My big fat Greek odyssey, Part IV: Judgment at Philippi

Seeing President Obama atop the Acropolis in Athens – talking about democracy then and now – made me yearn to get back to Greece in memory. On the fifth day of the Times Journeys’ “The Legacy of Alexander the Great” tour, we visited Philippi, which looms large in Greco-Roman history. The city was originally founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, hence the name, but it is perhaps most noteworthy for two different moments in history – the victory of Julius Caesar’s supporters Octavian and Mark Antony over his assassins Brutus and Cassius, and the imprisonment of St. Paul, who brought his nascent mission to the Gentiles there.

At the Archaeological Site of Philippi, we looked upon heights where the battle – a turning point as Rome pivoted from republic to empire – is said to have taken place. Fortunately, we didn’t climb them but instead wandered amid the later Roman ruins that included an amphitheater. There John, the thespian among us, amused the group by striking melodramatic poses.

The site is impressive for its breadth of architectural design. As I snapped some photos, I suddenly felt the urge to pocket one of the rocks that lay amid the rubble. I can’t imagine I was the first tourist to do so or the last. Still, it was probably not proper. Imagine if everyone did that.

I wondered if the same thought occurred to our companions – a charming young Russian couple with a baby in tow who tagged along to glean what they could from tour leaders David and Eleni.

Eleni asked them the baby’s name. “Misha” came the reply. “Like Baryshnikov,” she said warmly.

Philippi was among the most Americanized sites we visited, with a gift shop, a museum and a café before you ever got to the site. In the shop, I bought as a gift a pale pink scarf with a lovely faint image of a woman’s face. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized the significance of my purchase. (But that is another story for the next post.)

If there is any criticism I would offer of the tour it was that it afforded little downtime to browse, shop or just sit in a café and watch the world go by, as some in the group wished. It’s hard, however, to accommodate everyone’s desires on a tour, and this was an academic, experiential one first and foremost. On balance, we were grateful to cram in as much sightseeing and knowledge as we could. Still, I would’ve preferred a little more retail therapy amid the ruins if only because it stimulates my imagination and provides me with some solitude.

But what our tour lacked in that, it made up for in leisurely lunches in the Greek tradition, particularly seaside. Our Philippi visit brought us to neighboring Kavala for lunch on the Mediterranean. I come from a sea-crazy family. (All the Portuguese are.) And from the moment I arrived in Greece, I found myself ogling every body of water I could, from the port of Piraeus to the Thermaic Gulf. Now I was face-to-face with the “wine-dark sea” of Homer. I couldn’t get enough of it and made sure I had a seat at our outdoor gathering that faced the water. (I offered to change places with Victory, seated opposite me, halfway through the meal so she could enjoy the view but she was content to remain where she was.)

The fare was more of what we had been dining on all week – salad, white fish, eggplant, zucchini and the best watermelon I’ve ever had – sweet as sugar.

Watermelon or no, the sea beckoned. Jen, probably the youngest member of our group, had already dipped a toe in, having taken off her sandals and rolled up her pants. I’m not brave enough – or informal enough – for that, but I stood on the beach imprinting the image of the sea in my memory, picking up another stone – this one, small, white and smooth – as a souvenir for the jar filled with seashells from around the world that my sister Gina once presented me with. (Hey, I couldn’t find a seashell on the beach.) Whatever Homer meant, the Mediterranean actually appears teal. “The water is a lot cleaner than it is back home,” someone observed.

But the beaches aren’t, being dotted with cigarette butts and older men who have no qualms about sunbathing in tiny swim trunks and casting an appreciative eye on the ladies. Every culture has its strengths – and weaknesses.

Afterward, we visited one of Greece’s great strengths – its museums, this one being the Archaeological Museum of Amphipolis. Just as every German town seems to have an opera house, every Greek town has a museum. This one looked like a modern house tucked away in a suburb. (Indeed, our plush Mercedes bus seemed to overwhelm the street.) It’s a sign of how much respect the Greeks have for their heritage that every museum, no matter how small or off the beaten path, is a jewel.

On the way home, we stopped roadside to take photos of The Lion Monument dedicated to Laomedon of Lesbos, one of Alexander the Great’s admirals. The Lion reminded me of all the photographs I’d seen of the most famous Lion Monument, commemorating the Battle of Chaeronea, in which Macedon defeated Athens and Thebes, reinforcing Macedonian hegemony over all the Greek city-states except Sparta. At Chaeronea, a 16-year-old Alexander fought brilliantly alongside his father and was born into legend.

It whetted our appetites for the following day – and what was to be the high point of our journey.

In the next installment – Life and death in Vergina