Sincere thanks to Con Lynch for sharing his memories of our trip to Greece and to Elizabeth O’Connell and others for the wonderful photographs.
Our Greek experience – difficult to surpass
Consistent sunshine, imminently suitable mid-twenties temperatures, a superbly knowledgeable guide, well planned itineraries, effective scheduling, a forty plus group of spirited, adventurous forty pluses, singularly iconic world renowned sites to visit – historical, archaeological, religious, philosophical and theatrical, two top class hotels – all combined to make the Greek adventure of RTAI Cork an experience that will be difficult to surpass.
During our sojourn in Athens from Wednesday afternoon to midday Saturday we enjoyed a guided tour of the Acropolis, the ancient citadel perched atop a hill overlooking Athens. It includes the Parthenon – a multi-columned, artistic, architectural, engineering and structural wonder.
Built (448BC – 432BC)to honour the goddess Athena it had practical use as the state treasury. The Erechtheion (421BC -) is another temple dedicated to Athena and Poisedon on the north side of the Acropolis.
The breathtaking all marble Panathinaikos Stadium was strikingly and unforgettably impressive. Built originally as a racecourse in 330 BC, it was refurbished to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games (1896) and was the venue fouof the nine contested sports in thosgames.
From the Acropolis we could see the Agora, the ancient Greek market place which facilitated debate and discussion and we also contemplated Areopagus Hill, the high court of Athens, where St. Paul was taken and allowed to explain his teachings.
The Temple of Zeus (the father of Athena) also impressed indelibly and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (at the Presidential Palace) aroused the interest of many.
Our Well-informed Guide – Dimitra
We were fortunate to have a well qualified, well informed guide – Dimitra- who provided us with a steady flow of historical and geographical information during our daily bus tours. We learned that hills and mountains make up eighty percent of the country and that this was defensively beneficial during World War II when the Greeks managed to repulse an invasion by Mussolini’s Italian army.
It was in the mountains too that the Greeks conducted an ongoing guerrilla war against the German Nazi army and roadside monuments bear testimony to the memory of civilians executed in excessive and brutal retaliation.
We stopped at one such monument on our day trip to Delphi. It showed strong resolute, armed Greek partisans emerging from the front of a large cuboid of marble, bearing the carved names of those massacred by the Germans.
Roadside Restaurants & the Oracle at Delphi
Dining at roadside restaurants was a feature of every excursion. Some of these were in spectacular locations with striking, memorable views. I think it is fair to say that we ‘ate like the locals.’ The food was reasonably priced and our hunger was satisfied. A tasty vegetarian dish featured prominently and was promoted on the Friday that we visited the historic site of the Oracle at Delphi and we learned from our guide that the members of the Greek Orthodox Church abstain from eating meat on Wednesdays and on Fridays.
At Delphi we had seen the ruins of the 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, visited the museum, climbed many steps and descended many more, filled our bottles with water from the Castalian Spring – water which I sipped slowly over the next few days to allow my body to adjust to its promised benefit i.e. to make us ten years younger (No signs of this yet I must confess, but perhaps it comes “dropping slow” like Yeats’ peace in Innisfree).
The museums of Athens were highly praised by all who visited them. The Archaeological Museum with its marvellous, well preserved 500 BC sculptures was a truly unforgettable experience. It is quite astounding to see the perfection of shape and form of items sculpted two thousand five hundred years ago.
Ice cream by the Canal and a visit to St. Paul’s Corinth
Our transfer to Tolo on day four enabled us to take a brief stop for food and some ice cream at the mouth of the twenty one metre wide, man-made Corinth Canal. This canal cuts across the Isthmus of Corinth to link the Gulf of Corinth in the northwest to the Saronic Gulf in the southeast.
We visited the ruins of ancient Corinth where St. Paul lived for a while, practised his trade as a tentmaker, preached the gospel and made some Christian converts. After he had left he wrote to them two letters, excerpts of which are frequently read as epistles at the celebration of our Catholic Mass.
Connecting with our past – a part of what we are
At this point, I could not help reflecting how our visit to Corinth was akin to the homecoming of a distant, generations-down descendant to an old ancestral homestead, a sort of linking of past and present, a veritable confirmation of the authenticity of scripture and a realisation of the sheer durability and truth of the Christian faith that has so influenced successive generations for two thousand years – even to the ends of the earth.
This vague sensation of homecoming, this reconnecting with a distant past probably also subliminally present in Athens which was the source of so much of what we are today – our philosophical thought and discourse, our sense of justice, our democracy, medicinal norms (Hippocrates) and mathematical theorems (the many leaky Pythagorus cups bought by our group supports this point). For me personally it was that reconnecting with something of our ancient primordial past that made this holiday truly special and something unlikely to ever be surpassed.
Tolo, its magnificent harbour and ‘Christmas-Crib- like Island
The sea view from our hotel in Tolo was magnificent. There was a little rocky island about two hundred metres from the shore which was lit up at night giving it a ‘Christmas crib’ like appearance and adding a touch of magic to the land encircled bay – its opening to the wider sea evident only from the uniform direction of the bows of the boats anchored therein. It was here that so many of our spirited retirees took regularly to the waves while others enjoyed strolling along quiet street of this fairly isolated village of hotels, shops and restaurants.
A Mass Issue, Spetses Island and Music in the Night air.
There was no Mass in the local Greek Orthodox Church that Sunday much to the disappointment of some in our group. The only option was to travel by taxi to another church for Mass (which normally lasts three hours) on the morning, but our schedule for breakfast and the departure time for our daily excursion made this impossible – but not so for our faithful guide. She travelled by taxi and made the necessary sacrifice to fulfil her obligation to attend Sunday mass. At breakfast we enjoyed a spectacular sunrise over the hilltops across the bay before heading off to Spetses Island to explore, sample the food and enjoy yet another day of beautiful sunshine.
I think that the relative isolation of Tolo allied with its calm tranquility created a homely atmosphere and a coming closer and familiarity among the group. There was much high quality entertainment in the form of solo and choral singing. Thus, it was that the balmy evening Greek air was gently suffused with the wafting melody of the Wild Rover – sung in genteel and refined choral harmony. There were other songs sweetly sung and enjoyed by all.
Agamemnon’s Lofty Palace and the Incomparable Amphitheatre of Epidaurus
We travelled to the Argolis Region taking in Mycenae – one of the centres of Greek civilisation in the second millenium BC. The Palace of Agamemnon is a magnificent archeological structure, built on different levels of a high rocky hill that affords commanding and magnificent views across the Argolid to the Saronic Gulf. Agamemnon was commander of the Achaeans during the Trojan War. Entry to the palace is via the Lions’ Gate.
We rejoiced at the astounding amphitheatre of Epidaurus. Built in the 4th century BC, its original 34 rows had another 21 rows added by the Romans. It is admired for its amazing acoustics and all 14,000 spectators can intelligibly hear unamplified words regardless of the position of their seat within the amphitheatre.
Greek Dancing and the Siege of Ennis
It began with a Greek couple giving an exhibition of Greek dance. While this was a work in progress, our committed guide taught the basic steps to some of our group. This all female group joined the Greek couple on the dance floor and quickly refined and mastered their newly acquired skills.
When the music changed and the belly dance was announced, they performed all moves admirably They were joined by some brave, intrepid males from our group and the speed and technical moves increased with intensity as talent shone through. Even the Greeks were impressed.
It was a fine artistic and respectable exhibition of the extensive range of talents of our group members. An award was subsequently bestowed on two outstanding performers – although it may have been the skill and dexterity and sheer energy of the Ionsaí na hÍnse that ultimately won the admiration of the Greeks.
An Lá Deireannach
Our last day was occupied by a guided excursion to the Byzantine fortress of Mystras which overlooks Sparta home of the legendary King Leonidas who was killed by the Persians while heroically defending his homeland at the Pass of Thermoplyae in 480BC.
The roadside restaurant at which we stopped for morning refreshments was memorable for its location and spectacular views and memorable too was the ‘backyard’ canopy covered restaurant in Sparta where we had our final afternoon Greek meal. In the interim we visited an ancient church with impressive artwork within the fortress.
We finished our excursion with a walk about Sparta and some posed for pictures beneath the imposing , powerfully impressive statue of Leonidas – the mightiest and bravest and most gallant of heroes.
The entertainment and singing that night reached its climax with a rousing rendition of Mo Ghile Mear – Sean Clárach Mac Domhnaill’s 18th lament for Bonnie Prince Charlie who was then in exile. After that our minds turned towards the journey home.
“For oft when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude……”
– (Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils”)
Wordsworth was right and often since our return home the many and varied experiences of our Greek Holiday flash upon my inward eye – Athens, its acropolis and museums, Delphi home of the Oracle, Corinth where St. Paul preached, our hotel in Tolo with its fabulous views, many charming restaurants, amazing amphitheatres, Sparta with its larger than life statue of the unshakeable, heroic Leonidas and the marble monument to Greeks murdered in reprisal by the German Army in World War II on the road to Delphi.
The goodness, kindness, sense of adventure and indomitable spirit of our group also features in my Wordsworthian reveries. The dancing with joy and abandon appears and the singing too re-echoes still and then I wonder if the brave Leonidas is remembered in song. After all there are songs to that wasteful Wild Rover who spent all his money on whiskey and beer, and the young cowboy who died for love and a rousing chorus for Bonnie Prince Charlie who never did anything for Ireland. So is there a song for Leonidas? Google cannot tell me? I cannot ask himself, but even if I could, he would probably reply with his customary paucity of words – “Don’t need one” or just simply “No!” or just remain silent.
To everyone in the group, to Dimitra our superb guide, to RTAI Cork, and especially to tour organisers Frank Tobin and Mary Cahill – Efharisto and míle buíochas.