Anna and Jay joined us from Birmingham. Abandoning their house to the mercy of their children to absorb a taste of a different life. We rented a flat. Luxury.
The old stuff.
My question is always – if all this is so impressive now, what impact must it have had back then?
As if all the magnificent ruins of the Acropolis weren’t enough to cow the peasants into fear and obedience, in Athens they are built on a large hill so that all tower above the streets, visible from afar.
The jewel is the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. It’s been in a constant state of restoration for over a century. It resembles (we hope) the original a little more each decade as funds become available, and then dry up.
Elgin and his marbles.
They’re not a few rounds balls.
The Parthenon information takes every opportunity to remind us that its greatest desecration was by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. The British ambassador to the ruling Ottoman court procured a number of the temple’s sculptures and a frieze which he then sold to the British government in 1816. Much to the disgust of Greece the collection has sat in the British Museum ever since.
Should the collection be returned? In my opinion, yes.
Elgin took, and no doubt paid for, the pieces. Today that would be considered an international cultural crime, but it was what happened back then.
The fact that Britain chooses to hang on to it all rather than have exact copies made and the originals returned is extreme obstinacy.
The cost of looking good.
Across Greece we see very few people whose vanity stretches beyond occasionally donning their Sunday best.
Many of the men are ruggedly handsome, fewer of the women stand out.
In Athens it is all so very different.
If it has a wrinkle stretch it. If that doesn’t work, fill it. Then, whatever happens, cover it in make-up. Then, strut it baby!
On the Acropolis it was freezing cold. A north wind cut through our layers ensuring that we spent no longer than enough to see the sights before diving back down to the shelter of the streets.
The beautiful ones were there in force. Immaculately dressed. Heavily scented. Each with an entourage. But they weren’t enjoying themselves.
The flesh on show was raw with the cold. Heels turned on the 2500 year old cobbles. Boys shivered in their make up while their boyfriends took their picture, and took it again, and again. Selfies with a glimpse of something ancient took minutes to pose for, and then needed repeating until the subject was satisfied.
Watching them was all part of the fun.
A city of sites and sights.
After the Acropolis, Hadrian’s Arch, Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Panathenaic Stadium all were truly knackered. There was much still to see. We hadn’t set foot inside the wonderful museums. But there was no film left in our mental cameras. We needed to slink back to the flat to contemplate the wonder.
Living in, or visiting Athens.
Were it not for the heat and pollution Athens would be a great city to live and work in. The regular trams will have you on the beach in less than 20 minutes from the centre, the airport is easy to get to, and there’s more culture than you can possibly absorb.
Regular summer days when the mercury soars past 40 degrees mean that it wouldn’t work for me full time.
If I come back I’ll target May or late September.
There’s plenty in Athens for a busy week, especially if the sun shines and you spend a day or two on the beach. You’ll need deep pockets, not because it’s expensive, simply because there’s so much that you’ll want to see and do. Get accommodation on a tram or bus route so that you won’t need a car. Off season getting a room, or a flat shouldn’t break the bank.
The Architect’s Penthouse.
Our flat’s title sounds so glamorous.
It didn’t live up to the hype.
All sorts of bits were broken.
The kitchen offered less works space than the van (really).
We had to cajole the old lady downstairs into turning on the heating.
Yet it was perfect for our needs.
A shop on this corner. A bakery on that. A bar just there.
And that particularly Greek thing of shops that wouldn’t survive at home. There’s the shop that sells legumes and nuts. The ouzo shop. The Christmas shop. There are mini-markets everywhere, yet still there’s room for fruit and veg specialists with colourful produce piled high.
The beach is a few minutes walk, depending on how long it takes to cross the main coast road.
That road is lined with high end furniture shops that offer goods I can’t imagine the average Greek owning.
Anna and Jay didn’t experience the wonderful rural Greek hospitality we love so much. Instead they got a taste of one of the easier capital cities in Europe.
Bye bye Beryl.
Minty has been wearing a Beryl cut for too long.
Under peer pressure she finally allowed me to attack her curls with clippers. The plan was to take her hair down to a number 4 buzz cut. It would be ideal for simple vanlife care, but pausing for a peep after taking the back and sides off we saw a new Minty we loved. For a while 80s girl will accompany us on the road.
The excitement of the van. All over again.
It’s great to stay somewhere, a house, a flat, a hotel even.
We get every last thing washed. We scrub ourselves until we shine. These are little luxuries that everyone takes for granted.
But then the first night back in the van is so exciting.
Ours was at little Mohito Beach where I’d taken mum and sis to at Christmas. Only a few miles from Athens, but a pretty horseshoe bay, surrounded by hills.
The van has been serviced. They couldn’t understand the sliding door issue, and so it’s still a problem (it frequently won’t open unless parked on perfect flat), but they delivered the service for slightly less than they quoted, and ArchieVan feels pleased to have new oil in his veins.
We filled with fuel, LPG, water and a big bag of PollyFilla. We’re ready for a new adventure.
Knossos Palace. The ferry.
The Crete ferry is gargantuan. The biggest boat either of us has been on. It’s 214m long and carries 2500 passengers. It can carry 700 cars, but tonight it’s mostly trucks that fill its halls.
Loading starts four hours before departure. Trucks drive on, unhitch, then the cab drives off again.
Despite the precision needed in parking them, the process seems typically Greek and chaotic. Huge vehicles are slewed all over the loading area while little cars buzz around them. All in the dark with inadequate lighting.
Anyone who is not impressed when they see a lorry manoeuver is not grasping the skill these guys exhibit. The responsibility of their seemingly everyday job is beyond the imagination of most of us.
The island of Crete is Greece’s biggest. It has a population equivalent to Bristol’s urban area, around 650k people.
Concentrating the trucks through one point brings home the crazy amount of goods moving every day to support what we consider to be modern life (and this is at the rather basic Greek level).
Yet what we’re seeing is only the trucks. The majority of goods travel by freight ship. Some goes by air. There are at least four ferries every day of the year.
It’s impressive, sobering and frightening in equal measure.
Boarding the Knossos Palace.
We’re instructed to wait near the ramps to the ferry, right where the lorries spin before they reverse on. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s going to get worse.
After an hour of waiting and watching it’s our moment.
We’re instructed to turn, and reverse onto the ferry. That bit’s OK. ArchieVan is big, but the hole I have to aim him through is a lot bigger.
The outside banksman hands us over to his mate who’ll guide us back through the bowels of the beast, and it’s he who slips into the instructions “And then back it up that ramp.”
Holy shit. The ramp is huge. It lifts vehicles to a level way above a three story house. It’s very steep, and it’s hardly what you’d describe as wide. Our third banksman tries to be helpful calling out lefts and rights but there’s confusion in the translation.
Without breaking a sweat we make it. I manoeuver into a tight gap between towering trucks parked just inches apart. We heave a joint sigh of relief, but I’m dismayed to see that there was plenty of space to drive up and turn once on the upper level. I guess a bigger truck couldn’t turn upstairs and so they put everyone through the same adrenalin rush.
Health. Safety. And the Greeks.
Greeks smoke for their health. They don’t wear seatbelts. They carry their motorcycle helmets on their arm as they speed through traffic. And when the truckers get back to their steeds in the confined space of the upper deck they all switch on their engines even though we may have half an hour to wait.
The air quickly degenerates from fetid to unbreathable.
Later it’s a free for all to get off, but they’re professional drivers and somehow it works just fine.
Ten hours after boarding, and 250kms further south, we roll off onto Crete. A new adventure begins.
Knossos Palace. The palace.
Knossos Palace. What a strange and fascinating place.
Crete was home to Europe’s first civilisation, the Minoans.
From the island they traded with North Africa, Europe as we know it, and in particular the Levant (the Middle East, not Levant, Pendeen).
All this started around 3000BC and flourished for over 1500 years before eventually being conquered and absorbed into the mainland cultures.
The Minoans built large towns, fabulous palaces, they wrote, explored poetry, made jewellery, they enjoyed wine, and art.
The Knossos Palace is the largest of their sites and here we see the remains of four storey buildings not unlike much of the housing in Greece today, save for the mosaics and columns.
There was plumbing. Drainage. Designed cooling.
There was wine. Much wine.
Hang on a moment.
It’s easy to skim read a few numbers and not give pause for thought. So let’s go back over this.
These people had writing, writing for art’s sake let alone mere communication, four, maybe even five thousand years ago. I joked about Levant, Pendeen above. I know there are still people in Pendeen, and across Britain, who still can’t read and write.
The Knossos site is strange. It was ‘restored’ in the name of preservation by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans early last century. Perhaps he got a bit carried away with his use of concrete…
Although he gets a hard time for his interventions he has enabled us to better imagine the site, and probably saved much of it from the rapid decline that happens once previously protected wood and stone is exposed to the air. It’s well worth a visit.
The sophistication of what we see at Knossos shows us how incredibly slowly time moved for thousands of years. It’s all been speeding up for a good few hundred years. Since the 1950s change grew wings and time now moves at a terrifying speed. Of course time itself hasn’t really altered, just the amount of change that can be squeezed into a unit of that time. If we feel tired today it’s no surprise. Keeping up has become exhausting. Yet the next generation will probably think we’re a bunch of slackers who moved so dreadfully slowly.
Greece is scruffy. Even the smartest bits. Yet after nearly three months on the mainland Crete still came as a surprise. It makes the rest look positively smart. The random parking is even worse. The pavements a bigger hazard. Unfortunately rubbish seems a bigger problem. Housing seems thrown up with no thought to aesthetics. Already it feels exciting.
Heraklion, the often overlooked capital, is an ugly city, yet it thrums with life. It’s friendly, a little edgy. I saw rough sleepers here for the first time in our Greek travels. The city is packed with interest. Its museum is fascinating. It’s a busy port. It’s surrounded by impressive Venetian defences, and has great looking food on every corner. I’m sure we’ll be back during our time on the island.
Right now though we want to leave all this bustle behind to find a quiet, ideally clean, beach.
I’ll report back next week with tales of frozen monasteries, rugged coast and snowy mountains.