Sep
1
2018

Back to Greece

 

Aerial view of the Acropolis (click to enlarge)This year, 2018, we spent a family holiday in Greece during the last week of June. We all flew in from London, Bucharest, Abu Dhabi and Almaty to have a week together in a location we had not visited as a family before. We had an excellent time visiting Athens and relaxing for the week at the Costa Navarino resort in the Messinia area of the Peloponnese.

Temple of Athena Nike (click to enlarge)We spent a full day visiting the key sites: the Parthenon, the Plaka area where we had lunch, the parliament for the changing of the guards, the Panathenaic Olympic stadium and the temple of Zeus. As I have reported on a similar visit to just Athens three years ago I will not elaborate further.
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Canal of Corinth (click to enlarge)The day after visiting Athens we took off by car to Costa Navarino in the Messinia area of the Peloponnese. While on the highway we took a small detour to stop at the old bridge over the Corinth Canal which cuts through the Isthmus of Corinth. It connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. Already since antiquity rulers had dreamed of digging this canal to avoid having the sail around the Peloponnese. Yet, it took until the late 19th century for the canal to be dug. But it never was a commercial succes. While just over 6 kilometers long it was barely over twenty meters wide, too narow to let any commercial shipping through for too long. In addition the steep walls continuously eroded and had pieces of rock falling down at one time blocking the canal for a period of two years. And then in the 2nd World War retreating Nazi troops set off explosions to create more landslides to block the canal and blew up the bridges above and dumped locomotives in to it. Today it’s a tourist attraction.

Costa Navarino (click to enlarge)We spent nearly a week at the unique Costa Navarino resort. The Costa Navarino resort is the brain child of Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos who was born in the village of Diavolitsi, in Messinia, southwest Peloponnese. After growing up in Messinia, Captain Vassilis went to sea, gradually working his way up to master. When he finally came ashore in 1974 after 21 years, he established Costamare Shipping Company, which quickly expanded and today is one of the world’s largest containers owners/operators. His vision had always been focused on preserving, promoting and giving back to the land of his birth. His vision for Costa Navarino involved a bold and forward-looking development of high-end sustainable accommodations and facilities that would allow guests from all over the world to explore the natural beauty, history and traditions of his native Messenia, while at the same time creating jobs that would enable Messinians to stay in their homeland or even return. He definitly succeeded in making his vision come to life and have many enjoy the beauty of the region while staying at the resort.

Messinian food (click to enlarge)One activity we thoroughly enjoyed as a family was the experience of Authentic Village Cooking. We had the chance to discover traditional Messinian cooking with the help of local women using regional techniques and fresh ingredients. The best part of it all was that we had the opportunity to enjoy the food we prepared. The location is just great a beautifully restored old home overlooking the bay.

Voidokilia Half Moon Beach (click to enlarge)The area around the resort has plenty of sightseeing to offer. One particularly attractive feature is the Voidokilia “half moon” beach. It’s barely a few kilometers from the resort and has calm beautiful turquoise waters. The beach is presumed to be Homer’s “sandy Pylos” where Telemachus was welcomed by King Nestor when searching for his father, Odysseus.(Wikipedia)

The cave of Nestor below the castle (click to enlarge)Above the beach is Nestor’s Cave and above this are the ruins of thirteenth-century Frankish castle (Old Navarino or Palaiokastro). The Cave of Nestor is where, according to mythology Hermes had hidden the stolen oxen of Helios, whereas according to Pausanias (36.2) it was the place where the cattle of the king Neleus were kept .(Wikipedia)

Thrasymedes Tomb(click to enlarge)Overlooking the beach at the north eastern end is the tomb of Nestor’s son, Thrasymedes of the Mycenaean period (1680–1060 BC) with Neolithic finds at the same site showing occupation as early as 4000 BC. The tomb has been excavated. The tholos is 5 meters wide and its floor is covered with pebbles. It contained about 7 burials. Among the movable finds of the (otherwise looted in the past) tomb count arrow heads, necklaces made of carnelian and amethyst, two Mycenaean pottery vessels etc. The first use of the tumulus (pithos burials’ phase) dates to the Middle Helladic Period whereas the prime time of the tholos tomb was the Mycenaean period. Around the tomb were found Late Classical and Hellenistic votive tablets as well as a small model of an altar, which points to some kind of hero or ancestors’ cult. (Wikipedia)

Last Updated: 01-09-2018

Copyright © 2018 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved

Aug
28
2016

Exceptional Athens – Greece


View of the Acropolis from Plaka (click to enlarge)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. For a trip to Greece I can recommend a guide that is even more detailed, updated and comprehensive on the 100 best things to do in Greece. It is over 10,000 words and packed with practical tips and advice. You can find it here: 100 Best Things To Do In Greece.


Carithides in the Acropolis Museum (click to enlarge)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.


Part of the Partenon (click to enlarge)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.


Temple Cariathides of the Erechtheion (click to enlarge)One of the more attractive views is the one of the Temple Cariathides of the Erechtheion seen from the Partenon and looking out over the city of Athens with its hills in the background.


Odeon of Herodes theater (click to enlarge)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.


Plaka (click to enlarge)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.


Temple of Zeus, Athens (click to enlarge)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.

Panathenaic Stadium(click to enlarge)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 honor guard at Syntagma Square in front of the parliament (click to enlarge)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 © 2018 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved








Aug
14
2015

Walled Fortified Churches of Transylvania

Walled Church Fortress of Cincu  (click to enlarge)

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.

Prejmer


Inside Prejmer, tha family rooms  (click to enlarge)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.

Prejmer  (click to enlarge)The Teutonic Knights constructed the fortress Tartlau (Prejmer) in 1212–1213. The town near the castle begun development by 1225, and was the eastern-most settlement of the Transylvanian Saxons.

Biertan


Biertan from afar  (click to enlarge)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 lock (click to enlarge)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.

Viscri


Viscri  (click to enlarge)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.

The altar  (click to enlarge)The classic 19th-century altar has as centerpiece "the Blessing of the Children" by the painter J. Paukratz from Rupea.

Valea Viilor


Valea Viilor  (click to enlarge)When we visited the site was closed. It appears a rather small ensemble.


Other Sites

Harman


Harman  (click to enlarge)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.

Rupea


Rupea Fort  (click to enlarge)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.

Railroad

Defunct Transylvanian railroad  (click to enlarge)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.

Farm houses


Farm Houses  (click to enlarge)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.

CITIES

Brasov


Piata Sfantului  (click to enlarge)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.

Brasov Black Church  (click to enlarge)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.

Catherine gate to Kronstadt  (click to enlarge)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


Hill country  (click to enlarge)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.

Hill country  (click to enlarge)It has cobble stoned streets lined with colorful “burgher” houses.



Last Updated: 14-08-2015



Copyright © 2014 Hans Dewaele – All rights reserved