Against All Gods

Thessaloniki, as well as scoring very highly in Scrabble, also scores very highly in my ranking of Greek cities – coming top (out of two). Whilst Athens is geared entirely towards wealth, tourism, and sophistication, Thessaloniki is more focussed on graffiti, pollution, and drifters selling meat from unmarked carrier bags. It has an edginess that could easily be mistaken for Barcelona’s Eixample district, Haut-Marais in Paris, or the industrial estate at Slough. I quite liked it.

For my brief time there I was based in its Old Town, which was actually quite charming to look at but utterly terrifying to drive through. After two hours slithering up and down its narrow side streets and alleyways, sweating and swearing profusely throughout, I found a parking spot just wide enough to abandon the Qashqai in and vowed not to touch it again until I left – which is exactly what I did.

The most developed and photogenic part of the city is undoubtedly Thessaloniki’s waterfront, where sits its iconic White Tower. Built by the Ottomans as a notoriously hellish prison in 1430, it was the scene of countless executions and even massacres of the local people until it was brought back under Greek control at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nowadays, it’s home to a stonking museum and one of the best views of the city from its turret-top, although I was too late to see either having lost track of time talking to an Irish hurler in a nearby taverna.

The following day was my most eventful since being bribed by epically stoned border guards in a small hut at the top of Kyzyl-Art mountain pass in Tajikistan a few years ago. My objective was to climb Mount Olympus, Greece’s tallest mountain at 2,917 metres above sea level, in one single day. I was reliably informed that it could be achieved if the weather was clear and if I began the hike at the crack of dawn. Unfortunately for me, the weather was anything but and I was stuck in a traffic jam on the outskirts of Thessaloniki at dawn – but I gave it a go anyway.

The first four hours or so went fairly smoothly, as smoothly as hiking one of Europe’s tallest rocks goes, and I was making good progress. I passed a refuge about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, not thinking much of it at that moment, continuing my ascent into the clouds. About thirty minutes later my phone, which had a 50% charge at the time, decided to abandon the expedition and die – leaving me with an arduous decision to make. Not only was it my solitary photo-taking device but also, possibly more importantly, my lone navigational tool (the summit ‘path’ was virtually non-existent by this point). With the peak in view, I made the exceedingly difficult decision to turn around and head down to the lodge, in the hope that I could charge my useless machine there.

I gave my phone to the friendly refuge manager and proceeded to wait, with every minute narrowing my chances of reaching the summit and returning to the car before nightfall. The weather was also worsening, and my diminishing confidence was not buoyed by a chat with a British couple who had just returned from the peak. They were the only two people to have reached the summit that day, as others deemed it far too dangerous, and that was with the assistance of an experienced guide and a lot of mountaineering equipment that I simply did not have. The man, who was of a muscular build and close to seven-foot, informed me that he was almost blown from the mountain and that he had “never experienced wind like it”. I thought he was jesting.

The time was now three in the afternoon as I left the lodge for the second time, much to the uneasiness of the refuge manager, and immediately understood what my fellow Brit was talking about. As I reached the first exposed ridge, I was battered by gale-force winds from seemingly every angle; making it impossible to walk in a straight line and forcing me to drop to the ground every time an even larger gust blew down the mountain. Although the eighty-five kilometre-per-hour winds were a worry, the incredibly low visibility worried me more, not knowing if I would be able to see the return route and almost forcing me to concede at least three or four times.

As I fought my way up to the penultimate peak at Skala, just four hundred and fifty horizontal metres away from the pinnacle of Greece, I had to admit defeat. Continuing any further would have been nigh on suicidal, given that the final stretch to the Mytikas peak was said to be the most perilous section of all. I sat for a minute or two behind a small rock-built windbreak before despondently turning around and heading back down the mountain. Despite almost falling from several cliffs, I made my beleaguered return to the refuge just before nightfall.

The following day was my last, in Greece that is, and I arose to perfectly clear skies and ideal climbing weather. But I had had enough of Olympus to last me a lifetime and refused the opportunity to attempt it a third time, instead opting to visit the archaeological site at Delphi on my way back to Athens. In ancient times it was considered by Greek’s to be the centre of the earth and was the primary residence of the oracle, a person consulted about important decisions throughout the ancient classical world – a historical Piers Morgan if you will.

Wandering amongst its ruined temples and amphitheatres was the perfect way to conclude my voyage, having begun by doing exactly the same in Athens two weeks prior. I believe I accomplished my project brief of having a highly entertaining and action-packed fortnight without visiting any famous islands or beaches – huzzah! A country full of surprises and many literal up and downs, thank you, Greece for not blowing me off your highest mountain. Until next time.

J

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4 Responses to “Against All Gods

  • Graham Sinnett
    3 weeks ago

    We love your blogs Jack. Do take care. Gra and Sue Sinnett.

    • Jack Noah Rees
      3 weeks ago

      Thank you both! Glad you enjoy them. Back safe and sound now!

  • Anonymous
    3 weeks ago

    Another excellent report Jack, keep them coming.

    • Jack Noah Rees
      3 weeks ago

      Thanks! It might be a wee while until the next trip but fingers crossed next year is a bit more ‘normal’!

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