Our Times Journey group of Alexandrians no sooner got acclimated to Athens than it was time to bid the city – and its mesmerizing views of the Acropolis – a brief farewell and head north to Thessaloniki, about an hour’s flight, or the distance between New York and Washington D.C.
Named for a younger half-sister of Alexander the Great – his father, the crafty, lusty Philip II, having loved much but apparently none too well – Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece but the main one in the misty, highland Macedonian region that was once Philip’s kingdom.
At Athens International Airport, I scored a small, hefty, well-molded head of the Acropolis Museum Alexander in a gift shop, plus a free copy of the “Greece is….Thessaloniki” magazine, with an Andy Warhol Alexander on the cover, so I was pumped. Plus, we were flying the old Olympic Airways (remember its tagline, “No dancing in the aisles”?), now called Aegean Airlines. As with Singapore Airlines and unlike any American carrier, which would face numerous lawsuits for this, the flight attendants were all pretty young women. Their eyes were rimmed with kohl and their long, dark hair was worn in chignons, often held in place by pearl snoods – just like the Vatican bust of Cleopatra, who was, after all, the keeper of Alexander’s golden sarcophagus in Alexandria. I took this as a good omen.
We touched down in much cooler weather, the morning rain having given way to peekaboo sunshine, and were immediately whisked to lunch by the water. A word about Greek food: It’s delicious and not particularly heavy, with salads, tomatoes, olives, onions, bread, feta cheese and fish as its staples. I was in heaven as I eat primarily a Mediterranean diet at home. The pasta was topped by a killer light tomato sauce. The wines – not as full-bodied as the Italian or French variety – were nonetheless fine by me, no oenophile. The only drawback was dessert, with nothing rich enough for my taste and an appalling lack of chocolate. Still the fruits, especially the watermelon and figs, were among the best I’ve had. Ditto the yogurt, honey and the gelato – to say nothing of the light, luscious olive oil.
After lunch, we got our first view of Thessaloniki. Whereas Athens is steep and narrow, the buildings clustered, Thessaloniki is marked by boulevards and squares lined with palms and the ubiquitous terraced apartments. It struck me as a particularly livable city for an older woman. And indeed we saw quite a few older ladies in black with their dogs or cats, their canes and young male escorts. Even though pedestrians do not have the right of way in Greece, as they do in America, cars and motorbikes, the latter sometimes coming up on sidewalks, stopped for these ladies – and us.
Our first stop in the city was at the intersection of Madison Avenue-like Venizelou Street and Egnatia Street to see a proposed subway station – part of a state-of-the-art driverless line – that may be built beneath an unearthed marble Roman road and Byzantine artifacts. In Greece, the past is thrillingly alive, though opinion is mixed regarding this European Union-funded project that has given with one hand (in the form of about 1,000 construction jobs) and taken with the other (in the form of shuttered shops along the construction route that may not reopen). Nor does everyone think that progress should yield to artifacts in situ.
Here I must give a shoutout to Cornelia Zarkia, an architect-anthropologist who was instrumental in arranging our special archaeological treats. As I was wearing my new black sandal espadrilles – yes, I know, where were my sneakers? – I stayed atop, hanging with the construction crew, and a good thing, too, as it started to pour into the site, which Dan, one of our tour members, captured in a cell phone video.
As a rivulet formed, I despaired of preserving said shoes. Not to worry: The crew grabbed some wooden planks, enabling us to pass easily back to our bus. It was not the first act of gallantry the Greek people showed to me – and it would not be the last.
About the bus: It was an immaculate Mercedes coach so spacious that we each had two seats blissfully to ourselves, good for cameras and water bottles. Our driver, the appropriately named Achillaeus, or Achilles – after the Greeks’ greatest fighter, a legendary ancestor of Alexander’s – was a true road warrior, an expert and fastidious driver.
Achillaeus next guided us to the Archaeological Museum but first a heartstopping moment for the group along the city’s well-developed waterfront – our sighting of the Alexander memorial complete with a huge, handsome sculpture of the conqueror aboard the steed he tamed, Bucephalus (Bu ka FA lus), meaning “Oxhead” for the white marking on his forehead. Tour expert David Ratzan – who in addition to his riveting evening lectures offered a running commentary with tour manager Eleni Zachariou on the bus – said that Bucephalus was smaller and different from our Arabian horses. Beyond him and Alexander lay the Thermaic Gulf and, in the misty distance, snow-capped Mount Olympus, home of the gods.
While our group was eager to take photographs with “the great man himself,” as tour member Pat dubbed him, Alexander would have to wait for later in the trip (though Larry the animal lover would walk to the memorial later that night to try to photograph Alexander amid the city’s skateboarders.) At present, we had to content ourselves with a moment of grace – the sun breaking through the clouds as Alexander, cloak flying, and Bucephalus appeared to thunder away and we headed to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Its treasures include the Derveni Krater, a votive krater possibly from the metalworkers of Alexander whose techniques in service of a sensual, Dionysian scene foreshadowed Renaissance sculpture.
In the gift shop, I found another small Alexander head – this one a copy from a sculpture of Alexander as Pan, and a postage stamp-size face said to be of Alexander from the Royal Tombs of Vergina, which we would see later on the trip. The clerk looked at my credit card and smiled. Her name, too, is Georgette.
At the Mediterranean Hotel, as traditional in its way as the St. George Lycabettus Boutique Hotel in Athens was modern, I was greeted by a touch of home – black metal outdoor lights just like the ones I had installed.
Home: When I’m here, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. And when I’m on the road, I don’t miss it. Perhaps I live more in the moment than I think I do.
I stared at the lights and thought of the gift shop Georgette – two signs, I thought, that my trip was meant to be.
Or, perhaps, had already been. More than one person at home said that I would have a past-life moment in Greece. As a practicing Roman Catholic, I don’t believe in reincarnation, though I’m certainly intrigued by it and Buddhism. I think rather that we are all strands in the pattern of the universe. For whatever reason, mine is entwined – along with those of everyone on the tour – with Alexander. Not only was I born around the time of his birthday, July 20 (356 B.C.), but my beloved Aunt Mary, who raised me, was born on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela (331 B.C.), which cemented Alexander’s conquest of Persia.
That night in the hotel room, I turned on the tube and stumbled upon David Suchet in Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile.” How often had Aunt Mary and I enjoyed him as Hercule Poirot on PBS’ “Mystery!” And how greatly I enjoyed having a luncheon-interview with him when he starred as Salieri in “Amadeus” on Broadway.
Another reminder of home – and how quickly I had become at home in the world.
In the next installment: Drama in Pella