this is a larger amphitheatre at which performances still take place – in 1962, for example, it hosted Frank Sinatra.

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In addition to the Parthenon, the summit of the Acropolis houses several buildings. They include the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. One of the most interesting features of this building is the Porch of the Caryatids, in which six supporting columns were sculpted in the shape of female figures. Although not obvious to the viewer, the Caryatids supporting the temple now are but replicas – the originals having been taken to the nearby Acropolis Museum (actually one of them is in the British Museum, having been removed there by Lord Elgin along with half of the Parthenon Marbles in the early nineteenth century).

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The Parthenon itself is not just a pretty building – it has been central to the identity of Athens for dozens of centuries. Dedicated to Athena, a daughter of Zeus, it was built as a demonstration of Greek supremacy following the defeat by the Hellenic city-state alliance of the Persians in the fifth century BC. The architect Phidias revolutionised Greek temple design by increasing the length and width of the Parthenon beyond anything seen before. Inside sat a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena – the grandeur of which we cannot even begin to imagine.

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The two centuries or so following the victory over the Persians are known as the Classical era, and saw the invention of democracy and the lives of notables including Aristotle, Plato and Euclid. Modern Western politics, art, literature, science, maths and philosophy owe much to this period, comparable in my mind with the Renaissance. UNESCO cites the Acropolis as being “the supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site”.

The newly-built Acropolis Museum stands near the foot of the hill, in which is housed various statues found across Greece but particularly in Athens and on the Acropolis. The highlight is on the top floor, where you will find one half of what we in Britain call the Elgin Marbles. I have heard it said as a justification for hanging onto our half that the Greeks cannot be trusted to look after them properly. After having seen the Acropolis Museum I think we can dismiss that argument. Whatever your views on the merits of keeping them/giving them back (I sit on the fence), it cannot be denied that the Greeks have done a good job at presenting them. Whilst they have not exactly kept the marbles in their original location (i.e. attached to the Parthenon up on the Acropolis) they have attempted to arrange them in a rectangular shape that corresponds to the shape of the Parthenon, which I think is a good idea. In place of the parts that reside in the British Museum the Greeks have put plaster casts, including what for my money is the finest part, and one that is still in London – the horse’s head.

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Another stop on the tourist trail around Athens is the Ancient Agora. This designated public building was the centre of political and public life in Athens, making it an important site of pilgrimage for any democracy junkie. The Agora is surrounded by ruins of many other buildings that had civic purposes, including the Stoa of Attalos, which now houses another museum. There, I was interested by the steles (essentially public notice plaques) on which democratically-enacted decrees were inscribed and in this way disseminated to citizens.

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On Monday – our final day – we had only to visit the National Archaeological Museum. An older institution than the new Acropolis Museum, the NAM is really the archetypal classical museum – chock-full of marble statues and other artifacts from across the Hellenic lands. IMG_3738

Highlights include this amphora – an excellent example of a work from the Geometric age (the oldest age of Ancient Greece) and the occasional surviving bronzes, such as the male below that is thought to be Paris holding the Apple of Strife (now missing). The horse and rider below struck me as looking almost contemporary – yet it was pieced together by archaeologists from pieces found in a shipwreck.

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It was notable that every bronze statue seemed to have been discovered in the sea. I believe this is because those bronzes that remained on land (i.e. most of them) were inevitably melted down for recasting as weapons during the years following the decline of the Greeks.

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Certainly the most curious piece in the museum that was discovered in a shipwreck is the Antikythera mechanism. This device, found 1900 by sponge fishermen, is sometimes labelled the world’s first computer. Much work has gone into determining what its purpose was and how it worked, and the conclusion is that it seems to have been an astronomical device used for predicting eclipses. The precision engineering of the many cogs and the sophistication of the device’s purpose has led it to be considered by some as an “OOPArt” – an ‘out-of-place artifact‘ whose discovery challenges the conventional understanding of development at the time by being ‘too advanced’ for the period from which it came.

IMG_3741 If Dan Brown hasn’t already written a book about the Antikythera mechanism then he probably should.