Uncovering Greece, Underwater and Underground
Story and photos by David Lee Drotar



The convoluted history of Greece gets another layer of complications when touring the islands amidst a refugee crisis on top of a financial crisis.


Greece travel

Try as I might, there was no escape. Above me, the azure blue sky and bewitching songs of the mythic Sirens had lured many a Greek sailor to his fateful death. Beneath me, the bubbling sea of a sheltered cove slapped against my flippers. But as I pushed my snorkeling mask into the turquoise water surrounding Alonissos Island, the oft-vengeful god of the sea, Poseidon grudgingly let me pass into the deep.

One of thousands of Greek islands, Alonissos lay in the Aegean Sea to the east of the mainland. Further to my east near the coast of Turkey, refugees from war-torn Syria poured onto the island of Lesbos trying to travel into Greece and other European points inland. As families split by circumstance sought a place of safety, I imagined the hero in Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey returning from war and traveling through these same waters to his home pillaged by squatters. What secrets would I find beneath its surface?

Alonissos island

The dive boat captain's burly assistant, aptly named Odysseus, pulled me back into the rocking vessel and we returned to port. Kissing me on each cheek, he wished me well and sent me on my journey. Over the next two weeks, the transitions out of the sunlight would always be as interesting, the discoveries sometimes startling.

To be fair, there were moments of pure bliss. The food and nectar of the gods was indeed sweet and I partook generously above ground. My friends and I indulged in octopus pie and wine from the indigenous grapes whose roots penetrated deep into the parched, calcium-rich soil.

What took Odysseus ten years on land and sea fighting pirates, storms, and one-eyed ogres, we accomplished the next day with a van and two high-speed ferry rides to the major island group known as the Cyclades. Reclining in air-conditioned comfort in the gold and black pinstriped upholstery and surfing the internet with my smartphone, I watched a pod of dolphins surfing the deep blue, translucent waves. Soothing xylophone notes played on the sound system before the safety announcement at each island's embarkation point along our route. But Aeolus, ruler of the winds, would send no fury today, just playfully pushing puffy clouds around the ridges of islands with clusters of whitewashed cubic houses at their base. The twinkling lights of Paros greeted us that evening and I rolled my carry-on over slabs of light gray marble through our small hotel's lobby.

In the morning, I went undercover again.



Prosperous Paros

The going was easy, but the story was difficult to digest. Settling into a comfortable patter with our island guide Eleni and driver Nicolas, we heard tales of invasion and conquest. From four centuries of Venetian occupation, to the pirate Barbarosa's brutal 1537 raid, to Ottoman rule. We all knew how it ended with the cash-strapped crisis of the present. Climbing between the towering wind-carved rock formations of Kolibithris beach, I stole peeks of yachts moored in the harbor. There was an unsettling feeling of opulence that belied the nation's financial condition.

Paros

Nicolas summed up the Greek frustration with the austerity measures. "These are multimillion-dollar yachts, but they don't pay any docking fees whatsoever."

Hiking over a wide path of meticulously laid marble cobbles and scrambling down a slope covered with scratchy brush, my further descent into time brought me to the shaft of an ancient quarry. I peered into its pitch-black mouth.

"This is the Cave of the Nymphs!" Eleni declared, probably for the thousandth time, but with as much enthusiasm as if we were on an archaeological dig and had just discovered it ourselves.

As my eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight, I could see why the site was so exceptional. Dating from approximately 350 B.C., there was a crumbling sculpture depicting beautiful maiden gods carved into the wall, most likely an attempt to honor and appease the deities.

Indeed, this ground was the source of the world's purest and most transparent white marble, termed "lychnites" from the Greek "lychnos" meaning lamp. I imagined the flickering lamps lighting the mine shafts as workers extracted huge chunks which would be carved or sold, ushering in an era of prosperity for Paros. Prominent sculptors of the time created numerous important works from the marble, including the Acropolis in Athens. On our island-hopping agenda, I looked forward to visiting Milos, which purchased Parian marble for the creation of the famed Aphrodite of Milos (better known as Venus de Milo) now residing in the Louvre Museum.

But first, Eleni would take us on a grape-stomping romp in a concrete vat at her dad's man-cave high on an olive tree-dotted hillside overlooking a Byzantine footpath.


Paros market

Underground with the Dead in Milos

We disembarked from the crowded ferry on Milos and parted ways with the young aid worker who had sat next to us. Our normally chatty group had fallen silent. The refugee stream from Syria was intensifying and the tales of her work on Lesbos were mesmerizing. The approaching winter ushered in a new urgency. The cold weather and stronger winds would make the crossings even more dangerous. In the midst of so much suffering and a nation in financial chaos, my travel writing work in Greece seemed irrelevant.

I couldn't shake these conflicted feelings on the way to a lavish dinner as our latest island guide, Gina drove the van along the flattened perimeter of a deep, bentonite mining site. The setting sun cast red and orange hues on the horizontal strips of exposed earth that matched the color of her flowing hair.

Geologically, the island was formed from volcanoes, Gina explained. Volcanic earth is relatively soft, making it easier to dig than other types of rocks, and the next day I went into its subterranean recesses. Standing in the dark catacomb, I understood why the early Christians worshipped here. It was not because the area was unknown to the Romans who persecuted the religion's followers. Foremost, these were graves and the Romans were spooked at the thought of going into a cemetery. This is the only place on Milos where they wouldn't go. The Christians met in the cramped underground galleries that held the corpses.

Milos




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