Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Short Stories about Greece
The Road to Olympus

“Go to Dion,” she had said, but that was several hours ago, as I was leaving Pella. In any case she hadn’t actually said it but sent me a text message to that effect. I tried to argue that I did not need to see another seat of ancient Macedonian power, and that what with Pella and Virgina a visit to this Dion place seemed a bit excessive. However my far-away guide was unyielding and the text was unambiguous as to where I should go. It was however more than a little light on the navigational front. I had very few clues as to how to find the place.

Driving around the lesser roads of northern Greece can be a trifle challenging to an old Brit even in the best of circumstances. However not only was I on my own but my map of Northern Greece seemed to be under the impression that anything south of Katerini was part of the Peloponnese! Nevertheless fortune smiled on me, if a little weakly, in the form of my iPhone and its ubiquitous Google Maps. Or at least it was able to do service if I removed my sunglasses and screwed in my monocle. Such a procedure is not to be recommended whilst actually driving.

I set of to the South.

One hour later found me floundering around somewhere to the east of Katerini making futile attempts to persuade Mr. Skoda to find his way to the west of the National Road. What is more both he and I were thirsty, very thirsty. Quite why we were where we were was a bit of a puzzle to me, but here I was in some wonderful agricultural country, bowling along single track roads without even a farm tractor to impede my progress, or offer me directions.

Mr. Skoda had been telling me for some time , by means of a very insistent winking light on his dashboard, that if he did not quench his overweening desire for petrol very shortly then he and I were going no further together. I knew how he felt, for I needed liquid myself – I was desperate for water. The temperature gauge informed me that it was 36 degrees. The sky contained not one solitary puffy white cloud. It was hot. I was thirsty.

I turned another right-angled corner. The road stretched out ahead of me, shimmering slightly with the heat haze. The fields looked parched. Nothing was moving except me – and, very slowly, Mr. Skoda!

It took two minutes to reach the next right-angled bend. I turned south, towards the sun and replaced the dark glasses that I had removed in a vain attempt to locate my position by means of the iPhone.

Ahead of us there was what must surely have been a mirage! Out in the middle of nowhere, sticking out of the dusty desert there was a dwelling, and more than a dwelling for standing slightly forlornly in front of the house were two, rather ancient looking, petrol pumps. I slowed even further, then burning up what must have been the final drops of fuel I pulled up at the pumps. A man was sitting in the shade of an enormous parasol with a bottle in front of him. A little reluctantly he raised himself from a decrepit lounger and made his way over to me.

“Pendina evros, parakelo”. He nodded, apparently my rudimentary Greek was sufficient to accomplish this transaction. But I needed more. I eased my sweaty body from the car and walked around to where he was holding the nozzle.

“Nero?” I asked. He looked a little blank.

“Water” I said in my mother tongue. The man shook his head, clearly even less a linguist than I. I made drinking signs and said

“Nero” again rather louder, remembering to stress the final ‘O’ rather that pronounce the name of a Roman emperor. The man shook his head.

I gave him the fifty euros for the petrol and was turning to go when he caught me by the arm

“Anglia?” he asked.

“Nai,” I said ,

“Eimai apo tin Anglia.” I was more than a little proud of being able to say in what I hoped was passable Greek, that I hailed from England. He gestured for me to stay and disappeared through the steel door of a concrete bunker, emerging a moment later with a huge bottle of water. He handed it to me. It was wonderfully cold. I fished in my pocket for a couple of euros but he was having none of it, instead he grasped my arm a second time and ushered me over to his parasol.

“Oi Angloi einai filoi mou”, he said. Good, so he liked the English. He sat me down and poured liquid from his unlabeled bottle into a battered old cup that he handed to me, helping his own glass at the same time to another of the same. “Yasas,” he said, clinking drinking vessels with me.

There followed one of those strange conversations that occur only occasionally between men that have something in common but hardly speak a word of each other’s language. By gesture and mime I gathered that something had happened in the last war that had endeared his village, and what I think were his parents, to the English military. I knew that the English had helped the partisans from time to time, and I think that this is what he was telling me. In any case fifteen minutes later and a further mug of whatever the drink was and we were the best of friends. Reluctantly I parted company with this Friend of the English having obtained from him a vague idea of how I make my way to Dion.

I did not like Dion. This may have been in no small measure due to its museums and archeological sites closing at at 3pm sharp on Fridays. It was also a place of tourist gee-gaws and so-called taverna offering steak and chips. This was no place for a neo-philhellene! I regained the peace and calm of Mr. Skoda and decided that we ought perhaps amuse ourselves by following a sign that said ‘ Mt. Olympus’.

Ahead of me the Olympian bulk rose impressive, burdened as it is with the classical mythology taught to successive generations of school children throughout the Western world. Its flanks were clothed in a coat of green as trees and shrubs fought to maintain the honour of sheltering the resident Nymphs.

The road became interesting throwing tighter and tighter hairpins in an attempt to impede my progress, however the feisty little hire car was game for this. Eventually we came to a small open space area where a couple of cars were parked. From this the road turned to a dirt track, but there was a large sign next to this inviting route saying ‘Mount Olympus – Open’ . No doubt fortified by the two mugs of some uncertain alcoholic beverage consumed an hour or so back with my English-loving friend I needed no second bidding.

This however was not a teasing gentle un-macadamed track such as is found in much of Greece. This was the Real Thing. It was steep, it was rough, and it was very narrow. As I progressed I wondered, far from idly, what would happen if I were to meet another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. These fears were groundless. There were no other vehicles. Just occasionally there would be 50 metres or so of concrete road where storm water running down the steep ravines had washed out the gravel, but I was soon back on the rutted stony track. And Mr. Skoda and I were entirely on our own.

I cannot say how far I went, but it was a very long way – but then Olympus is a very large mountain. I began to become just a little concerned. There was no one anywhere near. My car, although it was a plucky little thing, was hardly up to the task. I was far from sure that I was up to the task! How long could I keep going before either Mr. Skoda had a puncture or I lost concentration? The consequences were the same in either case – and it was a very very long drop! I was looking desperately for somewhere where I could turn. But there was no such place. I tried in one spot, but as I backed towards that sheer 1,000 metres as part of a multi-point turn my nerve gave out, so car and I continued our ascent.

Some 15 minutes of this does not seem long when one is happily bowling along a smooth motorway. It is a lifetime on Olympus! At last I found a place where a wash-out had provided just enough space to turn the car. I backed, oh so carefully towards the void, then forwards no more than a metre towards the wicked little drainage ditch that ran along the vertical rock-face. If I dropped into that I would never get out. I shuffled the car back and forth until I was facing downhill and let out a great sigh of relief.

It was short-lived, for the descent was far more dangerous than the climb due to the insubstantial road surface and almost total lack of grip. Poor Mr. Skoda did his best as he slithered his way down the gravel track. I tried cadence braking. Pathways on Olympus have not heard of cadence braking! I went as slow as I could, but all the same I was only half in control of the car. The Fates had decreed that Zeus was in charge. Every time I came to another hairpin bend I released the brakes to regain some steering, but that meant I was going much too fast as I exited each corner. Slither, corner coming, release brakes, gather speed, steer, more speed, straighten wheel, slither and slide trying to brake . . . it went on and on and on. At last I regained the small car park with an overwhelming desire to relieve myself!

I looked carefully at the ‘Olympus Open’ sign that I fancied had nearly killed me. There must be something wrong with it? My Greek is not very good, but with the help of my trusty Collins Greek Dictionary I deciphered the wording. Apparently that which was open – at the end of my ‘walkers track’ – was a mountain refuge!


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