Backpacking the Middle East: A Journey of Alexandrian Proportions- Chapter One-Greece
How it all Started...
Andy and Jason's Excellent Adventure
Sometime in 2002, I hatched a crazy plan to follow the path of Alexander the Great. Having been to Greece, I knew that the initial part of the journey was feasible. But the rest? Alexander went everywhere . After his entry into the Persian Empire, he and his army marched through modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and a few I am missing. I realized (I assume I must have, but I was young after all) that entry into some of these countries or regions would simply not be possible (or safe), but perhaps just part of it would suffice? Perhaps a trip from his birthplace in Macedonia to the supposed site of his tomb in Alexandria, Egypt would settle my appetite for all things exotic and adventurous?
In the winter of 2008, I got my chance. My cousin Andy, who was then stationed in Afghanistan with the U.S. army, proposed- though Facebook- that I meet him in Greece for a tour of Europe. I proposed, jokingly, my plan, having no intention of going on a three-month trip through the Middle East while enrolled in school. I don't remember the exact conversation, but I can almost guarantee he called my masculinity into question. I let it go, wishing I'd had the resources to make such a trip. "Someday," I told myself.
Of course, muttering "someday" to oneself is miserably depressing, because as we all know, "someday" usually never happens. So then, it bothered me; it bugged me; it stuck in my head and reminded me of what I was missing every minute of every day; until finally, a solution struck! I was, at the time, visiting family in my home state of Wisconsin while a friend sublet my apartment in Portland, Oregon. While the plan was to return to Oregon in January, return to my apartment and begin winter term at Portland State, an idea struck me: What if I registered for online classes, requested that my friend stay in my apartment for three more months, and used my student financial aid to finance my travels? I'd have to bring textbooks with me sure, and finding an internet cafe every day might prove difficult, but wasn't it worth it? To take this one chance to follow that path that I'd dreamed of for years?
Well, I did it, and am so very glad I did. What follows then, is a photo journal and travel memoir/guide series detailing those three months spent overseas in some of the most amazing countries on the face of the earth. From Greece to Egypt and everywhere in between, Andy and I (and eventually just I) saw phenomenal and monumental architecture, witnessed political rallies replete with soldiers, tanks, and kidnappings, met amazing people from numerous countries and cultures, and drank a ridiculous amount of cappuccinos.
Athens had changed little since I'd been there last. Chaotic taxi-rides, infinite grey sprawl, and amazing history. Upon touching down, I soon met my cousin Andy, and after maneuvering the Athenian subway, we finally found ourselves at the Australian run and appropriately named (though not so creatively) Backpackers Hostel. If you've read my Top Ten Must-See Locations in Greece, then you know I hold dear Athens in high regard. The people may be rude and the pollution may be disgusting, but how can you deny the beauty of that Parthenon? This was my third time seeing it, and I must say, it astounded me still.
We started our Athens tour with a hike up Lykavittos Hill, a hike I highly recommend. It is the highest point in the city, hence great views, but if for nothing else, it aids you in getting your bearings, and as though this most likely applies to every city in the world, Athens is easy to get lost in. The Acropolis, as I have already alluded to, is phenomenal. During the Golden Age of Athens, the statesmen Pericles commissioned the majority of the buildings seen standing there today, and if you are able, try to wrap your head around this: The Parthenon once housed a massive statue of the goddess Athena that was over forty feet high and that was fashioned of ivory and gold. Granted, it is all too easy in our modern era to minimize ancient accomplishments, but consider this: A replica of this statue was created in Nashville, Tennessee, and though made of gypsum cement and fiberglass, it took eight years to complete, and is the the largest indoor sculpture in the world. Considering the technology available to Phidias, the ancient sculptor responsible for Athena and many, many more great works of art, this is a fairly astounding piece of information.
With only three days allocated to Athens, we had to move quick. While a good portion of our time there was spent eating and drinking (as it should be), we were able to hike the aforementioned Lykavittos Hill, tour the phenomenal Acropolis and ancient Agora, balk at the monumental Temple of the Olympian Zeus, and gaze at priceless artifacts and works of art at the National Archeological Museum. Little needs to be said of these sites, as the following photos can capture the sheer awesomeness of what we were so privileged to see better than I ever could.
With Athens off our list, we hopped a bus to Delphi, a site revered by ancients and moderns alike!
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While the town of Delphi, though quaint and quiet, can be accurately described as uneventful, the ancient site of Delphi is nothing short of wonderful. From the tholos at the sanctuary of Athena to Apollo's gargantuan temple, there is plenty to feast one's eye upon here. Situated nearly entirely upon the incline of a moderately steep hillside, the site overlooks not only sheer mountain sides dappled with evergreens, but a verdant valley of olive trees which stretches out below. Given the fascinating history of this site along with the near-mystical setting, there is an almost other-worldly quality surrounding it. Our time spent here was in early evening, but I personally believe that Delphi was made for mornings. Often, a mist rises up from the valley, and wraps an already magical place in an ethereal, wispy shroud. It's no wonder the Greeks considered this to be such a pivotally sacred place.
Sadly, as is the case with so many sites of great antiquity, a lot of imagination is required to picture Delphi as it once was. This was the spot where the so-called "Delphic Oracle" presided. Simply put, a female of tragically young age was relegated to a career of inhaling semi-toxic fumes seeping from the earth (and possibly ingesting laurel leaves for further hallucinogenic effect). This somewhat poisonous ingestion put her in a state of inebriation (though I'm not sure "inebriation" is the right word to describe just how messed up she was), at which point she then babbbled incoherently to priests whom then interpreted the divine message to whomsoever inquired. Inquiries ranged from when, or upon whom to wage war, who to marry, legal and financial advice, and so on and so forth. She was, essentially, a conduit for the deity Apollo.
After an evening spent drinking cappucinos and smoking rolled cigarettes (tsk, tsk, I know), we retired to our quaint, yet cockroach infested hotel, where daydreams of the next day's adventure and Greece's version of "Deal or no Deal" lulled us to sleep. Goodnight, Delphi. I'll see you again.
From Delphi we caught a bus to a train, and then a train to Kalabaka, from where one can visit the site of Meteora. The further north one gets in Greece, the rarer English is, and now, the majority of responses to my question "milate anglika?" (do you speak English?) are met with "Ligho" (little). Our train to Kalabaka arrived around 8 at night, and within minutes we were met by an old man with rooms for rent, a man whom I must assume spends a lot of time mulling about the train station. Following him through increasingly dark and narrow streets, I was struck by how uncommon we must have looked. Granted, Meteora remains a site with a moderate tourist presence, but there was an almost overwhelming sense of unwelcome there. In spite of this sense of our own intrusion, we could see the shadowy peaks of Meteora rising high above us, and if anything here gave me a sense of hospitality, it was this. Our shadowy old albatross soon silently passed us off to the female hotel proprietor, who responded as if renting us a room was a great inconvenience. There was no greeting, there was no smile, only terse responses and impatient orders. For the remainder of our stay, the rest of Kalabaka proved no better.
Thankfully, the real reason we had come to Meteora more than rectified the lack of friendliness. Morning saw an early breakfast (and more cappuccinos) and an uneducated guess towards how exactly to reach the peaks of Meteora. With no frame of reference other than the squat, almost bulbous rock pillars dominating the horizon, our direction was obvious. As the buildings of Kalabaka gave way to a more rustic appearance, we entered the village of Kastraki, and before us an ancient, cobblestone path pinched between olive groves and these mountainous giants wounds its way unassumingly upward. Among these towering, megalithic peaks, Christian monks in the 14th century had built twenty-four cliff perched monasteries in hopes of escaping persecution at the hands of the Ottomans. And if the hike is taxing, just imagine what the construction would have been like. This was a somewhat arduous climb, as I was battling a cold, and additionally each ascending step brought with it an increasingly forceful wind. Eventually, the stairs to the first, and most impressive monastery, loomed before us, and the wind was suddenly taken a bit more seriously. These were the sort of gales that make you lose your balance, and much assurance was laid upon the rock wall dividing us from a very long, and surely fatal fall to the rocks below. The monastery itself, which we entered for a two euro fee, was unassuming and quite spartan, but if it was solace these monks were hoping to create, they could hardly have been more successful. This monastery exuded a sort of spiritual solemnity, and in turn invoked a somber feeling of respect. I stepped lightly, spoke in near-whispers, and touched nothing.
On to Thessaloniki, and the final resting place of Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great.
Descending from Monastery
Our visit to Vergina was not an easy one. Transfer after transfer, buses and a train, this was a site somewhat off the beaten path. But I had to see it, as the historical significance is astounding. This was Aegae in the ancient world, where a palace once stood,and where Alexander the Great's father, Philip II of Macedon, was assassinated and hence, where his son was proclaimed king. It is also significant in that many Macedonian nobles were laid to rest here, one of them being, supposedly, Phillip II himself (This is disputed). The area now hosts a great museum, with many finely-wrought weapons and articles of jewelry. Unfortunately, photography inside the museum was forbidden, and I had a museum curator follow my every step to ensure I followed the rule. Seriously, I'm not exaggerating. Everywhere I went, so did she. I made a joke about it, and she laughed, and stopped following me. Then I looted the place. I'm full of jokes.
My primary reason for wanting to visit Thessaloniki was a massive statue of Alexander astride Bucephalus that sat commandingly at the waterfront, but I never imagined that this would be the only thing worth seeing. Sadly, unless we had overlooked some unknown corner of this city that had hidden tourist treasures within it, there were very little sites or events of even marginal interest here. It is, truly, all of the sprawl of Athens, with none of the landmarks. Grey, polluted, populous and noisy, Thessaloniki is a city best avoided.
It did, however, give us a much needed respite from sight-seeing and constant movement, and given that the next city on our itinerary was Istanbul, this was a well-timed moment of relaxation indeed. A late night train picked us up at the station, and in cramped, dim-lit rooms we settled in for our ten hour ride to Turkey's largest city.
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The Next Chapter...
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