Of Gods and Monsters in the Greek Ports of Itea and Zakinthos

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Guest Bloggers Adam McCulloch and Emma Sloley are married travel writers based in New York. Originally from Australia, they moved to the U.S. in 2004. They have traveled to over 60 countries and written for a wide range of publications, including Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, New York magazine, Gotham, Gourmet Traveller, Coastal Living, Reader’s Digest and Outside.  Adam and Emma are sending us stories and pictures daily from their 14-day voyage aboard Seabourn Odyssey between Rome and Venice. Come by and read their blogs often.   Day 8, May 5, Itea, Greece: Vapors of the Gods We could smell Itea before we could see it. All over town pungent wood fires sent plumes of fragrant smoke drifting along the waterfront. We were alighting in the middle of Greek Orthodox Easter, where lunch is celebrated by roasting whole lambs and drinking homemade wine. s1 Our mission was to reach the Sanctuary of Apollo, a legendarily dangerous journey that ancient pilgrims would surely have enjoyed a lot more if they’d had motor-coaches. We wended our way though Chryssa plains where six million olive trees were so gnarled with the centuries that they resembled an army of Ent tree-monsters from Lord of The Rings. We climbed through myriad hairpin bends and into the craggy hills dotted with (exceptionally relieved) goats who gamboled among spruce trees. s2 s3 s4 The temple at Delphi was situated on a god-like piece of real estate on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, with panoramic views. Alas, it was closed for Easter Sunday so we ventured on to our own Easter lunch, which was waiting at a taverna just up the road. The lamb was delicious, the fried cheese sublime and the wine -- presented in plastic jugs -- was, well, authentically home made.

s5 Eggs are ancient symbols of resurrection.

 

s6 Freshly-picked oranges in Itea.

 

For millennia people have known that bad wine beats bad water any day of the week, especially on Greek Easter. Throughout history, the Middle Ages especially, drinking water could be a death sentence, so people avoided it like the plague. (Which, not surprisingly, they also tried to avoid.) A brewed or fermented drink was safe to drink. Water, not so much. And the more important you were the less likely you’d risk drinking the water. And throughout the ages, we embraced that logic heartily. Medieval monks at the Passau Monastery in Bavaria, for instance, were only permitted to eat bread while fasting, but one clever monk figured that beer was basically liquid bread because it contained yeast, grain and water. The monks sent a barrel of beer to the capital and were given permission for eight liters of beer a day…per monk.  Explorer Captain Cook also had his priorities in order: on his journey to the ends of the earth he took enough drinking water for two weeks and enough beer-making supplies for six months. But we digress. Back in Itea, we learned that all the great leaders visited the Oracle, and here’s the fun part. She received her visions by standing on what we now know to be a volcanic vent spewing hallucinogenic vapors like ethylene while chewing laurel leaves, a narcotic. So the tipsy rulers were seeking advice from an Oracle stoned out of her olive tree. As we raised our glass of home made wine we soberly toasted Apollo who, among other things, was also known as the god of moderation. Cheers!

Poppies Poppies bloom all over the Mediterranean in May.

 

The United Nations of Bacon: Every morning during breakfast at the Colonnade, there are three types of bacon on offer – English, American and Canadian. The English one is on the far left: draw your own conclusions. s8  What the heck is that? Crossing the Ionian Sea we picked up a feathered hitchhiker, a little sparrow, who became comfortable enough with the pool deck that he perched on a guest’s lunch plate and stayed there until dessert.

Seabourn Odyssey departs Itea for Zakynthos.

 

Day 9 - May 6, Zakynthos, Greece: Of Men and Monsters 

Thank Zeus we made it to Zakynthos alive. According to Greek legend, the Mediterranean is full of fearsome sea-monsters, and local superstitions warn against all kinds of perils and dangers. As it turns out, there may be some truth to even the tallest of tales. In the ancient world adventurers turned to myth and legend to explain natural phenomena. Even our old friend Odysseus encountered many fantastical creatures we know today to be real. The Charybdis, for instance, was a monster churning the waters off of Sicily where we passed the other night. In all probability, the Charybdis was a whirlpool caused by the narrow strait between Italy’s boot and Sicily’s stone. The Cyclops Odysseus was supposed to have encountered was based on the skulls of dwarf elephants whose trunk cavity resembled a single eye socket.

Skulls at her feet suggest she shouldn't be messed with.

 

The further sailors ventured, the more unusual the creatures they encountered. Imagine coming across a 60-foot long oar fish in tropical waters: assuming that it was a fearsome sea serpent (as many did) seems less a wild exaggeration than a simple observation. A hydra, meanwhile, a multi-headed serpent of ancient fable, may well have been half a dozen oar fish feeding or breeding. Occasionally people have even mistaken each other for monsters. Theories abound about the real-life inspiration for Selkies – mythological creatures that appear in the folklore of several cultures, including Scotland, Iceland and Ireland, who are said to be the souls are drowned people. Some of our favorites: they were really a tribe of Japanese free-divers who used a sheath-like fin to gain extra depth, or fur-clad Finns traveling by kayak or shipwrecked Spaniards washed ashore whose wet black hair resembled seals. Maybe there really is a monster in all of us.

Monsters lurk beneath calm waters.

 

A Real life Sea Monster: Monk Fish A Real life Sea Monster: Monk Fish

 

Seabourn Odyssey in Zakynthos.

 

gb5 gb6 gb8gb7 Souvenir: The concept of the evil eye is close to universal: you’ll find versions of it in the Middle East, Asia and parts of Africa (even in Hawaii, where it’s known as maka pilau), and of course throughout the Mediterranean. Wandering the port of Zakynthos today, we saw the blue eye charm – thought to ward off the evil eye – everywhere we went. We’re not superstitious, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets …

Evil Eye

 

Crossing the Line: Call it an initiation, a ritual or a good old-fashioned hazing, but we’ve always been fascinated by navy superstitions. Sailors who have already crossed the equator are nicknamed “shellbacks” or “sons of Neptune,” while those who haven’t are “pollywogs,” and the initiation rites can range from light-hearted shenanigans like dressing in drag, kissing a fish and covering pollywogs in tomato sauce then throwing them in the pool, to more extreme rituals like being swatted with firehoses, crawling through garbage or being locked in the stocks and pelted with fruit. We’re told even crews on cruise ships celebrate such crossings – so keep an eye out for anyone with tomato sauce in their hair… Life of Pi: Here’s a character from another mythic voyage we spied in the port: a cartoon version of Richard Parker from the film Life of Pi. Somehow we’re less scared of this tiger – he looks positively kitten-like.

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