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.

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.

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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Of fallen rocks and the kindness of Greek people

18 September continued

After leaving Ancient Mantinea I continued toward Ancient Olympia. I stopped at Kapsia to look at a lovely house that may have been divided into apartments, because part of it was derelict, 20130927-200038.jpg

while the rest looked spick and span.

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The afternoon was wearing on as the air became cooler and the road narrowed and wound further into the mountains. I saw a man, a shepherd or goatherd, carrying a rough-hewn wooden crook, and wearing a long dun-coloured robe. Where it opened slightly at the bottom, below the knees, I saw that he was bare-legged and wearing shoes with no socks. His dark and greying hair was long and loosely pulled back, and his beard hung thickly to halfway down his chest. He gave me a look as I went by, which, though friendly, seemed entirely self-contained, just him, the mountains and his flock. Arkadia.

The mountains of Arkadia are beautiful. They’re also prone to rock falls. Every now and then I’d see little piles scattered on the side of the road. Suddenly, there were some on the road, with one about ten inches long and six inches high, smack in the middle of my lane. I’ve mentioned that I was driving a Suzuki Splash, and I’d already found out that they don’t don’t have much clearance underneath (see “Check before parking on the roadside to visit old tombs”). To avoid it I could go left or I could go right. Unfortunately I didn’t decide quickly enough to avoid it altogether, and my heart sank as I heard the k-chunk, felt the impact and the slight drag to one side before the car straightened. However, straighten it did, and I heaved a sigh of relief as everything seemed to settle down to normal again. However, about ten minutes later there was a definite drag to the right and a lot of rattling. Thinking, “That feels like a flat tyre,” I pulled over, and there it was. The driver’s side front wheel was completely flat, and worse, the rim had a big ding in its edge. “That’s not good,” I thought.

Outside of the car, there was a definite chill in the air. I dragged my suitcase out of the back, and lifted the floor of the boot up. No spare. I looked around. I was next to a long uphill driveway that had a taverna sign, but I couldn’t see a building. On the other side of the road was a kafenion, with an open front door and a log fire burning inside. I opted for the kafenion. The lady didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Greek, but between us, and a gentleman who was passing, we managed. The lady rang a mechanic in the next town, which was Lagkadia, and they conveyed to me that the mechanic would come soon.

20130928-002116.jpgA few minutes later a young man pulled in and they both greeted him. “Mechanic?” I asked. “Ohi, ohi (no, no)”, they answered, however they told him the trouble, and we all trooped over to the car. He seemed from his clothes to be in the army. He said, “Do you have tools?” I told him there was no spare. He lifted the floor of the boot, and then he lifted the second floor! There was the spare, and it had air in it. O frabjous day! He proceeded to change the wheel for me, and was at pains to ensure that I understood not to travel at faster than 80 kph, because this wheel “is smaller than others so it fit in bottom”.

In his website Matt Barrett’s Travel Guides, Matt Barrett advocates getting a larger car for various safety reasons when driving in Greece. I had forgotten this sage advice, and I can add a couple more reasons; the clearance from the ground, and the fact that these tiny cars come with a temporary spare only.

I wanted to pay these kind people for their time or at least buy them a drink or a coffee, but they wouldn’t accept anything but thanks, and waved me on my way with smiles and a last admonishment from the young man to “drive slow”.

At that point there was no other way I wanted to drive. The roads are so narrow and windy around Lagkadia that it took me more than two hours to drive the last seventy or so pretty much uninhabited kilometres to Olympia. I was so happy to reach Hotel Pelops and my comfortable little room.

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