Monday, November 16, 2015

Seeing Greece the Best Way

One of the greatest joys of the journey to learning family history is meeting fellow travelers. Never has this come so clear as when we (my husband and I) visited Greece this September of 2015.

Map of Greece from CIA World Factbook,
 22 August 2013,
gr.html, Wikimedia.

I first met Margarita Thomakou on genforum.com in 2008 (before the site was purchased by Ancestry) when she responded to my query about my Greek Flessouras family. In her response, Margarita said she lived in Athens and enjoyed helping Americans look for their Greek roots. We e-mailed occasionally over the years, just to keep in touch. About eight months ago, I let Margarita know that we were planning our first visit to Greece. She was as excited to welcome us to her country as we were to visit!

Our tour was part family history, part Greek history and a whole lot of Hellenic hospitality. Margarita met us at our hotel in Athens, and we planned our itinerary. First we would go to Pigadakia, the ancestral village of the Flessouras clan, which is in the Peloponnese between Tripoli and Sparta.

By Pitichinaccio (Image:Peloponnese relief map-blank.svg) [GFDL 
(http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0
 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), GFDL
 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0
 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses
/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We had rented a car, and Margarita suggested that we follow her. It was good to have two cars because sometimes Margarita would have some business to conduct (she is in the real estate field) while we did some sight-seeing.

 “The cradle of civilization” is a phrase many of us heard in history class applied to Greece. The Greeks are very proud of their history, including their painting, sculpture, theater and poetry. But they have a special reverence, as Margarita attested to, for the honor, courage, and fighting prowess displayed over the eras by those who have inhabited the Greek land.

Our first visit was a day trip out of Athens to the town of Marathon. Many Americans, even those who participate in running marathons, may not know where the word comes from. Well, now I do. But first some history. Margarita took us to the site of the Battle of Marathon that occurred in 490 B.C. when the outnumbered Athenians repelled the Persians.

The battle field at Marathon as it looks today,
9/6/2015, taken by Bert Schuster


Battle field relief, taken by Bert
Schuster 9/6/02015
Then she gestured to a huge hill behind us. This large mound is the final resting place of the Greek soldiers who gave their lives in the battle.

Burial Mound at Marathon, taken
by Bert Schuster 9/6/2015

And how did the modern marathon come from this historic battle? After the Greek victory, a messenger was dispatched to take the news to Athens – running all the way. The modern contest is a little over 26 miles, the same length as the distance from Marathon to Athens. 

The day after visiting Marathon, we started our trip to Pigadakia. The chance to visit one’s ancestral village is a rare and precious gift. Just before reaching the village, Margarita introduced us to a small restaurant all by itself on the side of the road, a treasure as it turned out that you would never find unless you had a wonderful guide. We sat eating and discussing Pigadakia and the Flessouras clan. A neighboring diner had been listening to our conversation and pointed out, in Greek of course, another departing diner: “There, there is a Flessouras.” Well, luck, happenstance and chance are welcome companions on any ancestor-hunting trip.


Street in Pigadakia, taken by
 Bert Schuster, 9/6/2015
Margarita followed the man thus described and struck up a conversation. And most certainly, the gentleman was a Flessouras from Pigadakia! He came with us to show us the small village and talk about his family tree. As of right now, my Flessouras tree is short – it starts with my great grandfather, Peter (Panoyiotis.) I am still working on going further back.

Street in Pigadakia leading to small shrine,
taken by Bert Schuster 9/6/2015

After Pigadakia, we headed to the Mani, Margarita’s ancestral homeland. She is proud to be from Maniot stock, and she knows the history of the land.
By al-Qamar (File:Peloponnese relief map-blank.svg)
 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],
 via Wikimedia Commons
We saw a lot of historical towns and villages, but two places stand out in my mind.

First, is Aeropolis (see map above), where, as Margarita told us proudly, the Greek War of Independence started in 1821. We stood in the very square where Petros Pierrakos (his birth name), later known as Petros or Petrobey Mavromichalis, declared war on the Ottoman Empire which had ruled Greece since 1453. In addition to the historical significance of Aeropolis, the village has much natural beauty and traditional houses.


Petrobey, a Greek Hero,
in Aeropolis taken
by Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

Typical Aeropolis street, taken by
Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

Still life, Aeropolis, taken
by Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

A second Mani destination with fascinating history was Vathia with its breathtaking sea views, century-old towers standing proudly next to new models, and acres of carefully dug terraces by farmers of old.

Sea view from Vathia, taken by
Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

 Margarita explained that the towers were built not only to protect the residents of Vathia from attacks from foreigners but also from the onslaughts of feuding neighbors.

Towers and terraces of Vathia, taken by
Bert Schuster 9/9/2015

After a few days of sightseeing, it was time for some rest and relaxation. Margarita took us to her favorite beach and hotel in this part of the Mani, the Alkion Hotel/Apartments owned by Yannis Bechrakis.

Beach in front of Alkion
Hotel/Apartments, taken
by Bert Schuster 9/10/2015


What a paradise! After a day at the beach or visiting nearby scenic/historical attractions, you have only a short drive to Gythio with its choice of restaurants.

Our week in the Peloponnese with Margarita came to an end all too soon. We left her to finish her business in the Mani, and we took off to Napflio and then to the islands of Naxos, Santorini, and Rhodes. 

Two weeks later on our last day in Athens, Margarita had a surprise for us. She took us to her favorite hair salon which is located in the upscale Divani Caravel Hotel.


Hotel Divani Caravel, Dimitris Kamaras,
August 21, 2015, Vasileos Alexandrou
 st., Athens, Greece, Flickr.com.
 


Bert and I spent the next two hours in the hands of the talented staff of Yannis’ Salon:

Yannis -- the transformer of women, the man who makes music and miracles with his scissors.

Anna -- the lady with the colors and the styles right from the red carpet

Kostas -- the master barber who gave Bert the shave of his life

After this fabulous trip to Greece, I came away with a new awareness of  my Greek heritage and with a wonderful Greek friend.