A Village Called Mariolata

Last weekend we visited a little village on the northern slopes of Mt. Parnassos, thanks to a generous invitation from Sue’s cousin to stay at the house he’s built there.  Parnassos is the huge mountain we see to the north, looking straight off of our balcony in Sykia.  If you followed that line north, you’d arrive first at Delphi, then you’d cross the top ridge of Parnassos, and finally descend the other side to Mariolata, about 45 miles away.   Of course, the Gulf of Corinth is a big part of that 45 miles and, without a plane or an amphicar, it took us 3.5 hours to drive around the Gulf to his house.

Mariolata is on the floor of a high valley, about 400 meters above sea level, between Parnassos and Mt. Kallidromo to the north. If you continue north across the valley and cross over Mt. Kallidromo, you quickly arrive at Thermopylae, the site of the Spartans’ famous battle against the Persians in 480 BC.  (Geographically inclined readers will wonder how going north from Parnassos would take one to the shore of the Aegean, site of Thermopylae. The answer is that the Aegean shore takes a huge westward diversion at that spot, forming the Malian Gulf, the body of water at Thermopylae.)

Sue’s cousin built in the upper part of the village, at about 500 meters, and enjoys this spectacular view of Mariolata, and across the Kifissos valley to Mt.  Kallidromo.


Mariolata traces its history back to ancient times and, after the Persians slaughtered the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, it was one of the villages they destroyed on their way down to Athens.  Ancient ruins can be seen in the town today.


Until about 1960, Mariolata was sited up on the mountainside in a deep gorge served by a lovely mountain stream. That’s when Mother Nature  dealt Mariolata another savage blow, turning that stream into a raging torrent that destroyed the village again.


The government provided the village funds to rebuild, and the villagers decided to move the village out of harm’s way, down to the valley floor.  Remnants of the old village can still be seen on the mountain side.  This old house is now used as an animal pen.


New arrivals in Mariolata, including Sue’s cousin, have built up on the mountainside but well clear of the gorge that flooded.  The upper part of the village includes this pretty plateia and the church of the nativity of Mary.  That feast day is September 8, and Sue’s cousin tells us the entire village treks up the mountainside to participate in the celebration.


One of the great joys of visiting the village is taking advantage of the opportunities it offers to walk in the countryside.


This nice gate encloses a vacant lot, the house, I suppose, having been relocated below.


Spring was just beginning when we visited Mariolata, and there were wildflowers blooming all along the roads and footpaths.  We were especially happy to see the almond trees blooming.


Sue’s cousin took us to an abandoned monastery, high up the mountain on a forestry road (I’d estimate the altitude at about 700 meters).  The monastery’s church, dedicated to Mary “Queen of All” (Pantanasa), dates to the 15th century.



The interior is completely covered with period frescoes, which were badly damaged in 1942 when occupying Italian troops shamefully set the church ablaze.


The church is unusual in that it features two domes.  At first it appears that the church was built in two phases but indeed it was intended to have double domes from inception.  In this photo, the lower dome’s central fresco depicts Mary Pantanasa and the other dome, above the nave, depicts Christ Pantocrator, the usual subject of orthodox domes.


I peeked through the open door of the iconostasis, and found sunlight streaking through the slit window in the sanctuary.


There was no snow at the elevations we visited although plenty was visible along the summits and high ridges of Parnassos, and meltwater was streaming down the mountainside everywhere.  One night the temperature dropped to freezing, reminding us that snowfall is a regular feature of winter in the village.

Mariolata is one of a string of 4 villages along the road that skirts the big mountain on its northern flank.  Sue’s cousin showed us all of them, each prettier than the next, and gave us the opportunity to sample the region’s food and wine as well.  It was the ideal way to say farewell to winter while spending precious time with our family.

Oinorama at the Zappeion


Every year about this time, we’re preparing to travel to Greece and catching up on the latest Greek news when we read about the just-completed magic that is Oinorama, and it makes us wish we’d booked our flight for just a few weeks earlier so we could have caught it. Well, this year we finally did.  Oinorama is a 3-day wine tasting that features, as near as I can tell, every Greek vintner —  something like 170 wine-makers pouring samples of virtually their entire production.  Saturday and Sunday are open to the public, Monday is trade-only.  We went on Saturday, and it was glorious.  We visited the stands of all of our favorite wine makers, had a chance to see and talk with some of them, and sampled some of the products of vintners that had been recommended by friends or wine writers,  We confirmed our opinions of our favorites, discovered some exciting new offerings by wineries we know well, and found a couple of wineries we’ll have to investigate further.  Great fun, and it gave us new respect for people who do this sort of thing for a living.  The owner of the local wine shop told us he samples at least 70 wines at Oinorama, and the wine staff at Zatinya said they sampled 85 wines a day, three days in a row when touring Greek wine regions.  We tasted, I would guess, 36-40 different wines in a couple of hours, and our palates were dead when we left.  But what a way to kill one’s palate!

Oinorama is held at the Zappeion, a conference and exhibition center in the Public Gardens near the Parliament building and the Panathenaic Stadium.  In was built in 1888 by generous Greek citizens Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas, and was used as the fencing hall during the first modern Olympics in 1896, as well as the press center during the 2004 Olympiad. We’d visited the Zappeion as a Athens site — the entrance hall and atrium are gorgeous, and a tremendous improvement over any other exhibition hall I’ve seen — but never imagined we’d attend an event there.  The exhibit space is a chain of connected rooms arranged in a semi-circle around the huge circular atrium.  This phone photo was taken in one of the rooms.  The keen-eyed will notice the G’aia stand on the right, and the Ktima Alpha stand across the aisle.  Those are two of our absolute favorites…we spent a lot of time in that room.

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Full Moon in Sikya


We went out just now to see the first full moon of our time here. We’re used to seeing the moon rise over Mt. Gerania, to the east, so this winter moon rising directly across the Gulf was a sweet surprise.  This is just about where the sun rises in mid-summer.

Not quite visible are the clouds gathering on the horizon.  They are heralding an end to the run of gorgeous weather we’ve enjoyed the last 4 days, and are forecast to bring us cooler, wetter weather through the weekend. Good thing we’re caught up on the laundry.

Καλώς ήρθατε!


That’s Greek for “Welcome!” and its literal translation is almost exactly that: “Well (good) to come.”  Our friends and relations have been greeting us that way since we arrived Friday, and last night the first full moon of our stay popped out from behind Mt. Gerania as if to add its own Καλώς ήρθατε!  We didn’t get the lunar eclipse that you lucky folks in North America got to see but the moon here certainly had all the color of a blood moon, and we were thrilled — as always — to see it.


The moonrise capped a sunset walk on the beach, which is now fringed with the wildflowers we love:



Mt. Elikonas, the mountain we see from our balcony, capped with clouds  and underlined by an Aleppo pine, whose horizontal growth is a testament to the strong west wind:P1000497


Mt. Parnassos, home of the nine muses.  You can just see that it’s still snowy at the top.  There’s a ski resort on the other (northern) side.



Mt. Gerania, from which the moon would soon emerge:



The Panagia, freshly painted over the winter, against a backdrop of Melissi village on the left, and our own lovely Sikia on the right:



Looking east along the beach at Sikia:



And the rest of the moon dance:


Being welcomed back each year is one of the things we love about Greece but another of Greece’s charms is its customary leaving-taking, “Sto kalo,” which means “Go to the good.”   It’s a simple wish/command that operates on several levels and is emblematic of the love and respect that underlie this culture. Sto kalo.


καλό χειμώνα, Sikya


Good winter, Sikya.  It’s the standard leave-taking in Greece at summer’s end.  As always, leaving is bittersweet; we’re anxious to see our family and friends in the States but sorry to leave our friends and family in Greece.  The weather this September was spectacular.  From the time we got back to Greece on 26 August until the morning we left (October 3), it was mild and sunny, warm enough for a swim, cool enough to lie on the beach without suffering.  Meals on the balcony have been a delight, and there’s been a very pleasant northwest breeze almost everyday.

The Sikya fleet maintained at least a shadow presence until the last day — a first for us.  And anglers were particularly active this September — both from the beach and in boats in the cove the activity seemed frenetic.  Our peeks at the catch buckets revealed some very nice panfish, a sea-change from the little gavros we usually see reeled ashore.  Adonis was his usual steady self, working out ceaselessly on the beach and in the sea but he, too, is different this year.  With his hair cropped short, and his beard grown out, he’s scarcely recognizable.  Susan said, “It’s like he’s had a head transplant.  I had to look at his body to make sure it was him.” Perhaps he’d take some consolation in that.  And the comedy show we refer to as The Mayor also saw a new act.  When we returned from our trip to Thessaloniki in mid September, the mayor’s boat, know to us as The Scow, was beached in the crook of the cove.  We thought perhaps the mayor had made a desperate miscalculation in attempting to save a few euros on winter docking fees.  Surely the surf would pound that part of the cove all the way to the seawall during winter storms.  But, indeed, The Scow was floating again a couple of days later, albeit a bit lower in the water.  And finally, during the last weekend, we saw a fishing boat giving The Scow a brisk tow in the general direction of the Xylokastro marina.  The mayor’s beach outpost, which grew to gypsy camp splendor this year, took on a decidedly neglected aspect, and the mayor could be spied sitting among the ruins staring disconsolately out to the spot in the cove where The Scow had formerly been moored.

The splendid, dreamy, ideal weather appeared to be coming to an end, however;  the rains had begun.  In the wee hours of 1 October we got a downpour which I estimated at an inch — the most rainfall we’ve witnessed in Greece.  By dawn, however, the sky was cobalt once again and a line of clouds drifted below the top of Mt. Elikonas, across the Gulf.  And the morning we left, in the dark of 4-blinking-30 AM, in a rented Suzuki SX4, I had my first opportunity in 6 months to drive in the rain on our way to the airport.

The last full moon of this year’s trip was while we were visiting Thessaloniki.  It was wonderful seeing it rise over the city but we missed sitting on the beach in Sikya, peering to the east every few seconds, until suddenly, finally, it’s there: larger and closer than we’d expected.

It feels like it’s time to leave.  Our apartment complex is virtually empty, and we’ve wished a good winter to many of our neighbors.  The plateia, so busy on summer evenings, saw only a few kids each night the last 4 weeks, and recently dwindled to none.  The silence, so fervently longed-for, now seems lonely.  We laid in bed this morning, waiting for the 3:00 am alarm, listening to the surf bursting on the beach (a rare treat), thinking of the changing seasons, of time passing irredeemably.  Time to get up and go.  Good winter, Sikia.

Santorini: The Caldera

My impression is that when Americans think about Greece, the visuals that spring to mind are of the Acropolis and the islands.  (At least that’s how it was before the financial crisis.  Now I guess a news photo of some sort of chaos is included in the slideshow.)  And, when it comes to the Greek islands, the usual images are of the clubs on Mykonos and the caldera at Santorini.  I like to post about Greece from the perspective of an American living in an area relatively few foreign tourists visit but we’ve been to Santorini three times in the last 10 months, and it’s been suggested that I post something about this most touristy of all Greek islands.  Since I can’t think of a way to approach Santorini in a single post, I’ll put up several installments in the coming days (I hope), each dealing with an element of the unique experience that is Santorini.

And I’ll start with the blockbuster.  Santorini’s raison d’etre.  The feature that draws the hoards.  That which makes Santorini unique among Greek islands.  The caldera.


In about 1700 BC, Santorini experienced the mother of all volcanic explosions, a blast that left a ring of three islands on the periphery of a gigantic caldera.  The biggest of the three islands, shaped like a backwards “C,” is Santorini.  Even standing on the rim it’s hard to get a feel for the enormity of the caldera but it’s about 7.5 miles on the north-south axis and 4.3 miles east to west.   The high point of the rim, the village of Imerovigli, near the center of this photo, is 300 meters above the sea.  The overwhelming majority of visitors to the caldera come to Santorini but a smaller island on the other side, Therasia, is also inhabited and welcomes day-trippers mostly.   In addition, two small islets in the center of the caldera have risen from the depths since the big bang 3700 years ago.  The volcano is still active, and dozens of boats daily take tourists out to Nea Kameni to see the volcano and swim in the adjacent hot water.

The photo above was taken from near the center of the backwards “C”, looking north.  That which looks like frosting on the top of the rim are the clustered houses of the villages that line the caldera. The northernmost village, barely visible atop the arm stretching to the left, is Oia, the most famous and most visited spot on the island.


This is what makes Oia famous and infamous.  The exquisite beauty of the little whitewashed house against the deep blue sea far below.  And the hoards of motor coach and cruise boat tourists that squeeze themselves into the tiny village daily, usually traipsing after a cosmically bored tour guide who stops every minute or two to rattle off the memorized script in all the languages of the UN.  That viewpoint where they’re all standing or waiting to stand is the foundation of a cathedral that went careening into the sea during a terrible earthquake in 1956.  It’s the westernmost point of the island, and a dead-end, so once you’ve shot your selfie there you have to turn around and fight your way back through the throngs.

Looking to the southeast along the caldera from Oia.


Looking northwest over Oia.  The cliffs beyond are the island Therasia.


The locals use donkeys to haul tourists up and down the caldera steps.  There are also a couple of roads and a couple of cable cars from the ports.



A few more photos from Oia:






How to handle the hoards:


The lighthouse at the opposite end of Santorini from Oia:


Suddenly, it’s summer

Suddenly, it's summer

Peter Economides (http://petereconomides.com) posted this image this morning under the heading, “Just because it feels like summer today,” perfectly capturing our joy in the day, the warm breeze, and the glorious sea. Economides got our attention with this talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chhn5oEmITs) about rebranding Greece which resonated with many people thinking about ways to respond to the current crisis .

In the last week, we’ve gone from highs of around 70 to highs of around 80, and the lingering clouds have been banished. Wednesday is May Day, a holiday, and Sunday is Pascha, and the mood here is Opa!

In addition, while we were sitting on the balcony getting our eyes open this morning, Susan spotted a pod of dolphins swimming west in the Gulf. There were 6 of them, beautiful to watch, and we took it as a sure sign of good times ahead.   Good-bye socks, farewell jeans, hello shorts, yiasou sandals!