The Goddess Karenia at Olympia
Lover of Cliffus, Associate God of music and wine.
What Is Greece?
Before coming here, Greece meant the home of the Ancient Olympic Games, the Parthenon, the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and the home of the Great Philosophers. We new something of Greece's ancient history and mythology (particularly through Michael's studies in these areas), but not very much about its geography, and nothing about its natural wonders, its towns and cities, its people, or its agriculture. Following our tour, which was an amazing experience, we have seen and learnt an enormous amount in all these areas. If the tour had ignored the country's archaeological sites and accompanying museums, it would still have been interesting, but probably not great value for money. The fact is, you can't separate Greece from its ancient history, and our tour was aimed very much at displaying as much as possible of the glories of ancient Greece, as it was then, and as we see it now. Greece was truly the cradle of civilization as we know it now. It is quite amazing to see for your own eyes that Greece had a civilization as far back as 3,000 years ago that was as advanced in its own way as ours is today.
A VDL BOVA, made in Holland.
They may not have had cell phones and HD TVs, but they had architects that created the most splendid buildings, artisans that created exquisite marble sculptures and treasures in gold, silver, and ivory, and engineers that created many of the things that we now take for granted such as baths with cold, warm, or hot water, heated floors, and sewage and drainage systems. All our common European languages have their origins in Greek. As well, the Greeks gave us Poetry, Mathematics, and Science, and taught us how to create original ideas by learning how to think, what we know as Philosophy. It was a humbling experience just two days ago to be sitting in the school room set up by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of them all. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, who in turn was the pupil of Socrotes, the Father of Philosophy. In his classroom Aristotle taught a young 14 year old called Alexander who attended his school for 3 years to learn to be a leader and a warrior. He went on to become the ruler of the greatest empire that the World has seen. Only yesterday morning we visited the Great Tumulus at Vergina,
A man with an amazing knowledge, and enthusiasm for his job.
the grave mound covering the royal tombs of Macedonia. Within the tumulus a unique new museum has been created which incorporates four tombs and displays of the artifacts removed from two of them that were found untouched. I think that we were all in total awe at the sight of such amazing treasures as a large 12 kg gold larnax (box) in which was found the cremated remains of King Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Dating from 336 BC, it is beautifully decorated, with a large 16 point star on its lid, the symbol of the kings of Macedonia. It looks like it was made yesterday. A golden wreath, also from Phillip's tomb, is made of hundreds of pieces of gold, making up intertwining flowers, leaves and stems. These, and hundreds more amazing treasures made a modern treasure like the Mona Lisa seem like a 5c postage stamp! We had to pinch ourselves to believe that we were looking at the real thing. One of the tombs was of an open type and could be viewed from above just as it was found. The smell of the soil made it seem that much more real. Going through
Pink and white oliander made a colourful border along long stetches of many roads
big doors and down a flight of stairs deep into the earth we came to Phillips tomb, a huge 2-chambered block box. We could only view its front, but to get even that close to a real tomb was almost like discovering it for ourselves, and we could see what was inside from a big model. A 15 minute video gave us the history of the site and the French Archeologist who first discovered the tombs. It also gave a vivid description of how the ancient Greeks handled death, with some lessons that are still true today! Greece may be having economic and other troubles today, but, when it comes to their ancient past, they handle it superbly. The many museums that we visited are modern and brilliantly set out, the archeological sites are made accessible but are well protected, and wherever another ancient site is discovered it is protected and preserved. An example of this is just around the corner from our hostel where ancient ruins found when making the new Metro system, are incorporated into the underground station in Monastariki Square. My original title for this blog was going to be A Week In Ruins, but decided that
this would be misleading. It would be wrong to call Greece's archeological sites ruins. They, along with all the wonderful items found in them, are truly Greece's Treasures.
Touring By Bus
Before telling more of our weeks activities, first something about bus tours, particularly for anyone who has not been on one before. Touring by bus is probably an activity that you either really like or really dislike. We have now completed 5 bus tours and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. A good bus tour requires an itinerary that suits your needs, a good tour director, a good group of people, a good bus, and a good driver. We chose this 7 day tour because it was the only one that covered the northern half of mainland Greece and we thought that if we are only going to come once, then we might as well see it all. As it turned out we were so glad that we did. Not only did we see many of the greatest treasures, we found that the landscape and agriculture in the north is quite different to the south. Our bus, a VDL BOVA, made in Holland, was adequate but not the best
Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus
Famed its amazing acoustics.
that we have had. It had good air conditioning, and tinted windows, but seating much like an aircraft, with rather minimal leg room. Our driver, Kosta, was excellent. Like all the drivers we have had, he had absolute control of his bus in the tightest of spaces, and we had complete confidence in him. In addition he was quite a character. His English wasn't extensive, but he was always polite and chatty. Our Tour Director, Anthony, was a phenomenon. Born in Athens of Greek parents, he graduated from Athens University first as an Economics major, and then from their Faculty of Guiding after three and a half years study, the first of which was spent just touring the country. On the first day, when we sat further back in the bus, he presented us with so much information so quickly that I was sure he was reading it. As it turned out, he took us all over Greece, giving us facts, figures, dates, etc for every site visited and many along the way all completely from memory. He truly has a stupendous knowledge of Greek history, mythology, and general knowledge, and was never once caught out. But what came across
The Lion Gate At Mycenae
This famous gate is at the entrance to the archaeological site.
even more was his unbridled enthusiasm for what he was doing. At times he must have been frustrated at our inability to absorb very much (we joked about the exam at the end of the tour!), but carried on as enthusiastic as ever. We were like a group of disciples following their Messiah as we hung on to his every word, struggling at times to keep up with his pace. And therein lies the one drawback of bus touring; more often than not there is insufficient time to spend at each site as you would like. But provided that you accept that this is a trade-off for seeing more places and doing more things, then everything else about bus touring is a positive. In terms of value for money it is hard to beat. Everything is included in the initial cost except some meals (on this tour all breakfasts and dinners were included and only lunches had to be paid for). This was a first class tour, so the hotels were excellent, and priority entry given at all sites, with nothing extra for entry fees. We believe that holidays should never be paid for once they are over. In fact
Museum at Olympia
The west pediment of the Temple of Zeus.
the earlier that you pay for them the better. This not only usually qualifies you for a discount (10% in this case), but allows you to completely forget the pain before the tour starts! If we were to pay for a holiday like this bit by bit or even day by day, we would probably be out of there soon after entering the first hotel. Having it practically 95% paid for however means that we can really enjoy living in the lap of luxury for a week, and actually have something left for souvenirs (we are already wondering how our plane will get on getting off the ground!). We had an unusual mix of people on this trip, from as varied places as Greece itself, Australians of Greek parentage, other Australians, South Americans, North Americans, two Chinese from somewhere, 4 or 5 Kiwis, and others who we really didn't talk to much. I think everyone had some reason for going on this tour other than just to see the country, such as a 'woman of the World' who speaks many languages and wanted to improve her Greek. We all got on well, and were a happy bunch. Anthony himself, apart
a 3 km, 6 lane, cable-stay bridge over the Gulf of Corinth.
from being fluent in Greek and English, is fluent in Italian and has a working knowledge of Spanish. He acts as a guide for Italian tours as well.
Our few days of hot weather in London were a good introduction to Greece, where it has been consistently hot and dry, our only rain coming briefly on our first morning in Thessaloniki, and had cleared up by the time we set out. I think that temperatures have reach over 30 on every day but possibly one, when we had a partly cloudy day in the far north. On most days it has been well into the 30s in the shade and probably 40 in the sun. So clearly this tour could be done a month earlier. Sun is better than rain however when it comes to walking around outdoor sites for hours, and we have learnt to hydrate continually. On our first day on tour, the longest, and perhaps hottest, of all, we thought we were drinking a lot but, although a lot went into the top end, very little came out the bottom end! After that we drank twice as much and everything returned to normal. All
Sea of Olives
The early morning view from our balcony at Delphi. In the foreground is part of the Sea of Olives. The cruise ship had just arrived.
the tap water in Greece is quite pallatable and perfectly safe. Bottled water however is quite cheap if you prefer. A bottle of really cold water can be so nice on a burning hot day. Many places provide drinking fountains from which you can fill bottles up as well.
The Archeological Sites and Their Museums.
As stated in our last blog, these are so extensive and so magnificent that it would take days to tell you about them and share with you some of the hundreds of photos that we have taken, and it wouldn't do them justice to skim over them. Instead I shall leave them mainly to another time, if time permits, and cover them one at a time. In some museums, as at Vergina for example, photography was not allowed. Instead we have purchased books which describe the sites and their museums in more detail and have photos of the best quality on glossy paper. Any of you who are interested will be welcome to look at these on our return.
We left Athens at about 9 am and headed west towards the Peloponnese, the large area of mainland Greece that
The Sacred Way
A stiff climb through the archaeological site at Delphi.
is virtually an island, joined only by the very narrow (6.4 km) Isthmus of Corinth. In fact, since the Corinth Canal was completed right across the Isthmus in 1893, the Peloponnese is joined only by road and rail bridges over the canal, and now a huge new bridge across the Gulf of Corinth in the north. The Corinth Canal is 25m wide at water level, 18m high, and the water 8m deep. 11 million cubic metres of soil were removed by hand to build it. It is used by 12,000 ships a year. It was quite a sight to stand on the bridge and watch a ship sailing beneath us. Our next stop was the Ancient Theatre at Epidaurus. Famous for its remarkable acoutics, its seats are carved from the mountain and can seat up to 15,000 people. The lower 35 rows were completed in the 4th Century BC, and the upper 21 rows in the 2nd Century BC. Its construction is based on the Golden Ratio 55:34 and its acoustics are partly due to its seating covering a bit more than half a cirle. A person seated at the top of the theatre can hear a person at the
Symbolising the Centre of the Earth in classical times, it was located in the Temple Of Apollo.
centre of the 'orchestra' (original meaning iscircular dancing floor) talking in their normal voice as if they were standing right beside them! We all tried it out and it is true. Pretty clever for something built over 5,000 years ago eh!? Our next stop was at Nafplion, the first capital of modern Greece, and then it was off to Mycene, where we visited an interesting archeological site (a lot of climbing in very hot weather) and the famous Tomb of Agamemnon. Buried beneath a huge mound of earth, we entered the tomb at ground level through a large stone entrance way. The tomb itself is circular and built like a huge stone igloo with the top stretched up to a near point. It must have been about 15 metres high. Most of southern Greece is very mountainous and we were continually either going up or down. The only flat areas were in little valleys or in places around the coast. As we crossed over the main divide the scenery changed from the very dry countryside of the East Coast to a much greener one. Everywhere on the Peloponnese we saw large numbers of olive trees. If anything symbolises Greece as
The Monastry of St Stephen as seen from the road as we approached it.
much as anything else it is the olive tree. If there is a spare square metre somewhere an olive tree is planted on it. And they live long lives. If the tops are cut down, the trunk sproats again. The result is millions of young looking trees with huge ancient trunks. Very few animals were to be seen; a few goats and a chicken or two. No cows, no sheep, and no horses. Two animals that we did see a lot of however were cats and dogs. Every city square and town seems to have its commumity dogs. Usually big and friendly, they appear to belong to no one and just sit around waiting for people to feed them. While many of their coats were a bit rough, they never looked underfed. The cats tend to be wilder and scrawnier, hanging about in dark and dirty places, an obvious result of no population control. Passing through the towns of Tripoli and Megalopoli, we finally reached the West Coast (seeing the Ionian Sea for the first time) and continued north and then a little inland to Olympia. For the whole tour Anthony was very good with stops for a stretch, food
Joining Leonirdas' Spartans at Thermopylae.
and drink, and toilets. A whole book could be written on Greek toilets. None were the same, and varied in quality from barely adequate to excellent, with most being good to very good. The speed limits on Greek roads is surprisingly low when off the motorways (which we only travelled on to any extent on the last day), so the pace was usually fairly gentle. Our hotel at Olympia was one of three in the Amalia chain of hotels that we stayed in over the first 3 nights. We would rate these as four or four and a half star hotels. They are set up to handle large numbers of tourists, with six bus loads being at our hotel each night. They have huge dining rooms, with all meals set out as huge buffets. We enjoyed these meals a lot. The rooms were all of a god size, with telephone and TV (which we didn't use). The showers however were a bit strange, with the shower head on one side of the bath tub, and a plastic curtain which kept sticking to us on the other side.
Starting at 8.30, we spent the whole morning at the
Alexander The Great
The statue on the waterfront is Thessaloniki.
Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus and in the adjoining museum. It would be a pity if anyone coming all this way thought that visiting the famous site was the main activity. The site is very interesting, but you cannot really appreciate it until you have seen the treasures that come from the site, and it is best to see these in the Museum first. For example, the Temple of Zeus was a magnificent building, only 3 metres shorter than the Pathanon. Completed in 546 BC, it was destroyed by two earthquakes in the 6th Century AD. Many of its columns remain just where they fell and broke into huge flutted circular sections, looking like slices off a salami. It could now be described as a heap of ruins (but very important ones) but in the museum are the huge and magnificent pediments that once lined its east and west ends. They are about 75% complete. The equivalent pediments from the Pathanon were sold to the British Museum when what is now Greece was under Turkish rule (and will hopefully one day be returned to Greece). Like everyone else, we visited the Ancient Stadium at the site and 'ran' an Olympic foot
Class Is In
Sitting in Aristotle's classroom. Anyone for Philosophy?
race. The starting and finishing lines are still there (if lifted a bit from where they were buried), as are the box for the scorers and the Royal Box opposite for dignataries. The length of the run is 600 of Hercules' feet, or 129.27 m. Although now an insignificant small collection of stone blocks, the Alta of Hera was also a must see, as this is where the rays of the sun are used once every two years to light the Olympic flame. After lunch we drove across the coastal plains of Iliad and Achaia, one of the most fertile areas of Greece specialising in potatos and tomatos, reaching Patras, the 3rd largest city in Greece (160,000) and a university city with 30,000 students. A little further on we crossed the Gulf of Corinth over the new Rion-Antirion Bridge, from Rion to Antirion on the northern side. This is a cable-stayed bridge. At 2.5 km, it is one of the longest cabled-stayed bridges in the World, with three central spans of 560m. It is unique worldwide due to the considerable water depth, deep soil structure of soft soils, and high earthquake risk, requiring very extensive foundations. Driving on, we followed
Another of our many self portraits. One of the falls at Edessa in the background.
the coast, through Nafpaktos and Itea, before turning inland to Delphi. The most sacred of all Greece sacred sites, Delphi lies high on Mt Parnassos. To reach it we had first to pass through the 'Sea of Olives', a vast area of sacred olive trees at the base of the mountain, and then climb a switchback road that in one place looped around and over itself. On the side of the mountain we saw an aqueduct that carries fresh water all the way to Athens. We went for a stroll through the little town of Old Delphi that our hotel was in. Then it was time to grab a shower, enjoy dinner, and head to bed. It is surprising how the body soon gets into the rhythm of a bus tour; up early, pack the suitcase and leave it at the door for the porter, breakfast between 7 and 8, pack up last minute things in day bags, on the bus and away at 8.30.
This morning we spent all morning at The Sanctuary of Apollo (archeological site) and its accompanying museum of treasures. To the ancient Greeks, Delphi was the Centre of the World, with exceptional
Descending the main staircase in our 5* hotel in Thessoloniki.
significance to their Mythology. The exact spot was marked by a marble Omphalos (now in the museum) located in the Temple of Appolo. Also located in the Temple of Apollo was The Oracle, a place where pilgrims came to have their future told. A gas eminating within the Temple (now thought to have been sulphur) put an old priestess of the Temple into a trance like state that allowed her to do this. The entranceway to the site was magnificently lined with statues of people and animals. After passing through this, visitors passed a number of treasurys and other building along The Sacred Way, the main thoroughfare winding its way uphill on this fairly steep site. The Temple of Apollo itself was surrounded by numerous magnificent statues, some on high plinths. Further up was a Theatre and, quite a bit further up again, a stadium for games. A large pull-out recreation of the whole site in our book gives a great idea of how it all looked. We climbed right up to the stadium in blistering heat, thankful for the merciful shade of numerous trees, and lots of water. From sacred water running piped down the mountain to nearby fountains
The entrance to the unique underground museum at Vergina. An experience never to be forgotten.
(but now slightly re-routed to protect the site of the fountains) we were able to drink lovely cold fresh water and refill our bottles. These fountains date from 600 BC. It is worth noting here that, while Olympia was buried under 4 metres of soil, Delphi, due to rock falls from the mountains above and around it, was buried under 12 metres of rubble! The three sites of Delphi, Athens, and Olympia make up a sacred triangle, the distance from Delphi to Athens equalling the distance from Delphi to Olympia. Surely this was no coincidence, Olympis being built where it is to complete this triangle. This triangle also completes what could be termed the 'triangle of tourists'. For a lot of people, this is all that they see. As well as people on the 7 day tour, we had people on our bus completing 3 day and 4 day tours. For the 3 day people this was the point at which they left us and returned to Athens. At the same time others on a 2 day trip to Delphi and Metaora only joined us from a bus that had just brought them from Athens. We felt sorry for the 3 dayers having to say goodbye at this stage, knowing that we were going on to see more. In retrospect our sympathy is doubled. After lunch we wound our way north through the mountains to the town of Kalambaka, passing through the cities of Lamia (46,000) and Karditsa (32,000). To get to Kalambaka we has to cross the Plain of Thessaly, a vast, flat, plain that was once a huge inland lake. At some stage it drained to the sea and last flooded in 10,000 BC. What is left is some of the most fertile land in Greece, now a patchwork of tilled fields, much like the canterbury Plains. The horses from this region were renowned as the best war horses in the World, Alexander The Great's horse coming from this region.
Our first stop in the morning was to a big isolated shop that specialises in making holy Icons. Members of the Greek Orthodox religion are very strong on Icons, with a number of shops in Athens selling only Icons. We were given something 'free' to eat on the way in, a lucky number for a raffle for anyone who bought anything, and a lecture on their wonderful discounts for our group. In a way the Icon making was a bit of a front, as the shop sold a huge range of items of interest to tourists (aka suckers). We observed that everything that they sold to us was recorded seperately on a piece of paper. To me this smelt of kickbacks to somebody. But I have to admit that we fell for it along with just about everyone else. They had a range of beautiful gold chains (60% gold, 40% titanium) made up of the Greek symbol seen everywhere for long life. I bought Karen a necklass with matching earings as a late birthday present. The earings in particulare are quite striking. Once all back on the bus the raffle was draw. We won 5th prize. And what was it. An Icon of course (if you can call two pictures glued to a bit of trashy wood an Icon). Along with a photo, we'll keep it as a reminder of the occasion! Then it was back to the tour, and our visit to the amazing Monastries at Meteora. Meteora is a huge mound of rock that was left when the inland sea drained. Much of this rock is in the form of individual pillars. Monks have lived in this area for about 1000 years, first in caves, and then in monasteries that they started to build on top of the pillars of rock. Climbing them by hand to start with, they soon divised a way of getting people and supplies to the top using a windlass. Some are still quite isolated, while others are connected to the nearest 'land' by solid bridges or simpler swing bridges, or reached by climbing steps cut into the rock. Most were started around the 14th or 15th Centuries, and have been enlarged and modernised a lot ever since. Some have been abandoned, so that from a high of 24 monasteries at one time, there are now only 6 active ones, of which two have been converted into nunneries. And it was these two that we visited. The first, the Monastery of St Stephen, was reached easily by a stone bridge from near the road. The nuns ran a very efficient tourist programme and obviously make enough from visitors to not only buy their groceries but also keep their buildings in very good repair. They even had an electronic machine to test the validity of large Euro notes! Their churchs were beautifully maintained however, with a lot of interesting colourful frescos. These were not original however, due to damage by raiders and shelling by the Germans during WWII who belived it housed patriots. There was no doubt that we were on a rock pillar when the view from the lookout was straight down! The second nunnery, The Monastery of Rousanou, is reached by climbing about 180 steps in the rock (now fairly wide and easy to climb), followed by a short metal bridge out to a smaller pillar, and then stone steps up to the door of the nunnery. The buildings cover the entire pillar. Established in 1529, its frescos date from 1560 and are original. The old windlass and door where a rope was lowered to the ground below, still exists. From a distance the nunnery is a spectacular sight, as is the views from its lookout on the smaller pillar. The Metaora are an example of Natures work, while the monasteries are an example of human persistence. In all, a very interesting morning. Once again, we have a book with some spectacular photos in it. After lunch it was time to say goodbye to the 4 dayers and 2 dayers as they set off to return to Athens. One more joined us, a chap who was on a 6 day trip, doing everything except Olympia. He had been on another bus before transferring to ours. This left us with 32 people carrying on north. Heading north, we crossed the Plain of Thessaly again, where Julius Caesar defeated Pompei to gain control of the Eastern Roman Empire, and then transversed the Valley of Tempi, heading back towards the east coast and the Agean Sea. The Valley of Tempi is like the Manawatu Gorge, with a river flowing through a gap between Mt Olympus on its northern side and another mountain on its southern side. Reaching the coast we backtracked south a bit to Thermopylae, the site of the famous battle between the Greek army, including Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, and about half a million Persians. As Spartans never retreat from battle, they stood and defended a narrow pass for about 3 days while the remainder of the Greek army escaped. When asked to lay down their arms they replied “come and take them yourselves”. When the Persians threatened to darken the sky with arrows, they replied “then we will fight in the shade”. They all died, but a cost of about 50 to 1 against the Persians. We saw a statue of Leonidas at the point which used to be the sea shore (silt has now taken it several km further east). The narrow valley was between two hills behind us. Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece (2917m) and home of the 12 Gods of Greek Mythology. Travelling north again we reached the Archaeological Park at Dion, at the base of Mt Olympus. Here we saw a Greek Theatre dating from the 4th Century BC, a Roman Theatre from the 2nd Century AD, the Sanctuary of Demeter (Mother Earth) dating from the 6th Century BC (the oldest in Macedonia), and the Sanctuary of Zeus. In nearby Ancient Dion, we saw the remains of a whole town, including baths, shops, villas etc. Its ancient main road, still with its original irregular stone cobbles, was once traversed by Alexander The Great. It was then on to Thessaloniki, Greece's 2nd largest city (364,000), a port city on the shores of the Thermaikos Gulf, part of the Aegean Sea, and capital of Macedonia. Once a completely walled city, the seafront walls were destroyed by the Turks, but parts of the walls and fortress remain, some of them very close to our hotel. A large tower on the waterfront, part of the defence from the sea remains intact. Painted white, it is now called the White Tower and is the symbol of Thessaloniki. Our hotel here, where we were to base ourself for 3 nights, is called the Palace Hotel Mediterranean. It is a regular 5 star hotel, with big rooms, a huge atrium, grand spiral staircase, grand furnishings, etc, but only a small dining room. We were the only tour group there and, in fact, the only other tour bus that we sighted north of Meteora was a special carrying a group of American school students. It seems that the regular tourist trail definitely ends at Meteora. Our breakfasts here were still buffet, but our dinners were a fixed 3-course menu, with no choice. Fortunately they were all nice, particularly the mains. An added extra here was free wi-fi in all the rooms. Unfortunately we had little time to make much use of it, but it was good to catch up on email and get a few quick ones and a short blog entry away.
On this morning we were allowed to 'sleep in' and started our day with a walking tour of Thessaloniki at 10 am. This city does not have a great deal going for it. It was once the co-reigning city of the Byzantine Empire, second only in population and prestige to Constantinople (present day Istanbul). Almost completely burnt down in 1917, it is now a sea of mainly ugly high-rise apartment blocks. They have not made the best use of their waterfront, much of it just being the sea slaping up against concrete. There are however some nice gardens and squares, particularly on one of the broad avenues that leads from the sea gently uphill to the site of a Roman Forum, the hub of social, political. and commercial life during the 1st Century AD. Much of this still remains, including a theatre. We also visited a number of Byzantine churches, including some of the oldest of the Christian World. The largest was the Church of St Demetrius, built in the 5th Century. Destroyed in the 7th Century, it was rebuilt before being destroyed in the great fire of 1917. It was rebuilt again over a perod of 30 years to its original specifications as a 5 aisle church. Near the waterfront we viewed the magnificient 6.15 m tall statue of Alexander The Great on his war horse, before making our way to the Museum of Byzantine Culture, awarded with the Council of Europe's Museum Prize for 2005. After lunch here we viewed the Museum, which was set out in areas covering The Early Christian Churchs, Early Christian Houses, the Middle Byzantine (11th to 12th Century), Late Byzantine (1204 to 1453, a period between two Crusades), and Post Byzantine. Our tour ended at 3 pm, after which we had the only free period of any length of time on the tour. We walked back down to the waterfront and followed it back to the hotel, passing some lively bars overflowing with students. By that time my feet had hit the wall!
We set off at 8 am for a long trip around the Macedonian hinterland. We passed through Pella, where both Alexander the Great and his father (Phillip II) were born. Agriculture in this area specialises in peaches and apples. Peach trees in particular were to be seen in vast numbers everywhere, often as far as the eye could see. There were numerous nice little towns and we stopped at a couple to view particularly old Byzantine churches. One of these, the Church Of Christ The Saviour is a one aisle church whose frescos were completed between 1312 and 1315. During our mid morning stop in one of these towns we bought two nice filled rolls for lunch. With huge breakfasts and dinners, we never needed much for lunch and usually only ate rolls, chewy bars, and fruit, with the odd packet of chippies or ice cream thrown in. Greek ice cream is very good and not much more expensive than at home. It was then on to the School of Aristotle, who was himself born in Macedonia. Tucked away amongst trees in a secluded quiet rural setting between natural springs on one side and cliffs with caves on the other, it was an ideal place for quiet contemplation. Built in the shape of the Greek letter pi, holes can be seen in the cliffs where beams holding up the roof were held in place. The caves were part of the school, used by students for gathering and socialising (sort of student union building!). In a new museum nearby we saw a video presentation about Aristotle and the school. The whole experience turned what had seemed almost folklore into the life and times of a real person. Next it was north to Edessa, high on a hill, still 100km from the border, but considered a psychological boundary between the plains below and the former Yugoslavia to the north. Here we viewed the town's famous waterfalls. Starting as a river rushing downhill through the town, it is divided into three main parts which cascade down to the edge of town and then drop 24m as falls, before continuing to cascade spectacularly for quite a distance before all rejoining. The complex could be viewed from the top or from various points by climbing down a series of steps to look outs at various levels. At one level we were able to walk right behind one of the falls, something we have never experienced before. After lunch it was back to Pella to view the site at Ancient Pella. Here we saw the remains of the Agora, the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, the Sanctuary of Diana, private houses, workshops, etc. We saw some very complete mosaic floors of the 4th Century BC, the originals in situ, and replicas in the local museum.This ancient city covers 4 square km, not including the huge Palace of Phillip II some distance away. Then it was time to return to our hotel.
With over 500 km to travel back to Athens, we made another early start. The only main stop of the day was to Vergina, the 1st capital of Masadonia, to view the unique museum in The Great Tumulus. None of us had any idea what we had in store and, being rather tired and rather up to our eyeballs in archaeological sites and museums, probably would have voted to skip it if given the chance. Little did we know of course that this finale was going to be utterly mind-blowing, as described earlier. This was a place where we could have spent all day with no dissent once inside it, but huge numbers of people were waiting outside for their opportunity, and we we lucky to get our 40 minutes or so in relative peace by getting in first. I'm still in awe at the treasures that we saw in there, and the opportunity to imagine that we were great archaeologists discovering these tombs for ourselves! If there is one site in all of Greece that I would want to go back to more than any other, then this would be it. What a pity that all those on the short tours never get the opportunity at all. So, if planning a trip to Greece, underline VERGINA as a must see. It is worth noting here that the whereabouts of the body of Alexander the Great is still a great mystery. After dying in Babylon (just how is also a mystery), his body was taken to Egypt, but it is not known whether it was ever returned to Greece. Incidentally, the rulers of Egypt were descendants of Alexander, creating the Ptolomy dynasty. The last Ptolomy was the father of the famous Cleopatra. So, the rulers of Egypt had Greek origins. Now it was straight down the motorway to Athens, with stops for lunch and two more breaks. We passed through at least 10 toll stations on this motorway, the money presumingly helping to pay for the many large road construction projects (including two new tunnels) that were in progress. Earlier, in a large swampy delta region south of Thessaloniki, where 4 rivers reach the sea, we saw large areas of rice paddies. Now, as we approached Athens, the area changed from being green to being brown and dry again. Here we saw kiwifruit and grapes growing. Apparently there is also cotton and tobacco, Greece being Europe's largest grower of both products. But still hardly any animals at all anywhere. We have no idea where Athens, a city of 4 million people, gets its milk from, but there seems to be no shortage of beef and pork. We passed lake Eliki, a remnant of a much larger lake that was drained for agriculture, much like Holland. It now provides fresh water for Athens. Reaching Athens at about 6.30 pm, we were the first to be dropped off. And so our Greek Odessey came to an end.
On getting back to our Hostel, we got two loads of washing done in their machine, which dried in our room overnight and during yesterday on a long line that we brought with us. Yesterday morning we ventured out for a few hours, roaming the many narrow back streets of this central area of Athens, and buying a few things in a huge tourist shop that has everything. We then had a short walk through the interesting Government Gardens before watching the very unusual changing of the guard ceremony outside the Parliament Building. After some lunch we returned for a quiet afternoon, Karen reading, writing, and sorting out washing, while I wrote this. This morning we have arranged to meet her Greek penfriend Frank at 10 am. After that we may return to the Gardens for a while before getting a last load of washing done to dry overnight. Tomorrow morning we will be off to Pireas to board our boat and start the next next phase of our trip. It will be interesting to see if the Greek Islands live up to their reputation. We hope to continue to be in touch. Wi-fi on board the boat costs about $US99 an hour, something that we will pay for from our free $US500 shipboard account (for booking early). With limited time however to add on photos once connected, these will have to be reduced to only a couple each time I suspect. We'll be in touch.
Our day With Frank
It is now 4 pm. Our meeting with Frank went very well. He and Karen recognized each other straight away. We took a tram (light railway) from Syntagma Square for a 60 minute ride through the south-eastern suburbs to the coast , and then around the coast, seeing many of the beaches and other amenities in this area. It was interesting seeing a lot more of the suburbs, travelling first through some cheaper housing areas, and then more upmarket housing (mainly high-rise blocks of flats) as we approached the sea. Some large individual multi-storeyed villas along the sea shore indicated the wealth in this area, along with boat harbours full of motor vessels of all sizes. We got off at a nice shopping area on a wide boulevard and went first for a cold drink. After spending an hour over that with lots of conversation, it was lunch time. We walked a little more and ended up in a Greek Pitza House. Frank is used to having his dinner mid-day and chose a fairly substantial meal that didn't include pitza. We chose indiviual pitzas, which they said were small, so also had a big caesar salad with it. Well, the pitzas weren't so small after all, so we ate a big meal. We won't want much tonight. Frank is in his 80s, has done a lot of travelling, but has recently had a knee replacement. He can walk OK, but not for long. So we sat and talked more until it was time to get back to the tram. His English is quite good, but he had some trouble with our Kiwi voices. He lives alone, so was ever so pleased to have the company, as we were to meet him. A really nice old Greek man. We tried to persuade him to come to NZ, which he would love to do, but is afraid of travelling on his own with his weak knee. It is doubtful that he will ever come, or that we will see him again. He gave us two small oil paintings that he had painted himself, both of which will be a reminder of our meeting and, because of their subject matter, of the Greek Islands to come. Being ex Greek army, he had a lot of interesting facts to tell me about the German invasion in 1941 and, coming back on the tram, he pointed out the war cemetery with the graves of NZ, Australian, and English soldiers, and the old Athens airport, where the German planes took off to bomb and then invade Crete.
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