n route to Istanbul

En route to Istanbul

In the third part of her six-week travelling mission - past Farsala,Larissa and Tebi - Ioanna Kopsiafti reflects on human nature andfreedom and is surprised by archaeological finds and an unusual meeting with Gypsies


The impressive site of Proerna with a circular reproduction of the Vergina star (Inset)

"Kalo kouragio!" people call out as I pass them by, continuing ever onwards northeast on the road to Istanbul, still known to Greeks as Constantinople. Kouragio most likely comes from the Italian word coraggio - or courage - thus meaning 'have courage'. It often takes on other forms such as hara sto kouragio sou, which expresses admiration for another's courage in their endeavours.

Entering the third week of my walking journey from Athens to Istanbul, having travelled 500-plus kilometres, the generosity, hospitality and benedictions with which I have been showered on this road has certainly given me much kouragio.

Whatever my original plans might have been, they are constantly changing according to local advice. My original plan to follow the more scenic E4 mountain path westward towards Karpenisi was abandoned after a shepherd on Mount Parnassus advised me that this route would get me to the city by Christmas at the earliest!

As he had intimate knowledge of the mountains, I decided to heed his good counsel and go north towards Larissa. Remembering the line from the mandinada on my knife Ç ÐÏËÇ Ï ÓÔÏ×ÏÓ ÅÉÍÁÉ (the goal is the city) - however strong the temptation to dally might be and however many diversions tempt me on the way - I continued keeping the city always in my mind.

Many have been fearful for my safety, saying na prosehis - be careful! But the greatest danger is the ever-present hospitality. It is no easy task to press on when hosts entreat you to "stay a while", especially when scratching the surface of even the most uninspiring locations reveals a fascinating history of the people and place.

From philosophy to archaeology

Leptokarya train station

Circumstances prompted me to stay two days in Domokos; my visit there ended with an impromptu farewell party in my room in the church apartments where I was staying as a guest of the ever-popular mayor, Dimitri Tsogas. He is currently serving his fourth consecutive term, and with good reason. It appears he will be voted in for a fifth as well.

When the gathering began with a visiting couple, Vasili and his German wife Andrea, who were staying in the neighbouring room, the local priest Father Nicholas rose to the occasion by mustering up some meze and libations from his wife, the Papadia Evangelia.

The conversation revolved around a discourse on the nature of man - whether his nature is good or evil - stemming from fears regarding my safety on the road. It ended with divergent opinions, but mutual affection. In the morning I stopped by the mayor's office to thank him for his hospitality and set out for the next district of Neo Monastiri.

From what I could discern, Nikos and Maria Kalimeris' place in Neo Monastiri was the nexus of all village activity; it was a post office, tavern, kafenio and news agency, among other things. I even heard Nikos insuring a car for someone. Smiling mischievously as he put the phone down, he said, "We do a bit of everything here".

His wife Maria bandaged my calf and invited me to a delicious lunch of homemade lentil soup. They were both passionate about the archaeology of their area having begun a website (www.neomonastiri.gr) to promote interest in the area. Niko took me up to a nearby castle, located in an area known as Proerna, where restoration work was underway. I was astonished by the impressive site, which although built later than Mycenae, was certainly as impressive a citadel and surprisingly not widely known.

As we arrived at the castle, we happened upon a new discovery - some sort of grinding apparatus. The archaeologist had just been informed of the find and, as we perused the objects that had just been unearthed, was on her way. One round object had the same star motif carved upon it as those found in a royal tomb, possibly belonging to Alexander the Great's father, Philip, located in Vergina in Macedonia and excavated by Manolis Andronikos back in the 70s. Niko pointed out other mounds in the vicinity, which resemble Philip's burial mound. We speculated about the possibility of fabulous treasures lying unexplored, sadly neglected by the state.

If you were to drive through Neo Monastiri and did not have the good fortune to meet Niko and Maria, you might never have guessed such an unassuming place had such a fascinating history. Its modern history is equally as fascinating, with its contemporary population having settled here after the exchange of population from the bordering towns of Bulgaria under the treaty of Lausane. They brought with them a different culture, with their own traditions, manner of dress, cuisine, and customs.

They were Greeks from another land, uprooted and resettled in the Thessalian plain that so resembled their own place of origin. It is an old story repeated all over Greece among the refugees who came over after 1922. Nikos and Maria's two daughters, Anna and Constantina gave me a recital of nostalgic tunes immortalised by the late singer Bithikotsis. I left with the haunting lyrics in my mind, singing the song to myself for most of the road to the Farsala, never tiring of repeating the simple words which made each weary step feel lighter.

"O dromos eihai tin diki tou istoria... eitan mia lexi monaha eleftheria..."

The lyrics are a line from a poem by Yiannis Ritsos, put to music by Mikis Theodorakis, which roughly mean "the road has its own history... summed up in one singular word - freedom".

The power of this simple line is lost in translation, because in the hearts and minds of the people its meaning is intimately linked to the country's long road to freedom. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that "freedom can't be bought for nothing, if you hold her precious you must hold all else of little value".

Indeed the cost for freedom in Greece has been high. How people view the various facets of this "road" is what makes up the very fabric of Greece's modern society. Meeting random people from various backgrounds has shown me that history is not some definitive thing, interpreted once and for all, to be written down and passed on from generation to generation.

What I have encountered are individuals who have reevaluated and reinterpreted the past. This is where the great task of history begins. The lack of homogeneity of opinion (except perhaps the almost universal belief that the Jews and Americans are to blame for everything) indicates that freethinking still prevails in the birthplace of philosophy, even if the line between myth and reality is often blurred.

A hydro-massage treat at Farsala

Summer time at Plaka beach in Litohoro

The Thessalian plains are alleged to be the dominion of Achilles. Today, the miles and miles of cotton plantations leave no doubt as to the regions most important crop.

Arriving in Farsala, I thought the sign for a physiotherapist was a mirage. I dragged my tired body in and asked for an appointment. Within moments I found myself in the good care of Vasilis, who put my worn-out feet in an icy cold hydro-massage bath. He subsequently worked on all my troubled parts alleviating much of the misery I had been experiencing from the long hours on the road.

When I asked what I owed, he said that it was a pleasure to have helped me along my way and gave me some cream to take along with me that would help ease muscle pains. I did not know how to thank him and left his office a new woman, having forgotten the awful state in which I had arrived. To my surprise, a town as large as Farsala had no hotel or rooms to rent. While making inquiries at the periptero, a man buying cigarettes overheard the conversation and, without even knowing my name or my plight, gave me the keys to the home of his parents, who were away on holiday, adding without ceremony or sentimentality that I should leave the keys on the door when I leave in the morning.

I had to ask his name before he drove away to thank him and as an after thought he asked me mine as well. He was Vangelis Platis, owner of the local supermarket. When I awoke, I found some groceries had been left outside my door. One of the most celebrated lines in the Bible is: "Knock and it shall be opened, ask and you shall receive". I did not ask, yet I received. I did not knock, yet the doors were opened.

But freedom is not merely the ability to move about at will and speak openly, it is also freedom from fear and freedom from want. Eating some of the celebrated halva Farsalon I could not think of anything I could have possibly wanted more than what I had at that exact moment. As I glanced about, hoping no one was looking as I licked my fingers, its dark amber sticky sweetness filled with roasted almonds made me moan.

Relentless sun on a trying journey

An impromptu farewell party at the church apartments of Domokos in the company of Father Nicholas

Although I have always been of the disposition that the glass is half-full and not half-empty, the 45km trek from Farsala to Larissa was the most trying stretch of the journey so far. The sun was relentless overhead and there was not a patch of shade to be found anywhere. The air was the temperature of a hairdryer blowing - when I had the good fortune to experience a merciful breeze blowing across the plains.

I walked for hours along burnt fields of wheat interspersed with cotton plantations. I thought I would never arrive in Larissa and envisioned myself in some contorted pose on the roadside, like some of the less-than-aromatic road kill I passed along the way; a battered hedgehog or rotting fox.

Roadside fountains and petrol stations are interesting gathering places because they attract people of all backgrounds. As I am spending a great deal of time resting at these in-between places, I have met and observed an intriguing melange of people.

Where else but at a roadside fountain would I have the opportunity to mingle with Gypsies? We all were filling our myriad of vessels with the icy-cold mountain water that flowed freely out from the stone fountain coming down directly from the mountain. It was pure and delicious and we all doused our faces in it drinking deeply to satisfy our thirst.

The Gypsies, who were lying on blankets having lunch, began to survey me and had ascertained the contents of my backpack and heart in a glance. They asked where I was headed. When I replied Constantinople, many a golden tooth flashed in the sun laughing. "That's a long way," they said and offered me some food.

"Hey," I said as I winked at the large matriarch who was half-reclining as she ate, "would any of you do me a favour and steal this backpack?"

This brought about laughter and they offered to take it for me down the road. I knew it was a risk, but the truth is I was so tired of carrying it I half hoped they would steal it. Yet sure enough, at the next fruit vendor, a few kilometres down the road, there it was with all my things in it.

He offered me some melon as I sat to rest. I asked why they did not steal it, since I knew this was not alien to Gypsy culture. "You trusted them, that makes for quite a different story," he said. Then he asked if I might be interested in marriage. I accepted the piece of melon, but declined the marriage proposal and continued on my way.

A meeting with friends

Rodami and foxy-loxy at the lovely Villa Moskof in Platamonas

Arriving at the cool banks of the Tebi at the monastery of Agia Paraskevi as the sun was setting, I immediately undressed and fell into the ice-cold waters. Before the light had completely faded I set up camp on the sandy banks of the river and, without having anything to eat, fell fast asleep in the pitch black of the night.

Before I opened my eyes again, the first thing I heard was the rushing waters as the sun tried to filter through the foliage of the many plane trees overhead. I packed hurriedly, looking forward to being amongst friends for the first time since I left home 18 days previously. I was headed to Platamonas - the lovely seaside resort.

At Platamonas my dear friends Katerina Poulopoulou and Hercules Moskof had kindly offered me refuge at the lovely Villa Moskof. It was everything I needed. To be in such a beautiful setting, with the sea glistening through the pines and a castle skirting the horizon, in the company of friends - it was a veritable oasis.

I never met Hercules' father Kostis Moskof. Professor Peter Mackridge, with whom I had become friends at Oxford after attending many of his lectures on Modern Greek Poetry, had invited me to go to the annual Kavafia (symposiums and conferences dedicated to Cavafy), which Kostis Moskof organised every year in Alexandria while serving as the Greek cultural attache there. Sadly, the year I was to go, he passed away and I never had the opportunity to meet him. I can see where he drew much of his inspiration in such a lovely setting at Platamonas, with its long languid swims across the bay, wine-soaked afternoons and late-night conversations.

Katerina and Hercules were very supportive of my journey. When I left I felt restored and set out for Katerini as if I had just begun.

Thessaloniki was only three days away. Resisting the temptation to explore the very drinkable wines of the Rapsani Estate, only 11km off my path, I continued towards Katerini after some inspirational words with a petrol station attendant.

"Agia Sophia," he said, noticeably moved by the mention of the place. "She had three daughters that were killed you know... Faith, Love, and Hope were their names." As I thought of what the story could have symbolised, I realised those were the three basic elements of any pilgrimage, including my own: faith that I would come to no harm and that "that which did not destroy me would only make me stronger", as Nietzsche says; love for all those who have helped me along the way; and hope - the attribute that is said to die last - that I would make it.

* Ioanna's Itinerary

August 11 slept in Domokos

August 12 Domokos - Farsala, stopped in Neo Monastiri

August 13 Farsala - Larissa, slept in Larissa

August 14 Larissa - Tebi, camped riverside at Tebi

August 15 Tebi - Platamonas, slept in Platamonas

August 16 Platamonas

August 17 Platamonas - Katerini

All photos by Ioanna Kopsiafti

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