In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

For the next three days we tour the land in which Alexander was born, raised and conquered the world (as they knew it then) and was finally buried alongside his father King Phillip ll.

The first two day’s we base ourselves in Vergina.  Known as Aigai in ancient times it is the recently discovered (1977) site of the magnificent tombs of the Macedonian royal family, King Philip ll, father of Alexander the Great.                                                                                                                         

The museum built inside the burial chamber known as the Great tumulus contains some of the most spectacular gold objects found in ancient Greece, including gold caskets in which the bones of Philip ll and Alexander were buried.

Inside the domed roof of the museum you get a real sense of the scale and feel of the tumulus with passageway’s leading to the tombs.  The marbled door temples are closed but you can walk down a passageway to the entrance. Outside is a model of the chamber with descriptions of what was found inside, items such as paintings, tools, weapons, a full set of armour, jewellery, eating utensils, dishes, wine jugs etc., all the things that would be needed in their next life.  The youngest wife or concubine also willingly went to their death and was buried with him so as to join the King in his next life.  

Artefacts found in Great Tomb
Crown
Vergina Museum
marble tomb entrance

Alexander was the son of King Phillip ll, and both were born and raised in the village of Pella and it was from the royal palace there that in 338 BC Phillip ll left to conquer Greece.

After King Philip died from battle injuries some years later, Alexander at the age of 20 years became king, and marched all the way to India, conquering everything in his path, fulfilling his father Philip’s plans to defeat the Persians in Asia, and creating the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. An empire that extended to India in the east and Egypt in the south.                                                                                     

He died in Babylon under mysterious circumstances at the young age of 33 years, and his body returned to the royal tombs Vergina to be buried next to his father.                                                                                 

Alexander was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history’s most successful military leaders.                                                                       

This is honestly one of the best museums we have seen in a long time.

Our next stop is Pella, where from my bedroom window I look at the ruins of what was the largest agora in the ancient world, where Alexander lived, and was tutored by the great philosopher, Aristotle.

In Alexanders days the landscape was very different from now. Then the palace overlooked both the plain and the channel which bought supplies from around Europe into it’s bustling harbour, and from where their ships sailed off to conquer new lands.  Now the waters have sadly dried up, and the hill overlooks the peaceful and still fertile fields growing canola, wheat and other crops.

Vergina and Pella will outlive us all.  Over two and half thousand years of war, invasion and savage attacks are etched into the ruins, burial mounds and tombs here.   And still they remain, partly due to the fantastic excavation works and archaeological digs of the passionate people that thankfully come to work here.

Méteora

Massive pinnacles of smooth rock that seemed to have sprung from the ground are an amazing site, then as you look up you see the ancient monasteries atop them that just add to the strange but beautiful landscape.

The name Méteora derives from the Greek word meteoro, which means suspended in the air, the word meteor we use in English is from the same root.

From the 11th century hermit monks lived in caves around Méteora, but once the Ottomans from Turkey started raiding Greece, the monks needed to move to higher ground for safety, and the inaccessibility of the rocks of Méteora made them a perfect retreat.

The earliest of the monasteries were reached by climbing removable wooden ladders, then later they used a hand turned rope winch to lift supplies or even a monk sitting in a woven net. When asked about how often the rope broke, the monk answered us with a very straight face, “when the Lord let them break”.

The monasteries are beautiful, the chapels have exquisite paintings using gold leaf, and the views just have to be seen as my photo’s don’t do them justice.  There are six monasteries and one convent for nuns still being used, out of the twenty one once here.

Monk size wine barrel

Last night we stayed in the camping spot at Guesthouse Arsenis, and our host, Kostas was a wealth of local knowledge.  His family has lived in the area for generations, and he was happy to talk about the changes here.  He also told us that his grandparents were moved from their home, which is where the restaurant now stands, by German soldiers during WW2, given only five minutes to pack a few items.                                                         

When the Germans finally left more than three years later, they offered Kostas family two horses in payment, but they were happy as these were good large horses, unlike the small Greek horse.   There is a picture on the wall of Kostas father and uncle sitting on the horses.

Just in case you are wondering we didn’t have to get in a net and be winched up to the monastery, there are now roads to get reasonably close then stairs, many, many stairs, but so worth it.

my new friend the shepherd, he didn’t mind that I still had my slippers on and wet hair
he has a nice ute as well

ANCONA Italy to IGOUMENITSA North Western Greece

Eighteen hours sounds like a long travel time, but I honestly must say the time just flew by on the ship.

Again, we booked the optional cabin, just twin beds and no window but with an ensuite.   Thinking ahead I made up a picnic of olives, cheese, pate and bread, included a bottle of wine and we were all set for our ‘Greek cruise’.                                                                                                                                                                      TThe outside bar and deck were open, busy and windy, so we found a nice sunny lounge next to the window, had our picnic, read and played cards until retiring to our cabin for a good sleep.

Parga, about 40mins south of the port was our first stop.  I have heard about this tiny picturesque amphitheatre shaped village, with it’s hilltop Venetian fortress and thought it would be a great place for the night.  Parking was impossible, although we did manage to squeeze into a not entirely legal place, so just had a quick look around, found a bakery for spinach and feta pies for lunch and headed down the road a little further.

Ammoudia was the next little seaside village, it was quiet and had a lovely shady spot, under the eucalypts and overlooking the Adriatic Sea, and on the banks of the famous River Styx, (the river of souls), or Acheron River                                            

our guardian
she was very sweet

The ancient Greeks believed in the existence of an underworld, ruled by Hades, where souls go after they die. In Greek mythology Charon is the ferryman that must be paid to ferry the souls across the River Styx, which divided the world of the living from the dead.  Those who did not pay were doomed to remain ghosts, to become the restless dead, forever wandering.

Fishing boats anchored alongside the river supply the local restaurants with fresh catch daily, calamari, red snapper etc., from the Adriatic Sea, so that’s lunch taken care of.  

Mythology and fresh seafood ………. I’m really loving Greece.

Tomorrow it’s on to the Nekromanteion, where the Oracle, would channel her mystical powers, to help family ask advice from their dead ancestors in the underworld.

DODONA Amphitheatre and The Oracle of Zeus

Dating back to at least 1,000 BC this amphitheatre was built to hold sacred games to honour and worship Zeus, the Father of the Gods.

Ancient pilgrims also flocked to also see the Oracle here, and after a substantial payment, the priestess would channel answers from their long buried dead ancestors, who were thought to hold powers of wisdom.

Homer, and other ancient Greek writers mention the Oracle of Dodona as the oldest in the Greek world. It’s such an amazing experience to see these ancient sights and walk the same ground that was so significant 3,000 years ago.

THE LOVE OF LIFE

There is no greater history lesson than to walk through the history of a place itself, seeing the remnants, imagining it’s past.

I love the way Italians love life.  They seem to grasp life and shake it by the collar, injecting so much life into even their daily events. They are loud and expressive, and monotony does not seem to enter their days.

People spend a good deal of their after-work time outside, in the piazzas, socialising with their neighbours over coffee or slightly stronger fluids.  Often such gathering on the weekends last long into the night, with food bought out and shared, the children running around while the parents chat. 

I think it’s their own love of life, of food, of wine, of company it’s just so infectious! 

It’s quite unlike Australia in that way, where people arrive home from work and shut themselves inside, away from all but our immediate family.

The weekly market is a wonderful place to people watch.    Stalls are set up early, selling everything from antiques and leather goods, clothes, fruit, vegetables, meat to fine linens.   Customers loudly haggling over prices and pointing animatedly at the items they want.  Each stall counter is deep with customers jostling for the most appealing items.   There are always the small groups of elderly locals, laughing and talking, and obviously enjoying their weekly catch-up with neighbours and friends. 

TUSCANY

The people of Toscana claim to have just about the best of everything – the country’s greatest collection of art, architecture and a beautiful countryside bathed in soft pink hues.

Florence is probably our favourite city in Italy.                                                                               

Once home to the Masters- Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, for which we must be thankful to the great Medici family.  If you climb the steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo high above the city, you can still see the magnificent Medici villas, and the fort built for the protection of the family that held reign over this city for hundreds of years.

It’s busy though, even in early Spring.  Walking through Florence is no longer an easy matter. Busloads of tourists descend upon Florence daily.  Tour leaders holding a flag on a stick or a closed umbrella high above their heads so as not to lose any of their group.  I can’t imagine, and don’t even want to think about what being on one of those tours would be like.

 You need a week in Florence just to see the main sights, the Uffizi for the art, the many beautiful churches and piazzas, as well as the Palazzo’s, the magnificent family homes of the wealthy families that once lived here.  Then of course there is the food, not only from the fantastic restaurants, but from the small, sometimes hidden places that offer ‘Cucina Tipica’ the local food.

The stone villas lining these streets testify to the centuries that have passed.  Roofs dip and rise in random fashion. Their permanency and the 50cm thick stone walls that insulate and sound proof them are a testament to their Roman builders.  There seems no architectural consistency here, and I imagine villas have been built where and how time allowed.  But it is this randomness which adds beauty and is what we love so much about Italy and so many places in Europe

The entrance line into the Duomo wrapped nearly around the building, so instead of re-visiting this beautiful Cathedral we buy a gelato and sit in the piazza to do my favourite thing, people watch.                                                                                                                                                                                 

First it’s the local Carabinieri in their fancy uniforms that catch my eye. They seem to be jostling with the Polizia di Stato or State Police for a position of authority, both seem confused by their roles and spend lots of time wandering around, inspecting cars or visiting the local shops of cafes.

But it’s the Carabinieri that I love.  No matter which monument they are guarding their conduct never changes. They lean on their car bonnets, smoking and usually taking more than a mild interest in the pretty young women passing by, and chatting happily to anyone who cares to speak to them.

Sant’Andrea a Cellole, in the heart of Chianti wine region of Tuscany.

We first met Adela and Mauro in 2009 when they advertised for help to pick their olives on a house-sitting site.  Luckily for us they took a chance with a couple of middle-aged Aussies, travelling Europe in their trusty old VW campervan, and we have been friends ever since. (Below are a few pics from 2009)

enjoying the sun in Tuscany in front of our apartment (2009)
tractor ride at the end of the day
we have finished!!! (the 2009 harvest)

They own Sant’Andrea a Cellole, it’s origins date back at least 1000 years.  Cellole is approximately halfway between Florence and Siena.  In the middle ages it was small fortified hamlet with a chapel, then in the 14th century the family castle for wealthy Florentines.  In the 18th century Sant’Andrea became a priory with a congregation of over 200 parishioners.  Sadly, in the 1960’s it was abandoned and left to ruin.

Luckily for Sant’Andrea, Adela and Mauro purchased it in the late 1980’s and spent several years lovingly rebuilding, but keeping with the traditional beamed ceilings and terracotta floors.

Every-time I visit here I’m in awe at this beautiful home, sitting proudly on a hilltop surrounded by olive trees.  Fondly remembering the many day’s we all spent together, chatting as we raked the olive trees of their precious fruit, catching them in the large nets we had carefully laid beneath the trees. Then it was off to the mill to watch those same olives we had picked only hours ago, being crushed and made into the most delicious extra virgin olive oil I have ever tasted.

Brian and Bounty 2 weeks ago
Nelson

At dusk the serenity is complete.  I think it is the most peaceful and evocative time of all here.  This is when you truly see the beauty that Cellole offers, it’s moods, it’s timeless history, it’s sense of permanence.  Now it is just you and this ancient place witnessing the close of another day.

sunset in the olive grove

It is reassuring.

a Sunday bbq, with Adela, Marzio and Mauro

Sadly, Adela passed away on April 2nd, only a couple of days after we left.  She had put up a strong fight against Cancer the past four years, and she is now finally at peace.                                                                                    Brian and I are so thankful that we did to see her one last time, to laugh, chat and help out a little with her garden, which has always been her peaceful place.

Della and Bernie 2009

Vale Adela, you will be missed.