WAY UP NORTH: VERIA & KOZANI, CORFU AND METEORA
This was the week that we split from Athens and headed out into Greece. Like New York City, I imagined Athens to be the most and least typical part of Greece. The Greek mountains are everywhere, the coast is rugged and the country is beautiful. It reminded me of parts of southern California – with ancient ruins.
After a 5 ½ hour drive on an excellent Greek highway (lots of tolls!) we arrived at the delightful town of Veria. It is in the heart of the Macedonian empire and near the birthplace of Alexander the Great (yeah, that guy). Veria’s old Jewish quarter (the Germans wiped out most of Greece’s Jewish population during WWII) is fascinating and right near the fabulous Veria Public Library. Ellen scored big-time by booking us for three nights at the Agroktima Kapsali. It was a challenge to find it as the light was fading, what signs we saw were all in Greek, and it was half an hour drive out of town into the mountains. But when we finally got there we felt like we had landed in paradise. After the Manhattan-like density of Athens we had arrived at a Greek farm! The mountain lodge is a family run business that was built by hand by the father and run by the mother and daughter. The food was mostly from what they grew and was delicious.
The Veria Public Library is considered one of the best in Greece. It received a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant and seemed filled with state-of-the-art everything. The head of the library took us on a long tour of the library and then took us out to a long lunch. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of time to photograph. I finished just before I gave my lecture at the Veria Tech Lab in the library. I am always amazed when I get a large audience for my talks on American public libraries. It turned out this audience was a very interested local photo club that has also done some great work of their own.
After a full day in Veria I couldn’t imagine that Kozani could be as interesting. How wrong I was! The small town of Kozani has a massive new library (two weeks old!). As the Veria Library was compact and cozy, the Kozani Library was large, sleek and beautiful. Everything smelled new. The most unique experience was in the archive with the smell of old books mixing with the smell of the building.
Both towns are on the edge of beautiful mountains and are connected by an unbelievable highway and massive series of tunnels funded by the European Union. Billions of Euros must have been spent over many years to build this world-class engineering marvel. The politics of this must have been mind-boggling. I have never seen anything like it on this scale.
The next day we took this same amazing road through huge mountains for 4 hours eventually arriving at the Ionian Sea on Greece’s northwest coast. We hopped on a ferry with no time to spare and headed to the enchanted Island of Corfu. This is one of the few parts of Greece that wasn’t conquered by the Ottoman Turks and, as a result, feels very unique. It does seem that it was invaded by everyone else including the Venetians and British. Now it has been invaded again by massive amounts of tourists and cruise ships. The smell of burning white skin was everywhere as lobster-red northern Europeans and Russians in sunglasses and shorts shopped for tee shirts and Gucci everything. The saving grace was Corfu Town itself. It looks like Venice and was built, in part by Venetians. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was worth wading through the tourist scene just to experience it.
The Public Central and Historic Library of Corfu was amazing. It is one of the oldest public libraries in Greece and was housed in an old British barracks in an old Fortress. Like much of Greece’s long, tragic history the original library and all of its contents were completely destroyed by German bombers during WWII. The librarian gave us a PowerPoint slide show about the library in Greek with an English translation. We then walked through the crowds to our next destination of the old Corfu Reading Society. It was established in 1836 and is housed in a charming old mansion near the sea. It is the oldest cultural institution in northern Greece and seems like out of another world from long ago. We spent the rest of the day in Corfu Town. After the heat of the day was over we strolled back to the old Fort, watched the sun set, had a beer in a café by the wine-dark sea, wandered through the old town again, had dinner and then collapsed back in our room, utterly exhausted and full of great experiences.
The next day we took the ferry back to the mainland and drove again through the extraordinary Pindos Mountains to an incredible little place called Meteora. The name comes from the same root work in Greek as meteor which means “suspended in air.” When you see the many monasteries perched atop impossibly tall rock columns you can understand why. They were built there as far back as the 11th century to protect the monks from the invading Ottoman Turks. Some are still used today as monasteries. Some still have remnant ladders that were pulled up at night for protection. Magical is a word that just hints at the special power of this place. At night I photographed the local public library against the lights on the cliffs. Meteora is the second-most popular tourist attraction in Greece after the Acropolis. But it didn’t feel like the craziness of Corfu because it is so spread out and there are no cruise ships here.
We drove back to Athens on Sunday with what we thought would be a little side trip to a library in Fásala. This was one of our son Walker’s picks from his internet research. It is a library shaped like a tall, thin castle in a small farming town in the middle of Greek farm country. Strange but true. Hours later after we dropped our car off we walked through the now, somewhat-familiar streets of Athens. We strolled by the Sanctuary of the Olympian Zeus at sunset and we once again fell in love this sublime, crazy and fascinating city.