Vergina – a personal pilgrimage

After Pella, I was very much looking forward to Vergina, the ancient royal town of Aegae before Archelaos I moved it to Pella. Aegae remained the traditional burial place of the kings of Macedon. The first thing I noticed on the way that it’s well sign-posted. It looks as though Greece is really keen for people to visit the monuments here.

After arriving in the town, it was still well sign-posted, a detail I’ve noticed is often missing. Often the last sign before actually arriving is at least a kilometre from the site, and even up to five! But Vergina was easy. There was even a sign for parking for the Museum, which is also the site of the great tombs, so I drove in and parked. It was then I realised I’d been had. The parking lot was a private venture, and there was a small inexpertly made sign advising of one euro fifty charge. I didn’t mind though, even though it turned out there’s plenty of on street parking available nearer the museum. Every little bit that goes back into Greek pockets, the better for the economy.

The entrepreneurial gentleman running the parking lot was gesticulating at me that I had to move my car, because the spot I’d chosen was apparently a prime spot for a motor home. Obediently I moved to where he indicated, and shuffled back and forth till he was satisfied. He asked me, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?”. I replied, “Nein,” at which he repeated, “Nein!” and laughed. I paid and off I went, hearing him as I left talking animatedly in German to someone. I think he actually was German.

I walked off down the hill in the direction the sign indicated. As I walked through the gates, I saw the tumulus, 13 metres high and about 100 metres in diameter.

DSC07000

It’s a reconstruction of that which was raised over the tombs sixty years after their creation, after looting by Galatian invaders in 274/3 BC, and which was excavated from 1976-80. The re-constructed tumulus provides a protective shelter over the tombs and monuments. As I walked towards the entrance I saw it was designed to replicate the real thing too, which gave me a slight chill as I prepared to walk through it.

DSC07002

Once inside however, I was quickly brought back to the present by a polite young man telling me sadly but firmly that I couldn’t take photos inside, even without flash. Equally sadly I put the camera back in my bag, and prepared to try to absorb everything I saw. (The pictures I’ve included of inside the tumulus are from the net.)

Inside is dimly lit, the only light coming from the spots perfectly designed to illuminate only the exhibits. It’s very atmospheric. Interestingly it seems to have the desired effect as visitors move quietly and speak in hushed tones if at all. I moved through the exhibits taking my time to examine everything. As well as grave steles, there were replicas of the wall paintings found in the tombs, and grave goods and offerings of many people, ordinary, noble and royal. The collection of the goods that were burned on the pyre of Philip II, father of Alexander, is enormous, especially when you consider that the pieces left over from the flames are only the small metal fastenings, seeds that were somehow protected, small bones of animals that were sacrificed for the funeral and the dead king’s weapons.

An entire room is dedicated to the finds from Philip’s tomb. The image below shows much of it.

After his cremation, the bones were cleaned and placed into a gold larnax, decorated with the sixteen rayed-star of the Macedonian royal house, and rows of lily, palette and rosette ornaments. The larnax is displayed surmounted by his grave wreath of gold oak leaves.

And then it was time to go down the stairs to the gate of the tomb.

The faint noises from the floor above faded away as I descended. I stood alone at the bottom of the stairs, surrounded by dark silence, before the massive marble doors, and thought about Alexander being here, possibly on this very spot, burying his father with huge ceremony after his assassination.

I admit to being a bit emotional. There was some trembling, and a few tears.

Over the years I’ve read a lot about Alexander, and while he’s known as Alexander the Great for his enormous and unprecedented accomplishments, I have a great deal of respect for his father Philip’s statesmanship, generalship and kingship.

Another, smaller, tomb was thought to be that of his most recent wife Eurydike (the Macedonians practised multiple marriage for diplomatic reasons), murdered after Philip’s death by Olympia, Alexander’s mother. The information there says however that it was that of an earlier wife, who because of her Thracian heritage and the customs of her race, went willingly to the pyre with her dead husband. The magnificence of the tomb, though short of Philip’s, is said to reflect the honour in which Alexander held her sacrifice.

Another tomb, known as “The Prince’s tomb” is that of a youth aged about 14 years old, said to be King Alexander IV, murdered with his mother Roxanne by the regent, Cassander. I think it was because he was beginning to show qualities like Alexander’s, and quite possibly there were too many of the army very willing to follow the son of Alexander. It’s one of the great unanswered questions for me – what would he have been like, and how would history have been changed had he survived?

After leaving the tumulus, I followed the signs to the ancient theatre, further up the hill. I had been told that it and the palace site were both closed for conservation work, but I wanted at least to have a look through the fence.

DSC07003

Although there wasn’t much to see, as it’s grass covered and there are only a couple of earthen rows of seats visible, I was glad, in the cool quiet of the early evening, to have added it to my pilgrimage. It was the place where Philip was assassinated, and where Alexander was acclaimed king.

Advertisements

Roads less and more travelled to Amphipoli

Next day I headed back along Odos Egnatia to Amphipoli. I was still driving extremely sedately, and straddling the line separating the slow lane and the paved shoulder, as is the courteous way to drive in Greece if you aren’t driving fast. It allows cars in the slow lane to overtake without having to leave the slow lane. I know, right? I was happy to take it easy though. After forty-three years of driving on the left side of the road and in a right hand drive car, it takes more than a couple of hours to do exactly the opposite without thinking about it.

I was looking forward to Amphipoli, especially since all the publicity about excavation at the the Kasta Tomb about September 2014 to July 2015. It’s been strangely quiet since then, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see it of course, as work is underway, but I certainly wanted to see whatever else was to be seen, beginning with the lion.

In Greece, getting to a place isn’t difficult. It’s getting to the exact part of the place that’s the challenge. There’s little signage, especially for the antiquities. There’s often a sign about five kilometres away, then you’re on your own, till you actually get there. Google Maps doesn’t always recognise the ancient name either, or wants to send you via a dirt track that may conceivably lead to the place, but if you try to drive it, it’s becomes narrower, steeper, and ends up a barely navigable, rocky footpath. Broken axle or ankle territory.

DSC06810“Turn right,” said the Google Maps lady. “Turn right.”

I looked up the indicated track through the olive grove.

“Are you sure?” I asked, but she repeated her instruction, so I gingerly obeyed.

After fifty odd metres, I said, “Nuh. It’s not happening. I’ll find another way.” I got out of the car to make sure I could reverse safely into a little clearing among the olives to turn round. The olives looked beautiful. It was going to be good crop.

DSC06811

As I checked the ground for ditches, large rocks and anything else that could possibly leave me stuck in the middle of nowhere with a car that won’t go, as has happened before (see “Of fallen rocks and the kindness of Greek people” and “Check before parking on the roadside to visit old tombs”) I noticed on the rocky ground some sizeable rocks that looked like bits of marble. I looked closely, and they were. I wondered if they were ever part of a building, or if they were just natural rocks – made of marble. I don’t know, but it’s very common.

I got back onto the road and kept driving, looking for the brown and gold antiquities sign that would tell me I was in the vicinity. I found one, and after a couple of false turns, I rounded a bend and there was the lion, on a corner of two roads, looking magnificent.

DSC06816

It’s very similar to the one at Chaeronea, however the Lion of Amphipoli is larger. Greek soldiers found bits of it in 1912-3, then British soldiers found more in 1916. It was all put back together in 1937.

I asked the man selling fruit to the sightseers where the site of the ancient city was. “All around here,” he told me, sweeping his arm round expansively. I looked around and saw nothing but the road, fields, trees, and the lion. It turned out that like other sites in Macedonia, only some has been excavated, and they’re in separate locations. I was getting a bit down-hearted.

I got some directions to the museum from a Greek lady, which were a bit confusing at first because she was pointing left and saying right. Hardly surprising, because I know plenty of people who do the same thing when English is their first language, including me, but eventually we sorted it out, and I found the Museum.

There were many grave goods, including lots of gold. The Macedonians followed the Mycenaean style of graves, which was itself in the Homeric style, cremating then burying their dead with all those goods that the dead person valued and which would be useful to them in the afterlife.

DSC06831An interesting exhibit is the silver ossuary and gold grave wreath of Brasidas, the Spartan general who died in the battle of Amphipoli in 422BC defeating the Athenians under Kleon, and according to Thukydides was honoured as a hero and founder.

Also for my archery buddies, here’s a kylix, a shallow drinking cup from the C5th BC, with an archer depicted inside.

DSC06841

While there I learned of an Hellenistic house and also the remains of an ancient wooden bridge across the Strymon River, still a substantial stream today. Things were looking up.

I found the house, which was under lock and key in an eco-shed, and the “guard”, a slender, pretty young lady who wants to visit Australia, took me inside. The rooms had painted walls in red, blue, yellow, brown and black geometric patterns, and floors of white limestones with occasional black and green stones. This house was built in the C2nd BC and excavated in 1982.

DSC06855

The guard told me how to get to the ancient bridge, a few minutes drive away, to see her colleague, another guard. If she wasn’t there, wait a few minutes. The guard was indeed absent, so while waiting I explored the north wall of the city, a bonus that I hadn’t known about, which stand up to 7.5 metres tall at places.

DSC06878

The guard, another slender, pretty young lady, returned with the two Greek tourists she’d taken to the bridge, and showed us all more of the walls. The other people departed, and the guard told me that the bridge is five minutes away in the car, and if I would drive, she would come with me. At the site, she led me along more of the excavated city walls to another locked eco-shed, which remained locked, but into which I could see clearly through the protective wire fence. The bridge was built in the C5th BC, and is mentioned by Thukydides, as being instrumental for Brasidas during the Peloponnesian war, and later by Arrian, who says that Alexander used it when crossing the Strymon on his way to Asia. The British general and archaeologist W.M. Leake relates crossing it himself in 1835, so it lasted well. It was excavated in 1977-8 and is 275 metres long. The piles, existing trees, have petrified.

DSC06885

I loved Amphipoli. While so much of the city is still to be excavated, the concentration on several important finds works well. I’m really looking forward to returning one day to see the Kasta Tomb.

Last day in Thessaloniki … maybe …

On my last day in Thessaloniki I slept late, then had a leisurely breakfast before taking a taxi to the Archaeological Museum. My taxi driver was Constantinios. We had a nice chat. He told me about his friend who had gone to Australia a year ago to “win” money. At first I thought he meant in the lottery, and was about to disabuse him of this fond hope when he said that his friend had three jobs to win money for the future and a better life, and that he was sending money to Greece for his parents. I get so annoyed when ignorant people, because of the economy, say Greeks are lazy. Constantinios and his friend talk everyday on Skype. His friend says the “organisation” is better in Australia, but the road rules are very strict. “My friend says,” said Constantinios, “If the light is red, but there are no cars, still can’t go. Must wait till light green, even at 5am, and no cars. In Greece, if no cars, can go.”

“Really?” I asked. “Sure,” he replied. “People the same. Why different rules? People the same. Should be same rules. If light red, but no cars, no people, in Greece can go.”

“If it’s safe,” I said. “Of course!” he replied. He took for granted that the drivers drive safely. It was a light bulb moment for me. It crystallised what I’d been thinking while in taxis in the very busy traffic in Thessaloniki. Even though to me, it seemed that the drivers were a bit crazy, ignoring lanes, creating additional ones, they seem able to predict what drivers all around them will do, trusting each other to do what they would do themselves. It’s a kind of chaotic ballet, where everyone eventually ends up where they should be.

It wouldn’t work in Australia. The people aren’t the same, but I didn’t say so.

When we arrived at the Museum, we were still chatting, about where I was going, what Australia’s like, and our families, and it was me who said goodbye first. Such a nice man.

In the porch of the museum, there was a lovely marble lion, a funerary monument, about life-size, but similar to the enormous one Connal and I saw in 2012, a monument to the fallen at the battle of Chaeronea, where Alexander led the cavalry in his father Philip II’s decisive battle against the Thebans in BC338. The lion seems to have been a common funerary monument theme for soldiers in ancient Macedonia.

DSC06625

Before going inside I sat down in the outdoor cafe for a cup of tea. The café is spacious and shaded by a huge platanos tree, with a garden beside it of steles and other monuments excavated from ancient cemeteries.

DSC06653

The café is frequented by many locals as well as by visitors to the museum. I noticed an overhead projector fixed to the eave, and turning, saw the expected pull-down projector screen. Now, both of these pieces of equipment were in the open, that is open to the street, yet were apparently undamaged. In a city that has more graffiti than I’ve ever seen anywhere, including some dangerously close to but not on antiquities, this equipment, and the aforesaid antiquities, are untouched. People are different. That projector wouldn’t last five minutes in Australia.

Inside the museum, I saw the first of the many gold grave goods I would see in the north of Greece. These weren’t as plentiful as those in the National Archaeological Museum from the much older Mycenaean graves, but still lovely, and amazing.

DSC06692

DSC06628There was a Roman milestone from the Via Egnatia, which was built in 145BC by the Romans under the governor of Macedonia, Gnaius Egnatius, as an extension of the Via Appia into Greece and Asia Minor, where it joined the ancient Persian Royal Road. Nowadays it’s a motorway called the Odos Egnatia, odos being Greek for road or street, and it isn’t quite so long, stopping at the border of Turkey. It even runs parallel to the ancient road for a way, and goes through Thessaloniki as its main street, while the motorway becomes a ring road around the city.

As an archer, I always look at the arrow heads in museums. Usually they’re just laid out side by side on flat surfaces, and I have loads of photos of arrow heads at many museums displayed in just that manner. This was the first time I’d seen them presented this way, with perspex rods representing the shafts and the flight of the arrows.

DSC06678

It’s very effective, and as stupid as this sounds, I suddenly felt that they really were, well, real. I remember that the Spartan king Leonidas said at Thermopylae, when told that the Persian archers were so numerous that their arrows darkened the sun, “Then we’ll fight in the shade.” Just imagine that many of these nasty little missiles coming at you.

The temporary exhibition covered Greek colonisation, and the way that it spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean, from modern France and Italy to Asia Minor and the Black Sea. I really enjoyed it. It took me back to ClassCiv 1 at Newcastle University. It made much more sense to see it laid out so visually. One exhibit illustrated the colonisation as trees, with the trunks representing the mother-cities and the branches the colonies (expand the picture to see the names). At work (in libraries and museum) we use both high tech and low tech for displays. This, along with the arrow heads, demonstrated how effective low-tech can be when done well.

DSC06670

I like Thessaloniki. The busy streets, the almost endless graffiti, and the layer upon layer of posters, scraped off and re-pasted, were a bit of a shock at first, but I acclimatised very quickly because, like the rest of Greece, none of it is threatening. On the outside the city is gritty and noisy, but inside each shop is spotless, with very helpful staff (many are students working part-time) and there are many quiet pedestrian oases, abounding with cafes and tavernas.

My hotel, the Plaza, is in the pedestrian area called the Ladadika, which was an old olive store area near the port. I loved getting back there after each long day, and eating at one of the many tavernas in the tiny winding streets. I might visit again one day.

You … shall … not … pass!

Near the Arch and Palace of Galerius is the Rotonda, built by the Romans in 306 possibly as a temple to Zeus, possibly a temple to the Cabiri (underworld spirits) or as a tomb for Galerius, and converted to a Christian church during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius (379-395). I didn’t photograph it from outside as the walls of its massive dome were covered in an equally massive plastic blue and yellow safety wrap. Entering through the open double doors, I stepped down into an enormous space, currently covered in scaffolding, but nevertheless awe-inspiring as a feat of architecture.

DSC06536So much conservation work going on in this building alone, including in the dome itself, which is decorated with paintings of temple like buildings, and of course saints, in gold, red and brilliant blue.

DSC06533During my wanderings I came across the Catacomb of Agios Ioannis, Saint John, the Baptist, also known as Prodromos, the Forerunner. It begins in a courtyard five metres below the footpath, which has remains of an ancient nymphaion, a sanctuary for the worship of the nymphs, but also the remains of the oldest baptistry in Christendom. From the hot, dry courtyard I ventured further down by the narrow stone stairs and through underground passages decorated with icons of the saint, while the air became cooler and the walls and floors dripped, to a dank underground chapel, which may or may not have housed mortal remains below the glass floor panel.

DSC06506

Back up top in the busy streets, I passed an old fashioned cobbler and key cutter’s shop, painted bright red, advertised out front by a simulacrum of a cobbler which slowly brought its wooden hammer down over and over onto a shoe on a last. This quaint advertising isn’t uncommon here. Later I saw a similar advertisement for another key cutter, but as a still life, and another for a bakery, life-size, and holding out a basket of various breads.

DSC06511

I heard live music (another rehearsal!) and followed the sound, coming to the Ancient Agora, where a band was practising  for one of the August Full Moon concerts. In ancient Greek and Roman times, the agora of any place was the chief market place and administrative centre, where all business, commercial and civic, took place. This one originated from about C2nd BC, and was used right through to the C5th AD, when it was abandoned as an administrative centre and only the shops continued to be used, some right up till C14th AD.

DSC06548

The article at the link above concludes by calling it an “easily accessible archaeological site.” Ironic really, as apart from the rehearsing musicians, this site, like the Octagon and Palace of Galerius, was closed.

Thessaloniki – August 2015

I’m having breakfast in the breakfast room at Plaza Hotel, Thessaloniki. Every time I think of the hotel I begin to hear Ian Moss singing the Cold Chisel song. This is a nice hotel though, not like the one in the song. The rooms and furnishings are comfortable, with original paintings. Although the bones of the building are old, the bathroom fittings are new. The staff are kind and sweet. This morning, the waitress handed me my big mug without my asking for one. If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know I can’t be having with the little cups that are ubiquitous in hotels.

I had about €80 with me from my trip in 2013, and I’d forgotten to get cash from the ATM at Athens airport. During the night I’d woken feeling a bit nervous because I had only about €40 left after the taxi and dinner, so I knew it had to be my first priority. That and a SIM card.

DSC06715I got directions in the morning from the receptionist and within five minutes found a plethora of imposing looking banks. Terry Pratchett correctly makes the observation that banks are always built to look like temples.
While all Greek banks don’t necessarily have columns, they frequently resemble Neo-classic type mansions. Happily, there are plenty of ATMs and contrary to what people in Australia believe because of the horror media stories, mine happily dispensed €600 without a blink.

Next for the SIM card. I followed my receptionist’s directions and while she didn’t know the name of the shop, I recognised the Germanos sign from a distance. It’s really cheap in Greece compared to Australian roaming, and definitely the way to go. For a month’s worth of calls, texts and 1.5 Gb of data, as well as the card, it was €17, or about $26.50. I pay $40-50 a month at home, without paying for the SIM card. A tip in case you decide to do this. You must take your passport with you as a security measure to buy a Greek number. Some people may have a problem with this but I don’t.

My fiscal wherewithal and communications sorted, and with them my feelings of security, I set out in search of the ancient architectural beauties of Thessaloniki.

There are churches. Many churches. Grandiose Byzantine structures, massive, beautiful, well kept and still actively used. While looking at them, I saw people of all ages lighting candles and kissing icons. DSC06586While the history of churches can be interesting, if you know me, you’ll know that they’re not nearly old enough to captivate me for long.

I wandered off to look at the triumphal Arch of Galerius, a Roman governor and later Emperor, who died, as many did, prematurely and horribly.

DSC06523

The arch is illustrated with his defeat of the Persians, and is impressive even now.

DSC06527

I found the Palace complex, which looked well kept, but was locked, with a sign saying it was open Monday to Thursday. I thought this was odd, as most ancient sites are open Tuesday to Sunday, and only closed on Mondays. I was able to look down on it from the perimeter but I like to read interpretive signs, or even simple labelling of the buildings to fully appreciate a site. The signs were there, but out of reach.

DSC06513

Nearby are the ruins of the Octagon, part of the palace complex, in which can be seen from the street above the remains of extensive mosaic floors. It too was locked, the province at the moment of only a couple of cats.DSC06517

Ancient computers and packing hats

30 September 2013

I bought a box to pack Connal’s hats in this morning. Walked for over an hour the other day looking for one without luck, and 40 minutes this morning, and it turned out after various directions in back streets to be around the corner from the hotel. Less than two minutes to get back and it only cost 50 cents! Bargain!

I also found the walk-over excavations in Monastiraki station. I’d been thinking it was in Omonia, but it’s in Monastiraki, basically my backyard, all the time. I really should have twigged earlier, because there’s a big skylight down to it in Monastiraki Square. To see them you go to the Kifissia platform, where I went today because I was heading to Victoria station to visit the National Archaeological Museum. Yes, that’s my ancient stuff visit for today, to see the museum again, which is fantastic, but to also see the Antikythera Mechanism exhibition, finds from an ancient shipwreck discovered off Antikythera, which Connal and I missed by a month last year. DSC06100The mechanism is thought to be a type of computer or calculator – only 2000 odd years old! The workmanship and tools required to make it are extremely advanced. The link above provides loads of information. There are many other finds from the shipwreck, including this larger than life-size arm of a boxer.

DSC06151

I can only imagine the damage that boxing with this type of wrapping would do to both the boxer and boxed.

DSC06065After getting out of the Metro at Victoria, I did my usual trick of turning left instead of right, adding a few blocks to an already considerable walk. (Have I mentioned before that I’m directionally challenged?) Hot, sweaty and a little weary I decided to rest and fortify myself before going into the museum, which, handily on Mondays, is open till 8pm, rather than closing at 3pm as it does the rest of the week. I ordered a cappuccino. The jug of cold water and the croissant are gratis. Another thing I love about Greece – if you order a coffee or tea, it comes to the table with a jug of cold water and a small cake or two.

On my walk down (and up!) 28 October Street earlier, I’d noticed a heavy police presence, complete with riot shields, mostly standing around chatting, and their bus. They were in khaki rather than blue, as was the bus, so perhaps they’re national rather than city police. Whatever they were waiting for must have begun, because the bus just went by, lights blazing and siren wailing. I could sit here all day watching the life of the city, but it’s time I made a move into the museum.

No electricity in all Pylos, Madam!

23 September 2013

After the Museum I went to Niokastro (new castle) which wasn’t closed for conservation, or closed because of any danger. It was in fact, open! Of course it’s not old enough for my preference, having been built in the 1500’s under the Ottoman empire, then upgraded by the Venetians, but it was still quite fun. The picturesque old walls of the town, which led up to the castle, run alongside the road.

DSC05479

The heat was relieved by a light rain in the afternoon – a novelty in Greece during summer – but a storm brewed up in the evening.

The thunder and lightning continued throughout the night, and at some point I was awoken by a loud bang. That’ll be the electricity, I thought, and tried the bedside lamp. Then the room lights. As I suspected. I unplugged my camera and iPad, which I’d had charging, in case it suddenly came back on, then went back to sleep.

This morning there was still no electricity, and in case it was only my room (did I mention the dodgy wiring?), I mentioned it to the man in reception. He snapped, “No electricity in your room, no electricity in all Pylos, Madam!” Hmm, could be a good day to move on …

“Ok, but there’ll still be some cold breakfast, even if there’s no tea,” I thought, feeling a mild panic begin to rise. Have I mentioned my tea addiction? I need tea, especially in the mornings.

As I entered, the waitress giggled at my bare feet, then surprised me by handing me my customary large mug! “There’s hot water? But how?” I asked, excited. “Ne, ne (yes,yes),”she smiled, waving generally out the back. “Cars,” she said. Some sort of portable generator, then. How clever. And thank goodness!

Off to … somewhere today. My last night before handing the car back at the airport then back to Athens for my last week. No electricity, so no wifi, so no booking possible. I think I’ll just drive and see where I get to. I’m considering Hotel Saron at Isthmia again; it’s nice, I can have a swim, and the wifi is ubiquitous and strong!