North By Northwest Greece

North By Northwest Greece

Alexander the Great aimed for the Ends of the World and the Great Outer Sea.

As did we. And we reached as far as Halkidiki and the Aegean Sea coast of Central Macedonia.

Not bad. But it’s now time for us to turn and head back across the country. Homeward bound. From North to North West Greece.

The first town we hit on this journey back west is the town of Pella. It is the 30th of August.

Pella is the town where Alexander was born. The 30th of August is the celebration day throughout the whole of Greece for the name of Alexander. My name is Alexander. This all seems somehow appropriate in some way as the car enters the – quite unexpectedly, quite ugly – town of Megas Alexandros.

Just like the historic town where I was born back in Britain, Hastings, or the souvenir town near R.’s hometown in Greece, Ancient Olympia, it seems that the most significant, celebrated, archaeologically important towns must always be strangely unsightly.

Disappointed faced, we crawl through Pella looking for Alexander’s museum.

The modern, impossing, glass and metal Pella museum has many startling artefacts, mosaics and curios, but a strange lack of anything really Alexander. We also seem to be the only visitors here in the vast halls. The guide follows us closely through the large rooms. Try as hard as we can, we can’t shake her off.

She seems to know less than nothing about Alexander, his life, or any of the displays whatsoever.

7-2

A little way away, we visit the preserved columns and stone floors and passages and broken rooms of Alexander’s old city. The city that was once the largest and most prosperous in northern Greece.

It’s impressive. But we then follow this with a stop in a fairly inglorious souvlaki shop back in modern-day central Pella town before we leave.

Just to make conversation, as the skewers of meat turn on the coals, I tell the people working there my name, and the – very – small coincidence of being here on this day.

The old lady of the restaurant lights up. “Hronia polla!” she says, throwing her arms up in the air and tottering round the counter, grabbing at my face to kiss it.

Hhhave.. a.. hhhappy.. name..day!” struggles her husband, sat on the till, in imponderable English.

The son catches on and comes running at full pelt from the kitchen at the back to shake my hand. “Kai mena me lene Alexandro!” – I’m Alexander too! he shouts, and hugs me close “Hronia polla!

The other customers all pat my back, offering me good wishes. I tell them it’s only a name… The other Alexander here opens up a box of Turkish Delight to insist on giving me a piece, and then stands grinning at me. I grin back. He tells me once again that he too is called Alexander.

And the souvlakis can’t be ready quick enough for me.

*

On the road to Alexandreia – previously known as Gidas and only changing its name in the 1950s to mark its near-by regal connection. The locals – no fans of change, even change they’re too young to remember – still call it by its old name.

It is an unattractive large-looking town, built on a grid of streets that pretend to lead somewhere, but don’t.

On the main road driving alongside the town I notice a large municipal building set behind a long dirty grey wall. An old factory or a school perhaps.

But in its vast grounds I see tents pitched. Headscarfed women and dark faced kids looking out through the railing.

We park up and I walk over.

There is a police guard on the gate. I ask him if this is a refugee camp.

We had previously passed the site of what had been the largest makeshift camp in Europe in Idomeni, I wondered if this is where some of the inhabitants had been moved to? The policeman offers no response. I ask him if it was ok for me to be here. He shrugs. Happy to give the impression he speaks no English whatsoever.

A blonde haired man and woman in matching blue t-shirts walk past. I ask them if this is a camp for the refugees.

They are volunteers from Scandanavia. They tell me that this is one of the largest camps in Greece where the displaced refugees from Idomeni have been placed. There are 25 camps like this around the country.

I look past them at a long line of women in exotically bright dresses queuing outside one of the broken-down outhouse on the complex. Other women coming out of the dark doorless entrance, carrying packs of water.

“Are things going ok here?” I ask

“No” they say, as one.

“There is no organisation. There is nothing. Sometimes food arrives, sometime it doesn’t. Nobody knows what’s happening. Nobody has a clue here.”

The previously silent police guard steps forward.

“Why are you asking questions?”

He stands between me and the volunteers, blocks out the entrance to the camp.

“Why are you asking questions?” he repeats and prods my shoulder and I get the message.

I walk away, back to the car, catching as I leave a last, flicking, view of the camp through the railings at a child sat, playing on its own in a dull patch of mud, blowing listlessly on a plastic whistle, which makes no noise.

We head south.

Briefly leaving the state of Macedonia, crossing into the borderland shared with Thessaly.

Perhaps because the land around here has become more flat than any we’ve seen for a long time, the sight of Mount Olympus is even more majestic and even higher than expected. It seems to just leap from the ground. As if spat from the over-heated, sun-boiled land.

We had previously tackled Olympus a few years ago on its eastern side, from the popular starting-point town of Litchoro. So this time we go west. To the more forgotten side. To the town of Dion.

Dion was a great ancient city – and a dedicated sanctuary to Zeus and the Gods. Philip and Alexander held huge festivals here at the foot of the mountain, making momentous sacrifices for their successful travels conquering unknown lands.

We walk the exhumed ancient roads, between the old columns, and I throw a coin – our own dedication – into one of the now overgrown, rather weed-run shrines as a booming thunder rumbles menacingly over Zeus’ mountain-top home behind us. We still have a long way to get back to our home.

We walk a way up Olympus in a thick, heavy air. Swim in a quiet pool under a waterfall. But the sky darkens further and soon we’re down, on the road again, following the range back northwards: the mountain tops rippling alongside us like the back of a huge serpent. The sky a forceful glowing grey, a few flashes of lightning.

1

Vergina. King Philip’s town.

Having been left disappointed by his son, Alexander’s town (and this time thinking to learn my lesson and keep my middle name – Philip – quiet here) we arrive expecting nothing.

We roll in, giving “told you so” nods to one another at the fairly prosaic, colourless town, and pull up at the museum for the tomb of Philip.

It appears to be a well-manicured hill. The sun comes out, the sky blues a deep colour over the grass dome, which is dotted on top with a few colourful flowers. Butterflies flit around.

An old stone football stadium-style tunnel leads into the belly of the hill. Puzzled, we shrug to each other and walk into the dark.

Philip’s tomb bursts back at us out of the blackness.

It is an incredible sight. Unlike many ancient archaeological places and museums, you don’t have to stare at a pile of stones or use your imagination as to what it might have been or what it might have looked like millennia ago. Here, Philip’s tomb is complete. Stood proud and unaffected, staring straight back at you.

The hill over this museum is there to leave Philip’s tomb, and the other tombs, as they were designed to be: underground. To countermand the original excavations. Then, inside, in the new large cool dark antechambers, the pale-coloured, decorated stone tombs of Philip and Alexander’s son stand tall, unlooted, unbroken, entire, and intact.

The well-stocked museum doesn’t just have twisted old coins and bits of metal that once could have been and sword handle or spear heads. There are incredible finds – other graves, paintings, and there, under bright spotlights, rests the actual golden box that holds Philip’s bones. The dazzling gold crowns Philip and his wife were buried in. Philip’s actual armour. All laid out, all 2,500 year old. It is all quite extraordinary.

8

We leave Vergina, two-difficult-to-impress travellers, impressed into an inert silence at what we’ve seen, and head into early evening Veria.

Veria is mentioned in the Bible. Some say it was standing here for a thousand years before Christ. It’s now a lively living city, but slightly dull.

It has the look of a town where all the buildings had a refit and tidy-up at exactly the same time a year or so ago, and now things look nice and clean and a bit watery, with none of the usual mish-mash of Greek styles.

And I’m surprised more than other Greek towns at its chain shops and multi-national brands. The grand Byzantine church has been refurbished and newly painted, with modern frescos, which only serves really to make it duller.

But the town is friendly and the palia poli – old town – has markets and narrow lanes and gives an idea as to why Veria once sat under the epithet of ‘Little Jerusalem’.

There are some good restaurants and cafes. And at least Hohliourou’s still stands, defiant.

An old, and rare distressed looking shop serving the – famous from this city – revani cake for over a 150 years.

Revani is an eastern-style moist syrup sponge cake. We get a good building-brick sized slab of it and stand and eat in the square in the heat of a dying Greek evening. And the taste, weirdly, takes me straight back with an out-of-place nostalgia to old school dinners in some old dark wood English school halls.

*

Philip of Macedonia met his end in 336BC, assassinated at the theatre.

We’re to spend a night at the theatre here too.

Sat in a large open amphitheatre high up on the hills overlooking the city, the night air is hot. Thousands of cicadas – the real voice of Greece – chirrup loudly from all around. Veria’s city lights glitter in the dark below us, like an open box of King’s jewels.

We’re here to watch the ‘Apology of Socrates’ written by Plato, 60 years before Philip’s final night out in the theatre stalls.

Two hours long and spoken by a single performer in ancient Greek, I am expecting the worst. But it turns out to be a quite an engrossing performance. Of course necessary English subtitles on a screen are there for me (and for R. too – showing how far and distant Modern Greek language drifted from its ancient conception), but I sit, gripped.

“I know only one thing: that I know nothing.”

Socrates’ great paradox.

I dwell on this as we float up here, hundreds of meters above the old city. The flow of Greek land all around us. The mountains, the water, the countryside, the towns, the people, their ways. Everything I have seen travelling through northern Greece.

North Greece seems like the stage for the whole of the country to me. The stage and the backdrop of Greece.

However, after all the time I’ve spent travelling around and with all that I’ve seen touring this land, I know that really, I’ve seen nothing.

*

The Via Egnatia. The great stretching road built by the Romans, linking the western coast of old Greece to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

Julius Caesar marched his army down this road. Marc Anthony chased Brutus along it after Caesar’s murder. Richard the Lionheart crusaded down it to Asia. And now we’re following it. In its modern form anyway – the E90 motorway.

This modern road, the Egnatia Odos, follows the line of the ancient road – which is still visible in some parts – all along northern Greece, far further east than we managed, all the way into Turkey.

We’re on it, but heading west, and the road, as so many in Greece seem to be, is quiet.

There is often nothing on Greek roads – outside of the cities, at least – for miles. Even on this large, well maintained, motorway.

My interest pricks up every time I see a rare car coming in the other direction, like someone floating on a raft out in the middle of a dead ocean spotting a seabird flying overhead.

There are high rocks around us. After the town of Grevena, where we had stopped for lunch – a large town square decorated with plinths of varied ancient heads and a tall white clock tower, which don’t really make-up for the sin of being a dull town when surrounded by such natural beauty – the high rocks grow more whipped-cream like. Surreal, high twisting cliffs.

But it’s nothing to prepare me what I’m about to experience, as we turn off to the south, dipping back into the state of Thessaly and onto the edges of the Thessaly plain: the churches suspended in the air.

The Meteora.

Enormous, bent, twisted cylinders of stone. Rising straight up, vertically above us. Up to 1,800 feet high.

Giant columns of red rocks, and white scraped shelfs of stone, curling to the sky. Sprung up from the flat plain like gigantic mushrooms. We stop the car and just stare. It’s an incredible sight.

51

A long, turning road takes us up to the top of one these mountains and we can see across the sweep of this quite insane landscape.

Looking along left to right, there sat on top of their spikes, we count the number of large stone monasteries – blending in with the top of the rocks so it’s hard to see where rangy rock mountain ends and monastery begins.

Built around the 14th century as the advancement of the Ottoman Empire flooded these plains over from the East to the western edges, and the Pindos mountains – where our nothern tour had started so long ago. The monks purposefully building their ascetic homes up in the most impossible to access area.

Until fairly recently the only way to have reached the monasteries was via a rope and winch, hauling goods and, more alarmingly, people, all the way up to these bird haunted tops. A monk, when asked when they replace the ropes replied, in good, faithful ‘God-has-the-answer style’: “When they break”.

Now at least steps have been carved, although some of the winches still run.

We approach one of the magnificent buildings and climb up the steps, to a grand wooden door.

The day is finishing, and most crowds have dispersed – just a huddle of people on rocks bulging out over the huge drop down to the town of Kalambaka below, taking photos of themselves in front of these most extraordinary views. A minibus of south-east Asian-looking men ferrying back and forth, up and down the road, again and again in a seemingly panicked attempt to see all six monasteries in the short time left, in the most desperate, indiscriminate manner.

We are at the base, looking up, at Moni Varlaam. The second largest of the monasteries on the Meteora.

It is shut. But I had heard tale that the monks will take certain travellers in to stay.

I hammer on the door.

Nothing.

I hammer longer.

I keep hammering.

Eventually the door, with its Godly scenes painted round the frame, is opened a crack. An old, thick-set, heavy-bearded monk peers through at us.

Ya sas,” I say.

No reply.

“Can we come in?” I ask.

The monk appears unhappy at this.

“Well…um…that is…um… difficult,” he says.

The door opens a little wider and we nudge a little way in.

“Yes, that is difficult,” he repeats, eyeing me closely. Up and down.

I can see the courtyard running round in a square, doors leading off, a central chapel and, inside, bizarre frescoes of a priest blessing coffins of skeletons. It all makes me want to stay here even more. I look willingly at the monk.

“Is it possible to stay the night here?” I ask.

“Oh. This is difficult. We are…um… having…redecorations,” he says, throwing a hand back towards the unchanged for centuries solid brick edifices.

He has the courtesy at least to look sheepish as he does so.

“We don’t mind,” I say. “We’re happy with anything. Really.”

“Well it is… difficult,” he continues. “Where are you from?” he asks quickly.

“England,” I say  “But she’s from Greece.” I add.

“Oh no, we have no places, no. I’m sorry,” he ushers us, flapping his hands, back towards the door. “Are you Orthodox?” he asks R., but before she has time to reply – her hesitation telling him all he needed to know – we are out.

O Theos mazi sas” – May God bless you – we hear the monk’s final words behind the thumped closed door as locks are turned and bolts thrown.

I am later told, as we sit an evening in an old tavern by men who claim to know, the best answer I could have given would have been to say I was Russian.

“They would have definitely let you in then,” they tell me.

6

The six monasteries here on Meteora used to be 24.

There are only now 10 or so monks up here, that used to be hundreds, living in these incredible monasteries left on this corrugating rooftop of Greece.

Two of the monasteries – due to the dwindling number of monks willing to live up here in the nests on the tapering rocks – were handed over to nuns. Now there are actually around 50 nuns living quite well and rather prospering on this freakishly magnificent mountain top.

I should have approached them.

But on Meteora, under a hurriedly unfolding darkness, we realise we have no choice but to head back down again the winding road. The gigantic rock formations around us throwing blacker shapes on the blackening sky.

We see a younger monk, pulling his robes up over his knees, as he stalks up the mountain, bobbing his upper body back and forth, climbing up the other way. R. brakes the car.

She gets out to greet him and asks, in Greek, if it would be possible to stay in one of the monasteries here, as we have nowhere else to stay.

The monk looks at everything, anything else he can rather than her as she speaks, twisting his head this way and that: a tree, some boulders that have fallen onto the road, the vast view back down onto the plains, the huge sky above us. But he won’t look at her at all.

When she finishes her question, he leans, with a long neck, his head into the car to reply to me.

“I’m sorry. Not today, no, not today,” he says. “Maybe tomorrow… O Theos mazi sas,” he touches me on the forehead.

He continues on up the mountain – throwing his head upwards, to the emerging moon, as R. stands in front of him, waving, trying to offer a goodbye.

So we’re homeless for the night. And the night has fallen hard.

We drive on without knowing where to go.

Back on the old Roman road. Back heading west. Back high up into the Pindos mountains. Through the Katara pass – katara meaning ‘curse’ in Greek, and all Greeks know this road as one of the worst and most dangerous in Greece. We’re hanging over 1,500 meters up, in the air in the black night.

We pull in to the town of Metsovo.

It’s Alpine cold here. Even in this summer night. We are so high up, the atmosphere so clear, the air so fresh. The town looks very Alpine too. Wood panelled villas, carvings, stone houses, chalets. The town actually seems designed for rich tourists in the skiing season.

We are too late for much to be open. The loud, spoilt, well-off-looking Metsovo kids push us out of the way as we enter a tavern. The old man owner tells us with great sadness he has run out of kontosouvli – thick roasted pork slabs on a spit, the speciality of Metsovo.

Instead he has kokoretsi – goat intestines – for us to eat. It’s good though, warming. He gives us a few slices of the famous, strong, Metsovone cheese from this town.

Any sort of hotel is far too expensive for us to contemplate. Metsovo is very beautiful, but there is nothing for us to do but carry on driving, heading out again into the darkness.

*

Dawn is breaking as we drive along the coast road into Parga.

We have driven through the night.

There is an overpowering smell of pine and lavender all along this western road of Greece we’re taking. The early morning sluggish sea – the Ionian – to our left.

In our aimless driving during the night we had meandered on small roads far south, not knowing where to go, frequently lost, but now we are driving up again. The ghostly shapes of the islands of Paxos and, beyond, our home of Corfu sat out in their sea bed of blue.

To our right, the large slumbering animal shaped mountains we had first wandered up on our very first day travelling northern Greece.

The town of Parga is asleep.

It is an attractive town, small houses tumbling down amphitheater-like hills – followed over by the rays of the sun that are just rising up, groping, over the hilltops – to the sea. It looks more like a town on an island than the mainland.

When it wakes it will be crowded with holiday makers, so we take the opportunity to walk the now quiet Venetian-style small lanes up to the battered castle overlooking the town.

6-21

Ali Pasha, the Turkish-sponsored Lord of northern Greece in the early 19th Century, whose bloody reign has haunted us all throughout our journey, was the last to reside here, adorning it with great baths and harems.

We stand on the castle battlements and look down onto the town – known as the Bride of Epirus – still fashioned now for gratified living: hotels, jewellery shops, tavernas.

The curve of sandy beach is making the most of its moment of peace – hundreds of beach umbrellas resting, furled up like sleeping sea birds.

We walk around the higgledy bunched, pastel coloured, quiet old Italian-style houses. Past the soon-to-be-thrown-open travel agencies and shops with their posters in the window and boards waiting to be put out on the streets, advertising trips: the Meteora, Prespes Lakes, the Zagahoria villages, Acheron River. Like a flicked photo album of the memories of our journey.

We walk out onto the beach, past the tightly budded flower-like beach umbrellas, and stand looking towards the tiny island of the Virgin Mary – Panagia Nisi – a short swim away, with its hunkered-down gleaming white church sat surrounded by trees.

And then we turn our backs on it all. And look inland instead. To where our travels in the upper lands of Greece had taken us.

We stare at the hills and the rolling ground. Quiet with our own reflections, now we’d reached the end, with nowhere further left to go.

We think of the journey in that terrain stretching before us, back across the mainland of Greece. We stand and think of the wonders we’d seen travelling these Greek northern provinces.

The sea, that will soon take us away, sighs in and out behind us.

3