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Halcyon Days 2011 PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

HALCYON DAYS ON THE 'VIA EGNATIA'

Winter Days on and around Lake Vistonida in the far Northeast of Greece  

Margaret Williamson
May 2011

The following article was submitted to the MMM magazine for its feature 'Final Pitch'. It was rejected out of hand by the Deputy Editor, one Ms Stothert, with no reason given; she suggested we try again. Other articles in the series were from Ms Stothert's father and were about his dog that died and his old record collection, with no mention of motorhoming. Another article wasn't from Ms Stothert's father and was about washing up. More recently, one affluent reader gave full details of how he spent 50,000 buying a converted panel van.

How could we compete? We didn't - we just resigned as voluntary, unpaid Travel Consultants for Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Balkan Routes to Greece and Long-term Motorhoming in Mainland Europe.

Our letter to Daniel Attwood, the Editor of the MMM, can be found at: Divorce: MagBaz vs MMM

Here is the article:

(Five images of these Halcyon Days are given below)

The newly completed E90 motorway, known as Egnatia Odos (= road), crosses Northern Greece, linking the Turkish border with the port of Igoumenitsa a distance of 420 miles. After Christmas and New Year in Turkey, we were motorhoming west from Alexandroupolis. Rather than fast-tracking on E90, we took the old highway as far as Thessaloniki, more closely following the Roman Via Egnatia.

This is the age-old route across Macedonia and Thrace. It was along here that the Persian armies of Darius and Xerxes marched in the 5th century BC; the route taken by Alexander the Great and his army, on their expedition in the opposite direction. It became one of the most important military and trade routes of the Roman world, the Via Egnatia, built between 146 and 120 BC under Gnaius Egnatius, proconsul of Macedonia. The first public Roman road outside Italy, from their port in present-day Albania all the way to Constantinople, it played a significant role in the fortunes of both Roman and Ottoman Empires. Yes, that was our route!

It gave ample scope for visiting lesser known ancient sites and museums, bird-watching at estuaries and wetlands, and finding peaceful overnight parking. No campsites were open between the excellent all-year Municipal at Alexandroupolis and the abysmal Batis Terra at Kavala.

Our first stop was the ancient Greek site of Mesimvria-Zoni, deserted but for a guardian. The 2 ticket for Seniors included leaflets in English on both the site and the Via Egnatia. The evening was spent on the harbour at Maronia, a stone's throw from the next ancient Greco-Roman anchorage, surrounded by the remains of Byzantine fortifications, the Roman forum, and an early Christian basilica and baths. On the beach a local fisherman, a native of Egypt, spoke in a sadness of broken English about his country. We bought a sample of his catch - so fresh they were still moving! After decapitation, gutting and scaling, we barbecued the fish in foil parcels with lemon, herbs and shallots and tried to enjoy them!

Next day in Komotini (once a staging post on the Via Egnatia) we found another gem. Its Archaeological Museum was a pure delight: open daily, with free entry for all and the friendliest, most knowledgeable curator we have met. We left with a wealth of free booklets on the sites of Thrace and Eastern Macedonia, including an excellent Archaeological Map of the region - much better than anything we'd found on sale.

Continuing to the seaside village of Fanari, past the wetland of Vistonia Bay supporting a huge range of birds, we settled on the isthmus between the Aegean Sea and three saltwater lagoons. It's a magical spot, right by the shimmering water. The lagoon was black with flocks of Coot, Flamingos stood on the far side and Whooper Swans swam in the middle distance. We couldn't put the binoculars down bird watching on one side; ships, fishing boats and off-shore islands (Samothrace and Thassos) on the other. Practically deserted in winter, the only sound came from one nearby Taverna. Investigation revealed a group of lively musicians with violin, accordion and drum, playing as diners lingered over Sunday lunch. By evening all was quiet. Could motorhoming get any better than this?

Yes, it did! Where else but in Greece can you get up-close with Cormorants, Pelicans and Herons, talk at length with a worldly Orthodox monk, then scramble round the ruins of an ancient site in a single morning, travelling only 21 miles? And all under a sunny blue sky in February.

A few miles west of Fanari, still following the Via Egnatia route, we paused at Agios Nikolaos (patron saint of sailors here, not Christmas!). This small Orthodox monastery lies on a tiny islet in the mouth of Lake Vistonida. The island and church are open to visit, via a wooden footbridge.

Walking across we paused to photograph the bird life on all sides. Cormorants sat on rocks to dry their wings; Grebe dived and reappeared; both Grey and Great White Herons (usually solitary anglers) stood alongside each other, showing how rich the water is in fish, eels and even oysters. Pelicans sailed regally by, while others perched among more Cormorant on a wooden barrier that retains the lake. We'd never seen such a variety of water birds as in this Wetlands Nature Reserve and Heronry.

Inside the small church we met a supremely gentle Brother of the Order of Joseph. He spoke English with an Australian accent, having worked in Sydney in his previous life, and was keen to discuss wide-ranging subjects. The icon of Mary was a copy of a precious miraculous icon, brought from 'Asia Minor' during the 1921 population exchange and now kept at Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, from where our monk was temporarily seconded.

Continuing past Porto Lagos and the salt pans on Vistonia Bay, our next destination was Ancient Avdera, 3 miles beyond the present village, by the beach. Despite a sign 'Open every day', the gates to the fenced excavations were locked. We scrambled up a path to the top of the acropolis hill, overlooking the harbours (ancient and modern). On the summit are the overgrown remains of fortifications, a late Byzantine cemetery and church, as well as an earlier Baptistery and Episcopal church.

Down in the fishing harbour there was ample parking space, a coastguard station and several Cormorants perched on rocks, their wings spread in the sun. The weather remained glorious: dry and warm. Our monk had explained that these are the legendary Halcyon Days heralding the spring, when the wind is stilled for birds to build their nests ready for mating on St Valentine's Day. Halcyon is the Greek word for Kingfisher, which was (mistakenly) believed to nest on the calm water. Back in the motorhome, we watched Goldfinch and White Wagtail picking over the grass and hoped they knew the rules.

The sunset at about 5.30 pm was stunning, as the enormous red ball slid from a cloudless sky into the sea, illuminating the island of Thassos behind. Then all was peace.

No-one came next morning to open up at the ancient site, so we returned to Avdera village.  Walking round the delightful little town, with its fine Ottoman houses, we found another brilliant Archaeological Museum. This was indeed open daily with free entry. Giving us leaflets, the attendant apologised for the site being closed due to staff illness. If we could wait till tomorrow, she'd arrange something .

More treats lay ahead beyond Kavala, walking in the footsteps of St Paul who trod the Via Egnatia through Philippi and Amfipolis. Then the Royal Tombs of the Macedonian dynasty (which culminated in Alexander the Great) at Vergina, where there is even a guarded motorhome park with hook-ups.

After joining E90 motorway through the mountains, we left it to visit the Meteora Monasteries at Kalambaka, with a welcome campsite and launderette, and a choice of onward route.

This is our winter paradise the real Greece, off-season, with its multi-layered history, bird life, coast and mountains and I haven't even touched on our main passion of cycling. Unlike a sun tan, these memories are guaranteed not to fade!

Margaret at work in the MagBazTravels Head Office

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The Monastery on Lake Vistonida

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Heron Rising on Lake Vistonida

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Cormorant drying its wings on Lake Vistonida

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Great White and Grey Heron on Lake Vistonida

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