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    December 29th, 2010adminFood, Greece, Nature

    Grapes -- just growing in the mountains

    I visited Greece over a month ago. But, upon my return, I was so busy. So, I only sat down and wrote about Thessaloniki, Meteora and Kastraki much later. And now, I’m finished! So, this will be my last GREECE entry for now …that is, until I visit again.

    Below, I posted one last picture of the Meteora rock formations.

    As I wrote before, the rocks were originally underwater. But, about 60 million years ago, tectonic shifts pushed the seabed upwards. Today, I also learned a new fact about the rocks, though: Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (who was born in modern day Bodrum, Turkey), wrote about the rocks. In the 5th century BC, he recorded that the people of Thessaly believed the rocks to be from the sea — so, centuries before modern science, the people knew!

    The strange, science-fiction-like rocks of Meteora.

    So, that’s all for Greece. Before it gets really cold, I would like to take 2 small trips, if possible: Edirne and Bursa. They were both former Ottoman capitals — and, conveniently, they’re both close to Istanbul. So, they’re perfect weekend excursions. However, it’s already getting really rainy and nasty …so, if I go, I better go soon…

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    December 28th, 2010adminGreece, Nature, Religion, Village Life

    Kastraki, Greece: The early evening view from our hotel bedroom. Directly below, you can see the chickens, which the hotel matron fed every day. She was a robust, mostly friendly Greek lady, though, sometimes, she would smile as she cheated us --- ah, Greece, thank you!

    The town of Kastraki, which rests right under the Meteora Mountains. Doesn't it look perfect, like from a dream?

    A monastery for females (yay, nuns!). We talked to one of the nuns, who spoke very good English because she was a former nurse who trained in the USA. She said only "Orthodox fanatics, like me" went to the Meteora monasteries -- an adorable, self-deprecating nun with a sense of humor; fantastic!

    Peeking into a secret world

    A monk picking persimmons -- a mundane, yet quiet and beautiful moment (mostly because he did not notice me, so I could observe him in peace).

    Architectural details, up close

    ...and farther away

    As a cat fanatic, the feline presence at the monasteries really elevated the experience to a whole other level.

    Another cat photo

    Farm life in Kastraki


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    December 28th, 2010adminGreece

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    The village of Kastraki in Thessaly, Greece

    Beauty may be a subjective thing. Or it may be a silly thing. John Ruskin wrote that beauty exists in the most “useless things, peacocks and lilies, for instance.” I have read that beauty aligns with organic symmetry; there is geometry to flowers in bloom. I have also been told the opposite …that beauty is human vanity — our fear of natural disorder — a cowardly attempt to organize and, thereby, dominate nature. And some people measure beauty: symmetrical features, well-proportioned women, or a mathematical balance of shape and color. But I could never define it, and I doubt I ever will.

    The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

    Beauty, when I truly encounter it, is overwhelming. Like Meteora.

    But what is “true” beauty? I doubt there is such a thing. When I walk in certain American neighborhood, I know that they are not “beautiful” — they are ugly, charmless and common. But they strike me as beautiful, perhaps due to my memories. Or, sometimes, a man tells me that he finds a woman beautiful — and she leaves me cold (I don’t understand the appeal) — and, other times, I’m drawn to a painting or a song deemed uninspiring by another. So, maybe I should clarify the beauty of Meteora.

    Climbers almost at the top...

    The place felt unreal — like out of a landscape painting by Cézanne. We looked down upon lush meadows, absolute verdure. The land was mostly quiet, except for a quiet Greek village, Kastraki, where women cooked moussaka and pinned old skirts on clotheslines and sheeps and dogs frolicked in the open air. And, within that world, massive rock formations jutted out of the ground — these surreal, science-fiction like mountains, which once rested underwater until tectonic shifts brought them above ground. Now, they stand in the central Greek region of Thessaly, like some haunted grey palace on Mars.

    And, in this world — isolated & sublime — there was a spiritual human story. Beginning in the 9th century, ascetic monks began moving to this area. They lived in the hollows of the rock towers.

    Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron -- built in the 14th century, restored & embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries

    By the 11th century, an ascetic community had developed in Meteora. The first monastery was established, which still stands today. In the mid-14th century, a monk from Mount Athos (known as the “center of Eastern Monasticism”), Athanasios Koinovitis, brought a community of followers to Meteora. As a result, a new monastery was established.

    Close-up of section of Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (the largest Meteora monastery today).

    The Meteora mountains are located in the Thessaly region of Greece. This area was constantly invaded by great powers, including the Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians ( …during the medieval period, the Bulgarians did all right for themselves, okay?).

    And, centuries later, it was the Ottomans. By the 13th century, the Ottomans had advanced into the Balkans, conquering Serbia and Kosovo. They pillaged Thessaly in 1309. Then, following the victory over Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans captured Athens (1458) and, by 1500, successfully seized most of the Greek mainland. Though the battle over some islands (particularly, Crete) was a longer struggle, Greece was essentially taken by the Ottomans, and a new period in Greek history thus began.

    It was at this time — during and after Ottoman invasions — that monks ran up to their rock fortifications of Meteora.

    So, how did these monks get up to those monasteries? The answer is less obvious than expected. After climbing into the mountain region of Meteora, the monks would be hoisted up to the monasteries by roped nets, as seen in the image above.

    The crank

    Once a visitor asked the monks how often they replaced the nets. They simply replied that God tells them — in other words, when the net breaks (!). The nets were supported by a large crank, which slowly pulled up the precariously supported monks.

    Stairs were not constructed until the 1920s.

    An old style (i.e. medieval) kitchen in the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron.

    To return back to my meandering thoughts on beauty ….Meteora was so radiant — such a bewitching, distinct moment in my trip, which I still remember so clearly — that I’ll post photos in the next few days, including those showing the interiors of the monasteries, scenes of holy virtue and utter damnation, and a Greek monk picking persimmons from a tree… But, for now, I need to go to bed.

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    December 13th, 2010adminBazaars & Markets, Food, Greece, Judaism

    A closer inspection than usually allowed in American supermarkets...

    These photos were taken at the Modiano Market in Thessaloniki. Sadly, the market was named after Eli Modiano, the Sephardic Jewish architect of the city’s past.

    Hailing from a prosperous, Greek family, Modiano designed the market’s arcade columns, which still shelter a frenzied mixture of meats, fish and spices. Today, one can be cajoled by ebullient fish sellers, tempted by bargain-ready spice vendors and, finally, utterly entranced by the prospect of 5 euro sweaters outside the market entrance. It is loud, colorful and very Greek.

    As a former vegetarian (and vegan!), I’m still uneasy around a sea of meat. No matter how many times I see ducks hanging, covered in red sauce, in Chinatown, no matter how many French or Italian or Turkish markets I pass, with fish eyes abstractly staring at me, I’m still uncomfortable!

    I was lucky to visit the market with my friend, Adriane. Her mother is a farmer in New England — and Adriane takes a grounded (and less neurotic!) approach to the food chain. She talked about the fact that, as meat eaters, we shouldn’t cower away from the actual process of producing meat. In fact, in America, the meat we buy doesn’t even look like an animal. I agreed completely. And, yet, I still cringed at full pig’s heads. One man, noticing my awkwardness, playfully pulled out the pig’s tongue for my inspection. Adriane laughed.

    Yes, we live in the “modern age.” The disconnection from food production extends to all forms of production — agriculture, clothing, carpentry, toolmaking, etc. One may work in a specific field (e.g. agriculture). Or one may make a conscious effort to learn basic survival and life skills — a desire that inspires everyone from New England farmer moms to crusty punks with DIY ethos. And, yet, by  in large, many of us don’t know how to make the things we use, or how to reconstruct the process of its creation.

    Adriane: Cooler than I am.

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    What is the story behind these Hebrew scripture tablets? Unsurprisingly, there was no information to be found, though they were placed right next to the Roman rotunda.

    In Thessaloniki, I stayed by the old Roman Rotunda — an imposing, cylindrical structure, commissioned by the Roman Emperor, Galerius. Like so many buildings in this region, the rotunda changed as did the times. With the rise of Christian Byzantium, the rotunda was converted into a Christian Church by Emperor Constantine. Lavish mosaics, all overlooking a circular sky, graced the church, which stood until the Ottoman siege. In the 16th century, the Ottomans added a minaret and refashioned the old rotunda into a mosque — the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi.

    Pathway outside the rotunda

    And this is how the building stood until the Greeks recaptured the rotunda in the Balkan Wars. Interestingly, while it was re-christened into a church, the minaret was not destroyed. Today, it is a museum and historical monument. Some in the Greek Orthodox community want to reclaim it back as a church world, but it remains a museum for all visitors today.

    The destructed stones seem to represent more than just geological elements in waste...

    Oddly enough, when I was walking around the rotunda, I found destructed stones with Hebrew script. I wondered: Was there once a Jewish synagogue here? Unfortunately, there was no way to tell. The “helpful” tourist brochures, which detailed the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman elements of the rotunda, failed to mention the massive Hebraic slabs in the rotunda garden.

    The exterior of the rotunda, including the ubiquitous Greek graffiti.

    So, I took photos, confusedly tried to make out an idea in my mind (as to what they were for, as to who used them and looked at them), and moved on. It is moments like these that make European Jewish history particularly difficult to swallow — when one last vestige in a city like Thessaloniki, once *so* very Jewish, is not even mentioned. It’s like it was never there at all…

    I tried to think of a caption for this image. But, as I thought, I realized that the image says enough.

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    December 3rd, 2010adminActivism, Economy, Graffiti/Street Art, Greece

    The graffiti crews of Greece...

    This above photo  is the first image I captured after arriving in Thessaloniki. Maybe I took the picture because I feel like graffiti is very Greek, at least of late. Of course, I could also bring up this whole historical saga related to classical Greek and Roman graffiti — but that is not what I mean. Rather, I’m talking about the Greece of the 21st century, which I saw already in upheaval when I visited Athens and surrounding cities in the summer of 2009. Now, in 2010, the problems already highlighted one year ago — social and economic — are even more urgent. While this piece does not suggest social upheaval (it’s plainly graffiti, like something you could see in Rome, Berlin or New York), it was eye-catching …and I’m always drawn to street art in different cities.

    Smashing something so big to make it feel more small.

    One night, my friend,  Adriane, wanted to withdraw some euros from the ATM. We were planning to head to the Ladadika district for some drinks (which, incidentally, used to be a part of the Jewish district,  but that’s for another post). Anyway, we absolutely could not find an open ATM. All the bank machines were locked up behind heavy metal doors.

    A photo that accurately conveys much of my Athens experience in 2009. This photo, by the way, was taken across the street from my ghetto hostel.

    However, we soon discovered why. Upon passing a bank, with smashed windows and “Sabotage the system” stencil art, we made the connection. Yes, there had been a protest earlier, commemorating the police shooting of an innocent young boy in Athens ten years ago. And, on this anniversary, the ardent and angry young Greeks took to the streets. Perhaps their anger was larger and heavier than just one tragedy. Perhaps it was a passionate dissidence against a clearly broken system, a thoroughly distressed people, a stagnant political order. But I’m not Greek. I was just a tourist, looking for a drink. So, who am I say?

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    November 28th, 2010adminByzantines, Greece, History, Roman Empire

    Thessaloniki's White Tower

    For many years, Thessaloniki’s White Tower was a place of horrors — a building known for torture and executions, where soldiers and civilians alike were massacred, all while overlooking the seaside city. Yet, this Ottoman tower now represents a different Thessaloniki — the espresso-sipping, well-heeled Thessaloniki. Of course, the tower was the first image I saw online when researching Thessaloniki. And it was the iconic building plastered over guidebooks and flyers for city tours. But its history remains more dark than glossy promotions would lead one to  believe…

    Day One: Obligatory gyros stop

    So, I spent a total of about 3 days in Thessaloniki (2.5 days first round, then 1/2 a day on the second round). While the city was not as bustling as Athens, and perhaps the nightlife was a bit more quiet than expected, it was a lovely place. I felt calm there — maybe because we were always close to water, and beautiful Byzantine buildings, and the people were hospitable in a gracious, but more cool way.

    The illegal workers of Greece, many from the Middle East and Nigeria, selling everything from Nike shoes to umbrellas on the street.

    Anyway, Thessaloniki is located in historical Macedonia, a name with obvious associations. Yes, the land of Alexander the Great! In fact, the city was named after the half-sister of Alexander, the Princess Thessalonike (who married King Cassander of Macedon, the founder of the city). Very interesting, no?

    Arch commissioned by Roman Emperor Galerius in the 4th century

    Well, the city remained an autonomous part of Macedon for some time. But then it fell to the Romans — and, eventually, was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. It was such an important city to the Byzantines that it was sometimes called “co-capital.” And, as a visiting tourist, I most certainly saw vestiges of its Byzantine past. Nearly everywhere I went, I felt I saw some old, dark monastic-looking building that was probably Byzantine. As a resident of Istanbul, it’s always fascinating to see Byzantine and Ottoman elements in a different city. So, Thessaloniki was a nice get-away — both familiar and, of course, very different.

    Archaeological dig in the city center -- something I imagine to be a common event

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos, historical tidbits and observations from my time in Greece. But, for now, I’m off to a Thanksgiving meal with American expatriate friends who badly desire some turkey and stuffing in Constantinople.

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    November 22nd, 2010adminGreece

    I was in Greece for 5 days and returned home yesterday. On this trip, I spent all my time in the northern and central regions of the country — definitely not the typical tourist route of a quick stop at the Parthenon and then party-hopping Mykonos/Ios/Santorini. Quite the contrary. We had a relaxing stay in Thessaloniki, then headed to the small village of Kastraki to visit the gorgeous mountaintop monasteries of Meteora. In the process, we drove through the city of Larissa, too.  In the next few days, I’ll provide photos & observations from my travels — including, perhaps, some comparisons with my last  time in Greece (I visited Athens, Corinth, Delphi and Sounion in 2009). Anyway, I already miss the Greek food and the adorable old men, curious and good-humored, wearing jackets much too big for their slight frames.

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