Monday, February 20, 2012

Oracles & Sibyls

Oracles & sibyls, those fascinating forecasters, were popular with ancient Greeks and Romans who wanted to learn their fates. I’m never quite clear on the difference between the two but my classical dictionary says that an oracle transmits the response of a god to a question asked by a worshipper. A sibyl was a female prophet who  didn't need a god to get involved in the process.

One of the most memorable days I ever spent immersed in the ancient world was a visit to Delphi, dedicated to Apollo and home of the Delphic Oracle, called Pythia, by tradition a local woman over age 50. The area was a center of worship before the first millennium BC and was still in operation in 385 AD when Emperor Theodosius abolished it. The site, not far from Athens, retains an aura of mystery because of the beauty of its surroundings and the evocative ruins of temples in the Sacred Precinct.  This most famous shrine to Apollo rests on Mount Parnassus’ steep slopes. The location was considered to be the center of the earth and was therefore sacred to the god as well as home to the muses, personifications of poetry, music and learning.

After wandering around the ruins filled with temples, a theatre, gymnasium, and a museum where the exquisite bronze statue of a charioteer stares solemnly into the distance with his glass eyes, I sat among the ruins in warm, hazy air gazing on endless silver-green olive groves punctuated with whorled cypress trees all sloping down the hills. The age of Apollo seemed to return and it was easy to visualize the streams of worshippers bringing gifts, watching plays and cheering athletic competitions. But perhaps I was only breathing the faint fumes still wafting in the breeze from a chasm where the oracle sat on a tripod speaking in Apollo’s name. It is said that she chewed on laurel leaves and breathed the fumes from the rotting corpse of a giant snake, the Python, for inspiration. More prosaically, the fumes are thought to be ethylene which is known to produce out of body experiences. Whatever the genesis of her trance she provided devotees with answers to religious, moral and political problems. Ever curious about the future, I asked what my fate would be. But there was no response to my entreaties.

* * *

Cumae, an ancient temple complex similar to Delphi but only a couple of hours south of Rome, was established by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC. Not much remains except the cave where the Cumaen Sibyl spun out her prophecies. She must have been a fearful sight if we can believe Michelangelo. Of the five sibyls depicted in the Sistine Chapel, she’s the ugly one, rendered with aged and masculine features and upper body and arms like those of a weightlifter. The sibyl was reputed to have shunned sex – thus Michelangelo painted her legs and feet primly poised together as she intently studies her book. Her fame rests on offering nine books of prophecies to an Etruscan king of Rome in the sixth century BC. He declined to buy them because of the cost. She burned three and offered the remainder to the king at the same price. He refused again whereupon she burnt three more. He gave in and purchased the last three at full original price. They were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome to be consulted in emergencies, not that in the end they did any good as both they and the Roman Empire were destroyed.

When she was “alive” she sat at the end of a 145 foot long trapezoidal tunnel cut through solid rock. The tunnel and the surrounding remains are located not far from the volcanic and sulfurous Phlegrean Fields as well as Lake Avernus, considered by the ancients to be an entrance to Hades.

Virgil described the sybil’s fearsome power: “Through the amplification of her hollow vaults, the sibyl cast her warnings, riddles confused with truth.” Despite her powers she came to a peculiar end. She asked Apollo to let her live as long as the number of grains of sand she held in her hand. Apollo granted her wish but because she forgot to ask for enduring youth she slowly withered away, ending up in a small jar. In the end only her voice was left, and that, too, is long gone thus preventing me from asking her any questions either.

The tunnel had a few openings for light cut into the cliff facing the sea. My husband and I stumbled along in the dimness. By the time we reached her cave at the end it was easy to think of the ancients quivering while awaiting some word on the future as she wrote their destiny in riddles confused with truth. The mood was unsettling and we didn’t linger, anxious to return to the emotionally cleansing sunlight.

When we emerged into the brilliance after one visit we were suddenly transported to a relic of the 18th   century. A funeral cortege was passing by. In the lead was an enormous ornately carved Baroque black wooden coach drawn by six black horses with black plumes on their bridles. The coach was glass sided with two gold and silver lanterns, each at least six feet tall, a gold railing across the glass and a gold cockle shell adorning each of the lower sides. The wheel spokes were as elaborately carved as the coach body. On top were two screened domes to dispel the odor of decay. A coffin heaped with flowers rested on a red velvet bier inside the coach. Incongruously, the driver and his helper sitting on the carved and painted high seat were wearing ordinary slacks and windbreakers. No bewigged footman in sight. A dozen cars followed the coach as it slowly made its way along the road. The cars were hung with funeral wreaths so big that they were nearly buried in flowers. Were they headed to the cemetery or to Lake Avernus and the underworld to see the deceased off on his journey to an unknown destiny?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Good food & Wine and Not Much Exercise

On our first trip to Oregon's Willamette Valley wine country some years ago we floated in a balloon high above the vineyards early on a sunny summer morning. This time around we were greeted by a watery winter sun when we arrived in Newberg for wine tasting with friends. In the morning we drove through the peaceful countryside with its rolling hills covered with sleeping vines and filbert orchards where each tree was hung with hundreds of chartreuse colored catkins, presaging spring. In between the orchards and vineyards the rural scene was embellished with alpacas and llamas grazing alongside sheep and goats in green pastures.

Our drive was just a short tour covering parts of three North Willamette Valley American Viticultural Areas: Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge and Dundee Hills, all famous for prize-winning Pinot Noirs. The Worden Hill Wine Trail in the Ribbon Ridge area was having an open house at all ten wineries – far too many to visit, especially before lunch. But we did stop at the venerable Aldesheim tasting room and at Black Walnut which has a gorgeous hilltop inn with expansive views over their vineyards and the misty Valley. The proprietor was busy getting a shipment of their Pinot Noirs to Germany ready to go. The luxurious inn would look at home in Tuscany – truly a place to celebrate a special event.

Lunch was at Recipe, an old home turned into a stylish bistro filled with voluble eaters and drinkers. Glenn had Croque Madame, rich with ham and Gruyere topped with an egg sunny side up. I tried the vinaigrette-dressed warm bitter greens dotted with thick-cut bacon pieces and chestnuts all topped with a slice of country bread also supporting a just-laid egg.  Of course, a glass of Pinot Noir from their extensive wine list accompanied our meal. 

Soon it was time for our first official  tasting. We started at Ferraro Cellars, owned by another friend, one who had visited us in Italy. In contrast to many of the other wineries in the area he concentrates on Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel made from grapes grown east of the Cascade mountains. A few sips encouraged us to buy a case of his Merlot to put aside in our own small cellar. The next stop was at Archery Summit, home to highly rated Pinot Noirs. Our tasting event was presented formally in their candle-lit cave filled with rows of huge oak barrels full of aging wines. Soon bottles of 2009 Premier Cuvee joined the others already in the car trunk.

Replete with enough tasting for the day we moved on to dinner in a delightful restaurant called SubTerra (because it is down a flight of steps between two tasting rooms). We lingered long over wild mushroom risotto and skillet roasted mussels in marinara sauce. Like much of the food served in the area the mussels were locally sourced, in this case fresh from Netarts Bay on the Oregon Coast. Our selections were listed as "small plates" but were almost more than we could eat. With bottles lined up along a ledge next to our table we were tempted into having just one more glass to make our day complete.

Winter is peaceful but our next trip will be at harvest time when the color of the vines and their fruit will brighten the scene.

Courtesy Wikipedia
Courtesy Wikipedia

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How Do I Pick a Hotel?

Margo and Briana from The Travel Belles have asked how their readers pick a hotel. The question is for this week's edition of  Across the Cafe Table. My answer required some thought when I realize that I have stayed in about every type of hotel found in a zillion sorts of ways. A few highlights and lowlights come rapidly to mind:

The "B&B" in Bodrum reserved for us by a "friend." Slavering Doberman tied up by the door and toilet in the yard. But another in Isparta, central Turkey, found by asking the locals who led us to the new hotel Brifing where we listened to a Stravinsky concert and watched the resident generals drive up in their flagged staff cars for a Rotary Club meeting.

The Serena in Zanzibar where we stayed with friends who had heard about it and the resort of Ras Kutani also recommended by old Africa hands.

The evocative Taybat Zeman in Petra, recommended by an Egyptian co-worker.

The lovely Villa Margarita on the Brenta Canal found in the French guide, Hotels de Charme.

The ghastly half-ruined castle in southern Italy where there was no heat in winter and the wind was so strong it blew the toilet roll in a stream of flapping paper out the broken bathroom window. That was in an English guide to Italian hotels. (Ditched the book)

The splendid Norfolk in Nairobi and the tiny hotel near Ankor Wat where for $15 a night you got CNN and the need for flea powder. Both courtesy of the UN.

Another UN pick: the beautiful and doomed Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince not long before it collapsed in the earthquake killing all within.

The delightful La Suite Villa on Martinique. I ran across it while searching sites about the island then checked it out on Trip Advisor. When I found the French loved it that sealed the deal.

The Best Western Hotel Amazonia in Cayenne, Guyana found by my travel agent when we were in extremis.

And the nicest of all: Le Hameau in St. Paul de Vence, recommended by a friend.

So...there is no best way. Take a chance and see what happens!