It was mid-summer when I drove over the unsafe roads of Yugoslavia, south towards Greece. Back then, in the early 1970’s only few people in their right mind would venture that deep in what was then Yugoslavia. Only one “autoped”, a highway you might think but in fact a simple two-ways road, ran through that country’s flat lands where kolkhozes still ruled over the seemingly endless cornfields – all the way some 1,300 kilometers. My expectations were running high – very high, indeed, for I was on my way to Greece - a country I knew only in my dreams but which I was going to enter now for real.
The road was long and dangerous with local trucks driving according to their own rules and always had the right of way, whatever the crazy situation they created. The camping sites were dirty, smelly, ill-kept and simple commodities like fresh water and bread were not easy to come by. The further south, the worse the conditions. Hunting for bread in Titov Veles with its Cyrillic letter signs, I had to look inside each cubicle that hardly was worthy the name “store” to see what was being offered. The looks I got in return from the locals were far from friendly, rather hostile I would say. Steadily but surely, my high hopes started to tune down…
My last night before reaching the border of my promised land, the only safe haven was inside the fenced enclosure where all the foreign travelers, probably as crazy or unconscious as I was, were herded together in front of an impersonal building labeled as Motel. They were British mainly, but with a handful of Germans, French and Dutch, I felt more or less secure, being among fellow travelers. The landscape was fascinating though, with sharp hillsides rising like dark grotesque figures against the evening sky where mysterious sunrays exploded from behind. This was Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great and I wondered if ever he had been in this forlorn corner and if he could have seen this…
My hopes and ideals about Greece plummeted dramatically that night. What would the next morning bring? I felt very much pressured to leave here as soon as possible, as if ancient ghosts were on my heals. The narrow road twisted uncomfortably between the high menacing cliffs on either side and at last I arrived at the tacky border outpost, nothing more than a handful of gloomy ran-down buildings. My heart sank in my shoes. Dear Lord, what if Greece was going to be like this? Had I risen my hopes to an impossible height? Had I imagined an ideal country, a perfect land? It seemed my dreams about Alexander the Great, Athens, Mount Olympus and Delphi with all their Hellenistic treasures were sinking away into Hades! This was horrible!
After a meticulous, lengthy and unfriendly control by the border officials, I was at long last allowed to drive on. All of the sudden, as if by magic, the entire décor changed. I was literally transposed unto another world. A smiling custom employee waved me through and a huge blue traffic sign reading “Hellas, we welcome you!” stared me in the face. If ever in my life I felt welcome, it definitely was here! Ahead of me the freshly asphalted double freeway descended gently over the rolling hills towards Thessaly, a black ribbon trimmed with pink laurel shrubs amidst the golden glow of harvested fields. I could breathe again, I could smile, I could jump for joy, for this was the picture I secretly had carried around in my mind for so many years – this was what Greece was all about, what it stood for! Wow wee!
It was as if the world had been freshly washed and I took it all in with wide open eyes. Then on my right, rose the majestic mountains culminating with mighty Olympus. The very top was shrouded appropriately in puffy clouds although the blue sky was perfectly clear otherwise, but then nobody less than Zeus, the father of all gods was ruling from up there. He needed some privacy, don’t you think so?
My first night was spent at Kamena Vourla, a small tourist town in those days but for me it was like being embraced by Aphrodite in person. The Aegean Sea was, of course, irresistible and I waded carefully like the goddess of the sea must have done rising out of the waves. It was late, the sun was gone and the first street lights along the shore hung like a shiny string of pearls in the darkness while I floated away in the protective arms of Neptune … I’ll never forget that moment in time, it was simply too unreal.