GREECE  2006 - Weeks 7~8

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WEEKS 7~8 NEWS - Volos and the Pilion Peninsula, Dion archaeological site, Mount Olympos, Macedonian royal graves at Vergina, and Thessaloniki:

The motorway north across Thessaly is today much improved thanks to generous EU subsidies, enabling us to make good progress towards the city of Volos and the Pilion peninsula which curves around to embrace the Pagasitikos Gulf. But in passing, we threaded around hills of olive and almond groves to visit 2 extraordinary sites - the Neolithic settlements of Sesklo and Dimini. These hilltop settlements had been occupied from 7th to 4th millennia BC by Neolithic farmers, and the stone foundations of their houses showed a well-organised community. The decorated pottery remains revealed levels of ceramic technology producing high quality wares some 2,000 years before wheel-turned pottery.
                                                   Click on map for details 
It was a remarkable feeling standing amid  the dwellings of a civilised society from 7,000 years ago. Alongside the earlier Neolithic settlement, a Mycenaean city had developed around 1,300 BC, most likely ancient Iolkos from where Jason and the Argonauts had sailed in search of the Golden Fleece (a quest we regularly make ourselves, as all our friends will know!).

Braving heavy traffic, we drove through Volos and down the west coast of Pilion to Camping Hellas at the village of Kato Gatzea. The campsite is a floral delight, set under olive trees by a secluded beach and kept by the Symeonides family for whom nothing is too much trouble. After a 'rest day' in camp catching up with a back log of daily chores, we set out to explore the hilly interior of Pilion. The area is criss-crossed by a network of cobbled paths called kalderimi, still used as functional routes connecting village houses scattered across the steep hillsides. Unlike other areas of Greece, the Pilion hills are richly endowed with springs; the kalderimi are lined with irrigation channels and everywhere there was the sound of freely flowing water. We spent an exhausting day following the kalderimi (Photo 1) up from the coast high into the hills to the classic Pilion mountain village of Vyzitsa. After a gruelling uphill walk in hot sun through olive groves, we savoured a cold beer at the village plateia (square) under the welcome shade of the enormous plane trees (Photo 2). It was a superb day's walking the kalderimi, drinking fresh mountain water and enjoying Pilion's rich and varied wild flora (see right).

While here, we had also to experience another of Pilion's delights, the legendary narrow gauge railway which winds up through the hills from Ano Lechonia to the mountain village of Milies. This masterpiece of engineering, built originally in 1903, gains height via sweeping contouring curves, crossing heads of gullies on stone-arched viaducts, and the ride along the narrow-shelving route high above the olive groves is thrilling. The route's climax comes just before Milies when the track curves into the apex of a sharp bend across the head of a horrendously deep gorge spanned by a flimsy girder trestle-bridge (Photo 3).  At Milies station, a memorial marks yet another German 1943 atrocity when 26 men from the village were executed and the village burnt; how many more such war-crimes shall we encounter? If you visit Milies, good value local cuisine is to be had at the Taverna Panorama just out of the village (ignore the 'mousaka-and-chips' tourist traps); try the kouneli kokkinisto (rabbit stewed in tomato) - it's delicious.

Our northward journey across the uncharacteristically flat fertile Thessalian plain by-passed the dreary garrison town of Larissa. The horizon to the north is broken by the distant misty outlines of Mount Ossa and the lower slopes of Mount Olympos. The expression 'Piling Pilion on Ossa', meaning an enormous but futile task, derives from the mythical war between Gods and Giants, when in a desperate attempt to reach the Gods' home on Olympos, the Giants picked up Pilion and set it on Ossa. We faced similar trials, contending with Greek driving standards. We turned off to the mountain village of Ambelakia in the Ossa foothills. In the late 18th century, this community had developed the first industrial cooperative producing dyed woollen textiles for export all over Europe. The enterprise generated an enlightened prosperity for Ambelakia at a time when Greece stagnated under Turkish oppression. A few of the village's mansions survive, including that of the cooperative's last president; the charming Ottoman Rococo decorated interior demonstrates the community's former affluence. And here we enjoyed yet another memorable 'people encounter': the museum curator proudly showed us his text books for learning English, and was delighted to respond with help to expand our Greek vocabulary. 

Threading through the Tembe Pass, where the towering cliffs of Ossa and Olympos mountain ranges meet, the highway leads down to the coastal plain of southern Macedonia. This dull coastline offers a series of soulless campsites, and Camping Olympos Zeus, marginally less unattractive than others, provided a base for 2 thrilling days in the Mount Olympos area. In the evenings, the Skops Owls 'bleeped' noisily around the campsite.

To reach the 10,000 feet summit of Mount Olympos is a serious 2 day mountaineering venture, overnighting at one of the refuges high on the mountain, and up to end-May snow still covers the higher reaches. Despite this, we did want at least to sample Greece's highest mountain, which seems to rise sheer from the coastal plain. It was a startling sight, seeing the huge massif of the snow-capped mountain projecting above the cloud layers to unexpected heights. The approach from Litohoro climbed in spectacular fashion into the heart of the mountain, and the 1:25k Greek Anavasi map of Olympos gave superb detail for our route which started behind the clearing at the road's end. The path was well-made, rising steeply through beautiful beech woods which glowed lime-green in the morning light. The air was clear and sun filtered down through the dark pines, giving occasional glimpses of the snow-covered tops. The mountain was overwhelmingly massive, giving little impression of the route's surroundings, climbing up a spur or rounding lofty shoulders with staggeringly deep gorges falling precipitously to the side. The path was well-engineered, making spectacular height gain with little sense of exposure, and living up to Olympos' reputation for supporting the finest wild flora in Greece. As the pines thinned at 1,700 metres (5,500 feet), a snow-filled gully made further advance uncertain; this seemed a worthy high-point for a our 1 day climb, and the first time we had stood on snow in Greece (Photo 4). It had been a superb day's climb: the flora and woodland were hugely rewarding, and the immense mountain topography spectacular. No wonder Mount Olympos had been the legendary home of the Gods.

Next morning we woke to see the sun sparkling across the Aegean beside our camp, and today we should visit the archaeological site of Dion in the Olympos foothills set against the backdrop of the snow-capped Olympian peaks. Dion had from ancient times been a cult-centre of Olympian Zeus and developed as the sacred city of the Macedonians. The excavated remains of the city and its sanctuaries showed the political and religious significance of Dion, which was finally destroyed by earthquake in the 5th century AD. Its monuments were preserved under mudslides and are now displayed in the excellent museum. It was a multi-sense experience visiting Dion: the magnificently panorama of the Olympos range served as a backdrop to the archaeological remains (Photo 5); birdsong resounded among the trees and storks soared over the foothills; and the air was scented with lemon balm and water-mint. And spread out before us was the Altar of Zeus where Alexander the Great sacrificed in 334 BC and held military reviews before embarking on his world conquest. Dion was a breathtaking experience.

Continuing northwards, we diverted west on the new Egnatia Odos highway  to the town of Veria, to visit another Macedonian site, the royal tombs at Vergina. Originally excavated in the 1970s by Prof Manolis Andronicos of Thessaloniki University, the site proved to be the Macedonian capital city of Aegae, later the royal burial place for Macedonian kings. It was here that Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was assassinated and buried in 336 BC. The main finds are a series of vaulted chamber tombs, including that of Philip II and other Macedonian royals, all buried beneath an enormous tumulus. An elaborate underground display area enables the tombs to be viewed in situ along with the fabulous burial treasures. These include wonderfully delicate gold-leaf crowns of oak leaves, and a solid gold larnax which contained the cremated king's bones, and decorated with the 16 point Macedonian sun-emblem. Also displayed was the silver funerary urn of Alexander the Great's assassinated young son, also adorned with crown of gold-leaf oak leaves (Photo 6). Vergina was a thrilling experience, but the visit had its frustrations: crowds of ill-disciplined school parties and a total ban on photography. We had no qualms about 'borrowing' photo 6 from the Greek Culture Ministry's web-site.

Despite the horrendous traffic in Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, we survived the ring-road, but to say this was just a marginally stressful experience would be a painful understatement! The closest campsite was some 30 kms south at Epanomi, and from here we travelled into the city by bus, changing to a city-bus at a retail park on the outskirts. This was a satisfyingly challenging experience, managing routes, tickets and bus-stops; all of this served further to improve our Greek, and again we were blessed  with extraordinary helpfulness from Geeks whom we met. We spent an exhaustingly hot afternoon visiting some of Thessaloniki's sights: the wonderfully atmospheric fish, meat and produce Modiano markets (Photo 7), the waterfront and grandiose Plateia Aristotelous, and the basilica of Agios Dimitrios restored after the 1917 destructive city fire and containing 7th century AD mosaics. Capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and second only to Constantinople under the Byzantine Empire, many of Thessaloniki's Roman remains such as the Arch of Galerius stand side-by-side with modern apartment blocks and trendy street cafes (Photo 8). The modern city has a prosperous air, but you don't need to look far to see evidence of a  permanent underclass of poor Anatolian Greek families, unemployed Albanians and East European refugees. It formerly had Greece's largest Jewish community, until 1943 of course when the German invaders deported some 60,000 for immediate gassing in concentration camps, the worst atrocity committed in the Balkans. And to compound their barbarity, the Germans desecrated the city's Jewish cemeteries. Thessaloniki's architecture exemplifies its multi-cultural past: that afternoon we saw Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman remains amid the trappings and traffic of a thoroughly modern city. And in true Greek fashion, we pushed our way onto the bus back to Epanomi by the city's emblematic White Tower on the waterfront.  To get a good feel for Thessaloniki's atmosphere, visit this web site for some live web-cam views of the city:  

Another long week of challenging ventures and fascinating human encounters - the very essence of our travelling life-style. Follow us eastwards next week to Halkidiki and onwards towards Thrace

Sheila and Paul                                                                                Published: Wednesday 17 May

Music this week:
A Glass-full of Wine


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