Thursday, May 14, 2009

Myth and Modernity in Tolo Greece

We will probably write more about what we've seen in Greece for the last week.  For the past 4 days we've been staying in Tolo, Greece, which has been a good place from which to explore the Ancient sites in the surrounding Peloponese.  We will probably write more about those.

I think a different story gives best the flavor of this part of Greece.  On two separate days I went running in different directions from town.  The first day I ran south, along the ocean.  I ran through orange groves, which are in bloom about now.  The smell is so strong that when we were driving through the Peloponese, at first we thought we must have spilled perfume in the car.  It wasn't until we opened the window when we realized that everywhere around us was filled with the smell of flowers.

Tolo is not known for anything special.  It's not even in our Greece guidebook.  We only stayed there because the all the hotels we called in the town we wanted, Napflio, were full.  However, within a mile I saw a rocky outcropping jutting into and above the shimmer blue ocean.  At the top and along the sides were stone blocks covered with thick vines, barely perceptible signs of previous human work.  As I ran along the road towards it, I noticed there was a small sign explaining the site.  It apparently was the site of the ancient town of Asine, which was briefly mentioned by Homer in the Iliad.  He described it "Asine, commanding the deep wide gulf", when saying how it contributed men to the invasion force of the Trojan war!

I ran on past the sign, through an overgrown path, and up some crumbling stairs carved into the stone.  Some of the stairs were still impressively preserved, 3000 years later.  

At the top was a small room or watch tower, looking out over the ocean.  This casual encounter with myth, especially when you don't even expect it, is what makes Greece seem so magical.  I'm sure that undoubtedly the force feeding of Homer to many American students contributes to the amazement at coming across such things.

On the second day, I ran north.  I had to run above and through the town of Tolo, which is beautiful.  From our hotel I could see a road running up the ridge of some northern peaks, so I decided to aim there.  I hoped I could run northwards towards Nafplio.  At least, if I scaled the ridge, I might be able to see Nafplio.

About 500m up the road I had seen (1.5mi into the run), I came across a gate.  It had Greek words, but in English it said "No Pedestrians and No Vehicles".  I ran through, thinking that I could at least explore up a little before turning back.  About 5 minutes up, with the gate still in sight, a car of teenagers passed me in the other direction, smirking.  Apparently the road was somewhat open, even if we were all breaking the rules.

I assumed the road was some sort of public utility access road or a fire trail, as it was similar to roads I have run on in California.  In fact, the mountains in this part of Greece feel very similar to California,  They are very steep, dry, and covered in scrubby brush that easily catches fire.  As I kept running up the road, I saw an unfortunate amount of trash on the sides.  There were broken roofing tiles, discarded tires, and plastic containers.  I wondered if the teenagers were dumping that stuff up there.  It almost, but not quite, spoiled the view down 1000 feet to the town and the Mediterranean sea below.

I kept running up and had reached a point where I would turn over a ridge and would no longer be able to see the first gate.  I could see up to a second ridge, so I decided I'd continue to there and turn around at the top.  I wanted to see the other side;  perhaps Nafplio would be right there to the North.

I kept running up and noticed that some of the scrub was blackened, as if from recent fire.  I came across a second gate that had no text whatsoever except for a big emblem of burning flames.  That seemed very strange:  Did they intentionally light fires up here?  I also caught the disconcerting smell of something rotten, like old meat.  Maybe there was a dead animal nearby,

After another 5-10 minutes, I climbed another few hundred feet to the second ridge.  I eagerly ran forward to the turning point, hoping to see a beautiful view to the North, all the way to the end of the bay jutting into the Pelopenese.  After all, the previous day I'd stumbled across 3000 year old ruins.  I crossed the ridge and was rewarded with a view of a... trash dump.  That explained the threat of fire and the smell of decay!  It was disgusting.  The smell was horrible, and there were hundreds of birds circling around eating the rubbish.

I've never heard of a trash heap on the top of a mountain.  I would think the wind would carry the smell to Nafplio or to Tolo and ruin vacationers' time.  We never smelled it from town or our hotel, though.

That nicely illustrates the constrasts in Greece.  On the one hand, everywhere you turn are ancient monuments.  There are so many that it seems that the Greeks can't keep up with maintaining them all, nor do many of the ancient places even get any tourists.  There was no one else at Asine, and the one sign was lonely and old.  Stewarding that history must be a large burden.  On the other hand, there is modernity everywhere, including trash heaps on top of mountains, the newest cell phones, cars going 105mph on the ahighways, etc.


  1. It takes money - and resources - to maintain archeological sites. The town you're in probably doesn't have the funds. On the other hand, you're seeing a Greece most tourists don't see. A trade-off I guess.

  2. awesome! did you recognize the town from the Iliad, steven man of letters, or did the sign mention that?

  3. The trash dump looks just like the one in Fremont before it was closed--ugly, smelly, and home to thousands of scavenging sea gulls. Now it's covered with mounds of dirt and almost blends into the landscape. Maybe they'll do that eventually with the one in Tolo. All the artifacts of modern life will be well preserved for future generations.