• Wednesday , 22 November 2017

Traipsing Through Antiquity

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The hydrofoil boat rocks gently in protest as I step off, having bounced its way here from Athens with myself and a small crowd of other tourists in tow. The port town of Egina stretches itself leisurely – coyly – around the marina, the sun reflecting off the brightly painted, low-level buildings. The front row is packed tightly with empty restaurants and cafés looking out across the water, the waiters watching the offloading passengers with interest.

The town is quiet – only a faint chatter of voices hangs in the air, carried on the breeze from a doorway somewhere down a distant side street, leading deeper into the tangle of buildings which rolls out onto the island from the sea.

It’s off-season, and the buses that run to the sites that I want to visit on the island are worryingly infrequent, making the prospect of becoming stranded in some distant corner of Aegina a very real concern. Opting instead to make my own way from place to place, I stumble across a man renting quad bikes, who insists that my lack of license would be no issue on the island.

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The journey south along the coastline is an endless succession of beautiful panoramas, made all the more potent as the racing wind envelops me in a bubble of white noise. On a number of occasions, I am forced to pull over solely to take in the beauty of the coastal landscape. The roads are empty, and sitting beside them on the rocks, the only sounds are the gentle lapping of the waves upon them, and the call of the sea birds as they sweep low over the shifting water.

My first destination brings me to the town of Perdika. My interest, however, is not in the village itself, but rather in the camera obscura which crowns the rocky promontory beyond it. This particular installation is notable as being the only one in the world which can boast a 360 degree panorama, and was installed as part of an exhibition in 2003.

Pulling up onto the brittle grass that commands vast stretches of the surrounding area, I find that I have arrived a little too late – the cylindrical wooden structure which acts as the camera obscura has been boarded shut at some point in the ensuing years, and access inside doesn’t appear to be a possibility.

Despite its dereliction, the structure still holds a strange weight as it stands alone – defiant – in the midst of the dramatic landscape. The rhythmic perforations in its façade, which serve to transmit the image of its surroundings to the interior, dutifully continue their watch – a silent sentinel at the edge of the world.

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Leaving the coast behind – somewhat reluctantly – I make my way inland through the mountainous terrain of the island’s core. Panoramic views quickly give way to undulating hills, rolling away into the distance, punctuated by small, simple houses perched on the slopes. As I follow the trail higher into the mountains, the foliage becomes dense and close, swaddling the road in a leafy veil. This withholding makes it all the more spectacular when the trees relent, and the road emerges into the bright, sunlit day – the entirety of the island stretching away into the hazy distance below. Bold green mounds fold upon one another in an endless ocean, falling away from my feet.

My next destination is the Monastery of Saint Nectarios, with its great cathedral, located in the heart of the island. When I arrive, the churchyard stands deserted, but there is some noise drifting over from the cathedral doors. Walking up the steps, past immaculately pruned shrubs and trees, I catch sight of a lone straggler disappearing into the darkness of the interior.

With a service seemingly underway, I sit down on the steps and examine the sun-drenched churchyard – the muffled sound of an organ falling out of the entrance behind my back, to land softly on the stone beside me. The air here is still – the minutes seeming to stretch on past their natural extents, while scattered clouds crawl by overhead.

It is growing late in the day, and the sun now perches on the higher branches of the trees, shrouding their profiles in a warm glow. I still have one location left to visit: The Temple of Aphaia, which sits on a tall outcrop overlooking the Eastern coast of the island.

The higher routes to the site leave the way more open, and the road to the temple enjoys sweeping views across the terrain. White-painted homes flash rich orange on the mountainsides – immoveable beacons in the landscape as it rushes past.

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Arriving at the temple, the difference between here and the tourist sites back in Athens is immediately apparent. There are no large crowds to file in through the entrance gates, no guards standing by with whistles; only a dusting of visitors and a small gift shop, where the woman behind the counter was reclined in her chair enjoying a worn paperback.

The temple itself is incredibly well preserved. It was dedicated to the goddess Aphaia, who was worshipped almost exclusively at this location. Despite the distance, this site holds an enduring connection to Athens, making up one of the points of the Holy Triangle of the Antiquity – along with the Acropolis, and the Temple of Poseidon in Sounio. And with the evening sun reflecting off its pediments and catching in the cracks of its columns, it seemed to glow from within – a beacon of power and divinity, and resilience in the face of time.

It is getting late now, and the boat home is unlikely to wait for me. My time meandering through the grounds would, unfortunately, have to draw to a close. As I reach the gate, I turn for one last look at the temple – the small trees dancing around it only accentuating the stolid monumentality of the ancient construction.

The breeze rises, and I allow myself to be carried away with it.

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