Last year, 2015, for the 1st of May weekend I traveled to Athens with my wife and youngest son. We wanted to spent a long weekend in the city and take the opportunity to visit the key historical sites. For my son and I it was a first, for my wife it was a “return”. She spent a year in Athens (Kifissia) in boarding school in the early 80’s. The weather was fabulous. Warm, not hot, with a light breeze coming in from the sea. Ideal to walk around leisurely to the various sites and to spend time on the many terraces for lunch or dinner or an afternoon coffee. To our surprise though we found out that on May 1 all historic sites were closed on account of May 1st Labor Day. So it allowed us to walk around town, get our bearings, enjoy the food along with all the other visiting Greeks.
The first priority when visiting Athens should be to go and visit the Acropolis Museum. It’s an outstanding museum in terms of design and lay out. It provides the right background to understand the history of the Acropolis and Athens, the development of the arts, the politics and how people lived in the city throughout the ancient period. One of the many highlights in the museum is the original Cariathides statues on display as the ones at the Temple Cariathides of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis are actually copies.
The Acropolis visit was a bit of a disappointment as it comes across as a large building site with crates and containers stacked alongside huge moveable cranes. All of it a bit of an eyesore! Rather surprising also when the Acropolis is a Unesco World Heritage site. It appears that the necessary restoration is a slow never ending project. I’d love to see the site without all the building equipment.
Another impressive feature of the Acropolis is the Odeon of Herodes theater. One of the better views is the one from the top when walking up to the Partenon and looking down into the theater. It’s rather remarkable that it is almost 2000 years old and still in use after the restorations.
One should definitely take the time to walk around the Plaka, Monastiraki and Syntagma areas on the north side of the Acropolis. This is the Athens with its original character, full of winding little streets and alleys. Each has a multitude of souvenir, arts and crafts shops and they are dotted with terraces where you can take a rest with a drink or be tempted to taste Greek gastronomic food for lunch as well as dinner. In my opinion the best view of the Acropolis is from the Monastiraki square, and even better from one of the rooftop cafes on the square.
The few tall and large columns left standing at the grounds of the Temple of Olympian Zeus are testimony to how impressive a site and the magnificence of the buildings during its heydays. Sadly, history has not left much of it in place. The grounds are nevertheless beautiful and worthy of a stroll.
A visit to Athens would not be complete without a visit to the Panathenaic stadium which was originally built in the 4th century BC to host the Panathenaic athletic games. After restoration in 1895 the stadium was the setting for the re-birth of the Olympic games created by the French baron de Coubertin in 1896.
The changing of the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Parliament building at Syntagma should not be missed. It’s performed by the evzones, the presidential honor guard. Their uniform consists of short kilts and pom-pom shoes based on the clothes used by the klepths who were the mountain fighters in the war of independence.
Last Updated: 28-08-2016
Copyright © 2016 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved
During the Orthodox Easter weekend of 11-13 April 2015, I took a three day tour through Romania Transylvania to visit a selection of the walled fortified churches Transylvania is famous for. These churches are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were extremely lucky with the weather as it was sunny throughout and with the traffic. As it was the Easter weekend there was hardly any cars on the road. On the other hand we learned that on Easter weekend a number of historic sites are simply closed. As it was early spring, it may have been a bit too early still to see the country side in a green glow with blossoming trees which definitely makes for more colorful photos. These Fortified Churches date from the 13th to 16th century and were built by the Saxon settlers of the region. The intent was to provide protection against invaders of many origins that would cross these lands, Mongols, Tatars, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks, Cossacks, and Moldavians.
In all it was a three day trip. Starting out from Bucharest on a Friday afternoon we drove up to Brasov to spend the night. On Saturday morning we visited Brasov and then around lunch time set off tovisit a number of sites on our way to Sighisoara. Late afternoon and the nextmorning we visited Sighisoara after which we drove to Sibiu visiting more churches along the way. When we arrived in Sibiu we had dinner in town and didnot spend extra time visiting the city as we had been there before. The last day we left Sibiu for Bucharest by traveling on the road “inside” Transylvania to visit a few more far off locations.
UNESCO World Heritage List
There are seven fortified churches on the heritage list and I managed to visit four.
The first Fortified Church I visited was Prejmer near Brasov. It’s only a 15 min drive from the city center and should definitely not be overlooked. I found it one of the better preserved and quite impressive sites and as it was the first one I visited I used it as a benchmark for all the others I would see later. Prejmer gives a very good idea what the idea behind the fortifications was. In times of external threat the villagers could seek refuge within the high protective walls and each family was assigned a room which was built in tothe fortification wall. In normal times the village families would use their rooms for storage.
The Biertan fortified church was the see of the Lutheran Evangelical Bishop in Transylvania between 1572 and 1867. It’s one of the most important locations for the Transylvanian Saxons who organize yearly a reunion in the village. The Church was constructed and further developed between 1468 and the 16th century. The ensemble is an impressive sight that can be seen from afar.
The old sacristy of the church where the sacred vessels and vestments were kept has an impressive lock that allows the door to look in to 19 different points. It’s so remarkable that t won first prize at the Pair World Expo of 1900.
From Wikipedia, we learn that the origins of the fortified church date from 1100 when the Székelys built a small church with a single hall and semicircular apse. Around 1185 the church was taken over by Saxon colonists, and the Székelys were forced to settle further north. In the 14th century the eastern part of the church was rebuilt and in 1525, the first fortifications with towers were added. In the 18th century the church was surrounded by a second defense wall. After 1743 a covered corridor for the storage of corn was built. A century later, two chambers in the defense corridor of the bastion were turned into school rooms.
Situated between Brasov and Prejmer, Harman church is well worth the stopover. It was built in Roman style in the early 1500’s with 5m thick and 1m high walls. The Roman style church was built by Cistercian monks between 1280 and 1290 and later rebuilt in gothic style. The site used to be surrounded by a moat.
The fort at Rupea is an impressive sight from afar. It sits high on a butt on historic crossroads between Transylvania, Walachia and Moldova. It is first referred to in 1324 as “Kuholm Castrum”.A lot of the fort has recently been “rebuilt” which lends it more of a game park aspect than a feel of a historic site. The views over the towns and the valley are impressive.
When driving from Sibiu to Hosman and Agnita, one can notice abandoned railroad tracks in parallel to the road. Surprisingly it was in use till 2004 as a narrow-gauge track and was part of a track that lead all the way to Sighisoara but the section from Agnita to Sighisoara was closed in 1963. It would be a great touristic asset to be able to discover the region via a narrow-gauge train that winds itself though all the historic sites and beautiful landscapes of Transylvania.
Not only the fortified churches are an attraction in the region, yet, the many villages have managed to retain a lot of their original character and many have streets lined with well kept farm houses each highlighted in a different bright color.
Brasov is an easy daytrip away from Bucharest and is well worth a visit due to its many historic sites. It was originally known as Kronstadt in German. The old town retains much of its original medieval charm and the centerpiece to this is the town square, Piata Sfatului, with its Old Town Hall right in the middle, dating back to the 13th century. It was where the town councilors would meet and it was topped with a watchtower.
The Black Church, named after the damage caused by the great fire of 1689, is a must to visit. It is the largest gothic church in Romania with the largest church bell in the country, weighing in at seven ton. It has a huge organ, among the largest in Eastern Europe, with 4000 pipes dating to 1839. Remarkable inside is also the fact that it is decorated with Anatolian carpets that were offered by tradesman and it has richly decorated pews.
As a mediaeval city, Brasov was surrounded by defense fortifications built by the Saxons. The walls were 12m high, 2m thick and the total length was about 3km. It was strengthened with 7 bastions, several of which survived till today and it had a number of gates. One of these is the fairytale like Catherine’s Gate, the only one surviving and it used to be the main entrance in to Kronstadt.
Sighisoara is another UNESCO World Heritage site not to be missed. Its German name was Schassburg. Its historic center is the 12th century citadel. It even boasts a house near the clock tower where Vlad Tepes lived from 1431 to 1435.
Last Updated: 14-08-2015
Copyright © 2014 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved
Mid-February I traveled to Crete on business. As it was my first ever visit to the island I decided to go earlier to allow me to spend part of the weekend sight-seeing. So I traveled from Bucharest to Heraklion on a Saturday. The first surprise was the weather. I was under the naïve expectation that the weather would be mild as Crete is located in the Mediterranean halfway between Greece and the North African coast. The weather was actually rather chilly and windy and later in the week it turned into a strong storm with ferries staying in harbor and flights being canceled and even the Venetian port of Hania being flooded. The view from Heraklion to the south was of snowcapped mountains, not exactly something I expected in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, I wasn’t entirely unlucky with the weather. On Sunday, the morning started chilly but the sun pierced through the cloud cover and by mid-morning it had turned into a bright sunny, albeit not warm, day which remained like that till later afternoon. I could not have asked for more to complete the purpose of my coming early to Crete: the visit of the historic site of the Palace of Knossos. Yet, it turned out I was very lucky with the timing of my visit. A beautiful winter Sunday morning. I was the first visitor at 8 am. As a result of the earliness and the time of the year I had the grounds to myself. I took a guided tour and after the tour took much more time to wander around again. In all, I spent three hours on the site, virtually by myself as I counted only 6 more visitors in the entire time!
The Palace of Knossos is a remarkable site showcasing the degree of sophistication that existed 4’000 years ago. This sophistication is exemplified in many aspects, from architecture, to engineering, over craftsmanship in jewelry to the arts. The Minoans may not have had the “technology” and sophisticated equipment and tools at their disposal as we have today, yet they were able to equal us in thinking and creativity and applying it.
We can only guess what brought the demise of this fantastic and impressive civilization in the 14th century BC. We have to thank a local businessman, Minos Kalokairinos, and his passion for trying to uncover the Palace of Knossos as it was known from many old tales. He started excavating in 1877 but was stopped by the occupying Ottomans. Later, however, the Englishman Sir Arthur Evans, was able to purchase the land and obtain a permit from the Ottomans to excavate. He continued to excavate till the 1930’s. The most controversial part however is the bold “restorations” he embarked on the 1920’s. Today. and even then. these were frowned upon, yet they give an ordinary visitor a better idea of the magnificence of the works the Minoans were capable of. Sadly, as a result the site does not qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even though it should since the restoration does not take away the value of its heritage to our civilization and history. Currently it is only on the “tentative list” along with the other Minoan palaces on Crete.
The engineering qualities displayed are tremendous. The Minoans were able to build 4 floors high, 4’000 years ago! They also brought drinking water in clay pipes from the mountains kilometers away. And even more remarkable, they had canalization in the palace with clean water being separated from sewage. This very much reminds me of the Indus civilization, more than 4’000kms away, which in a similar time period was building cities with unbaked bricks and had canalizations too to separate sewage from drinking water as evidenced in the archeological site of Moenjodaro, in current Pakistan. Quite remarkable when you come to think that in the Palace of Versailles, built in the 17th century for the French Sun King Louis XIV, there were no toilets!
The decorations inside the palace rooms were exquisite by any standard. Plenty of murals many of which have been pieced together again and which can be seen on-site as part of the restoration work Evans undertook while the originals are on display at the beautifully refurbished Archeological Museum in Heraklion. One of the better known frescos is the one with the scene from the bull leaping game showcasing the successive phases of the game in which a contestant is leaping over the bull by grabbing its horns to leap over the back of the bull and land on his feet facing the animal’s back.
One should not skip a visit to the Archeological Museum of Crete in Heraklion. The museum has very recently re-opened after an extensive refurbishment project. The visit complements the tour of the Knossos Palace perfectly well. It contains a very large collection of items that were unearthed during the excavations and show all elements that were part of daily life in the Minoan civilization. There are some very refined pieces of gold jewelry on display showing the high level of craftsmanship that was mastered in these days without any of the sophisticated tools available to artisans today. This so well brought to live in the small, a few centimeters across only, pendant with bees dating from 1’700 BC.
Hania on the North West coast of Crete is from a totally different era. Hania’s more recent heritage is Venetian and Ottoman. The origin of the name comes from its Venetian name “La Canea”. The intricate mesh of narrow winding streets of the Venetian old town surrounding the old harbor showcase the old Venetian and Ottoman architecture very well. Unfortunately, when I visited it was winter, hence no tourist season, and therefore most places were boarded up. With the storm raging it also turned the place rather grim.
Not only was it winter, Crete was also being hit by a severe winter storm. This storm translated into the quays if the old harbor being flooded and the water going into the little streets that lead from the old town into the harbor area. It makes for dramatic scenery, but sadly, also quite a bit of devastation. Clearly a place I would like to come back to under more auspicious weather conditions.
Last Updated: 28-03-2015
Copyright © 2015 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved