Kavala. Hidden Gem

As usual I’ve made some bad calls on this trip. Sitting in the sun for 5 hours beneath a chemical plant in a dead end village was one.

Falling asleep on the beach underneath a night sky and waking up with dozens of nasty sand flea bites was another.

But I’ve ended up in Kavala. And wow. Lonely Planet describes it as one of the loveliest towns in Greece. And I agree. I stood dumbstruck on my hotel roof garden. The waiter saw me and said :” Kavala..we call it Sleeping Beauty ”
It’s just down the road from Phillipi. Brutus and Cassius based their fleet here after murdering Julius Caesar.

Traveling alone has its advantages. You can go where you want. Do what you want. Wander among a pile of old stones for hours when any normal person would be bored after 10 minutes

But there are times when you see something that you want to share and could scream with frustration because there is no one to share that moment with.
Swimming in Gallilee was one. Standing slack jawed before the Shewadagon Paya in the dark in Rangoon was another.
And you now can add sitting in an amphitheatre in an Ottoman castle in a Macedonian town watching a play by Sophocles
Obviously I couldn’t understand a word. Something to do with Troy and bows and arrows.
But it was a moment to remember as the lights in the old harbour flickered below us and the city melting into the hills.
And the ferry sailing out of the harbour towards the darkening mass that is the Island of Thassos

Yes.

That was a moment.

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Gold, Honey and Tear Gas

“You can put up your tent anywhere you like”

“But isn’t that illegal? What about the Police?”

“There are no police here , we burned down their building”

I laughed. Nervously. But the young Greek man opposite me wasn’t smiling

I’m in Ierrosis. A nondescript seaside village which has become the centre of a war zone. Think Skegness. But smaller. And sleepier and more boring.
Then imagine 200 riot police on the streets.

A Canadian mining company wants to dig for gold in the mountains here. Mountains mentioned by Herodotus.
Not far from the birthplace of Aristotle
One horrible day in 2012 a protest meeting in this sleepy village turned ugly. The Mayor – who was in favour of the mining project – was held prisoner in the town hall
Riot police were called in. Tear gas was thrown in the streets , into a school. The police station set alight.

In the following weeks the gold mining company’s buildings were burned to the ground. Their security guards doused in petrol and threatened with immolation.

The locals say the mine will destroy a precious ecosystem and threaten the tourist industry. And they fear the rivers will run dry.

The company says 1400 jobs will be created in a country where the recession has left its insidious mark.

Ierisoss used to be known as Acanthus. Xerxes passed through here. The citizens also took on the Spartans in another war.
They are not to be taken lightly

I went to the inaugural meeting of a women’s co-operative selling local goods like honey, olives and jam.
They told me the idea is to show that Halkidiki ‘s (this peninsular) wealth is above the land not below it

They said they want to show they stand alongside their men. Some of whom are due in court this week charged with offences designed to counter acts of terror

I wouldn’t mess with them

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Ships that pass

The site today
The site today
It doesn’t look very impressive today
Just a barely perceptible undulation in the ground that runs for about 1.5 km across the narrowest part of the Mount Athos peninsula.
At one end there’s a cemetery and at the other dumped mattresses and chairs. A fly tip

In between there are patches of greenery and occasional pools of water despite the baking heat
But if you walked this ground 2500 years ago you would have seen men from 50 nations digging what was one of the lost wonders of the world.

This is Xerxes’ Canal …dug on the orders of the king so that his fleet would not have to sail around the choppy waters of the Athos headland.
His father’s fleet tried that and had been all but destroyed in a storm – men who jumped from wrecked ships clung to the the rocks only to be swept away. It nearly did for the invasion and Xerxes was not going to make the same mistake.

Herodotus tells us that different nations were allocated their own sections but it was the Phoenicians who solved the constant problem of collapsing banks
They made the canal wider at the top than at the bottom. Simples.
For centuries experts have argued over the existence of the canal but recently archaeologists from Glasgow Uni proved that the line of the canal is there and was built pretty much as Herodotus described.

Which was just as well really. Xerxes was not a man to treat shoddy workmanship with equanimity.

When his bridge of boats across the Hellespont was destroyed in a storm he sent his soldiers into the sea armed with whips to punish the recalcitrant waters

“You want us to what , boss?”

“Go into the sea …,”

“Yeah ok….with whips boss?”

“Of course with whips you fool , ”
how else will you be able to thrash the naughty water mightily. Teach it a lesson. And when you are thrashing it mightily I want to you to shout at it and warn it not to misbehave again ….”

Oh and he had the bridge designers decapitated.

At this point his commanders are probably looking askance at each other secretly wondering what the hell they had got themselves into

But Xerxes loved the designer of the canal. Artrachaes was one if his relatives. The tallest man in Persia apparently. Over two metres tall

And Xerxes loved his canal. Big enough for two triremes to pass each other.

Which made it a bit of a pisser when Artachaes died suddenly just before the fleet passed by.
Probably of overwork.
To honour him they built him a marvellous tomb and covered it with a huge mound. You can still see it next to where the canal emptied into the sea on the west side

If you are ever passing this way try walking along stretches of the canal. Close your eyes and imagine the sound and sights of thousands of labourers from all corners of the known world digging to the orders of an all powerful (if slightly unhinged) king

I did.

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Bad habit

After witnessing a near punch up between a stroppy German archaeologist and an Orthodox Priest (and that’s not a sentence I’ll write more than once,) I decided to get on the road early.

I knew trouble was brewing when the slightly unhinged German snapped back at some pilgrims during evening meal
They told him to be quiet (a monk reads from the Bible ) and he told them to get lost

(he’s travelling the world and wants to visit Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq because if the “history”. He seemed slightly put out to be refused permission – notwithstanding the fact those are two of the most dangerous cities on the plant

He also believes that 6000 years ago there existed a higher civilisation with “triangular heads”. And he’s spent 5 years travelling the world trying to prove it.

It all kicked off when he tried to take a picture of the main gates. Unfortunately the priest was sitting in shot
I’ve never been fond of Orthodox monks. They strike me as a surly and miserable bunch I’ve met a few on mountain tracks and they completely ignored me
But this guy took surliness to new heights.
They don’t like having their pictures taken and he went mad at the German who gave as good as he got.
Two police officers stepped in and still the German guy wouldn’t shut up.
It ended with him being ordered to leave the monastery at 7am. Which meant he missed a “hearty ” breakfast of bread jam and olives …

I walked across the headland to my final monastery.
Another German who’s visited here 20 times told me the walk was “flat”
Dear God. If that’s his definition of flat I’d hate to see his mountains.

As the crow flies it was probably about 8 miles. That would normally take a couple of hours
Five and a half hours later I literally staggered into St Anna’s Skete (like a monastery but smaller)
The last stretch was particularly cruel. Steep downhill on a surface that all hikers hate – small loose rocks that roll under your feet and – in my case – sending you flat on your back with an oath that reverberates round the Holy Mountain

My legs were shaking. My feet blistered and red from the combined effect of crap walking boots and mosquito bites.
But it was the friendliest welcome so far
Greek coffee, Turkish Delight, cold cold water and – get this – a glass of Raki
. Sometimes I love monasteries

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Heathen among the Holy

These monasteries are a relic of the Byzantine empire , born out of the fall of the Roman Empire
It seems to me life hasn’t changed much
The monks spend an awful lot of time praying. All through the night.
They are called to prayer by one of their number walking around the central church clapping two planks together and ringing a bell. Loudly.
This seemed to happen every few hours through the night
We ate together while one monk read from the Bible in a frankly soporific monotone
No meat. But at least they had wine for breakfast.
Most visitors refused the wine leaving an awful lot still on the table. I thought it rude to leave so much ….

I’d already sampled the monastery wine the night before – a harsh but potent little red made from the grapes they grow themselves
After my tribulations the day before I frankly cheated. After two hours trekking down a dusty road I flagged down a truck being driven by two Romanian monks.
They took me to the biggest and oldest monastery Megistis Lavra.

Well I say I cheated. Hardly anyone walks here. Most grab minivan taxis.
The only person I’ve seen walking was a Georgian guy who spoke no English
We passed the tine by amusingly referencing the fact that we both have the same patron Saint
How the time flew …

No Women Allowed

There have been a few occasions in recent years when I’ve wondered what the hell I am doing

Drinking wine for breakfast at 7am alongside monks in a Greek Orthodox monastery is one of them.
Ive been on Mount Athos , the Holy Mountain, where no women are allowed and where I traveled back in time. Literally, because here they still operate to the Byzantine Julian calendar which is 13 days behind ours. And for some reason I never fully grasped , they are three and a half hours ahead of us.
They only let ten foreigners a day on to the mountain. I had to collect my special pass and then take a two hour ferry journey to start my trek

I’m not entirely convinced they’ve got the hang of this pilgrimage thing.

After being dropped off in Karyes , the only place that qualifies as a village on Athos , I planned to hike to my first overnight stay. The monastery of Karakalou.
Two policeman told me it was “a long way”. Too far to go.

“How far?” I asked

“Two hours”

A group of passing Greek men agreed and told me to take a minibus
I resisted the urge to sneer in contempt or point out that two hours was but a swift dog walk for my daughter back home

I also resisted the urge to point out I’d walked up to eight hours a day across Spain

I couldn’t help thinking this didn’t feel right , coming from a nation that invented the Marathon.

“I know this was a great victory Pheidippides , but are you sure you want to run to Athens to tell them the news?

“It’s 26 miles you know – why dont you wait for a passing chariot?
I mean, it’s not as if in 2000 years anyone’s going to remember you ran all that way is it?

Two hours later I wasn’t feeling so chipper. A Greek kid I met on the mainland told me you can’t get lost. They have signs pointing to the 20 monasteries here
Yes. Yes they do. But they are all in Greek. Have you ever tried reading Greek?
It’s as if someone has given a crayon to a 5 year old child and told it to draw some random geometrical shapes

The landscape reminded me initially of the early stages of the Camino.
But then ominously began to resemble the hill and forest tracks of the st Paul Trail in Turkey. A comparison that became even more apt when , true to form, I got lost.

After floundering around among the paths and dirt tracks I somehow staggered upon a sign pointing to the monastery
The Holy Mountain isn’t a place to jump up and down screaming •
” F…. Yeah !!!!!!” with relief
But I did it anyway

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Down this road – on a sweltering summer’s day two and a half thousand years ago – the soldiers came. *
They didn’t stay long. But behind them they left pillaged villages, plains stripped of crops , empty granaries and weeping mothers.

Like an army of locusts they devoured everything in their path. It’s said their numbers were so vast , they drank the rivers dry. As they marched , they tore local men from their families. Conscripted and forced to fight and die alongside them at places whose names have echoed through the centuries. : Platea. Salamis.

And Thermopylae.

The Persian Empire stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean Sea. And its king , Xerxes , was returning to punish the Greeks for the revolt and humiliating defeat inflicted upon his father Darius which ended at Marathon

We know this because the Greek historian Herodotus -the father of history – provides us with a detailed description of that war. And of Xerxes’ march through Greece.

He was born four years after the war but must have spoken to men who were there

We can trust many of the details he gives us. But not all

For example numbers don’t appear to have been his strong point.
A marvellous wordsmith , he estimated the Persian army and camp followers at around 5.2 million

Had that been the case most would have died of thirst and starvation long before they crossed from Asia into Europe across the waters of the Hellespont.

Today scholars estimate his fighting men at around 100,000. A bit of a discrepancy you might think.

Herodotus was a brilliant writer but obviously couldn’t add up for toffee.

I imagine the conversation with his literary agent after securing what must then have been the biggest book deal in history.

“Herodotus old chap , that villa you always wanted ? Well you can put down the deposit. I’ve done you the deal of the century……a thousand advanced copies at one drachma each….you’re rich my boy !

Herodotus :” indeed ! 3000 drachmas – such wealth …”

“Eh? No H, listen A thousand copies. At a drachma each- equals ?

“Ah yes my mistake. That’s 5100 drachmas! I am rich”

“Er H, I think we better take another look at those Persian army stats before we go to print”

Having waited fruitlessly at an isolated, shadeless bus stop in the burning sun for 2 hours after being told by a grizzled local that it would arrive in ” ten minutes” I’m inclined to think his descendants have inherited his gift for numbers.

Why am I rambling on about this.? Because in the short time i have before I return home for my son’s graduation ceremony I’ll be re-tracing the route of that army thorough Northern Greece (Macedonia and Thrace )

* yes – I nicked that intro from somewhere. A pint to anyone who recognises it and why it’s appropriate to plagiarise it in this case

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