Thessaloniki to Attica – the quick way

I drove back to Thessaloniki airport and turned in my pretty little Clio. It was only around lunch time and my ticket to Athens was for 3:30, so I went to the Aegean Airlines service counter to see if I could change it for an earlier flight. There wasn’t one, so I looked around to see what I could do to fill in my time.

I spotted a much enlarged replica of one of the ivory heads of Alexander that adorn the supper couch that was found in Philip II’s tomb. Alongside it was engraved the oath that Alexander took with 9,000 of his officers, Greek and Persian. The oath begins, “It is my wish, now that wars are coming to an end, that you should all be happy in peace. From now on, let all mortals live as one people, in fellowship, for the good of all. See the whole world as your homeland, with laws common to all, where the best will govern, regardless of their race.” An airport, a modern crossroads for people from all over the world, was an appropriate place, I thought.

When I checked my bag through, the attendant told me that I was travelling alone, she had a special offer for me. The flight was fully booked, so she could offer me one hundred and twenty-five euros cash, and a discounted flight anywhere in the next twelve months if I’d accept going on the next flight at 5:30! I must admit, I considered it for a few seconds, but I wouldn’t get to Athens till 7:30pm and I had a car booked and a hotel in Mati on the coast. I’d also exhausted things to do in Thessaloniki airport and didn’t want to spend another two hours there. I turned the offer down.

I didn’t really get it though. What’s wrong with fully booked? I’ve heard that airlines deliberately overbook, to cover themselves against empty seats. Maybe it’s true. I wondered on the plane if anyone had taken up the offer – maybe some lucky backpacker.

I picked up my car at Athens airport – a bright red Leon hatchback – and drove to Mati. My hotel was in a quiet tree-lined avenue, and I found a parking spot nice and close. A nice easy finish for a long day.

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Dion and further on

As Vergina was the traditional burial place of the Macedonian kings, Dion was the traditional place of worship and sacrifice when they were celebrating victories, or asking for big favours like a successful invasion of Asia.

Alexander made splendid sacrifices to Zeus the Olympian Father, the aspect of Zeus most often worshipped at Dion, possibly at this massive altar,

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which also had behind it three rows of eleven stone blocks equipped with iron rings for securing the sacrificial animals. Later, Alexander had bronze statues of the twenty-five cavalry companions who fell at the battle of Granikos in 334BC erected in the sanctuary. They so impressed Metellus after he won the fourth Macedonic War in 146BC that he took them to back to Rome with him.

Zeus must have been pleased with Alexander’s sacrifices, as well as with the accompanying artistic and athletic contests that he held in Zeus’ honour, because in the thirteen or so years that Alexander was in Asia, he never lost a battle.

I’ve heard people say that Alexander was a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This ignores the preceding history between Greece and Asia, the legacy left to him by his father Philip II and the mores of the time. There’s plenty of information about the first two, for those who are interested in following the above links, and further. As for the mores of the time, the question was not whether or not a king made war, it was a question of how he made it. Alexander certainly conquered cities who resisted and punished those such as Tyre, which murdered his heralds and used the barbaric weapon of boiling sand tipped from the battlements.

Bernard Cornwell in the Sharpe novels frequently comments on the ferocity of soldiers who eventually take a city they’ve besieged, a reaction to the horrors they endure in taking it. Shakespeare describes it too, in Henry V’s speech to the governor of Harfleur.

“Therefore, you men of Harfleur, take pity of your town and of your people, whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; … if not, why, in a moment look to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls; your naked infants spitted upon pikes …”

“will you yield, and this avoid, or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?”

Alexander preferred if possible to win cities by his twin reputations for being unconquered in battle and his mercy when unopposed.

But back to Dion!

It’s an enormous site. As well as the sanctuary of Zeus Olympios, there was a sanctuary to Zeus Hypsystos (“the highest” – another aspect of Zeus),

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and sanctuaries to various gods, including Aesklepios, Demeter (where I noticed an ear of corn growing!), the Muses, Isis (yes, the Egyptian goddess), Aphrodite, and Dionysus. There may be more. There were two theatres, the largest, the Hellenic which has modern seating in it now for performances, and a smaller Roman one. There’s also a stadium. The town itself is a large one, with a seemingly endless main street.

DSC07085A statue of Hera was found in 2006, built into the extensive defensive city walls by the early Christians as fill!

There’s a public baths complex, with loads of mosaic floors. The Romans in particular used the public baths as a social meeting place. They even built an odeion as part of the baths complex for musical and other small performances. The hypocaust has been exposed and is being reconstructed,

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and the extensive underground drainage and sewer system can be seen in places. Courtesy of Hadrian, there are even public toilets.

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After the site, the museum was a little disappointing, although I think all the good finds are probably in Thessaloniki and Athens.

I left Dion, heading back past Thessaloniki to Halkidiki. I had intended to go to ancient Olynthos as the last stop on my tour of ancient northern sites before flying back down to Attica, and had booked two nights in a guesthouse outside Polygyros. As I drove up the narrow stony track to the guesthouse, I was hoping that it had a restaurant because it seemed pretty remote, and being directionally challenged as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t trust myself to get back from the town in the dark.

There was no restaurant. The hostess, who had little English, suggested, “Delivery? Souvlaki? Big!” and nodded encouragingly while measuring between her hands the size of said souvlaki. I was hungry, but not for Nia Vardalos’ “meat on a stick”. She took me to talk to another guest, who was reading on the veranda. She spoke to the guest, who turned to me and laughed, “I have to translate.”

After a little three-way conversation, the guest, whom I’ll call E, asked, “Why do you want take-away when you could go out somewhere nice?” I replied that I didn’t really; I’d much rather go out somewhere. E asked if I’d like to go with her. So we made plans to leave in half an hour and thus began a really enjoyable evening with an intelligent, funny and apparently, as I found when she tried driving back to the guesthouse, similarly directionally challenged woman as I am.

With a combination of directions from local gents, none of whom objected to being hailed and asked for help by E, who is very vivacious and attractive – certainly our waiter thought so – and a more reliable source, the GPS, we made it back and arranged to meet next morning for a jaunt to some little villages in the hills. I had already decided against visiting Olynthos. I needed a rest.

In the morning, I was even less inclined to do anything more strenuous than sit on my balcony and listen to the goat bells, a sound that I’ve loved since being woken by it in Delphi in 2007, so we chatted over breakfast, and for the rest of the morning, along with our hostess. At one point I caught the word “Avstra-leea” in the Greek conversation, and E turned to me laughing. “Vaso [our hostess] is an expert in astrology, and wants to know your star sign.” I replied that it was Cancer. This was duly relayed, and further discussed animatedly, and E turned back to me. “Do you know what time of day you were born? Vaso thinks there is another sign that influences you.” “Like an ascendant sign? 4:30 in the afternoon.” Another animated discussion, and Vaso nodding at me wisely.

E, trying to suppress laughter, said to me, “We have decided – unanimously! – that you have an ascendant Sagittarius.” E, a civil engineer, logical and incisive, who mentally calculated the exchange rate of my airfare into Euros in seconds, believes in astrology about as much as I do. She was splitting her sides as she translated. “Vaso says a Cancerian couldn’t possibly travel all the way from Australia alone. You must have an ascendant Sagittarius, and it also explains your archery!”

E had to return to Thessaloniki that day, so we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. After taking it easy all day, I ventured out alone that evening to find a taverna in Polygyros for dinner and found my way back to the guesthouse afterwards. Without the GPS.

Filoxenia and filoto

After my great day at Vergina I left my hotel outside Halkidona, heading southish toward Dion, my next ancient site. For a change of scene, I’d decided to stay at the seaside town of Olympiaki Akti, which is a little way from Dion. I made good time and was there mid-afternoon. I had to stop a couple of times to take photos as I came in sight of Mount Olympos.

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It’s no wonder the ancient Greeks thought it was the home of the gods. The surrounding land is pretty flat and the mountain seems to rise up from nowhere. It looks more a mountain range than a mountain. There are 52 peaks, up to 2,917 metres high. That’s Mitikas, called Pantheon in the old days, because it was the meeting place of all the gods. Their palaces were in the ravines, or as Homer called them, the creases of Olympos.

Dion is at the foot of Olympos and was a site sacred to Zeus, for whom the town is named. Dion means “of Zeus” which is Dias in ancient Greek. The “d” in Dion and the “Z” in Zeus both pronounced,  “th” as in “they”. This was told to me by my landlord. He couldn’t quite get my name, so I said, “Diane, you know, like Artemis.” So he called me Artemis from then on. We talked about mythology, and ancient history, especially in regard to where I’d been so far and where I was going, and about politics. I asked who he thought would win the Greek election. He wasn’t sure, which was probably a good call. When I asked him what he thought of Alexis Tsipras, he said, “First, he was good, but then …” and with a wry expression, he picked up his key ring and turned it over, and then back again, an eloquent illustration of a back-flip.

Poor Tsipras. He’s been in office for seven months, and people expect him to have already fixed the problems that have accumulated under a government that’s been in power for forty years. The problem that my landlord saw however, and that most people see, is that Tsipras was elected on the platform of “no austerity measures”, which makes sense, because the austerity measures are crippling the economy, not to mention the people. Unfortunately, I think Tsipras wasn’t tough enough to stand alone against the “Troika” – the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I think Yannis Varoufakis was, but the Troika refused to negotiate with Greece while he was the Finance Minister, so he resigned his post.

How is that democratic? How can a union of other countries and banks have the power to decide what Greek finance minister they’ll work with? It flabbergasts me. They couldn’t win an argument with him so they told him to take his bat and ball and go home, and send someone nicer.

Unfortunately that was the beginning of a rift between Varoufakis and Tsipras, so they’re no longer working together. Unfortunate because I think they had the beginnings of a good team. I asked my landlord what he thought of Varoufakis. He replied, “He rock star. He want everybody look at him.” So, not everyone is as impressed with him as I am. Fair enough too as I don’t live in Greece, I’m not Greek (even though I’d like to be) and I don’t live with the politics daily. In my defence, at least I’m interested.

The landlord told me that they will have an election on 20 September.  I told him that I knew, and that I will be in Athens on that day. I’m looking forward to it. We chatted for about forty minutes then he said he was going to make some food for himself, and would I like some. I agreed because hospitality is important to Greek people and I felt honoured. He made filoto, which he explained was a traditional dish, very simple, made with whatever you had to hand. It often has spinach but he was just using feta.

He browned a thin circle of flaky bread, like cooked filo pastry, called perek, in a wad of butter, then crumbled a thick slice of feta onto it, turned it onto a plate, browned another perek in another wad of butter, and turned it onto the previous one covering the cheese, then browned both sides a bit more in more butter. My arteries were trying to crawl into a hole, but I had to be polite, didn’t I?

A couple of wedges of lemon squeezed over and we were set. It was delicious. We chatted more as we ate, about our children, and then of course it came round to our partners, or in my case, that I don’t have one. He, it turned out, was divorced. By the time we finished eating it was beginning to feel like foreplay, so I thanked him profusely for the meal, excused myself as graciously and speedily as possible, and retreated to my room. I didn’t emerge till 8pm. Still full from the filoto I sneaked out and bought some grapes for supper, found a cafe that made me a cup of tea to take away, and returned to my room. Great wifi in that room.

Down-hearted in Pella

After Amphipoli I made for Pella, the birthplace of Alexander, and to me, the equivalent of sacred ground. The GPS told me I’d arrived at my destination, and it wasn’t long before I saw something that left me in no doubt.

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The statue was similar to the enormous one one on the Thessaloniki waterfront, but much smaller. Just right for a square in a small town, in fact. Instead of holding a sword, Alexander holds a winged Nike, or Victory, on his outstretched hand.

A little while later, I was in the Pella Museum, reading that while Pella is an inland town, it wasn’t always. In the sixth millennium BC, it was on the coast. Since then, the silt deposited by the rivers has filled part of the Thermaic Gulf, leaving Pella now at the apex of a large triangular agricultural plain, twenty-three kilometres from the sea.

The Museum is a lovely building, but I didn’t find any treasures relating to Alexander. There were a couple of impressive mosaics, one of a lion hunt,

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and one of Dionysius riding a leopard.

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These are both photos for the museum. The real mosaics are on site, protected by roofs, but very dusty. An interesting one is of a female centaur, a fairly rare representation in ancient art, and probably in modern art too I’d imagine. It was from a banqueting hall floor, about 300BC.

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There was a poignant little pile of gold threads that had been sewn into grave clothing. After the cloth had long since disappeared, the gold thread it had been stitched with was left, along with the gold jewellery and pieces of gold foil used to decorate the clothes and armour.

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After leaving the museum, I walked the site, which is enormous, as one would think of a royal city inhabited over hundreds of years. There’s been a lot of restoration done, especially with the use of concrete blocks, unfortunately to my mind, delineating the perimeter of the agora.

The excavated palace, which was closed for conservation work, was built after Philip’s and Alexander’s day, and destroyed by the Romans, then by hundreds of years of the local population, using it as a ready made quarry, so I was left still wondering where Alexander had lived. Where was the magnificent palace that Archelaos built when he moved the administrative capital to Pella from Aigai? So far I haven’t found out.

I know Alexander spent most of the first twenty years of his life in Pella, but he’s long gone, ever since he left for Asia at the age of twenty-one, never to return.

Disheartened but hungry, I went for dinner at a taverna in the little town of Halkidona near my hotel. There were no customers, and the lady came out to point at the menu as soon as she saw me. I sat down and ordered grilled chicken. I should have known better. Small town, deserted taverna. Where was she going to get chicken breast except from the freezer?

It arrived too quickly. It was hard to cut, and I looked inside. It was semi raw. I picked at a couple of chips that I didn’t think had been contaminated, and ate some bread, and that was all. Well, she wasn’t happy. “Problem?” she asked, and called over her son to help translate. I didn’t have the heart to tell her, because she looked so hurt, so I made a show of explaining it was so big, and I was full. I paid and left, feeling a complete wuss.

Still hungry, I looked for another taverna that she wouldn’t see me in, but they were all located around the plateia as usual. I could feel her watching me, so I went across the road to a cafe, and got a take-away tea, then to the bakery next to it to console myself with baklava. Two pieces, which I took back to my hotel to enjoy while I worried about salmonella.

Driving on the right to Philippi

I’d booked a rental car to spend a week touring the major archaeological sites in Macedonia, and took a taxi to the airport to collect it. The rental was with Sixt. The office staff were lovely and their shuttle took me to the pick up point. The beautiful little BMW hatchback was brought to me and the attendant, doing the shuttle drives and the pick-ups and returns all on his own, began hurriedly to go through the start-stop instructions, when I suddenly realised he was stepping on a clutch!

Now, I drove a manual car for twenty years, but that was twenty years ago, and I’m from Australia, where we drive on the left side of the road, and our cars are right hand drive. I began to panic. “But I ordered an automatic!” I blurted! The attendant ordered, “Wait in the shade madam. I have no time to deal with this now,” and left in the shuttle again.

I thought, “Oh bugger, I’m a problem. I’ll be lucky to get out of here by dark.” It was about 12:30pm. I began to worry. Did I order an automatic? I’d been flicking in and out of web pages, and I’d been tired, doing the booking late on my last night before leaving Australia. I checked booking record on my phone. I’d ordered a manual car! Would I have to accept it or or would I have to go without? What would I do instead? In this mode my panic escalated as I sat, trying to stay calm.

The attendant returned with a different car. “Madam,” he snapped, “Here is your car – automatic.” I jumped up, thanking him and apologising for my stupid mistake. “It’s not my problem madam; it’s not my car!” I was very embarrassed, and mumbling apologies, in which he was not in the least interested, I got into the car and out of his way as quickly as possible!

Nevertheless, I was so grateful that the company had fixed my mistake.

The car was a neat little Renault Clio. It was a few days later that I realised that the mythological muse of history was called Clio. I don’t believe in omens and “signs”, but this is Greece ….

Using my phone as a GPS, I set off and reached Philippi within a couple of hours, and in plenty of time to look at the site and the museum. The island of Thasos had established a colony called Krenides, and when the colonists had trouble with the native Thracians, asked Philip II of Macedon for help. He helped, and noting the strategic, agricultural and resource value of the area, took over the colony and reestablished it as a Macedonian city. It was later a Roman city, supported by the Via Egnatia, which passed through it, and the site of the battle at which Mark Antony and Octavian, later Augustus, defeated Brutus and Crassus. Later again, in the first century AD, it was the first place in Europe a Christian church was established.

Needless to say, with that much history, it’s a great site.

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It has a theatre begun in Philip’s time for traditional drama, poetry and musical performances, and redeveloped during Roman times to provide for more spectacular entertainment, often involving involving wild animals. There’s also a forum and an agora, and as well as remains of temples and administrative buildings, a couple of basilicas.

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The museum had a few good artefacts, but was mostly information boards which I photographed for all the detail. I left thinking about the rows of sorted and numbered bits of masonry, and the parts of the site where remains of buildings lay in disorder. There is years of work still to do to fully excavate, examine, interpret and conserve the site before the full extent and history of Philippi, especially pre-Roman, will be known, and I don’t see how Greece can do it in the current circumstances.

On the other hand, it’s waited 2,000 years. It can wait a bit longer. I got into the car, turning on the blessed air-conditioning, and used my phone to book a hotel at the nearby village of Krinides. Gotta love technology!

Upper town to waterfront

After two days of walking around Thessaloniki, during which I clocked up twenty-three kilometres, I asked the receptionist if it was too far to walk to the Castles, the old upper town. She said yes, especially as it was all up hill. I opted for a taxi. I was glad I did. It was over three kilometres. The young taxi driver didn’t have much English and as I don’t have anything like enough Greek, I had some difficulty letting him know where I wanted to go, but eventually we were on the way. Very close to the top of the town we passed a fenced archaeological site. Of course I wanted to know what it was. He replied, “Is old … ah … old … is ah … old … I don’t know.” Not everyone shares my interests.

He dropped me off at “the view” as he called it, and I found that, while there  was a tower with a platform in front of it from which to view the city and beyond, there was another half kilometre at least to walk up to the castle. There were impressive defensive walls enclosing the upper town, and longer walls that went around the city.

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When I reached the castle, properly called the Heptapyrgion, or seven towers, I was not even surprised to see a sign on the door that said “The monument is closed this weekend for urgent restoration works.” I walked all round the outside anyway, enjoying myself immensely as I always do when pottering around old buildings.

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Out the back there were a few probably Roman columns and other bits and pieces laid out in what looked like some kind of order for future work. After coming back down to “the view”, I mounted the tower and looked for a good while. It was a great view of the city, the city walls dog-legging down the hill out of sight among the buildings, and the Thermaikos Gulf.

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After a cup of tea at the adjacent cafe, I took another taxi back down to the waterfront, and walked in the park where stands the modern statue of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s father, a brilliant leader, general and diplomat in his own right. I like the statue but my photos make it look squat, so I’ll just include the close-up of his face. It shows the wound that cost him his right eye, one of the wounds by which his remains were identified.

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First the father, now for the son. I looked for the statue of Alexander, and found it right on the waterfront. It too is modern, and I had been prepared to find both it and that of Philip disappointing, but I loved it. It’s on a raised white marble dais, decorated with eight full-size Macedonian shields each paired with one of the famous seventeen foot long sarissas, and has a frieze depicting a battle at one end. The statue itself then sits atop a black marble block. It makes a beautiful tableau.

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Alexander sits astride his horse, probably Bucephalus, and holds a sword in his right hand.

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After hanging around vainly hoping he would come to life, I made my way to the White Tower, over thirty-three metres tall and the most recognised landmark of Thessaloniki. I was given an audio guide to help me through the museum, but it spoke in such a horrible voice and strident American accent that after listening to the story for the first exhibit, I could bear to listen to it any more, and did it the old way, looking at the pictures and reading the signage. I’d already read some of the history of the Tower, and climbed up, level by level. The shallow stair-case spirals around inside the outer wall, each level having a large round central room, some adjoining small rooms and a couple of arched window openings. They were barred.

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As I climbed the stairs, I found myself becoming first slightly, then more edgy with each level. I was imagining how it must have been for the prisoners here, and the terrible suffering. I couldn’t stay in the rooms, and considered leaving, but decided to get out into the fresh air at the top. Immediately the breeze and the sunshine dissipated the oppressive feelings and I enjoyed the view. Three American women asked me to take a photo of them. I obliged, saying, “Say chickens.” They laughed and said it. I think it works better than “cheese”.