Friday, 8 May 2009

Porto Heli - first day

Day two in Porto Heli.

Wake to see the dawn over the bay, shower and go down to breakfast on the broad terrace overlooking the sea. Not sure where to sit, whether to join a table or sit alone, which is what I do. I have brought with me (at Andrew's suggestion) my own home muesli and glad about that as the cereals offered are either cornflakes or chocolate cornflakes. Plus of course they have a buffet with a great bowl of yoghurt, one of peaches, a tray of biscuits, and a hot buffet of eggs, bacon, etc etc, and platters of cheese, breads, ham, croissants, etc., and fruit juices and teas and coffees... So I have one orange juice, my wholemeal muesli, one tea and one banana. Fab.

I am joined by Michael, a Dane who lives very near my own uncle and aunt in Espergaerde, or however it's spelled, in Denmark, and in fact he knows their house. He is very polite as most Danes are, and stops eating if I am speaking, so I have to make sure he is not about to eat some of his bacon if I want to make a remark. We have a very interesting talk about loads of things and by the end of the meal when everyone is disussing what to do for the day, he and two other people have agreed to come with me up to Epidavros to see the shrine of Asklepios. The others are Viveka, who travelled with me yesterday from Athens, and Toni, a plucky widow from Bayswater. We set off at 10.30.

We head off back up the road by which we arrived yesterday and it is a long way. Michael was here last year and took the trouble then to explore some of the countryside so he points out things we had not noticed such as a series of absolutely massive circular holes, collapsed caves apparently, on the side of a mountain. These holes are at least a hundred metres across, possibly bigger...the scale is difficult to assess at a distance.

We see a woman on a donkey, sitting on a raised saddle softened with a sheepskin. She looks young, is wearing black, and riding side-saddle. We pass a flock of long-legged sheep being taken down the road by a shepherd walking behind them, no dog. He waves us past.

The car park for the archeological site is huge and despite this being early in the season there are already a dozen or so coaches there. Hordes of young people swirl past us as we walk up through the pines towards the entrance. Toni and I go to the loo before we go in – immaculately clean, spacious, managed by a charming lady who offers us extra wipes as we are drying our hands. We buy our tickets, 6 euros but reduced to 3 for Toni who is 83, and walk up the granite steps and paths to the theatre.

It is colossal. Not having bought the guidebook I don't know exactly how many it might seat but I guess a couple of thousand. It looks to be almost complete – with about 34 ranks of seats, and each of the 12 segments holding about 15 seats in the top row. The front row of seats has special curved benches offering a little more comfort and a lot of swank. The place is filled with children or teenagers – all excited and calling out to each other, clapping, waiting to be able to stand in the middle of the stage and DO something. Groups sing and the audience falls quiet. Two youngsters - skilled dramatists already – perform a piece, which looks as if it could be from the Oresteia for all I know – and again the audience falls quiet to listen to them, a young boy and a girl, acting out a very adult argument, something ancient and universal. They get one, two rounds of applause. A teacher tries in vain to hush her group sitting right up at the top – she is dropping a coin onto the stone in the middle of the stage to show them how perfect the acoustics are. We can clearly hear it tinkling. My initial irritation at having the place so overrun with these rowdy children changes into a deep pleasure as I realise this is how such a theatre should be experienced. The young are a living recreation of what the audiences must have been like when it was being used for real, and some of them are so obviously passionate and engaged with it, while others are just running about and enjoying being there.

Eventually we move off to the rest of the site, seeing the stoney remnants of all the buildings which were first 'discovered' in the 19th century and are now being partially reconstructed. A hostel area, square but divided into two halves, presumably to isolate people with contagious illnesses. Another large square area for ritual meals (or possibly a gymnasium complex) with a 'fountain' or spring behind it, and with colonnades down each side offering shade. The Romans later built an Odeum in the middle of this space, complete with its own little theatre seating. In a widened water-valley the builders created a stadium for sports, the valley sides offering excellent banked seating – first in some sort of bricks and later in fine stone. The Tholos is one area they are rebuilding, in blissfully white marble – a circular temple devoted to the chthonic mysteries of Asklepios, where marvellous statuary was uncovered. ('Chthonic' is one of my favourite words, look it up.)

We saw the Abaton, where only the sick were allowed in (their families banished to worry in the theatre, no doubt), while the invalids purified themselves with special well-water, read stone inscriptions about what was to happen to them, had to sleep the night – their sleep represented the death of their disease - and during the night, something happened.... the god visited them and brought healing. The god was originally Malos or Manateas, later Apollo, later Asklepios, and later still supported by other gods – Aphrodite, Artemis and Themis. The Romans plundered the site, then pirates attacked it, then the Romans came back and took it over and revived it, but under the various blows of Alaric Goths, censorship by Christian emperors banning cults, and eventually a couple of good old earthquakes, it fell silent.

It is a prehistoric site - Mycenean at least, possibly older - with great phases in the 5th, 4th and 3rd centuries BC - which kept going till the sixth century AD, in a beautiful protected valley, spreading out under trees and at this time of year filled with wild flowers and bees and butterflies. I can only describe it as ecstatically lovely, and no wonder that is why it was so successful. They had all these herbs, and the sense of place to help them. Medical instruments were found here, and it was a place of learning as well as healing and just thinking about all the thousands of people who came here, the families as well as the ailing – these all had to be housed and fed and entertained in some way. Holiday, healing, learning, catering, exercise, news, religion, faith, duplicity, fame, disaster, everything was here. I was not surprised to see Aphrodite's name here – no doubt love did a good trade too. Even today, tourists come along to gaze and wonder and frolic as we saw in the theatre. I loved it. We wandered round, watching the workmen fitting a new piece of stone to one of the huge columns in the Tholos, looking at the flowers, marvelling at it all.

At 1.30 we had lunch in the restaurant which is so convenient – salads and I had a pasta to see what it was like. Too much.

We drove home back down to the coast, full of thoughts. We saw another woman on donkey, again in black, riding like a queen sidesaddle on her sheepskin saddle, high over the donkey's back. Michael diverted us to see one of those huge collapsed caves – down a little track between olive trees, then into a steeply descending entrance of rough whitewashed stone steps inside a pretty little enclosure of railings. We went down into the earth itself, chthonic indeed. The path twisted and turned with light barely visible from the other end, and the rock ceiling above us getting so low we had to stoop. We emerged into the side of this huge circular hole, with the rough, loose, red, stoney, friable rock all around us. The stairs took us to a path which led in either direction round the bowl. To the right, a tiny whitewashed shed (chapel) with icons and a simple iconostasis. To the left the path was narrow and pushed between shrubbery. The rock walls towered above us, but also pushed out over us so we were literally underneath these slabs of pebbley stuff, which had huge cracks in it, and to either side we saw huge amounts of this stuff which had fallen in the clearly recent past. I hated being there. It was all too clear how dangerous it was. Michael led us on, and there was another little chapel, directly opposite the first. A hawk flew up from the bushes. I tried a little call - and the Echo came back, making me even more afraid this might start a rock fall. We hurried out. There was no signage there, no indication of how old these extraordinary holes are. I will have to look it up – are they 10,000 years old or 1,000? They could be collapsed cave systems, but I'd like to know if the basic rock is volcanic or sedimentary, and why are these holes this huge size? Toni did not join us on this little expedition as she said she is claustrophobic, but I thought she was very wise. She turned back to the car the moment she saw the entrance.

I was glad to get back to the hotel and the sea again. It was a marvellous trip no doubt but I had done all the driving and it was tiring. So I came up to my room for a rest, worked on Wedndesday's blog, changed, and went for a swim. Beach or pool? I will try the beach another time. The pool was cool and perfect once I had done my self-abusing thing of getting in slowly. I talked with another swimmer, Marie and said 'Who'd have thought it? Here I am in a millionaire pool, in a land of Biblical beauty, having the time of my life?' and she loved this and has been quoting it to everyone and so now today (the next morning) people have been quoting me to myself.

We ate at the Taverna next door, generally agreed to be the best-priced, friendliest and nicest food in the village, so I have not yet been to the village just a few hundred yards round the bay. That is for this morning. Some of the others were going to stay up and talk but I came home, rang Andrew, and then crashed right out.

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