We started this day at Mystras, a place none of us had on our list. We picked it from the tour company’s overall travel path, and are so glad we didn’t miss it!
Mystras was one of the most important cities in Byzantium. The Crusaders, when they came to loot Greece, built it as their capital, and its most striking feature is the Crusader Fortress on the mountaintop. (I said earlier there was only one thing I felt I missed out on in Greece – this was it. I got partway up and determined there was just no way I was making that and not curling up in a water-kneed puddle for weeks afterward. Bernie and Margy climbed to the top, and stood on the ancient fortifications of a Crusader fortress). Nikos drops us off at the upper city gate, so we can walk downhill to meet him at the main gate – but even the upper gate is well below the fortified castle, which hovers over the mountainside like a guardian angel – or a protective titan.
Lower down, within the town, is a palace (the difference between a castle and a palace: castles are fortifications built for defense. Palaces are built to impress – this was the seat of government), several churches, and extensive related ruins. The derelict churches still have the remains of their frescoes – unexpected works of art – while, outside, the narrow and winding paths with their periodic guard shacks are an impossible bastion. In many places, the paths are two people – or even one – wide, and could easily be defended by a small team or, in a pinch, a single knight. From everywhere, the castle is visible at the top of the mountain. The Crusaders chose this location with defense as their first priority, and they chose well.
I am used to the Roman plan: main roads connecting city gates laid out by the compass – a north-south road and an east-west road with the city laid out in a grid around them. This is a Byzantine town, laid out in concentric walled circles – geek friends, think “Gondor” – within which, warrens of buildings rise up, creating roads, paths, alleys and enclosed passages at random. This will be the only time in Greece that I rush everyone along – five minutes before we are to meet our driver, there are still discoveries to be made, but we haven’t yet managed to find the way out!
We find the lower gate at last, and leave a little awe-struck. I am sure each of us will be reading more about Mystras in future, and learning more about all things Byzantine.
Niko takes us to nearby Sparti and drives us to a spot that, he says, he did not even know existed until a visiting Japanese tourist asked to see it. It is not a formal tourist site and museum yet – rather, it is an active archaeological dig, its orange fences designed to keep people from accidentally wandering onto artifacts or placement grids. This is the Acropolis of Sparta.
Throughout Athens, we saw tourist t-shirts that read “this is Sparta” – apparently “300” is a big tourist draw. As we sit to have our picture taken in the ancient amphitheater cut into the hillside, I whisper to Bernie, “THIS is Sparta!”
Our final stop is at Nemea (Nuh-MAY-uh), where I tease Bernie that (now he is an epic hero), he would have to fight a Lion (classical reference – this was the first labor of Hercules on the path to becoming a God-Hero).
First we stop at the stadium where the Nemean games were held. These were one of the four major games of ancient Greece. Taking place every two years, they were geared toward soldiers and martial competitions. We meander among the pillars that used to be the building where athletes prepared themselves, removing clothing and coating themselves in olive oil. Then we walk the path in the back corner to the “hidden tunnel” that lead to the stadium (and although I am no photographer, my little tourist camera does a creditable job of photographing my Hero of Marathon, silhouetted by sunlight from the far end of the tunnel, then bathed in light as he emerges to the stadium). Then we trek across the street to the temple of Zeus.
This temple is unusual in that it is not completely roped off – you can walk inside the actual temple area. It used to have just three pillars standing, but the archaeology department at UC Berkeley has been helping to restore it. Models in the museum show what the temple complex may have looked like in its heyday. While there are “more than three” it is obvious the Berkeley folks have a lot of work still ahead of them.
This marks the end of our time with Niko – he drops us at the “Golden Age” hotel in Athens, near the U. S. Embassy – another driver will collect us in the morning to take us to the airport, while Niko returns to his home in Napfoli. We are very sad to see him go.
It is still early, so we head out to enjoy a little bit more of Athens. We are farther from the center of town than we were at Herodion, but not horribly so. We walk 2 or 3 blocks to the metro station and ride to Syntagma Square, following Ermou until we turn off toward the Plaka. In addition to dinner, we have a mission – find a “Molon Lave” t-shirt, and see whether the shop Margy stopped in the other day has got the dress she liked in stock.
The marathon takes place in November, and marks the true end of tourist season in Athens. The store has not resupplied and does not have her dress. But we find our t-shirts, and Bernie finds the shield he has wanted (refrigerator magnet – seems his mean old wife told him no arms or armor would be packed in the luggage to take home), so we call it a success. We have dinner, and make our way back toward Syntagma and the metro.
We follow the Adrianou back to the Arch, and turn uphill toward Syntagma. As we get close, we see several police officers parked at the side of the road. At first, it looks like they might be just hanging out. We discuss getting another police photo (without the sweaty running clothes this time) – but a closer glance reveals that falsely-relaxed, “there’s nothing to worry about here, citizens” stance. One of them turns and the sewn lettering on the back of his vest identify him as SWAT, in any language. We decide not to bother them.
We walk another block or so and cross the street to the side where our metro station is. As we do, we notice that the street – this 4-lane main road – is taped off. There are police officers standing along the tape. We cross quickly and resolve to be out of their way. Turning left, we begin to walk toward Syntagma, and we see what the fuss is about. The street ahead is *packed* with a parade of demonstrators – several hundred at least. We never found out what they were protesting – we felt it prudent to get outta there, so we made immediately for the metro tunnel and got clear before anything broke out and accidentally included us. (Wouldn’t it be just like me, to travel to Greece and end up arrested the night before I am supposed to fly home, for accidentally being in a riot?)
On the way from the metro station to the hotel, we detour to a pastry shop we saw on our earlier walk to the Metro. I send Bernie off to hang with his sister and eat sweets while I tear our luggage apart and re-pack for home. By the time he finished his pastries and came back for a hot shower, there was a spot clear enough for him to lie down in. Worked out very well (thanks for hubby-sitting, Margy!).
The next morning, we are all downstairs at 5:30, ready for our driver to pick us up at 5:40 to head to the airport. Unfortunately (we will later discover) he had confused his instructions and was not at the Golden Age – he went to Herodion. Apparently he didn’t double-check his e–mails carefully enough. At 6, we give in, and the hotel calls us a taxi. We have an uneventful flight to London – the weather is turbulent but the pilot does a fantastic job, including a picture-perfect landing.
We had planned to sit down over lunch with Margy, since we all have over 3 hours of layover. However, her plane is leaving from a different part of the terminal, and Heathrow insists we all go our proper ways. So we bid goodbye at the passport check station, and wander as much as possible before getting stuck on a 9-hour plane ride. Bernie has real, live fish-n-chips in London and a treacle tart, and I find a Doctor Who item for my Whovian friend, so she can say she got Who stuff from London.
As we board the plane, Bernie gets singled out for special attention. Unfortunately, he has the bag with my tablet in it. The tablet that refused to charge the entire time we were in Greece (I was afraid it had died, but it’s working fine now. Apparently, even through the USB converter, it just didn’t like Greek electricity…) Fortunately, it is packaged in a sleeve with its charging cord; they are able to plug it in, see the light go on, and eventually decide it is really a tablet and not a detonator. They lecture Bernie on having these things charged when he travels (him: “talk to the wife!” Wife: “don’t you think I’d have charged it if I could figure out a way?!” All conveyed without words as we stare at one another through the glass barrier). We make it onto the plane, and have another uneventful passage. I read a good book recommended by my dad, and watch Maleficent (which was much better than I expected!).
Margy was not so lucky – her plane was just late enough to make her miss her train; that train was just late enough to make her miss her connection; the elevator in the parking garage was out of order (and long-term is on the 10th floor!) Fortunately, the security guard was nice enough to offer to watch her luggage while she went to get the car.
Bernie went to run THE marathon – and I tried very hard to plan him a vacation that would be suitably epic to go with it. Not only did that succeed – nothing went seriously wrong – the things that went minorly wrong didn’t hurt anything – everyone got along – everyone had a good time. Constantly.
Near as I can tell, it was perfect.
All of the history, the epic adventure, is a side benefit though. I am glad I was able to plan it, and we had a truly wonderful experience – but the reason for the trip was the marathon – a unique achievement unto itself. I don’t “get” the running thing – it just makes me tired and breaks my knee – but I understand what goes into the achievement, and have such immense respect for Bernie and my brother, running their marathons together (Though Dan was not able to join us on this one, the two boys have otherwise always run together, keeping pace together – starting and finishing together).
The Athens Marathon is one of the more difficult courses. For 10 miles, it rolls uphill. The temperature was near 70. It’s a tough race. Bern kept a steady speed that varied by less than ½ km/hr across all measured points of the course, including the uphill portion. He set a personal record, completing it in 3 hours, 45 minutes. That means he finished:
- #1482 of 10,497 total competitors (top 14%)
- #1385 of 8544 men competing (top 16%)
- #225 of 1274 men in his age group (top 17%)
- #235 of 1527 competitors in his age group (top 15%)
Epic. Just Epic.