When I was about eight or nine, one of my all-time favorite books was an oversized hardcover titled Greek Myths and Heroes.
In its thick glossy pages were dreamy watercolor images that paid homage to the classic Greek styles found on ancient Athenian pottery shards and the colorful frescoes still remaining on volcanic ash-dusted ruins of Santorini. The book gripped me with its outlandish tales of drama, love and superhuman feats.
My brother and I would beg our mother to read over and over the tales of Prometheus, Hera, Odysseus, Pandora and Hercules. On warm Michigan summer nights, we’d gather on the patio beneath a dark field of glimmering stars and my dad would point to where the Greek constellations and galaxies lived; Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Orion.
Someday, I thought, I would visit the far-flung land where these captivating and haunting myths originated—and I’d create my own stories…
In Athens, it seems that Plutus, god of wealth, is shirking his duties rather epically.
As I write this, the ancient city of war, wisdom and wine wobbles in a state of financial and political purgatory, its debts piling uncontrollably upward toward Zeus. ATM machines across the city have been sites of anarchy. Greece may be on the verge of a so-called “Grexit” from the EU. It’s a terrible and riotous time to be in Greece…
…or so the internet tells me.
I experienced virtually none of this chaos. Somehow, I’d managed to avoid the worst of the Athenian hysteria by several days. However, later on a bus through Santorini, I spoke with a 21 year-old Australian traveler called Reese who’d had the misfortune of arriving at nighttime to his hostel, which was stationed in the center of the madness, during an angry public demonstration. “It was SO scary,” he said, the fright of it still evident in his wide eyes.
Thankfully, my time in Athens was marked only by the typical loud, hot, jammed streets of a tourist megalopolis, and mind-boggling ruins. From Hadrian’s Library to the high Acropolis, I marched through several thousand years’ worth of places and events denoted in my high school history books, checking off the major items on my ‘cradle of Western civilization’ to-do list.
After complete immersion in the fascinating history and myths of everything from Greek gods to gladiators, and Pericles to Socrates, I made my way to the port of Piraeus in Athens and boarded a herculean ocean-going ferry.
I was bound for Naxos, a gem of the Cyclades Islands and romantic hodgepodge of history. Here, remnants of the Minoan civilization are overlapped by the subsequent ancient Greeks, which are in turn overlapped by the Byzantines and Venetians.
You can almost feel the thousands of years of irresistible stories hanging in the air…
True Myth #1: Searching for the Dragon Slayer
Next to a confusing map of the Byzantine-era village of Chalki was an arrow-shaped metal sign. It was brown with white Greek lettering across the top half, and St. George Byzantine Church printed in English along the bottom. It pointed right.
“Have you found the church yet?” asked a middle-aged man with a thick Italian accent, approaching with his wife to peer at the map. He wore a crisp button-down white shirt and pressed khaki shorts; she, a flouncy flower-patterned dress and low-heeled sandals that made her stumble slightly on the rough dirt and gravel trails that wound through the labyrinth of crumbling buildings.
I shook my head, “Not yet.”
“We think it does not exist,” joked the woman. I could almost hear her telepathically willing her husband to give up already so she could get the hell out of the heat and dusty weeds.
“It’s gotta be here somewhere,” I smiled, “Good luck.” I began heading right, hoping the sign would hold up its end of the bargain this time.
“You too. Maybe we will all find it before dark,” chuckled the Italian. His wife grimaced and shifted in her uncomfortable sandals.
The “roads” through this 9th-century village were now little more than overgrown trails intermittently bordered by rock walls that rose and fell in height and stability according to the amounts of mortar that had survived the past millennia to hold the large mossy stones together. A clamorous serenade by hidden cicadas kept me company as I hiked through winding paths of dry grass, low bushes and vibrant flowering vines. Every 10 or 20 steps would trigger the scattering of minute four-inch long lizards of an intricate-patterned green and yellow variety. I’d assumed the old village of stone houses and half-caves dug into the hillsides had long been vacated, but here and there existed signs of habitation. A line of laundry strung between a window and nearby tree. Large glass jars of tea sitting on weathered tables, brewing in the sunshine. A bicycle propped against the wall next to a hefty wooden door.
Doors turned up in all sorts of unexpected places. Tall doors, wide doors, narrow doors, small hobbit-like doors; sturdy, broken, colorful, plain, wooden, metal—all tempting my curiosity far too much to leave them alone. There were almost no other people around to shame me into behaving, so I tried just about every door that wasn’t padlocked or belonging to a clearly occupied home.
One of the decrepit doors I pushed on, heavy and unpainted, opened with a rusty creak, swinging wide to reveal a kind of courtyard next to a very old house with faded blue shutters. The decaying shutters were slightly ajar with dark, dusty windows behind them. The courtyard embraced elegant arched stone bones of what I thought must once have been a church or the home of a member of the elite classes—could this have been a large dining hall? In the corner of the yard stood a waist-high table made of rock and mortar featuring a round four-foot diameter carved stone top. It appeared ready to serve guests even now, after however many hundreds of years. Could something like a dining table really still be here after all this time? I wondered. Yet, there it was. And it looked plenty old.
The enclosure was strewn with junk; old metal folding chairs, beer cans and plastic buckets, intermingling with the ruins. A thin black and white cat crept past the far doorway, freezing in surprise when it caught sight of me. A sudden noise from inside the house prompted the cat to flee into the tall grass, and me to scurry as quietly as I could off of the apparently lived-on property.
Back on the overgrown pathway, I realized I was once again probably totally off course for St. George. By then it was late afternoon and I’d been wandering the village for hours without glimpsing so much as a spire—even the unhelpful signs I’d seen earlier had vanished. I was hot and grimey, getting hungry, and my water was running low, so I picked up my pace and hurried through the maze of weeds and walls, trying to remember which paths I’d already tried and which I hadn’t.
Scaling a steep incline offered a view of some of the most gnarled and thick olive trees I’d ever seen—at least I thought they were olive trees, but I couldn’t fathom that they could get this massive. I passed an American family of two grandparents, young parents and their small baby, a little boy tucked away from the sun in his shaded stroller.
The new father was saying, “…the guy at the cafe was telling me that wild olive trees naturally produce bitter olives and you can’t eat them. He said that when they’re young trees, they have to be spliced with domestic olive trees in order to grow olives you can eat—he said the trees back here started off as wild, but the Venetians spliced them so now the olives are edible.”
“Huh!” his wife exclaimed, “So these trees are hundreds of years old?”
“The guy said they could be a thousand years old.”
Now it was my turn to be amazed—Wow, I thought. That explains a few things. I asked the family if they’d seen the church, and to my great shock, they said they had! About twenty minutes ago. Though they couldn’t quite explain how to get there, as there were no visible street names and nothing was as simple as ‘go left’ or ‘go right.’ Finally, the grandfather pointed past the olive grove and told me to head that way and I’d eventually find it.
“Good luck!” the grandmother waved as we parted ways. That was apparently the phrase of the day around these parts. I rushed off in the direction the old man had indicated, growing doubtful when I passed for the third time that day a nameless white stucco chapel.
I continued onward. A half hour later, I downed my last drops of water while perching on a section of low rock wall that faced a three-way fork in the road. I glared at the options, unable to recall which one or two I’d already tried; they all looked the same to me. Frustration curled my upper lip into a sweaty semi-snarl and I shot sulky thoughts at the invisible church, wherever it was hiding: Well, I didn’t want to find you, anyway!
Just then, two Germans, one very tall and one slightly less tall, came into view on the path to my immediate left. The less tall one was speaking and seemed to be referencing architecture of some kind, miming a roof and wall. On a hunch, I vaulted to my feet.
“Church?” I questioned, pointing in the direction from which they’d come.
“Yes!” the very tall one replied in English.
“Thank you!” I stormed excitedly down the path, almost in a jog and reached it in under a minute. St. George Byzantine Church read another brown sign, pointing directly at the structure. It was smaller than I’d imagined, but charming and full of character. It was well preserved for having been crafted in the 10th century AD. To me, its tough, brave walls simply radiated the years and tales and history that must have occurred here. A placard at the entrance to the site detailed in Greek, Spanish and English the story of why St. George had been admired enough by the Byzantines that they’d dedicated their newly constructed church to him. It turns out that George, a Lyddan military man for Roman emperor Diocletian, was something of a dragon slayer in his day. Though he was ultimately dispatched for not recanting his Christian faith, his name has gone down in the books triumphantly.
Having successfully hunted down the church of St. George the Dragon Slayer—I felt a little triumphant myself.
Wiped out and covered in a fine paste of dust and sweat, I returned to my hotel near the Old City port of Naxos, washed up, and headed back out in time to watch the evening sun seep spectacularly into the Aegean Sea behind the doorway of the Temple of Apollo.
True Myth #2: The Volcano Walker
I stood at the highest point on the island of Nea Kameni staring into an enormous black pit while vicious, dry winds tore at my clothes. 3,800 years ago, I’d have been vaporized instantly standing here. I’d also necessarily have been Minoan, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, vanquished by a fire-breathing colossus of many a myth and legend.
Not a dragon this time, but a volcano.
When it erupted, the Santorini Volcano put out four times as much lava and ash as Krakatoa; debris was flung so far and wide that pumice from it can be found today in soil on the California coast. It sent a 70 meter-high tsunami around the world three times. It changed the weather in Egypt causing years of drought and consequent uprisings. The event is even mentioned in the most ancient of Chinese chronicles.
And I will say this: it was wicked cool to be there—hiking up Nea Kameni was the highlight of my stay in Santorini.
I have been thoroughly fascinated by volcanoes since I was a kid, and it has been a longtime dream of mine to climb to the top of one! Yeah, it’s true that most people visit Santorini to gaze serenely upon the classic blue and white architecture… And enjoy a gourmet meal from a terrace overlooking Oia, the main city… And go ooh-ing and ahh-ing over killer sunsets… Maybe do some wine tasting and listen to a little traditional Greek folk music…
And of course, hit the island’s famous black, white or red sand beaches… And those things are all well and good.
But for me, they simply do not compare with standing on the rim of an active volcano, the planet’s single most powerful and ancient natural force. When you think about it, there are few things that could (and should) make you feel as insignificant and helpless, yet simultaneously utterly appreciative of the fact that you are alive, as a volcano. Pick the wrong moment to trek over its ancient red and black rocks, and it could blow you to the stars.
But then, perhaps you would be remembered forever—they’d write stories about you. Your story would become the stuff of heroic legends, and for thousands of years to come, children would beg their mothers to read them your story at bedtime. And fathers would point to dark silken skies on warm summer nights and show their kids where your constellation lives. And the children will know it’s just a story that takes place in a far away land called Greece, but maybe they can go there…someday.
Next stop: Croatia’s Adriatic coast!