Tag Archives: History

Around The World in Eighty Minutes – Part Two, United Kingdom

EPCOT England

Following my previous post about visiting World Showcase at EPCOT, Florida, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the ‘real’ countries that I have now visited and make a short comparison.  Of the eleven EPCOT pavilions I have visited six of those showcased and I suppose I have obviously to begin with the United Kingdom:

The EPCOT version is not bad if people from around the World all believe that we live in thatched cottages and fill them with Beatrix Potter prints and spend most of our time listening to Beatles albums.  The presentation is completely inaccurate of course but then it is not just Disney that can get it wrong…

In 1930 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust purchased a property in the village of Wilmcote near Stratford-upon-Avon, made some improvements to it, added some authentic Tudor furniture and other contemporary everyday items and declared it to be the birthplace and home of William Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden.  This belief was based on supposed historical evidence dating back to the 18th century, when a historian unearthed records of the Arden family in Wilmcote who made the connection with the property based on the rather flimsy fact that Mary’s father, Robert was a wealthy farmer who lived in the village.

For many years after that the Trust proudly showed thousands of tourists and school children around the beautiful half timbered house facing the road in leafy Wilmcote, telling people all about the time when Mary Arden lived there in the sixteenth century.  The image of the lovely house (top of page) was on chocolate box lids, tea towels and postcards and tourists bought dozens of mementoes of Mary Arden’s House to take home with them.  This for example was a jigsaw puzzle box lid from the 1940s:

My first visit to the house was on a school trip from the Hillmorton County School near Rugby, also in Warwickshire, on a day visiting Shakespeare’s town of Stratford sometime in the 1960s.  I don’t have any real recollection of that trip because it was over forty years ago but I do remember visiting with French town twinning guests from Evreux  in 1977 and later taking visitors there when I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1986 to 1987 on every occasion sticking to the official Mary Arden Story.

On 12th February 1995 I took my ten year old daughter Sally to visit Stratford and naturally included a visit to Mary Arden’s House which by this time was also a countryside and agricultural heritage museum and inside the house Trust members were on hand to provide a comprehensive historical narrative.  A very comprehensive narrative indeed by an elderly gentleman and one that went on at great length about Tudor life and how Mary Arden had sat in front of the fire in the Great Hall, helped prepare food in the kitchen and had slept in one of the bedrooms on the first floor.  It was all very interesting information but it subsequently turned out to be a lot of old nonsense!

Shakespears's Birth Place Stratford Upon avon

In 2000 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust had a huge shock because during routine timber treatment, it was discovered that the wood used to construct the house was dated too late to be linked to Mary Arden’s early life and this couldn’t therefore be her house after all.  It seemed that she hadn’t sat in the Great Hall or helped out in the kitchen or slept t in the master bedroom and further historical research revealed that the large house actually belonged to a family called Palmer, and had to be promptly re-named Palmer’s Farm.

For a while it was thought that Mary Arden’s family home was lost to history and the Trust had lost a valuable asset and tourist trap.  Lucky for them then that another small house on the estate which they had purchased in 1968 with a view of demolition, and close to Palmer’s Farm, was also wood tested and technology was able to pin point the time the wood in this house was cut. What a stroke of luck!  The Birthplace Trust declared this to be the Spring of the year 1514, the dates tallied with Mary Arden and the members of the Trust breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.

This time the Trust carried out more thorough research and what the records revealed was that Shakespeare’s grandfather, Robert Arden, had bought the land in Wilmcote in 1514 and built the house that had sat next to Palmer’s Farm,  The house that for hundreds of years was largely overlooked and ignored because it was considerably less interesting than the farm house.  Mary Arden’s house had been there in Wilmcote all the time, smaller and more modest than anyone had thought.

The last time I went to Mary Arden’s house (the real one that is) was in 2010 and as I paid my admission charge I was minded to ask for a refund on all the previous visits on the basis that I had been seriously misled and provided with false information on several previous occasions.

Sadly however, although the Birthplace Trust itself is now clear about which house belonged to who many other tourist web sites still show a picture of Palmer’s Farm instead of Mary Arden’s house because it is significantly more picturesque and interesting.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Delicate

Naxos Cathedral Tour

Ancient Treasure…

In one room there was a pot-pourri of treasures that really deserved to be in a proper museum where they could be looked after properly.  She dragged them out of boxes and held them in her frail hands and in a rhapsodical way accompanied by extravagant arm gestures as though she were conducting an orchestra kept imploring us to “look at this, look at this!”  At one point she opened an illuminated manuscript and declared it to be five hundred years old but she turned the pages over as though it was a copy of last week’s Radio Times.

Read the full story…

My Favourite Pictures of the Greek Islands – 14

 

Donkey Transport

This rather poor quality photograph was taken on the island of Kos in 1983.

As I had been walking I passed an old islander on a mule and it was obvious that he was going about his day and his work on his chosen form of transport!  I got to thinking about how infrequently you see this now, much less even than when I first started to visit the Greek islands over thirty years ago and I realised that soon this will be a thing of the past.

This makes me sad.

When this generation has gone it is probable that no one will continue to use donkeys for anything other than equine amusement.  I felt glad that I had been there in time to see this and felt disappointed for those who will come after me and won’t.  Soon, I suspect seeing a Greek man riding a donkey will be consigned to the dustbin of nostalgia just like an Austrian man wearing a Tyrolean hat as a preferred piece of headgear and Italians driving manically and buzzing amount like demented wasps in those noisy three wheeled Piaggios.

They will be gone and Europe will be the poorer for it.

My Personal Greek A to Ω – N (Nu) is for Νάξος or Naxos

After taking the bus into Naxos town we walked to the top of the town to find the Venetian Cathedral tour that was highly recommended in the Island hopping guidebook.  We waited around in the courtyard outside the Cathedral and not a lot seemed to be happening and we wondered if we were going to be disappointed.

Eventually an old lady in an extravagant floral blouse and with a worn out old dog for a companion ghosted in from a secret door in an adjacent room and enquired if we were there for the tour and we told her that yes we were.

She went to a great deal of trouble to explain that her English was quite poor and clutching her stomach she told us that her doctor had advised her against speaking in English because this made her ill.  I’m not a medical person you understand but this seemed highly unlikely to me and she had no credible explanation for a diagnosis of stomach cramps just through speaking English and as we set off she proceeded to speak perfectly even though it was in a hushed and croaky voice.

This was really excellent, we were the only people on the tour and we received an exceptional commentary all around the interior and the exterior of the Cathedral.  But then disaster struck as  a group of French people gate crashed the party and after a short debate about language preferences with these unwelcome latecomers she continued for the rest of the tour in about 75% French.  She apologised to us for that and lamented that “English people cannot speak French and French people will not speak English!”  This shouldn’t have surprised us of course, we know how precious they can be about their secondary World language so we just had to accept the inevitable and struggle to make sense of the French and be grateful for the few snippets of English that infrequently came our way.

There is no good reason for the French to be so stuck-up about their language, after all it is only the eighteenth most used in the World, Chinese is first, followed by Spanish and then English.  More people even speak Portuguese (sixth) and worst of all German (tenth).  The French, it seems, need to come to terms with the balance of linguistic power.

Actually, even in a foreign language,  this was an excellent tour and the language difficulty didn’t spoil it one little bit.  Our guide swept us through a museum, a monastery and a simple basilica as we visited buildings and rooms that would simply not be accessible to tourists who did not join the tour.

In one room there was a pot-pourri of treasures that really deserved to be in a proper museum where they could be looked after properly.  She dragged them out of boxes and held them in her frail hands and in a rhapsodical way accompanied by extravagant arm gestures as though she were conducting an orchestra kept imploring us to “look at this, look at this!” 

At one point she opened an illuminated manuscript and declared it to be five hundred years old but she turned the pages over as though it was a copy of last week’s Radio Times.  That sort of thing would never be allowed at the British Museum.  No wonder Lord Elgin took the marbles back to London so they could be looked after!

This was a brilliant tour that allowed us to see something that we would not ordinarily have seen.  It lasted about ninety minutes and then she asked for just €2 each.

Now, I am not usually prone to acts of extravagance but this had been so really, really good that we gave her €5 each and still walked away thinking that we had had an exceptional bargain.

I like sunsets and wanted to see the town from the ancient monument so we went once more to the islet of Palatia and joined all of the other sun worshippers who were gathering here to see the end of the day and another glorious sunset.  It was a very fine sunset indeed. The sun slipped elegantly into the sea and as its golden energy was slowly extinguished and transformed into a solar slick on the surface of the Aegean what left over light remained illuminated the town with a satisfyingly warm orange glow like the dying embers of a really good fire.

The edifice is said to be the unfinished Temple of Apollo and the famous Portara, the temple’s gate and Naxos’ trademark, doubles as a sun worshipping monument and it certainly looked spectacular tonight framed against the burning sky.  We stayed until it was dark and the orange flame of the sunset had been replaced by an inky blue sky that provided a dramatic backdrop to the sparkling lights of Naxos town.

Later we walked back out of the town and had another excellent meal at Nico’s restaurant where we ordered far more than we could comfortably eat and feeling good after an excellent day and having consumed more alcohol than was sensible we hired a vehicle for sightseeing on the following day.

But that’s another story… Read it here…

My Personal Greek A to Ω – Δ (Delta) is for Δήλος or Delos

Delos, one of the great classical archaeological sites of the Mediterranean, is a tiny island stretching only five kilometres north to south and barely one and a half kilometres from east to west. It was here, that Apollo and his twin sister Artemis, son and daughter of Zeus and his lover Leto, were born and, like Delphi, is a major sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, the Titan god of gods and one of the most important in the Hellenic pantheon.

I visited Delos in 2005 during a holiday to the island of nearby Mykonos.  It is the epicentre of the Cycladic ring and an uninhabited island ten kilometres from Mykonos, and is a vast archaeological site that together with Athens on the mainland and Knossos on Crete makes up the three most important archaeological sites in Greece.

The reason we are not so aware of it is because whereas a lot of the work in Athens and Crete was undertaken by British and American archaeologists Delos is predominantly a French excavation site and we prefer to concentrate on British rather than Gallic achievements.  The excavations in the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean; ongoing work takes place under the direction of the French School at Athens and many of the artifacts found are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Delos and the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. In 1990, UNESCO inscribed Delos on the World Heritage List, citing it as the “exceptionally extensive and rich” archaeological site which “conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port”.

We left the port of Mykonos on a small ferry boat where we sat on the open deck and watched Mykonos slip away behind us and the approach to tiny Delos which took about half an hour or so.  It was already hot as we stepped off the boat and paid our admission charge to the island and took the pathway into the site.  There is no set route and visitors are allowed to ramble in all directions along the rough paths and the dark grey stony earth overgrown with vegetation, strewn with ancient relics, ravaged by wind which moves across the embers of a past civilization and, if you listen to the warnings of the locals, home to poisonous snakes which will attack if disturbed so keeping an eye out for this danger we set off first to Mount Kythnos, the highest point and a stiff climb where, at the top, we were rewarded with sweeping 360º views of the Cyclades and beyond.

It was a lot easier going back down and once back in the main city which was once home to thirty-thousand people we walked through a succession of excavated buildings, some with frescoes and mosaic floors, dismembered statues, alters, sanctuaries, agoras and reconstructed temples and arches.  At the centre we stopped to see the Delian lions, one of the iconic images of the Greek islands.  These were only plaster copies however because they are now kept in the island museum and one is missing because it was stolen and taken to Venice to become a symbol of that city.

Walking through the centre of the ancient city we passed the sacred lake where Apollo and Artemis were born and then to the far north of the island and the site of the ancient stadium and a view back across the water to Mykonos.  We had been continuously walking now for about three hours in the blistering sun without any shade so we made our way back to the main site and to the museum where we hoped it might be a bit cooler.  There was no chance of that and although it was light and airy inside it was oppressively hot so we rushed through the exhibits a bit too quickly to do them justice and were soon outside again looking for refreshments.

Delos is well worth a visit but here are two bits of advice, firstly don’t miss the last boat home or else you will be stuck on the rather remote island all night long with the spirits of Ancient Greece and the snakes and secondly take plenty of water and a snack because there is only one small shop on the island attached to the museum and it is meteorically expensive and bearing these two bits of advice in mind we finished our tour of Delos by wandering back to the jetty and taking the early afternoon ferry back to Mykonos.

My Personal Greek A to Ω – B (Beta) is for Βύρων or Byron

After four years of waiting I was actually going to see the new Acropolis Museum.  It was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the symbolic return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual Athenian home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way meant that it did not finally open to an expectant public until June 2009.

I purchased tickets on line and arrived at my allocated visit time of ten o’clock.

I had feared that the place would be crowded and uncomfortable but this was not the case at all and without the lines of visitors that I had anticipated it was easy to cruise effortlessly past the ticket desks and into the museum.  I had a gigantic sense of anticipation because I was genuinely looking forward to seeing this magnificent replacement for the hopelessly inadequate museum at the top of the Acropolis that I had visited before and which it had replaced.

I have to say that anticipation was mixed with some trepidation because having followed the saga of the open wound debate about the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles I wondered how I was going to feel because the long awaited €130m Acropolis Museum is a modern glass and concrete building at the foot of the ancient Acropolis and home to sculptures from the golden age of Athenian history but unlike any other museum in the world this one has been designed to exhibit something it doesn’t own and can’t yet exhibit but all of Greece hopes that it will be the catalyst for the return of the disputed Marbles from the British Museum in London.

Outside the museum and in the cavernous entrance hall there were glass floors with sub-level views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there was a steady incline cruising through seven centuries of history and impressive and well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provided sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to rush through this timeline of ancient treasures.  Moving on to the second floor there are two galleries that I have to say I did not find so well set out and involved a rambling walk through a succession of exhibits that was not helped by the absence of a simple floor plan to help guide the visitor through and having finished with the second floor I then had to double back to get to the third and the Parthenon Gallery skilfully avoiding the café terrace and the inevitable gift shop along the way to make sure I wasn’t parted from my cash.

After an hour passing through various centuries of ancient Greece I finally arrived at the top floor Gallery, which is designed to eventually hold and display all of the Parthenon sculptures but for the time being has only about half of the originals.  The remainder are plaster casts made from (and controversially paid for by the Greek Museum) of the remaining treasures temporarily remaining in London.  It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a very memorable experience.  The top floor is designed to provide a full 360º panoramic of the building and how the sculptures would have looked when they were originally commissioned and sculptured in the fifth century BC.

I really liked the Museum but what I didn’t care for especially was the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary nationalist, provocative and belligerentanti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary. I considered that rather offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and unwelcome.  The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the United States who were encouraged to gasp in awe that a British Lord could have done such malicious and terrible things.  I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that material from the Parthenon was dispersed both before and after Elgin’s time and the remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in Athens are in museums in various locations across Europe and there are also parts of it in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum, Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seemed to have been conveniently ignored.

As I wandered around I considered the debate and tried to balance the two radically opposing views.  There are many factors to take into consideration. We do not know if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained permission to work on the Acropolis from the Ottoman authorities, then in control of Athens, and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past.  What shouldn’t be forgotten is that when Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state indeed and this is expediently omitted from the commentary and the otherwise excellent interpretation.   In the early twentieth century there was some inappropriate restoration work that has subsequently been proved to be damaging so perhaps Elgin saved the Marbles from the deadly fate of ignorant restoration and we should thank him for that?

Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid seventeenth century, ‘the finest mosque in the world’ but all that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the building, which was inappropriately being used as a temporary gunpowder store and approximately three hundred women and children were amongst those killed as the building itself was blown apart and destroyed. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins and falling further into a state of unloved disrepair.

Elgin might be the villain in the opinion of modern Greeks but what the Acropolis museum conveniently fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures Turks and Athenians were using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar.  It is all very well getting precious about it now but whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all.

My personal opinion?  Well, I believe that we should thank the British Museum for having looked after them for the last two hundred years while all this was going on and then the Marbles should be returned and I believe that one day they will because as the poet and Grecophile, Lord Byron wrote and with whom I leave the last word:

‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see                                                                             Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed                                                     By British hands, which it had best behoved                                                                      To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.                                                                     Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,                                                       And once again thy hapless bosom gored,                                                                        And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

My Personal Greek A to Ω – Α (Alpha) is for Αθήνα or Athens

My plan was to go first to the Acropolis and the ancient city of Pericles, Socrates and Herodotus and the guidebook advised getting there early to avoid the crowds.  I did as it suggested and got there early (well, reasonably early) and it was swarming, I mean really swarming and there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people ahead of me in the line at the entrance gate. Obviously I wasn’t early enough and I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like when it is really busy. There was no turning back though because I’d only a couple of days in Athens before leaving for the neighbouring city of Piraeus and then sailing for the islands.

Although it was only mid morning it was desperately hot already and climbing the exposed bleached steps to the top of the Acropolis it felt like the anvil to the sun’s hammer and I began to break out into a massive sweat and had to stop several times for a drink of water and a short rest before reaching the site of the Parthenon at the top of the table top mountain.

The top of the Acropolis is huge but there isn’t really a lot to see, no statues, no paintings, no exhibits, but a rather barren archaeological site in the thirtieth year of its restoration with tens of thousands of pieces lying strewn in the dust and long since stripped of its treasures, a stark marble ruin surrounded by ancient brick and concrete, so once a full circuit has been completed, although it felt as though I should stay longer the truth is there is not a lot to stay around for.

This doesn’t mean that the visit experience is in any way disappointing or less wonderful just that it seems to me that there are two types of sightseeing, the first is where we go to admire the statues, the paintings and the exhibits and the second where the experience is simply about being there, in a place that has played such a pivotal role in world history and the development of civilisation and for me the Acropolis and the Parthenon is one of the latter.

The Parthenon is an icon of western civilisation and the most architecurally  copied building in the World wherever man wants to demonstrate authority and power through the construction of buildings and monuments.  Of course there might have been more to see if the Parthenon marbles had been in place but we of course know these as the Elgin Marbles and two hundred years ago the English aristocrat hacked the statues off the buildings with blunt instruments and sent them back to the London where the fifty-six sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters can now been found at Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury (more about that later).

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After leaving the Acropolis I walked back down the slippery slope of the Parthenon and picked my way between olive trees and day trippers competing for shade from the midday sun and after I had left I had a good long walk around the other principal tourist attractions in the city because in addition to the Acropolis there is the Ancient Greek and Roman Agora and the dramatic Temple of Zeus with its spectacular muscular columns thrusting triumphantly into the sky.  They are all in pretty poor shape it has to be said, the Parthenon at the Acropolis was blown up by Venetian invaders when it was being used as a Turkish armoury store, looted by Elgin and then damaged by ham-fisted restoration work in the early twentieth century, most of the Agora is pretty much non-existent and the Temple of Olympian Zeus has only a handful of its original columns still standing.  It was here that I saw what I found to be an amusing notice at the entry kiosk, in large letters it said:

Please respect the Antiquity”

Just a little late for that I thought.  What a pity someone didn’t think to put up these signs two thousand years ago, perhaps it would have stopped people in the middle ages dismantling them to build houses, the Turkish invaders from grinding down the marble to make mortar (yes, really) and made Lord Elgin think twice before he plundered the Acropolis for the treasures he returned to Britain.  But this was long before UNESCO and the World Heritage Sites initiative and so perhaps for most of those two thousand years no one has been especially concerned about the preservation of the past.

APTOPIX Greece Acropolis Museum

Much of the tourist area of the Plaka is simply built over the top of Ancient Greece and around every corner there is an open excavation, which disappears under a modern building or a road.  The Greek Agora has to be the worst example of all because running through the middle of it is a railway line.  I wonder who thought that was a good idea?  As the construction workers kept coming across priceless artefacts surely it must have occurred to someone that they should stop and excavate the place properly before carrying on?  Part of the reason why it took so long to build the Acropolis Museum was that the builders came across an unexpectedly rich archaeological site and it had to be properly examined and explored before the building could be completed.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus must have looked wonderful, it took six hundred years to build due to a stop-start building programme and when completed had one hundred and four Corinthian columns seventeen metres high (that’s about four London double decker buses).  Only fifteen remain standing now and one other lies in pieces across the site, blown down in a gale in 1852.  As early as the year 86 people were not respecting the antiquity and two columns were removed and taken to Rome to be relocated in the emerging Forum.  An earthquake probably did most of the damage and then everyone helped themselves to the stones for their new building projects around the city.

I walked through the Zappeion gardens to the recently restored and renovated International Conference Centre building that had wonderfully colourful internal decoration and then to the original Olympic stadium of the modern games built in 1884, and which was used symbolically once again in 2004.  After that it was a stroll around the official government buildings where I saw the Greek soldiers famous for their lanky legged, goose stepping walk.  They are called the Evzones, which is the name of the elite light infantry of the Greek Army and today refers to the members of the Proedriki Froura, who are the official Greek Presidential Guard, a select ceremonial unit that guards the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Parliament building and the Greek Presidential Palace.

The basic elements of their uniform are a scarlet garrison cap with a long black tassel, a woollen kilt, a cotton undershirt, white woollen stockings and black-tasselled knee garters and red leather clogs with hob-nailed souls and a black pompon.  The full-dress uniform, which derives from the traditional uniform of south-mainland Greece is only worn on Sundays, on important national holidays and other special occasions. It has a white, bell-sleeved shirt and a white kilt with four hundred pleats, which represents the four hundred years of Turkish Ottoman occupation and an awful lot of work for the poor person who has to do the ironing!

Morocco, The Assessment

Marrakech Souk

This was the second visit to Morocco and although essentially quite similar Fez was significantly different to Marrakech with fewer tourists and much less evidence of western influence.  We were quite clear and fully aware that we were temporary guests in an Arab country with a wholly different culture to Europe.

I use the term guests in a wider sense here because it was clear that in some places we were tolerated rather than welcomed, taken advantage of rather than warmly embraced and mostly kept at arm’s length, treated with suspicion and excluded.  The Riad was different from the streets because the owners were French and the staff were mostly Christian Armenian so there was a certain European atmosphere but once outside the front door it was a different world altogether.

Read the full story…

Click on an image to scroll through the gallery…