Alexander the Great aimed for the Ends of the World and the Great Outer Sea. Giristroula and I were a little less ambitious. We had got as far as the Aegean seacoast of Central Macedonia, but time had run out on us and now we had to turn and head back across the country. Homeward bound. back from North to North-West Greece. The first town we hit on this journey backwards was the town of Pella.
All Greeks have a name day – an onomastiki yiorti – when they celebrate the saint of the same name as theirs and get visited at home by friends and family – who all arrive with eager faces expecting to be looked after and heaped with treats. It’s a bigger occasion than a birthday. Today was the 30th of August – the name day for all Alexanders. My name is Alexander. Pella is the town where Alexander the Great was born… This all seemed meaningful in some vaguely way, as the car rolled into the – quite unexpectedly ugly – home town of Megas Alexandros.
Just like the town where I was born back in Britain, Hastings, or the now souvenir town near Giristroula’s hometown in Greece, Ancient Olympia, it seems that the most significant, historically important towns must always be strangely ugly. With disappointed faces, we crawled through Pella looking for Alexander’s museum. The modern glass and metal Pella museum had many artefacts, mosaics, curios, all that sort of thing, but a strange lack of anything really Alexander. We also seemed to be the only visitors in the museum’s vast halls. The guide followed us closely like a limpet. She seemed to know less than nothing about Alexander, his life, or any of the displays whatsoever.
The [reserved columns and stone floors and passages and broken rooms of Alexander’s old city were laid out across stone-pitted acres of ground. This ancient city that was once the largest and most prosperous in northern Greece. Back into the ugly new town of Pella, we called in on a rather inglorious looking grill house for souvlakis. As the skewers of meat were slowly turned on the coals, just to make conversation, I told the people working there my name, and the – very – small coincidence of being here on this day. The old lady of the restaurant lit up.
“Hronia polla!” she said, throwing her arms up in the air and tottering round the counter, grabbing at my face to kiss it.
“Hhhave.. a.. hhhappy.. name..day!” struggled her husband, sat on the till, in imponderable English.
The cook caught on and came running at full pelt from the kitchen at the back to shake my hand.
“Kai mena me lene Alexandro!” – I’m Alexander too! he shouted, and hugged me close “Hronia polla! Hronia polla!”
The other customers all patted my back, offered me good wishes. I told them it was only a name. The other Alexander here opened up a box of Turkish Delight and insisted on giving me a piece, and stood grinning at me. I smiled back. He told me once again that he too was called Alexander, pointing to himself in case I hadn’t got it. I nodded. We smiled at each other again. The souvlakis just never seeming to be ready.
The town of Alexandreia had previously been 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 stubbornly called it by its old name. It was an unattractive, large-looking, town, built on a grid of streets that pretended to lead somewhere, but didn’t. On the main road, driving alongside the town, I noticed a large municipal building set behind a long dirty grey wall. An old factory or a school perhaps. But then in its grounds I saw tents pitched. Headscarfed women in long coats and dark-complexion kids looking out through the railing. We parked up and I walked over. There was a police guard on the gate. I asked him if this was a refugee camp. Having been at what had been the largest makeshift camp in Europe in Idomeni a few days ago, I wondered if this was where some of the inhabitants had been moved to? The policeman offered no response. I asked him if it was ok for me to be here. He shrugged. Happy to give the impression he spoke no English. A blonde haired pair, a man and woman in matching blue t-shirts walked past. I asked them if this was a camp for the refugees. They were volunteers from Sweden. They told me that, yes, this was one of the largest camps in Greece where many of the displaced refugees from Idomeni had been placed. There were 25 camps like this one around the country. I looked past them at a long line of women in bright dresses, dirty-looking now, 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 asked.
“No,” they both said, as one. “There is no organisation. There is nothing. Sometimes food arrives, sometimes it doesn’t. Nobody knows what’s happening. Nobody has any idea here.”
The previously silent police guard stepped forward.
“Why are you asking questions?”
He stood between me and the volunteers, blocked the entrance to the camp.
“Why are you asking questions?” he repeated and prodded hard my shoulder. I got the message and walked away, back to the car, catching as I left a last, flicking view of the camp through the railings. A child sat, playing on its own in a dull patch of dry mud, blowing listlessly on a plastic whistle which made no noise.
We headed south. Briefly leaving the state of Macedonia, crossing into the borderland shared with Thessaly. Perhaps because the land had become more flat than any we’d seen for a long time, the sight of Mount Olympus was even more of a shock and seemed even higher than expected. It seemed to just leap from the ground, as if spat from the over-heated, sun-boiled, land. It was incredible something so big could just appear so secretly and quietly.
We had previously tackled Olympus a few years earlier, when I had proposed to Giristroula at the very top and joined her in this Greek world that I was now happily caught and tangled in. We had climed its eastern side then, from the popular starting-point town of Litchoro, so this time we went west to the more forgotten side. To the town of Dion. Dion was another great ancient city – and a dedicated sanctuary to Zeus and the Gods. Alexander and his father King Philip held huge festivals here at the foot of the mountain, making momentous sacrifices for their successful travels conquering unknown lands. Giristroula and I walked the exhumed ancient roads, between the old columns. I threw a coin – our own small dedication – into one of the now overgrown, rather weed-run shrines as booming thunder rumbled menacingly over Zeus’ mountain-top home behind us. We still had a long way to get back to our home, I felt perhaps it was wise to make some sort of offering to the gods. We walked a way up Olympus in thick, heavy air and took a swim in a quiet pool under a waterfall, but the sky darkened further and soon we were scurrying back down and onto the road again. We followed the range. the mountain tops rippling alongside us like the back of a huge serpent. The sky a glowing bright grey. Flashes of lightning high above.
Vergina. King Philip’s town. Having been disappointed by Alexander’s town – and this time thinking to learn the lesson and keep my middle name, Philip, quiet here – we arrived expecting little. We drove in, giving little “told you so” nods to one another as the fairly prosaic, colourless town emerged, and pulled up at the museum for the tomb of Philip. It appeared to be a well-manicured hill. The sun had battled out from between the clouds, the sky had blued a deep colour over the grass dome. An old stone football stadium-style tunnel led into the belly of the hill. Puzzled, we shrugged to each other and walked into the dark. Philip’s tomb burst back at us out of the blackness. We were jolted in surprise like being on the end of long falling rope. It was an astonishing sight. Unlike many ancient archaeological places I’d been to, I didn’t have to stare at a pile of stones or use my imagination as to what it might have been here or how it might have looked like millennia ago. Here Philip’s tomb was complete. Standing proud and unaffected, staring straight back at me. To cover the original excavations, a hill was built over this museum to leave Philip’s tombs as they were made originally: underground. Inside, in the new large cool dark antechambers, the pale-coloured, decorated stone tombs of Philip and Alexander’s son stood tall, unlooted, unbroken, entire and intact. The museum didn’t just have twisted old coins and bits of metal that once could have perhaps been a sword handle or a spear head. There were great finds: graves and paintings, and there, under bright spotlights, rested the actual golden box that held Philip’s bones. The dazzling gold crowns Philip and his wife were buried in. Philip’s actual armour all laid out, two thousand five hundred years old. All quite unreal.
After leaving Philip’s final resting place, we headed towards Veria in the evening and stood in the town’s square in the dying orange sun. The kids ran and played, the old people drank and gossiped. As in every town square in Greece, usually centre round one plane tree, this will go on till late: 11pm, midnight, 1am. There will be school and work the next day of course, but the Greeks always seem to me to think that if they don’t acknowledge that it’s late, if they don’t admit that time is passing, then perhaps it won’t.
Philip of Macedonia met his end in 336BC, assassinated at the theatre. We went to the theatre in Veria too. The large open amphitheatre high up on the hills overlooking the city. The night air was still hot, the ropes behind the scenes in the sky had been dropped, the sun had fallen, another set of ropes pulled lifting the moon up in its place. Thousands of cicadas – that real, true, voice of Greece – chirruped loudly from all around. Veria’s city lights glittered in the dark below us, like an open box of king’s jewels and Northern Greece looked like a stage’s backdrop for the whole of the country. We were 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 was expecting a heavy-going evening. Necessary English subtitles on a screen were there for me, and for Giristroula too, showing how far the Modern Greek language has drifted from its ancient conception – but I sat, gripped.
“I know only one thing: that I know nothing.” Socrates’ great paradox.
I dwelt on this as we floated up here, hundreds of meters above the old city. The flow of Greek land all around me, the mountains, the water, the countryside, the towns, the people. I thought I knew Greece, but what did I really know?
The Via Egnatia. The great stretching road built by the Romans, linking the western coast of 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 towards Asia. And now we were following it, in its modern form anyway – the E90 motorway. This modern road, the Egnatia Odos, follows the line of the ancient road – still visible in some parts in the undergrowth to the side of the motorway – all along northern Greece, all the way into Turkey. We were on it now, but heading west. The road, as so many of the modern new-build roads in Greece seemed to be, was quiet. There is often nothing on Greek new roads – outside of the cities, at least – for miles. Even here on this large, well maintained, motorway there were no cars, nothing. My interest picked up every time I saw a rare vehicle 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 were high rocks around us though. After the town of Grevena, where we had stopped for lunch – a large town square oddly decorated with plinths of varied ancient heads, and a tall white clock tower but which didn’t really make-up for the sin of being a dull town when surrounded by such natural beauty – the high rocks grew higher and more whipped-cream like. Surreal, high twisting cliffs. But all this was nothing, no adequate preparation at all for what we were about to experience, as we turned off to the south, dipping back into the state of Thessaly and onto the edges of the Thessaly plain. We were soon about to see those magical churches suspended in the air: The Meteora.
Monasteries built on 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 pillars of stone, curling to the sky. Springing up from the flat plain like gigantic mushrooms. We stopped the car and just stared. It was all you could do.
A long, turning road took us up to the top of one these columns. From here we could see across the whole sweep of this quite insane landscape. Looking along left to right, sat on top of their rock spikes, we counted the large stone monasteries – blending in with the tops so it’s hard to see where rangy rock mountain ends and monastery begins. Six vast monasteries, built around the 15th and 16th centuries as the march of the Ottoman Empire flooded these plains from the east to its western edges and to the Pindos mountains – where our northern tour had started so long ago. The monks, fearful of Turkish threat, purposefully built their ascetic homes up in these most impossible-to-access areas. Until fairly recently the only way to reach the monasteries was via a rope and winch, hauling goods and – more alarmingly – people, all the way up to the tops. A monk, when asked when they replace the ropes replied, in good, faithful ‘God-has-the-answer style’: “When they break”.
We approached one of the buildings and climbed up the steps to a grand wooden door. The day was finishing, and most of the crowds had dispersed – just a huddle of people taking photos of themselves on rocks bulging out over the huge drops down to the town of Kalambaka below, a minibus of Asian men being ferried back and forth, up and down the road, in a seemingly panicked attempt to see all six monasteries in the short time left in the most desperate, indiscriminate manner. We looked up at Moni Varlaam. The second largest of the monasteries on the Meteora. It was shut, but I had heard tales that the monks would take certain travellers in to stay. I hammered on the door. Nothing. I hammered longer. Still nothing. I kept hammering. Eventually the door, with its Godly scenes painted round the frame, was opened a crack. An old, thick-set, heavy-bearded monk peered through the crack at us.
“Ya sas,” I said.
“Can we come in?” I asked.
The monk appeared unhappy. “Well…um…that is…difficult,” he said.
The door opened slightly wider and we nudged a little way inside.
“Yes, it is difficult,” he repeated, eyeing me closely, up and down. “Dyskola, dyskola…” he rubbed at his beard.
I could 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 made me want to stay here even more. I looked imploringly at the monk.
“Is it possible to stay the night here?” I asked.
“Oh. This is very difficult. We are…um… having redecorations,” he said, throwing a hand back towards the unchanged-for-centuries solid brick edifices.
“We don’t mind,” I said. “We’re happy with anything. Really.”
“Well…um…Where are you from?” he asked me quickly, a finger pointed at my chin.
“England,” I said “But she’s from Greece.” I added, but it was too late.
“Oh no, we have no places, no. I’m sorry,” he ushered us, flapping his hands, back towards the door.
He stopped. “Are you Orthodox?” he asked Giristroula but before she had time to reply – her hesitation telling him all he needed to know – we were out.
“O Theos mazi sas” – May God bless you – we heard the monk’s final words behind the thumped closed door as locks were turned and bolts thrown.
I was later told, as we sat in an old tavern by men who claimed to know, the best answer I could have given was to say I was Russian. “Then they would have definitely let you in,” they told me assuredly.
The six monasteries on Meteora used to be 24. Now there were only 10 or so monks up here on the tapering rocks. There used to be hundreds, living in these monasteries squatted on the corrugating rooftop of Greece. Due to the dwindling number of monks willing to live up here in these nests, two of the monasteries had been handed over to nuns. Now there were actually around 50 nuns living rather well and prospering up here. Reflecting on it later, I thought how I should have approached the nuns.
Under a fast unfolding darkness, we realised we have no choice but to head back down again the winding road from the top of Meteora. The gigantic rock formations around us were throwing blacker shapes on the blackening sky as we descended. Then we saw on the side of the road, in the gloom, a younger monk holding his robes high up over his knees as he stalked up the climb: his upper body bobbing back and forth as he took great long strides up the road as we came down. Giristroula stopped the car and got out to greet him and asked if he knew any way it would be possible to stay in one of the monasteries here, as we had nowhere else to stay. The monk looked at everything, anything he could rather than at her as she spoke. Twisting his head this way and that: looking at a tree, some boulders that had fallen onto the road, looking down over the vast view back down onto the plains, the huge sky above us. He wouldn’t look at her at all. When she had finished talking he leaned his long neck through the window into the car to reply to me.
“I’m sorry. Not today, no, not today,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow… O Theos mazi sas,” he touched me on the forehead and smiled a benedictine smile.
The monk continued on up the mountain – throwing his head upwards, to the emerging moon, as Giristroula walked backwards in front of him still trying to catch his attention. It seemed the monk, this high up, this close to God, did not want to run any risk of being caught even glancing at a woman.
So we were homeless for the night. We drove on without really 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 bit of road as one of the worst and most dangerous in Greece. We were hanging 1,500 meters up, in the air in the black night. Eventually – the car just following its wheels – we pulled in to the town of Metsovo.
It was Alpine cold in Metsovo, even in this summer night, we were so high up, the atmosphere so clear and the air so fresh. The town looked very Alpine too: wood panelled villas, carvings, stone houses, chalets. The town seemed designed for rich tourists and the skiing season. We were too late for much to be open. The loud, spoilt, well-off-looking Metsovo kids pushed us out of the way as we entered a tavern. An old man, the owner, told us with a great sadness he had run out of kontosouvli – thick roasted pork slabs on a spit, the speciality of Metsovo, Instead he had kokoretsi – goat intestines – for us to eat. It was good, warming. He served us up a few slices of the strong Metsovone cheese from here too. Any sort of hotel was far too expensive for us to contemplate though. Metsovo is very beautiful, but it was not for us. Like a smiling stranger shaking her head and waving a hand for us to keep moving along and not to bother her.
There was nothing for us to do but carry on driving. We drove through the remote wooded mountain area of Tzoumerka, stopping at the old stone village of Kalarites. We sat in an old wood tavern – no rooms here either. The people of Tzoumerka all walking around with glitses – long wooden walking sticks with a sort-of duck’s head handle – the stick often resting over shoulders with their arms draped over, as if hanging on their own crucifixes. No one ever seemed to break into a smile in Tzoumerka. I noticed also that many of the residents weren’t speaking Greek. I asked what language it was, and as was shocked to learn they were speaking Vlach. Descendants of the Vlach nomad shepherds I had previously caught glimpse of on the slopes of Mount Gamila – no longer wandering the northern Greek lands but settled here. They recommended we try the next village along, Syrakko, so we took a plunging route on foot down a steep valley in the dark and then up again, thickly cut steps up the hillside only to find Syrakko’s stone-faced houses had no place for us either. Unwanted, off-course, vagabond and destitute, we returned to Kalarites, two hours after leaving it, tired and thirsty. We drove on into the dark night.
Dawn was breaking along the coast road into Parga. We had driven through the night. Idling through the middle of northern Greece, nowhere to go but just around and around. There was an overpowering smell of pine and lavender all along this western road up along the sea. The early sun pierced the wooded fields, waking and opening everything up. The new day’s sun I could see shining through the trees could perhaps have been mistaken for a fat orange hanging off the branch. The sluggish sea – the Ionian now – to our left was slow getting started this morning.
In our aimless driving during the night we had meandered along small roads far south, not knowing where to go, frequently lost. But at some point we had hit the far west point of Greece and the coast and were now driving up northwards again. The ghostly shapes of the islands of Paxos and, beyond, our home of Corfu could be seen sat out in their bed of still blue sea. To our right were the large slumbering animal-shaped mountains we had first wandered up on our very first day travelling northern Greece. By the time we reached Igoumenitsa the boat to Corfu should be running.
The town of Parga was still asleep as we passed. A beautiful town: small houses tumbling down amphitheater-like hills to the sea – followed over by the rays of the sun that were just rising up, groping their fingers over the hilltops. It looked more like a town on an island than on the mainland. When it woke it would be crowded with holiday makers, so we took the opportunity now to walk the quiet Venetian-style small lanes up to the battered castle overlooking the town. Ali Pasha, the Turkish-sponsored Lord of northern Greece in the early 19th Century, whose bloody reign had haunted us throughout our whole journey, was the last to live in Parga’s castle. Adorning it with great baths and harems. We stood on the battlements and looked down onto the town – known as the Bride of Epirus and still fashionable now for gratified living: hotels, jewellery shops, up-market tavernas.
The curve of its sandy beach was making the most of its moment of peace – hundreds of beach umbrellas resting, furled up like sleeping sea birds. We walked around the higgledy, bunched, pastel-coloured, old Italian-style houses. Past the soon-to-be-thrown-open shops and travel agencies with posters in the window and boards waiting to be put out on the streets advertising trips: the Meteora, Prespes Lakes, the Zagoria villages, the Acheron River. Like a flicked photo album of all the memories of our journey.
We walked out onto the beach and stood looking out towards the open sea. 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 turned our backs on it all, and looked inland instead, to where our travels in the north of Greece had taken us. We stared 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 thought of the journey we’d taken in all that terrain stretching before us, back across the mainland, back though the northern Greece. The sea that would soon take us away lapped in and out on the beach behind us, sighing to itself.