Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Most Perfect Day Ever

Thursday was such pure pleasure that it could not but produce an accompanying sense of sadness; bliss, of course, is transitory. For someone like myself, who loves ancient history, sunshine, Mediterranean landscapes, and theatre, it just doesn’t get any better. Karin and Vassos drove us to Dion, an archaeological site southwest of Thessaloniki. The site is enormous and still under excavation. Karin remarked that it had virtually doubled in scope since her last visit a decade ago. We followed winding paths through a glorious landscape of meadows, streams, and thickets of poplars and London plane trees. We saw shrines to Artemis, a sanctuary partially submerged in water, hints of the agora, and even toilets and the sanitation system. The mosaics, still being recovered, were lovely. Dion has two theatres, a small Roman space that was probably used for lectures and musical performances, and a larger Hellenistic theatre. As has become my wont, I insisted on testing the acoustics, which were surprisingly poor. Most of the original seats are gone and nothing remains of the skene, which might account for the lack of acoustical “bounce.”

Vassos waited patiently in the car. At 72, he can no longer manage rigorous hiking over uneven terrain, but he generously encouraged us to take as long as we wanted. After Dion, we drove to Litohoro, an almost Alpine-looking village at the foot of Mt. Olympus. The village is charm incarnate. Karin and Vassos took us for a sublime lunch at their favorite restaurant, appropriately named Olympus. We sat on the deck, drinking wine, gorging, and gazing out at the cloud-covered peaks where the pantheon of Greek gods reigned. Our superb 3-course lunch cost all of twelve euros, an unbelievable bargain for the enormous Greek-style salads, bread, and braised lamb shanks that we inhaled. For dessert we had ice cream, which is excellent in Greece, doused in sour cherries that are almost candied. I’ve never quite tasted anything like it.

After lunch we drove to Vergina, the burial site of the Macedonian kings. This is where Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was buried after being assassinated at the wedding of his daughter (in the theatre, no less). Since the mid-nineteenth century, archaeologists have known that Vergina was an important Macedonian site; not until the mid-1970s, however, did they discover the royal tombs. Miraculously, Philip’s tomb survived grave robbers, and the contents, now on display in the museum, are simply breathtaking. Never have I seen ancient artifacts of such unparalleled beauty. Diadems comprised of golden oak leaves are so finely wrought they look as if they should bend in the wind. Purple and gold cloth that enclosed Philip’s cremated remains looks almost painted, so closely woven is the fabric. Etched on the gold larnax containing his bones are bands of lily, along with decorative rosettes. Silver bowls and plates, exquisitely but simply designed, appear eerily modern.

Brilliantly, the tumulus is recreated in its entirety, with the museum housed beneath. The tombs are intact, as well as the objects: one can see, for instance, a wall painting of Philip and the young Alexandria hunting, as well as the individual chambers. I was awe-struck by the artistry and skill everywhere in evidence. I am especially keen on the Hellenistic period: to see the opulence with which Alexander buried his father was, well, almost beyond comprehension.

Equally incomprehensible was the utter desertion of the museum, a phenomenon we’ve experienced throughout our several days in Macedonia. The royal tombs were empty, as were the other museums and archaeological sites we’ve visited. Museum employees, seeing my rapture, have been unfailingly kind in answering my questions and even allowing me into areas normally off-limits to visitors. Clearly, I have benefitted from “the crisis,” as it is called in Greece, and the resulting decline in tourism. Selfishly, having these extraordinary places to myself is part of today’s perfection.

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