Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane

We left Thessaloniki on Friday morning, heading northeast. We stopped in Philippi, another expansive site like Dion that includes the remains of an agora, a theatre, shrines, settlements, and even early churches. Its historical associations also stopped me dead in my tracks, although I am finding that my scholarly penchant for specificity drives the Greek guides a little crazy. Philippi—for those of you who remember Roman history—is where Antony and Octavius defeated Brutus and Cassius. I had read that the battle took place in the fields just outside the ruined city walls, but there are lots of fields and several city walls. The guides pointed vaguely to various locales, but, when pressed, it became clear they really didn’t know. Finally one of the administrators in the spanking new museum (open all of one month) came out to speak to this crazy American woman who was carrying on about the Battle of Philippi. Finally, my curiosity was satisfied, and I could gaze upon a field bounded by trees, imagining the clash of swords. Then again, he probably fabricated the information to get rid of me.

Philippi is also where St. Paul was imprisoned for preaching to the locals (“Letters to the Philippians”). We thought about hiking out to see his prison cell, but we had already spent nearly three hours trudging around the ruins and the impressive Hellenistic theatre. This one, I might add, has superb acoustics.

Vassos snoozed in the car during our peregrinations; he joined us for lunch at the cafĂ© on the site, where we had surprisingly decent food. A little white dog, miserably abandoned, hovered under our table. I looked at Rod imploringly—there was something about this creature in particular—but he pointed out the many hurdles, legal and practical, that stood in the way of adoption and transport. It was very difficult walking away.

We carried on, driving through the scenic beachfront town of Kavala, until we reached the harbor ferry that would take us to the island of Thassos. I knew something of the island's historical significance. Rich in gold and minerals, Thassos was claimed by successive empires. Thassos is also notable for a landscape that differs dramatically from the arid, rocky topography of the Cycladic islands. It is green, covered with dense fir trees, and very beautiful.

The resort where we spent the night is very attractive, both open and modern while still retaining a Macedonian feeling. The hotel pool is enormous. I immediately changed into my swimming suit and plunged into the cool water, swimming contentedly until Rod hailed me for dinner. The food, unfortunately, was nowhere as nice as the setting: this meal turned out to be the most mediocre and the most expensive of the trip. Far more satisfying than the cuisine were the hotel clients, many of them Yugoslavian, Albanian, or even Russian. Thuggish young men smoked endlessly and talked into their cell phones, while their girlfriends looked bored and pouty in only the way that Slavic women can.

On Saturday we checked out and then drove to the Old Port, a scenic village where old-fashioned fishing boats still bring in the day’s catch. I knew about the theatre at Thassos and wanted to brave the climb, even though I could glimpse its remains high on the hills overlooking the town. Surely, I thought to myself, it can’t be that far. Well, it was. Poor Karin gave up after a while—it was a hot day—but Rod and I ended up on the wrong path and found ourselves halfway up to the acropolis. Foolhardy creatures, we decided to climb to the very top, thinking that we would detour to the theatre on our way down. It turned out to be much more demanding than we expected, with difficult, sometimes treacherous footing and very steep inclines. Drenched in sweat and exhausted, I was feeling glum and middle-aged until espying a group of teenagers on a school outing. The boys looked pissed and several girls were crying from the strain of the climb. I felt much better about my aging body from that point onward.

We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the island and the ocean; on our way down, we found the theatre, which also occupies a beautiful setting. The antiquities on Thassos don’t seem to be accorded the care that we’ve seen at other sites—the island has just fallen through the cracks of the archaeological ministry—and the remains of the theatre need serious attention. Like the theatre on Santorini, this performance space is something of a puzzle: it is extremely hard to access, and one wonders about the performers or even audiences it might have attracted.

We finished our sojourn on Thassos with a delightful lunch by the waterfront in the Old Port. Starved for carbohydrates after my crazy climb, I wolfed down prodigious quantities of pasta with seafood much to the delight of my Greek brother-in-law. Throughout our stay, he has chided me for eating so little, even jokingly accusing me of anorexia (as if!). By Greek standards, I eat like a bird, but I tried to explain to Vassos that I have the metabolism of a slug. He would have none of it. Greeks really like to eat—enormous portions are standard—so he was happy to see me evince for once what he considers a normal appetite.

I nodded off in the car on the way back to Thessaloniki. We showered, packed, had a cup of tea with Karin and Vassos, and then fell into bed, content but drained by our whirlwind tour through Macedonia.

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