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Finding the Muse and More in Thiva

In the central plains of Boeotia, Greece, between Athens and the Corinthian Gulf I found the muse in Thiva – or Thebes as the Greeks know it. From a family who makes “holy bread” to the stomping grounds of Hercules and Jason and his Argonauts, from a feast with the Greeks to afternoon coffee with the priest at a 16th century monastery, then walking the marble floors at the third incarnation of an archaeological museum that started in military barracks. Who wouldn’t be inspired?

Soon after arriving in Thiva, we met father-son team Spiros and Vasilis Kaskaveliotis who have been baking pastries and their specialty bread for churches since 1991 -- 9,000 loaves a year to be exact -- in their modest facility.

Round golden loaves the size of a dinner plate come out from the oven, are stamped with a special symbol, then tenderly sliced and packaged for priests who offer the bread to parishioners after church service. We received our own bagged samplings of the mildly flavored bread made with anise from Syria and Turkey and found its taste to be a lot like lovely brioche.

The Kaskaveliotises are also pasta makers. In another part of the shop we watched as preservative-free dough was transformed into splendid flat strands, then placed in a cabinet of drying drawers. The Kaskaveliotis pastas are sold all around Thiva and Greece, and England is one of their few international markets. Watching fresh fettuccini dangling from the press tested my temptation to snatch a tasting!

Thiva has certainly had its share of history having been continuously inhabited for, give or take, 5,000 years. It was a powerful city-state during Greece’s Golden Age along with Athens and Corinth and during the 4th century BCE it was the most powerful city in Greece. Today, Thiva is the largest city in the Boeotia regional unit with a population of almost 37,000 inhabitants.

And had it not been for major victories during the Persian and Peloponnesian wars -- and many battles in between that decided the fate of western civilization -- we may not know democracy, Classical literature, theater, architecture, or spinach pies.

Ripe for cultivating crops, the region today thrives with agriculture – cotton (it was fall harvest), melons, olives, and wheat. Onions, potatoes and carrots are also cultivated and exported.

And we can thank Cadmus, the first king of Thiva, for founding the birthplace of mythological gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines.

“We are in the land of Hercules. He was born in Thebes,” said our Greek guide Panagis Germenis. And in the port village of Aliki where we tramped around castle ruins, we learned that it was here that Jason and his Argonauts departed on their expedition to find the Golden Fleece. Hercules known for his strength and endurance was recruited for Jason’s dream team; and the goddess Athena joined the cause by calling on the great craftsman Argo to build Jason’s ship.

While in Aliki we refueled with lunch at a fish tavern on the Corinthian coast before continuing our modern-day expedition in Thiva.

Joined by welcoming representatives from the Thiva municipality, we broke bread family-style with dishes that poured out from the kitchen – Greek salad, grilled calamari, Atherina (small fish), and slices of fresh feta cheese. And when two gorgeously grilled whole tsipoura graced our end of the long table, my Greek table mate, Dinos, pointed to the Corinthian Gulf and said in thoughtful English, “We caught it last night!”

In our digital age, smartphones are great tools for bringing cultures together. As we savored every morsel on our plates, Dinos brought out his cell phone to better explain a local festival in Thiva. Through a selfie he had taken, I delighted in seeing a colorful outdoor procession of young men and women in beautiful traditional costumes celebrating Greek Halloween.

We then drove to higher ground to visit Panagia Makariotisa, a 12th century Christian monastery where we met Father Theodosious. By this time, after roaming the southern and northern coasts of the Corinthian Gulf, we had seen a handful of the region’s countless monasteries learning that no two are the same.

During different periods of destruction -- the Ottoman-Turkish invasion and bombings by the Nazis during World War II – the monastery managed to survive thanks to the efforts of monks determined to bring it back to life.

Father Theodosious led us to the monastery’s ancient gate and the uneven cobbled path that my clogs carefully navigated as we followed Father until we reached a lovely room that had been set up for us to relax while enjoying Greek coffee as well as pastries, yogurt, rice pudding and chocolate milk – made by the monks.

And before we left the monastery, Father gave us a humble blessing.

Then, I walked quietly through the sanctuary’s modest “gift shop” and selected a few items for purchase. Lo and behold, who was there to ring me up? Father Theodosious.

With time for one more Greek wine tasting, we headed for nearby Thivaiki Gi Winery and Vineyards where we met producer Panos Katrisiosis and winemaker Yiannis Flerianos who studied oenology at the California University at Davis. Following his informative introduction to the winemaking process, we enjoyed exquisite tastings of varietal wines and blends from both Greek and international varieties. Distribution of its wines to different parts of the world – Australia, United States, Germany, and Dubai -- is a sure indicator that Greek wines have arrived on the international stage.

The “centerpiece” of Thiva was saved for our last day – the new Archaeological Museum of Thebes that had just opened a few months before.

If only all museum guides could be like Popi Georgopoulou who explained the archaeological exhibits like a passionate storyteller.

After all, the museologist-historian-anthropologist was involved in designing Greece’s “newest” museum – a state-of-the-art makeover since it first opened its doors as an official museum in 1905, inspired by the growing collection of antiquities that had been warehoused inside barracks next to a medieval tower.

The museum represents the complete timeline of Greek history from the Bronze Age until the 1830s when the modern state of Greece was established as well as the archaeological findings from throughout Boeotia – one of the richest regions of ancient Greece.

“The importance of an exhibit is not just its beauty,” Georgopoulou shared. “…Even a humble thing can be very important.” Then she pointed to tiny clay vases sitting in old crumpled newspapers. “These German newspapers were used to wrap, hide, and protect items during World War II.” They were found during arduous excavations. And many more still take place today – such as the ongoing excavation underneath the museum that we viewed through transparent flooring.

Outside in the courtyard we walked to a row of nine clay bases -- the Sanctuary of the Muses, the sister goddesses who inspired mortals and were protectors of the arts and sciences. It is said that the Muses were the most esteemed of all the Olympic deities.

We wondered why only the bases were on exhibit and not the Muses.

“Museum” comes from the word muse, said Georgopoulou. “And houses were made for the Muses,” she continued. Those houses – or museums – are found all over the world.

I really did find the Muse, and then some, in Thiva.



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