Friday, 30 October 2009

Day 5 - On the pilgrims route

We were rather reluctant to leave Arnea. It seems that plenty of European money has been spent restoring the distinctive galleried buildings, and we were certainly grateful for the warmth of the fire in the lobby of the guesthouse opposite the church - it is getting colder each day we are here, and as soon as you stop walking the cold and the damp seep into your bones.

It is difficult to be certain from which direction you arrived in Arnea, but the village must have looked very similar 68 years ago. The buildings have projecting upper floors supported by elaborate timber brackets - most unlike any other villages we have seen on our journey so far.
After a good night's sleep, we strapped on our rucksacks and headed down the hill towards the next village - Paleochora. We were anxious to get out of the village before the start of the procession. It was Oxi day in Greece - a bit like Christmas and Rememberance Sunday all rolled into one, when they celebrate hammering the Italians and saying a firm "No" to facism. All around excited children were racing to the church - a mix of boys and girls forming up in national dress. As we continued down the hill, we were rather entertained by a large group of schoolchildren practicing their marching - the girls looked jolly smart, but the chaps were a scrappy lot, and almost wholly incapable of marching in time.

We are continuously asked whether we are Germans. We're not sure why - perhaps they baulk at the thought of a large group of Germans tramping through their celebrations. Anyhow, we now make the point of saying we are English whenever we meet anyone on the road. Tyson is being a great sport about this and plays along as an honoury Englishman. It all gets rather complicated otherwise.

The route down the hill cannot have changed significantly - we passed the school on our left, a large classical building set well back from the road. We had seen old pictures of the town in the 1930's, and this building has not changed at all.

We were soon out of the town of Arnea and making good time on the open road. The road twists through mature forests of plane and oak, all ablaze with incredible autumnal colours of orange and red. It wasn't much fun on the road, but we were satisfied we were on Sandy's path.

We arrived in Paleochora just as the band struck up a jaunty ditty. The entire village was lining the main street, their heads turned to look at the children who were marking time further up the road. We got a few quizzical looks as we walked past, so we decided to wait while the celebrations started. The children marched past in their school years, starting with 2-3 year olds and working upwards.

As this was where Sandy had lost your watch, we kept a good eye out for tall old men wearing smart watches, but there were few likely candidates. We decided to press on towards the next village - Paleochora wasn't unfriendly, it is just that they were pre-occupied with their celebrations. We rather fancied some lunch, but each place was jammed with locals so we continued on our route.

There was some dilemma - the route from Paleochori wasn't clear. We either continued to follow the main road towards Stratoni (the northern fishing village) or branched off via the village of Megali Panagia. The latter is the more direct route to Ierissos, and follows the path of the old pilgrims route. We decided to follow this route. The longer route would have been another 38km along the modern road, and we didn't fancy it. Not only was walking on the road hard going, but we felt that the old pilgrims route was more likely.

It was a long slow climb out of Paleochori, past ploughed fields and isolated stone barns. The road takes a fairly straight south-east route, following the pilgrims route through the tangled forests of ilex. In a few hours we arrived at the village of Megali Panagia, cresting the brow of a hill and seeing the entire village spread below us.

Priorities were food and shelter, and we managed both quite easily. Tomorrow we push on the Ierissos and the sea!

Day 4 - Across the badlands

We spent last night in a village hall - right next to the church in Kalamoto. The villagers couldn't have been more helpful, even coming to tell us that breakfast was ready back in the square.
Our saviour was a man called Andronikos - a tall, white haired man who was connected with the church. Until his arrival the previous evening, we were on the verge of a night in the open (which wouldn't have been pleasant, as it had been a cold night). Andronikos couldn't have been more helpful, shepherding us to breakfast and sitting close to us as we had a feast. The coffee was good and strong, and we were given cheese, ham and a wonderful jam made of pear, cherry and other fruits.

An old man called Savas had been brought to see us. His father, Haralabos (Harry) had been instrumental in helping Allied troops who came to the area. Savas knew of the kalleva on the edge of the village where two "English" had stayed, and agreed to show us where it had been.
We set off to the eastern end of the village. About a half mile from the older farmhouses is an area of dead ground, leading down to an eroded gully that leads on down to the stream bed that skirts the southern side of the village. As Savas explained, it had been a round enclosure where they had one kept animals. We felt it was a good fit with the description in "Captive Kiwi", and it was clear that Allied troops had been kept here. The area was invisible from the village, and allowed a good escape route down to the stream bed.

After walking the rough ground, we headed back to Savas' farmhouse. It was a rough two-level house, with an external staircase leading up to a balcony over the front door. Beneath the balcony was a wide double door which allowed the animals to be brought in. Savas said that English troops had been hidden in the house and barns by his father, and rushed to bring photographs of his parents for us to see.

After organising our rucksacks, we started our walk east out of the village. Savas followed us in his red pick-up, jumping ahead of us to show the right track. We climbed into the rolling countryside beyond Kalamoto, well grazed grasslands dotted with gorse, with sheep farms every few kilometers. We had a great view towards the low hills and mountains to the south-east.
We arrived at the next village, Marathousa, in time for lunch. We had lunch in the main square with a group of locals - three women (Hrissa, Magdella and Elivthera) told us their fathers had helped English escapers in the village. Another old man joined us - Nikos Koutsos. He had been a boy at the time, and remembered bringing food to English soldiers hiding in the village. He had been part of the resistance network, and knew the location of the mill.

We were taken to the mill by Hrissa, who kept a cracking pace despite her heels. We tramped out of the village, along a sandy track that Hrissa said was the old route to Arnea. The mill was a little way out of the village, down amongst plane trees. The millstones were powered by water piped from a spring further up the hill. We explored around the mill, before bidding goodbye to Hrissa and Andronikos and heading on the scrubby path towards Arnea.

It was already late, and as we chomped the apples that Hrissa had given us the light was already falling. It was a long night over rough country, and Tyson wasn't feeling great. We ended the night in Arnea - it was pitch black by the time we arrived, and thankfully it was safe to stay 68 years later.

Tomorrow we continue on to Ierisos, and our chance for a swim in the sea!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Day 3 - Almost out of the woods!

We had agreed another early start, and after packing up our kit there was still time for a quick coffee and cake at the taverna. It was a cold morning, with quite a wind blowing from the east. We set off at a fair pace - so fast that we forgot to pay for our breakfast. Thankfully they didn't come racing afterwards, and we sent our Greek friend back to pay our debts!

The view back towards the village was interesting - Peristera sits between two folds in the hillside. It took us nearly an hour and a half to climb the sinuous path to the mountain pass to the village of Livadi, where we stopped for coffee. Livadi has a very alpine appearance - rough stone houses with roofs jutting out over long balconies. All was quiet as we wound down into the village, the sounds of our boots setting off dogs all down the hill.We strode into the coffee shop to universal quizzical looks - who were these madmen coming out of the mist? After a strong coffee, we approached the locals with our letter of introduction - the cafe was soon all chatter, people crowding around to look at the book, the photographs and the letter.

After a few friendly pats on the back, we were directed down the hill to the right path. We had begun our descent, and soon we had the most incredible views down the valley - a patchwork of fields and spinneys. Tyson remarked that it looked rather like New Zealand!

It brought us good luck, as the sun began breaking through the grey cloud. Down the valley the light caught the orange-brown of the freshly tilled fields, making a great contrast with the green woodland.We stopped for lunch at a village called Petrokerasa - a delightful place with a number of shops around the main square.

We had lunch beneath the shade of the tall trees, and called base camp in Australia to report on progress. After a slap-up meal we headed on down the mountainside towards our final stop - Kalamoto. The descent went on and on, through stunted ilex bushes and down into taller holm oak and acacia forests. We were making good time, when our track suddenly stopped at a field. Problem.

We could see a track far across the valley. We couldn't face climbing back up the slopes, so we made the joint decision to drop down into the ravine and climb up the other side. It was messy - descending through dense scrub and avoiding the sheer drops. We walked along the steam bed in the bottom of the ravine, and thankfully found a suitable escape route back to higher ground and rejoining our track.

Once out of the trees, we zig-zagged through the fields along narrow tracks, all the time looking for the lights of Kalamoto somewhere below us. I have to say that I was getting a little concerned - by rights we should have been on top of the village, but ahead all was dark. We splashed through a stream and climbed a final ridge thankfully the village was hidden in a fold.

We had arrived in Kalamoto, and were greeted warmy by the village president. We had a cracking meal, and the locals tried to convince Tyson to turn out as goalie for the village football team!

Tomorrow morning we try and find the hut outside Kalamoto, and then to the Miller's house!

Day 2

Day 2 started from the village of Mikra, quite close to the airport. We had some coffee from Hotel Haris but, alas, no breakfast. After packing the van and a short drive back toward Thessaloniki (near to the point where we think Maria's farmhouse was located) we joined up with the village tracks that skirted the fields and headed north-east towards the higher road.

We we quite happy trotting along, when the new motorway made a rather rude interruption. We had two choices - walk a mile or so to the nearest bridge, or take our chances with a daring dart through traffic. The latter won out, and after finding a suitable spot we waited for a natural lull in the traffic. It was probably illegal, but it woke us up far more than the coffee!

We were then able to continue along the same farm track, eventually emerging close to the military airbase. We followed the fenceline north-east, joining a track alongside a gulley until we finally emerged at the main road.The road was straight as a die, and headed downhill in a gradual slope to the next village - Nea Redestos, which we reached in about 30mins. We established that all the 'Nea' villages signify that the population originate from Turkey - part of the great redistribution of Greek families in 1922. It means that this village would have been on your route back in 1941.

The main square is the intersection of four or five roads - quite a large space, but no sign of a well or fountain, and no-one to ask! The land to the north climbed the slopes of a single peak, but the plateau didn't start for some distance to the north-east. We decided to continue on the road, and in another 10km or so reached the next village - Vasilikas. Here the locals confirmed that there had been a village fountain in the centre, that had been lost in redevelopment. The village also straddled a stream, and there would have been a bridge.

From Vasilikas, we headed north, aiming for the village of Peristera. It was a long slow climb up to the plateau, and we left the road mid-afternoon, pushing across country through jumbled limestone boulders and thorny holm oak. The views down the valley were magnificent - the afternoon haze rendering everything into a sepia image. To the east the hills receded in a graduated series of greys and browns.

We arrived in the village just as dusk was falling. A cold beer in the square was what the doctor had ordered, and spirits were soon raised. Our accomodation was provided by the church, and we slept comfortably in the church hall, with.a splendid view of the 9th century church just below us.

Tomorrow we head higher, crossing the pass and across to the north-east to Kalamoto!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Day 1

Day 1 began with a tour of Pavlos Melas camp. Lt Col Tsiafitsas (the camp commandant) met us at the gate, and was very interested in Sandy's story and the map in Sandy's book. He rushed around and eventually the Army historian arrived with another map, showing the old layout.

They ummed and ahhd over the features, twisting the map here and there and trying to get a good fit. There are two churches on the edge of the site - one near the south-west corner, and the other on the north-west boundary.

The site is a jumbled mix of ruined barrack blocks - some long 2-storey classical buildings, and acres and acres of jumbled scrub. From the high point we had fantastic views across the city.

The TV cameras then arrived, and we were asked a series of questions - we then had to walk for the camera around the site. We stayed at Pavlo Melas longer than expected, and it was nearly 1pm before we headed south-east towards the main town. It was difficult to keep good direction through the streets, but eventually the dark grey castellated city walls loomed on the horizon.

We took a path that led us close to the walls, and passed over a ruined section near to the civilian prison. This is still a forbidding building, and it must have been a bit of a shock to stumble across it. We spent some time walking inside the walls to check all the arches. There are four arches to west - three small, narrow pedestrian gates, with a single large arch (big enough to allow cars to enter) to the south, leading down to the city and the white tower. We headed out this wide arch, crossing the road that runs along the base of the wall, and headed down the hill past twisted Mulberry trees towards the town. We darted left off the road, down narrow steps that led a zig-zag down between the houses, eventually being spat out on Egnatia, near to the Rotunda (with the sole surviving minaret).

We hadn't had lunch, and by the time we crossed the road in front of the White Tower, we were all pretty hungry. We grabbed a quick snack from a bar on the seafront, and carried on.

Ahead of us the sky was growing black - the weather was breaking and we still had a good 10km to go!We followed the coast road, trying our best to pick up the correct road. We got a little lost in the confused road junctions, and had to track west to get on the right road. It was a long walk down along the coast, and an hour or so until we saw water on our right, just past the boatyard.

According to Sandy's account, he walked a further two miles to the farmhouse. The light was already fading, and the heavens opened. It was a miserable few hours - the road is now a busy dual-carriageway, and it wasn't comfortable walking.Dino, our Greek helper, had driven on ahead of us to try and find Maria. We focused our attention in the Mikra area, near to the airport. The town hall were unable to help, and the area has changed incredibly. The road is now a strip of shops, with only a few surviving farms. We tried our best, but we just couldn't find anyone who had been there long enough to know Maria's family.

We stayed in Motel Haris, right on the edge of the airfield. We were slightly suprised by the string of couples that arrived and stayed for only half an hour. I suspect we were the first guests that had stayed the whole night!

Tomorrow we head into the hills, and we'll all be glad to get away from these busy roads!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Getting there, finally

After months of planning, a mountain of correspondence and many a late night hunched over my (now rather dogeared) copy of 'Dare to be Free', we are finally in Thessaloniki!

Yesterday was all about assembling the team, and was not without drama. By 1400hrs Alun Davies was overdue - we had a call from him when he finally landed. The nosewheel of his BA aeroplane has malfunctioned, and they had circled the airport for a good hour until the pilot plucked up courage to have a crack at a landing. Thankfully it was locked!

Tyson was the last to arrive. We had all driven up to the airport in our fetching sky-blue minibus to pick him up. He looked remarkably awake, given the timezones he had crossed. On the way back to the hotel, we looked at the farms near to Mikra - hopefully one of them would know of Maria, but that was for the next day.

Our first evening in Thessaloniki was a quiet affair - we ate our fill of Lamb souvlaki, and by the second glass of Mythos it was clear that old father time had finally caught up with our newest recruit. I swear Tyson fell asleep mid-air before his head hit the pillow.

Tomorrow we start our expedition proper - from the infamous Pavlo Melas camp.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Final Preparations

We arrive in Thessaloniki on Friday 23 October 2009. In between the frantic organisation and packing of kit, we have finally raised interest with the Greek media. A key part of our expedition is to trace the families that helped Sandy during his escape, 68 years ago.

To help with this, we have gone back through the descriptions in Sandy's book - "Dare to be Free" and identified the following families:
  • Old couple, with two sons, 30 mins walk from old prison within near to Thessaloniki city walls
  • Gregorio, wife and two daughters (the youngest called Maria), near to the Airfield
  • Family with 4 children (2 boys, 2 girls) in village north of main road (Nea Redestos or Vasilika?) Sandy gave them a Bank of Scotland pound note
  • Farmer and wife near to Kalamoto, who were also hiding other NZ troops in a kalleva
  • Yannos (a miller) and the resistance guide Niki – in village north-west
    of Arnea
  • Lazarus and his father in Ierisos
  • Mayor Salos in Ierisos
  • Fisherman on coast west of Ouranopolis with two daughters - Trudi and Eta

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Major General W.B. 'Sandy' Thomas CB, DSO, MC and bar, ED, Silver Star (USA) fought during the Battle of Crete with the New Zealand Army, and led a heroic counter attack at Galatas, where he was seriously wounded in the thigh by an explosive tipped bullet. He was captured by the Germans, flown to Corinth and narrowly avoiding losing his leg at the hands of the German surgeons when he was transferred to a captured Australian Hospital in Athens.

While recovering in hospital he made four escape attempts – the first got him beyond the wire of the hospital compound but no further, the second saw him feign death in the hope of being carried out of the camp in a coffin, the third got him as far as the hospital gates before he was spotted under the ration wagon and the fourth saw him stride purposively past the guards at the Gestapo HQ armed only with a brush and bucket. Sandy's escape attempts marked him out to such an extent that he was closely watched day and night, and escape was virtually impossible. In the hope that a normal prison camp would offer better escape opportunities, he convinced the doctors to pass him fit, and he was soon dispatched to the infamous transit camp in Thessaloniki.

The POW transit camp was based in an old Greek Army barracks and surrounded by a forest of barbed-wire. Sandy found the conditions filthy and wretched, and soon located a weak spot in the wire - a barrack by the fence corner with a strongly barred and wired door on the roadside. Three nights running he carefully undid the fastenings, and on the fourth he made a clean break. After a night with a family in a small hamlet close to the city, he began his journey east across the difficult landscape of Halkidiki to Mount Athos, a rocky peninsula populated solely by monks. Here he evaded capture for many months, moving from monastery to monastery before finally stealing a boat and navigating his way through the dangerous winter seas to freedom in Turkey. "Dare to be Free" was written by him soon after the war, and remains in publication. It is one of the great escape narratives of the Second World War.

Sandy's exploits during the Battle of Crete and his escape from the Germans earned him his first MC. He went on to be the youngest commander of a New Zealand infantry battalion, and fought in North Africa and throughout the Italian campaign, earning his DSO. He was demobbed from the New Zealand Army at the end of the war, and transferred to the British Regular Army. Rising through the ranks, he had a series of challenging tours (including Kenya, Malaya and Yemen), commanded a brigade in BAOR and a British Division before closing his military career as the final Commander of Far East Land Forces in Singapore.

In October 2009 a joint British/Australian group (see attached team sheet) will arrive in Thessaloniki to trace the route of the Sandy's wartime escape. They will start their journey from the site of the POW camp in Thessaloniki town, and will then go on foot across the Halkidiki mountains to Mount Athos, where they will stay in each of the monasteries that helped Sandy during his escape. The group includes Sandy's grandson, Tyson, who is roughly the same age as Sandy was during his escape. This provides a wonderful family link to the expedition, and gives Tyson the opportunity to re-live his grandfather's experiences.

Sandy Thomas has greatly assisted the expedition team trace much of the route, based on his book and recollections of his escape. Although nearly seven decades have passed since he cut through the wire and set off on his great journey, he still remembers the families who helped him evade capture. The expedition will follow in Sandy's footsteps as closely as possible, seeking out relatives of those who helped during his escape and seek to establish a definitive record of the route of his escape. The expedition team will do this to celebrate the courage and daring of Sandy's escape and the Greek villagers and monks who supported him along the route.

Chris Paul, Expedition Leader