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!

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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.

Check before parking on the roadside to visit old tombs!

11 September

Today I ventured further afield to discover more about the history of Marathon. First stop was the Early Helladic Cemetery at Tsepi. It’s right next to the road from Nea Makri through Tsepi to Vranas, in one of the new eco-buildings that they’re putting up over some digs to protect the workings and I guess, the workers. Connal and I saw a really big one at Akrotiri on Santorini (or Fira) last year.

It’s interesting that the cemetery is right next to a road. It makes me think that the modern road follows much the same route that people have used in this area for the last five thousand years. Early Helladic is about 3200BC to about 2100BC in this area.

I saw a handy olive tree opposite the Cemetery and pulled in, pleased to have found a bit of shade on this very hot day. I was inching in to make sure my back end was off the road when I suddenly felt the car slip and fall forwards, and heard a crunch as the bottom of the car hit something. It turned out to be the lip of a shallow ditch, which my front wheels were now firmly in and the back wheels on the level of the road. “Damn, I didn’t see that,” I thought. (Captain Obvious!) I tried packing some flat rocks under the back of the front wheels to give some traction, but that didn’t work, so I decided to look in the Cemetery while I decided what to do.

There was no charge to get in because some archaeologists were working the site. They allowed me to come in and walk around part of the walkway above the dig.

20130916-125336.jpg I stayed a while, looking around and taking photos. It was a very organised cemetery, with the graves arranged in rows, and lined with dry-stone walls or sometimes slabs, and covered with slabs and earth.

20130916-130245.jpg Having calmed down, I came back to the car and hunted through the glovebox for the phone number of the driver assistance. The person who answered couldn’t work out where I was so she found someone else, who likewise couldn’t work it out from my description. I had told them it was the road from Nea Makri to Vranas, and spelt the name of the town for them, but they still couldn’t recognise it. Nor did they know where the Early Helladic Cemetery is, which surprised me – but then, that’s me 😉 . Later I realised that instead of saying “v” for Vranas, I possibly should have been saying “beta”, as that’s how it’s spelt in Greek, and what looks like our b is usually transliterated and pronounced as v. They said they’d call me back to let me know when they could send a car – and presumably have another go at locating me.

I began to wonder if I should do the girl thing and flag down someone for help. A middle aged gentleman, right on cue, pulled out of the opposite driveway in a type of ute. I waved at him and looked pathetic. He put his hands together and made a diving motion with them while lifting his eyebrows in unspoken question. I nodded assent. He rolled his eyes at the silly tourist, or woman driver, and got a tow-strap out of the back of his truck and attached it. Then he checked my hand-brake and gear-stick, leaving the brake on and the gears in Park. I thought that was a bit odd, but assumed he knew what he was doing. When his tyres started to smoke, I waved my key, mutely offering to get in my car and help. He nodded, and I let the brake off, put it into reverse and I was out in two seconds. I was so relieved that when he’d detached the strap, I grabbed his shoulders and gave him two big kisses on the cheek. He laughed and waved as he drove off. Driver Assistance now rang back, and seemed as relieved as I was.

Ok, now to visit the Archaeological Museum of Marathon.

It’s a beautiful little museum, featuring finds from both the Early and the Middle Helladic Cemeteries, and beautiful grave goods from the tumulus of the Athenians and the tumulus thought to be that of the Plataeans.

20130916-133045.jpg I’m always surprised to see things that are that old, that look so similar to things we would use, every day utensils like cups, pots, even frying pans. It’s strange to think of people so long ago living lives not so very different in essence to ours.

The museum also houses the pieces found of the original trophy, a marble column, erected at the site of the battle, in honour of and thanks for the victory.

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Yesterday when I had walked south along the beach at Golden Beach resort I had discovered that the beachfront bit of the resort is right next to the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods. I was disappointed to find it closed, not just for the afternoon, but for the last four years, with no planned opening date, at least not one that the hotel staff knew, because of more work that needs to be done on the site. I guess that’s a real issue for Greece. There are so many sites that need more work in order to attract more tourism, but only so many archaeologists to work them, so they stay closed till they get high enough on the list. A vicious circle. I was delighted to find that some lovely statues from the Sanctuary are in the museum.

20130916-134000.jpg I asked the attendant where the Middle Helladic Cemetery was and she told me it was in the building next door, another eco-shelter, which was currently closed but she’d take me in. Wasn’t that lovely?

The Middle Helladic Cemetery dates from 2100 BC to 1600BC. This cemetery was used through to the Late Helladic, about 1200 BC and is organised differently, with the graves having been covered by seven tumuli about 1.5m high. The foundations of the circumferences are startlingly precisely circular.

20130916-141202.jpg After that I walked along a little to the tumulus thought to be that of the Plataeans. It contained grave goods from the right period, so it seems plausible. It isn’t as high or well kept as the Athenians’ but just as important in my mind. A good historical novel about the Plataean involvement is Christian Cameron’s Marathon.

I then went to see the modern monument to the battle. I think it was erected around 2008, but I couldn’t find anything to check that. It’s a smooth marble column, 10 metres high, with an Ionic capital, close to the site of the victory. The original was also topped with a marble statue of Nike, Victory. The guy at the resort said not to bother to see it, but I wanted to, even though it wasn’t original, because it marks the spot I guess. And that’s important.

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