My Spring Break Trip to Greece


Since scores of people (well, 5 or 6) have been clamoring for an account of my recent trip to Greece, I though I’d give a quick overview.  More to follow, maybe with pictures, and with some fruits of seeds that were planted and are now gestating.

A little background first: Given my interest in ancient Greece, I’d come upon the site for the Center for Hellenic Studies, a project of Harvard U. a couple of years ago, and managed to ingratiate myself with them. I finally took their online course, “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” last fall, and that enabled me to go on this trip. It was a good mix of current students, alumni, and some people like me who only had a marginal connection to “Havad.”  It was rather expensive, but all-inclusive, and led by Greg Nagy, who is the Director of the CHS in DC and also by extension of the newer one in Napflion, Greece.  Couldn’t ask for a better or more qualified tour guide.  So it was a group of about 25 people, like-minded, and all interesting.

Right now it all seems rather like a dream. I kept expecting someone to say “You can’t be on this trip. You can’t get on this plane. You can’t be discussing your book with Greg Nagy.” But they didn’t and so I kept going and had an amazing time.

But first I had to get there, and that part was quite grueling. Still no doubt less so than the people of ancient Greece, on a theoria (pilgimage) to one of these sacred places. But at least they didn’t have to deal with jet lag. Anyway, I arrived at Athens Airport on Saturday March 11, and we were taken on a bus to Napflion, I think about 60 miles WSW of Athens, where the CHS has its Greek HQ. Had a nice meal at a taverna and made quick acquaintances.

The next day we went to a couple of sites nearby that set the tone for this trip. It will be hard to write about it and not get off on a number of tangents, but suffice it to say that pretty much all the sites we saw were connected to some hero or historical events that are now legendary. It’s one thing to read about them and another to be there, he said, articulating the obvious (my special skill). We were fortunate in that our “tourists” were just interested in the ancient Greek part, the time when these sites became (or were discovered to be) sacred. No Roman stuff, no Byzantine.

The first was a temple of Hera (wife of Zeus and goddess in charge of seasons, among other responsibilities), where she was worshiped and sacrificed to. (This was a win-win for the Greeks, since they got to feel good about sacrificing and also eat the meat of the cattle they killed for the occasion.) I thought about trying to include some pictures, but since most of the places just looked like piles of rock, I’ll let you try to use your imagination instead. (Thanks, Jim M.) This was perhaps the purist site we saw, since it wasn’t a residence for anyone nor did it become a destination for treasuries or games as did some of the others. It was just a sacred site, and where the story of Kleobis and Biton took place. (I’ll try not to do too much linking, but you can certainly google the back stories if you wish.)

Then we went on to Mycenae, nearby. Now of course I’d seen the pictures of the Lion’s Gate and the Treasury of Atreus and all that, and the itinerary had listed Mycenae, but for some reason I just wasn’t expecting it. But there it was, with the grand tombs—engineering and artistic marvels—and the remains of the living spaces fitted into a beautiful Mother Earth landscape, high above the plain of Argos. You could almost sense Menelaus and his wife Helen (yes, that Helen) there entertaining Odysseus’ son, Telemachos. A great culture, with beautiful art and refined manners. But then over a relatively short time, it just vanished.

Later, we went back to Napflion, which was actually the first capital of Greece after it rewon its independence in the 19th century, and had an interesting tour of the town and an overview of the CHS in Greece given by its director. At Greg Nagy’s suggestion, I donated a copy of my book on Homer to their library. End Day 1.

Next Day (Monday), we drove west across the Peloponnese (reversing the route taken by Telemachos) to (sandy) Pylos to see the ruins of the palace of Nestor. Very impressive. One could see the throne room and the room with the tub where Telemachos and his friend were bathed and transformed by Athena. And then we went down to the bay where they would have sailed in. And had a nice lunch. If I were to go back, I think I might go live there. Then we got back on the bus and drove to Olympia.

Tuesday, we were in Olympia and toured the site of the ancient games, but also the temples and gymnasium (which means, more or less, “the place where you get naked”). There was a temple there to Zeus which contained a humongous statue of him which of course faced East, and was ceremonially opened each day at sunrise by a priest, which lit up the statue and also the reflecting pool in the temple. Must have been a pretty awesome sight. But this was one of the places where I think the games and the idea of winning and losing became more important, and the sacred part took a back seat. Still quite impressive though. We had lunch and then got on the bus to Delphi (3+ hours). But during that time I had a good conversation with Greg Nagy about my book, and we agreed to see if it could find a home on the CHS website (at least).

Wednesday, Delphi, of the Oracle fame, which was quite amazing also. Very vertical and remote, and yet it exerted such a strong influence for so many years—centuries, really. A well-preserved floor plan of the Oracle’s temple, which had the sayings “Know Thyself” and “All in moderation,” as well as many treasury buildings. But it also started to get more well known for its games, and eventually the Oracle had to retire. However it was still happening in the 200’s CE when Pausanias wrote about it. After that, on to Athens. (I should also mention, parenthetically, that during this time I was getting to know many of the people on the tour, who were almost all more accomplished than am I. Even the undergrads.)

Thursday, Athens. The Agora and the Acropolis Museum in the morning and the Acropolis itself in the afternoon. Whew. The highlight (if that’s the right word) for me was to see the ruins of the Athens jail where Socrates was executed by hemlock in 399 BCE. Again, talk about being there. (See “articulating the obvious,” above.) Socrates is gone, but the dialog lives on (we hope). The acropolis itself was also quite spectacular, even with the ongoing restoration of the Parthenon.

Friday more Athens. The archeological museum with its centuries of treasures. They were having a special exhibit on “Odysseys” which of course I had to stay and video.

Saturday we got a tour of the old (as opposed to ancient) city of Athens, including the Parliament building and an overview of the Greek governance system, which surprisingly to me owed little to its heyday as the birthplace of democracy. Then a few of us went to the Museum of Cycladic Art, nearby. This is very primitive, but surprisingly modern art which flourished in the Greek islands known as the Cyclades. Very stripped down—they would no doubt have been painted—but possessing a Platonic Ideal of form. That night we had our farewell dinner in the Plaka, a historic district near our hotel.

The another grueling flight home (had to get up bout 3AM), arriving Sunday. (At least my body did—I think my mind was still in quarantine somewhere in Iceland.)

So that’s the quick trip. I will probably be adding more to this account in the coming weeks if you want to check back.  Opa opa!