Thursday, November 30, 2006

They all get more attention than the city of Naples itself: Vesuvius rising above the Bay of Naples, the ruins of Pompeii and Herculanium perched on the flanks of the mountain, and the fabulous Sorrento coast stretching between Naples and Salerno. But Naples is itself a fascinating destination. This time when our ship docked by the busy ferry terminal, Margaret and I decided to spend most of our time exploring the city. We walked past the Castel Nuovo to the "downtown" area through the Galleria Umperto to the Palace. Taggers have had a field day here. Graffiti is everywhere, as high up as person can reach with higher scrawling by people who use ladders. The city seems to have given up trying to keep itself clean. The centuries-old, defaced stone lion in front of an impressive but tired old church wears an appropriately disgusted expression.

The Cathedral of Naples (or Duomo) is the main church of the city and is said to be the most important church in southern Italy. Built in the 13th Century, the church is dedicated to San Gennaro, the city's patron saint. The church has a vial of the Saint's blood which is brought out twice a year. It is said that the dried blood liquefies when it is brought out, which, of course, is considered a miracle each time it happens. According to legend if the blood fails to liquefy, something bad will happen to Naples. The church was completed in the early 14th century. The present cathedral was buit on the foundations of two earlier Christian basilicas. Another church, which was obviously meant to remind us of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome seems badly neglected.

A funicular railroad runs up to the top of Sant'Elmo Hill in the center of the city. Sant'Elmo is the name of both the hill and a fortress which was built in the 14th Century by Robert of Anjou. The fortress is a star-shaped castle with six ramparts. It's in remarkably good condition. We spent a couple of hours in the "Bruno Molajoli" Art History museum in the castle before walking back down to the harbor.

The most impressive structure in Naples is Castel Nuovo which has guarded the harbor since the 13th Century. The castle has been modified several times, the latest addition was a facade added between the entrance towers in the 15th Century.
The Alfonso I Triumph Arch, the most important Renaissance work in Naples, is at the entrance to the castle. This Arch commemorates Alfonso I of Aragon and Naples arrival to the city back in 1443.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The eruption of Santorini in Greece in 1,650 B.C.E. was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the last 10,000 years. Such a large volume of magma was thrown out that it caused the volcano to collapse, producing a caldera. Ash fell over a large area in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey. The eruption probably caused the end of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. In the photograph below, our ship, the Celebrity "Millennium," is anchored in the caldera. Looking up to the white-washed villages from the ship, you feel as if you're looking at snow-capped mountains. From the villages, the ship looks like a toy in a giant tub.

Tenders from the ship dropped us off at the port of Athinaos at the bottom of a steep mountain. The road from Athinaos zig-zags up the side of the mountain in a long series of switch-backs to a hilly area of the strangest vineyards I've ever seen. Each vineyard is a collection of vines in the shape of baskets rather than in the usual fence-like rows. We discovered that the dry white wines are just about the driest you're ever likely to taste, and the sweet ones, made from grapes that have been allowed to become raisins, are just about the sweetest, almost like syrup. We took a bus past the largest village, Thira, on to the village of Oia. If it weren't for the Orthodox priests making their way to the little blue-domed churches and the garbage man wending his way through the narrow streets with his donkey, and people coming and going about their business of living, Oia would seem more confection than real village. The photographs say it all.

The point of land beyond Oia is actually another island in the ring around the caldera. The sunsets from the village where I took this photograph are said to be the most wonderful in the world. Maybe...

Back in the village of Thira, we had to make a decision. Should we ride donkeys down the twisting trail to the docks, walk down, or go down the easy way on a gondola? We opted for the gondola because somebody told us that you smell like a donkey for three days after you ride one of them down to the dock


I was about to write that the Parthenon is the accepted icon of Western Civilization but suddenly remembered the golden arches and wondered if it’s still true. I can almost convince myself that the golden arches are the icon of just American Culture, but then I remind myself that a Macdonald’s in Moscow is the biggest and the busiest in the world, and that many people in the crowd I followed out of the train station in Amsterdam a few months ago were headed straight for a big mac a couple of blocks away. I remember seeing the golden arches in the Ginza in Tokyo on my first trip to Japan in 1969. The signs were there that Western Civilization was in trouble long before Iraq!

THE PARTHENON (in Greek:(Ο Παρθενώνας), a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, was built in the 5th century B.C.E. on the acropolis of Athens. It is clearly the most famous surviving building of ancient Greece. No matter what 21st Century architects do to get our attention, there is little chance that anything will be designed soon that can eclipse this wonderful achievement of Greek architecture. I like Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, but comparing it to the Parthenon is like comparing Botticelli's "Primavera" with a Jackson Pollack painting.

The building's decorative sculptures, most of which were long ago moved from Greece to places like the British Museum in London (Elgin Marbles, deposited there in 1816) are considered among the best examples of Greek art. The Parthenon is more than just an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece; it is a symbol of Athenian democracy. I find it interesting that in America we are still trying to determine what a perfect democracy might look like and whether or not democracy should be imposed on countries that don't have it.

The name of the Parthenon likely derives from the monumental cult statue of Athena Parthenos which was housed in the eastern room of the building. This statue was sculpted in ivory and gold by Phidias. Athena's epithet parthenos refers to the goddess's unmarried and virginal status.

A decades-old war with Persia ended in 449 B.C.E. and a young democrat named Pericles began the most impressive program of public works in Greek history. Among his building projects was the Parthenon, which was meant as an expression of thanks to Athena by the people of Athens for saving the city from the Medes. The architect Phidias and others involved in designing the Parthenon produced a structure that is an optical illusion. They distorted the symmetry of the structure--bowing the sides out, canting the pillars in--to achieve a vision of geometric perfection. The building appeared to be squared and true when in fact it was composed of eye-deceiving curves.

Today as then visitors approaching the Parthenon pass through the Propylaea, the main gateway to the citadel. Now the marble has aged to a honey color. Then it was gaudy with color and cluttered with commemorative steles and cult statues. Next to the Propylaea a little temple to Athena Nike was built to house the "Winged Victory" statue that now stands at the top of that grand staircase in the Louvre in Paris. Perched on the great southwest bastion, flanking the Propylaea, the little temple was one of the first buildings to catch a visitor's eye. Unfortunately, in 1686, the Turks dismantled it to make room for a gun emplacement.

After the Parthenon itself, my favorite building is the Erechtheum, a complex designed to house Athens' two great great deities, Athena and Poseidon, along with such Athenian nympths and folk heroes as Erechtheus, Cecrops, Boutes, and Pandrosos.

Statues of five junoesque women of Karyai in Laconia along one portal of the Erechtheum were recently moved inside to prevent further damage from pollution. Copies have been put in their place. They are known as the caryatids. They stand in silent regimentation on the south side of the building. They are said to be near-perfect reflections of the sense of order and self-restraint that characterized Athens during the first phase of the Peloponnesian War. The asymmetry of the Erecththeum contrasts sharply with the elegant balance of the adjacent Parthenon. The Erecththeum was erected thirty-two years after the Parthenon. The two nearly contemporary structures were different in function as well as in design. The great temple to Athena was a bold Doric building dedicated to the city's paramount deity; the Erechtheum, on the other hand, was created to honor not one cult statue but half a dozen. The structure, irregular in outline and ungainly in appearance, enclosed five shrines and two sacred precincts. The columns are Ionic on the Erechtheum and Doric on the Pantheon. The Doric capital has the simplest design; the Ionic has the curlicues called volutes, and the Corinthian has the acanthus leaves. The Corinthian column below is actually from a photograph I took of the Pantheon in Rome a few days after I was in Athens.

The modern cities of Athens and Pireus aren't living in the past. Commerce is brisk. I was able to find a battery charger for an Olympus camera (alas, made in Japan, not on Mount Olympus in Greece) without much of a search. I wandered into a couple of churches and found them to be no more or less active than a church you might enter in the middle of the week in San Diego.

Monday, November 27, 2006

EPHESUS in Turkey is known to the Western World mainly as the place where the Apostle Paul spent two years trying to persuade people that Christianity was a more effective religion than their devotion to the Goddess Diana. The story of his stay there, including his being thrown in jail for causing a disturbance, can be found in the 19th Chapter of “The Acts of the Apostles.”

Archeological evidence indicates that Ephesus was founded before 200 B.C.E. and that by 3 B.C.E. was one of the largest and most important cities in the world. The city died when the river flowing into the Aegean Sea silted up the port turning the area into a vast marshland. Mosquitos brought malaria. The city had been abandoned by the 11th century A.D.

During the Roman period Ephesus was the capital of proconsular Asia which covered the western part of Asia Minor. A stroll among the ruins is a trip back in time, a walk through Greek and Roman streets. You are on a street that was once surrounded by a colonnade and shops. The agora, or marketplace, the heart of Ephesus’ business life is being restored.

The facade of the Library of Celsus is remarkably intact. The library held 12,000 scrolls in niches around its walls. The building was planned so well that a gap between outer and inner walls protected the valuable books from extremes of temperature and humidity. The library now stands alone, but it once upon a time took its place between other buildings. Architectural legerdemain was used to make it look bigger than it is: the base of the facade is convex, adding height to the central elements; and the central columns and capitals are larger than those at the ends. Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus was the Roman governor of Asia Minor early in the 2nd century A.D. In 110, after the governor’s death, his son, Consul Gaius Julius Aquila, erected this library in his father’s honor; as says an inscription in Latin and Greek on the side of the building’s front staircase. The statues that once stood in the niches on the facade representing the Virtues: Arete (Goodness), Ennoia (Thought), Episteme (Knowledge) and Sophia (Wisdom) are now in Vienna’s Ephesus Museum.

Strolling among the ruins, one easily finds the monumental Gate of Augustus and Curetes Way. The Odeon was used for poetry-readings, small concerts and prize-giving ceremonies. In Hellenistic times, theaters and odeons were as important as temples in the life of the citizens. For the Romans who came later, a good time was a matter of feasting, playing games and enjoying spectacles. The cry for "bread and circus" was common in the Roman period. The Odeon was built into the side of the hill and could seat thousands of people.

The Turkish town of Selcuk is up the road from the site of Ephesus, and the nearest active Turkish port is at the city of Kasadusi.

Mykonos, lying between Tinos and Naxos and close to the mysterious Delos, is my favorite of the Greek islands probably because the famous windmills are so compelling. In ancient Greek mythology the earliest reference to Mykonos tells that the island took its name from the hero Mykonos. Another story is an explanation for the large rocks which lie scattered all over the island. Hercules slew the Giants there, and the rocks are their corpses turned to stone.

Mykonos, one of the islands of the Cyclades, has been populated with Ionians who came from Athens since the 9th century B.C. Then Delos was a major religious center and the most important of the islands, but now Mykonos is definitely the one that dominates. The island was conquered by Venetians early in the 13th century. The Turks took it in the middle of the 16th century. The Turks couldn’t hold onto the island and finally gave up trying after the Mykonian heroic woman leader, Manto Mavroyenous, successfully repulsed their attempt to retake it.

The pelican is a a well-known mascot for Mykonos. He hangs around the harbor begging fish from the commercial fishermen.

Anywhere you stand on the island, you are surrounded by a deep, blue sea. A picture-perfect fishing harbor and village nestle against a broad curve beneath a hill covered by all-white buildings with colorful doors and windows. Domes and crosses of many small churches rise slightly above the other buildings. A row of round, gleaming white windmills line the hill above an area known as Little Venice.