Gifts From Abroad: What To Bring Your Family When You Come Home

gifts from abroad
My wife and I travel a lot, sometimes together, sometimes separately. We both have careers that require us to travel and while it can be tough to be apart, at least we have the regular ritual of seeing what gifts from abroad are popping out of each other’s suitcases!

My wife just came back from an astronomy meeting in Tokyo and brought back this haul of loot. The Japanese are masters of packaging, whether they’re being stylish and traditional or garish and modern. I wonder what a supermarket full of this stuff must look like. The panda head cookies are especially good. I’ve always wanted a bag of decapitated pandas. The T-shirt is for her, because she knows I’m fond of her “especially cuteness.”

What I forgot to include in this photo were the three bottles of sake she brought back. While I’ve always had my sake warm, she tells me it’s often served cold in Tokyo and that regulars have their own monogrammed bottle reserved for them behind the bar!

When I came back from writing my travel series about Greece, I brought her and my son lots of olives since they both love them. I also brought back some honey from Sparta. My wife adores honey and it’s a good gift to bring from abroad because it tastes different in every region. Of all the honey I’ve brought her from far-flung places, she’s liked the Spartan honey the most.

You’ll notice that we mostly bring back consumables. A great way to share the experience of your trip is to share some of the tastes. Also, we live in a European apartment (read: small) and we have too much stuff anyway.

What gifts from abroad do you like to give or receive? Tell us in the comments section!

gifts from abroad

Mistra: a medieval ghost town in southern Greece

Mistra, GreeceOn a steep hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta in southwestern Greece stands the last capital of the Roman Empire.

In 395 AD, beset by enemies, the empire split into western and eastern halves. The Western Roman Empire was soon overwhelmed. The east flourished. Its capital was at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Known as the Byzantine Empire, it developed a distinctive style of art and architecture and protected the Greek Orthodox Church of its citizens.

Byzantium declined as civilizations always do, and suffered a serious blow during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusaders, who had originally set off to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, decided to capture Constantinople instead. With its capital gone, Byzantium shattered into three small states. Byzantine art and the Greek Orthodox Church survived.

The Crusaders built an imposing castle on the summit of a hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta, one of a number of fortresses to protect their new domains. That didn’t work. The Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured Constantinople and steadily pushed the Crusaders out of the lands they had conquered. The castle at Mistra was handed over to the Byzantines in 1262 and a fortified city gradually began to take shape around it. Mistra became the regional capital of the Morea, as the Peloponnese was then called.

The Palaeologian dynasty was the last to rule the Roman Empire. It was a time of political and economic decline, with the Turks pushing in from the east, the Venetians dominating trade, and numerous other enemies nibbling away at the borders. Morea was one of the last wealthy regions of Byzantium and despite the empire’s troubles witnessed a renaissance in art, learning, and culture.

Mistra is only seven kilometers outside of Sparta. It’s an easy walk but I was anxious to start my visit and so I took a taxi and decided I’d walk back through the olive groves. After a week of cloudy, cold weather, the sky had cleared and the air was cool and pleasant. The winding road up the hill is dominated by the massive town wall. Passing through the gate, I found myself walking along steep, narrow lanes between the remnants of homes, palaces, and churches. Several of these Orthodox houses of worship are still open.

These churches are deceptive. On the outside they are prettily made with patterned brick and a series of small domes and half domes around a large central dome. It’s inside that they show their true splendor. Frescoes cover the walls, domes, and pillars. Every available space is decorated with Biblical scenes and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, all painted in a rich but somber style.
Mistra, Greece

%Gallery-146699%Mistra isn’t entirely a ghost town. A small nunnery called the Pantanassa is a miniature town inside the larger one. Men are allowed in to see its medieval church. When I arrived, one of the sisters, garbed all in black, was sweeping the sun-bathed courtyard while several cats lounged nearby. It was a perfect photo that of course I was too respectful to take. The church was built in 1428 and its rich frescoes show what a cultural high point the Palaeologian Renaissance was. The ground-floor frescoes are from the 17th and 18th centuries and represent a continuation of the art and ideas that made Byzantium great.

Back outside, I wended my way through the maze of little streets and came to the summit and its Crusader castle. Climbing to the top of the tallest tower, I looked out and saw the Vale of Sparta lay spread out beneath me, with the ancient ruins and modern city both visible. Behind me rose the snow-capped Taygetus mountains.

Of all Mistra’s medieval buildings, the most evocative is the church of St. Demetrios. Some scholars theorize this church may have been the site for the coronation of Constantine XI Palaeologos in 1449, the last emperor of Byzantium, and therefore the last emperor of Rome. He had served as Despot of the Morea while his older brother was emperor and lived in the palace at Mistra. It’s easy to imagine him here, with the images of Christ, Mary, and the saints looking down at him through the dim candlelight light as the priests sang their Orthodox hymns.

It must have been a glorious coronation and a sad one. Fears of usurpation from his other brothers meant the ceremony had to be rushed, and done in this provincial capital rather than the glorious church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Even the crown showed Byzantium’s faded glory. The bankrupt Palaeologoi had long since hawked the crown jewels to the Venetians. Now the rightful heirs to the Roman Empire wore crowns of glass.

Besides the Morea and Constantinople, there was little left of Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were closing in and in 1453 they made their final assault on Constantinople. The siege was a grueling one and it took the Turks weeks to pound the thick city walls into rubble with their cannon. In the final assault, the Emperor Constantine fought alongside his men and fell with them. He could have escaped. He could have made a deal. Instead he died fighting so that sad shadow of the Roman Empire would go down in glory.

But still Rome did not die. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans spent time consolidating their position. Mistra survived until 1460 as the capital of the last free lands of Byzantium, and thus in a very real sense the last capital of the Roman Empire. Trebizond, a strip of territory on the south shore of the Black Sea, lasted another year, but that state had seceded from the empire before Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders and thus cannot be considered a part of it.

In the 15th century it was obvious to everyone that Byzantium’s days were numbered. Many Byzantine scholars and artists fled for safer havens. The favorite destination was Italy, where local rulers welcomed their learning and didn’t care much that they were Orthodox rather than Catholic.

These scholars brought with them books and a knowledge of Greek, Arabic, astronomy, history, philosophy, geography, and much more. They brought with them translations of the Classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome. Wealthy Italians, hungry for knowledge and for a model to inspire their own flowering culture, eagerly read these books and attended the lectures of Byzantine scholars. The influx of Byzantine learning was one of the major factors that led to the Italian Renaissance and the foundations of humanism and modern Western thought.

The torch had been passed.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

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Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!

New series: Our past in peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis

Greek tourism, Greek
This is a sculpture of a fallen Greek warrior from the temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina. Made in the 5th century BC, it’s an important example of Early Classical Greek art. This was a time when Greek artists began imitating life with realistic poses and expressions.

We owe so much to the ancient Greeks–our ideas of art, architecture, democracy, philosophy, theater, and a lot more. When Greece was conquered by the Romans three centuries after this sculpture was made, Greek culture actually flourished, finding new outlets in the receptive and expanding Roman Empire. Horace once said: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror). The suffering yet proud face on this fallen warrior reflects Greek history–cycles of tragedy and triumph.

Suffering yet proud. That’s the impression I get of Greece these days. An economy in shambles, general strikes, people being forced to give up their children. At the same time, an increasing number of Greeks are going back to the land and sea to revitalize the traditional cornerstones of the Greek economy. Meanwhile, Greeks from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest cutbacks that threaten their livelihood.

The cutbacks threaten our past too. Not the Greek past, our past, because Western civilization is based to a large extent on Greek civilization. Regular general strikes against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF mean that seeing the physical remains of our heritage has become a game of chance. A minister’s suggestion to lease the Acropolis and other ancient sites was treated with scorn one week, and approved the next. Three important paintings, including one by Picasso, were stolen from the Athens National Gallery because cutbacks had left only one guard on duty. And it can get far, far worse. Allowing Greece to fall would be like burning an attic full of family heirlooms and photo albums.

For the next week I’ll be in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation’s ability to conserve and restore our heritage? I’ll also be seeing, strikes permitting, some of the nation’s greatest monuments such as the Acropolis and Agora, as well as lesser-known treasures such as Mistra, briefly the capital of the Roman Empire, and the Crusader castle of Villehardouin.

Unfortunately, this sculpture will not be among them. It’s now the property of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. The same country whose banks currently own the second largest share of Greek national debt after France. The statue of the fallen Greek was taken by a German baron in 1811 when Greece was under the control of a different foreign power–the Ottoman Empire.

Next in the series: Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Running a Marathon from Marathon

New York wasn’t the only place with a big marathon going on yesterday. The “original” Marathonas to Athens marathon took place on Sunday. The 42.195km (that’s 26.2 miles) course traces an approximate, possible route of the legendary run of Greek soldier Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over Darius’s Persian army in 490 B.C.

Of course, since it’s ancient history, there’s disagreement over whether the run happened at all, let alone which of two (or more) routes the runner took (south along the coast, then around the mountains, or simply over the mountains). (Worse yet, Herodotus has him running 145+ miles to Sparta to ask for help in the battle, rather than to Athens afterwards.)

Depending on who retells the legend, the runner either said, “we won,” “masters, victory is ours,” or “victory!” Either way, he died immediately at the end of the run. (Athens’ triumph over the Persians was somewhat short-lived, as Darius’s son, Xerxes, came back ten years later and burned Athens to the ground, following the famous Spartan stand at Thermopylae, popularized in last year’s movie, “300.”) It also makes you wonder why people actually run marathons.

Anyway, probably the best part of the current official race is the fantastic finish into the ancient Panathinaiko stadium (pictured right), which got it’s beautiful, and famous, white marble around 329 B.C.

This year was a record turn-out of over 4,000 runners for the 25th anniversary of this exact course. And, I’m happy to report from the ground that all made it, joyous and victorious.