Jack Hrkach

Professor Emeritus, Theatre Arts

Title

A Pilgrimage to Greece, January 2007

In January 2007, to celebrate my 60th birthday (or to avoid the trauma of turning that age!) I bought myself a very expensive birthday present -- a trip to Greece! I have traveled through much of Europe investigating theatre history, but up until this trip I had placed the cart before the horse. I finally visited the birthplace of western drama, and it was a brilliant trip. A plug here: it was sponsored by a group called TrueGreece, and they are true professionals. Check them out!

I flew from New York on Olympic Air, and was picked up at the airport by Dimitris, who was to be my driver for each side trip during my ten days in Greece. He was very friendly, very chatty, very proud of his country. He dropped me at my hotel very near the Acropolis and we agreed that he would meet me a 9 am the next morning for my first tour.

I was very tired after the 10 hour flight, but was very eager to explore at least the portion of the city nearest me. The temperature was about 60 degrees, and the sun was shining. So out I went and decided that I would take one walk around the bottom of the Acropolis, much of which is accessible via pedestrian-only streets. Nearly at once I discovered that what had looked like a long distance on the map was really a rather short stroll. The city spreads wide but the historic center is easily traversed on foot. The walk around the Acropolis took me through many of the sections I had read about in the travel guides: the Plaka district, the Roman Forum, the Ancient Agora. In about an hour I arrived back at my starting point on the pedestrian route and, refreshed by the glorious sites I had passed, I decided to explore JUST a bit farther. The Theatre of Dionysos would be part of my next day tour, but I peeked in to see what I could see of this birthplace of western drama. I then strolled back into Plaka, promising that I'd turn around after doing just a bit of window shopping in the tourist traps that abound in that neighborhood.

This was an error on my part, and I did something very foolish, so very foolish and humiliating that I will not repeat it here! If anyone wants to know this story, get in touch with me personally. If you don't know how to get in touch with me personally, then you don't know me well enough to learn what happened!

Suffice here to say that I made it back to my hotel and fell into a deep sleep for two hours, so deep that for a moment after I awoke I did not know where I was. When almost instantly I had got my bearings and remembered the embarrassing incident, I decided that I'd had more than enough excitement for one day and dined at the hotel, which by the way had very good food. I watched  a mix of Greek tv and CNN for a time, then slept until morning.

What had started out as folly, on day two became pure joy! I met Dimitris and my first guide, the lovely young Helen (of Athens, not of Troy!), who took me on a private tour of the Acropolis. I was in excellent hands, and learned more than I'd hoped about this ancient, sacred site. The tour included the Acropolis Museum, where Helen showed me among other things her favorite piece, a bust of what she called "the sad boy." The trip ended, at my request, at the Theatre of Dionysos. Helen sat me down on what's left of the cavea, and we chatted about theatre, and particularly the religious aspect of it, for a good half hour. The day was beautiful, mid-60s and sunny, and Helen expanded my sense of ancient Greek Theatre immensely.

I was more tired than I knew after Helen dropped me at my hotel, and had a short nap. Afterwards I headed back out, as my Acropolis ticket also covered the Ancient Agora and other sites. The day continued beautiful, and I became filled with the spirit that only an ancient land can impart. After tromping around the Roman Forum and the Agora, I ended my day back at the Theatre of Dionysos, sitting in the sacred grove just behind the theatre. I allowed myself to experience a bit of "Stendhalismo," feeling nearly dizzy with the beauty and overwhelming nature of a place I'd waited all my life to see. A perfect day! That night I ate in the hotel and watched too much CNN as well as a little Greek television, then slipped into a deep and restful sleep.

Day three was a day for me to explore Athens. I tried out the beautiful new underground rail line, which first sped me to the National Archeological Museum. This is of course probably the greatest collection of ancient Greek art in the world, so I got an early start and made my way through the building very carefully. I was looking for things theatrical in particular, and found many, including reliefs of dancing maenads and satyrs, but I was stunned by the beauty of other work as well. One of the most startling pieces is the Mask of Agamemnon, not really of Agamemnon himself, as it is a few centuries older than the time chronicled in the Iliad, but obviously a man of power, shimmering with gold. After a full morning at the museum I took a walk back towards the Acropolis, finding on my way the fish and vegetable markets in the bustling center of the city and discovering several theatres before i hit the small but impressive and well tended Theatre Museum. I continued my trek and gradually found myself just on the other side of the Acropolis from my hotel. I sat at an outdoor cafe as dusk approached, sipping a beer and watching the sun light the Acropolis in a beautiful fashion. That night I ventured out to a lovely restaurant in Plaka called Dafne, and had an absolutely delicious dinner.

The next morning, day four, we started out bright and early, driving out of Athens and towards my destination for the next three nights, Arachova, a rustic village on the slopes of Mount Parnassos, and very near the site of my next tour, Delphi. Dimitris, of course, drove, and my very engaging second guide, Dina, filled my brain with history after we steered clear of the traffic of Athens, worse than usual because a major protest about Greek education was taking place in the center of town. It was Dina's job to show me the remains of the great shrine to Apollo at Delphi. According to Greek mythology, Zeus set two eagles off around the world in opposite directions, and they alit at Delphi, the omphalos, the navel, the center of the world. But before we got to Delphi I had made two special requests: to see the place "where three roads meet" near ancient Thebes central to the Oedipus story, where he killed his father; and to visit the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Osios Loukos, with its brilliant icons and mosaics. And my driver and guide accommodated me in both wishes.

Then on to Delphi itself, in an impossibly beautfiful setting high up Mount Parnassos, sacred also by the way to Dionysos as well as to Apollo. Dina took me expertly through the entire site, although we lingered longest at the theatre, made relatively unusually of a gray slate rock indigenous to the area, rather than marble. I was beginning to learn that in almost every site sacred to the gods, there was a theatre as well as a temple and sacrificial altar. How essential it was! After we covered the site, we entered the museum, fairly briefly as it would soon close. Another excellent collection is housed there, and the museum itself is a  very modern, elegant building. Dina showed me HER favorite piece, a tiny piece of gold with a ram carrying Odysseus (or one of his men) out of the cave of the Cyclops.

After a short drive we arrived at Arachova, where I took leave of driver and guide, and took in this lovely village. I was put up in the Santa Marina Hotel, and a fine one it was. The view from my balcony looked out onto mountains and a village below Arachova, olive trees EVERYwhere, and of course the slopes of Mount Parnassos, looking towards Delphi. Interestingly, I became somewhat frustrated in the face of all this beauty, as there was little to DO, beyond strolling the lovely village, shopping for souvenirs, and examining menus at the local Tabernas. I realize that most vacationers would feel grateful for this opportunity to do absolutely nothing. I seem to be one of those "minority" tourists who must find something to do nearly every waking hour, and after walking back and forth across the village I began to wish I'd thought to ask for one more night in Athens, one less here, back when I'd planned out my trip.

But while this charming village remains for me the least intrinsically interesting part of the trip, I DID begin to enjoy doing very little to a point. I sat and relaxed by the fireplace in the rustic lobby while sipping a Greek beer, I wrote a good bit in my travel journal, and I took myself on a variety of walks up into the smaller "streets" of the village. I enclose that word in quotation marks because if you think of a street as a thoroughfare for cars, most of the streets in Arachova would not qualify, which only increases their charm. My favorite excursion was to the top of the village and its tiny church, St George. After a climb up nearly 300 steps of the "street" leading to it that left my heart pounding, two specific rewards are to be had. One is immediately apparent, as the views are even more spectacular than from lower in the village -- one of my most clear memories is that below a blue sky, white clouds, or I should say one massive cloud that seemed so thick you could walk on it, clung to the mountainside above. And the slate roofs of the village spread out below me as well, picture perfect, except that my photographic skills could not begin to capture the image of it in my mind.  The second reward is gained by entering the tiny church, filled with icons, but populated only by two sweet-natured caretakers, a man and a woman, who had nearly as little English as I had Greek, but who were extremely welcoming. I lit a candle there for my mother, and left after an uneventful but extremely rewarding visit.

More practically, I found an internet cafe in the village, and found a tiny, family run taberna (mother ran the grill, son and daughter served the food, and father chopped meat in the back) in which I sipped tasty local wine served in a small tin container and feasted on simply grilled but tremendously tasty lamb, along with a Greek salad featuring the excellent local cheese. So Arachova yielded pleasures for me, I had certainly had my fill of it when it came time to depart. I should note that, sadly like most of Europe's other villages that survived in large part on ski shops and excursions in mid-winter, there was no snow to be had. While temperatures in the upper 50s were perfect for Jack the tourist, I could see that the economy was suffering at least temporarily.

Dimitris picked me up at the hotel and took me on the longest drive of the trip, from the mountains northwest of Athens to the Pelopponese, well south of the capital. He dropped me in Nafplio at the Amphitrion, the finest hotel of my stay in Greece, promising to pick me up in two days for my final guided tour.  Napflio is on the sea, and consequently frequented much more in the summer than in the winter. My room at the hotel was upgraded, from my bed I had a great view of the bay and the Bourtsi, an old fortress that sits strategically in the center of the bay. Furthermore, from my bed I could press buttons that would open and close the doors onto my balcony, so the bay and the Bourtsi were the sights that I woke up to and fell asleep to as well. To add to this luxury, I was one of the only people staying at the hotel!

I had breakfast alone both mornings, and I dined there both nights as well. The food was the best I had in Greece, and the charming server, Penelope, introduced me to Nemean wines and served me delicious meals, the first night a fish caught fresh that day and wrapped in herbs and olive oil. She also gave me an Greek digestif and fruits dipped in chocolate for dessert. The second night she did even better, feeding me delicious pork, more of the same fine wine, and afterward surprising me with a special dessert and piano player who played the birthday song for me!

I could go on and on about the hotel, but I should also get to the city, which had a very Venetian stamp on it, as Venice ruled this area for some time. Like many Greek cities, Nafplio climbs up a mountainside, but as it is on the water the main squares and streets in the old town are relatively flat, and many of them closed to traffic. It was just beautiful! I had really only a day and a half, so ate only once outside the hotel, at an excellent Taverna, The Palio, that featured delicious, tender lamb and potatoes. I had a wonderful vegetable soup to start, a small carafe of Nemean red wine, and though I asked for no dessert I was given a gigantic and tasty orange! In this area there were nearly as many orange trees as olive trees, as well as lots of grape vines, and all came together in glorious vistas as well as glorious food and drink.

Higher up the mountainside from the town proper is Acronafplio (many of the old towns have their acropolis -- high point in town), a collection of pretty ruined forts with a breathtaking view out over the city. Higher yet, on another mountain, is the Palamidi, another daunting fortress. Had I had one more day I might have tried to climb it (there are steps, but over 900 of them!) or take a taxi up to it, but I had enough to keep me occupied in the main part of town. Sadly, their archeological museum was closed for renovations, but museums aren't the high point of Nafplio: strolling along charming streets and squares window-shopping, sitting at a cafe table looking out on the bay, even getting a delicious gelato (more of the Venetian influence) served by a very friendly Italian -- these and the beautiful views are what I'll remember of Nafplio.

But there was one more important tour on the itinerary: a day at Mycenae, the Theatre at Epidauros, and ancient Corinth. Dimitris and my last tour guide, Lillian, picked me up on the morning of the 17th for this outing. Lillian was the oldest, and probably the wisest, of all the tour guides. She took a highly philosophical angle on the sites we visited. Mycenae we investigated briefly, as I had tacked Edpidauros on to this trip. We did not climb all the way to the top of the site, the palace, but we did have a look at the Lion Gate and the excavation sites. I got a great look out at the countryside, and was easily able to imagine the first words of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, in which the guard has been watching for ten years on the rooftops of Atreus for the signal fire that would light the triumphant Greeks; return. Our last moments in Mycenae were at the so-called Tomb of Agamemnon -- probably not really his tomb, but an impressive entrance into a rocky structure not unlike a tiny pyramid.  

Then it was on to Epidauros. This was where Lillian was at her best, discussing the sacred nature of the site -- it was a great place of healing, that like Delphi included a theatre as part of its complex. Again I was reminded of the original purpose of the theatre, as a means of worshipping/appeasing the gods. As we walked towards the theatre we passed through a beautiful grove of trees, with birds chirping. I said to Lillian "I can almost feel the spiritual atmosphere as we walk through these trees," to which she responded "Bravo!" obviously pleased with my comment. And then the theatre itself. Along with the Theatre of Dionysos, this was the site I had been most anticipating on this trip, and it did not disappoint. We sat near it before we entered it, Lillian discussing the history. Interestingly, a young college student traveling on her own (brave girl) began to listen in and asked if she could tag along -- we readily agreed and the three of us entered the theatre. Lillian ordered us to the top of the theatron, while she stationed herself center for the demonstration of the theatre's acoustic quality. There was also a group of young schoolkids present, and Lillian took them in hand as well. She clapped at the center, spoke in a quiet tone which was easily heard by the student and me at the top of the theatre. Then she dropped a coin on the concrete square that marked the thymele {altar) in the center of the orkestra and indeed we heard that as well. Next I and came down and placed myself over the thymele, and recited the first words of Agamemnon -- I was amazed, as I had begun too loud, my voice echoing back at me! I had to moderate my tone in order to properly "use" the space. Fascinating!  We left the great theatre, and went briefly into the museum, which was much more about the medical and healing aspects of the place than of the theatre.  Finally we headed to Corinth. This site is rather well preserved, featuring an extremely well preserved Temple of Apollo. She walked me through the ancient town, pointing out the agora, baths, even a public toilet!

We drove back to Athens right along the coast and stopped at a perfectly situated cafe with views of mountains and sea. They dropped me at my hotel and I had a nap, as it had been a very long day of touring. I had a Greek salad and a bit too much wine at the hotel before falling into a deep sleep.

The following day was my birthday and my last day in Athens and Greece. I spent a good bit of the morning exploring sites I'd missed, the Cycladic and Benaki museums, both of which were interesting, the latter of which was a treasure trove! And then I made my way to the center of the city, Syntagma Square. I saw the presidential palace and the strutting guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, and also, sadly, the result of the riots over education that had taken place while I was out of Athens -- three or four totally burned and destroyed cars, pulled off the main area of protest, and lots of police presence!

I made my way, watching warily for John, back to Plaka, and did my final souvenir shopping. Then I had a late lunch at the Taberna Byzantino, where the waiter recommended what turned out to be a delicious stuffed lamb dish -- my birthday dinner! After I headed back to the hotel for another nap before I returned to Plaka to buy Will the statue of the goddess Aphrodite I had promised, and arranged to have it sent to the States. Then back again to the hotel for yet another delicious Greek salad, Greek TV and a deep sleep!

Dimitris was right on time the next morning to take me to the airport, in fact he took me along a scenic route along the water, the last brief "tour" on the trip. We bid a farewell and exchanged gifts (he gave me a small clock which is lovely, but which I can't figure out how to open to power up!) I gave him a bottle of wine and 40 Euros -- don't know if that was enough or not...So! my trip was over! The flight back was on time and uneventful, and it gave me time to remember the great beauty of the last ten days. I'm not sure that I'll ever return to Greece, but I had a feeling of satisfaction at not only having given myself a great birthday present, but with getting a real feel for a country that is a MUST for any theatre historian.