First Day of Driving in Greece

Trip Start Jun 01, 2008
Trip End Jun 30, 2008

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Flag of Greece  , Peloponnese,
Thursday, June 19, 2008

  Today we aid goodbye to the Attalos Hotel and set off to see Thebes, Chaironea, Elefsina and Korinthos. It must be noted that the temperature hit 42C (107.6F) and stayed there for most of the day, what our Korinthian hotel host later called a "mini" heat wave. For sure, a woman struggling up a hill in Thebes before noon commented to me "zesti" (hot) while fanning herself: if a Greek says it's hot, it's hot. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We set out from Athens in a Swift rental car. Swift is the company that offers to drive non-Athenians to the edge of town so that they don't have to deal with the insane traffic of Athens. What they actually mean is that they will drive you near a ramp onto the National Road and set you loose. You then have to simultaneously get used to the new car, figure out the roads, puzzle over the signage and avoid rabid motorcycle riders all by yourself for a few blocks until you reach the relative sanity of the highway. And the highway is relatively sane only because there are no lights, turns or pedestrians. To my great relief, Karen chose to do this; I would have fainted away on the spot. However, the car was the coolest place we could have had, since it was air conditioned. We watched the on-board thermometer rise from 32C at 9 am to the high of 42C by 11 am or so.

We took the National Highway north from Athens during rush hour traffic-a fairly rapid trip, compared to later traffic-and turned off to Thebes. Then our adventure began.

Let me say that, although I stayed in Greece for two months in 2006, I did not drive at any time. I didn't want to drive at any time. Driving here is a nightmare. I also never learned what the signs meant or where the gas stations were or memorized how you actually drive from point A to point B because I always had wonderful bus drivers to do it for me. So, when we were approaching Thebes and Karen cheerfully asked me where we should go, all I could do was shrug. I was going to be of help only if we happened to stumble upon something I recognized. We were then at the north end of town and the only parking I knew of was at the south end of town. Moreover, there was roadwork blocking the north approach and we had to detour. Before us was a delivery truck and we just decided to follow it since we didn't know what else to do. The truck turned into a road with a sign saying "Kentro" (Center) so we did also. Then to my dismay, the truck suddenly stopped. What to do? We continued up and at the top of the hill, I suddenly found myself just south of something I recognized! What luck! There to our left was the bronze statue of Epameinondas, a hero of fourth century BCE Thebes. And around the corner from him should be the little parking lot I remembered from my previous trip here. Somewhat reluctantly, Karen turned as I directed and, sure enough, there it was, just down the hill a bit from the statue. The attendant didn't speak any English but I managed to negotiate the fee anyway and we set off.

Just a bit beyond the parking lot, to the east, and around a corner, we found the fourth-Century BCE Elektra Gate, one of the seven ancient gates of Thebes. After musing over the round bases of the two towers for a bit, we headed on up the hill, finding many excavations among the crowded houses. Since the modern town of Thebes is built in exactly the same location as the Mycenaean, post-Mycenaean, Archaic, Classic, Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine towns, a lot of history lies under every house, presently significant or not. Whenever anyone wants to rebuild for any reason, the archaeologists have to determine what's underneath the property first. Some unfortunate people have obviously found themselves out of a house as a result. On the plus side, at least one gate has been found and a sanctuary of Demeter Thesmophoros as well as what the archaeologists call the Mycenaean Kadmeion.

In the main square of the town, you'll find a garden with a bust represent Pindar, the ancient beloved poet, and a sign saying "Archaeological Site." We wondered whether it was the site of the house of Pindar, the only building in Thebes, other than temples, that Alexander did not destroy in about 334BCE.

Unfortunately, the museum is not open to the public at the moment because it's undergoing renovations, but they are well on the way to completion of the new one. Two years ago, they hadn't even begun construction and now the new one is almost done! Something to look forward to next visit. Meanwhile, if you take a look at the miscellaneous marble pieces stored only in a wire fence on the street in front of the museum, you will find several examples of some objects that look for all the world like bath tubs. I found myself all but unable to consider the possibility that they're something else, but if they are, someone please tell me!

After a very light and quick lunch, we bought some fruit and sunscreen and headed out to Chaironea. It's almost impossible to miss the road to Chaironea. Almost. There are two turnoffs between Thebes and Chaironea that are tricky: one to Lifkadeia and one to Orchomenos, and neither of them are the one to take! Instead, stay on the main road (Hwy 38, not that we saw any signs saying that) and it's a zip to find. Of course, we had to learn this the hard way, but it was at least a lovely scenic diversion. And we encountered a monument to twentieth century resistance fighters.

Soon we did find our way to Chaironea, a sight of interest to Karen because of a decisive battle fought there in 338 BCE between Philip's Macedonians and the Athenians and their allies. Today, we can see right beside the highway, a gigantic and ancient lion of marble erected in ancient times where the Theban Sacred Band, an elite fighting unit composed of lovers, were interred after the battle. The fallen Macedonians are buried n a mound 3 km to the east. Karen and I spent a goodly amount of time trying to get close to the place where we believe it to be, which entailed a trip (against my better judgment) down a farmer's narrow and rocky back road over irrigation channels and high weeds, and in the end we gave up the chase only a couple hundred meters from our target only because we would have to have walked those meters in 42-degree heat (remember the heat?). Later, I realized that any of those rocks could have punctured a tire and we would have been in a very stranded situation. The good news is that no one would have observed our stupidity because they were all taking their afternoon siesta. The bad news is that there was no one to help, either. Frankly, we saw so few people in the area the whole afternoon that I think we could have walked of with the whole village of Chaironea and no one would have noticed for hours, thanks to sleeping away the heat.

Anyway, we safely returned to the highway, once we finally got the rented Hyundai turned around (better you don't ask).

I also want to mention that the new Chaironea Museum looks almost complete and will add to the enjoyment and understanding of this site. So will a bit of improvement in the village where you need to leave your car to head up to visit the ancient amphitheatre. This structure was constructed in part by cutting the rock of the mountain behind the town, and this part still remains. You can climb up it-very carefully unless you are a mountain goat-to get a nice perspective on the valley where the battle occurred. Beside the amphitheatre is a large orchard of olive trees, alas. The scene is pleasant, but many Classical era stones and building elements can be seen among the trees. The ancient village clearly lies under this orchard, but in Greece, you can't cut down an olive orchard to excavate. The trees represent a family's livelihood for generations, even centuries, so no excavation can take place closer to an olive tree than two meters. Since the trees are planted about two and a half meters apart, often only exploratory trenches or pits are possible. Still, the antiquities still underground are kept quite safe and secure by Mother Earth.

Around 5 pm we began our trek back to Thebes and then to Elefsina. Along the way, we had to stop for gas and explain the fuel additive Karen was injecting into the tank before the gas...with limited Greek. Luckily a young customer with about as much English as I have Greek helped to get across the concept of improved mileage to the concerned but intrigued attendant. "No one in Canada has ever asked," Karen confided later.

For a while after that, we drove through a serene agricultural area. Corn, grapes, olives, legumes and hay are the most common crops (probably the same as in ancient times, minus the corn). The hay, both green and sere, has already been cut and baled. The growing season for that crop has already ended, third week in June, a little hard for North American minds to comprehend.

Soon after this calm interlude, our day became really interesting. We took the road from Thebes to Elefsina, which turns out to be the main route for trucks, buses and not a few cars. Worse, the road itself is narrow in most sections and consists of steep uphills and downhills and much twisting and turning through the mountains southwest of Athens. We had the hard luck of finding ourselves trapped behind a bus that was behind a truck with a pup that was behind he slowest tractor trailer in Greece. We were also just in front of a pimped-out flatbed truck equipped with several kinds of horns and whistles that the driver employed at frequent intervals. Sometimes we thought he was trying to get us to move over onto the shoulder so he could pass and sometimes we thought he was signaling that we should speed up and stay right at the tail end of the bus. Not that being in front of us would have put him in front of the bus and two trucks. But this didn't stop him from signaling his general displeasure with the situation, especially where the frequent construction was going on. Finally I took a good look and realized the name emblazed across his windshield was "Grigorakis" (Mr. Fast). No wonder he was chomping at the bit! At last he got a chance to live up to his name when he passed us, the bus and the two trucks all in one go, on a two-lane road, on a curve with a double line down the middle. Did I mention that Greek drivers are insane?

Surprisingly, he survived, we survived and everyone else more or less survived and in time we found ourselves on the outskirts of Elefsina, the site of the ancient mystery rites of Athens, and had no idea where the archaeology site actually was. Yet, once again, Karen's uncanny sense of direction headed us down the right road and within a minute of following the old National Highway into town, we noticed signs directing us to Elefsina. Of course! The old highway closely followed the ancient path to Elefsina, but I'd forgotten how easy that would make it.

Although the guide said the site closed at 3 pm, we continued on just to be sure of finding it and to confirm the times. Yes, it closed at 3, but right across the street is a nice café-bar called Kykeon, the name of the ancient drink associated with the mysteries. So we availed ourselves of its refreshment and continued on to Korinthos. Karen, who'd driven all day, was more than due for a rest, so I, though a terrified wimp, took the wheel for the last loop of the day's journey. I got the easy part, really: a six-lane highway with almost no one on it at sunset. We passed through two tunnels, one of them completed since my last trip to Greece, and within a half hour found ourselves heading into Korinth. In retrospect, if I'd continued to trust Karen's sense of direction, I would have easily reached the parking behind the hotel Korinthos, our destination for the night. But I didn't and was freaked out by the traffic on the narrow streets and found myself on the wrong side of the little waterfront area. After totally losing my cool for a few minutes-during which, to her credit, Karen was nothing but accepting and okay-I realized my cell phone was available so I called and got myself sorted out and calmed down. So we headed back up the street and found the right parking behind the hotel and fell into our room. Turns out our hosts are Greeks who lived in Montreal for sixteen years before returning to Greece and the lady shared with us a story about a snowy Christmas in Savannah, Georgia, on a trip to Florida. I'm surprised I remembered that much given how tired I was. Still, I unpacked for the night, did laundry, walked to the nearest periptero to buy water, since the hotel water is awful, and finally did a blog entry (I don't want to admit how late it is now!). But we survived our first day of driving in Greece and even enjoyed it. It's for sure the best way to get to know the land.
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