Sunday, 20 July 2014

Greece – Perusing the Peloponnese

July 14-18

Summer is usually associated with glorious sunshine and sizzling temperatures. So far on our summer holiday we have been blessed with excellent weather in the two countries that we have been to.

Such wonderful weather isn’t guaranteed in the north of France and north-west England, however. We thus booked ourselves a guarantee of constant sunshine and temperatures in excess of 30’C by heading to Greece for a week.

Regular readers will know that we went to Greece last year, to the western island of Zakynthos. Though we started and finished our week here, Hannah and I tagged along with her extended family as they explored the mainland nearby: the peninsula of the Peloponnese.

I came with an open mind and precious little knowledge about the region. I didn’t even know how to say that long word (it’s pronounced peh-loh-POH-neez, if you’re interested). However, five days of extensive travel around the area have educated me about this historical land, as well as entertained me immensely.

Two places on the Peloponnese are recognisable around the world: Sparta and Olympia. Sparta is famous, some would say infamous, for these folk:

We didn’t go there. On our way down from the ferry port of Kellini to the southern part of the peninsula we did stop at the home of the ancient Olympic Games.

Olympia is fames for being the birthplace of the Olympiad, though is just as interesting to those who study other aspects of Greek life. In its prime it was a large settlement and was an influential voice in the Greek world. The ruins visible over 2500 years later suggest a thriving cultural hub with all of the usual ancient buildings.

Unfortunately no ruins are left of the Statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Below is a suggestion of what the statue would have looked like. The statue and its adjoining temple stood proudly for about a millennium. Historians aren’t completely sure of how the demise of the statue came about. Some suggest it was destroyed in 425 AD along with the temple in a great fire. Others believe that it was deconstructed and reassembled in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), before being destroyed in a large blaze in 475 AD. Wherever the end took place, it seems that fire brought about the end of Zeus’ statue.

The ancient Olympics are believed to have been held here in 776 BC, doing so every four years until they were suppressed by the Romans in 394 AD. They were a way of unifying the city-states and outlying regions. Winners would be presented with an olive wreath and have their victorious tales told for years to come.

The events took place in an oval-shaped stadium, banked by grass on three sides which allowed up to 45,000 spectators to observe and cheer. The shape of the stadium still exists today, and also has some similarities to the Panathinaiko stadium which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The modern version of the sporting event is still linked to Olympia, as this is the place where the famous flame first lights.

Olympic Stadium - Olympia

1896 Olympic Stadium - Athens

Of course, no trip to Olympia would be complete without running the old track. Not that thin lines of stones at each end representing starting and finishing points constitute much of a track. We’ve read that the length of the arena is 212 metres, which makes my time of 28.81 seconds seem quite quick, at least in my opinion.

Stopping at Olympia was a welcome break on a long, sweltering drive from our base on Zakynthos to the resort town of Stoupa, close to the village of Neochori where we were staying. Stunning landscapes and sheer drops were always visible from the windows of our phosphorescent vehicle.

The village itself was beautifully tranquil. Cobbled streets become ever narrower and disappear from view with the high, light grey walls protecting pretty, flower-smothered houses.

Some nearby villages, smattered with gently bobbing sailing and fishing boats, also had a quaint attractiveness which is common for coastal towns being lapped by southern European seas. Others were dramatically positioned high in the hills, a sure sign of previous territorial battles and defensive positions.

The Peloponnese peninsula if often described as having ‘fingers’. We read that the bottom of one of these fingers is apparently the second southernmost point in continental Europe. Try saying that quickly five times in a row. The southernmost point is in Spain. Looking at a map, I’m not convinced that this place is further south than other places in mainland Italy, Spain or Portugal. It is, however, the southernmost point of mainland Greece, thus worth a visit.

The tip of this finger, which geographers would call the Mani peninsula, was historically seen as the end of the Greek world. As we drove along the winding, exposed roads to reach the closest village, Porto Kagio, the vegetation began to disappear and the hills became rockier. This continued as we walked the occasionally treacherous path to reach the tip, really bringing home the idea that life wouldn’t survive much further south than this point. The fact that many Greek islands, not to mention Africa, lie south of this point seems to be forgotten, or at most a mere footnote.

The point of this finger is called Cape Tainaron. In addition to having a couple of very nice beaches sheltered in coves, it has two important monuments: one natural and one man-made. The latter is a mosaic honouring Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.

The former is only accessible by boat and probably a place you wouldn’t want to go. It is a cave that Greek legend claims is the entrance to Hades. God of the dead. Probably quite dark, that cave. An alternative sight is a simple lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula.

The Peloponnese (make sure you’re saying it correctly) adventure was great fun, full of interesting sights, sounds and smells. The food was wonderful, most of the people chatty and friendly. I’ll gloss over the fact that they have no idea how to make a cappuccino. Our key lime pie-coloured car clocked up hundreds of miles to see some wonderful scenery. If you do happen to visit Olympia, get in the spirit and have a run! Remember: 28.81 seconds!

Love you all


Sunday, 13 July 2014

England – Famous bards and chocolate bars

July 10-11

Hello everyone!

Having read through my previous post, I have come to the conclusion that I was overly critical of Birmingham. This conclusion is based upon two unrelated ideas: firstly, that I lack the interest and intelligence to understand and appreciate art; more pertinently, we didn’t actually spend much time in Birmingham.

You see, Birmingham’s main attraction is arguably its location and its close proximity to two fantastic places. One of these is a short train ride to Bournville, which may be a hint to any British confectionary consumers. The other, an hour away on the train, was the home to a man of imponderable significance to me, you and just about every person who speaks English on our dear planet. A man called William.

No, not him. This one…

Stratford-upon-Avon, a delightful town in its own right, was also the birthplace of William Shakespeare. You will have heard of him. To be or not to be and all that. As an homage to the man also known as ‘The Bard’, I will attempt to write this blog in iambic pentameter.

When Will was young, he grew here, in Stratford.

The house in which he came to us is here.

My goodness, this is so hard to achieve.

Now I’ll stop or else you’ll stop reading this.

The amount of time I spent (probably incorrectly, as I focused on writing ten-syllable lines rather than strictly following the unstressed-stressed pattern) constructing those last four lines arguably shows my limitations as a writer, yet also demonstrates how impressive a writer Shakespeare was. Iambic pentameter is evident in two of his most famous plays: Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet. We also learnt of many commonly-used expressions which are said to emanate from his work. These are listed in red in the picture below, including ‘in a pickle’, ‘short shrift’ and ‘foregone conclusion’.

The fact that such a prodigious talent was raised in Stratford-upon-Avon has led to the town becoming a popular tourist destination. It has been for longer than you would imagine. People were said to have made pilgrimages to the house in which he was born as early as the early 18th century. Not just ordinary folk, either: signatures of Hardy and Roosevelt are in the guest book.

Clues to his importance and popularity are regularly found when strolling around the centre of the town.

Is there more to this town than Shakespeare? In reality, not much. Yet does there need to be? Not at all. Similarly, does there need to be anything else in Bournville besides this place?

The home of Dairy Milk, Wispa and the revered Crème Egg. The producer of chocolate-stained grins on beaming children’s faces for over a hundred years. Cadbury World.

After arriving slightly late due to the fact that we were waiting for friends at the staff entrance, we ventured into the entertainment branch of this British confectionary institution. There are many things to do, see and, most importantly, sample. Being given a bag of Buttons and a Wispa upon entering a series of tunnels explaining the history of chocolate.

The history of Cadbury’s is interesting in its own right. From John Cadbury opening a small shop in Birmingham in 1824 to moving their production away from the factory fumes of the city and into the countryside, the tour of Cadbury World emphasises a certain ethical philosophy. This is indeed why we were in Bournville, with the company building the amenities needed for a happy workforce.

The adjoined factory is fully functioning, and produces a ridiculous amount of chocolate. Here are some random facts about Cadbury’s production:

250 million bars of Dairy Milk are produced every year;

More than 160 million Crème Eggs are sold in the UK between January and Easter;

The amount of milk used in a year’s production of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate would fill over 14 Olympic size swimming pools.

 Walking through the factory is a sweltering ordeal, as temperatures in some areas are in excess of 45’C. It is in this section where you get arguably the highlight of the tour: liquid chocolate. Melts in the mouth and certainly melts your heart.

The site is geared towards children and entertaining them. Consequently there are many interactive areas for them – and adults – to enjoy. Games include arcade-style machines using Crème Eggs as bullets and an amazing screen which drops buttons for you to balance and manoeuvre using your shadow. The technology on show both in the factory and in the entertainment zone demonstrates how the company, now owned by the American manufacturing and processing giant Kraft, has kept up with the times and stayed at the top table of British confectionary production.

Linked to this embracement of technology, there are also two ‘rides’ for you to enjoy at Cadbury World. The first is reminiscent of ‘It’s a Small World’ (found at any Disney World), complete with vibrating snowman which didn't really seem appropriate. The second was a 4D film in which you are transported through a whole new Avatar-esque world and ride along many of Cadbury’s famous adverts.

Cadbury World is a great day out: captivating for children and entertaining enough for adults. Well, unless you don’t like chocolate.  

Both of these places clearly revel in their history. Stratford-upon-Avon has maintained and played up its Tudor heritage. Bournville’s sweet, chocolaty air drifts aimlessly through the streets. These are two fantastic, educational and entertaining days out. All just a short distance from Birmingham! See, it’s not so bad after all…

Love you all