Greece in the Snow

Thursday, 13th December 2012
Thessalonike, Beroea (Veria), Meteora

For all photos for 13th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

I was very glad to leave the hotel in Thessaloniki, but a little sad that we didn’t have more time to spend there. On our way out of the city, Sophia took us up to the northern walls on the rise above the city, where we had a good view of the city around the harbour and of the mountains on the other side of the bay. We then joined the morning traffic jam on the Via Ignatia heading out of the city on the same road that St Paul took when he was “asked to leave” Thessaloniki – the road across the plain to the town of Beroia, known today as Veroia or Veria. This town is on the very edge of the range of mountains running down from north to south in Greece. We drove up to a point called “St Paul’s Altar”, at which a large memorial has been built around three marble steps which are traditionally said to be the entrance steps to the synagogue of Beroea, in which Paul preached the gospel (and the hearers received it with uncharacteristic joy, cf. Acts 17:10f). As we were climbing the steps up to this place, I was just behind Sophia. She got to the top and called back down “Be careful! Ice on marble!” It was then that I became aware that there was in fact snow on the rooftops of some of the houses, and in the shadows where the sun had not yet shone. In some places, such as here on the marble paving before the memorial to St Paul, snow had melted and refrozen into ice, and it was indeed very slippery. Next to the main memorial (which is decorated with mosaics depicting Paul’s dream of the Macedonian and Paul preaching to the synagogue in Boroea) is another smaller memorial which was put there in the year 2000. Behind this can be seen an old disused Mosque (with minaret) from the Ottoman days. Just goes to show that sometimes history works out in our favour…

Nearby Veria is the village of Vergina and here there was a special treat for us which was not on the agenda: the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. We do not know where Alexander is buried (although it is very likely in Alexandria, where we are told Julius Caesar viewed the tomb), and it was only in 1977 that this tumulus was identified as the tomb of his father. Throughout our trip across Turkey, and here too in Greece, it has not been uncommon for us to see such “tumuli”, or “burial mounds” on the landscape (they stick out like pimples on otherwise flat landscapes). Over the centuries, most tumuli have been broken into and their treasure stolen; an attempt had been made on this one too, but the thieves had not found the burial chambers. Following the identification and initial excavation of the tumulus, the archaeologist (a man by the name of Andronikos) pressed on with the dig despite the fact that the season was ending and winter was coming on – because he realised that there was something “really big” under this artificial hill. What he found in the end were four tombs, including the tombs of a king, one of his wives, and one of his sons, complete with their treasures and, what is more, with the bones of the dead still in their gold caskets inside their sarcophagi. From the articles in the tombs, a positive identification was able to be made: this was indeed Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Today the tomb is a museum. They have very cleverly recovered the entire excavation area with a rounded roof over which they have placed earth and replanted grass, so that the museum in fact looks like the original tumulus (sort of like Parliament House in Canberra…sort of). Within this museum, the tombs are still where they were uncovered and all the artifacts found within the tombs are on display. We were not allowed to take any pictures in the museum, so all I can suggest is that you google it and see what comes up. The treasures are really amazing – gold and silver and ivory, dinning sets, armour, coins and furniture, most of it incredibly intricate and meticulously reassembled by the museum (a wood and ivory shield took one restorer eight years to reconstruct from the thousands of pieces into which it had disintegrated). In small miniature figures on a piece of furniture found in Philips tomb are two small detailed carvings – Philip and his son Alexander. To stand before the tombs is an eerie experience – it is fairly dark in the museum in order top preserve the frescos on the plastered walls of the tombs and other objects – but to see a tomb still embedded in the ground with the front doors closed which have not been opened since they were closed 2300 years ago…

We had lunch in Vergina at a restaurant (I had a broad bean soup and – genuine – Greek salad), before setting out for Meteora where we would be spending the night. Meteora is well-known for its mountain top monasteries, familiar from tourist posters for Greece and from James Bond films (eg. For Your Eyes Only). It is as familiar an icon for Greece as Pamukkale is for Turkey, but it isn’t easy to find on a map. We followed first the Via Ignatia south west from Veria, before turning off toward the south east at Grevena for the town of Kalambake which is in the shadow of the Meteora mountains. If “Meteora” sounds very much like “meteorite”, there is a reason: it means “rock lifted up” and that is exactly what these rocks look like – as if they are suspended above the earth. I will write more about this location in tomorrow’s post, as the main feature of the rest of today was the scenery on the way there.

As soon as we had turned onto the Via Ignatia after Veria, there was ample evidence of snow from the night before. Sophia told us that this was the first snow of the season, and we were very luck to be seeing Greece with snow, as most tourists come here in summer and never see this aspect of the climate. At first the snow was light, but as we turned off the Via, we entered into more serious snow country, where all the land around was covered with it. We stopped at this point for afternoon tea, and it was delightful to see how the tour group members reacted with childish glee to all the cold wet stuff (see the photos). Australians never cease to be fascinated by snow. It only occurred to me when I saw the Christmas decorations at the cafe at which we had stopped that I was for the first time experiencing the build up to a “white Christmas”. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it (the one draw back of a white Christmas would be the extreme cold that comes with it), by the time Christmas comes, I will be back in Australia with 35 degree plus weather. At the moment the weather is treating us very kindly – it is indeed cold but the sun is shining and there is little by way of wind (which would be chilling if there were any). You will find that my fascination with the snow is demonstrated in the number of photos I took, but we really were moving through some beautiful territory, with mountains all around. One special treat was the view of Mount Olympus in the distance as we came around the corner and began working our way down into the valley in which the town of Kalambake is now situated.

Our hotel here is back up to standard, but the internet is not free – they want 8 Euros for the day, and then it can only be used on one device and we need to decide whether we want to use it in the lobby or in the bedroom, so I decided to give it a miss. Instead, I sat out on the balcony smoking my pipe and editing my 400 pictures down to 200 until 1) my battery on my tablet ran out and 2) it became far to cold to continue staying outside. I had a bath before mass and dinner (every bathroom should have a bath). Dinner tonight was a fixed menu of soup, a simple salad and a nice piece of beef, with crème caramel or ice-cream for dessert. Back in my room, I went through my suitcase and determined that I had enough clean laundry to last till I went home with the exception of trousers which I will get laundered at Athens. I am not so much counting the days until I get home as “counting the undies”. Laundry and internet continues to the be basic concerns of this traveller. Because I had no internet and my table was recharging (I really didn’t want to do any more writing anyway), I dug out of my bag the Alexander McCall-Smith book “Unusual Uses for Olive Oil” which I bought in Melbourne Airport before leaving and have barely read anything off so far. But again, I was tired, so I switched the light off at the same time as Fr Peter did, and tried to get some sleep.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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