Monday, 31 December 2012

Monday photo - 31st December

'Be careful not to fall in...'. Our guide's voice drifted back along the line as he nimbly negotiated his way up and down layers and layers of rice terraces.Chickens looked up from their constant pecking as the rest of us eased our way along with more care, whilst above us the weather changed in seconds from pouring rain, to bursts of sun, to rain again. The air lay thick around us as we panted our way down, and then up, the steep hills. The main draw to Banaue and Batad in the Philippines, the rice terraces are often dubbed 'the eighth wonder of the world' (although, aren't most places nowadays?) and are certainly impressive. Just don't forget your raincoat.


Sunday, 30 December 2012

The birthplace of the Olympic Games

We stopped off only by chance. Following the coast on the west side of the Peloponnese, idly gazing out over the soft blues of the ocean after a dramatic morning driving through winding mountain passes, F muttered something about a palace. 'I'm sure I read about a palace near here' he asserted, as I shoved aside maps looking for our Lonely Planet guide. A few minutes flipping through pages later, and we'd found it - the palace of Nestor, not far from where we had found ourselves. Not unlike Mycenae, the palace is another site of the same era tangled in myth - the hero Nestor was an Argonaut and fought in the Trojan war.

As we'd made good time so far, we decided to take a quick look. Although the accompanying museum was closed, the palace is incredibly well preserved, featuring a distinct floor plan and original features, including a terracotta bathtub still in place. It must have been a magnificent place to live, high above the coast, looking out onto sparkling water glinting from the noon sun.

What was even more exciting however (although I will admit that exciting is a rather subjective word...exciting for me in this case) is that the site is undergoing a current excavation, and was full of archaeologists uncovering new sections. We watched them work, the team labouring in the heat and perfectly content to have a few observers. The palace is one of the smaller sites that may easily be by-passed in favour of the larger, more famous ruins, but is definitely worth a visit, particularly whilst excavations are still at work there.

Moving on, we soon arrived at the main destination for the day: Olympia. We parked in between a long row of coaches, promptly changed our minds, and checked in at our hotel before returning later in the afternoon. The difference was dramatic - as we walked in, the last of the groups walked out, and apart from the old family here and there, the ruins quickly emptied out. Unfortunately, countless natural disasters have stripped the centre of Olympic history of its former glory, with most buildings existing only as piles of tumbled stone or lone standing pillars, but the accompanying signs give clear information and guidance to what once had been.

Naturally, we couldn't resist having a race in the stadium (without our trusty chariots, alas), which I won, possibly due the substantial head start I gave myself, imagining the applause of the 45000 strong crowd as I gracefully (cough, cough) stepped over the finishing line. From there we marvelled at the scale of the Temple of Zeus, its lone standing column surrounded by a small hill of further pieces, each block taller than I am. Some buildings are in better shape - the Temple of Hera has resisted the forces of nature better than most, and the sheer size of the whole area means that there is plenty to explore. Visiting at the end of the day turned out to be a good move, and one that we would repeat throughout the trip - the temperature had dropped, and the late afternoon light was ideal for taking photos.

To be completely honest, Olympia was not the most stunning or atmospheric of the archaeological sites we visited in Greece, but the opportunity to stand at the birthplace of the Olympic games, particularly only a couple of months after hosting them in my home city, was not to be missed.


Saturday, 29 December 2012

'This is Spartaaaaaa!': Exploring the ruins of Mycenae, Mystras and Sparta

It was remarkably difficult to plan our trip to Greece. For most countries, we have a few 'must-see' places, and leave the rest to chance. But for Greece, the number of 'must-sees' just kept rising and rising the more I thought about it. I could have spent months slowly ambling from site to site and still only scraped the surface of this historically rich country. With only 10 days, however, we had to formulate a plan. We picked seven key archaeological sites, roughly sketched out a driving route, booked a hire car, and decided to stop off at places in between that took our fancy. It will come of no surprise then that after touching down in Athens late on the first day, we got a good night's sleep and set off bright and extremely early the following morning to hit the road.

Our first stop was Mycenae, arguably one of the greatest kingdoms in Greek history. An imposing influence for over 400 years, the city is also wrapped up in legend, founded by the great mythological hero Perseus. Perfectly situated in a dramatic landscape, the thick walls of the citadel look out over the surrounding high rolling hills. Still early morning, we arrived well before the tour groups, and had the site almost to ourselves. Entering beneath the Lion Gate, towering majestically above me, was an amazing moment, the city opening out in front of us as we passed through.

Although the citadel lies heavily in ruins, individual rooms are identifiable and the location and high walls give a sense of the power once held there. Upon reaching the far end, we descended into the secret cistern - a series of wet, slippery stairs leading underground, an excursion that would have been a lot easier if we'd have thought to bring along a torch, rather than stumbling and sliding around in the dark.

After Mycenae, we travelled onwards to ancient Sparta, stopping off at Larissa Fortress on the way. I was surprised at how little attention is paid to this famous city - on arrival in modern Sparta we located the Leonidas statue without difficulty, but there was only one small sign directing us through an olive grove to the ruins of the city. Tumbled columns lay scattered next to inscribed blocks of stone, pale vines wrapped around their bulk as nature gradually reclaims the area. The theatre was the most discernible feature, still mostly standing if littered with cracks. Although a sense of abandonment hangs low over Sparta, I loved the whole site, and we spent much longer there than originally intended. With no-one else around, and no barriers or entrance gates in sight, it felt lost and ready to be explored. Clambering over stones, we ran our hands over deeply carved lettering, compared column styles and sat listening to the wind gently brushing through the olive trees. It was peaceful and very atmospheric (F was particularly pleased that we had the place to ourselves as I couldn't embarrass him with my near continuous shouts of 'Spartaaaaaa'). But the sun crept lower, and we had one final stop on our list.

Leaving ancient Greece temporarily behind, we moved forward into the Byzantine era at the fortress of Mystras, just south of Sparta. I wasn't sure what to expect from this collection of churches and palaces winding steeply up the side of a mountain, but was very impressed with what we found.

Numerous richly decorated buildings surround the path, their interiors an explosion of reds, greens, blues and golds, lavish with religious symbolism. The hike through the area was strenuous and seemingly never-ending - there were just too many churches, libraries and houses to do justice to. Towards the top, courtyards afforded incredible views back down the mountain, and scores of cats lay curled up in the late afternoon sun. It was the perfect end to a fabulous first day.