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.

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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”.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

A surprise concert

27 September

On and around the Acropolis all day. I did it the old way, walking up there from the hotel, and climbing the sacred way in the sunshine. There was a small orchestra rehearsing in the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the lovely music drifted up to the climbers. I and many others stopped to listen, and applauded at the end of each piece. DSC05855It’s the only performance in the Odeon that I’ve seen, and all the more enjoyable for being unexpected. Eventually the rehearsal ended, and I floated rather than walked the rest of the way to the summit.

I walked all day. My feet were complaining loudly towards the end, so I shut them up with a double ice cream. On returning to the Attalos I went to the roof bar to relax and write, and gaze again at the Acropolis. Eventually I went out to dinner after 8:30 at a taverna called Iridanos on Adrianou, below the Temple of Hephaistion. Delicious Greek salad and another wonderful view for 5 euro!

South to Pylos, and the importance of wifi

20 September

Another quick decision about where to go. This morning I decided to make my way south to Pylos, despite the Mycenaean palace of Nestor being closed till 2015. I hadn’t been there before, there’s plenty to see, including two medieval castles in Pylos itself, and another in Methone, about 20 minutes drives from Pylos, and it has an interesting history. Decision made, I went on-line and booked three nights in Pylos in a waterfront hotel. The internet has made travel so easy now. I tend to use Booking.com because I’ve almost always found a great place with all the features I’ve wanted. There are other sites though that are just as good. I have a friend who uses Air BnB, and has travelled all over France and Italy using it. She’s also used it to find places for us to stay in New Zealand when we go to compete in archery tournaments there. The internet has put the power into our hands, and I love that.

So after having a chat with Alkis at Hotel Pelopsabout Olympia, the Olympic Games and other things, and thanking Mr Spiliopoulis again for his help with the car, I set off southwards to Pylos. There were no further mishaps with the car, and apart from taking the scenic route once or twice when the main road wasn’t obvious, everything went pretty smoothly. As I drove through the town of Kyparissia, I noticed the ruins of a fortress on the hill-top. As I was making pretty good time, I decided to try to turn off and have a look at it. As always when you climb a hill towards an old acropolis, the streets got narrower as I got higher, and at one point I had to reverse down-hill out of a dead-end. There’d been one sign pointing up-hill from the main road but no others and, probably somewhat chastened by my recent car mishaps, I gave up after 20 minutes or so. I managed to get a couple of photos from about half-way up. Apparently the ruins are of a Frankish fortress, but I don’t know any more than that.

20131002-005444.jpgIt seemed to take ages to get to Pylos from Kyparissa, much longer than the time advised by Google maps. I don’t think Google knows how narrow and windy some of the Greek roads are! Eventually though, I came over a hill and caught sight of beautiful Navarino Bay. I wasn’t prepared for how lovely it is, and despite being very keen by this time to get to my hotel, I stopped at a handy lookout spot and took some photos while drinking in the fabulous view.

20131003-032350.jpgThis beautiful peaceful bay was the setting in 1827 for the event that precipitated the end of the 400 year Turkish occupation of Greece, the destruction of the Ottoman fleet by the combined forces of the French, Russian and English commands. Many of the wrecks lie still where they sank. They say they can be seen if you take a boat tour on a clear day.

While gazing, I chatted to a gentleman who told me that he had to take a lot of photos because his wife couldn’t walk so she had to stay in the car. What do you say to something like that? It made me realise how lucky I am, and how grateful I am. I got back into the car and continued down the hill toward the town of Pylos. I’d taken a screen shot of the satellite map before leaving this morning, so as I drove into town, I was able to head straight along the waterfront and find the hotel immediately. My room was really cute with a balcony

20131003-032659.jpgoverlooking the tiny handkerchief of beach, and the harbour.

20131003-033336.jpgIt’s a great feeling to come into a pleasant room after a long wearying drive. I settled in, feeling very relaxed, and looked for a power point to recharge my phone, camera and iPad. Suddenly not so relaxed! I found one on either side of the bed, for the bed lamps, and one for the TV. The problem was that the plates of all three had been lifted and were hanging off the wall with the wiring exposed, and each of them had a couple of appliances, lamp and phone, lamp and fridge, TV and air-con, jerry rigged directly into the wiring behind the plate. It’s possible if I’d plugged my chargers into them that the power points would have worked, but frankly, I wasn’t about to touch them! One of the things I love about Greece is that the people have a real can-do attitude and make pretty much anything work. In this particular case though, I would have preferred the usual method of using power points. I continued my search. No luck in the bathroom. I finally found one that looked safe to use, possibly because it never had been, on the wall at the side of the wardrobe. The adapter and chargers wouldn’t fit between the wall and the wardrobe, so I put my back into it and shifted the wardrobe a few inches sideways. Success! Appliances plugged in and charging!

I went to ask the receptionist for the wifi password and found that wifi was only available in the public areas, which included the breakfast room, open all hours, food only at breakfast time, and the bar, open all hours, no food. I went out to dinner at a waterfront taverna where I ordered before finding out that they didn’t have wifi. I think it was the only taverna or cafe in Pylos without it, because I found later that it was pretty much ubiquitous. I read my book instead, “A dance with dragons” by George R. R. Martin. (Love the Game of Thrones series!) To begin, I ordered grilled mushrooms. They neither looked nor tasted as I expected, and while tasting interesting, and not unpleasant, they weren’t a favourite.

20131003-033040.jpgA coach load of 50 German teenage boys arrived that evening, and totally monopolised the available bandwidth, so neither I nor the receptionist could use the wifi. The internet empowers us in all sorts of ways, but we can become extremely dependent on it. And I don’t half get the irrits when I don’t have it!

Why do I love Olympia…….?

19 September continued

After leaving the Museum of the Ancient Olympics I walked back a few minutes into the village and had baked feta with tomatoes and peppers (capsicum) for lunch at a taverna, and did a little writing via the free wifi. So many tavernas and kafenions have free wifi, as do most of the hotels. The waiter passed by and said, “Eat it with the bread – it’s nothing without bread.” I have to agree. In fact, even with the bread, I didn’t find it nearly as delicious as I find most Greek food. There are many more tasty dishes. It was filling though, and so fortified, I set off again.

It was still very hot so I opted for the air-conditioned museum first. I’ve been in there twice before, so I didn’t take many photos this time, however I looked more carefully at the bronze armour and weapons. I had read a really good series of historical novels set in the 5th BC a while back by Christian Cameron, about a Plataean warrior who was also a master bronze smith, and the descriptions of smithing had heightened my interest. I took particular notice of this Illyrian helmet from about 530BC, which is unusual in the beaten silver decorations attached. The cheek pieces show horses, and the decoration across the brow is of lions attacking a boar. I think it’s beautiful, although much of what I’ve read recommended against fancy armour, as glancing blows could catch in the decoration instead of sliding off without causing injury. Perhaps this piece was dress armour, or made particularly as a dedication to the sanctuary.

20131001-092001.jpgI sat for some time contemplating the reliefs from the Temple of Zeus, especially the ones of of Theseus and Perithos fighting the Centaurs, who’d become drunk at Perithos’ wedding to Deidameia, and tried to carry off the Lapith women. The faces of the humans are depicted as calm and noble, while the faces of the Centaurs are brutish. It was a reference to the recent victory of the Greeks over the “barbarian” hordes of Asia, the Persians. I couldn’t help thinking though, as I contemplated Deidamia’s serene face, that while she was being the modest and dutiful bride, she was thinking, “Bloody Centaurs! Every time you invite them to a wedding … ” as she modestly and serenely elbows him in the head.

20131001-093725.jpgI ventured out into the late afternoon and made my way around the ancient site. I don’t know why, but I feel something special at Olympia, I’m especially drawn to this of all the sites I’ve visited. Ironic really, as if I’d been alive at the time, I wouldn’t have been allowed in, on pain of death! Nevertheless, I feel something special, something calm and peaceful here, particularly in the area of the palaestra, which was the wrestling, boxing and general practice area. Now that’s especially odd, because I bet at Games times, it was anything but peaceful and quiet! I can’t explain it. Nevertheless.

One of the things I love is that each time I return to an ancient site, there’s evidence of more excavation and study going on since my previous visit. I was delighted to see that at Olympia.

20131001-095149.jpgIt always makes me excited about returning in the future and seeing new things. Well, old things really. New old things.

All too soon the site attendants burst my bubble with those shrill whistles they use to warn wandering tourists of impending closing time. It has to be done I know. The sites are too big for them to run around telling everyone individually the way we usually do at work that the place is about to close. Still, I could wish for a less intrusive method. As everyone neared the gate, I turned for a last look at beautiful, peaceful Olympia. Till next time.

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