Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Beyond Parga: Black Rocks and Baklava

Parga is a pretty little Greek port and I would have loved to explore it, but we're booked on a tour to Dodona, the site of the oldest oracle in Greece. It's even older than the Delphi Oracle, dedicated to the worship of Zeus Dodonaios and mentioned in the Homeric epics. This is also where Persephone got kidnapped by Pluto, God of the Underworld. And -- it is said -- the source of the Styx River. So I'm really expecting something special.

After an hour's ride past lots and lots of olive trees, we reach the shrine.  It is a vast, undulating open area. The grass is dry and brittle as hay, but we do see a clump of the star-shaped white flowers that tempted the hapless Persephone. There's a narrow, dirt trail.  Off to the right, a couple of small buildings. The toilets, our guide tell us. Several people decide to use them, and the rest of us wait. Suddenly, there's a scream and everyone comes running back.  Apparently there's a huge dog asleep in the toilets.

We set off down the dirt track.  Watch out for snakes, our guide tells us. Most of them aren't poisonous, but one of them is. Between the huge dog in the toilets and the snakes, I'm beginning to get a bit nervous.  But Xingxing is enjoying himself, trotting and sniffing. He probably smells the other dog.

Ahead of us, there are a few big, black square stones. And an oak tree, with more stones set in a square around it.  This was the oracle, the oak tree. The priests interpreted the deity's will from the rustling of the leaves, the sound of water around its roots, the flight of the doves that nested in its branches or the sound of the brass cauldrons that surrounded it. The doves and the cauldrons are long gone. And of course, this isn't the original oak tree, either.

Beyond the tree, there's a partially excavated amphitheater with an orange crane arm hovering over it. However, the Greek financial crisis has halted work, and there's no telling when it will begin again.  What's been uncovered so far are the foundations of what was once a temple of Aphrodite, a temple of Themis, a temple of Hercules and even an early Christian basilica -- but all that's left are this random scattering of stones and the odd pillar. The 2500 oracle tablets, bronze vessels and votive statues that were discovered during the excavation are all in the Archaeological Museum at Ioannina.

Ioannina is our next stop, but we don't go to the Archaeological Museum. Instead, we visit Ali Pasha's castle -- but that doesn't exist anymore, either.  It burned down.  Still, we can see where it used to be. We visit a small museum filled with icons from destroyed monasteries and finish up on the Esplanade along Ioannina's large lake, which is pretty enough but so polluted you can't drink the water. Our guide tells us that she loves coming here, because they make the best baklava in Greece and she's going to buy a little box of it to take home to her kids.  I give her ten euros and ask her to buy me a box, too.  It turns out to be the high point of the day.

When we got back to the Azamara Quest, I discover that Xingxing is covered in burrs.  Hundreds of them.  It takes me the rest of the afternoon to pluck them all out.

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