I crossed a bridge from the mainland to Chalkida on the island of Euboea and drove along the south shore of the island toward Eretrea, hoping I’d find a camp site. After a hour, in desperation, I stopped in a turn out on the main road, then decided to back track and take a narrow residential road toward the water. I found a spot in a field next to a house that looked rather abandoned. No dogs barked as I erected my tent, which was a good sign. Bright lights from an adjacent house shone into my eyes, but I donned a sleep mask to block the light.
Next morning the sun woke me early. Good thing as it was already 85 F at 8am, and I wanted to walk around the ancient site of Eretrea without melting. I headed first for town and stopped at a bakery where I bought rich honey and butter-laden baklava, a local delicacy. I’m surprised I hadn’t gained 20 pounds on this trip with all the calories I was consuming. I spoke to the woman running bakery, and we exchanged emails. She was very helpful and kind and told me how to find the museum and archaeological site, as I was having difficulty. I decided to visit the museum first so I would understand the archaeological site, as was my protocol. The museum had been laid out well, but the explanatory text was only in Greek and French, and I struggled to understand the archaeological terms. Luckily there was a French tourist who spoke some English, and I asked her to define the terms that I couldn’t decipher that were used repeatedly.
Eretrea, or Eretria (Greek, literally city of the rowers), is on the south shore of the island of Euboea and faces the coast of Attica across the narrow South Euboean Gulf. The Eretrians and other Euboeans were pioneers of Greek colonization. Active traders between East and West, they played a major role in the circulation of techniques and ideas in Greece, as with the script they created. Particularly around 8th century BC, Eretrea was an important center from which innovations spread into the Greek world and was mentioned by many famous writers of the time.
The Swiss School of Greek Archaeology from Lausanne has been carrying out research within the city walls of ancient Eretria since 1964, but only a small fraction of the site has been excavated, while the materials housed in the museum and the documentation of older excavations raise more questions than they answer. Recently, the Swiss have launched several projects in the territory of Eretria, or the Eretriad, an area of 1300 square kilometers at the end of the 4th c. BC. Its political organization has been well studied thanks to several inscriptions that give the names of 50 demes together with 2000 Eretrians. The landscape, however, remains a terra incognita to be explored.
Another mystery surrounds the location of the Artemision, or Sanctuary of Artemis Amarysia in Amarynthos, which has never been located. Artemis Amarysia was worshipped as the main divinity of the Eretrian state, as evident from inscriptions and coins. The sanctuary may be located near the modern village of Amarynthos, 10km east of Eretria. Geophysical surveys as well as test trenches are currently being conducted at the foot of the Paleoekklisies hill by the Swiss School and the XIth Greek Ephorate.
Also, Roman Eretria is still little known. Few gravestones, ceramics and coins were discovered, suggesting that the site was occupied during the first centuries AD. Recent excavations have brought to light the center of the Roman town, located at the foot of the acropolis, where a temple dedicated to cult of the emperors, a Sebasteion, was erected at the end of the 1st century BC. A monumental building, probably a gymnasium, dated from the 2nd-3rd century AD, has recently been excavated. There was a Roman villa whose mosaic floor was open for viewing, and which I very much enjoyed, as I love mosaic floors.
About 2pm I finished looking at the site and took refuge under a tree near a gazebo-covered cafe on the sea. Red-faced and exhausted, I laid flat on the damp grass, trying to bring my core temperature down to normal. A lovely young man who worked at the cafe invited me to stretch out on a couch. He brought me freshy squeezed orange juice and a bottle of cold water, which I gratefully drank. I had asked for ice for the toe on my left foot which I had badly sprained in Mani and which was hurting me. I was touched by his kindness and he said I could add him as a friend on Facebook. He said he loved camping on the beaches of Euboea. I was really glad to have met such a kind person and resolved to come back someday.
Both ancient and modern writers have used the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of the power of a patriotic army defending its native soil. The performance of the defenders is also used as an example of the advantages of training, equipment, and good use of terrain as force multipliers and has become a symbol of courage against overwhelming odds. The movie 300 was a fictional recreation of this battle.
From there I drove toward Volos and Pelion, a mountain peninsula whose natural beauty and unique charm been recommended to me by a German traveler. As I didn’t leave till characteristically late in the day, I decided to camp just short of Volos in Nea Anchialos. I was also interested in going to the archaeological site in Nea Anchialos, which had already closed by the time I arrived. I went to the seashore and was delighted by the beautiful promenade and the fact that the seaside had been left undisturbed by development. I walked into the Pyrassos Hotel to ice my sprained toe, which still hadn’t healed.
I casually asked the price of a room and was told 35 Euros, which seemed very reasonable. So I decided to stay for the night, and made friends with the woman working at the front desk, with whom I had a lot in common. I took a swim in the sea, walked the promenade in search of chicken souvlaki, and revelled in the room’s a/c, which I left on all night. In the morning, I had grabbed a quick bite from the trunk and headed to the archaeological site. It wasn’t well laid out nor labelled much, and large sections were closed off to the public, but I spent an hour or so looking around, enjoying the large basilica and the remains of the ancient road and sewer now partially under the modern road to Volos.
Then I headed to Volos in search of the archaeological site of Dimini. I didn’t find it but instead stumbled on the Rooftile and Brickwork Museum, an incredibly lucky find as I didn’t know of its existence. The museum was partially funded by the EU and is an outstanding industrial heritage museum of a converted roof tile and brick factory. It is a working factory which was owned and operated from 1926 to 1975 by the Tsalapatas family. The whole brick and tile manufacturing process is clearly explained and illustrated with working machines, old photos, and drawings. Excellent models help to visualise the process. Movies where people talk about their work in the factory provide excellent historical background. Another place I’d go back to in an instant.
From there I drove through Volos in search of a self serve car wash. I found one and gave my car a good wash and vacuum which it very much needed, then set off toward Pelion. I came to a small village with a working water wheel, and was told that the house museum of a famous local artist was closed, so I continued to Portaria, the portal to Pilio. It is a pretty village and has an ethnographic museum, but was unfortunately also closed. I explored the village by foot, then walked up a nearby creek, refreshing on a 95 F day. I toyed with staying in a lovely hotel, but decided it was too expensive, and instead drove to the adjacent village of Makrinitsa, where I was unable to find parking.
I regret that I didn’t persist on finding a parking spot, as I later found out that Makrinitsa is one of the prettiest towns in Pilio, and has preserved their authentic cultural traditions. I drove instead toward Mt. Pelion, passing the winter ski resort, and headed to Zagora on the eastern side of the mountain. It was dark by that time, and I parked my car near a steep driveway where a young man was sitting. I asked him where the road to the sea was, and he told me, then we stood talking about my trip and other things.
Eventually, he invited me up to the make-shift terrace outside of his family’s old home, and I met his mother and father. I was moved by their kindness and hospitality, and gave them one of the refrigerator magnets of San Francisco that I had purchased as gifts before the trip. He spoke a little more English than I did Greek, but we were able to carry on in a very animated fashion. After an hour or two I begged off to find a camping spot near the sea at the town of Chorefto. He warned me that the road was narrow, windy, and treacherous, and his mother invited me to visit the next day on my way back.
So I headed to the sea, noting that the road was as treacherous as he had warned, and foud myself in a prety seaside resort full to the brim with tourists. It was challenging finding a place for the night, but finally I found a large turnout and strategically placed my tent behind my car so that it couldn’t be seen from either direction. It was a bit trashed and dirty, but I held my nose and slept as best I could. In the morning I headed to the beachside tavernas and found a very pretty family-owned hotel where I sat on the terrace and had waffles topped with fruit and yogurt. And of course used the wifi to check email, which I did whenever I had the opportunity. One doesn’t realize how dependent one is on something until it’s gone. That’s what I’d found with access to internet.
I decided to drive south along the peninsula toward Mylopotamos before heading to Zagora for Greek coffee with the family I had befriended the previous evening. I stopped often, getting out and walking around, bought some pastries, and enjoyed the refreshing coolness of a roadside cascade. After an hour or two, I decided to head back another way, and made my way back to visit. We had a nice conversation, and they told me about how the current crisis was affecting their family. They are apple growers, as are many people on this side of the Pilio peninsula, and they told me that they pay 60 percent tax on their meager earnings. His mom, who received 800 Euro monthly as recently as last year, now only gets 400 Euro per month. And so on. Same story, different day. We became FB friends and I said I would visit next time I am in Greece, which I will.
From Zagora I headed toward the non-touristy town of Drakia on the west side of the peninsula, and tried to drive to Agios Georgios but found the dirt road impassable, only open to foot traffic and horses. So I walked around Drakia, enjoying the fact that it was simply a village where people lived and not a tourist destination, and then headed to Agria, a seafront town lined with tavernas and bars. I walked around till around 5pm, then headed to modern Dion.
I arrived at 7:40 pm, 20 minutes before the archaeological site of ancient Dion closed for the day. I didn’t think I’d have time to see it the next day, so begged the woman at the gate to let me see the Isis temple. She misunderstood me and directed me to the Roman baths, as I had mentioned the place partially under water. So I ran hither and yon trying to find the temple but it was turned out to be on the other side of the road, and there wasn’t adequate time. She was angry as I had said I would just go to the baths, and ended up running arond till 8:10.I apologised profusely, and during the course of the evening resolved to bring her something by way of apology.
I wasn’t sure where I’d camp that night, and as it was already late, I decided to start driving up Mount Olympus. The road from modern Dion quickly becomes rural and appears to disappear admidst sandy dunes where the river Helicon goes underground. According to one legend, after its descent from Mt. Olympus, the river sank underground when the women of Dion who had killed Orpheus tried to wash their blood-stained hands in its waters, only to resurface on the other side of the city a few kilometers from the sea. Not knowing the legend, I was moved to camp on Mt. Olympus near a waterfall on the Helicon. I had a beautiful panorama of fertile Dion, watered by streams originating on Olympus.
I decided that I had to spend time at the archaeological site the next day. As it had been extremely hot for the last few days, I brought the female guard an ice cold can of Coke, popular in Greece. It turns out she’s a health food nut and doesn’t drink such abominations, but appreciated the thought. Ancient Dion had sanctuaries to Asklepios, Demeter, Zeus Hypsistos, Isis, and Olympian Zeus.
I was especially excited to see the Sanctuary of Isis, which is partially underwater as it was when built and features a long river leading up to it that represents the Nile. This site was the only one I’d seen where some statues had been left on the site to give a realistic view of what it had looked like in the day. I felt like I was worshipping at the temple of Isis, not just looking at a dead museum piece. The oldest sanctuary is the one to Demeter, of which there is little left. I walked to the altar in front of the temple and made an offering of a flower. I felt really lucky to be there.
The ancient city also had the following structures (built at different times): Hellenistic and Roman theaters, an odeon, Roman baths, a Macedonian tomb/necropolis complex, a Roman forum, basilicas and churches, a Roman agora, villas (including the Dionysus villa featuring a lovely preserved floor mosaic of Dionysus), a praetorium, latrines and sewers, city walls, and the homes of both wealthy and average citizens. Ancient Dion owes its name to the most important Macedonian sanctuary dedicated to Zeus (Dios, “of Zeus”), leader of the gods who dwell on Mt. Olympus, as recorded by Hesiod, Thyia bore Zeus two sons, Magnes and Makednos, epoynm of Macedonians, who dwelt in Pieria at the foot of Mount Olympus.
Hence from very ancient times, a large altar had been set up for the worship of Olympian Zeus and his daughters, the Muses, in Dion’s unique environment characterised by rich vegetation, towering trees, countless springs and a navigable river. For this reason Dion was the “sacred place” of the Ancient Macedonians and was the place where their kings made splendid sacrifices to celebrate the new year of the Macedonian calendar at the end of September. In the Spring, purification rites of the army and victory feasts were held.
According to Diodorus Siculus, it was Archelaus I who, at the end of the 5th century BC when the Macedonian state acquired great power and emerged onto the stage of history, gave the city and its sanctuary their subsequent importance by instituting a nine-day festival of games that included athletic and dramatic competitions in honor of Zeus and the Muses, whose organisation was overseen by the Macedonian kings themselves. Phillip II and Alexander the Great celebrated victories here, and Alexander assembled his armies and performed magnificent sacrifices here on the eve of his campaign to Asia in 334BC.
Later, a city was built adjacent to the sacred sites that acquired monumental form during the reigns of Alexander the Great’s successors and Cassander took a great interest in the city erecting strong walls and public buildings, so that in Hellenistic times Dion was renowned far and wide for its fortification and splendid monuments. Dion and its sanctuary was destroyed in 219BC by Aetolian invaders but was immediately rebuilt by Philip V.
Many of the dedications from the sanctuary that had been destroyed were buried in pits, including royal inscriptions and treaties, and these have been discovered recently. Some of the extremely rare finds at Dion are a mosaic of exceptionally fine quality in the House of Dionysos, a bronze “hydraulis” or hydraulic musical pipe organ found in a former workshop, and a 2200 years old statue of Hera built into the city walls of the city which had been used by the early Christians as filler for the city’s defensive wall. I would go back in a heartbeat. And I will, next time I’m in Greece.
From Dion I headed to Thessaloniki arriving around 4pm with enough time to go the famous White tower and thoroughly peruse the museum there. The tower was built in 15th century to replace an older 12th century Byzantine fortification which was later recontstructed by the Ottomans. It was used as a fort for the harbor’s defense, as well as a garrison and a prison. Because of its fame as a notorious prison it was also known as “Tower of Blood” (Kanli Kule) or “Red Tower”. It was renamed the White tower (Torre Blanca) after it was supposedly whitewashed by a prisoner as part of their punishment in 1891.
The museum presents an excellent history of Thessaloniki over time, focusing on events important to the city’s history. Some of the themes include its position at the crossroads of land and sea, trade routes, urban development, immigration/emigration, and spiritual and cultural life of the citizens, which are displayed thematically on different floors. Using images and sounds, multimedia touch screens, and items from daily life’s they did an excellent job conveyig this history. And the view from the top is icing on the cake.
I headed east of Thessaloniki to the peninsula of Chalkidiki, made up of three subparts. The autonomous Mount Athos region, forbidden to women and hosting twenty monasteries, constitutes the easternmost part of the peninsula. I decided to check out the region just west of Mount Athos, supposed to be less touristy and contain more natural beauty than the other finger. I headed down the west side of the finger, seeking as usual a good site to camp, and came upon a pine-covered peninsula. I headed down a steep road to a small bay and taverna near Spalathronisia. I decided to have fish at the taverna, but it was quite expensive and not that good. It was a pretty spot, however, and I enjoyed relaxing as the waves lapped the shore.
After eating, I drove a bit further and found a small dirt patch hidden from the road and overlooking the sea, where I set up my tent. I parked my car in a turn out and hoped it wouldn’t be too obtrusive. The next morning I awoke and continued down the road to Las Bandidas, a pristine seaside taverna whose sand had been raked clean of prints. I felt guilty leaving my tracks on the white sand, but figured it would eventually be defiled, so I might as well be the one.
I headed back to the main road after taking a nice walk through the pine trees, and saw an older man hitchhiking, a very rare site in Greece, the first I’d seen. I continued on, but felt guilty and decided to turn back and find out where he was going. A young man nearby translated for us and he told me that the man had accompanied his son on the first day of his new job and had no way home. I felt sorry for him and told him to get in, and we made our way to Kalamitsi, which was a 20 minute drive. He invited me in and I met his wife, an Albanian woman, who was also very sweet. She served us coffee and cookies, and we communicated in broken Russian and the little Greek I had learned thus far. Very lovely people. I was so glad I had decided to give him a ride. They asked me to visit again and I left, touched at their gratitude and sincerity.
From Kalamitsi, I drove another 20 minutes north to the small resort town of Vourvourou, where I thought I’d get some breakfast. But waffles were not easy to find here, and only one place served them, a very pretty newly opened cafe whose name I can’t remember, but which had a very interesting sign. They served organic orange juice, artisanal small-batch gelato, and the best coffee I’d had in Greece. And waffles.
They had just opened a few months prior and had been setting up the place, driving to and from Thessaloniki, at least an hour away. I really liked them and gave them suggestions on how to play up their offerings to tourists. I wish I could have stayed there for a day or two, sipping a latte and taking walks to the beach. But instead I pressed on, saying goodbye to my new friends and heading northwest to Flórina, a historical town in the mountains near the Albanian border. I had hoped to make it to Samothrakis, a Greek island near the Bulgarian border that is supposed to have a well-preserved culture, as well as Lake Thisavrou just north of Drama. But I was running out of time and was told that Lake Préspes was nicer and had a large national park.
I could see the fingerprints of Soviet occupation on this part of Greece. A local in the market asked me why I wanted to see Flórina. I guess they don’t see it as a tourist town. Flórina received an influx of capital around 1893 when the railway from Thessaloniki was built, which explains its eclectic early 20th century edifices. I walked up the river Sakoulévas which runs through the town and appreciated several artfully constructed buildings, including the primary school, the House of Tegos Sapountzís (the first Mayor in 1912), the workshops of two local artists, the Modern Art Museum and the Voyiatzís house, where many scenes of Angelopoulos film “The Beekeeper” were filmed. On the opposite side stands the three-story Péios house, an impressive traditional mansion. Dikeosíni Square is lined with well-preserved public buildings, the old prison and the Turkish Baths.
From Flórina I headed to Nymféo, known for its Arcturos Environmental Center in Aetos village. The Center was founded in ?? for the preservation of the natural environment and comprises a brown bear sanctuary for abused bears that can no longer survive on their own and a wolf sanctuary in nearby Agratída. With more than 50,000 visitors each year, the Center has become a landmark of the town; its objectives include raising public awareness on environmental issues and promoting sustainable development of the wider region. A few kilometers from Nymféo are Lakes Zazari and Heimaditida, some of the most beautiful in Macedonia with 141 species of birds and 150 plants types. My kind of place!
I drove to Nymféo along an idyllic forest road, stopping half way to fill my bottles with water from a spring and pinch myself to see whether I was dreaming. The road climbed to 1,346 meters, when a village full of large stone houses came into view, perched precariously on the side of Mt Vítsi. Nymféo flourished between the 17th and 19th century, when it was an important center of gold and silversmiths, and its inhabitants were prominent merchants abroad. The village became abandoned during economic downturns in the 20th century, but thanks to local and state efforts, it is one of the most well-preserved in Greece. Glorious stone mansions owned by Boutari, Missiou, Mertzou, Tsirli, and Papadopoulou bear testimony to the village’s past, while Áyios Nikólaos Church and Nýkios School house the conference and training center of Thessaloniki Aristotle University.
I did not know find the Museum of Gold and Silversmithery or the Folk Art and History Museum – they may have been closed. But I did get a chance to see the bear sanctuary the day after I had arrived. I begged and pleaded with the caretaker who was giving an unofficial tour to 2 guests, as it was closed that day. The night before I met a lovely couple from Athens who had dreamt of coming to the village for many months. I loved the feel of the place, which reminded me of Zakopane, Poland except for the fact that here there were three tourists rather than thousands.
I stayed as long as I could, then said goodbye to the wonderland village and drove down the hill to Sklithro where I had a chicken souvlaki for lunch and met a kind young female biologist who encouraged me to go to Lake Préspa and Préspes National Park, 4,900 square kilometers and one of the most important habitats in Greece. It is the first transboundary protected area in the Balkans. At her insistence, I changed my plans, first heading to Kastoria, a lovely medieval walled city on a lake-side setting.
Kastoria is known for its Byzantine churches, mosques from times of Turkish occupation, and the fur industry. The name Kastoria probably comes from kástoras, meaning beaver in Greek. Trade in the animal’s fur, sourced from Lake Orestiada, has traditionally been an important element of the city’s economy. I parked near the lake and walked up into the old town, marvelling at the centuries old mansions along the lake front. I walked into several Byzantine churches and appreciated the many frescoes on walls and ceiling.
The old town of Kastoria was built on a narrow peninsula which juts out into the middle of Lake Orestiada, and I got the incorrect impression that it sits on two lakes, not one. After a long exploratory walk, I headed north to Small and Great Préspa Lake. Great Préspa Lake is divided between Albania, Greece and Macedonia, while Small Préspa Lake is shared between Greece and Albania. Each of the three coutries has a national park associated with the lakes, and in 2014, the Ohrid-Prespa Transboundary Reserve between Albania and Macedonia (northern Greece) was added to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
The biodiversity is demonstrated by the fact that more than half of birds, amphibians and mammals species found in Greece are encountered here, and that 9 out of the 23 fish species living in its waters are endemic. A large part of the Préspa National Park was also included in the NATURA 2000 network of protected areas. Great Préspa Lake is the aquatic border between three countries, with its largest part belonging to FYROM. Its waters communicate with the waters of Small Préspa, from which it is separated by a narrow silted strip of land. Small Préspa Lake belongs almost exclusively to Greece, since the latter shares only a very small part of it with Albania; it also has two islets, Áyios Ahíllios and Vidronísi.
I drove to the only Greek village I could reach on Great Préspa Lake, the traditional village of Psarádes, and admired the traditional houses of Macedonian architecture. I was approached by the owner of one fish taverna about going on a cruise of the lake. It was almost sunset and I told him I”d prefer to go during the day. He was very sweet and said that tourism had fallen precipitously that summer and that life was very hard. I felt bad and considered taking a ride just to help him out. Apparently with a about you can see “askitariá” (hermit cells) with their stunning 14th-15th century rock paintings. During the Ottoman Empire the natural beauty and isolation of the area attracted many monks who built their hermitages along the shore of both lakes.
I decided to explore the islet of Áyios Acíllios the next day. It is connected to the shore by a 650 m long floating footbridge and is particularly renowned for its Byzantine monuments, especially the three-aisled basilica of Áyios Ahíllios.
I did some bird watching from an observation platform on the narrow strip between the 2 lakes. They have several scattered around the lake (at Koula, Palaia Pýli, Mikrolímni and Vromolímni).
Notes to myself for finishing this section – please ignore:
taverna thatnight, camping spot in awkward dry place near road, taverna next day made frieds, saw water whel then to island then to fishing village – then drove late in the daysouth – very hot, was going to go to mI was going to go to Meteora but forthe temperatire and fact that it was oit of the wayliterally “middle of the sky”, “suspended in the air” or “in the heavens above” — etymologically related to meteorology) – is a formation of immense monolithic pillars and hills like huge rounded boulders which dominate the local area.
It is also associated with one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second in importance only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios river and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece.