Heinrich Hall reveals the gruelling preparations that go into an expert led Greece tour – and why he loves his job!
“It was a wonderful trip through Greece; the sites were lovely, the food was outstanding and the guides were excellent”. Jim Cleary, UK
Based on our guests' feedback, we have a good idea how they perceive the experience of a Peter Sommer Travels land tour: both stimulating and relaxing, highly varied without being hectic, leisurely but not slow-paced, well-organised and always guided by experts. A typical day starts with a luscious breakfast, followed by a coach trip to one or several archaeological or cultural sites of great beauty and interest, a charming lunch stop with excellent food, a further site visit or pleasant stroll in the afternoon, before arriving at a fine hotel in another lovely town or village. An exquisite dinner nearby rounds off the evening. Timings are smooth, driving times are long enough to allow a little rest but too short for monotony, stress never rears its head. Easy!
Well, not quite. A lot of work, time, thought and effort has gone into every single day of the trip. Recently, my colleague Michael Metcalfe and I were involved in planning and preparing one of PST's newest itineraries: “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great in Greece – From Boy to King”, a three-week land tour focusing primarily on the Macedonian homelands in the North of Greece, but also incorporating visits to Athens and key sites in the South. In total, it took us over two years to get from the initial idea to the finished product. How so?
We want all our trips, sea and land, to be of the same high quality – our aim is that each day should be a great one for every guest. Ambitious as this may be, we strive to make it real. There is only one way to ensure that: painstaking preparation. Part of this is done remotely, by reading up on Alexander's youth and its geographic backdrop, relevant sites and museums, through guidebooks and academic literature. But the core of the task is much more hands-on – it consists of travelling to the areas in question repeatedly, visiting all potential sites and sights, inspecting the road network, choosing hotels and tavernas, making sure everything fits together seamlessly and meets our exacting standards.
In other words, we get to do what we enjoy most and call it work! Between the springs of 2010 and 2011, we had the opportunity to spend many weeks criss-crossing Central and Northern Greece, a chance to explore landscapes not yet familiar, to get to know well over 30 sites, museums and historical towns or cities, but also to explore the regional cuisine, taste the produce of local cheese-makers, bakers and vineyards, and meet the “natives”. Long days, spent poring over maps, driving and walking for many hours, active from dawn till dusk. But what a perfect way of learning knew places and broadening our knowledge of Greece and its monuments.
And so much to learn! Northern Greece, less frequented by tourists than the South and the islands, is a rich land of great diversity, ranging from the perfect azure waters of the Aegean via huge cultivated plains, lush hillsides and dense forests, to the towering heights of 3000m-high Mt. Olympus. Moreover, it is jam-packed with remarkable archaeological and historical sights. On the one hand, we visited many well-known spectaculars: the magnificent new museum at Pella, Alexander's birthplace, displaying the refined culture of this ancient capital; the extraordinary wealth of the royal graves at Vergina, including that of Alexander's father, Philip II, rich in gold and weaponry; the splendid Roman and Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia, its excellent museums and serene Byzantine churches; the monasteries of Meteora, perched precariously on their vertical rock needles; the sanctuary of Zeus at Dion in the shadow of Mt. Olympus…
But there were also innumerable surprises – places of unforgettable beauty, unusually well-preserved sites, the kind of authentic and intimate experiences that are the true essence of travel, only found with much diligence and impossible to list in full. Some examples of these marvels, each one a highlight on our itinerary:
- The town of Kastoria, huddled upon a peninsula overlooking a tranquil lake, abounds in richly varied traditional houses of the Ottoman stone-and-timber style and contains dozens of Byzantine chapels and churches, adorned with decorative brickwork on the outside and colourful medieval frescos in the interior.
- In Aiani, a rarely visited regional capital of the ancient Macedonian realms, part of the ancient acropolis has been excavated, with sweeping vistas over a majestic riverine landscape, and a museum housing spectacular finds from settlement and cemeteries in brand new state-of-the art displays.
- At Stageira, set on a lovely forested peninsula sticking into the Aegean, impressive city walls stand witness to the hometown of Aristotle, Alexander's tutor and the greatest of the ancient philosophers.
- Herakleia Lynkestis in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, founded by Philipp II himself, boasts a Hellenistic theatre and some of the finest Early Christian mosaics in Europe.
- On the island of Thasos, a traditional Greek fishing village rattles around within the abundant remains of a much larger ancient city, its temples and theatres indicating its former wealth, and the circuit of its mighty city walls offering a memorable walk through pine forests.
- The marbled ruins of ancient Edessa, off the tourist trek and covered in spring flowers, are overlooked by stupendous waterfalls and by a couple of painstakingly renovated 18th century mansions, now hotels providing traditional Greek hospitality.
- At Naoussa, set among verdant vales of vines, it is possible to sample some of the finest red wines of modern Greece, created from the region's Xinomavro grape and reaching astounding complexity, in a family-run organic winery.
- In Litochoro, a small stone-built village on the slopes of Mt. Olympus, a local chef produces gourmet meals based on Greek traditional dishes, including a mouth-watering truffle risotto and a delicate nettle pie.
All this was finally and most carefully moulded into a fully planned itinerary, including the major sites along with those a casual visitor would never find, and based on a narrative following the youth and early career of Alexander. This final arranging is slow work, as everything has to fit together smoothly, but it is sped along by a first-rate motivation: we can't wait to return to all these wonderful experiences and to share them with our guests.
Our very first “In the Footsteps of Alexander in Greece” tour took place in May 2011. Here's what some of our guests had to say:
"Our guides were excellent. Heinrich was very, very good at creating an image of what a site should have looked like. Also fun to listen to and talk to. Michael was amazing; listening to his descriptions of Alexander's battles and sites like Pella was inspiring." Zac Flowerman, USA
"It was simply great to follow in Alexander's footsteps once more. The food as always was fantastic and of such good quality. It was a superb time of year to go as the wild flowers were fabulous." Shona Grenfell Young, NZ