Last autumn I spent two weeks traveling across Europe to attend an international gathering of reenactors at Marathon, in Greece. This is a trip which had been in the works for over a year, and I got to see and experience some incredible things. The objective was a commemoration of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, to be held on the site of the battle and attended by reenactment groups from all around the world.
Here is my odyssey.
I set off from my home in York in late October, catching the Eurotunnel to Calais, and subsequently getting lost in the French countryside as the evening light faded. The plan had been to save money by camping on the way. Unfortunately every single campsite in Europe was already closed for the winter.
The almost miraculous appearance of a cheap hotel saved the day, and things only got better from there. The second day began before dawn in a thick, cold fog. But the sun finally burned through and the approach to Mont Blanc afforded some breathtaking views.
And some unsettling ones. I cannot recommend the viaducts in this part of the world to anyone with acrophobia.
On the other side of the tunnel I was into Italy, my very first visit to the country. This time I had planned ahead and made a last minute booking via the magic of phone internet. I managed to find a beautiful (yet very reasonably priced) apartment run by a lovely Italian lady in the town of Reggio Nell’Emilia. She didn’t speak a word of English. I do not speak a word of Italian. Yet we managed to communicate in some mix of the two. It was one of those perfect travel moments that can never happen until you take a step outside your comfort zone.
The next day I continued down the eastern coast of Italy to catch a ferry from Ancona, stopping briefly in Rimini to see the sights. The sight that will stay with me most is one I never expected, although it was actually the scent of incense that struck me first. Then I rounded the corner from a side street into the path of this procession.
I have never been religious but I do enjoy the trappings and the rituals of religion, and this was so completely different from anything I had experienced in the cold, Anglican world where I live. This was the moment I really felt I came face to face with the heritage of Italy.
The ferry left Ancona by moonlight, bound for Patras, and the next morning I awoke in a different world. The sea was blue, the sun was warm, and something in the air smelled just as I remembered from my last visit to Greece the summer after high school. That last part might have been psychosomatic.
The ferry charted a course past the island of Ithaca, not only the famous destination of the unluckiest man in Greek epic poetry, but also the namesake of my own childhood hometown.
I took twelve photos of it. Twelve. They all look the same.
Arriving in Patras after twenty-three hours at sea, I continued straight on to Athens in the dark. The roads were just as mad as I remembered them too. Finally the traffic slowed a little, and coming over the crest of a hill I saw the city spread out beneath me with the Acropolis lit up at its centre. The city itself was the same yet different. It was more run down. Graffiti covered almost every building. Walking through the streets that first night it sometimes felt as if I had stepped onto the set of a dystopian film from the 1980s. Even so, Athens is still one of my favourite cities.
I had a full day to be a tourist before continuing on to Marathon, and I visited all the usual places with no small sense of nostalgia.
I also had great fun wandering around the markets, of which there were a wonderful variety. Meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, pastries, nuts and spices, antiques, hardware, and all manner of souvenirs vying for attention. I must have eaten my weight in baklava.
The next day there was a short drive to Marathon, many introductions, and a campsite to set up. The groups putting on the event came from Greece, Italy, France, Romania, Bulgaria, England, Canada, and the United States. I had the chance to meet and work with some excellent reenactors and truly lovely people, and I hope to see them all again. The sense of camaraderie around the campfires in the evening will probably stay with me as much as anything else.
On the Thursday and Friday we put on educational displays and activities for groups of schoolchildren, with a certain amount of help from a team of translators. On Saturday the campsite was open to the public, and we put on a show describing some of the tactics and the outcome of the Battle of Marathon. I was portraying a Scythian in the Persian cavalry.
You may notice the slightly incongruous modern bridles on both horses. Unfortunately neither horse had seen anything like a Greek hoplite before, or a shield, or a spear, or a bow, or historical tack. In fact the black horse I am riding in this picture had received very little training of any sort. We were incredibly lucky to have horses available for the event at all, and I enjoyed spending some time training and working with them. But with very little time available, when it came to the battle, the cavalry elected to run away.
In the brave and noble tradition of Sir Robin.
In addition to the public displays we carried out experiments on the movement of a phalanx, and the pressure that could be exerted in the push between two armies. On our final evening we met with a historian, Fotis Karyanos, who very kindly offered to take us on a tour up to the site of the Greek encampment before the battle.
Sadly my stay in Marathon had to be cut short by a day due to a ferry strike. On the other hand, that meant an extra day to see Italy. After arriving back in Ancona, I spent the night in Ravenna where I had one of the most delicious takeaway pizzas I have ever tasted. The next stop was Verona. I was not enthused by the prospect due to my inveterate loathing of Romeo and Juliet. However, I can now say that it was absolutely 100% worth it.
There are plenty of good reasons to visit Verona, but if you go for no other reason, you should go to see the Roman Arena.
Walking from the tall, echoing internal chambers out onto the sand it is not hard to imagine the roar of a crowd eager for blood.
After Verona it was time to head back through the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was almost two weeks since I had left York, and even on the Italian side of the Alps it was starting to feel very much like late autumn.
Back in France I visited the Thiepval Memorial and drove along the front line of the Somme before spending a rainy night in Calais. Finally on the fifteenth day I arrived back in York, tired and somewhat poorer than when I left, with a bag full of laundry and a phone full of pictures.