Saturday, 22 February 2014

In the land of the gods

The funerary mask of a Mycenaean ruler, commonly regarded as the Mask of Agamemnon. -- Vicky Ooi

The funerary mask of a Mycenaean ruler, commonly regarded as the Mask of Agamemnon. -- Vicky Ooi

A visit to Greece would not be complete without discovering its ancient history – the stuff of legends and myths.

IN GREECE, there’s a story to be told every five metres! Or so says Alexandra Economidou, a tourist guide. After merely a day in the company of locals and seeing how the country is chock-full of antiquities and sites of historical importance at nearly every turn, I’m a complete believer.

The world at large associates Greece with the birthplace of the Olympics, gorgeous marble, and the idyllic islands of Paros, Crete, Corfu and Santorini, and of course Zeus and the pantheon of gods and goddesses. And thanks to Hollywood films, we get a tiny glimpse into the country’s culture (check out their loud and supersized weddings as represented by My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and history (witness the famed courage of the Spartans as fleshed out in 300).

However, those movies have nothing on the stories just about any Greek on the street can tell you if you ask. This I found out on a seven-day familiarisation trip in Greece organised by Insight Vacations for selected Asian travel agents and media.

Greeks live and breathe stories that are a compelling mixture of historical fact and mythology. These stories are passed down from generation to generation, around family dinners, at the fireside, as bedtime tales.

Monasteries cap the towering rocks of Meteora, Greece.
Magnificent: Monasteries cap the towering rocks of Meteora, Greece.

Take, for example, the Treasury of Atreus – a tholos tomb, with a dome shaped like a beehive, from 13th century BC. Atreus was a Mycenaean ruler whose wife was seduced by his brother so, for revenge, he chopped up his brother’s children, cooked them and served them up to his unsuspecting brother at dinnertime.

Like all ancient buildings in Greece, the tomb is an architectural marvel in its own right, with a 120-tonne megalith set 8m high over the entrance. Myth has it that a Cyclops (a race of one-eyed giants) lifted it into place.

The legend of Cyclops also features in the story of Agamemnon, who is most known for his role in the Trojan War, and his castle in the Mycenaean acropolis (literally translated as “high city”). They are said to have built the 6m-thick fort walls at the castle made with 20-tonne boulders.

Our guide in Mycenae, Patti Staikou told us how the city was founded by Perseus, the son of Zeus. Archaeologists believe they have to-date only unveiled 10% of this ancient city near the port town of Nafplio, which is about two hours’ drive from Athens.

While the Temple of Asklepios – where the Father of Medicine Hippocrates was a priest and administered to the ill, and treated ailments – is real, as evidenced by the discovery of the oldest surgical instruments dating back to around 4th century BC, the “medical” miracles attributed to the sanctuary here are the stuff of legends. One was about the ointment that helped a completely bald man regain a full head of hair. Another was of a woman who had been pregnant for five years and finally delivered a young child when she came to the sanctuary in the temple.

Dancing, Greek style, at dinner in Olympia.

According to Staikou, there are about 10,000 polytheists who still gather at temple ruins today for various worship rites.

Innumerable interesting stories are also found at the many ancient theatres and stadia – feats of construction and sporting achievements.

We visited a fine theatre in a town called Epidaurus – not to be confused with epidural, quipped our tour director Sabrina Tsimonidis – which is the oldest and most well-preserved among more than 130 such theatres in the country.

Performances were held at the Epidaurus theatre (which means semi-circle) to entertain the pilgrims who visited the Asklepios sanctuary.

Two of Greece’s most well-known stadiums are related to the Olympic Games. Although the stadium where the first modern Games held in 1896 is in Athens, the original site where it all started is in Olympia.

The tree-lined walkway to the stadium in Olympia, which is essentially an open field surrounded by grassy knolls, is really pretty. Passing through the entrance archway and finally standing on the field, I could almost imagine the roar of the crowd and the emotions felt by the ancient athletes!

Our guide on this part of the tour, Niki Vlachou explained that the Olympics was in fact a religious festival. The most important features on the sprawling grounds were the two temples – one dedicated to Zeus and the other to Hera.

The Treasury of Atreus, an example of a 'tholos' (which has a ceiling shaped like a beehive) tomb, circa 1250BC.
The Treasury of Atreus, an example of a tholos tomb which has a ceiling shaped like a beehive, circa

“The festival was held in July, and the athletes or participants were free Greek men. It was organised during a time of ongoing civil wars to teach the people about peace, so a truce was imposed one month before the Games.

“The best of the best were selected and sponsored by their cities, and the athletes had to step on bull’s testicles and take an oath that they were 100% Greek and that they would not cheat,” she said.

The athletes, she added, would have trained for a year before arriving in Olympia, and they would train another month at the stadium. At all times, emphasis was placed on attaining balance between body and mind, thus besides working out in the gymnasium (yes, that’s a Greek word), the athletes attended classes on music, mathematics, philosophy and even astronomy.

There was even a “five-star” hotel for the VIPs who came to the Games. Archaeologists believe it was a two-storey building that had 145 rooms with en suite baths and a swimming pool within its premises.

Based on records unearthed of the Games in 776BC, there were 13 events held over five days. There were chariot races and horse-riding but the most glamorous event and the focus of the Games was the 200m race. And yes, they ran in the nude.

The Olympiad, said Vlachou, received a statue in his likeness, an olive wreath and free food for life!

It was believed that by around 500BC, there were about 200 cities participating in the Games which drew at least 45,000 spectators.

Gold treasures in the Delphi museum.
Gold treasures in the Delphi museum.

What about women, some of you may ask. There was a separate Games for them – just the sprint events – and only virgins participated.

However, all these came to an end in 393AD when the ancient Games was stopped by the Christian emperor Theodosius, who deemed it idolatry, said Vlachou.

Perhaps the most fascinating story of Greece is about the mystical Oracle of Delphi.

The oracle was a woman who acted as the intermediary for the spirit of Apollo, who is another son of Zeus and worshipped as the god of logic, reason and balance.

People came from all over ancient Greece to consult the oracle – from mundane things like when to start planting the next crop to life-changing decisions – and the prophecies or answers would be interpreted by prophets.

Delphi was a holy site for 1,200 years, from 8th century BC. The sanctuary complex consisted of a gymnasium, temple, altar and approximately 3,000 statues. When the site was discovered in 1892, a whole community had to be relocated a kilometre away.

Originally, the intermediary was one woman who held audience once a year. But as the oracle’s reputation grew and the business side of it became just as important, the number of intermediaries increased to three or four and they held audience for a month every year.

According to one tale, a young man was informed by the oracle that he would murder his father and marry his mother. To prevent this from happening, he ran away from home. Later, he killed the King of Thebes and married the queen, only to discover that she was his mother.

“That is a story to illustrate the philosophical question of whether people can change their fate,” said Penny Kolomvotsou, our fourth and final guide on the tour.

“In this case, all the young man needed to do was talk to his parents and he would have found out that he was adopted,” she said pointedly.

These stories are a link between the Greeks and their nation’s glorious past, and woven into the fabric of their society today. Having been ruled by numerous conquerors, such as the Romans, Ottomans and Germans, modern Greeks have a rich narrative heritage.

This country of 14,000km coastline and 11 million people, is resilient. Despite experiencing an economic depression over the last five years or so, the people remain upbeat.

The ancient cemetery, believed to be the royal tombs, uncovered on the castle grounds of the Mycenaean acropolis.

They certainly know how to throw a party, they love their food, drinks, music and dance, and they are among the most generous people I’ve come across in my travels. And they have a down-to-earth sense of humour that is rare in this age when crude and acerbic are more the order of the day.

Lately, Greece has seen a surge in European tourists, especially from Russia, while the Italians visit in summer usually staying in camper vans and on the islands. According to Tsimonidis, there is also an increase in visitors from China and South Korea.

Malaysians planning to holiday in Greece will not have a problem communicating and getting around as English is widely spoken, even by middle-aged shopkeepers. If not, one can always fall back on hand signals.

The mild weather in January (it didn’t dip below double-digit) makes it as good a time as any to travel, if you don’t mind that some of the shops may be closed especially on the islands which rely heavily on the tourist trade and their busy months are in spring and summer.

I enjoyed a great many things about Greece, from its coffee, moussaka (an eggplant-based dish) and baklava (a nutty dessert), even the experience of drinking ouzo (a spirit made from grapes and has 40% alcohol content), to the breathtaking sights such as the Meteora towers capped by 600-year-old monasteries near the town of Kalambaka in the Thessaly region.

I marvel at how Athens has successfully preserved the iconic Parthenon and the Athenian acropolis on one side of the city while the other side has the emblems of modernity in the form of global brands firmly ensconced in its streets.

At the end of my 1,300km trip around the country, I can honestly say that, above all, I enjoyed the rich stories brought to life by the people of Greece.

Insight Vacations offers two packages to Greece: The Glories of Greece which tours archaeological sites and museums, and the Treasures of Greece which focuses on the islands. Tourists are also offered the choice of combining the two. For more details, go to or call Corporate Information Travel (03-2091 9988).

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Greece , Greek , Insight Tours , ancient , history , Athens , Sparta , cyclops , legend , myths


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