GREECE  RE-VISITED 2006 - Week 9

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WEEK 9 NEWS - Halkidiki and East Macedonia:

Leaving our camp at Epanomi, we had  a perfect view of the misty and distinctive outline of Mount Olympos way across the Thermaic Gulf. The mid-May days were certainly getting hotter as we continued our journey into the Halkidiki region and on into Eastern Macedonia.
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The 3 'fingers' of Halkidiki, projecting down into the north Aegean, each has a distinctive character. The westerly peninsula of Kassandra suffers from the impact of mass tourism: one horrendous morass of tacky resorts overwhelmed with traffic and the weekend exodus of holiday-makers from Thessaloniki, to be avoided at all costs. The 60 km long easterly 'finger' of Athos is also a no-go area, but for different reasons: largely deserted, it is inhabited only by some 2,000 monks resident in the large monasteries which for 1,000 years have clustered along the wooded slopes. The peninsula is tipped by Mount Athos whose spectacular 6,500 feet pinnacles rise sheer from the sea. The middle 'finger' of Sithonia, with just a few minor settlements, is a peaceful paradise with just a few discerning visitors. This was our base for the next few days. A corniche road  winds over the wooded hills down the eastern coastline of Sithonia, giving spectacular views over the turquoise-blue sweeping bays to the majestic peak of Mount Athos (Photo 1). We followed this long and winding road over the barren hills of Sithonia's tip, to the wonderfully positioned and hospitable Camping Areti on the western shore-line. Our pitch, shaded by olive trees and oleander bushes, looked out across the tamarisk-fringed small beach and the still waters of the bay (Photo 2). As we prepared supper, we were rewarded with another flaring sunset with its reflected tail streaking across the water (Photo 3). During the day, crested larks strutted around us, and on the balmy-warm evenings, the lights of distant settlements twinkled along the horizon of the Kassandra peninsula.

From Areti, we made 2 fascinating visits in the Halkidiki hinterland. The first was to Petralona Cave, where part of the huge system is open to the public, and crammed with beautiful geological formations. The cave had been scientifically explored in the 1970s, producing masses of flint and bone tools and fossilised animal bones, now displayed in the excellent museum. But the most interesting find was the calcite-covered skull of a Pleistocene man, over 250,000 years old, the earliest pre-homo sapiens remains found in Europe. It was fascinating standing in the dwelling place of such remote human ancestors. The other visit was to the archaeological site of ancient Olynthos, a prosperous and powerful city, founded in the 5th century BC  and allied with the Athenians. Despite the urgings of the Athenian orator Demosthenes to resist the expanding power of Macedon in the 4th century BC, Olynthos was destroyed by Philip II (father of Alexander the Great). The site had been systematically excavated, showing its extensive grid layout of streets, buildings and mosaics. As we explored the site, we met our first wild tortoise of the trip; once disturbed, they initially tuck into their shells, and then quickly scuttle away into the vegetation.

We moved on to camp at Ouranoupoli, the last settlement on the Athos peninsula before the forbidden monastic territories. The 'Holy Mountain' (Agion Oros) of Athos is an administratively autonomous province of Greece, governed as a Theocratic Republic by a council of monks from the 20 monasteries. The Byzantine Emperor Basil I recognised Athos' sole monastic presence, and a decree of 1060 AD banned all females, human or animal, from the territory. Even now, only males can visit, and then only after a duly Byzantine process of permits. From Ouranoupoli, we took a 3 hour boat ride down the coastline of Athos to view the series of monasteries from an uncontaminating distance off-shore (Photo 4). Clearly monkish business was on the up or sponsorship healthy, since most of the institutions had major restoration work in progress. As we rounded the headland towards the peninsula's southern tip, ahead loomed the towering pointed massif of Mount Athos, with several monasteries clustered on its lower slopes. The mountain looked formidable, and certainly provided a remote location for monastic seclusion (Photo 5). On our return to Ouranoupoli, the Greek Postal Service van was awaiting the ferry to Athos with the monks' mail; they may live in seclusion, but the trappings of modern life such as mobile phones figure prominently in their monkish paraphernalia. At a taverna by the port, we tasted the local delicacy of mythia saganakia - mussels cooked in a spicy cheese sauce; it was wonderful and the recipe was noted.

Continuing north up the coast, we paused at the well-excavated site of ancient Stageira, a Classical city founded on a hilly headland overlooking the Aegean, and birthplace of the philosopher Aristotle. A newly opened section of the Egnatia Othos motorway enabled us to make rapid progress eastwards to reach the site of Amphipolis, founded by Athenian colonists in 437 BC. It was a strategically important port-city at the mouth of the River Strymon, and grew wealthy from gold mines on nearby Mount Pangaion. In the 4th century BC, it fell under the Macedonian rule of Philip II, and Alexander the Great mustered his fleet there for his expedition to conquer Asia.  Under Roman rule, Amphipolis was a flourishing staging-point on the Via Egnatia which linked Rome and the Adriatic with Byzantium. St Paul inflicted his missionary zeal on Amphipolis in AD 50 and as usual was thrown out. The city continued as an important urban centre throughout the Byzantine period and only declined under Ottoman rule. The site was clearly extensive with a number of reported archaeological features, but we were unsure of the exact topography. The museum was excellent, displaying well-labelled finds from all stages of Amphipolis' 1500 year history, but as usual closed at 3-00pm. A highlight was a Macedonian gold-leaf funerary diadem similar to the one found at Vergina. Full of expectation, we enquired about site layout with the museum staff: did they have a map? No. Could they suggest where to begin our visit; no. Why not? It's closed. No help, no information, just negatives. The more we questioned, the more sullenly silent the attendant became. Another forceful email to the Greek Ministry of Culture is called for. We explored the site as best we could, but all the excavations were fenced and locked; so much for public accountability. We did however find the remarkable remains of the wooden-piled sub-structure of the 5th century BC Strymon river bridge with its defensive walls, exactly as described by Thucydides, the Classical historian. Thucydides had in fact commanded the Athenian fleet sent to defend Amphipolis, but to save his troops from inevitable slaughter by a superior force under Spartan general Brasidas, he had surrendered the city. As a result, he suffered the ignominy of banishment from Athens, and devoted his life to writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, for which we should be eternally grateful. Of course the site was locked, but experience has taught us to find the gap in the fence; we climbed through and spent a fascinating time exploring this tangible piece of history, despite the Ministry of Culture's attempt to deny access.

We drove on to the eastern Macedonian port of Kavala, staying at Camping Alexandros 12 kms east of the city. Weary from a long day, we happily languished with beers on the campsite bar veranda looking out across the north Aegean to the mountainous mass of Thasos island. On a fiercesomely hot day, we caught the bus into Kavala, now being familiar with the system for buying tickets in local shops. Kavala's old town and citadel on a rocky headland overlooking the harbour (Photo 6) date from the period of Turkish occupation, and a remarkable Roman-style aqueduct, built by Sultan Suleiman in mid-16th century to bring water to the citadel still spans the modern city street.

The campsite taverna was hosting a large party that evening. At risk of seeming somewhat obscure, it is necessary to explain that by tradition, Greeks do not celebrate birthdays but rather the festival of the saint after whom they are named. 21 May is the saints day of the beatified Constantine (first Roman emperor to be Christianised in 4th century AD) and his mother, Helen (Eleni in Greek). Constantine (shortened to Costas) and Eleni are 2 of the most popular Greek names, All the local Constantines and Elenis came for a collective celebration of their name-day bringing their friends and relatives, hence the reason for this evening's party. And what a thoroughly entertaining evening it was, with singing and dancing to a Greek bouzouki band; and the ouzo flowed liberally.

Kavala in its former embodiment as Neapolis, was the port serving the nearby ancient city of Philippi. Founded originally in the early 4th century BC, the city was absorbed into Philip II's expanding Macedonian empire and renamed in his honour. Under later Roman rule, Philippi flourished like Amphipolis as a trading centre on the Via Egnatia. The assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius, were eventually defeated at the Battle of Philippi in   42 BC by triumvirs Mark Antony and Octavian, an event which brought to an end the Roman Republic. In 50 AD, as described in Acts of the Apostles 16, 11-40, St Paul subjected the city to his evangelical ranting and was thrown into prison there for his troubles. His subsequent Epistles to the Philippians, sent from Rome as he awaited execution, must have had some effect, since Philippi became a leading centre of Christianity under the subsequent Byzantine period. We spent another scorching hot day exploring the archaeological excavations of the Hellenistic, Roman and early-Christian city, which includes the magnificent theatre set into the acropolis hillside (Photo 7).The remains of Philippi are certainly a spectacular site to visit.

We now move on to cross the Nestos River into Western Thrace, the last piece of mainland territory to revert to Greece in 1923. It will doubtless seem remote, and its ethnic mix derived from its curious history will give us much to investigate. But just before leaving Eastern Macedonia, a reminder that it's mid May, and the storks are back for nesting - in the village of Pondolivado, 5 storks' nests were occupied, set up on power poles along the village street (Photo 8). Stay tuned and follow us next as we move on into Thrace, to the furthest NE corner of Greece along the Turkish and Bulgarian borders.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                  Published: Friday 26 May

Music this week:


  Hungary 2005

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