March to Athens
Day 145-LXXI, from Στράτος to Αγρίνιο, 12 km.
Agrinio, March 31
Three ridges of hills near the river bend were the site of ancient Stratos. From here, the citizens of this town controlled the plain and the entire hinterland of Akarnania until the Romans founded the city of Nicopoli.
What remains today is the theatre and the outlines of the agora. I sit on my rock in the morning sun, right between the two, when the tourist commission of the march comes walking up the hill for a visit.
This town bears the same name as the modern village in the valley, but that’s about as far as similarities go.
We enter the theater, we stand on the stage and comrade Jose Miguel, the archeologist, mic-checks the acoustic. They hear him loud and clear up above.
The theater is a ruin. The seats and stairs have gone, many rocks have been recycled, and the remainder has been invaded by the vegetation. All over the hemicircle where people used to sit and cheer, there are flowers growing by the thousands.
For me, and for others among us with a romantic soul, it couldn’t be better than this. But for José Miguel it’s different. He has studied too much antiquity already, his fingers are itching. He can’t help it. He would like to dig it all up, dust if off, and tell the story.
Alas, some stories are best when left untold.
The march breaks up camp and crosses the river into Aetolia. Today we go to town. The town is called Agrinio.
On the road we get honked almost continuously. The last time I witnessed something similar was when the Columna Norte was approaching Madrid. A car stops by, a window rolls down. “March to Athens?”
He gives a thumbs up and drives off. The voice of our march is spreading. It seems we have been on television after the demonstration in Preveza.
We enter triumphantly in Agrinio. Local anarchists await us. We take the square without any problem with police.
I pitch my tent and take a little tour of the city. It turns out to be an alienating experience. From the looks of it, there’s money going around in this place. All the brands are present, the bars are hip, and aside from that there is little else. The buildings are very recent, they are quickly puzzled together with prefab concrete. It all looks extremely fragile.
In a couple of months time, this city will be different. The brands will have changed, the bars won’t be hip anymore, the buildings will be replaced by new ones that will last even less, etc.
If Agrinio were to be abandoned tomorrow, it would take only a few years for the city to crumble. In a few decades you won’t recognise it as a city any more, and in two thousand years there will be nothing left but polluted soil covered by vegetation. Not even a theater will remain, not even the outlines of the agora.
Agrinio is just an example. Our whole civilization is as fragile as this. It is going to crumble.
When people ask us what we propose as a solution, we say we don’t have any. We don’t propose socialism, or communism or anarchism, or any other -ism. All we want is to exchange ideas with people and think about something completely new.
Day 143-LXIX, from Αμφιλοχία to Ρίβιο, 15 km.
Day 144-LXX, from Ρίβιο to Στράτος, 15 km.
Stratos, March 30
The other day in Amfilochia we held our first serious assembly since our arrival in Igoumenitsa. We have been rejoined by a Spanish comrade who speaks good Greek. And aside from him there were a few locals who spoke either good English or Spanish, so it was more than enough to create a connection.
The presence at the assembly was a perfect split of the Greek population. Old folks, young folks, a mother with a baby. There was also a group of high school students present. They sat out the entire two hour assembly. They didn’t say much, but they listened very carefully.
As usual, the greater part of the assembly was about general issues. Local initiative versus centralised government. Civil disobedience. Power to the people.
In the end we asked questions to the people of Amfilochia. About the local situation, about organised resistance. And if they knew anything about the movement of the indignados.
They did. And indeed, last year people have tried to stage protests and organise assemblies in this town, but very few people attended.
One of the locals gave his personal opinion on the matter. He said that people are very much engaged in protest, but they are not used to start thinking from scrap. They have grown up with the idea that politics belongs to the parties and the unions, not to the people, and it’s hard to change that mentality. They don’t participate in popular assemblies, but when the parties or the unions organise strikes and demonstrations, they don’t hesitate to take part in it. And they even go to the big cities, Agrinio or Athens to do so.
He concluded that this is probably a typical provincial mentality, and that things in places like Patras or Athens are different. But from what I heard, also the people in the big cities are still very much linked to old ways of thinking.
Yesterday we marched straight south to the little town of Rivio, and we almost missed it. It consists of three gas stations along the national road, of which two are permanently closed, a couple of houses and a monstrous concrete structure which allows pedestrians and wheelchairs to cross the quiet road.
There is no mafia in Greece, so they say, but corruption is rooted deep in the system.
In the absence of a square we planned to camp on the side of the lake, but we were invited by a locals to spend the night in a covered space of their family home. It was really touching. They didn’t have much, but they insisted on bringing us what they could offer, mostly their hospitality.
Today we were woken up by comrade Cansino, a veteran of various marches, who joined us here together with comrade Manuel from audiovisuals Madrid, and comrade Gigì from Belgium. They had been bussing, walking and hitchhiking for three days through Greece to reach us.
We march east again, into the plains, to the horrid little village of Stratos, which used to be the ancient capital of Akarnania. It’s one of very few plains in Greece, it has a river, and so it used for intensive agriculture. Olives and tobacco mostly.
This part of Greece is definitely hidden away from the eyes of foreigners. You won’t find hotels or campings here, just lurid sheds and modern houses along the road. This region is centered around the city of Agrinio where we’ll arrive tomorrow. Some of us have already gone ahead to check out the situation, because Agrinio has about one hundred thousand inhabitants. It is by far the biggest town on our route so far.
March to Athens
Day 141-LXVII, from Δρυμός to Αμφιλοχία, 20 km.
Day 142-LXVIII, Αμφιλοχία.
Amfilochia, March 28
I never thought that one day I would have the privilege to see the famous town of Amfilochia. But here we are. Now, don’t ask me why this town is so famous, because I don’t know. It just is.
Three days it took us to board the southern shore of the internal sea. It was a memorable walk up until the very last.
Amfilochia is built against the hills at the tip of a narrow bay, hidden away at the far end of the gulf. It’s one of those places that gives you a good feeling straight away.
Along the boulevard the bars are interspersed with old houses in ruin. Life is slow and unpretending. The outside world seems far away. During the season there must be some low key tourism along the waterside, mainly from Greece itself, but the place is all but hip. In fact, the whole town breathes a kind of nostalgic 1980s atmosphere.
So far we haven’t found any traces of ancient Greece yet, but the Ambratian Gulf used to be of strategic importance during the glory days of the Greek city states. It provided a perfect harbour on the Ionian sea, it gave access to Italy and the West. The territory was originally settled by Corinth, but it soon came under the influence of marittime superpower Athens.
After the Peloponnesian War it passed to terrestrial superpower Sparta, for as long as it lasted. When the age of the Greek city states came to an end, the Ambracian Gulf became a quiet backwater of history. And everything seems to indicate that it has remained so ever since. It’s probably the reason why it’s such a marvellous place.
We arrived in Amfilochia with six people less than when we left Preveza. Two Frenchmen, three Spaniards and one Italian have turned back or wandered off in different directions. They might return later on, and in the meantime we are expecting other veterans of the march to rejoin us here.
So our numbers will keep floating around twenty. And in general we don’t regard that as a bad thing, given the territory we will have to cross. A little further down the road there will only be very small villages for days in a row, and so our rations could suffer, especially when we are many.
Here in Amfilochia the food doesn’t lack at all. People are most generous, but for some strange reason it still leads to trouble, now and then.
This morning I got woken up by a loud discussion about coffee and sugar, while there was a wide breakfast buffet ready on one of the benches in the square. Bread, feta, olives, oranges, juices, etc.
Comrade Chino described it concisely. “Little food is a problem. A lot of food is an ever bigger problem.”
Day 140-LXVI, from Βόνιτσα to Δρυμός, 16 km.
When we crossed the sea yesterday from Preveza to Actium we left Epirus and entered the region of Acarnania. All I can say about it is that it’s getting better all the time.
Up until now, it was mostly the gorgeous countryside that enchanted me. The villages and towns looked strangely modern. They gave me the impression that they have changed a lot in recent years under the unifying influence of voracious capitalism, and that little is left of how they used to be.
Vonitsa was different. It’s a small town that completely blew my mind. Last night, when I wandered through her small streets and up to the old Venetian castle, I realised that this is the place that I have been looking for for a long time. It’s one of those places that I only know from classic Donald Duck adventure stories and of which I feared that they didn’t exist any more, at least in Europe.
Vonitsa owes most of her beauty to her location on the shore of the Ambratian Gulf. This inland sea is speckled with green islands, rocky capes and lagoons. It’s surrounded by small fertile plains and high mountains whose peaks are still covered with snow. I like to think of this gulf as a miniature Mediterranean. And I already imagine adventures like a miniature Odyssey. I can see myself sailing along her shores in the morning fog…
I shouldn’t be telling you all this. As we are moving straight east, away from the outer Ionian coast, we are leaving mass tourism behind. This territory is authentically Greek. Don’t spoil it, don’t come here, don’t tell your neighbours.
The castle of Vonitsa is one of those things that you won’t find elsewhere. It’s lit up at night, but that’s about as far as the modern touch goes. There are no fences, there is no entry fee to pay. People don’t go there, there is no trash, no graffiti. Just the ruins left to the invasion of nature, and the air of mystery.
If I had known about this when I drafted the route in Naples, I would have planned a day off in Vonitsa. Instead, this morning we prepared to move on, but the locals wouldn’t let us. We were invited by the mayor for lunch in grand style. We might not be able to communicate fluently with the Greek people, but they know what we’re doing, and they wholeheartedly support us.
After lunch we walk on along the hills to the small village of Drymos, where people are not at all used to meeting foreigners.
You won’t find any fashionable bars here. Instead you find only the typical Greek pubs, which all more or less look the same. Square wooden tables, wooden chairs, tiles on the floor, bare walls, and a kitchen instead of a counter. The customers are either busy watching football, playing cards or playing backgammon. They all smoke like Turks.
When I enter the local pub together with my American comrade, we are already well known. The word of our march is spreading across the region, and we harvest sympathy wherever we go. We are invited to drink, we are invited to talk to the mayor. There is always someone who speaks enough English or German to translate.
I have a feeling that the villages of northern Greece are not doing so bad, because of the fact that they have the land and the sea and relatively few inhabitants. But that doesn’t mean people don’t care. There is a strong sense of solidarity in these places, both among the locals themselves, and between them and all the people over the world who are resisting.
Right now, in this village, we represent those people. When we walk into the local pub, we aren’t strangers any more. We’re part of the family.
Day 138-LXIV, Πρέβεζα.
Day 139-LXV, from Πρέβεζα to Βόνιτσα, 17 km.
Vonitsa, March 25
Even though Preveza seems to be a fairly prosperous town, the inhabitants did everything to make us feel at home. In the square there were locals present around the clock to exchange ideas and bring us sweet Greek wine.
On Friday evening we were invited by the Popular Assembly of Preveza – one of the first popular assemblies in Greece to sprout up after the 15th of May last year – to watch a documentary by Naomi Klein on shock therapy and disaster capitalism. After the film there was a little concert with classic rock ballads and Greek music. At the end of it, the two Neapolitans among us didn’t hesitate to take the microphones. They played the partisan song Bella Ciao and a few evergreens of the great Italian poet Fabrizio De André to the enjoyment of the locals.
We were also invited to stay another day in Preveza and take part in a demonstration for independence day.
We only have five days of margin to spend, but this was the first opportunity to do something together with a local movement, and so we accepted.
Today was independence day. We were up early, we folded our tents, and we prepared banners and slogans. The official parade would pass right along the square of our camp.
During the morning a small crowd of local protesters assembled. The entire police force was out for the occasion, even though their numbers didn’t ammount to much, and neither were they provocatively armed or dressed.
When the parade began, police gently forced us aside. We would have wanted to resist more, but the local protesters urged us to be patient.
The parade itself was a disgusting display of child exploitation for nationalist purposes. The entire school youth of the town was dressed up in uniforms and marched by like army batallions, waving flags. From the podium they were applauded by political, military and religious authorities.
Together with the Greek protesters, we made sure that our voices were heard. “Solidarity is the weapon of the people. War against the war of the bosses”, the Greeks chanted. And in the midst of them, our presence gave a touch of colour to the protest.
Near the end we made a move, we hooked up behind the last of the school kids’ batallions to be able to close the parade. Police were determined to block us. We tried to force our way through, but they delayed us long enough for the authorities to quickly leave the podium before we passed by with our peace flags and our slogans calling for revolution.
That was it. In the midst of a ridiculous nationalist piece of theater we made our point. Afterwards we peacefully mixed with the crowds and the schoolkids on the boulevard.
They saw us off, a few hours later, when we crossed the sea in small launches, to continue our march on the southern shore of the inland sea. Initially we planned to take the tunnel, but a local Englishman was happy to play the role of Charon, and bring our march over the waves to the other side.
It was a long long day. After the demonstration we marched a full length leg, be it without gear because one of the Greek comrades we met in Riza helped us out by taking all our stuff on his lorry, through the tunnel, right to today’s destination, Vonitsa.
Vonitsa is a breathtaking little place on the coast of the inland sea. There are Greek flags everywhere along the boulevard and around the national monument when we enter the town.
We take the little square, and we look forward to relax a bit when a police car arrives. None of us is in the mood to talk to them, especially because they are not nice. The two officers give us five minutes to leave or we will be arrested.
Five minutes later we were still there, and police had silently retreated.
March to Athens
Day 137-LXIII, Πρέβεζα.
Preveza, March 23
After the decline of the ancient town of Nicopolis, Preveza was founded in the middle ages on the tip of this peninsula. The town has been under the dominion of the Turks and the Venetians for most of its history.
During her golden age, Venice ruled over the long string of Dalmatian and Greek islands, that goes all the way from the Adriatic to Cyprus, passing by the Ionian and the Aegean seas. Preveza was one of her commercial outposts when the republic was liquidated by Napoleon during his first Italian campaign.
After Bonaparte made his peace with the Austrians, the town came under the rule of the French. It was occupied by a small garrison of grenadiers, and the revolutionary ideas they brought with them were well received by the local population.
While Napoleon himself was busy ‘harvesting glory’ in Egypt and Palestine, the garrison of Preveza was attacked by the Albanian warlord Ali Pasha.
Ali Pasha ruled over a semi-independent Ottoman satrapy that included most of modern day Albania, Macedonia, and northern Greece. He held court in the inland city of Ioannina, and he was famous for his cruelty.
When he took Preveza, he massacred the French and a large part of the population that had sympathised with them. Many Greeks managed to flee to the hills. They were promised to be spared if they returned. But when they did, the promise was forgotten and Ali Pasha had them slaughtered anyway. Together with the French revolutionary ideas, it would inspire the nationalists to rise up against the Turks two decades later.
Today you don’t find much that reminds you of the past here in Preveza. It’s a modern town that lives from tourism, a town that has sold its soul to the big brands and the banks.
It’s one of the things I noticed during this first week in Greece. In the villages we passed, we hardly found any historical centres like we did in Italy. Most of the buildings are of recent construction, and those who aren’t have been thoroughly polished to look like new.
There are other things. For one, I haven’t seen any visible traces of misery yet. Nothing like the scenes we witnessed in the townships of Naples. If I hadn’t heard the stories or the numbers, I’d say that this part of Greece is a wealthy western style nation.
For two, there’s the discrepancy between the theory and the practice of the law.
Like everywhere in Europe, it’s obligatory to wear a helmet on a scooter. But here, like in many places in the south of Italy, hardly anyone does. They risk big fines, but the police close an eye on them.
The same goes for smoking in bars. In every bar you will find the usual signs that prohibit smoking. There are no ashtrays on the tables. But when you light up a cigarette, they will bring you one without saying a word. The fact is that many people smoke in Greece. When the European laws were implemented, the police have tried to enforce them. But when the officers entered a bar where dozens of people were smoking, they were simply kicked out and didn’t return.
On the other hand the Greek police are fanatical in the persecution of cannabis users.
Ever since we arrived, an informal Weed commission has been active to find the necessary substances for a recreational smoke. In Italy or in Spain, despite crazy legislation, it’s no problem at all. But here it is. People are absolutely terrified to be caught with even the smallest quantity of cannabis. And police are always on the look out to find some.
Yesterday evening many local youngsters joined our group, they brought wine and beer. Some of them brought a bit of grass, and while they were rolling with the utmost prudence they explained the situation.
There is no shortage of good weed here in Greece. With all the wild mountains, you can imagine that harvests are rich every time the season comes around. And indeed, most of the Greeks smoke pot, so they say, but they don’t dare to carry it around.
If you get caught with half a gram, you will be taken to court. You will be fined half a month’s wage, and apart from that you will be forced to hire a lawyer which will cost you double the amount of the fine.
So it’s not just a case of applying the law. “It goes much deeper than that. It’s big business.”
The majority of cases brought before Greek judges have to do with small ‘infringements’ like the possession of grass. For the state it’s the perfect excuse for oppression. They cannot arrest or enjail people for their opinions, so they resort to the phantomatical ‘war on drugs’ to intimidate citizens and violate their privacy, knowing well that most people – police included – enjoy their occasional joint.
The prohibition of hemp is completely illegitimate. It’s a plant that has benefited the human race for thousands of years. It has served to produce high quality clothes, paper, ropes, sails, oil and hundreds of other useful products. It could be the backbone of a sustainable economy. During the 1930s it was outlawed mainly to make way for synthetic products based on petroleum. The whole ‘drug’ story was only a pretext. As a side effect, it allowed authorities to criminalise large parts of the population, especially the ethnic minorities, and to create an immense business around products that would hardly have a monetary value in a real free market economy.
Anyone who speaks of human rights and personal liberty can only be in favour of cannabis re-legalisation. Otherwise he or she is a lurid hypocrite. A plant, being a gift of nature, can never be outlawed. Growing and possessing any herbal substance is more than a human right. It’s a natural right, as self-evident as they get.
I’m sure that future post-revolutionary generations will look back at the ‘war on drugs’ with the same horrified wonder with which we look back on the witch hunts of early modern times.