Monday, May 18, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Fifth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

Planes, trains, boats, buses, taxis and my own two aching feet had brought me to crowded, confusing and utterly beguiling Istanbul. Twelve days prior, I’d never even been outside the United States except for the passage north to Canada. Now my bunk was in Turkey, and like most Americans of my generation, too numerous viewings of “Midnight Express” regurgitated in my subconscious, reminding me this wasn’t Kansas – or Floyds Knobs.

In 2015, tourists plot their routes on mobile devices or various other electronic gadgets. In 1985, we pulled out dog-eared copies of “Europe on $25 a Day” or “Let’s Go: Europe” and tried not to look too conspicuous while trying to determine where we were. Train stations and tourist shops sold city maps, but why purchase one unless you were sure it would be needed?

After all, a couple thousand Turkish lira saved might well be two or more Efes Pilsners earned.

The Sultan Tourist Hostel was fairly easy to find, and upon checking in and agreeing to occupy a three-bedded room with two complete strangers for the absurdly cheap price of $2.50 a night, I was introduced to my roomies.

They were engaging and intrepid Japanese architectural students, whose broken but priceless English-language commentaries on the construction techniques and design features of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, three historical attractions lying mere blocks away from the hostel, immeasurably enlivened our daily visits to these shrines.

While in the former Byzantium, one gloriously sunny afternoon was spent on the local ferryboat, zigzagging back and forth through the straits from Europe to Asia, and halting finally at a hillside town with the adjacent Black Sea as an eastern horizon, cheap skewers of grilled lamb and peppers, stuffed tomatoes, and a chaotic bazaar where finally, after nearly two weeks on the road, I paused long enough to take a cue from Hassan and half-heartedly bargain with a merchant over the price of a gaudy yellow bath towel.

The time allotted for Istanbul passed too quickly. Having learned my lesson during the inbound segment of the Turkish excursion, I now trusted the posted train schedules, and the rail trip back to Athens proved idiotically simple, with two memorable stopovers along the way.


The first was Kalambaka, itself a nondescript modern town, but the functional gateway to the spectacular, otherworldly monasteries of Meteora, which are man-made complexes of Orthodox holiness and isolation perched like Technicolor mushrooms atop tall shafts of sheer volcanic rock – accessible by local bus thanks to the wonders of 20th-century roadway engineering, but previously reached exclusively by rope and basket conveyances, pulleys and profuse prayers.

Next came mountaintop Delphi and earnest considerations of the famous hallucinogenic oracle, whose cryptic riddles were puzzling highlights of antiquity.

From Delphi, the serene view southwest over the Gulf of Corinth closed each evening, alongside beers, moussaka and a group of entertaining Kiwis, all crowded together on the veranda of a small taverna, enraptured by the intensity of the sunset. I wasn’t the only one who’d perused Henry Miller’s seminal “The Colossus of Maroussi” before arriving in Greece, and the book came to life as we discussed Miller’s late-thirties experiences and compared them with our own.

On the day I’d chosen to leave Delphi, an uneventful local bus ride to a nearby town, where the railhead was located, provided no advance warning of the scene at the station. Swarms of excited people were streaming aboard the train bound for Athens.

I’d completely forgotten that it was Election Day. It was fast becoming post-election afternoon, and the celebration was beginning in earnest. Andreas Papandreou’s green-coded Socialists, scourge of the Reagan administration, were about to triumph over the conservative, blue-colored New Democrats and the ominous, red-cloaked Communists.

Previously, in Patras and Kalambaka, I’d experienced late-night campaign rallies for both major parties, but nothing like this. Bottles of wine and Ouzo were everywhere. Trays of food were passed up and down the slowly moving train cars. Tickets were not being checked, which hardly mattered, as train seats were non-existent, even in first class, and rail workers partied just as unreservedly as the passengers.

The festive atmosphere more than made up for the discomfort, and I enjoyed hearing the observations of a few Greek passengers who spoke English, as well as the dryly humorous comments of my fellow traveler for the day, a Swiss woman my age who I’d met while at staying at the hostel in Delphi.

Once in Athens, she intended to take a boat from Piraeus to the Greek Islands, while my plan was to move south onto the Peloponnese region. Belatedly arriving in Athens, I accepted her invitation to share a bottle of wine, and we passed time at her hotel during the afternoon hours.


Later that night, I caught the last southbound train, eventually catching a few hours of sleep atop a bench in the providentially warm Argos train station before hopping the first morning bus to the scenic town of Nafplion on the Aegean coast.

Nafpion’s craggy, sprawling 16th-century hilltop Venetian fortress merited a full day’s exploration, powered by fresh raisin bread from the bakery around the corner from my inexpensive guesthouse. One day each was devoted to the museums and archeological sites of Epidavros and Mycenae, both reached by bus from Nafplion’s depot, where chalkboards chronicled departures and arrivals.

Epidavros, home to one of the best-preserved ancient amphitheaters in Greece, and Mycenae, replete with Trojan War imagery and a much-noted tomb, finally sated a desire dating from childhood for insight into the lives of the ancient Greeks.

The visits to Epidavros and Mycenae, coupled with two Athenian afternoons exploring the Acropolis and the time with the oracle in Delphi, brought these adolescent dreams to life, and provided ample opportunities to muse on the differences between our often romanticized views of the past and the helter-skelter reality of modern Greece.

My epiphanies largely complete, Greek time began to run out. Much to my consternation, I’ve not returned there since.

Italy awaited, and to get there, it was time again to board the boat.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … where it all began.

No comments: