Seaside, tavernas, hills and history
An opportunity to spend a couple of days in Central Greece to explore its sights, sounds and smells
By Awais Manzur Sumra
A conference to introduce the region of Sterea Ellada (Central Greece) took me to the quaint village of Kamena Vourla. I had traversed the region many times over a period of three years while travelling between Athens and the northern parts of Greece. But, always in a hurry, I had never taken the trouble to stop en route and explore the region in detail. My only forays into the region had been to the world famous archaeological site of Delphi and the pretty village of Arachova, perched on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, one of the highest in Greece.
The first time I had driven north to Thessaloniki, I had lost my way in the region thanks to road works that forced me into a detour. Completely unaware of my coordinates, I had wandered in pitch darkness on rural roads until I came across what seemed an unbroken line of brightly-lit restaurants and tavernas that stretched for well over a kilometre. Across the road the calm waters of the sea lapped the shores. That place, I learnt later, was Kamena Vourla.
I was to hear much about Kamena Vourla in the months that followed. It was a welcome opportunity to spend a couple of days in the region and to explore its sights, sounds and smells. I settled down in the sprawling Galini Spa Resort and Hotel located on that same road I had driven on while lost three years earlier and chose to utilise all my free time between unending speeches and compulsory lunches and dinners by region's mayors and officials to do some exploration on my own.
I found Kamena Vourla a pretty spa resort, with bustling tavernas, restaurants and cafés as well as a tranquil seaside. Less than two hours drive north of Athens is a particularly attractive day trip location in summers with its long sandy beaches that never become too crowded. Across the azure Aegean waters, tall mountains on the island of Evvia rise into the clouds.
For a better feel of the place, I took an early morning stroll along the seaside. The sun had just started to peep through from the east, casting long shadows everywhere. The sandy beach opposite the Galini Spa Resort and Hotel was deserted but in the distance a lone figure in bright green shorts tried his luck at some fishing. To my left, as I moved forward, the white façade of the elegant village church rose in the early morning sun, the precipitous rocky hills in the background.
Restaurants and tavernas had remained open well into the night and were now being tidied up to welcome the day visitors in a few hours time. As I wandered further north, the traffic slowly increased as people began leaving their homes for their daily chores. But the sea remained peaceful, almost lifeless, with a scattering of colourful boats.
Kamena Vourla is located at the southern end of a narrow pass between precipitous rocky hills and the azure waters of the Aegean. That pass extends in a northern direction to a point just short of Lamia, a major town in the region.
In many places, the pass narrows to no more than a couple of hundred metres. Somewhere in between Kamena Vourla and Lamia, a road sign guides the motorists off the highway, over an overhead concrete bridge and on towards Thermopylae, a non-descript, almost forgotten village.
In 480 B.C, this Thermopylae -- ancient Greek for "Hot Gates" -- witnessed a battle that, according to Paul Cartledge, a noted writer on Greek History, "changed the world". That battle of Thermopylae forms the subject of the entire Book Seven of the voluminous "Histories" penned by "The Father of History" Herodotus (circa 480 circa 425 B.C). The 2006 movie titled "300" directed by Zack Snyder is but a poor depiction of that epic battle.
Having heard much of that battle over the years, I used some free time one afternoon to drive the few kilometres north to Thermopylae. The village itself was a disappointment with rows of double storied houses lining the only road through it, families invariably sitting on the balconies in late afternoon sun sipping coffee or engaged in small talk. I drove further about a kilometre or so to where the imposing statue of Leonidas, king of Sparta, towered on a marble pedestal, his right hand, ready to throw an arrow, raised above his helmeted head and his left hand carrying the typical circular protective shield.
King Leonidas it was -- who had led the Greek forces so bravely in that famous Battle of Thermopylae against the Persian horde of over five million under Xerxes. The handpicked 300 Spartans, known in those times as the bravest of the brave, wrote their names in history books by fiercely resisting the overwhelming Persian force in the narrow pass of Thermopylae for two days before being betrayed by one Ephialtes who led some of the Persian forces over a pass through the hills to ultimately encircle the Spartans.
All Spartans, except two who were not present on the third day of the battle, including King Leonidas, died fighting bravely in defence of their country, its laws and people. Their gallantry and ultimate sacrifice eventually led to the defeat of the Persian invading force in the naval Battle of Salamis the following month and finally in the Battle of Plataea in one years' time.
I crossed the road in front of the statue of Leonidas and walked up the narrow dirt track on to the Kolonos hill -- the scene of the final battle in 480 B.C. At a small clearing near the top, I came across a fading square plaque, with an inscription in ancient Greek, set on a base of rough shards of stone. I had no doubt that the inscribed words before me were the same as were engraved on an epitaph placed here soon after the battle. These read: "You stranger, go to Lacedaimonians and let them know that we live here, faithful to their laws."
The summer sun blazed down. Trendy cars and lumbering trucks down below on the highway muffled the sound of sea waves in the distance. But there, on top of the Kolonos hill, amidst a cluster of crooked trees, all was serene and peaceful. I felt like saluting the 300 brave Spartans and their gallant leader, King Leonidas, whose statue still keeps a watchful eye over the pass of Thermopylae.
Somberly, but quickly, I descended the hill and drove a couple of kilometres further to locate the well known hot springs of Thermopylae behind a rarely used Shell petrol station. As I inhaled the toxic sulphur smell, water gushed out of solid rock on to rounded boulders and flowed downstream leaving a trail of dark green patches.
An elderly person moved gingerly on slippery rocks and slowly allowed the gushing water to envelope his body. To my left, a couple of equally old but loquacious ladies dipped themselves into the depths of warm water flowing downstream. The sulphur mixed hot water from the springs is known to cure arthritis and rheumatic illnesses and is particularly popular with the elderly.
I rounded off my short trip to the region with quick visits to the towns of Livadia and Chalkida, both off the main highway south of Kamena Vourla. I found Livadia home to a bustling and leafy town centre with streams flowing beneath pretty stone bridges. I was told that the town is famous for its meat dishes. Not surprisingly the innumerable restaurants just beyond the town square were bustling with activity. Cloud covered hills rose sharply behind the towering silhouette of a fort visible through the foliage.
Chalkida lies across a newly constructed bridge connecting the Greek mainland with the second largest Greek island -- Evvia. The main town on the island, it is easily accessible from Athens and is an ideal base for deeper exploration particularly into the forested mountains towards the north. I dined on local sea food and desserts at a taverna on the beautiful seaside, one eye on the giant television screen showing a tense quarter final from the ongoing Football World Cup in South Africa, as the night wore on and the twinkling lights from across the sea and atop the hills glistened ever more brightly in the dark waters.
My sojourn at an end, I left with a lot unexplored and memories that will one day take me back to the region for a more detailed trip.
The trip truly made me realise why it is considered "a country for all tastes"
By Noorzadeh S. Raja
After waiting in vain all summer for a much-anticipated vacation in Europe, which could not ensue due to visa uncertainties I finally discarded all fantasies of Italian gelato, Vespas and the Eiffel tower and reached some middle ground with my parents -- the decision to go to Turkey instead. An itinerary was drawn up, the necessary visa arrangements and hotel bookings made, and in early September, we boarded the Turk Hava Yollari Airlines from Karachi.
I'd heard many people praising Turkey, a seemingly impeccable tourist destination, but this trip truly made me realise why it is considered "a country for all tastes", as one tourism website put it.
Though most people take pride in having visited Istanbul alone, my trip encompassed various cities of Turkey, giving me a clearer, bigger picture. Apart from being unbelievably beautiful and having so much history, it is truly a depiction of the intermingling of the East and the West, the only predominantly Muslim country where the best aspects of all that is western are present as well.
Our first stop was, predictably, Istanbul, a truly cosmopolitan city, where I spent four days. Sightseeing and gorging on delectable exotic Turkish food were given the highest priority on my list -- the first was extremely convenient because of the central location where our charming little bed was situated.
Once home to Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans, the Sultanahmet area in the old European side is now the city's tourism hub. Major historical sites such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace were literally around the corner, making it easy for us to frequent them and take in their awe-inspiring beauty and opulence. The grand Blue Mosque, built by Sultanahmet I, with its huge dome, spacious courtyard and massive pillars, is one of the most famous sites of Ottoman architecture.
At the Hagia Sophia, where a church and mosque coexist, the iconic images alien to Islamic places of worship and the faded visages of Christ and Mother Mary continue to gaze endlessly at the salutations to Abu Bakr, Umar, Ali and Caliph Usman, compelling the onlooker to recall its forced conversion from cathedral to mosque.
Our visit to Topkapi Palace and Museum was an enlightening experience, for it is home to some of the oldest Islamic artefacts, Ottoman crown jewels and thrones.
The only place which we had to take a taxi to was the Süleymaniye Mosque another palatial architectural site.
As for the second activity on my agenda, which was to overindulge and glut myself on Turkish cuisine, I found countless restaurants and roadside cafes where doner kebabs, sheesh taouk and baklawa and fresh breads were served. The use of fresh ingredients and spices gave everything a mouth-watering, succulent taste and the affordability of it all was incentive enough to go on eating. A traditional yogurt drink, ayran, the Turkish equivalent of lassi, is popular for its refreshing effect.
Considerably lower on my list, for Istanbul is considered to be as overpriced as London or Paris when it comes to clothes or shopping, I satiated my needs by cleverly going to end-of-season sales at shops in Taksim square, which practically doled out summer clothing (at least, in terms of the Turkish lira if not the rupee!), since it was nearly winter in the city. The Arasta Bazaar, near the Sultanahmet area, rich and alluring, was full of traditional Turkish specialties, clothing, crafts and souvenirs, a tourist's paradise.
Other highlights of my time in Istanbul included frequent journeys on trams, an extremely efficient system of transport and an enjoyable ferry ride along the Bosphorus, a strait which forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, with wind in my face, sailing past ornate wooden mansions and majestic stone castles.
Another memorable moment was seeing the Blue Mosque lit up on Eid, twinkling lights dangling from its minarets forming the words Bayraminiz Mobarek Olsun (Turkish for Eid Mubarik). The cool weather in Istanbul was a pleasant departure from the spell of heat and humidity which had Lahore in its clasp then.
Next on our itinerary was a seaside town near Izmir, where green hills, sandy beaches, bays and coves were aplenty. There was a beach right beside our hotel, the Surmelli, as a result of which I was able to routinely witness the clear blue Aegean Sea sparkling in the sunlight in all its glory -- truly a sight worth seeing. The good looking European tourists sunbathing were just the icing on the cake! In addition, the meals served at the hotel, comprising a multitude of Turkish salads, main courses and desserts, gave me another chance to experience the variety the cuisine had to offer.
We made many day trips to nearby towns such as Kusadasi and Selcuk as well as to important archaeological and historical sites such as the Caves of the Seven Sleepers and the House of Virgin Mary, considered to be her last abode. We visited the ancient Greek ruins at Ephesus, where the beautiful structures and the attention to detail and aesthetics were incredible.
Before I knew, ten well spent days came to an end and we were headed back home. Reality seemed unfit in comparison for several days after and every souvenir I had bought reminded me of the sounds, tastes, sights and smells of Turkey and my unique experience.