Thursday, 15 July 2010

Globalisation and the souvenir

Gods know, souvenirs were already pretty tacky. 'Your name in hieroglyphics', or Chinese, or Greek, or Arabic; singing mosques, leather camels, reproduction Venuses de Milo with or without arms, David's genitals or Mona Lisa's smile reproduced in their hundred thousands to immortalise that 'special' moment...

But new heights of tackiness are now being reached, because the souvenirs have nothing to do with the place you've just been.

Experience # 1: Athens. I do like to buy musical instruments if I can, when I'm travelling; and they will be played, too, so I tend to concentrate on wind instruments (though an Estonian kannel did join my collection and is a delight to play). A Bulgarian whistle became one of my favourites very quickly; I have a collection of Turkish zurnas; and having visited the wonderful (and free) music instrument museum in Athens I was keen to get a floyera, or the lovely deep-toned souravli that's played on Crete.

So I'm looking on the stalls of Monastiraki, the more interesting ones towards Thission which haven't yet been commercialised (a 'flea market' selling new Nikes at 'only' EUR 70 is an interesting concept), and I find a tub of little reed flutes. I pick one up. Not all that well made; rough hairy fibres left around the finger holes, and the top very poorly cut, uneven and jagged. Then I notice the label. I have no idea at all what it says; could be anything - 'cheapest you can get', 'kwality brand', 'it's a flute, idiot'. It's in Hindi, anyway.

So much for 'Greek traditional' instrument, which is what the cardboard label propped up against the tub said these were.

Experience # 2:  Paros.

I like shopping in Parikia. It's a laid back place, where two or three butchers' shops still divide up the space on the main street with a bakery as well as the souvenir shops and upmarket jewellers'. You can get good sandals, the jewellery here is pretty good (which it really wasn't on Thira), and you can get the best ice cream in the whole of Greece* at Sulla Luna, down on the waterfront, once you've finished shopping.

But I'm a well travelled geek with an interest in art history and enough of an amateur silversmith to be particularly interested in jewellery. So when I spotted an entire case of  Turkmen work - which I'd been introduced to by an erudite emigrĂ© salesman in the great market at Istanbul - I recognised it instantly; heart shaped slabs of silver encasing huge semi-precious stones, warm reds and oranges, gold leaf 'foliage' patterns against the silver background.

At least there was no claim that this was 'traditional Greek', but I wondered; why go all the way to the Cyclades to buy Turkmen work? (And I don't think this was a business run by a local Turkmen emigrant, as had been the case in Istanbul.)

Experience # 3: Istanbul

I'm not an innocent souk-wise. I spent far too long in the Muttrah souk, Oman, to be wet behind the ears when it comes to sourcing of the goods displayed. There are very few souks these days where you'll see the goods being made in the market (though we did see ploughs and spades being made, and tool handles shaved and fitted, at Sefrou and in Oman, and found a man in Rabat who would make handbags or briefcases to our description in two days, in a workshop tucked away behind the main souk street).  One of my regular stops in Muttrah was a lovely shop where I bought a couple of woven Paisley jackets and some nice embroidery - all of which came from Kashmir, as the shopowner told me.

"Nothing to do with Oman. Oman's a hot country, Kashmir it gets very cold, so you see, big arms, big pockets, nice warm coat." He told me a lot more about Kashmir, over the next few glasses of sticky, tepid tea. (Yes, tea, in Oman, the country of cardamom coffee; but not if you're Kashmiri.)

Oman also did a great trade in Baluchi jewellery (and I saw some of that in Thira, so the Baluchi salesmen have made it to the Med); no one in Muttrah was ever dishonest about where their stock came from, though. They were positively proud of Muttrah's status as a cosmopolitan trading centre - in a rather different way from brand-name and designer-gear Dubai.

Imagine my surprise to find exactly the same embroidery for sale in the Sandal Bedesten, at the heart of Istanbul's great bazaar. "Oh yes, it's Turkish," I was told. "Made in Turkey, hand made, very nice traditional pattern. Only in Turkey."

I bought the coat anyway - a marvellous pattern of pink and gold  flowers on a black background, in wool, with a silk lining. It was too good not to buy. And too cheap. But it wasn't Turkish. At least, not unless someone's copying those Kashmiri designs...

We think of globalisation in terms of the big brands - Coke, Pepsi, Big Macs, and if you're going upmarket a bit, Swarowski or Dior or Versace. But globalisation is also changing the nature of the tourist souvenir - it's no longer something you buy to remind you of a place, or to embody the spirit of that place, but something you buy because you're on holiday. Hence the lines of African drums and fetishes in Athens, and Paris, and Rome, and nearly everywhere else I've been recently. Hence the fact that you can buy a 'legalise cannabis' T-shirt in Monastiraki, or Saint-Ouen, or Camden - but not, because thank God some places are sacrosanct, in Meteora. Yes, a souvenir has to be bought because your reason for going on holiday is simply to spend money, isn't it? And by spending money you will make yourself relaxed, and happy. No?

Which is, for me, beside the point. I travel to see places - not to spend money for the sake of spending it. (And dear restaurant touts everywhere, I only eat dinner once every evening. Not twice, not three times. Once. Got it?)

Although it strikes me that in the Turkmen story, there is the beginning of an interesting story about the new diasporas of the Middle East... and that, you know, would be a very interesting tale to tell.

And for my own souvenir? Two shards of pottery picked up on tracks in Thira and Naxos - nice, boring, twentieth century traditional stuff, not antique, not fancy, but with nice deep glaze, which I'm going to set in a silver bezel and use as pendants.


* Best icecream in Greece? Oh yes it is. We had some damn fine ice cream elsewhere on the islands (Andros has a great patisserie with branches in Batsi, Gavrio and Andros town which makes its own icecream; there are some good places in Athens, too) but nothing to match Denise's frozen yoghurt, stracciatella, or particularly the marvellous coconut ice cream which we ate straight out of the ice cream maker.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Two great Greek walks

There are nations that 'get' hiking and nations that don't. The British, the Germans, and about forty percent of Americans do. The Greeks don't.

So don't expect beautifully marked hiking trails (though on Santorini, at least, some trails have been marked out, I couldn't find a map referring to them or any reason why the trail numbers seemed to change every few kilometres, and some of the tracks were in a very poor state).

But the landscape is amazing. And the best way to experience it is still on two feet (or possibly, donkeys and mules being as surefooted and hardworking as they are, on four).

Santorini - the loop from Perissa to Vlihada

We did cheat for the first part of the walk and took a bus along the long, straight, built-up road that leads from Perissa to Emporio. At Emporio, time to head away from the modern centre, up past the huge cathedral, into the heart of the kastro and the ancient village, and then out past the almost pyramidal Ottoman tower to cross the main road and take a small road leading towards the windmills you've already seen high on the ridge opposite the town.

The road curves and jinks as it goes upwards and soon you're walking past the windmills, with marvellous views over the fields to the south and towards the Profitis Ilias summit to the north. Then the way slowly sinks, till you come to the end of the road at a little whitewashed church with views over Vlihada and its harbour.

Here you could give up. We went on, finding scratchy paths through terraces, a painted red dot irregularly marking the way; the path became more and more scrambly till it gave out altogether just before the road, a few hundred metres before Vlihada.

(Now I am not absolutely sure that this is a legitimate hiking trail, though the red paint appears to indicate that it is.  However it's still a nice hike if you simply return down the ridge with the windmills to Emporio, make your way to the coast from there, and hike the coast road to Perissa.)

Vlihada is the 'working' harbour of Santorini - fishing boats rub shoulders with yachts, and there's not a ferry or tour ship in sight. From here, take the road that runs along the coast (there's a steep set of steps taking you up to it from the end of the harbour), somewhat inland to start with. Hike at dusk and you'll see pigeons flying out from the tiny pigeon-houses in the fields to be fed; they're well trained enough to fly back in on their own once they've completed a few wheeling turns in the sky. Once you come to the main road junction, take a right, which leads you to the coast road, and from here it's plain sailing (or walking) into Perissa, past beach bars and restaurants on one side with the black sand and the sea on the other.

For a four-hour walk, this has incredible variety and a selection of marvellous views.

The grand Meteora hike

It would be easy to be disappointed in Meteora. The big tour buses, the crowds of tourists, the postcard sellers and the huge road that cuts through the middle of this once mysterious area. It's difficult to feel the purity of the early ascetics when you're standing in a frescoed church with a buzzing swarm of hot tourists fresh off the coach. Still more difficult to feel the hardness of their lives, the hard toil and privation, when you know you have a souvlaki and ouzo coming...

But Meteora hides some memorable hiking. Start off in Kastraki - a little village we got to know very quickly (including the little ouzeri on the main street, whose owner sings as he serves and even went out for five minutes to fetch the eggs to make our saganaki - 'from the chicken! I wake her up!'). Up the main street, past the church, follow the signs for St George Mandilas (St George of the Handkerchief - a hermitage in a sheer rock face  strewn with Greek flags, football shirts, and somewhere in among all that, probably a hankie or two). Keep going as the road turns to a track, and at the road crossing, turn left to St Nicolas Anapafsas. (In a field on the right you pass the monastery's beehives; wax for candles, and honey for the monks.)

This monastery is worth a visit for the frescoes by Cretan painter Theophanes; the breath of the Italian Renaissance seems to have touched them, with the Giotto-like rounded forms and the individualised faces. In the narthex, hermits in their caves make spoons or pray; aged hermits ride on lions or donkeys or their apostles' shoulders to attend the funeral of St Ephrem.  In the church itself, the key scenes of the New Testament are summed up in tiny jewel-like scenes - the standard Byzantine iconography, but somehow rarified and miniaturised. A peacock, a partridge, fine foliage decorate the chapel, making it seem fresh and alive - far from the solemnity of most of the other Meteora frescoes.

From St Nicholas, carry on down the road for a small way before taking the track on the right. This track will carry you onwards through valleys flanking the Meteora rocks, through pastures where shepherds and their dogs guard flocks of sheep, where the sheep bells ring perpetually, where you can hear water rushing from fountains under the shade of oak trees. Past a couple of farms, their ramshackle corrals empty in midsummer, and finally to the turnoff on the right (firmly barred to traffic) to the hanging monastery of Ypapandi.

Ypapandi is closed; 'for restoration' apparently, though there was no sign of any recent work or access, apart from a single cigarette trodden into the gravel. It's still a majestic presence, its tiny church and monastic buildings ranged along a ledge in the rock. Leafy shade, a place to rest before the route swings back towards Kastraki.

From Ypapandi you can see the 'hero monk' on the bare, round rock to the north. Keep along the track, and it's a ridiculously easy ascent - given the sheer rock faces on three sides - to the statue, with views all around, down to the lowlands and up past Ypapandi to the heart of Meteora. But to continue on the trail, you need to come back about half way to Ypapandi, where a narrow path leads off to the left (as you come back - right if you're still going towards the 'hero' rock), uphill.

From here, follow the little cairns (and add to them, if you're sure you're on the right path), as the path leads towards the Great Transfiguration monastery on the Broad Rock. There are marvellous views of the rocks, of a ruined monastery above Ypapandi, of mountains and valleys. Several times I saw wild tortoises galloping noisily through the undergrowth.  It's only at the last minute that the path becomes indistinct; and any way down will get you to the main road, though the final metre is a scramble, a leap, or an undignified arse-first descent to the road, wherever you do it. (Going the other way, note that the wayside shrine - a little red-painted model chapel on a pillar - indicates one of the main tracks leading upwards.)

(One of the strangest things about the route is that you can't see the Great Transfiguration monastery until you're nearly on top of it. Unlike Varlaam, Roussanou, or St Nikolas Anapafsas, which are visible for miles, the greatest of the monasteries seems to hide itself, from wherever you approach it.)

At this point, turn right to visit the Transfiguration, and then left to visit Varlaam. From Varlaam, you can leave the road once more - take the steps that lead down past the ascent tower of the monastery (to the left as you come out), and from the bottom (the 'works yard') there's a clear path that descends through oak forest, past caves and springs. There are some nasty patches of scrabble where the path has given way, but most of it is easy walking in the shade. Once you come out on to the road you'll probably recognise the track back to Kastraki on the other side - an easy quarter of an hour back to the ouzeri.

It's a long day; we started at eight and finished about half past four, and only visited St Nicholas Anapafsas that day (we'd already seen the other two monasteries). But it's worth it. Not just because if you've done this, you can understand the solitude, the hard life of the hermit, the loneliness of the landscape, and perhaps the slight edge of madness that affects people who live in a vertical world, where there's a steep drop on every side and nothing to hang on to. It's worth it for the sound of the cold springs; for the shade of oak trees; for the dark of narrow valleys and the sun beating down on the black rock under our feet. And for the ouzo we felt we absolutely deserved when we got back to Kastraki.

  • The route from the old area of Kalambaka, near the Byzantine cathedral, to Agios Triadha is also well worth walking - and better maintained than the stretch up to Varlaam. Maps seem to indicate you could loop around to Roussanou and walk back down the other side of the valley. Some covered walking in shade, some fine views, and Agios Triadha - off most of the coach tour itineraries - is a rather fascinating small monastery with an intimacy that the others generally lack.

  • There's also a good hike from Kastraki up past two small churches to the 'Roca', the thin needle-like rock that dominates the area between Kastraki and Kalambaka.

  • I regret not hiking up to Agios Pneuma, the hermitage of the Holy Spirit above Kastraki - there's a great account on walkopedia.  This is a quick hike if you're staying in Kastraki, though effortful.

Despite the helpful man at the Tourist Office in Kalambaka (definitely worth stopping there), and maps handed out by the campsite in Kastraki, we found it difficult to navigate. The Greeks don't get walking. I sometimes wonder whether they 'get' maps, either....

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The thinness of authenticity

Athens is now two cities. There's the huge, glittering, modern city that spreads itself in every valley bottom and plain between the great hills that carve the city.  And then there's the ancient city of Pericles, still visible at least in part - and more visible than it was to previous generations, cleaned of its grime, cleaned of the buildings that used to adhere to its pillars and walls, cleared of inauthentic additions and reconstructions.

From the top of Likavettos hill, the modern city twinkles in the sun. A pair of huge dark canyons run towards the distant cranes and chimneys of Piraeus and the harbour of Faliro. Patches of khaki park with dark cypresses stand out against the dirty white of the city, like Byzantine landscapes in an icon. Look at the street plan; each neighbourhood is built on a grid, rational and self-contained, but since each neighbourhood declared autonomy in planning, where the grids meet it's madness, streets weaving a basket of loose ends and spiky angles with no way from A to B except through Z and back again. A wave of buildings surges up the slopes of Hymettus, only falling back when the line of forest meets them, dark black in the pale haze of summer.

It's not picturesque, this modern city, and it's not lovely. But it's real, and from up on Likavettos, it glitters lazily, and you could almost come to like it. (Besides, if you're a nosy bugger like me, you'll enjoy counting the rooftop swimming pools in Kolonaki, spread out below in lurid turquoise.)

Then there's the city of Perikles; first and foremost the Acropolis, of course, but also the agora, and the roads running out past the cemetery in Keramikos towards Eleusis and Plato's academy.

The Acropolis is being new-built. Huge blocks of stone being recarved, and I don't know whether they're old stone given a once-over, or new stone. (That surprising band of grey across the Erechtheion's north face, the frieze blank grey against the creamy stone of the rest of the building; is that the authentic effect, or a mistake of modern rebuilders?)

In a way, I approve. There's a tiny ivory god in the museum in the Roman agora, made up of 300 or so fragments painstakingly pieced together; an Apollo, turning softly, his flesh round and firm, recognisable now and burnished again (though darkened with age to a rich brown). We remake pots, and sculptures, and inscriptions; why shouldn't we rebuild architecture?

But of course they're not rebuilding Pericles' Athens. They're rebuilding just three of its buildings. They're rebuilding the classical heritage, not the classical era city. So buildings that don't stack up with this classical, Hellenic ideal will be left erased - like the tiny round Roman temple to the east of the Parthenon, a dainty little rotunda that I fear will be left forever ruined. We'll never see the Parthenon the way the ancient Greeks did - surrounded by buildings, by treasuries and smaller temples and tripods and monuments - because we're not to be distracted. (Like the great medieval cathedrals of France, without their parvises and cloisters and bishops' palaces, marooned in space.)

And to rebuild this ideal, many sacrifices need to be made. So, for instance, much of Plaka was bulldozed to recover the site of the Roman Agora. Nineteenth century neo-classical mansions are being neglected, according to some accounts so they can be pulled down to expose better views of the Acropolis. The Turkish past which created Plaka - a rambling neighbourhood of gently curving streets and early nineteenth century houses - is being denied; the history books are being rewritten with a gap in it. Neoclassicism isn't classical enough, and so it too must go. Athens is trying to become a pure city - a city crystallised at one moment of its history - and to do so, it's picking away at everything that doesn't fit the picture.

The trouble with this is that it impoverishes the present. With a few exceptions (Brasilia, perhaps - even Milton Keynes contains within the new city nuggets of past villages and ancient mansions), cities are the creation of centuries - not five-minute stir-fries, but rich stews cooked long and slow, with ingredients added every couple of hundred years. Seeing a neoclassical mansion in Athens, you look across to the Parthenon, and see both the common heritage, and the different way that the neoclassical architect interpreted the canon of taste. It enriches our response to Periclean classicism to see how the nineteenth century interpreted it; to see how in Byzantine capitals, the graceful Corinthian flowers become stylized into spiky chiaroscuro.

I find Athens a city that is losing its richness. It's too clean, too pure. Too much of the past has been rejected and stripped away.

I'm glad I've seen the Parthenon. It is, simply, one of the world's great buildings, and one of the world's great inspirations; and so much huger than you could ever imagine.

But I'm sad that I've seen a city which has been Disneyfied; reduced to a simplicity that denies so much of what a city should be.