Archive for September, 2017

Mykonos and Delos

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

At the very end of the first Jason Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, a young Matt Damon – after considerable trials & tribulations — is finally able to re-connect with Marie, who has found a hidden (and much more relaxing!) lifestyle renting scooters to tourists on the Greek isle of Mykonos. So….. who wouldn’t want to go to such a place?

Mykonos windmills

Indeed, that island has now become a bit of a tourist mecca, well known for its upbeat party scene, as well as the narrow, maze-like, white-walled and stone alleyways of its main town Chora. It’s a very windy place, so I had special interest in the windmills built by Venetians back in the 16th Century, which were used to grind flour…. and are now a distinctive landmark.

I also took a trip to the nearby island of Delos – birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis, and an ancient religious site that became the world’s largest trading port in the year 166 BC (when the Romans made it a free port). The town had 30,000 residents and handled 75,000 cargo ships a year – and since the region at that time had a slave economy, also sold 25,000 slaves a year in its Agora. Unfortunately it all came to an end in 88 BC, when Mithridates, the King of Pontus (in northern Turkey) attacked the island, killed all its inhabitants (or sold them into slavery), looted the city’s treasures, and razed it to the ground. Much of the marble was similarly stripped away over the years, so most of what remains is granite. Today, it is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO; excavations began in 1872, and are still underway today.

Delos

I noted below (in the Athens posting) that some see Hellenic architecture as a forerunner to Modernism…. and the hotel we stayed at in Mykonos decided to take the new & fuse it with the old — with absolutely delightful results! The Alkistis Hotel is located a bit outside of town, near the Agios Stefanos beach, and if you check out their website, you’ll see that it was “inspired by Cycladic minimalism,” and that its “stark, uncluttered design brings out the minimalism characteristic of Mykonos’s traditional architecture with a contemporary sense of style….” Sitting in its open-air restaurant (built with pilotis and sliding glass doors), sipping a local wine, and checking out a beautiful sunset view…… truly sublime!!

Santorini

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

If you’ve ever seen a travel poster for Greece, chances are it either shows the Parthenon/Acropolis (see posting below), or the whitewashed structures & blue-domed/white-crossed churches of Santorini, clinging to the side of a lava-encrusted hillside above a pristine blue Aegean shoreline. I too had seen those posters, and yes, they were extremely effective…. because I’ve always, always wanted to go there!

Sunset on Santorini

Santorini is a volcanic caldera – the result of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, occurring about 3600 years ago. There are lots of speculative ideas that link that eruption to the lost city of Atlantis, or to the Biblical disasters & plagues that led to the Exodus out of Egypt. In 197 BC, a small islet broke above seawater in the center of the caldera, and six eruptions in the last 430 years (the latest occurring in 1950) ultimately led to the formation of a small islet called Nea Kameni. I hiked across that islet, visiting the lava fields and monitoring sites described by ISMOSAV (the Institute for the Study and Monitoring of the Santorini Volcano; note that their website even offers real-time seismicity readings!). It still has active fumaroles emitting hydrogen sulfide and other gases. We also had a chance to visit the buried Minoan city of Akrotiri, which is on the main (Thera) island. That was buried during the major eruption, which is estimated to have occurred in the early 1600s BC. While it is like Pompeii in many respects, no bodies or jewelry have been found during the excavations; obviously volcanic tremors gave its citizens plenty of warning & time to leave.

The volcano and its historical impacts were certainly very interesting, but we also had an additional modern quest in mind: the wines grown in Santorini’s ‘volcanic terroir.’ Even before leaving New Jersey, I had met up with a good friend and former business partner, Joel Epstein, who recently moved back to the East Coast after 16 years in California. Joel is an oenophile, with great taste and knowledge about wines….. and he suggested that I try a white Santo Assyrtiko before our trip. I found a local N.J. shop that sold it – and that wine subsequently became indelibly linked to our vacation plans (Note: It probably didn’t hurt that I was reading Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus to get ready as well!)

We visited the Santo Winery in Santorini to taste it and other local varieties – but the Assyrtiko remained the favorite, and we sought it throughout the visit, on our numerous Greek gastronomic stops. (I know you’ll have to take my word for it….. but the building that you can fuzzily make out through the wine bottle glass in the photo above is the Parthenon.) Thanks much, Joel!

Athens

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

After a trip to Athens, Ohio this past summer (see three postings below)….. we had a chance to visit the real thing on our way back to HNC: Athens, Greece! Yes, yet another seat of learning – but this one the very foundation of Western Civilization.

A couple of obvious targets were the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the new Acropolis Museum housing many of its original treasures…. & for these I had Mary Beard’s lively & rather witty book The Parthenon as a guide. She delves into the complicated history of that edifice: an ancient temple for the goddess Athena; a Christian church, complete with bell tower; an Islamic mosque, with the tower extended to become a minaret; and a valuable treasure source for Britain’s Lord Elgin in the early 1800’s (i.e., the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum). Lately, of course, it has assumed the role of cultural icon, with restoration still on-going (as evident in the picture)…. and never-ending controversy about the return of major pieces from London, now that a suitable museum home for them exists at the site.

The Parthenon

Its classic beauty has been appreciated by architects around the world, and – given my recent postings about modern architecture – I found it interesting that Beard pointed out that even an iconoclast like Le Corbusier “rooted his new vision of architecture in the sheer perfection of the Parthenon.” Le Corbusier had written: “There has been nothing like it anywhere or at any period,” and suggested that “one clear image will stand in my mind forever: the Parthenon, stark, stripped, economical, violent, a clamorous outcry against a landscape of grace and terror.”

The people, food, climate, and lifestyle of Greece have always held attraction – a major reason for our trip! — but others see an even more profound Mediterranean influence on Le Corbusier. Alain de Botton & John Armstrong, in their work Art as Therapy, state that “what we now know as Modernism is in large measure an attempt to recreate white vernacular Hellenic architecture in a northern climate, with the help of steel, glass and concrete.” The sun-drenched, outdoor, laid-back attitude of Greeks and other southern Europeans contrasted with the cold, rational and efficient mores of northerners, and these authors suggest that Le Corbusier was fascinated by “the whitewashed seaside villages and the spirit their simple, uncluttered, unornamented designs exuded.” A solarium on the Villa Savoye in northern France was thus “making an argument for a paganism of the spirit, whatever the weather might be doing outside.”

It’s a bit of a leap from the classical columns of the Parthenon to Le Corbusier’s pilotis & other design elements – but I suspect that those Hellenic whitewashed seaside villages and the Mediterranean food & lifestyle were indeed as enticing to him as they were to us…. & those factors were key to our next two stops, in Santorini and Mykonos.