Afficher cette page en françaisΠαρουσίαση της σελίδας στα ελληνικά

The missing woman of Olympus

The Ottoman fireplace of the Shwarz's at Ambelakia.

The Ottoman fireplace of the Shwarz’s at Ambelakia.

On my return from travelling in Northern Greece, which had started at Mount Olympus, my friends appraised me of the fact that a French woman had just disappeared in this massif while trying to get to the summit on her own and that they had been anxious about me. But wrongly because it was 15 days after I had passed through this area. In any case, that could not have happened to me : I have an adventurous spirit, but it’s always in the terminals that my solid instinct for preservation is focused. Moreover, it would never have occurred to me, to climb the highest mountain in Greece : apart from the present condition of my knees, Olympus is for me the home of the gods and should remain sacrosanct ! I satisfied myself with following the paths of the gorges without deviating from the waymarks. It was October, a thin rain was falling, and I know, alas, how dangerous the mountain is in unsettled weather : It was more than 25 years ago that my brother, a professional pilot crashed his plane in fog, the 2nd November.

On the next journey, I stopped in the village of Ambelakia, at the entrance of the valley of Tempe which links Thessalonica to Macedonia. I wanted to see there an extraordinary 18th century mansion house, that of the Schwarz’s, ( their Greek name, Mavros, means « black » ), traders in dyed threads who had germanized their name because they exported mainly to Germany, after becoming the first Greeks to found a co-operative. This mansion contains rares paintings from that period and a very beautiful fireplace in the Ottoman style.

Sanctuary of Zeus at Dion. In the back ground the Mount Olympus.

Sanctuary of Zeus at Dion. In the back ground the Mount Olympus.

I stopped in a little hotel where I was the only client. At dinner, the owners, an elderly couple, were delighted to be able to converse in their own language, because few of their generation speak English. They told me the circumstances of the disappearance of the « petite Francaise » ( « Gallidoula ») ( Greeks adore the diminutive versions ). She had slept at their place the night before the accident. She was an « adventuress » in her forties who had travelled as far as India. A shepherd, the last person to have seen her alive, had alerted her to the risks. « If the Ancestors had made Mount Olympus the home of the Gods, said the owner, it’s because this mountain, of almost 3,000 meters, is redoubtable. Even in the summer the weather can deteriorate very quickly, so at the end of October ! ». But Westerners these days have the sin of pride ( « hubris » in Ancient Greek ) : their technical progress makes them feel all-powerful. However nature, or the revenge of Zeus, is pitiless, and many pay a heavy price for it.

Rescuers, police dogs, helicopters had raked the area for fifteen days. Her mobile phone had not helped her. Afterwards her parents had stayed at the hotel of Ambelakia for two weeks to survey the mountain. All in vain : no- one has ever found the body.

During this account, memories flooded back. I saw again my mother, who, at the age of 76, had been determined to see the site of the crash. I had pulled or pushed her for more than an hour up the dried-up bed of a stream, the only way of getting up to the wreckage of the plane. She, at least, had been able to see where her son had died and to know what had happened.

No, the Greeks don’t play only the bouzouki !

Among the numerous clichés which Greece has to suffer, and which I have undertaken to wipe out, is that concerning music. On the occasion of my second visit to Thessalonika I decided to talk about this aspect.

The country’s second city, “co-capital” with Athens, it is very suitable for the theme of “la Grèce ignorée” because it is visited vastly less often than its rival. The same goes for Macedonia and Thrace, as if the words “Greece” and “North” cannot co-exist in the minds of foreigners.

Nevertheless Thessalonika abounds with architectural treasures from various periods. Its construction in the form of an amphitheatre crowned by ramparts, its long sea-front promenade, its richly endowed museums and its liveliness make it an unavoidable destination.

This time I attended several rehearsals and concerts of classical music which convinced me that Greek instrumentalists are just as good as ours.

Thus I was able to hear the National Orchetra, as well as that of the city and the young Conservatoire pupils. The latter were an excellent example of the power of music. In the former Ottoman bank they played a concerto by Vivaldi (Venetian) with, as soloists, two Turkish cellists: two nations which have colonised Greece for centuries !

In Ancient Greece, music was one of the foundations of education, embodiment of the ideal of “Kalos k’agathos, a man who combined beauty and literacy.

Nowadays it demonstrates that it can also unite nations who are, in other ways, torn apart.


The nurse from Polygyros

Maisons restaurées à Polygyros

Restored houses at Polygyros — Chalkidiki

I stopped for a night at Polygyros, “capital” of Hakidiki, that peninsular of Macedonia with three appendices, including Mont Athos, intending to visit, the next day (my last), the one called “Kassandra”.

A moment of inattention when loading my rucksac and “oops”, the key locked in the boot! More than five hours to wait for the bus to bring me a duplicate, in a small town where both their museums were closed.

Making the best of a bad job, I walked the streets taking photographs of several old Balkan houses. A lady who was returning home from Mass, on learning that I was French, invited me in. “To offer a drink”, being expressed in a single word of Greek, is ample proof of their hospitality. When I complained about the closure of the museums, she explained that one had been under renovation for years and the other only opened for groups. In her turn she lamented about the theatre, closed for a long time because of managerial negligence, where its group of amateurs could no longer perform. She was also a lover of poetry, like many Greeks and few of my compatriots, and she showed me a copy of the poems of Cavafi where he quoted, in the introduction, some passages of André Gide in French.

A nurse in this little town for almost twenty years, she was always regarded as an outsider because she came from Thessalonika, and not even from a village. Moreover her parents had come from Asia Minor when the Treaty of Lausanne had banished the Greeks from Turkey where they had lived for three thousand years. No doubt that’s why she showed great understanding for the Syrian refugees, who have been landing in Greece in tens of thousands for the last year, considering that a society closed in on itself, as was the case in the Sparta of Ancient Greece, ossifies and dies.

Greece is striking proof that a rich culture and language can resist all the vicissitudes of history. Whilst in general the conquered nation adopts the language of the conquerer, the father of Alexander the Great, Philip II, who Demosthenes considered a barbarian, gave his son a Greek tutor, Aristotle, before seizing the country. When the Romans occupied it in the 2nd century BC, it was they who sent their sons to do their studying in Athens.

The Greek language has, for three thousand years, maintained the cohesion of this nation battered successively by Persians, Celts, Romans, Hérules, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Avars, Slavs, Arabs, Normans, Francs, Catalans, Genoans, Venetians, Turks, Bulgarians, Italians and Germans.

The mongrel of Ormos Panaghias

Mount Athos seen from the neighbouring peninsular of Sithonia.

Mount Athos seen from the neighbouring peninsular of Sithonia.

While visiting Halkidiki, the peninsular shaped like a cow’s udder in Eastern Thessalonica, I had hastened to the little port of Ormos Panaghias (the Bay of the Virgin) from where go the excursion boats for Mount Athos. But this orthodox monastic republic with 20 monasteries, a virtual state within the State, forbids access, since the 11th century, to women, inferior creatures, Satan’s henchmen since Genesis, as well as all female animals except hens, because the egg yoke is essential for the painting of icons. Thus one has to be content with sailing along the coast, at a distance of 500 meters if you please, in case a temptress would like to reach the shore by swimming !

The previous evening I had taken a hotel on the spot. Leaving for a walk in the sunset, I came upon a little mongrel, one of the dogs «adespota » ( ownerless ) which abound in Greece, but which are, however, more fortunate than the others, chained up day and night. As I am passionate about animals, it often happens that my picnic ends up in the stomach of a quadruped, a dog or a cat or even a mule, goat or pony. When I hire a car for several days, I buy a bag of dog biscuits. I gave some to the little starving dog who then followed me right up to the pier where she crouched at my feet, replete, while I looked at the forbidden mountain. I stroked her for a bit, while telling her about my animals who were languishing back at home.

The next morning I fed her again, then, at the end of the excursion, gave her the rest of the bag before leaving on the next stage. Just before the junction with the main road I glanced in the mirror, saw her following the car, stomach touching the ground, about a hundred meters back. It was essential to leave her behind before the junction where she was at risk of being killed. Heavy hearted, I pressed the accelerator. She disappeared in the distance.

The hotelier at Porto Lagos


After entering Western Thrace, I stopped at Xanthi. This town, although very original, is almost totally unknown to tourists. The population of the province includes about 120,000 muslims. Thus one finds them in the mosques but also in the fine houses constructed in the 19th century by rich traders in tobacco, the main wealth of the region.

Then I stopped at Porto Lagos, a little port between the sea and the ponds, in an area reminiscent of the Camargue. Having installed myself in the only hotel in the town, I had time to go and photograph the sunset, on the little beach nearby. As it was covered in dried seaweed, I was surprised to see that the hotel’s prospectus showed an immaculate beach.

At dinner, I chatted a long time with the patron. He said that the beach was clean fifteen years ago, when he had built the hotel, his life’s dream, but it had gradually been invaded by seaweed because of climatic changes. The municipality not having the resources to keep it clean, gradually the tourists had forsaken this resort. Now there were only passing travellers. For me, used to modest establishments, the hotel was luxurious, with a beautiful garden, large rooms with king-size beds. The owner was a cultivated man : he described the history and problems of the region, which already had 30% unemployment before the crisis. Its two sources of wealth, tobacco and cotton, suffered from international competition : Brussels wants to entirely ban them.

The next morning, when leaving, I cast a last look at the hotel, sparkling white. This vision was replaced by those of the abandoned buildings I’ve sometimes seen, concrete ghosts surrounded by weeds, vestiges of a shattered dream.


Zone (Mesemvria), like Abdere and Maroneia is one of the little sites on the Thrace coast which were important ports in Antiquity. One finds there inscriptions in the Ancient Thrace dialect.

Zone (Mesemvria), like Abdere and Maroneia is one of the little sites on the Thrace coast which were important ports in Antiquity. One finds there inscriptions in the Ancient Thrace dialect. It reached its peak at 5th-4th century BC. Only example of insulation by upside down amphoras to avoid rising of water.

Theatre at Maroneia ; founded in the 7th century BC and inhabited right up to the Byzantine era. It is referred to by Homer by the name of Ismaros : its wine reputedly used to intoxicate Cyclops!

Theatre at Maroneia ; founded in the 7th century BC and inhabited right up to the Byzantine era. It is referred to by Homer by the name of Ismaros : its wine reputedly used to intoxicate Cyclops!

The horses of Mikri Doxipara

Tomb of Mikri Doxipara. 1st century AD. Thrace.

Tomb of Mikri Doxipara. 1st century AD. Thrace.

After Porto Lagos, I visited the rest of Grecian Thrace, squeezed between Bulgaria and Turkey. Actually my radio broadcasted the stations of the three countries alternately, like an echo of the conflicts, more or less distant, which separated them.

I arrived near the little village of Mikri Doxipara, on a site recently dug, dating from the Roman Emperor Trajan. It was a rare find, at least in Greece : the tombs containing six chariots with their horses harnessed, one of them even still with the bit in its mouth ! As was the custom, they were sacrificed on the death of their master, a local chief, resting for eternity beside his tomb. When the elderly attendant lifted the coverings which were protecting them, thus revealing their intact skeletons, lying on their sides, I burst into tears : at home my old horse was in agony, touched by an infection resistant to antibiotics and I knew that his death was near. The old man, far from smiling at this « womanly weakness » – in my part of the world one says « a woman’s horse » when he is not given the cudgel ! – listened attentively to my story and comforted me.

On my return to France, I was obliged, with a very heavy heart, to put to death my companion of thirty years. In our civilized country, we no longer make sacrifices of humans or animals, except in war and in the slaughter house. But one does not even have the right to bury one’s horse on one’s own land. Archeologists of the future will never find his bones beside mine.