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.

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

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.

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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.