North By Northwest Greece

North By Northwest Greece

Alexander the Great aimed for the Ends of the World and the Great Outer Sea. I suppose we did too. We reached 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 back was the town of Pella. It was the 30th of August. Pella is the town where Alexander the Great was born. The 30th of August is the celebration day throughout the whole of Greece for the name of Alexander. 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 expecting to be treated. It’s a bigger occasion than a birthday in Greece. My name is Alexander… This all seemed somehow meaningful, in some 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, celebrated, historically important towns must always be strangely ugly. So, disappointed-faced, we crawled through Pella looking for Alexander’s museum. The modern, impossing, glass and metal Pella museum had many artefacts, mosaics and curios, but a strange lack of anything really Alexander. We also seemed to be the only visitors here, in the vast halls. The guide followed us closely through the large rooms. Like a limpet. Try as hard as we could, we couldn’t shake her off. She seemed to know less than nothing about Alexander, his life, or any of the displays whatsoever.

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A small distance away were the preserved columns and stone floors and passages and broken rooms of Alexander’s old city – laid out across stone-pitted acres of ground. The city that was once the largest and most prosperous in northern Greece. It was an impressive spread, but we then followed this with a stop in a rather inglorious souvlaki shop back in modern-day central Pella town. As the skewers of meat 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!” 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 then stood grinning at me. I smiled back. He told me once again that he too is called Alexander. The souvlakis couldn’t be ready quick enough.

*

On the road to Alexandreia. A town 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 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 in its vast grounds I saw tents pitched. Headscarfed women and dark faced 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 a few days ago been at the site of what had been the largest makeshift camp in Europe in Idomeni, 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 whatsoever. A blonde haired 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 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 exotically bright dresses, dirty 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 a clue here.”

The previously silent police guard stepped forward. “Why are you asking questions?”

He stood between me and the volunteers, blocked out the entrance to the camp.

“Why are you asking questions?” he repeated and prodded hard my shoulder. I got the message.

I walked away, back to the car, catching as I left a last, flicking, view of the camp through the railings at 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 around here had become more flat than any we’d seen for a long time, the sight of Mount Olympus was even more arresting and even higher than expected. It seemed to just leap from the ground. As if spat from the over-heated, sun-boiled, land.

We had previously tackled Olympus a few years earlier, when I had proposed to Giristroula at the very top and passed into this Greek world that I was now happily tangled and trapped in forever. We had climed its eastern side, from the popular starting-point town of Litchoro then. 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. We walked the exhumed ancient roads, between the old columns, and 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 we might need the help. We walked a way up Olympus in a thick, heavy air. Took a swim in a quiet pool under a waterfall. But the sky darkened further and soon we were scurrying back down and getting 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 glowing bright grey. Flashes of lightning high above.

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Vergina. King Philip’s town. Having been left disappointed by Alexander’s town (and this time thinking to learn my lesson and keep my middle name – Philip – quiet here) we arrived expecting nothing. 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 blue 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. It was an astonishing sight. Unlike many ancient archaeological places I didn’t have to stare at a pile of stones or use my imagination as to what it might have been or what it might have looked like millennia ago. Here, Philip’s tomb was complete. Stood proud and unaffected, staring straight back at me. To countermand the original excavations, a hill was built over this museum to leave Philip’s tombs as they were originally: underground. Then, 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 been and sword handle or a spear head. There were great finds – other graves, paintings, and there, under bright spotlights, rested 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. All quite unreal.

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After leaving Philip’s final resting place, we headed towards Veria in the early evening and stood in the town’s square in the dying orange sun. This town that is mentioned in the Bible. In front of us now the kids ran and played, the old people drank and gossiped. As in every town square in Greece, this will go on till late: 11pm, midnight. There is school and work tomorrow of course, but the Greek thinks if they don’t acknowledge 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 were to spend a night at the theatre here in Veria too. Sat in a large open amphitheatre high up on the hills overlooking the city, the night air was still hot. Thousands of cicadas – the 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. 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 us. The mountains, the water, the countryside, the towns, the people. Northern Greece seemed like a stage’s backdrop for the whole of the country to me. I thought about the things I had grasped here, and everything there was still to know.

*

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 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 – all along northern Greece, a lot further east than we’d managed to get to this time. All the way into Turkey. We were on it, but heading west. And 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. No cars, nothing. My interest pricked 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. 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, which didn’t really make-up for the sin of being a dull town when surrounded by such natural beauty – the high rocks growing 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. Because 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 an incredible sight.

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A long, turning road took us up to the top of one these mountains and we could see across the whole sweep of this quite insane landscape. Looking along left to right, sat on top of their spikes, we counted 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. Six vast monasteries, built around the 15th and 16th centuries as the march of the Ottoman Empire flooded these plains over from the east to the 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 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 approached one of the magnificent buildings and climbed up the steps, to a grand wooden door. The day was finishing, and most crowds had dispersed – just a huddle of people on rocks bulging out over the huge drops down to the town of Kalambaka below, taking photos of themselves in front of the views. A minibus of Asian men being ferried 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 were at the base, looking 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. So 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 at us.

Ya sas,” I said.

No reply.

“Can we come in?” I asked.

The monk appeared unhappy. “Well…um…that is…um… difficult,” he said.

The door opened a little 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 willingly at the monk.

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

“Oh. This is difficult. We are…um… having…redecorations,” he said, throwing a hand back towards the unchanged-for-centuries solid brick edifices. He had the courtesy to at least look a little sheepish as he did it.

“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 one evening 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.

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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 up on the mountain tops, two of the monasteries had been handed over to nuns. Now there were actually around 50 nuns living well and rather prospering up here. I should have approached the nuns.

But on Meteora, under a fast unfolding darkness, we realised we have no choice but to head back down again the winding road. The gigantic rock formations around us threw blacker shapes on the blackening sky. Then we saw a younger monk, pulling his robes up over his knees, as he stalked up the mountain, bobbing his upper body back and forth, climbing up the other way as we came down. Giristroula stopped the car. She got out to greet him and asked, in Greek, if he knew a 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 head, with a long neck, 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 and tiptoed up, confused, trying to catch his attention and say goodbye. It seemed the monk, this high up, this close to God, did not want to be caught looking at a woman.

So we were homeless for the night. And the night had fallen hard. We drove 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 bit of road as one of the worst and most dangerous in Greece. We were hanging over 1,500 meters up, in the air in the black night. And didn’t know what to do. Eventually, the car just following its wheels, we pulled in to the town of Metsovo. It was Alpine cold here. Even in this summer night: we were so high up, the atmosphere so clear, the air so fresh. The town looked very Alpine too. Wood panelled villas, carvings, stone houses, chalets. The town seemed designed for rich tourists in 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 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 though. Warming. He gave us a few slices of the famous, strong, Metsovone cheese from this town. Any sort of hotel was far too expensive for us to contemplate. Metsovo is very beautiful, but it was not for us. Like a beautiful smiling stranger shaking her head. There was nothing for us to do but carry on driving, heading out again into the darkness.

*

Dawn was breaking as we drove along the coast road into Parga. We had driven through the night. Idling through the middle of northern Greece. Nowhere to go but around and around. There was an overpowering smell of pine and lavender all along this western road of Greece that we were now taking – up along the coast. The early sun pierced the wooded field, waking, opening everything up. The sun shining through the trees could have been a fat orange hanging off the branch. The sluggish, sea – the Ionian now – was to our left. It was slow to get 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 we had hit the far west point of Greece, the sea, 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 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.

The town of Parga was still asleep. It was an attractive 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 to walk the now quiet Venetian-style small lanes up to the battered castle overlooking the town.

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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 here. Adorning it with great baths and harems. We stood on the castle battlements and looked down onto the town – known as the Bride of Epirus – still fashioned now for gratified living: hotels, jewellery shops, up-market tavernas. But the curve of its sandy beach was making the most of its moment of peace – hundreds of beach umbrellas were resting, furled up like sleeping sea birds. We walked 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 Zagoria villages, 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. 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 turned our backs on it all. And looked inland instead. To where our travels in the upper lands 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 of Greece. And we thought of what we’d seen travelling these northern provinces. And the sea – the sea that would soon take us away back home – sighed in and out behind us.

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