New Year’s Day: back in Thessaloniki, I opened the local bottle of red I had bought on the mountain, and drank it. Then I went out, tensing my shoulders in the sub-zero night, and found what seemed to be the only restaurant open, a vast high-ceilinged space scattered with empty tables, where I drank a bottle of white and got personal service from the stoically cheerful waitress. I kept my coat on. I drank far too much, and had to reconstitute myself on January 2nd, in brittle sunshine at the out-of-town bus station, by breaking all the rules and scoffing a gyros (doner to the more famous souvlaki’s shish).
The bus rolled eastwards across Macedonia, the sun glinting on the Gulf, and into the Thracian plain along the Via Egnatia, where, over 2000 years ago, Octavian marched his troops after Actium, heading around by land for the final showdown with Anthony. At Alexandroupoli (this lonely one among the many named, not for Alexander the Great, but for a 20th century Greek king) I had to hammer on the door of the museum of iconography to gain access; the curator was a cheerful thirty-something beard dressed in jumpers and a woolly hat against the under-funded heating systems. After my tour, we fell to talking; he explained for me that the reason everything was closed in Thessaloniki was that the government could no longer afford to employ people to staff the sites. He complained bitterly about his country’s politicians, their venality and their deceptions; he seemed surprised when I pointed out to him that the Greeks were not alone in that, and that in, say, the UK, if you voted for any politician what you would get was a politician who looked after the interests of his class ahead of anything else.
“But look at Turkey!”, he exclaimed; “they seem to make it work!”
This wound ran deep; soon we were talking of 1453, the end of Byzantium, the loss of Hagia Sofia. He was, it turned out, not in fact a curator, but a teacher seconded to organize interactive learning experiences at the museum for local schoolkids bussed in to learn about their history. I wondered how long this would survive the cuts; the question didn’t seem to have occurred to him, but was he bluffing?
From Alexandroupoli I took the boat to Samothraki, a couple of hours off the coast. The island was near-deserted; the view from my hotel room was 30 metres to the Mediterranean, on whose floor, through a metre of water, I could see every detail of every pebble magnified.
I went to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, a 3000-year-old site where the ancients (from as far away as Egypt) were initiated into spiritual mysteries. As ever, the Greek spirit of place: a low valley with a vocal brook under a snow-capped peak.
There was a museum, perversely (since Monday is the day everything is normally shut) open only on Mondays. The site itself was deserted, save for a man with a shovel, digging a trench; we nodded at each other. The guidebook described it as “well-labelled”; not any more. All the explanatory signs had been removed, though the stanchions that once held them in place remained; why? What economy could be derived from this? The only sign that remained was one announcing that a renovation project, 2007-2013, was being funded jointly by Greece and the European Union, to the tune of €760,000; what happened to the money?
Maybe gone the same way as the Great Gods themselves. Revered as powerful enough that pharoahs and kings devoted and donated to them, they were worshipped for 1300 years or more, until the Christians took over in the 4th century and they were banned. Other than the crumbling bones of their sanctuary, there is no sign of them now. Where did they go? Did they succumb to the young Nazarene with the beard and the book, and his compellingly simple message – I am that I am – and simply disappear? Or did they migrate, to be reborn in a different place and form?