Travelers in Greece with Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences took the long way around on Wednesday, driving west from Thessaloniki to Verea and Vergina, then south through Thessaly to Meteora and across the mountains to Meteora, then through the central plain and another mountain range before arriving at Delphi.
There are quicker ways, but the main highway along the coast is undergoing construction, so we took the mountain roads. They added a couple of hours to the day, but when it’s hours of scenic wonder, who should complain?
Many people visit Greece without seeing Vergina, which is a shame. The ancient capital of Macedonia has little to show in the way of city ruins, but in 1977 archaeologist Manolis Andronikos uncovered an amazing find: buried beneath a large tumulus (an artificial hill) was the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great — untouched.
Other tombs in the area had been looted, but the Macedonian king’s tomb had not been entered since its construction, shortly after Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE. The tomb contained incredible artifacts, including a 24 carat gold box containing his bones, an intricate gold laurel wreath weighing more than two pounds, ceremonial armor, elaborate couches with ivory inlay, and any number of other items. The only downer is that photography is not allowed in the combination tomb/museum: what I’ve posted above is from a brochure.
Vergina is only a short hop from Verea, known to English speaking New Testament readers as Berea (also spelled Beroea, Acts 17:10-15), where Paul preached in the synagogue and found people eagerly studying the scriptures. Little of ancient Berea remains, but three marble steps that some believe led to the ancient synagogue have been developed into an outdoor shrine honoring the Apostle Paul.
The road south from Veria led through the fertile plains of Thessaly, so glimmering green and well-kept that they could have passed for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbiton (see below). We enjoyed a long-awaited lunch at about 2:30 P.M., eating delicious Greek food (what else?) at an open cafe overlooking the towering rock cliffs of Meteora, where eons of wind have eroded soft sandstone into amorphous but striking shapes. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the steep cliffs became a haven for hermits who built a series of monasteries atop them, enjoying splendid isolation while relying on local folk to supply them with food conveyed by baskets on long ropes.
Most of the monasteries were destroyed by the Ottomans, but many have been restored and returned to active use, including one that was converted into a convent, and another that was featured in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only.”
A lengthy drive through Trikola and Karditsa brought us through the beautiful central plain, and then back into the mountains to a narrow passage between the mountains and the Aegean Sea, where the storied battle of Thermopylae was fought. There 300 Spartans under King Leonidus and several hundred Greek soldiers fell while trying to hold off a far superior Persian force in 480 BCE (it’s the story behind the movie “The 300”).
Another steep climb over mountains brought us within sight of the Corinthian Gulf of the Ionian Sea, which separates the mainland from the southwestern part of Greece, called Peloponnesia, home of the Spartans. We were more than happy to check in to the Amalia Delphi Hotel sometime past eight, where we found delightful modernist rooms and a bountiful dinner awaiting.
Tomorrow we visit Delphi — what news the oracle will bear?