Andy & Kate’s Grecian Odyssey – A Decent Proposal

The short version: I asked Kate to marry me. She said yes.

The long version: Galaxidi was perfect. I’d been waiting to ask Kate to marry me for some time, and the blue waters of Galaxidi’s twin harbours with the yachts gently lapping at their moorings and even the cries of the gulls seemingly somnolent in the Mediterranean sun looked to provide a perfect backdrop. The hotel was in the budget range, but the room was large and clean, painted in a jaunty blue and white, and had a balcony overlooking the aforementioned dappled waters, so that fitted the bill too.

There were only two problems. The first, was the election. Delphi is meant to be the most romantic of the Ancient sites in Greece – haunting, mysterious and slumbering under the weight of history – but it was closed because of the election. Whether they were worried that people would go there and consult the Oracle before voting, we didn’t know. Certainly the election was arousing passions, one Greek TV channel having an entertaining version of the Brady Bunch opening credits where men in insets in the main picture simply shouted at each other for an hour or so. But either way, Delphi as a romantic hors d’ouvre to the evening’s main course of pledging undying devotion was a bit of a #fail.

The second was champagne, which is not a regular commodity in your average Greek taberna or corner shop. Luckily, however, Galaxidi is just a couple of hours down the coast from Athens and has been well and truly discovered by the Greek yachtie set, which means that an awfully nice young Dutch chap living there could walk me to a shop which sold the stuff at daft prices to even dafter yachties. He shook me by the hand and wished me luck. “I hope she says yes,” he said.

What do you mean *you* hope she says yes, I thought.

I went through the checklist.

Location – check
Balcony – check
Sparkling sea - check
Sunset – check
Champagne – check
*Cold* champagne – well, almost
Fly done up (always worthwhile) – check
Girlfriend – check
One knee – check
Ring – check

So, no time like the present then...

I have no idea what I said. I just remember grinning foolishly afterwards and being very, very happy. In fact I really don’t remember much of the rest of the evening. There was good wine and good food in a restaurant overlooking the darkening harbour, there were even a couple of cold beers afterwards. But to be honest, it’s all a bit of a blur – just floating along on a happy cloud with the world turning on its axis around us by way of a novelty. We became the centre of things. What I do remember is that every time I looked down at Kate’s hand there was a silver band arcing across her finger and it just looked very, very right.


Andy & Kate’s Grecian Odyssey – A Brief Note About Driving

We did a lot of it, about 2100km in total, and everywhere we went we saw little roadside shrines by the road marking the point where some unfortunate had come unglued from the tarmac and then from life in short order. These aren’t your normal wilted bunch of flowers by the road, these are mini churches full of offerings and the fact that there are so many of them concentrates the mind rather wonderfully.

The theory part of the Greek Driving Test must be the quickest exam in the history of the world (“Can you see that sign? Yes? You’ve passed, well done.”) and we’re not sure we ever worked out the actual rules at road junctions. What seems to happen in an absence of markings is that people turn up from different directions and, depending on speed, make urgent or really urgent eye contact with each other. Some sort of telepathic code is then passed between the drivers, one mashes his foot to the floor, the others stamp on the brakes and/or swerve, and everyone carries on to the next junction and repeats the process. Still, it seems to work well enough, though perhaps the fact that the hire car we had was a sort of greeny yellow that you can only by rights get if you dip metal in the sea at Sellafield for about five years helped our progress.

Andy & Kate’s Grecian Odyssey – Meteora Shower!

If you’ve ever watched The Shining, you’ll have some idea of what our hotel in Meteora was like. It was a giant, five-star place perched on a hill at the end of a dirt track that was crewed entirely by an Eastern European couple with their obsessive compulsive kid, who had his toys lined up in regimented rows in the enormous, vaulted central hall.

“What time do you serve dinner?” we asked, naively.

“We don’t do food.”

“You don’t do *what*?”

Turns out, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, that they did do food, but only when tour groups were staying and, as the one that was there that night were all going out to eat, it was a big of crisps or a drive to the nearest village. Hmmmm. We wondered around the place, it’s huge marble staircases, and echoing lonely corridors and wondered exactly how much money was being laundered through the place by Russian drug czars. Maybe there’s an exchange scheme going on, and somewhere on a Russian steppe Greek hoteliers are selling weed to bemused cossacks.

The view was good though. Once upon a time, around the 11th century, a monk went up a rock and became a hermit. Then some others went to join him, which kind of blew his hermit status, but did give them the werewithal to start building a small monastery. Some other wandering hermits in search of a nice, high place to perch saw this, and climbed up a nearby rock and repeated the process (which became rather a matter of survival when the Turks invaded). Do that a few more times and you have Meteora, a landscape of smooth sided rocky pillars with (nowadays) six active monasteries perched precariously on their precipices and undoubtedly one of the most stunning landscapes on Earth.

Once reached only by rope ladder and windlass, steps were finally built up to them in the early 20th century and the monks, knowing a good thing when they saw it, started opening their monasteries to the tourist trade. These places are fascinating, the biggest – Moni Megalou – in particular being a repository of some of the best religious art it’s ever been my pleasure to clap eyes on (as well as some entertainingly feisty stuff painted around the time of the German occupation [1]. Dodging the inevitable puffing and panting tour groups and spending some time in the incredibly ornate churches on our own was an amazing experience, especially as the Orthodox frescoes are not exactly restrained when it comes to depicting the travails of the martyrs.

The pictures (and there are plenty more of them here) really don’t do it justice, so we suggest you grab any opportunity to head up there yourselves at some point and yank firmly with both hands. Just watch out for the Hotel Meteora and the bloke at the reception desk typing ‘All work and no play makes Vlad a dull boy’ time and time again...

[1] Greece has, at one time or another, been occupied by pretty much every invading force in history, with the result that you can point to pretty much any part of the Greek landscape and the history books will tell you that x number of people got massacred there a few centuries back. The value of x is often distressingly high.


Andy & Kate’s Grecian Odyssey – Acropolis Now!

Much to my shame, I realised as we were planning this trip over the summer that my knowledge of Greece comes from the following really rather limited sources:

Asterix – the books [1]
300 – the film
Rumbustious legends involving Zeus having sex with girls disguised as a bull/white swan/whatever
Shirley Valentine – the film

Thus, while Kate was charting a route around the Peloponnese for us, I wasn’t really much help, as comments such as ‘Can we see where Getafix added the blue dye to the magic potion so the Romans would get disqualified from the Ancient Olympics for taking banned substances?’ were met with a slightly frosty look.

However, despite my best efforts at disruption, a route was planned, hotels were booked, and following a quick bout of post-IBC swine flu, we headed off to Athens as a first stop. Come what may, I figured I had to know a little bit more about the country when I got back than I did before I went. It wouldn’t be that hard...

Pretty much the first thing I did find out was that Kate had used me as a drugs mule on the way out. Rifling through the Lonely Planet on the rooftop terrace of the Acropolis View Hotel (which does exactly what it says on the tin) while working out what to see first, I came across the bit that said Codeine is banned in Greece and you can get in fairly brisk amounts of trouble for carrying it around.

“Did you bring those Co-Codamol pills in case your back starts hurting?” I asked innocently

“No,” she replied, “you did. They’re in your rucksack.”

She swears that she didn’t know too...

Anyway, we decided to celebrate my non-arrest and cavity search at the border by heading up to the Acropolis the day after and having a look around. So did several thousand other people at exactly the same time. The word ‘Acropolis’ comes from the Ancient Greek, ‘acro’ meaning ‘many and ‘polis’ meaning ‘idiots’ [2] and the site was absolutely rammed. It’s on every nation’s Europe in 7 Days itinerary and there’s a constant stream of coaches turning up at the base of the site, disgorging their slightly befuddled occupants, and then retiring for a quick cigarette [3] while their camera-wielding passengers get herded in round the monuments and ruins and then herded out again.

Is it worth the experience? I’m not sure. Managed to trot back there again towards the end of the holiday and went in with about 15 minutes of opening time left when there were much less people and it still didn’t have an aura about it. Maybe that’s because of its history. The Parthenon – the Temple of Athena built by Pericles and one of the most famous buildings in the world – has been variously used as an ammo dump, blown up, eaten alive by acid rain, and had some of its most sumptuous treasures nicked by the British. As a result, it resembles more of a World Heritage Building Site than anything while the Greek authorities pursue a fairly aggressive intervention and rebuild it, using new marble where the old bits have been subject to a little bit too much gunpowder, acid or avaricious Brit nobility. In fact, there’s a lot of this going on round the country, with the result that some ancient monuments almost look as if Frankenstein actually retrained as an architect: a horde of crazed Igors going round cementing old bits of marble together with new ones and not always worrying too much about the concrete in-between.

It’s beautiful up there in its own way, especially as you look down on the multitude of white buildings of modern Athens lapping up against the surrounding hills like a frozen sea, but there are places in Greece that have a far far better sense of the historical and yes, even the sacred.

And that’s even on its own slopes as we move away from The Acropolis and things get much saner very quickly. Walk around the Ancient Agora and there’s almost no-one about; sit on one of the marble seats of the Theatre of Dionysus, looking at the stage in front of you where Aristophanes first debuted Lysistrata and The Wasps, and Aeschylus first depicted Agamemnon's dysfunctional family ties, and you can almost have the place to yourself; head to the National Archeological Museum and you’ll find crowds, but now most of them have been siphoned off to the new Acropolis Museum the footfalls are a lot sparser than they could have been.

Which was a good job too as Kate became glued to the Antikythera Mechanism in quite an impressive way. Plenty about it all on the web, but suffice to say for the moment that:

“it’s an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first known mechanical computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was recovered in 1901 from the Antikythera wreck but its complexity and significance were not understood until decades later. It is now thought to have been built about 150–100 BC. Technological artefacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later.”

So there. In fact, she ended up performing a circular dance around it with another Antikythera-obsessive, both fairly crazed with excitement as they gestured and pointed out significant aspects of it to their other halves. Who made it? Why and where? How did the knowledge get lost? And, more importantly, would it help you buy a train ticket up to Meteora?

Okay, perhaps not the latter, but while buying said tickety may sound like a trivial thing, it turned out to be a task that Hercules would have had more than one problem with. Go to station, get sent to ticket office in other part of city, wait in queue, get told when it’s your turn that there will now be a ten minute break for some reason, wait for ten minutes, wait for another ten, and another, start ruminating that if this is how bad it is to get a ticket what might it be like to travel on the trains themselves, phone up Hertz and start your car hire three days early.

Time for one last meal before we went though, down in a lovely part of the city where most of the shops sell religious paraphernalia for the Greek Orthodox Church. Which, given that the average Orthodox village church makes a Catholic cathedral look like a Wesleyan chapel, is a fairly serious amount of bling. Given the fact also that Kate is by now making great strides with the Greek language (while I’m still at the smiling sweetly and saying thank you in English a lot stage) the waiter turns to me and says “You should marry her.”

Now, it’s funny that you should say that...

[1] Asterix is actually the foundation of all my knowledge of the Ancient World. Sadly...
[2] This is a lie. But it might as well not be...
[3] Well, not the coach, but the driver will. Greece has elevated competitive smoking to an artform and no opportunity for a crafty fag can be missed