My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Travelling Through Greece - in the Steps of St Paul - via Mt Olympus

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that "Life is a journey, not a destination."

So today's post is about journey - before arriving at our next destination The Holy Monastery of St John the Forerunner. 

As we drive between points on our pilgrimage I love to just observe through the coach window. There's always so much to see and the potential to miss too much.
The paddy fields continue to stretch away on either side of the road. These seem to be fed by irrigation channels - some like wooden troughs - connected with deeper ditches between the fields tracing back to the wide river which we drove over just before the road forks - the river which is feeding the Aliakmon-Axios Delta.
Mt Olympus and raptor
must get that shot of Mt Olympus!
Soon we take the left fork on the road towards Katerini and Athina and settle for a long drive, absorbing the landscape through which we pass: always the white and pink Oleander brightening up the sides of the main road and sometimes the dazzling yellow of broom - this used to be gathered in some parts of the country by the ladies of the house to make the brooms for sweeping their houses and yards (after the broom had flowered the women came up the mountains for a few days, leaving the menfolk behind, to cut and dry the choicest branches); many sad roadside shrines continue to mark fatalities from road crashes; and there are so many of the curious glistening silvery "nests" hanging in the pine trees - I often wondered what these were - more about these later - and the bare red earth of fire breaks can be seen snaking down the forested mountainsides in the distance.  
There is some roadside litter here but nowhere near the problem we have in the UK - there is lighter traffic here certainly - but perhaps there is less eating "on the hoof", the drivers more willing to relax at service areas for refreshment? It is surely our "grab to go" culture with convenience and plastic-wrapped food which, alongside a lack of awareness of its costs and dangers, makes England worse for litter than most of Europe, North America and Japan. I am appalled that even hotels feel the need to offer "grab and go" breakfasts for drivers who can no longer apparently find time for that most important of meals to start the day.
Mount Olympus can now be seen in the far distance and the Aegean sea is twinkling to our left - as we hear stories from our guide of the origins of Delphi - including how Kronus ate a stone instead of eating baby Zeus - how he later regurgitated it and how this very rock was and still is at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. There are some great legends centred around Delphi. 

On longer sections of our journey our local guide Mara and Mark Vernon both take the opportunity to fill us in on history and philosophy respectively and how these interface with our Christian pilgrimage. It has been said that: "Myths are the mirrors in which we can study human life." (the late and eminent psychotherapist Petrusca Clarkson). More than that, myths are a way of understanding the interface between the divine and the human - thus Plato's ideas of the good, the beautiful and the true - echoes of the doctrine of the Trinity in the ideas of Known, Knower and Knowing - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - show how our understanding of God is a mixture of the philosophical and the Biblical. 
There is a buzz around me in the coach as this is discussed - Mark is right - there is some philosopher in all of us.
There is snow on the top of Mt Olympus - its ancient myths contrasting sharply with the very modern solar panel farm to our right taking full advantage of the south facing and sunny slope. We hear about the stories behind the images on all the Greek coins, all different, and Mara says the Greeks find our pound sterling coins very unimaginative - with the head of the Queen on them all!
Olympus is now displaying the green skirts of its foothills and we begin to climb - past the strategically placed 10th century AD Platamonas castle on our left onto the highway connecting the North and South of Greece - a new road being built - and sometimes we criss-cross an even older track - much deteriorated now. Then we are diverted on to new stretches alongside the existing road - this will improve the journeys of the many lorries and coaches that use the route. This is the first really busy traffic we have met and we find ourselves in a long convoy - but the views from the new road will surely not be so spectacular. At the moment we are treated to stunning mountain scenery, some of the most dramatic in Greece, with wonderful views down into deep gorges, as we make progress up the Tempi valley towards Larisa.
There are many of the wayside shrines here - some very old and rusty, some newer and ceramic - and litter bins in the lay-bys are clearly used and emptied - 6th and 7th millennium BC Neolithic settlements have been found near here.
34 km short of Larisa we stop for a comfort break and drink - "coffee in-coffee out" as our guide puts it! It is 34 degrees outside but it is a dry heat and I am loving it - some however find it trying and make a dash for the air-conditioned caf√©. 

Now we are on the high plain - a huge crop growing area, with golden fields of corn and stubble.We are beginning to see much more mechanisation and long spray bars are evident - whether for irrigation or chemicals I cannot tell. Hay is being tossed mechanically to dry in the sun, and gets baled into the old small rectangular style bales of my Kent childhood - now rarely seen in England, or indeed much of the rest of Europe, where hay is made into huge round plastic wrapped bales, moveable only by machine.

We climb even higher -  above the largest and most fertile plain in Greece - where cotton is the main crop. But farmers are apparently exhausting natural resources leading to water shortage and mineral depletion - by lack of rotation and diversification. Now some are trying a three year rotation between cotton, maize and potato - cotton is very heavy on mineral use - but the temptation is to lower quality of crop for quantity. We negotiate huge hairpins - giant mullein with massive yellow flower spikes, and wild fig trees and tall yellow thistles - cling to the side of the road above steep drops - this drive is not for the faint hearted. Groups of beehives tucked into woodland clearings are a promise of the wonderful honey soaked desserts to come which I cannot resist. 

The colourful hives attract bees and identify their owners - and the hives are moved according to the season, taking advantage of pine trees, thyme or the abundant wild flowers (the best quality). What a wonderful drive ever upwards above the snow line (marked by road signs warning of slippery ice) and towards the total isolation of Anatoli village and a few tortuous miles beyond that the very modern monastery of TheHoly Monastery of St John the Forerunner, our next destination.

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