Sunday, October 25, 2009

the flowers of monemvasia

The weekend after Thanksgiving was a long weekend holiday sort of deal in Kefalonia, so we had a five day stretch without digging or classwork. A few people flew to Crete, a few to Corfu, a few stayed to explore Kefalonia a bit more. A fellow Albertan, Cat, and I went to the mainland again to visit Sparta. Actual Sparta! Pretty wicked. Mostly. Sparti is the main city in the area and is kind of the centre of the ancient Spartan sites and artifacts. The museum is fabulous, with a set of beautiful (and unpublished to boot, tasty to see!) 3rd century AD Roman frescos. It was the first time I’ve ever seen any depiction or mention of a sea-centaur which is, quite frankly, just badass. The town itself...meh. I profess to prefer the non-touristy areas of Greece but I speak Greek horribly and am fairly dependent on shopkeepers and waiters who are able to speak a few words of English. Beyond the museum there wasn’t much to do/see in Sparti. The site is interesting, but has no signage at all and without a lecturer like our field school director, Geoffrey, I kind of blank out. Classicist I am not.

But then we went to Monemvasia. Oh, Monemvasia. It’s in the Laconia region of the Peloponnese (the eastern side of Sparta) and it’s amazing. Apparently the road to the town was only finished two or three years ago, and it’s touted as the gem of Greece that not even the Greeks know about. For a town that for most of the 20th century was described as forgotten, abandoned, and lonely, it is certainly a busy place now, but it seems like it’s still unknown to a lot of tourists. Lots of pictures of it here!

The new town is on the mainland and the upper and lower sections of the old town are on a massive rock that sits a good half kilometre offshore. From what I’ve read, the 300 metre tall rock didn’t appear in the area until the 5th or 6th century AD, after a massive earthquake in the area, and began to be inhabited shortly thereafter. And stayed inhabited right up until the modern age, which is why it’s in such good shape right now. The Romans, the Venetians, and two cycles each of the Byzantines and Turks occupying it meant the town and citadel were constantly revamped.

How to describe it, though? Imagine every stereotypical medieval town in Italy or Greece that you’ve seen in cheesy movies. It’s like that. All stone, all winding cobblestone streets and Escheresque staircases that variously lead to private dwellings, stone arches, abandoned churches, portellos through the castle wall, hidden beaches – or they could lead nowhere at all. Then the zig-zag pathway that leads up to the upper town, and the heat and dryness and the cats sitting on the sills of hobbit-sized windows and doorways and the overwhelming smell of flowers. It would be a fabulous setting for an M.R. James style ghost story, which I may just have to write myself and give a ridiculously romantic title like “The Flowers of Monemvasia”.

There are purportedly 26 extant churches in the town, including the main one of Agia Sophia on the very top of the rock. The church of Christos Elkmenos is on the right and the archaeological museum is on the left. Agia Sophia is the best preserved and has frescos and paintings still on its walls and ceilings, and was once the centre of the upper class dwellings on the top of the rock, ie) the best place to be when pirates attacked.

But today it’s the lower town that’s inhabited, with the upper town in complete ruins besides Agia Sophia. I was happy to hear that there are strict regulations for private dwellings in oldschool Monemvasia in order to keep the medieval air about the place. I imagine the people who live in the houses are the types of people who get featured in architectural magazines in articles about how to best preserve your pre-17th century cottage’s plaster walls and hand-tatted lace curtains. Madness. I can’t imagine how much the real estate here is going for, but there are certainly renovations going on, with materials brought in on pack horses because of the narrowness of the cobblestone streets.

”Vertical rock – all day drinking the boiling sun, holding it in its guts opposite the open sea, and you with your back against the rock, chest open to the sea – half fire, half dew...” - Ioannis Ritsos, a renowned Greek poet born in Monemvasia.

For, you see, any good castle fortification has its value defined by ease of access to water and food once you’ve barricaded yourself inside the walls. And it’s here that Monemvasia is not substantially better off than many of the castles scattered around Greece, because the rock lacks a natural water source – which backs up the theory that the rock is actually a huge chunk of the mainland that fell into the ocean during an ancient earthquake. The archaeological museum offers up the quote “You can find whatever you want in this city, except for water...One neighbour does not even give a drop of water to the other to drink” from a 17th century traveller. Barring travel to the mainland, it was rainwater or nothing. There are still cisterns in both the upper and lower towns that took advantage of just that.

So, yeah. When I retire a billionaire I am going to have a house in Monemvasia for the winters and I’m going to dress up in medieval clothing and faff about all day on sunny terraces playing a lyre or something. It was so ridiculously idyllic. There was a moment on the last morning where Cat and I were sitting on the terrace of a cafe, drinking very fresh orange juice with very warm, very buttery chocolate filled croissants, looking over the terracotta rooftiles to the ocean and listening to the birds singing in the lemon trees beside was surreal. If ever you get to go to Greece, go to Monemvasia, my dears. It’s worth the bus ride from Athens.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Olympia and Pylos

Thanksgiving weekend (or at least Thanksgiving for Canadians) everyone as a group headed to the mainland Peloponnese area to go to Olympia and Pylos for some school planned tourism activities. Flickr set!

I am a dorkface and left my camera behind when we went to the Olympia sanctuary site and museum, which is disappointing because it was lovely. Overall the space was bigger, less crowded and shadier than the Acropolis, and the variety of buildings was also really interesting. It’s also where they light the Olympic flame before it starts to travel to the Olympic city – I believe they lit the flame for Vancouver the weekend after we were there. I seem to have continuing coincidences with the Olympic Games. I was born in Calgary in 1988, the last year the Olympics were held in Canada, and I’m attending university in the city hosting the 2010 Olympic Games. Not to mention, you know, actually standing on the site of the first Olympic Games less than six months before the next games themselves.

The range of flora out here still floors me: the Peloponnese is where Kalamata is and everywhere there are groves of olive trees. It’s very surreal to be walking around in mid-October with orange trees, apple trees, pomegranate trees, and ripe olives hanging from every branch. Almonds and dates as well.

We stayed overnight in Pylos on Saturday, where there were apparently no less than three weddings taking place. It seems like the Greek Orthodox way to celebrate getting hitched is to have the entire wedding party drive around the town square for an hour leaning on their horns the entire time. In other words, “Ow, my ears!” The church in the town is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in Greece so far – the roof is this glossy pearlescent grey that just shone in the dusk light.

Near Pylos is the Methoni castle and Nestor’s palace. Methoni is the younger site, but is absolutely massive and fascinating. It’s been occupied since the 500s BC by, variously, Spartans, Venetians, and Ottoman Turks. It’s hard to tell from the outside but the grounds of the castle are remarkably sprawling with Turkish baths and walls and towers still standing all over the place, with nothing between North Africa and you but a few hundred kilometres.

Oh, Greece, why you gotta be like this? All turquoise water and ancient ruins. I just don’t know what to do with myself while I’m around you.

Nestor’s Palace was interesting in an archaeological way opposed the whole “walking on history” style of Methoni. Nestor is a character in the Iliad but Greeks are always eager to attribute places and objects to people from the epics. The above picture is actually of a preserved – wait for it - bathtub in a room of the palace. A large portion of the clay tablet archives were preserved (ie, baked into permanence) when the palace was attacked and burned by invaders. One of the tablets purportedly reads (in Linear B) “The watchers are watching the water – someone is coming (up the coast)”. Ooo, creepy.

An update about the trip to Sparta will come as soon as I’ve finished uploading the pictures , which should be in the next day or two.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

the unknown constellations sway -

I am going to update soon, I swear. Last weekend the group was on the mainland to go to Pylos and Olympia. This weekend is a long weekend on kefalonia, so I am going to the mainland this afternoon, again, to trek around the Sparta area of the Pelopponese with another girl from the group. Most people seem to be flying out to Corfu/Crete/Santorini but I would rather not get on a plane, no thank you.

It's been chillier than usual the past few days but mostly it makes me miss good old Canadian autumnal weather. Especially Halloween - I believe we are going to have some sort of bonfire/ghost story night to celebrate it out here. I bought a book of M.R. James ghost stories in Argostoli. They're super oldschool early 20th century style ghost stories, and all seem to consist of educated gentlemen going abroad, finding an antique or artifact of some kind (usually from the Crusades, good Protestant that James was) and being visited upon by strange horrors in the night in their hotel rooms. Yeah, just the kind of stuff I need to be reading right now.

And I have come upon this place
By lost ways, by a nod, by words,
By faces, by an old man's face
By words, by voices, a lost way - ,
And here above the chimney stack
The unknown constellations sway -
And by what way shall I go back?
-Archibald MacLeish

Sunday, October 4, 2009


In the summer of 1953 there was a massive earthquake in Kefalonia, which I had heard/read about prior to coming here. I didn’t expect to see the effects of it still so clearly visible around the island.

This rock is about 50 metres offshore of a beach down the road from our apartment. On the lower right hand side of the rock you can see where the sea level was on this side of the island prior to the earthquake – it’s a good metre and a half lower now. If you were to walk/swim along the cliffside to the left of the frame, you would see what used to be sea caves exposed all along the rock face.

Turning left away from the rock. This is the municipal building that we have been using for Greek classes/pottery washing/artifact storage/the occasional movie night. Which leads me to mention my 21st birthday, which was last Monday. Uh, best birthday ever. The first half of the day I excavated the rest of the bone deposit, then I had a nap and watched the first part of Lord of the Rings with the group and ate cake and pizza. I seriously could not have asked for a better day.

Ehhh back to the earthquake! Poros wasn’t an established town until after 1953, when people from the destroyed mountain villages moved down to the sandier coastal areas where their homes were more likely to survive another earthquake. The ancient towns and cities of Kefalonia weren’t usually built on the coast, because the Ionian had a serious pirate problem well even into the 18th century.

This is a Venetian castle in Assos, on the other side of the island from Poros. Good for hiding from pirates. Pictures from the north side of the island (Myrtos, Assos and Fiscardo) are here. It's much more touristy than the Poros area, which results in the kind of stereotypical whitewashed and brightly painted buildings. Really, really brightly painted, and blindingly bright sky and water. I actually took down the saturation in some of the photos because they were looking a little too neon.

This is also Assos, which actually survived the earthquake better than the southern end of the island. There are a few abandoned, ruined houses in and around the villages by Poros but most didn’t even survive enough to become hollowed out ruins. Just rubble.

Hettie, who works for the municipality and has done a lot of the work to organized the field school, told us some stories about the earthquake. If you talk to someone from Kefalonia who was born before or around the earthquake, one of the first things they often tell foreigners is where they were when the earthquake happened. George, the man who owns the house next to our apartment and who graciously lets us use his washer, was stationed in Australia with the army at the time. After the earthquake something like two thirds of the island moved away. After World War II, the late 1940s Greek civil war and the earthquake, what else could you do? How many more times were you supposed to rebuild?

Makis, Hettie’s husband, was six months old in August 1953 and his family stayed on Kefalonia. Hettie told us that the main reason that the loss of life was less than it could have been was because the biggest earthquake happened very early in the morning in a hot month when most people were sleeping outside in their gardens rather than in their homes. Makis was the only one in his family who was still in his house and survived a wall falling on top of him. Another woman Hettie knows says her husband was standing underneath an olive tree when the earthquake hit. He reached up and grabbed onto a branch with both hands to keep from falling, and he was lifted off the ground as the tree turned a full 360 degrees in the ground. That was definitely something new I learned: I knew earthquakes can create up and down movement, and lateral movement, but some also cause sections of land to move in a circular fashion.

Our excavation site is on the slope of this acropolis, the ancient Pronnoi acropolis. Experiencing an earthquake while on site probably wouldn’t be nice, but to honest I worry more often about the effects of the rain on the artifacts and skeletons we’ve exposed. Yet again we had to leave two opened graves exposed over the weekend, a weekend where it (yet again) thundered and rained like hell.
The majority of the graves in the cemetery are 6th century pithoi burials. Pithoi (singular: pithos) are large, kind of almond shaped pots used for food storage. Some people have pithoi or replicas as planters in their gardens in front of their houses on the island, kind of like old barrels and cartwheels in western Canada. Since the burials are on the side of a hill, the ancient Pronnoi people would dig a wide, deep hole and line it with rocks and gravel to keep the burial from collapsing. The pithos would be broken up and rebuilt on its side in the gravel, with the corpse and grave goods placed inside it before the top of the pithos was rebuilt over them. Right now there is a slightly disturbed pithos being excavated – the skeleton is mostly exposed now. There is also another partial, non-pithos burial that was partially excavated last year. This year we had to move a section of wall that had been built over top of the head and torso of the skeleton and, believe me, the head definitely looks like the guy had a stone wall built on top of him.

I haven’t been working on either of the above burials, but I have been clearing out a bone deposit with Julie, the one person here who actually knows her bones (something I cannot claim quite yet). We thought it was just scattered bone from a disturbed burial until Julie found a pair of articulated feet at one end – surprise! Articulated means the feet were in their anatomical position, side by side, as if the body had been laid flat along our bone deposit area instead of buried in one spot and then mixed up and moved to our deposit area. Then this weekend while going through the bones we realized it’s not just one person, but at least two. We need to wait for the local archaeology services to bring up last year’s bone collection to double check, because they didn’t have anyone in the group last year that could identify whether there were multiple people in the bone deposit. Except it’s less a bone deposit and more a burial now. Curiouser and curiouser.

This is the platform visible on the right side of the picture of the municipality building. Yes, I have jumped off it, but it's disappointingly non-scary. :D