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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.