Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who's In Charge Here?

I think it’s time to head back to the States. 

I just returned from a trip to Delphi that reminded me of how often we take for granted that things will never change.  But things always change; it’s inevitable.  Take Mykonos for instance. Just fifteen years ago it looked nothing like it does today…except, of course, for the layout of the old town.

I never say to first time visitors anything like, “You should have seen it thirty years ago,” because they are discovering it for the first time and falling in love with it for what it is today.

Having said that, I feel I do have the right to say to myself, “Hey, this isn’t anything like how I remember this place umpteen years ago.”  I was saying that a lot this past week.  Not in a bad sense, but more so in melancholy recognition of how time marches on.

Then again, I also found myself staring in awe and wonder at places I discovered for the first time—or so my memory had me thinking it was my first.

Above Chrisso looking out across olives to Itea and Gulf of Corinth

So, let’s start out on this journey with a simple, incontrovertible premise: Greece is an extraordinarily beautiful country with land and seascapes rivaling any paradise on earth.

And to that let’s add a corollary: Responsibility for maintaining their paradise falls on the shoulders of those lucky enough to live there.

For those who might be interested, a few weeks back I offered my pre-trip recollections of my last time up to Delphi.  This time there’s a new road—no doubt courtesy of the 2004 Athens Olympics building boom—so the trip was quicker.  I noticed a lot of light industry and corporate headquarters along the six-lane highway running north out of Athens; much the same as you’d expect to find on the outskirts of any major city. It makes sense.

Farther along I entered the agricultural corridor I’d remembered, where broad stretches of farmland ran back toward hills on either side of the road—now down to four lanes.

Here’s where I had my first big surprise. There’s apparently a new cash crop taking over the brown and green world of agriculture up here by Thiva (Thebes).  It’s sprouting up everywhere, in huge lake-like patches amid fields alongside the road and in barcode-like brandings of once virginal hillsides, all in distinctive air force blue and shiny silver.  There’s a catchy name for this new crop:  Photovoltaic solar panels.  Yep, progress has come to the farmers. 

I’m not looking to get into the politics of the situation, nor the sociological implications to communities that once based their lives on revenues received from working the land rather than monthly checks for not.  That’s all open to debate.

What’s not debatable is the affect these solar panel farms must have on the image tourists passing by them form of Greece’s attitude toward protecting its natural beauty. And please don’t tell me of the great need for clean energy. I’m on board with that, but there’s no doubt the generating capacity represented by these units and far more could have been placed somewhere out of sight.

Manufacturer represents these are installations in Thiva

You’d think those in charge of shepherding the image of this beautiful land would know better. Haven’t they ever heard of New Jersey? 

Over sixty years ago the State of New Jersey built the New Jersey Turnpike.  It’s one of the most heavily trafficked roadways in America.  For those unfamiliar with the true beauty of the Garden State—that’s its state slogan—their experience passing along the New Jersey Turnpike left them with one indelible impression of the state: UGLY.

Why? Because in a massive public relations blunder New Jersey ran the Turnpike through a gauntlet of oil refineries and chemical plants.  No one passing through that stretch of road ever forgets that image.  It’s their memory of New Jersey, one that they share with others when they return home, despite how very different that tiny bit of road is from the rest of the state and even the rest of that highway.

I wonder what memories tourists will carry back home to share of their road trip up to Delphi?

And don’t get me started on the giant power generating windmills springing up in clusters of a half dozen or less on hilltops all the way up to Delphi and beyond.  Thankfully, the upper site of ancient Delphi has no such modern distractions from its eternal view.   

Sadly, the same cannot be said for those who trek off to the lower site and the Sanctuary of Athena and look west.

Tholos and Sanctuary of Athena (looking east)

Don’t misunderstand me. I love Delphi. Revere it in fact. Which is why I’m writing this. And since I’m likely going to take heat over it, I may as well let it all hang out: Who in their infinite wisdom decided a couple of years ago to redo a stretch of the most significant part of Delphi’s Sacred Way (running from the Athens Treasury to the Temple of Apollo) in a “stairway to the stars” textured concrete beige nightmare? 

Current steps
Old steps

Okay, I get it that marble is slippery. I also get it that (please God this is true) the new steps sit above the old marble walkway so that nothing has been destroyed.

How The Sacred Way once looked

But HEY, come on, surely the descendants of the creators of Delphi, the Acropolis, and so much more of the architectural beauty in our world could have come up with something more suited and less jarring to the sensibilities of this sacred place.  After all, visitors come here hoping to experience in some small measure the spiritual power drawn from Delphi’s environs that made it the literal center of the ancient world. 

In fact, that’s what Delphi is all about:  Standing at the base of Mount Parnassos’ massive Phaedriades cliffs, imaging how it must have been to have been part of all this so many thousands of years ago, staring down across the seemingly endless green Pleistos River Valley, basking in the intense spirituality that surrounds you, hoping to carry just a bit of it away with you when you leave. 

Or at least it should be.

For those who might say, “Okay, wise-butt, how do you think things could be better handled?” I have a simple suggestion. Look east twenty miles from Delphi to the Monastery of Hosias Loukas, grasshopper.

Eleven centuries ago a pious hermit (hosios in Greek) found his way into a valley of awe-inspiring natural beauty on the western slopes of Mount Helikon, the favorite haunt of antiquities’ Muses.  In that place, Hosios Loukas began construction of the only church built on mainland Greece in the Tenth Century. That Church of Panaghia (the Virgin Mary) still stands today within the walls of Greece’s largest extant monastery from Byzantium’s second golden age and adjacent to the country’s oldest existing dome-octagon church, the Katholikon (or big church) of Hosios Loukas.

Terra cotta roof tiles above classical Byzantine cloisonné style masonry walls of marble, brick, and limestone enclose frescos and mosaic masterpieces set upon backgrounds of gold.  But only a fraction of the monastery’s legendary lavish decoration remains, the balance of its precious gold and silver plate, murals, icons, and furnishings long ago lost to time and plunderers.

The monastery sits perched on a slope amid an idyllic mountain setting at the end of a mile-and-a-half-long private road. The road winds along hillsides and above cultivated valleys––without a solar panel or windmill in sight—and ends at a simple parking area from which you descend into the monastery via two hundred yards of terraced marble and limestone steps, all in keeping with the historic architectural feel of the place.  Hosios Loukas Monastery is a not to be missed World Heritage site.

Enough said. Perhaps more than enough.

So, I started off this post by saying, “I think it’s time to head back to the States.” No, not to flee or because I’m a bit curmudgeonly at the moment, or even because my new book comes out October 7th (BSP), but because once I’m back in the States I’ll realize that what’s happening over here in Greece isn’t all that much different from what’s happening there.

But you’d think the Greeks would know better.  After all, somewhere amid all this marble there must be carved, “PRESERVE YOUR PAST IF YOU DESIRE A FUTURE.”



  1. On my one and only visit to the northeast of the U.S. (it's a LONG way from my life-long home on the west coast... :-), I had EXACTLY the experience you describe regarding New Jersey. I was on a business trip that took me to Pennsylvania, and then to northern NJ, and as we were driving up that stretch of highway I was thinking to myself, "My God, here is the Land of Mordor, the Shadow in the East!" And while it truly was a garden when we got past that, it's that Mordor-ish image of New Jersey that remains in my mind.

  2. It is absolutely beautiful there, and the architecture amazing. I have to ponder how all of this was built and how long it took and how materials were transported.

    Undoubtedly, human labor did it all. What endeavors. It takes one's breath away.

    The parents of a women who works in my neighborhood live on a small island near Corfu, and she extols the beauty all around. She swam and fished in the Ionian Sea as a child, but says it's now very polluted. A shame.

    Since a mammoth climate march will be held in my city in a day, lots of environmental horror stories are cropping up. One is about a movement against an open pit gold mine in northern Greece. How awful.

    1. You're right Kathy, it is stunning. Now to preserve it!

  3. It has been pointed out to me by the photographer responsible for so many of the brilliant shots used in this article, that appropriate photo credit to her was inadvertently overlooked. Thank you on all counts Ms. inimitable Barbara Z.

  4. I disagree with you, Jeff. Not about Greece. About New Jersey. They put the NJ Turnpike right where it belongs. In a place that was already ugly and polluted. If they had put it through a beautiful place, with its six lanes of truck traffic, noise, and fumes, it would have turned that beauty into ugliness. There are too many people on this planet. We swarm all over it like vermin and act as if we are meant to be in charge. The wrong people make expedient decision that are often more wrong than right. But the placement of the Jersey Turnpike is not one of those wrongheaded decisions.

    1. Interesting take, Annamaria, but back in1950 in deciding on building NJTP, I doubt the planners considered, "Let's label our state UGLY to save the earth" in their deliberations. And if they had, in a bizarre serendipity I think that decision has adversely affected the environment far more than any conscious decision at not sullying the state by placing that portion of the NJTP elsewhere could possibly have done. I say that because if you look at where new Interstates are built, it's as if highway planners struggle to avoid the "New Jersey blunder" by wherever possible running their roads through rural vistas...that later draw growth to them. It's that growth that needs regulation.

  5. I loved the before and after pictures. An artist/photographer in Hays, Kansas has done some wonderful painting of the old windmills on the prairie being overtaken by the new windmills.

  6. l love before and after photos too, Charlotte--unless of course they're of me:). I've seen some terrific photos of Kansas landscapes but not those. Do you have the name of the photographer?

  7. Rich Hugen. He has a lot of his paintings and photographs in the Carnegie Arts Center in Goodland, Kansas.