We thought we were following in the footsteps of St. Paul, but we turned out to be following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, on our recent trip to Greece. His was a historic return, the first visit by a Pope to Greece since the schism more than 1000 years. It was a momentous and controversial occasion.
Saint Paul’s was likewise a controversial tour through Greece, which preceded that of the Pope by several centuries. Our footsteps tour led us to many intriguing and unusual places, many rarely visited by tourists. It gave us new insight into St. Paul and opened up Greece in a unique way.
My memories of the profusion of wild poppies in Northern Greece will stay with me a long time. They covered the fields that have encroached upon the quiet ruins of Philippi, where St. Paul preached and where Lydia was the first European to be baptized into the new religion. Being in the early Christian sites, where St. Paul lived and preached, stirred up many thoughts, and gave me a new sense of the importance of biblical history.
We had arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, after the usual arduous trip from New York. This was slightly more arduous than usual, accompanied as it was by a five-hour boring layover in the new airport in Athens. It being May First, there had to be a strike, and this time, it wasa transportation strike.
Luckily, the Makedonia Palace, when we finally arrived there, was an elegant marble palace of a hotel, with a pool facing the Aegean Sea, and a verdant rosemary garden all around it. We had to scurry to shower and get to dinner on time, but it was well worth the rush. We dined on delicious though grammatically incorrect food: “pennes with smoked salmon and dill; pork filets with gradinated potatoes; and a cherish bavaroise on vanilla sauce.” It was with a pleasant chuckle that we enjoyed this most welcome end to along journey.
Our charming guide, Mika, joined us the following morning to begin our journey to Phillipi. As we rode through the city and observed the monumental Byzantine walls, we retreated to some statistics about Greece: It contains 130,000 square kilometers, two-thirds of which is mountains. The biggest plain is the Plain of Thessaly, and Mount Olympus, the home of the Gods, is the highest mountain, at 9000 feet. Athens has four million people, and Thessaloniki has two million people, out of a total of eleven million, 98% of whom are Christian Orthodox.
None of these statistics, interesting though they are, can even begin to evoke the beauty of this northern area of Greece. The beauty is amended and given greater depth as one comes to know both the religious and the secular history that has taken place over the centuries. Our long drive took us past many beautiful beaches, past olive groves, almond groves, and lakes and deep green hills. Along the roads are “ikonostasi”, shrines that people construct in memory of an event or person, always with an ikon inside.
At our first lunch, in Kavala, we made a wonderful discovery, namely that the lunches are not only very tasty, but also very inexpensive by American standards. After lunch, I strolled charming seaside Kavala, and found Marks and Spencer, the British department store!
When we returned to our hotel we had a drink at the Corleone Bar, which is on the Ninth floor and has an even better view of the sea. After another good dinner, we made a mental note to mention this hotel to our friends at home.
One of the many sights that awed us was our visit to Berea and Vergina, where the tomb of Phillip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) was unearthed only very recently, in 1984. Three tombs have been excavated, the entrances of which can be viewed in a dark semi-subterranean museum. In addition, there are striking gold leaf ornaments and other intricate objects from the tombs. It takes some mental gymnastics to get one’s mind around the age of these remarkable objects.
I cannot possibly mention all the wonderful sights that we were shown during this fast paced tour, but a few standout. Beyond the usual tourist path were places like the Meteora, (which means “suspended rocks”), one of the locations in Greece which are densely populated with monasteries. Here perched atop the towering sandstone boulders of the area one can see six still active monasteries, out of a high (please pardon the pun) of 24, which began when a hermit named Barnabas came here in 985AD.
(The other well-known monastery area is Mount Athos, a huge peninsula in Northern Greece, which we could not visit, because no women are allowed in the area.)
The Meteora is unique: these monasteries were once only accessible by nets ascending on ropes by a windlass mechanism. My question is, how did they ever get the people up there and build the monasteries in the first place? No one has a definitive answer.
From the Meteora we drove through the plain of Thessaly, past Mount Olympus in the distance, and through the pass at Thermopylae where the Greeks held back the Persians. My entire Ancient History course passed before my very eyes.
We were very excited entering the city of Athens, as suddenly the Acropolis came into view. Athens is gray, beige, fairly smoggy and a bit boring when you arrive by road, but I felt a huge thrill seeing the Parthenon, probably one of the five most recognizable edifices in the world. This was one of the moments a traveler waits for.