Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Greek Odyssey

"Come closer, famous Odysseus, Achaea's pride and glory - moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song." ... Island of the Sirens, The Odyssey

When Amelia put down the telephone at the DiMaio Travel Agency in Calitri, the last piece of the plan, begun months earlier, was completed. All we needed to do was “follow the signs to the parking”. We’d planned a cruise to the Greek islands, Croatia and Italy departing from Bari, located on the Adriatic coast of Italy. This port city sits just about opposite Naples and is about two hours from our home in Calitri, which itself lies about halfway between the two coasts. You can imagine that Greece, an island nation for the most part, offers many places to visit. With so many inviting venues, we were at the mercy of the cruise line gods on exactly where we’d put in, no matter how insistent the 'Sirens' might call to us from shore. So time was spent planning, mostly sorting through options, concentrating on the islands. Like any tour though, you get to visit a place for only a few hours before moving on. The idea being that if you find a place to your liking, make a note of it and return again with sufficient time to fully enjoy it. This particular sampling of the Greek archipelago would see us visit Santorini and Rhodes, following a stop at Katakolon.

We drove to Bari, giving ourselves plenty of time to meet the Costa Cruise Line’s “La Fortuna” enroute to Bari from Venice. Americans were expected to join this particular cruise in Venice, a fact confirmed by the American Costa Cruise agents in the US. If we wanted to catch the ship when it stopped for the day in Bari, we had to work through an Italian travel agency for help with reservations. Venice was just too far north for us and with Bari being so close, we opted for the Italian connection. We knew language would be a challenge, since all the paperwork and email traffic would be in Italian, but being retired, I had the time to work on it, so we dealt with Costa through an agency, from of all places, Monaco.

We departed Calitri with time to spare. I figured on being delayed by getting disoriented at least twice or seriously lost at least once but had not taken into account the Carabinieri police! Of course they wanted to give us a proper send-off so as we were making our way through Bisaccia, on our way toward the East-West autostrada, we were signaled to pull over. This time, along with all the other standard paperwork they require (passport, driver’s license, international driver’s license and auto rental documents), I included my military ID. Why not, it sometimes has the mesmerizing effect of speeding things up, if not terminating them completely. I have a feeling it did just that because only minutes later, another officer, apparently the senior officer, returned everything along with a bon-voyage salute! Maybe I’d been profiled right off their list but there is nothing like professional courtesy at times like this.

We’d had some sunshine on the drive to the coast. However, at the very moment I was unloading our luggage, before driving to the parking garage that Amelia had arranged for us, the skies parted and a deluge ensued, interspersed with growls of thunder. I only hoped this was not a harbinger of weather to follow for at this point in the Spring, it had been unseasonably cool and wet. The ship had arrived. Passengers were disembarking and heading off for adventures in the historic center of Bari. Hopefully, this would not include losing a wallet to some enterprising pickpocket. We checked-in and made our way to the embarkation area. There were not many of us joining the ship in Bari. Nothing like what I imagined Venice had been like the day before. While we waited for the call to board, we purchased a wine package - seven of the beet red kind and six large bottles of water for 99€. It was apparent that everything was à la carte, even water!

With so many nationalities aboard, ranging from French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Japanese, Americans and Russians to name a few, you can imagine how confusion, brought on by language differences, could develop. Even what you’d think were iron-clad symbols didn’t always work. For example, I knew immediately this would be a fun cruise when two elderly women, arm-in-arm, walked into the men’s room in the embarkation building, fortunately, just as I was finishing up. No wonder they still give you instructions on how to fasten/unfasten a seat belt when boarding an aircraft! There is always someone who has no clue, or in this case, had yet to see a urinal. Trying to avoid 'Tower of Babel' confusion, public address announcements attempted to keep everyone informed. They were similar to a verbal "Rosetta Stone" since they repeated the same thing in multiple languages, one following the other. Maybe they did work but they also made for very long harangues, especially the repetitive "let’s all play bingo" ones and the customary lifeboat drill!

Once aboard, like any inquisitive passenger, we explored the ship to get our bearings. The bigger of the two dining rooms, "The Michelangelo", was aft. The smaller "Raffaello" dining room was amidship, while a massive theater, complete with a revolving stage for those evening performances, sat far forward. Lounges, cafeterias and a casino connected everything together. Navigating fore and aft we were fine but the twelve or so levels, some with tricky access between decks, made for something on the order of a hunt for the 'Golden Fleece' every time we needed to get somewhere. We cared least about our room. We only planned to use it to dress in and of course, sleep. The one thing visibly lacking, which we've enjoyed on other cruises, was a promenade deck. You would think Italians, especially on this, a premier Italian cruise line, accustomed as they are to an evening passeggiata (stroll), would insist on one! But maybe these were big city Italians who had given up on the passeggiata tradition long ago. Oh, there was a deck with a planked floor but it dead-ended at the front and back of the ship, preventing you from "promenading" with your lady around the entire ship. It also lacked the customary lounge chairs with blankets (it was still cool) we had come to enjoy on past cruises. What there was of this deck had lifeboats suspended above the railings. Here in static suspension, they only served to obstruct the view. I guess this benchmark of former sailing days has gone the way of the Dodo, apparently replaced by expensive rooms with balconies in accordance with a survival of the richest philosophy.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. As promised, we found our seating time and dining room assignment in our cabin. Something, however, had apparently gone wrong in the translation of our earlier request because we'd been given the early dinner session in the smaller of the dining rooms. We'd have to see about that, so off we went to the maitre-d' for help. The other specific request I'd made was that we wanted to sit at a table with Italians. This seemingly boggled their minds. We were looking for cultural immersion, even at dinner! Was I being too pushy? How else could we expect to meet any Italians and practice the language since they tended to travel in large close-knit family groups? We only hoped we had not been assigned a table for two or to a totally "American" table. Well we had. Seems the early dinner in the "Raffaello" had the American contingent herded together around large tables. We had to get out of this. Huffing an "allora", followed by several others (something equivalent to our "um"), to express his confusion over why we'd want to do that, the dining room manager told us to come to the later seating in the "Raffaello" and sit at a temporary table, just for that night. "But you are Americans!" was all he seemed to be able to say. Our out-of-the-ordinary request was apparently too much to handle on the spot. We'd find our new assignment in our cabin the next day. Fair enough. That night we shared a table with an Italian couple. Luciano was a criminal lawyer and his wife, Gabriella, looked like a double for actress, Helen Mirren. I almost asked for her autograph! Somewhere after the "Frittelle di Gamberetti" (Shrimp Pancakes) but before the "Anatra laccata al Miele" (Duck Breast lacquered with honey) we broke the ice and began to communicate.

The next morning, we were up early to watch our arrival at the small fishing village of Katakolon. A mostly overcast sky with random patches of bright sunlit water surrounded our ship as we watched man ashore lash the tie-down lines as we nudged alongside the peer. Katakolon is the gateway by sea to Olympia. The town's center had a souvenir shop main street atmosphere overlooking the Ionian Sea. To avoid any misstep or Cyclops encounter along the way, we had decided to take a tour of Olympia offered by the cruise line. We were headed about 50 minutes inland and thought it best to experience Olympia with an expert guide. We waited in one of the lounges for our call to board the bus. With various tours departing every 15-20 minutes, it seemed the PA rang out continuously until we realized it was our turn to go ashore when the English version came around. It was on the tour bus that we met our guide, Diana. She was a full-figured gal dressed in a black wrap-around jacket, shoestring-tied in front, over a light blue cowl-necked jersey and a brown ankle-length skirt. The fashion police seemed to be on vacation too. A pink purse hung from her shoulder and she carried a purple umbrella large enough to insure she was shaded, and for us, insuring we'd always be able to spot her. We loved listening to her voice. I swear it was right out of that comic movie classic, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. It was reminiscent of the rhythmical, inflective voice of Greek-American actor Michael Constantine in his role as the proud to be of Greek heritage, Windex bottle-toting, Gus Portokalos. He'd say, "Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek". I loved Gus in that role and I loved our guide's Greek accented English with words stretched out in an exaggerated Gus-like fashion. She'd follow each sentence with a questioning "um?" much like the ubiquitous Canadian expression "ay?" tacked on to the end of just about every assertion, turning it into a question.

One of the most important sanctuaries of antiquity, Olympia is the birth-place of the Olympic Games, held then as today, every four years. The ancient Greeks flocked there for more than a millennium (776 BC- 393 AD) to celebrate the sacred games until Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished the games then considered reminiscent of paganism. Olympia is also known for the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus that once stood inside the temple dedicated to him. In fact, the first games honored Zeus, the father of the gods. The statue was sculpted by Pheidias but more importantly it was later named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Diana took us down what was once the main street of this city, then a complex of temples, athlete houses, treasuries and public buildings. Of course, nothing but ruins remain today with much of the destruction due to earthquakes. The devastation was particularly evident by the Temple of Zeus where sections of its columns, once supporting this colossal building, lie about like pieces from a giant game of checkers. To get a better photo of this debris field, I climbed on top of one of the column pieces. I thought I'd stepped on an alarm, for almost immediately a whistle sounded and a plain clothes security person appeared to shoo me off the stone I'd mounted. I bet he had a brother with the Carabinieri! Though not roped off in any way and with no objection whatsoever to sitting on these broken column pieces, I'd somehow exceeded some ordinance. Needless to say, I got a lot of attention but never got the shot!

Our guide related an interesting story about one of the 293 games that took place there. Back then, women were not only not allowed to participate but could not even attend the games. If caught, they were punished with the terrible death of being dropped from a nearby cliff. However, such a horrific demise did not deter one mother from attending, whose son was competing in a field event in the stadium. While athletes competed in the nude, judges were clothed so this resourceful mother disguised herself as one of the judges. When her son did win, her cheering gave away her true identity and she was arrested. Their conundrum was that she was from a famous Olympian athletic family. Her father had been a champion, her husband a champion and now that honor had fallen to her son. How could this daughter, wife and now mother of champions be put to death? Being politically correct, even for that day and age, they sidestepped the issue entirely, changed procedures and made it a requirement that judges also attend in the nude! With four years between events, who would remember the turn about? It has a ring about it similar to our four year cycle of presidential elections!

One of the many other interesting tidbits had to do with word origin. Initially, the games consisted of a single event, a sprint along the length of the "stade" at Olympia. The starting line, where I lightheartedly readied myself for a mock race, is still there, in fact (see photo album). The length of Olympia's stade, therefore, became somewhat of a standard measure of distance, equaling approximately 200 meters. The Romans later picked up this unit of measure, though theirs was slightly shorter. Today, it is the origin of the word "stadium", from the tiered infrastructure surrounding a Roman track, a stadium in length.

As expected, we made the customary stop at a souvenir shop on our return. Personally, we got off course and made our first stop a few doors away at a café-like restaurant for an ice laden glass of ouzo, an anise-flavored Greek aperitif, much like Italian Sambuca. We'd come ashore, much like ancient mariners, not for water or some honey flavored mead, but to slowly sip licorice flavored ouzo, so symbolic of Greek culture. How could we visit Greece without sampling this cloudy (clear until you add ice) white nectar? They must have known the Italian cruise ship had arrived. It was Wednesday after all, and the “Fortuna” was expected to make its call. To entice any Italians there was even a buffet sign offering "meatballs with spaghetti" for 8.30€ or about $12 American (see photo album). We skipped the pasta! Though I guess it is considered poor form to drink ouzo "dry hammer" (drinking alcohol without eating), we were, after all, transients - tourists never to be seen again. We could, for a day, live vicariously. Following this taste that refreshes, reminiscent of a mouthful of “Good & Plenty” candy from our youthful days, we made our way to the gift shop. There I succumbed to what is called a "blue eye" and a string of "komboloi" worry beads, resembling prayer beads! My blue eye talisman consists of concentric blue and white circles on a wedge of glass. It is believed to have the power to turn away harm or ward off the curse of the evil eye by bending the malicious gaze back to the originator. Fans of the beads claim that flipping them creates a rush of adrenaline, followed by a soothing, calm sensation. Today, as I sit here clicking away at my keyboard, fresh from times of superstition, I'm well prepared to ward off evil and flip away my anxiety and nervous tension!

Back aboard the "Fortuna", we found our new dining arrangements. So far, everything had changed to our liking. With only a table number to go by, though, we were curious as to what we'd find when we arrived. How large would our table be? Some went as high as eight to a table. And would they be Italian? There were six of us in total - two Italian couples and ourselves, two Italian want-to-be's. To our surprise, the lawyer and his wife from the night before had also been assigned this table. Our 'Helen Mirren' had complained about the cool air in the Raffaello blowing on her from an overhead vent. For some reason, Italians seem always afraid of drafts. The other delightful couple, Maurizio and Rina, whom we got to know much better, were from the Veneto region. They had also been relocated, but exactly why, I can't recall. He was some type of police criminal investigator for the court system and she was a nurse. We appeared to be a table of self-inflicted, misfit transplants! Thinking about it though, we had gone from the Carabinieri, to a criminal prosecutor and had now added a crime investigator. What could it mean ... had I really committed some crime by stepping up on that chunk of sacred column? My twitch rate began to accelerate and it wasn't from the wine. Doubts came crowding in. Had I offended the gods or the head man himself, Zeus? I thought about it a while. When we got back to our cabin, I definitely needed to break out the blue eye and the beads. Thinking about what I was up against, I think what I really needed were extra strength blue eyed worry beads!

From the Rogue Tourist, Paolo

P.S. Our journey, far from epic, was for but 42 days, a handful of these on a Greek sea. It took Odysseus ten adventurous years to find his way home from Troy over these same waters with an Olympic challenge thrown in along the way for good measure. ... "Look here, friends, we ought to ask the stranger if he competes in something. ... At this, Alkinoos' tall son advanced to the center ground, and there addressed Odysseus: "Friend, Excellency, come join our competition, if you are practiced, as you seem to be. ... Enter our games, then; ease your heart of trouble. … He (Odysseus) leapt out, cloaked as he was, and picked a discus, a rounded stone, more ponderous than those already used by the Phaiakian throwers, and, whirling, let it fly from his great hand with a low hum. The crowd went flat on the ground - all those oar-pulling, seafaring Phaiakians - under the rushing noise. The spinning disk soared out, light as a bird, beyond all others. ... From "The Odyssey" by Homer

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Greek Odyssey".