September 20, 2013

THE GREEK ISLANDS

Greece is a country with 1,400 islands, 227 of which are inhabited. We visited two of the largest. 

RHODES


     I was standing in a narrow street in the city of Rhodes, my hair as wet as if I had just emerged from the swimming pool at our hotel. As water oozed from my pores and dripped down my sweaty face and back, gluing my clothes to my body, I noticed a shop filled with silvery fur coats. “Who could even think of a fur coat in this weather?” I wondered. And then I thought, “Would the shop owner even let someone as sweaty as I am try on a fur coat?”


Hospitalier's Courtyard
     The incongruity struck me until I realized that I was in a different part of the old city of Rhodes. We had entered by the gate from downtown and run a gauntlet of tiny shops filled with cheap merchandise: little plaster white and blue Greek houses, key chains, stuffed donkeys, wooden spoons, t-shirts. The only reason to purchase them was to have a souvenir emblazoned with the name of Rhodes or Greece to display or wear back home. Now we were in the middle of a wider street, one filled with international brand name shops. A bit further on I realized that this section of town ended at a different gate, the one where the cruise ships disgorged their passengers. Did either of us see the real Rhodes?  

     Because of its prime location in the Mediterranean Sea, Rhodes was long coveted by different rulers
Valley of the Butterflies
and the ruins on the island reflect that confused ethnicity. The loveliest place on the island, however, is the Valley of the Butterflies. It is a natural forest and the temperature is mercifully cooler than the rest of the island. Water flows, trickling in creeks, falling over rocks, even in the summer when the rest of the island is dry. The “butterflies” are actually Jersey tiger moths but they congregate here each summer just as the monarch butterflies do in Mexico. When one flew into my nose I almost squealed; but all the other visitors were whispering or silent, so as not to disturb the wildlife, and I simply giggled. 


CRETE


     In my previous blog, I asked what the role of women had been in societies with a predominant goddess. According to our guide at Knossos, in the Minoan society, from the 27th to the 15th centuries BC, women were treated equally with men and worked alongside them. Makes one ponder greater theological questions.

     Crete, like the rest of Greece, cannot decide which world it wants to inhabit: the past or the modern, the developed or third world, the industrious or the laissez-faire. The country is building wonderful new museums but, as a whole, does not seem to appreciate its historical past, unless it will bring in a tourist dollar.

Aegean Sea - Actual Colors
     One of our bus trips seemed typical. We left our hotel in Heraklion to travel by bus to
Agios Nikolaos, a distance of about 35 miles. During the hour and a half trip that made multiple stops at every little town along the way, three different ticket takers inspected our tickets. Two rode the bus at once. Were they dueling ticket takers or is this part of Greece’s Full Employment Act (if there were such a thing)?

     Our hotel had a gourmet restaurant that delighted our palettes so much we ate there regularly. One night, however, we went out for a typical Cretan meal. This apparently must include baby something (goat, pig, or lamb) with celery root and barley bread. I ate pasta with “rooster.” All I can say is, “It tasted like chicken.” For dessert fruit is served with a soft cheese with honey and nuts floating on top. At every meal the waiter gave us something complimentary, an extra glass of wine, a dessert, an appetizer, or a lemoncello.

Window in Venetian Fort
     While here we began to make the transition from Greece to Italy by visiting Rethymno. It has a Venetian fort but, unlike other preserved sites in the Mediterranean, it was more than just a fort. The enclosed walls were city-size and efforts are underway to restore much of it. It was the best example of Venetian naval superiority we have seen yet and put my mind toward moving on to Venice.

But, first the Amalfi Coast.

September 9, 2013

ATHENS

Parthenon at Night

     We were told that a couple of days in Athens would be enough—and it is, because there is little beyond the Acropolis with its hovering Parthenon, to intrigue visitors. The Parthenon, however, can fill a significant amount of time. Our first night we ate dinner on a hotel terrace with the Parthenon, on its steep “sacred rock,” looming over us. The next day we spent at the Acropolis Museum, an architectural model for how museums should be designed.

     
One of the oozing sores in Athens is the removal of portions of the
Acropolis Museum with Third Floor in Direction of Parthenon
Parthenon by the British in the early 1800’s. The Elgin Marbles, now displayed in the British Museum, include pediments and friezes that largely defaced the Parthenon. Greece has demanded they be returned. Britain has maintained that Athens does not possess a museum adequate to hold them. Voila! The Greeks built a new museum to hold their heritage—and it is a marvel. The building is glass with wide open spaces, much less crowded than portions of the British Museum, with a third floor oriented in the same direction as the Parthenon. Now the British are arguing that returning the marbles to Greece would set a precedent for other works the Empire obtained. (And it probably would!) Our trek up the imposing hill to the Acropolis the following day was greatly enhanced by having visited the museum.

     
Old and New Athens
Athens is a combination of the old smothered by the new, the modern stuck in the past. We arrived under a cloudy haze that seems to reflect the country’s present mood.  Its citizens are depressed and with reason given the economy. Perhaps the economy explains why they are so gracious to tourists, one source of income. Whenever Athenians see a tourist with a map they stop to help and, unlike some other countries, they are not trying to send you to their brother’s shop. They answer your questions, orient you, and send you on your way with a smile. It was a local man who told us that it was too early to eat dinner anyway (the direction we were seeking) and, if we hurried, we would be at the Tomb of
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
the Unknown Soldier just in time for the changing of the guard. “It is worth seeing,” he assured us—and it was--with the choreographed balletic movements of soldiers, in uniforms copied from the days when the Ottomans occupied Greece.

     Athens was for centuries dedicated to Athena in her many forms. I can’t help but wonder what life for women was like when the major deity was feminine. Our time in Athens is ended, so I will carry that question on to Rhodes and then to Crete. 

ROOTS


     During the first two weeks of our Grand Tour, the sunshine has been endless. It has bleached my hair almost white-blonde, which pleases me because, the blonder my hair, the less obvious my gray roots will be as they grow out. This report, however, is not about that kind of roots. It is about my family roots, in Annonay, France, where my grandfather was born in 1849. Yes, my grandfather, and yes, 1849! My grandfather and later my father both married later than most men, so we three generations have already covered 164 years.

False Windows in Lyon
     We took the train from Paris to Lyon, such a comfortable experience. Except for the long walk to the railcar, dragging suitcases, the trip is so pleasant. Plenty of room for luggage at the end of the car and for legs when sitting. Comfortable seats. Refreshments served.

     Lyon itself is an interesting city, but seems less impressive after Paris. It is, however, considered the culinary center of France. Since all French food is wonderful, this is an extraordinary boast. We did appreciate the exquisite combinations of food, the flavors that threaten to make a person drool in public, the creamy patès, the pastries that are works of art. The richness of the food, however, made us long for simpler fare.

  

While in Lyon we took a car and drove through the Rhône valley to the
Balloon Mania in Annonay
town of Annonay where my grandfather, Jean Pierre Genthon, was born. Annonay is the home of Renè Montgolfier, the inventor of the hot air balloon and Marc Seguin, the inventor of the cable- wire-cable suspension bridge. I suspect that explains why my grandfather became an engineer as did my father, whose name was Renè and who was always fascinated with suspension bridges, although it was pontoon bridges he built as an American Army officer in France during World War I.







     
Bend in the Rhône River
The Rhône valley is fertile, with orchards, gardens, and vineyards everywhere a person could find dirt in this hilly land. The vineyards climb up 70-degree slopes and breezes and sunshine embrace the rosy apples, corn tassels, and flowering trees. France, we loved you and are sorry to leave you so soon!

September 4, 2013

"Impressions" of Paris


   
"Impression" from our Hotel Room
 Paris, Style, Art. I wonder if the words are synonyms. As soon as we landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the graceful architectural lines of the mega-terminal astounded me. Even the public restrooms had a simple but elegant design.Our small, charming hotel touts the design of its rooms, and it was striking, although I’m not sure black and orange stripes and over-sized insects would have been my choice for a sleeping room. 

   





 French support of the arts is pervasive. Yes, there are museums and our days were filled with art: the
Louvre from Musée d'Orsay
Louvre with such vast halls we literally lost our way; the Musée d’Orsay where impressionism moves through its myriad phases; and the l’Orangerie, where two elliptical rooms with curved walls display interpretations by Monet of his water lilies. A visit to Giverny to see the water lilies that inspired Monet’s work made us wish we had another day to return and visit the paintings in l’Orangerie once again.





Theatre at Versailles
 But, it isn’t only the museums that demonstrate Paris’ love for the arts. The government supports ongoing restoration of historic buildings. The city of Paris, for the 850th anniversary of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, is paying to restore its bells. They are actually restoring the gold trim at Versailles and on statues around the city. Television channels support concerts of classical music.
 

   

     Everywhere there is graceful art, wide tree-lined boulevards, and elegant food. It is fortunate the food is so good because the menu varies little in the tourist areas.

     The French also have a deep respect for history. How surprised we were to learn that, in spite of their opposition to a monarchy, new governments are formed at Versailles because this is still perceived as the seat of power.

     We were blessed with beautiful weather in Paris, much like Seattle’s summer this past year. Temperatures were comfortable and, unlike Seattle, while the sun kisses your face, breezes from the Seine brush your hair.

Gary's Lily Pads

Michele's Lily Pads