Car Hire Capers on Samothrace

Since being on Samothrace I can see that the bus timetable especially in October is quite limited so today I’m going to hire a car. Driving in Greece is never my first choice of transport but sometimes ‘needs must!’.

There are a couple of hire car companies along the back of the port but nobody is manning the stations. I walk to each one in turn and phone the number advertised on the hoarding. The first two don’t answer but the third one at Kirkos Car Rental does. He tells me that he is at home but will be with me in ten minutes. Ten Greek minutes go by and a gentleman with a broad smile pulls up on the roadside next to me. I sign the necessary documents and he advises me to photograph any damage on the car before I go. This little Seat has certainly been through the wars! I’m handed the keys and off I go.

I drive in the direction of Therma with no particular destination in mind. The coastal road is generally good and more to the point – flat! The further I go, the more potholes appear. I suspect that again, coastal erosion is at play. Many goats are grazing along the roadside and even down on the narrow stretch of beach. They really do have free reign on the island. I’m conscious that they won’t have much appreciation for drivers unused to driving on the right-hand side of the road so I drive more cautiously than usual!

One place that I’m curious about is the little Turkish island of Gokceada which sits at the South Easterly tip of Samothrace. It is probably closer to Samothrace than Alexandroupoli. The island can’t been seen from Kamariotissa so I drive to the point where it comes into view.

Formerly known as Imbros this little island been home to Turks as well as ethnic Greeks and was exempt from the population exchange of 1923 . This island has also been on my bucket list for some time but trying to weave it into one of my itineraries has been challenging as it is only accessible from Turkey. For now, I will make do with contemplating it from across the water.

At this point, I do a U-turn in the road and head back towards Therma. Without warning, I catch sight of something out of the corner of my eye and I instinctively slam on the brakes. I can’t believe it! There’s a horse trotting out onto the road in front of me without a care in the world. Blimey – the goats are one thing but I didn’t expect this! I stop and watch it for a while. There doesn’t appear to be anyone around for miles. It’s just a horse out for a walk on its own.

Further along the road, I park the car close to the entrance of the Fonia Gorge. This is where you would begin a hike to the waterfalls. I have to resign myself to the fact that I won’t see them on this trip. I haven’t come prepared for hiking and I wouldn’t feel confident doing it alone anyway. However, just across the road close to the beach is the 15th-century Fonia Tower. It was built by the Gattilusi family, the same that built the Kastro on the island. It has over the years suffered from a lot of storm damage and is currently fenced off.

I’m now going to drive to Therma to see what lies beyond the village. If I’m lucky I may stumble across a Vathres, a small natural pool formed by the water from the mountain. There are over a hundred of these naturally occurring phenomena on the island so I could be in with a chance.

I leave the car parked in the shade of a tree and follow the road up past the pensions and tavernas until I reach the entrance to the forest. As I step into the forest, I feel that autumn has well and truly bedded itself in. The damp, woody scent of decaying ferns and rotting leaves fills my nostrils. Dappled shade is created by the mid-morning sun filtering through the gold-tinged leaves now clinging on for dear life. Among the thick layer of brown leaves that have already met their demise, delicate pink cyclamen have emerged, truly a sign that summer is on the wane.

The dirt path is steep and I’m not wearing suitable footwear but I continue on. Further into the forest, I notice several unusual structures. One oblong made from breeze blocks and another circular made from concrete – both with a set of ladders leaning against them. There is no indication as to what these structures are but I am going to hazard a guess that they are small thermal baths. The mountainside is covered in natural springs that have forced their way up through the earth’s crust.

As I progress further upwards, a dog begins to bark. Not just one dog, there must be at least two. I don’t know if they are tethered or on the loose, but I do know that they are aware of my presence. I stand in a clearing trying to decide whether to continue on or to play it safe and turn back. At this point, a man appears in a clearing beyond the trees. He is wearing jeans and an oversized black jacket and is puffing on a cigarette. At first, I thought that he was a hiker on their way back down to base but this isn’t the case. The man stands by a tree looking at me. He doesn’t say a word. To break the silence I ask him if I was on the right path to the vathres. He shook his head in a “I don’t understand what you’re saying” way. “Vathres” I say and point in the direction that he just came from. “Ne” he replies with a lift of his head and indicates for me to follow him. Hmm, this isn’t what I expected.

I tell him my name and ask him his. It’s Giannis. Names are always a good place to start. A couple of minutes later we reach the barking dogs both of which thankfully are tied up. To the left there is a small dwelling and tethered to a tree is a red horse. Strangely though, it looks exactly like the horse that I nearly knocked down a short time ago! But how could it have got back here so quickly? I admit I was kind of confused.

The man approaches each of the barking dogs to calm them. Whilst he’s pre-occupied, something on the ground catches my attention. A pile of long hair. Two colours of what looks like long human hair. I do have an over-active imagination and immediately my mind goes into overdrive. I don’t feel under threat in any way but I swap my awe-struck visitor head for the one that has more common sense.

The man beckons for me to follow him further up the hill. The terrain becomes a lot more difficult. We are no longer on a path but scrambling over uneven mounds and everything is getting muddy. In hindsight, this was probably a sign that we were close to a vathres or even a waterfall but it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry on. I decided to make a judgment call and call to Giannis who was marching on ahead. He turns and walks back to me. I point to my muddy feet and say “bad shoes!” He looks at me blankly. Time to draw upon the odd Greek word that I know. Pointing to myself with a look of exhaustion on my face I say “archaia kyria”. I know this means ‘ancient’ lady but the word for ‘old’ wouldn’t come to mind.

I apologised to him and he smiled kindly and led me back to his little hut in the forest. He invited me in for coffee but I graciously declined his offer. I think that he may have welcomed the company, even with the language barrier. Had I not been on my own I’d have gladly sat down and had a drink with him but not today. I thank him for his help and his time and make the descent back to the village.

A small taverna in the centre of the square has just opened. A man sweeping leaves from between the tables lifts his head and says hello. He’s friendly and tells me that his name is Antoni. I ask him if he has a cold drink such as cola and he goes inside to look. Unfortunately he doesn’t have cola but does have a bottle of lemonade which is equally as good. I chat to Antoni a while. He asks me what brings me to Samothrace and I tell him that on this occasion it definitely isn’t the hiking, pointing to my muddy sandals.

I go to pay but Antoni says the drink is on the house. However, he tells me that I must come back after 2pm and have an ouzo with him. Had I not been driving I think I might have been tempted but one ouzo alone is never good enough is it!

I now want to go back to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. There was a large section that I didn’t get to visit last time. Amazingly, I’m the only person here which makes it a very special visit.

Again following a shaded path along the torrent to my left, I arrive at a set of steps on my right. This leads up onto the Western Hill. The first section is a mishmash of the remains of a Byzantine fort, a Hellenistic building that was never completed, a couple of unidentified structures and the Neorion – a ship monument. This votive would have consisted of a large hall that housed a complete ship. All that now remains are the foundation stones, part of the wall and the curved marble stones that would have supported the hull of the ship. Not much is known about the ship except that it was around 27 metres long and must have been hauled into position from the sea. The vessel could have been a war trophy or it could have been a ship that brought victory to the dedicator. Whichever it is, the dedication was made by someone with wealth and power.

Another set of stone steps takes me up to the Stoa Plateau. The Stoa is the largest structure (or what remains of it) in the sanctuary at 104 metres in length. The Stoa would have been open at the front with a collonaded facade, in this case 35 Doric columns. The other three sides and the roof would have been enclosed. Just the foundation stones and some of the roof tiles survive.

The Stoa would have had mixed usage as a gathering place and a place where merchants would sell their wares. It would also be used for public events conducted by the magistrates such as court judgements but also a place for religious practices. Fragments of plaster from the interior of the Stoa suggest that initiates into the cult would scratch their names into the wall. More wealthy initiates may have built elaborate monuments in and around the Stoa. Close to the Stoa is one such example. All that remains is the plinth known as Orthostate Monument VI but it may have supported a tall column or a statue.

One excavation found the remains of another votive dedicated to Philip V by the Macedonians. It was said to have been a bronze representation of Philip atop a tall column. Of course one of the most famous dedications is that of Nike, the Goddess of Victory. The place where she once had a prime position elevated above the Hieron has no distinguishing features and is quite unremarkable. Had I not intentionally looked for it I don’t think I would have found it. All that remains is a stone wall set into the surrounding hillside. Nonetheless, her presence is felt.

As I prepare to leave the Sanctuary, I decide to pay one more visit to the Hieron where I can’t help but feel a sense of awe and wonder. My stay on Samothrace will soon come to an end so I take the opportunity to reflect on my stay here. I’m amazed at how my initial scepticism was quickly replaced with a deep appreciation for this magical island. Samothrace is not a destination that reveals itself easily. It takes time and patience to uncover its secrets and I’m conscious that I’ve only scratched the surface of what this island has to offer.

So what is it that makes Samothrace so unusual? The island’s unique geology is surely part of it. The mountain that dominates the center of the island creates a microclimate that is both unpredictable and captivating. Where else can you experience ice cold waterfalls and vathres coming DOWN the mountain and bubbling hot springs coming OUT of the mountain! It’s no wonder that the ancient Greeks chose to build a sanctuary here, and not just any sanctuary, but one of the most significant sanctuaries in Greece.

Standing here alone I ask the Gods to grant me one wish. That one day I will be able to return to Samothrace and that the island will reveal just a little bit more of itself to me.

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  1. Never a dull moment on your car hire expeditions Stephanie ! What an interesting day out.

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