Sunday, May 18, 2008

Backpacking in Greece: Attica, Peloponnese, Northern Greece, Islands (Part IV)

I didn't get a chance to visit many cities in Central Greece, however I did read up on most of them. The ones I did make it to are listed here. Hopefully you won't be as rushed as I was and you can see some of the smaller towns. Northern Greece was hardly intruded upon by me. I did make a visit outside Thessalonika, but this was near the end of my trip and I thought it best not to schedule much.


Delphi: (2,426 inhab.) Phokis - Topographical MapThere were really three places during my entire trip that I found I really could relax Tholos at Delphiand enjoy. Nauplio was the first, already mentioned, and Delphi is the next. From Athens it takes a few hours bus ride, though it is a nice trip through Thebes and on towards the mountains north of the Corinthian gulf. You'll first arrive at the archaeological site where there will undoubtedly be buses parked along side the road as far as you can see. This is a hint to go early in the morning. The modern town is just around the hill on past the archaeological site. It is close enough to walk to, don't even think about taking a ride back to the site. The modern town of Delphi once sat directly above the archaeological site, but when the French first began excavations, they paid to have the entire village moved a mile or so to the west. The town is relatively small and the steepness of Mt. Parnassos allows almost every hotel with a balcony to have a marvelous view. You can see all the way down to the port town of Itea where cruise ships sometimes put in to allow day trips up to the site. I looked around a while for a room and finally stayed at the Hotel Olympia (I think), which was nice, clean, and cheap with such a great view that I decided to stay an extra night just for the heck of it. Higher up the hill and on the western edge of town there was a good restaurant (Vakxos) also with (once again) some kinda view. Don't pass this terrific site up, it has panoramic views of Delphi that require a Quicktime plug-in, but it shouldn't be missed!

The Archaeological site at Delphi, (or for a more 'touristy' version, here Archaeological Site, or even here for a wonderful comprehensive site plan from Perseus and the folks at Tufts University) and the Archaeological Museum of Delphi ranks up in the top five "don't miss" destinations of the country. It has also been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (1987). Though I was treated very badly by the ticket taker (see the 'classic's pass' information on the Preparing page), I was glad I finally got to see the museum, though there were hundreds of school kids there. There is plenty to see at the site and I would be wasting my time if I tried to name all of the monuments and buildings there (the Bouleterion there has a site here)(you can also read Pausanias' description 10.5.3). But don't forget to take lots of pictures while looking out over the site to the beautiful view south. Also you should take the five minute walk up past the site (and the wonderful theater) to the stadium, and if you still have time you should walk on past the site to the east back to the Temple of Athena Pronaea. The sanctuary is so large that it can seem quite confusing, but the guidebooks are helpful and at this site particularly by laying out the history/mythology of the area, they have many artistic renderings of the buildings and treasuries as they should have looked. For lots of extra pictures of Delphi, try here at Delphi Photos. There is also supposedly a Late Roman Tour of Delphi online, but I have been unable to find it.


Thermopylae: After swinging down from the mountains north of Delphi, we are finally deposited near the site of Thermopylae on the main highway from Thebes to Lamia. Though we didn't stop long enough to see it, there is a monument of Leonidas and further up the mountain is the site where he made his famous stand against the Persians. Learn more about this famous battle by reading a bit online (or off).

Lamia: (41,000 inhab.) Just a note here that in this boring town I had to sit for a few hours till my connecting bus arrived. It was one of the worst waits I ever had to endure. I've also heard from others confirming my opinion of the place so try to keep away from this one.


Meteora: The towns of Kalambaka (,5692 inhab.) and Kastraki (1,278 inhab.) don't make it to St. Nicholas Monastary at Meteoramany people's trip destination lists simply because they are a little out of the way. But though this has nothing to do with ancient history, my interest, this is something I am extremely glad I decided to see. The monasteries that adorn the top of the huge rocks that make up "Ta Meteora" ("the things in the air") are just unbelievable (click here for an awesome site on Meteora with great pictures for each of the monasteries). The entire complex of monasteries has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Even the surrounding area is very peaceful and unique, thanks to the wildlife and wonderful rock formations. Here is a thorough description of the site and its surroundings, sure to be of interest to you naturalists and a site for the more adventurous. (Here is a number of marvelous panoramic views of the monastaries and villages at Meteora. You MUST see these! You'll need the Quicktime plug-in though.).

It's easy to take a bus up in the morning to the Grand Meteora and walk back down, but all but the strongest will have to skip one or two on the way down. You've surely seen some of the monasteries in advertisements or in "For Your Eyes Only" the 007 movie. They are even more spectacular in person. It's too bad you can't take photos inside the buildings (all the more reason to buy a guidebook!). They do ask that you wear pants or skirts for this though. I am sure glad I did, since on my way to the bus station I was bit by a dog and the only thing that kept me from extreme danger was the fact that I had worn pants that day (the first time in the whole trip!)!

A nice guy runs the Hotel Odyssey on the Kastraki side of town and usually American groups are there. It is a nice walk on to Kastraki from there and enterprising people can actually just walk on to the monasteries from there. The bus station in Kalambaka is in a bad place (hard to find).

The ride to Ioannina: After leaving Kastraki for Ioannina to the west, the first rain storm I had seen in Greece came up. Also a road block stops the bus in the middle of it for thirty minutes while they search the bus. They finally get the guy behind me and take him out at gun point forcing him to get his bag under the bus and show his papers. Yelling, screaming, people looking at the show, and a driving rainstorm made it nerve-wracking. The checkpoint was made at a one lane bridge over a river and was meant to catch 11 violent criminals (I found this out the next day in the paper) who had escaped the town east of Kalambaka the night before. Turns out that Olymbiakos was playing Panathanaikos (Dominique Wilkin's team) for the Greek Pro Basketball finals the night before and all the guards at the jail were watching the game while a major prison break was occurring.


Metsovo: (2,705 inhab.) Ioannina & Trikkala - Topographical MapActually two towns divided by a gorge. I didn't stay in Metsovo (nice site for the small town), but it is in some of the highest mountains of all Greece. It is a quaint little town with a surprising tourist edge due to the amount of crafts made here. There are ski resorts nearby and the town is a nice stop. The Pass of Katara over the Pindus mountains nearby is at 1707m. and is amazing. It should only be attempted in the best weather though, since it is above the snow line.

Ioannina: (44,000 inhab.) Actually a very pretty town cradled in the mountains of Epirus. There is Ioanninano real outlet for the huge lake at Ioannina though so it is awfully polluted. Still there are usually many people rowing on it and it looks clean from afar. There is an exceptional Byzantine Museum of Ioannina here that I would recommend if only for its up to date exhibits and nice displays. The fortified part of the town is also nice to see and there is an Archaeological Museum of Ioannina, but stick to the waterfront and touristy area. Few people in this region speak any English at all though they are a bit nicer. Not that many tourists make it up here as compared to the rest of the country. It appears to me that the relatively high rates in this town may be due to a lack of competition. I wound up paying a high rate for a bad room, but there aren't that many choices and on a weekend you're out of luck. Mine was the Hotel Astoria but I wouldn't recommend it unless you were hard up. (By the way, I noticed here that people look at you strange if you put ketchup directly onto your french fries. Strange but true. And Mexican Chicken with "salsa" can actually be "sauce-a" meaning mustard if your not careful.)

If you've made it this far then you should be sure and go see the sanctuary and theater at Dodona (the real reason that I'm in Ioannina at all).

Dodona: One of the best preserved theaters in all of Greece is located here and it is the big draw. Sanctuary of Zeus at DodonaDodona is around 13 miles from Ioannina, nestled into a valley between spectacular mountains on one side and some large hills on the other. There is only one hotel and they will rip you off, but if you walk a couple miles up hill, you can get to the village of Dodona where you can get a decent room for an ok price if no one else is around. NO ENGLISH at all is spoken here. Luckily I caught a local celebration at around 7pm the night I was there and was able to see some dances and performances in traditional costumes. The sanctuary at the theater was the reason the complex was built in the first place. It was an oracle much like Delphi but much older. There are few remains at the Archaeological Site of Dodona, but the acropolis does extend from the top of the theater (I bet you wouldn't be surprised if I told you that you can find out more about their Bouleterion online). Watch out for snakes though! I saw a couple and the locals warned me and the other two tourists (Swiss) by the international symbols for snakes (making your hand like a "C" and hissing while you snap at people). Cool area gets chilly after being in the Peloponnese for a while. You definitely realize your not in the big city anymore in this part of the country. Mules are still common as transportation in places and herds of goats are blocking the road sometimes too.


The very long trip from Ioannina to Thessaloniki is only sparked by the passing through the Vale of Tempe, a strategic pass that has been hewn deep into the mountain by a river alongside the modern road. Extremely narrow at points, it was the major entrance between Macedonia and the south.

Once you've gone through the pass, you'll enter Pieria, the southermost part of Macedonia. Another amazing site was the castle of Platamon on the edge of the sea (shortly after passing through Tempe where another narrow passage is created). It was built by the crusaders in 1204 and with the cloudy weather, sea, and general area, it is easy to forget you're in Greece and not in England or Ireland.

Dion: Though I didn't stop in Dion (negotiating a bus ticket from Ioannina to Dion would not have been my idea of a good day), I did pass by it and hope to visit the archaeological site there someday. Much of the Roman city has been uncovered.

Mount Olympus: The mountain can be seen, but only in the best weather. It is usually clouded at the top, but you aren't supposed to be able to see the gods now are you?! If you want a good view of the mountain, you might need to take a look at this site with plenty of photos (this one is even better!!). For a video of a hike to 2,000 feet up the mountain (47 seconds worth), try this link.


Thessalonika: (400,000 inhab.) The second city of Greece is arrived at after passing through miles and miles of swampy areas and rice fields, but it sits on a narrow plain between the Thermaic Gulf and nearby mountains to the east. Thessalonika is not a very picturesque town, Church of Saint Demetriosthe bay was very choppy while I was there and wind was strong. The city was the "Cultural Capital of Europe for the year of 1997" and they (and country for that matter) were very proud of the designation. You can start your visit of Thessalonika with a visit to one of the numerous historic churches, of which quite a number are now represented online. Try the Church of Saint Demetrios. It was the one I visited while I was there and it was quite a sight, especially the Crypt of Saint Demetrios in the bottom of the building. If you really like the Byzantine sites, try any number of these: Church of Saint Panteleimon, Church of Prophet Elijah, Church of St. Nicholas Orphanos, The Church of Acheiropoietos, Church of Aghioi Apostoloi (the Holy Apostles), Church of Our Lady of the Coppersmiths, Church of Aghia Sophia. There is also a Byzantine museum in The White Tower, which is the landmark of the city and is found on most Salonika motifs. Construction is still underway at the massive new Museum of Byzantine Civilization, but you can still visit part of the building, where exhibitions are open. There is also a site with panoramic views of Thessalonika.

If you prefer the Classical Greek, Hellenistic, or Roman periods, take heart, there's plenty to see here. First you can stop by the excellent Archaeological Museum of Thessalonika. It is the second best in the country behind the NAM in Athens. You can also walk around the theater and the Ancient Forum, currently under excavation, which is right in the heart of the city. You can't miss the city walls (well preserved), the huge Arch of Galerius, built in 305 A.D., and the Mausoleum of Galerian, once a church, then a mosque (with minaret), then a church, then a Byzantine museum, and now undergoing reconstruction after earthquakes in the 1970's. It's also known generally as the Rotunda.

Though I didn't make it to these sites, they are also very important archaeologically and are not far from Thessalonika:

Vergina: Vergina is the archaeological site where the royal tombs of Macedon were excavated in the late 1970's, yielding a treasure trove of items including the bones of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Since then the items have been displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Thessalonika and at the museum at the site. This is yet another Greek site that has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (1996). You can read about the site and Philip II from the primary sources, all online! The material has been gathered here.


Pella: (2,272 inhab.) Catch the bus in Thessalonika early and head out to Pella, modern center of the praefecture of Pella, and the Ancient Pella (mid-right), Modern Pella (background)birthplace of Alexander the Great and served as the palace of Macedonia (read up on Alexander here). The remains at The Archaeological Site at Pella are not that large but some very nice villas have been found with amazing mosaics. (The picture here shows the modern town in the upper right portion of the screen. The site is the small, cleared out space almost halfway up the right side of the photo) The homes that are there now are extremely large and there is a fresh water system that runs under the street. There has been more discoveries a little distance from the site (possibly the palace on a small acropolis and some temples that aren't ready for public viewing yet), but it will be a while till they are included with the site. My visit was cut a little short when a pack of hungry looking stray dogs started to wander towards me, the only person at the site. There is a nice Archaeological Museum of Pella across the highway with some of the mosaics, but its best pieces have been taken out for an international exhibit (in Rome I think). The town in the picture is about two kilometers from the site. The landscape is vastly different than anything else you'll see in Greece. There are no hills for as far as you can see, just flat, good farmland.

I actually rode back to Thessalonika with a woman who stopped to pick up the other man at the bus stop and asked me "Salonika?" Maybe a little risky, but in my entire trip in Greece I never felt really threatened. But why would a thief want to try to take the bag away from a 6'4" college boy when there are countless old ladies with purses containing alot more than my bag probably would. Also I might catch 'em.


Potidaea: The city of Potidaea was located near the narrowest point of the peninsula. It was an important Potidaea from the airclassical city whose rebellion against Athens helped cause the Peloponnesian War.

Olynthos: Olynthos is of special importance since the person who excavated it, David M. Robinson, later donated much of his collection to the University of Mississippi. You can see much of the collection online at the David M. Robinson Collection. The excavation of the Archaeological Site of Olynthos was important because it provided quite a lot of information to scholars on the average Greek homes of the period (4th century B.C.) (the Bouleterion there was also found). It also provides a firm date for pottery styles since almost the exact date of its destruction is known and no other habitation at the site disturbed the material. At the online site, you can see a Mosaic of Bellerephon. And on our site, you can see a scale painting of the same mosaic (along with several others from the site) by the German archaeologist Baron von Peschke, who recreated many of the mosaics at Olynthos.

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