From Istanbul to Mycenae the Greek (or hard) way
Sometimes a travel obsession can get you into trouble.It all started back in March as my family and I began planning a trip to Turkey and Greece. An old friend made what seemed like a perfectly innocent suggestion.Well, you simply have to see Mycenae when youre in Greece, Robert Bayers told me. Bob has taught English all over the world, including Greece. Hes a well of knowledge about the classics. If you can get down to Troy while youre in Turkey, youll have the full Homeric experience.Bob was referring to Homers Iliad, the epic story of the Trojan War in the 13th century B.C. Seeing the two sites that formed the axis of the legendary conflict seemed like a grand idea, and it was simple enough: We would fly to Istanbul, rent a car, drive to Troy in western Turkey, then proceed overland to Mycenae, the ancient city-state in southern Greece that was the victor at Troy.Over the next couple of months, maps were perused, research undertaken, arrangements made. Finally, after attending a college reunion in New Jersey in early June, we were off. Arriving at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, my wife Susan, our daughter Sophie, 14, and I were already a little intimidated. The city has a population of more than 12 million (greater than Greece) and is some 150 kilometers across. Travel books, friends and even a Turkish lady on the plane had warned us to beware of taxi drivers, rug merchants and scam artists on the streets. A pleasant young man named Ismail, with an official-looking ID card dangling from his shirt, approached us at the baggage carousel, offering to drive us to our hotel in his luxury Mercedes for $80. I knew this was steep. Instead, we took a regular taxi, driven by a classic Turk named Ismet with a bald head and huge mustache, for $30 including tip.Huge, messy and fascinating, Istanbul straddles the Bosporus strait one side in Europe, the other in Asia but is not quite sure which is which. The city is both bigger and smaller than life: bigger in its sheer enormity, but smaller in scale since there are few tall buildings and the main sightseeing attractions all lie in or near the old part of the city known as Sultanahmet. The district is named after Sultan Ahmet I, one of a string of supreme sovereigns and despots during Ottoman rule (named after Sultan Osman I) that began with the fall of what was then called Constantinople in 1453 and ended just after World War I.
The Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, built by Ahmet I in the 17th century and one of the worlds most famous religious structures, was number one on our Istanbul agenda. Once checked into our hotel, we took a taxi to the mosque. Almost at once we were met greeted, accosted, set upon? by another friendly young Turk named Yakub. He volunteered to be our guide. For free. There had to be a catch, of course. But, after taking our shoes off at the entrance, we let him lead us into the mosque anyway.Inside we saw the blue Iznik tile that gives the mosque its name and began to grasp its vastness. The imperial architect Mehmet Aga, who brought in some of the same stone masons who built the Taj Mahal in India, designed the gigantic structure with six minarets instead of the usual two or four, creating a huge controversy: Many followers of Islam considered Ahmets mosque a sacrilege an effort by the sultan to best Mecca.It was impressive, we had to admit, but it also stank of feet, centuries of them. We retreated and made our way across Sultanahmet Gardens to the even more enormous Haghia Sophia.Yakub did not want to pay the 10 Turkish lira entrance fee and waved us toward the entrance. I offered to pay it for him, but he declined. He would rather wait. Why, I asked. Well, he said, pointing at Susan, she looks like a good carpet buyer. And my cousin has a carpet shop near here. So that was the deal: free guide service in exchange for a command visit to the cousins shop.The Hagia Sophia, also known as Aya Sofya or Saint Sophia, is one of the two most immense structures in Christendom, rivaling St. Peters in Rome. From its marvelous mosaics, such as Alexander the Great holding a skull, to the multilayered buttresses supporting the domes immense weight, everything seemed as if it had emerged, barely, from the mists of a timeless past. It was not just an illusion. The building, with one structure piled on top of the previous, was begun in the sixth century A.D. And it showed its age, with permanent scaffolding under the dome and almost no renovations.We lingered a while, transfixed by age and architecture. I was half hoping no, praying, not unreasonably given the site that Yakub had grown tired of waiting. But as we exited Hagia Sophia, there he was, a Turkey-sized grin on his face. He told us we simply had to see the Basilica Cistern, the most unusual tourist site in Istanbul. It was a block away. Again Yakub waited as we paid the fee and tromped down a long stone staircase into a man-made cavern filled with water and criss-crossed by walkways. The huge structure, its ceiling supported by more than 300 columns, was built on a Roman model for baths by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D.Yakub had been right: It was an incredible sight, but when we exited, serious jet lag was setting in. It was time to pay the piper. OK, I said to Yakub, take us to the carpet shop. After a quick look, wed leave, I theorized. I was seriously wrong. The shop was a large, wood-paneled room a couple of blocks away. The cousin (all Turks seemed to be related, we were learning) named Ramazan spoke English like an American and dressed like an Italian. He served us, first a delicious apple tea, then carpets and kilims. These were rolled out, folded and tossed aside with such speed and alacrity by Yakub and another rug boy that the entire shop seemed to be moving a dizzying magic carpet ride carefully planned to consummate a sale.Ramazan directed the fast-moving display like a symphonic conductor. He started with rugs priced $15,000 or so, then slowly moved down in order to establish our price point. Susan is a savvy negotiator from years in real estate. But, a jet-lagged stranger in a strange land, she was no match for the maestro. After two hours, Sophie and I were drifting off. I signaled Susan that we had to leave. The rugs were now priced in the low thousands. One of the rug boys flipped out a lovely, silvery carpet handmade in eastern Turkey. Susan offered what she thought was a ridiculously low price.With a snap of the maestros fingers, the boys folded the rug so quickly and perfectly that, half asleep, I sat up and watched in amazement. In an instant, it was wrapped in brown paper and placed in a satchel. The maestro looked at Susan, his sly smile indicating he knew he had won by simple attrition: And how will you be paying? We accept all major credit cards.Over the next few days we finished up tourist Istanbul. We toured the labyrinthine Topkapi Palace (featured in the 1964 heist film Topkapi), Istanbuls answer to Versailles, built by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror in the 15th century, its ancient harem of endless stone corridors and secret chambers creepy with the ghosts of long-dead eunuchs, dwarfs and concubines. We took a boat ride up the magical Bosporus, with Ottoman palaces and ancient citadels built by Muslim invaders during the 50-year siege of Constantinople lining the shores and Russian tankers plying the strait every few minutes. A frantic taxi ride across the Bosporus Bridge, shimmering with thousands of lights at night like a Christmas tree. On the Asian side we had a memorable, alcohol-free dinner at a vast Muslim restaurant inside an amusement park packed with children, men in fezzes and women in black burqas.Back at the hotel the huge fee ($125) imposed by the amiable cab driver was a shock, though it should not have been. Using their Tarzan English, all the drivers were pleasant enough, but always managed to extract extra lira one way or another. One clever fellow resorted to the ruse of purposely stalling his vehicle. Each time he started it, the meter jumped five Turkish lira (about $3.50): Stop, start, ka-ching. Stop, start, ka-ching. I finally got onto it, and gave him about half what he wanted. He refused to drive us all the way to our hotel, knowing the protective doormen might report him to the police.We could not leave Istanbul without seeing the incredible Grand Bazaar, a must-see tourist trap with more than 4,000 shops on 60 covered lanes and alleyways with goods of every kind spilling out of the shops. The visit here raised a delicate issue: Traveling with Sophie and Susan was always problematic. They seemed to share a strand of shopping DNA I was missing. Anywhere at any moment, one or both could disappear into a shop without warning, leaving me wondering whether to go on or to begin a search. The Sophie-Susan disappearing act was even more worrisome in airports. I often found myself stranded at a departure gate, boarding almost closed, wondering whether I had the nerve to depart without them or the nerve to stay behind and miss the plane with them.Throughout the vast marketplace, filled with tourists, hawkers and shysters, men and boys (never women) shouted at every passerby, How can I get you to give me your money, or You look rich, please step inside. I lost Susan and Sophie half a dozen times, but always managed to retrace my steps and find them in a curio or clothing shop. Their final stop was an air-conditioned boutique where they had gone to escape the stifling heat. I found them easily, but getting them out the door was another matter.
Our last morning we took a taxi to the nearest Hertz office. I presented our reservation, procured on the companys website, to the manager. He looked at it, then handed it back. You cant drive this car to Greece, he said. Or any car. Not unless you own it.I held off a momentary panic. Look, I said. It says right here, One Way Rental Confirmed. Istanbul to Athens. What are we supposed to do? I understand, the manager said without sympathy. He sent an employee across the street to the Avis and Eurocar offices in search of a vehicle. Same deal. I called the Hertz 800-number in the U.S. with my cell phone. Thats right, the agent told me. You cant drive a rental car from Turkey to Greece. The computer never should have let you make that reservation.Back at the hotel, we learned it was now fully booked. I beseeched the concierge for help. After many long, worrisome minutes, he announced that he had secured reservations on a night flight to Thessaloniki. And, he said, we could use the facilities at the hotel, the marvelous Ciragon Palace Kempinski, until our departure. The price of the tickets was exorbitant, of course. So what, I told Susan and Sophie with relief and, apparent later, a little too much optimism. Thessaloniki was to be our first stop in Greece anyway. We would rent a car there and, after a few intermediate stops, proceed on to Mycenae. But so much for a look at the site of ancient Troy along the way. After leaving Istanbul, our plane, a propeller-driven Olympic Airlines puddle jumper, flew west with the night toward Greece, the sunset disappearing ahead of us. Just before reaching cruising altitude of 8,000 meters (about 26,247 feet), an elderly Greek gentleman in front of me began shouting wildly, Perakalo, perakalo, to the flight attendant. Please, please.Whats going on? I leaned across the aisle and asked Susan.Dont you hear it? That tick-tock sound? she asked with alarm. It sounds like a bomb.I smiled back. I had heard it, a malfunctioning seat belt that was clicking loudly. We learned from the International Herald Tribune the next day that a real bomb had gone off near Ataturk Airport, seriously injuring several Turkish soldiers. Kurdish separatists were suspected.We were happy to be in Greece. But I hardly recognized Thessaloniki, Greeces second largest city, from my two previous trips there about 30 years ago. Then it had seemed provincial and worn, a lingering outpost of the Ottoman empire that had ruled the city and most of Greece for some 400 years. The Ottomans had renamed it Salonica, a hated name as far as Greeks are concerned, but often used mistakenly by Americans and Europeans today.Today the city, circling a lovely gulf in the northern Aegean, bustles and hustles and sometimes bumbles with impossible traffic and one-way streets leading nowhere. Young people, artists and fashionistas fill the sidewalks lined with boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs.We loved Thessaloniki. After Istanbul, it was manageable. There were good restaurants and gelato shops, and two exquisite new museums, one with Byzantine art and the other Macedonian art featuring Alexander the Great. Susan and Sophie were thrilled to find shops with genuine goods from the other member countries of the European Union at good prices. At a new restaurant called Ilektra we dined on Italian food so good we forgot the marginal food wed eaten in Istanbul.At Hertz we were issued a smallish Spanish-made SEAT, even though wed asked for something bigger. We did not care. We had wheels. We had freedom from taxis. The first thing we did, after negotiating our way out of downtown, was drive southeast along the seashore into an area known as Kalamaria on the outskirts of the city.We were looking for a certain house, but did not really expect to find it. Suddenly I saw it as we passed by; I turned around and drove back. It was a small, gated villa where my brother Jim had lived in the 1970s while attending university in Thessaloniki. He learned Greek and entered the medical school. He left when a student strike, common in Greece, closed down the school. He eventually graduated from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.I had stayed there a few times in the 1970s. It seemed a little worse for wear now, but perhaps I was just projecting a romantic image from the past. A large German Shepherd dog snarled at us from behind the iron fence, and a police officer on a motorcycle stopped to ask us our business there. I explained, we snapped a few pictures and left. Jim would be thrilled.Leaving Thessaloniki, we followed the Aegean coast south, then turned inland along the flank of Mount Olympus, mythic home of the ancient gods who resided there on nine peaks between 8,500 feet and 9,580 feet high. The peaks, still bearing snow in June, rise from sea level and looked huge and forbidding. This was not just our imagination. The first successful ascent by mortals was not until 1913.
Driving west toward the Ionian Sea, we started making out the stone spires of Meteora through a rose-colored mist in late afternoon. I had first visited Meteora (pronounced Meh-TAY-oh-rah), a mystical, enigmatic wonder of towering pinnacles and medieval monasteries with my brother Jim and two friends 30 years ago.As we approached, we picked out first one monastery and then another on the tops of the mammoth rocks hundreds of feet in the air. Only five of the original 24 monasteries, built by religious hermits beginning in the 14th century, remain, the others swept away over the centuries by rain, wind and snow. Amazingly, the last five are still inhabited, four by monks and one by nuns. The first thing I noticed was that the road that winds among the pinnacles a rutted, gravel track before was now paved. We had been the only visitors last time. Now there were cars and tourist buses everywhere. No matter. We were still amazed at the strangeness of the place. Myth claims that the fantastic stone needles, averaging 1,000 feet tall with the highest 1,820 feet, were meteors hurled down from Mount Olympus by angry gods, hence the name. The reality is more prosaic: The eerie, twisted crags were created from the Cambunian Mountains millions of years ago by erosions usual methods: wind and water.After the obligatory sunset photos, we made our way back down the road to the little village of Kastraki, nestled in among the pinnacle bases. We checked into a small hotel, the Dupiani House, then had a wonderful meal of pork chops and Greek salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, oregano and feta cheese at the nearby Paradis Taverna. The next morning we drove up to the Monastery of the Transfiguration perched atop the Grand Meteoron, the tallest of the stone spires. Climbing up the steep path and steps cut into the cliff made us wonder how visitors only a century ago enjoyed being hauled up the perpendicular rock in nets. Or what life was like for the monks who lived on the cliffsides, not venturing to earth for 30 or 40 years.A massive stone gateway led into a courtyard. It was surrounded by cloisters, a refectory and a musty church containing fine 16th-century frescoes and icons. Occasionally a monk in sackcloth scurried by. Most remarkable was the open tower holding the ancient windlass, with a frayed cable still dangling over the edge hundreds of feet above the ground. It had once hauled up visitors and supplies. Several bus loads of tourists, including a group of high school students from Pennsylvania, had joined us in the monastery.A leisurely look around was impossible, and we left. Back at our hotel we chatted for a while with the amiable innkeeper, Thanassis Nakis, and his pleasant wife, Toula. We were not worried about the time, and finally departed around noon. The drive from Thessaloniki to Meteora had been easy enough. The road to Delphi, our intermediate stop, was shorter, I remembered from my previous trip. From there it was just a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Korinthos, where we would spend the night before our long-anticipated visit to Mycenae the next day.I was seriously wrong again.
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The route to Delphi was a nightmare of twisting mountain roads, daredevil Greek drivers and endless convoys of diesel trucks belching smelly, black smoke. We finally reached the ancient ruin on a hillside above the modern town of Delphi (Delfi in Greek) after five hours on the road. The site was magnificent, high above the River Pleistos gorge on the slope of Mount Parnassos. But it was steep. In the 100-degree heat, we nearly died as we climbed the many terraced levels to the temple of Apollo. It consisted only of a few restored Doric columns.Beginning in the eighth century B.C., prophecies and messages were issued here by priestesses known as the Pythias. Always a woman over 50 of high morals, the Pythia would enter a trance, then deliver enigmatic answers in hexameter verse to questions asked by pilgrims. In the afternoon heat there seemed little possibility of receiving anything in the ruined hulk. Balking at further exploration, Susan and Sophie started back down.Sometimes ruins can evoke a strange sensation that you have arrived in some other time or place. But the only strange sensation I felt was confusion. I had been here 30 years before, but nothing I saw looked familiar. I climbed another couple of hundred vertical feet to the ancient stadium, a long, close-ended series of stone terraces that could hold 6,500 spectators. The stone starting lines for the approximately 200-meter dash were visible in the ground. A young man who looked to be American was sprinting between the lines, gasping for air so desperately in the heat I feared he would go cardio. I suddenly remembered this stadium from the old trip. Or did I? The stadium I recalled was situated among pine trees in a low-lying area, not on a mountainside. Something was wrong. Was the trip starting to make me crazy? Or had I entered the strange fog of a pre-Alzheimers state. Worried, I checked in with Jim in Montana by cell phone. We didnt go to Delphi, he told me.Well, it was someplace with a stadium, I said.Yeah, he agreed. But I cant remember where it was. It was someplace closer to Athens I think.Thank God. I wasnt in early dementia, after all. Unless, of course, it ran in the family.Down off the mountain, I found Susan and Sophie. After a hurried look through the museum, we were on the road again. Reading a map, Susan looked up and said, We could just go straight on to Athens. Theres a freeway near here. We could be there in about an hour.Youre kidding, I said. And miss Mycenae?We set off over hill and dale again, arriving in the unattractive little city of Thiva (ancient Thebes, home of Oedipus) in midevening. Its moment of glory was in the fourth century B.C. when Thebes defeated Sparta, initiating a period of Theban rule over Greece that lasted all of 10 years.After becoming lost in Thiva and inadvertently setting off on the road to Athens, Susan asked again, Are you sure you dont want to just go?Inside I was becoming worried that my obsession with Mycenae had the potential for trouble. But I said nothing and drove on.A few minutes later we were heading south toward Korinthos on what our map had indicated was a major highway. To our dismay, it was a secondary road leading through, around and over still more mountains. We drove slowly along with the ubiquitous diesel trucks and wild Greek drivers. The fuel gauge, I noticed, was dipping precipitously. All at once the kilometers-to-empty readout dropped from 80 kilometers to 10. I had not seen a fuel station for kilometers. Surely one was just ahead, I assured Susan and Sophie. We came to a small town called Elefthera clinging to a hillside. There was no petrol station in sight.My gosh, what do the people do for gas? Sophie wondered. I had no answer.A few kilometers later, we drove around a bend. The traffic was stopped ahead hugely, horrifyingly, monstrously stopped. Dozens of trucks lined up ahead of us idled in the hot evening air. No traffic came from the opposite direction. This is serious, I said, throwing the car into reverse and heading back in the direction from which wed just come.I remembered a pair of petrol stations 20 kilometers or so back. We set off in a rush. With twilight upon us, would they still be open? I debated in my mind whether to go slow to save fuel or go fast to beat the onrushing darkness. We would be in a fix if we ran out of gas on a rural road in interior Greece at night. Adrenaline won. I drove like crazy. After about 20 minutes, we came over a hill and saw the stations. The first was closed, but the second, a Shell, was gloriously open. At least the lights were on. When we pulled in, the young woman manning the pumps told us cash only, no credit. I handed her my last 50-euro note.Back on route, we sailed past the point where the traffic had been stopped earlier. It had been caused by what looked like an unfortunate encounter between a motorcycle and a semi-truck. Night was falling by the time we reached the freeway that led to Athens on the east and Korinthos to the west. Susan offered me one last chance: Athens is only about 30 minutes that way, she said.But Korinthos is only 30 minutes the other way. And Mycenae is just beyond.Inside, however, I was worried. It was pitch black as we drove into Korinthos. The city sits smack on the isthmus joining mainland Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula, home of the ancient cities of Argos, Sparta, Olympia and Mycenae.We started looking for our hotel, but without a local map, we were clueless. We called for directions. They sounded simple enough. But suddenly we found ourselves on a freeway leading rapidly away from Korinthos into the black of night. The signs said, Tripoli, 76 kilometers. We drove on. There was no exit. Twelve kilometers later we came to a toll booth. Another sign read Tripoli. We were worn-out, hungry and had no plans to go to Tripoli. I made a wildly illegal U-turn just in front of the toll station, praying no police vehicle was lurking there.Our luck, such as it was, held. Returning to Korinthos, we managed to turn off at the proper exit, then bumbled our way over several dark kilometers to the hotel. Resembling a Holiday Inn circa 1975, it was not exactly what we had expected from the Michelin guide: an international beach resort. I had made the reservation by cell phone expecting to arrive there in the afternoon in time for a swim. It was now close to 10 p.m.The hotel looked serviceable enough, but there were three pieces of bad news as we checked in. The first was that the air conditioning had not yet been turned on for the season, despite daytime temperatures nearing 100 degrees F. The second was that we were too late for dinner hard to believe in Greece, where dining often begins at midnight. But not to worry: Three plates of leftovers had been saved for us.The kind, elderly lady at the desk, whom we learned later owned the hotel, then asked for my passport.Oops. I realized at once that it was still in Meteora. While chatting so amicably with Thassanis and Toula that morning, we had all forgotten to retrieve my passport from the front desk where it had been stashed unnecessarily, according to Greek law.I laughed nervously. At that moment I was without a passport and without cash in a foreign land. Earlier we had almost been without fuel. We used Susans passport to check in. A few minutes later over our cold dinner, I dialed Thanassis Nakis in Meteora. He knew right away why I had called and the urgency of the situation. He promised to send the passport by courier to Athens, our next stop, and hung up.I called right back: Dont you think it would be helpful to know where well be in Athens? Its a big city. OK, OK, he said impatiently. Give me your hotel. It was the Grande Bretagne, I told him. Ill send it first thing in the morning, he said and started to hang up again. Dont you want the address, I asked. I dont need it. Everybody in Greece knows the Grande Bretagne. I gave it to him anyway, though I doubt he wrote it down.
The next morning, after a nearly sleepless night caused by the heat and dogs howling through the open window, I obtained cash from an ATM machine in Korinthos, the only place I could get it without a passport. After one or two false starts, we set off on the same freeway wed been lost on the night before. The exit for Mycenae was just a few kilometers past the toll booth. Had we known better, we could have continued on to Mycenae and stayed the night there probably in a hotel with air conditioning. Once off the freeway, we struggled to find the road to Mycenae. Vandals had obliterated every directional sign with spray paint. Frustrated, I suggested that perhaps Greece needs a President Rudianos Guilianopoulis more than we do. Finally arriving in the little village of Mycenae (Mikines in Greek), we drove on two more kilometers to the ruins. The ancient city occupied a wild site on a high rocky promontory between two deep ravines surrounded by mountains. Bob Bayers had been right: It was spectacular. We parked, paid our entry fee (10 euros for adults, students free), and started climbing the path up the acropolis hill to the ancient city on top. The heat was incredible, probably well over 100 degrees F in the direct midday sun. Sophie protested: I dont need to see more old rocks. I suggested she think of it as a shopping excursion in an outdoor mall without cash registers. Funny, Dad, she said although her expression indicated otherwise.The ancient stone ramparts, dating from the 14th century B.C., were remarkably intact. The main gateway into the city, is called the Pili ton Leonton (Lion Gate), a name that comes from two now-headless lionesses sculpted into the massive pediment above the gate. Once a symbol of Mycenaean power, the monumental relief conjures up images of kings and warriors and terrified captives being dragged through the gate into the city. Willingly, we entered. Almost immediately we saw the so-called First Circle of Royal Tombs, a massive round stonework embedded with deep pits. They were excavated in 1876 by a wealthy amateur archaeologist from Germany named Heinrich Schliemann. Obsessed by legends of Homeric heroes, Schliemann had found the site of Troy in Turkey two years earlier. A single sentence in Description of Greece, a geography written about 150 A.D. by Pausanias, indicated that Agamemnon, king of Mycenae during the Trojan War, had been entombed inside the city walls. That was enough for Schliemann, who started digging and found the circular tombs, from which he extracted 19 corpses and a huge array of gold jewelry and vases.Sophie and Susan walked on, eager to get out of the heat as fast as they could. I stopped and stared at the tombs. That moment I felt frustratingly near the mystique of Mycenae the same kind of feeling that must have obsessed Schliemann. It seemed close enough to touch, then disappeared. All that came to mind, if I had it right, were a few lines from Shelley: My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing besides remains. Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus, and built by Cyclops, huge creatures with one eye in the middle of their foreheads, according to Homer. After Perseus came the Atreids, a bloody clan who regularly maimed and killed each other with an unwholesome zest. The familys founder, Atreus, killed the sons of his brother Thyestes and served them to him during a banquet. Atreuss sons Agamemnon and Menelaus ruled Mycenae and Sparta (Sparti in Greek), respectively. The abduction of Menelaus wife Helen she of the face so fair that it launched 1,000 ships by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, set off the Trojan War and Troys eventual destruction in about 1240 B.C. Led by Agamemnon, the combined Mycenaean and Spartan force that sailed against Troy must have been the stuff of an enemys nightmares. The fearsome warriors had trained in combat from the age of seven in youth troops tested by extreme exercise. At age 20 the young fighters faced the krypteia, a series of tests that included flogging, sometimes to death. They were abandoned in the wilderness, where more died, and ordered to kill slaves they found outside after dark. Once past the initiation, they ate communally, living on herbs and wild roots with an occasional feast of wild boar stewed in blood. In combat they gave their lives without hesitation. Girls also were trained strenuously, and those who happened to marry were not expected to be faithful to their husbands.As they set sail, King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to obtain a favorable wind. To my modern mind, it was an unsettling trade: His own child for his brothers wife who, by every account, was far too good-looking for her own good. Agamemnon probably viewed the sacrifice a success. After the fall of Troy, he returned to Mycenae, only to be killed in his bath by his wife Klytemnestra (Helens sister) and her lover Aegisthus who had killed Agamemnons own father. Klytemnestra was subsequently murdered by her son Orestes, an act of revenge encouraged by his sister Elektra.Three thousand years later Schliemann unearthed Agamemnons gold death mask in the tombs at Mycenae. The mask now resides in the National Archeological Museum in Athens. It was a must-see, I decided, hoping this would not engender a new round of obsession-caused mishaps.En route to Athens, I called Thanassis in Meteora to check on the passport. I sent it this morning at 9. Itll be at the Grande Bretagne tomorrow at 9, he said, clicking off. Arriving in the city of 3 million in the thick of afternoon traffic, we managed to check into the hotel, turn in the rental car, then take a taxi to the Acropolis. Thirty years ago the only access up the precipitous hillside was via a narrow hiking trail. Now there was an impressive, broad stone entryway. As always, the first view of the Parthenon was breathtaking. Even Sophie was impressed, at least as much as any teenager could be, with the old rocks that so magnificently overlooked the ageless city below.The next morning I rose early, while Sophie and Susan slept in, to begin the passport vigil over a lonely breakfast. A few minutes after nine, I checked with the concierge: No, sir, no package for you. I received the same answer for the next two hours. By 11 I was worried, and asked the concierge, a nice-looking young man named Dimitrios, if he could look into the matter. He called Thanassis in Meteora and retrieved the tracking number, then called the courier company.Putting down the phone, he told me: There are three ways to do things the right
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