Thursday 8th May 2008, Corinth
We are all camped together on a very pleasant site by the shore of the Bay of Corinth. The weather has turned warm and dry again and last night the four of us took our retsina, sesame seed bars and pistachio nuts down on to the beach to watch the sunset. The great joy of travelling out of the main season is that it is rarely too hot for long and there are very few people around yet.
The road surfaces are undeniably bad in Greece but generally, so far, we have encountered very little traffic and drivers are not aggressive as they are in Italy. True many of them seem to have a death wish, waiting patiently behind you for miles until a particularly dangerous bend and an oncoming motorbike or two, before pulling out to overtake, twirling their worry beads and talking on their mobiles as they do so.
This morning we arranged to meet at Corinth and went our separate ways. Ours took us along flowery byways to the site of ancient Nemea, set in the heart of one of present-day Greece's most important wine producing areas. While Ian, following in the footsteps of the English limerick writer and water colourist Edward Lear, explored the site, Jill took a rare few minutes of peace and tranquillity to wait amongst the vines and browse through our travel books.
Nemea was an essential stop for the travellers in search of the sublime and picturesque and the little museum on the site has a good selection of early engravings and drawing. The three columns of the Doric Tempe of Zeus to be seen on most of those early pictures have been joined by several others erected from the drums toppled in medieval times.
Nemea was the venue of the Nemean Games, held in honour of Zeus. We did not visit the stadium but it is possible to see the starting blocks in the museum. These were linked to a special starting mechanism rather like the stalls used in greyhound racing today. A falling rope would trip any athlete who tried to jump the gun. (Anachronism there!) The baths for the athletes were particularly well preserved, with individual wash basins and plumbing which could be from a modern construction site!
The landscape here is softer than we have been used to. Quite different from Mycenae. The many acres of fresh green vines lie exposed to the sunshine on gently undulating hills. There are still many olive trees interspersed with the vines and the narrow tractor paths leading out to the vineyards are a tangled mass of beautiful spring flowers.
We followed one such track out to the remains of a tiny ruined temple to Hercules. From the shade of a lone olive tree we gazed out from its warm, tumbled walls over its picturesque surroundings. A tractor was working at a distance in one of the vineyards, otherwise the only sound was of bees, a lizard scuttling along a fallen plinth and the permanent background noise of birdsong. This little site, for me at least, carried far more magic than the more spectacular, restored sites with their guidebooks, refreshments and coach parties.
The region around Nemea is where the legends of Hercules are supposed to have happened. Indeed it is at Nemea that he carried out his first labour – fighting and destroying a lion that had been sent by Hera to destroy the city. The little ruined temple to him, lying abandoned in a vineyard, still showed the steps up to the portico and the stumps of four weathered columns. The floor beyond is flagged, with evidence of an altar. Beyond was a raised dais where presumably a giant statue of Hercules once stood. We discovered a large, shaped stone that we think may well have been part of the lower torso of such a statue.
Ian spent an idyllic time pottering in the temple, digging mud out from grooves in the floor and exclaiming delightedly that they would have provided the key to locking the various blocks together or the base of a possible statue or altar. So engrossed was he that he even failed to notice he was almost on top of a hornets' nest - huge beasts at least 2 inches in length, hovering and darting between the flowers and stones. Normally Ian will go into a blind panic at the mere sight of a lone wasp back home!
Meanwhile Jill produced cups of coffee which we drank on the temple steps – or in Ian's case, sitting on Hercules buttocks!
We continued our route through various little towns and villages, none of them particularly attractive, towards Corinth and the sea. On the way a huge, impressive rock rises up 575 metres from the plain. On the summit is the Acrocorinthos which towers above the ancient city of Corinth. It was here that a thousand sacred prostitutes served at the temple of Aphrodite in those licentious times that caused so much Angst to St. Paul that twice he must have struggled up the almost sheer sides to deliver his epistles to the Corinthians. They had far more pleasurable things to occupy them anyway and Saint Paul seemed to have been batting on something of a losing wicket.
We drove Modestine up the winding side to the very top. It was tough going, needing bottom gear at times, but the views from the top were stunning. They are probably the widest in Greece, stretching up to 60 kilometres in all directions. The site has been successively modified by every ruling power in Greece. Hence there are three successive entrance gates, the lowest is mostly Turkish, the middle, Frankish and the third, or highest is Byzantine. It has a five kilometre circuit of walls.
All the sites and museums close for the day at 3pm in Greece leaving us insufficient time to do justice to such a magnificent site in such a stunning setting. We will have to return. We contented ourselves with a scramble up to the Byzantine gate, repeatedly exclaiming in delight and astonishment at each new vista. Below us lay white Corinth stretched along the edge of the bay, and along the far side, lost in the haze, must lie Delphi. In other directions were distant mountain ranges and other fortified summits. Amongst the ruined buildings and walls of the Acrocorinthos the grass was crowded with poppies, mallow, marguerites, flowering thistles and many other Mediterranean plants, offering a perfect synthesis of history and nature.
Following our 2006 map of Central Greece we made our way down towards the sea. Our route was blocked by a railway line! Nothing on the map indicated its existence but quite suddenly the little road we were on just wasn't there! Without even a turning space we had to reverse Modestine back and weave our way along kilometres of unmetalled, potholed tracks to find a bridge across and finally reach our campsite. David and Lesley say they had exactly the same experience when they travelled to join us a few hours later. How do people in full size campers manage?
Friday 9th May 2008, Corinth
Today we have not done a great deal. It has been warm and sunny, though less so than it appears to have been back in England where we have had reports of 32 degrees. Here it has been nearer the mid 20s.
We spent the morning catching up on domestic chores - even travelling they cannot be avoided indefinitely - editing photos and answering emails. In the afternoon we went into Corinth on the bus.
Corinth owes its importance to its geographical location at the neck of an ismthus between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf. Since ancient times it has been a major trading centre and ships and cargoes were dragged overland between the two seas. In more recent times of course the canal has been cut through, avoiding long voyages around the Peloponnes for medium size shipping.
Despite its illustrious name modern Corinth is a very great disappointment. Throughout history the region has been regularly devastated by earthquakes and the present, recent city has been constructed to minimise such damage in the future. It is constructed on a grid system of low-level concrete buildings reinforced with iron rods, ensuring they will hold together during inevitable future tremors. The city is utilitarian and unimaginative - the complete antithesis of the splendours of nearby ancient Corinth with its ornate marble temples, fountains and public buildings constructed back in the 6th century BC! In those days, earth movements were attributed to the displeasure of certain deities, so ever greater effort was made to construct magnificent temples to appease them. There are a few public gardens and squares in modern Corinth but generally it is scruffy, dusty and boring. Even the harbour and sea front seem little more than a deserted wasteland. The railway station has now been closed, the city being served by a new line (the one not marked on our map that caused us trouble the other day) several kilometres away.
Bus stops and time tables are arbitrary in Greece. Having seen all we could hope for in Corinth we hung around hopefully near where the bus had dropped us and after half an hour recognised our same bus coming back. The helpful conductor put us off at the campsite. We will not be returning to Corinth.
Monday 12th May 2008, Corinth
We have been either too busy or too exhausted to cope with blogging over the past couple of days. However, there is now a fuel shortage in Greece with tanker drivers lined up along the roadside and most garages closed. Along the route from here to Patras anxious drivers are watching their fuel gauges and hoping they have enough left to reach the ferry. Erik only has enough for 30 miles and Modestine not much more, so we are staying put on our pleasant campsite with the sea lapping the beach and an endless supply of retsina. It gives us time to do the washing and for Ian to sort out his manhole cover photographs and work on his French book trade notes.
On Saturday we decided to "do" Athens. There was so much to report we have treated it as a separate travelogue to be sent shortly.
Yesterday was Sunday and we woke to the sound of rain and the clomping of clogs on gravel as the Dutch contingent gathered together to bemoan the weather and that back in Holland there was a heat wave. When Ian went to buy bread he returned with the news of the fuel strike. So we all decided that as moving on was not an option we'd take a walk together through the rain to the site of ancient Corinth, some four kilometres from the campsite along byways. This was very pleasant. The rain eased and the weather stayed comfortably cool.
Ancient Corinth is everything that modern Corinth is not. Much of what is there dates from the time of Roman occupation as they destroyed much of the Greek city when they arrived. Both cultures though have contributed much and there remains sufficient to mentally recreate the streets, fountains, forum, temple of Apollo and the major public buildings while walking along the original paved Lechaion Way through a tumbled, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. There was a sense of awe standing in front of the Bema or podium in the main market place where St Paul was accused of blasphemy by the Jews of Corinth. The town was massive, perhaps as large as 750,000 inhabitants at its height, with walls extending from the crags of Acrocorinth right down to the coast so, unsurprisingly, only a small part of the town has been excavated.
There is an excellent museum of statues, funerary ceramics and domestic artefacts discovered at the site and a couple of amazingly well preserved mosaics, one depicting Dionysus at the centre of a geometric circle. The shaping and toning of the constituent tesserae to create expression is amazing. The Greeks and Romans discovered pixilation long before the invention of computer graphics!
Returning home through the village we discovered an unmarked enclosure away from the main archaeological site. It turned out to be the remains of the Asklepion or hospital where the sick were brought for healing and recovery. It has never been fully excavated and funding has been concentrated on the main site. Consequently, apart from a general display board we were alone to discover what we could. This was fascinating, clambering over the walls, discovering underground rooms, ancient stairways and hollows in the rock face. In places there were remains of original plaster and several middens of oyster shells and pottery shards. We literally stumbled over pot handles, rims of funerary urns and even pieces of painted and decorated red and black vases dating back probably to at least 600BC! David and Ian were like children in their excitement, delving into underground cavities and even a couple of ancient Greek medicinal snake pits in search of the unknown! Even disturbing enormous, fast moving centipedes did not deter them. Lesley and I had to admit however, that the abandoned area reminded us rather of derelict bombsites in south London when we were children! At a superficial level, when overgrown with daisies, poppies and coltsfoot, there is little to differentiate the broken architecture and rubbish heaps of ancient Greece with those produced by the bombers of the Third Reich!
Back on the byway out of the village Ian still searched the banks in the hope of discovering something exciting. He did! It was at least three foot long with a shining bronze skin! We assumed it was a snake but it could have been a giant slow worm. It stayed motionless until David got slightly too close when it thrashed its way through the undergrowth and disappeared.
We have been all day today on the campsite. Everything any of us possesses has been washed and dried, our blogs, photos and emails are up to date and we are beginning to itch to be off again. Let's hope the strike has been settled and we can move on tomorrow.