Macedonian Ramble: To Lord Byron’s Hellespont

by Matthew Stevenson


Sunset on the Dardanelles Strait at Gallipoli in Turkey. When Lord Byron swam here, he referred to it as the Hellespont. Ancient Troy (Homer can explain) is on distant left side; the World War I battle of Gallipoli was fought to the right. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the eleventh part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

About 19:30 the train ended its day at the station in Drama, where the remaining passengers huddled in the cold and then were assigned to one of two replacement buses, depending on their destination. I was on the bus for Alexandroupolis, now a forgotten northern Greek port but once fought over by Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria.

During the lull before the buses pulled into the parking lot, I walked over to a grocery store and bought water, yogurt, and bananas, to get me through the long evening, and then I took my seat at the front of the bus, opposite the driver.

Just outside Drama I was thrilled to see that we were driving past the battlefield of Philipi, pivotal in the Roman civil wars after Caesar’s assassination. (Augustus said: “I sent into exile the murderers of my father, punishing their crimes with lawful tribunals, and afterwards, when they made war upon the Republic, I twice defeated them in battle.”)

Philipi also makes a cameo in Shakespeare, which is fitting, given Macedonia’s many tragedies.

Trebizond’s Greeks Go Into Exile

It turned out that the bus driver had lived in the United States and worked for a trucking company in Switzerland, and that we had much in common. As he drove through the night toward Alexandroupolis, he talked about his family, which had lived in the Greek community in Trebizond on the Black Sea.

He did not wax as poetical as Rose Macaulay who writes in her novel The Towers of Trebizond: “Still the towers of Trebizond, the fabled city, shimmer on a far horizon, gated and walled and held in a luminous enchantment.”

After World War I, and the failed Greek invasion in Turkey, the Greeks there were ethnically cleansed and fled west to Drama, where my driver had grown up.

The more he talked about his family, their expulsion, and Greece’s economic current miseries (“We have no salaries and no jobs…”), the angrier he got about Turkey and the Turks. (“Let’s just say,” he said, “I have no problem with them. I just don’t ever want to see any of them for the rest of my life…”).

I had been dreading the replacement bus service, but it turned out to be a short course in Greco-Turkish relations, although none of it touched on the line in Sean McMeekin’s Ottoman history, which reads: “The most serious mistake made by the Allies in 1919 was the decision to allow the Greeks to occupy Smyrna.”

No Way Out

The bus dropped me at the railroad station in Alexandroupolis, where across the street I had booked a single room (it turned out to be freezing cold) in the Hotel Vergina (named after the site of the royal burial grounds in northern Macedonia).

The indifferent desk clerk who checked me in said there were no restaurants still open and that he was unaware of any train running toward Edirne.

Nor was he even sure where or how I might cross the border into Turkey. Maybe tomorrow, he shrugged, I could ask in town about some connections?

Had I come this far to find myself in a cul-de-sac of power politics? As Alan Furst warns in one of his World War II novels: “One should never voluntarily enter a room or a country the door of which cannot be opened from the inside.” In Alexandroupolis I seemed to have done both.

Under a wad of cheap blankets I slept fitfully until first light, and then went in search of breakfast, coffee, and a way into Turkey. I found food easily, but getting out of town proved harder.

At the bus station, I learned that there were no buses until late afternoon. The one taxi driver I spoke with wanted to charge me €60 (so much for the economic crisis) to drive 25 miles to the border at Peplos, although neither he nor anyone else knew if the border was open there or what I might find on the other side.

In the end I walked back to the train station, where, as if by a miracle, I saw a few people milling around, a ticket agent on duty, and a train (covered with graffiti) shunting in the yards.

The agent said the train would be leaving at 8:40 a.m. for Ormenio and that it would pass near a border crossing for Edirne.

In no time, I had purchased a ticket for Kastanee, after which I hustled back to the hotel and retrieved my backpack. Suddenly I had a spring in my step.

Toward Edirne

There were a few other passengers on the train that morning, but mostly the rail cars were empty. I had hot tea in my thermos and several maps spread out on my seat. (Had one of the station cats come along for the ride, my life would have been complete.)

As the local train ran along the Greek-Turkish border in a northeasterly direction, I plotted various options for the day—with the goal that I wanted that night to end up at Çanakkale, the town near the battlefields of Gallipoli.

On my map the most direct way from Alexandroupolis to Gelibolu (how the Turks say Gallipoli) would have been a two-hour car drive by way Peplos and Kesan. But no buses ran on that route, and I was nervous about getting off my train at the station in Peplos and finding myself nowhere on the mostly-closed Greek-Turkish border (think of the scene in North By Northwest in which a bus drops Cary Grant in that cornfield).

In the end I decided it would be safer to detour north to Edirne (a prominent city), where I knew—from my earlier trip there—that there would be bus connections to Kesan and Gallipoli. Yes, it might take me all day to cover what should have been a two-hour ride. But I was still in the lands of the Balkan Wars, however far removed.

The Ghost Trains from Athens to Istanbul

When my train stopped in Peplos (the object of so much of my travel brooding), I was surprised to see not just a small Greek station by a stretch of lonely track, but three or four modern platforms, as if Peplos was the Clapham Junction of the Balkans. Why were they here?

I later read that, in the heyday of improving Greek-Turkish relations, the railway companies in Greece and Turkey had imagined a busy border town station with lots of platforms where respective local trains (from Istanbul and Thessaloniki) could unload passengers switching to another train.

It all made sense when Greece and Turkey were becoming friendlier and travelers still took trains between Thessaloniki and Istanbul, but now Peplos is a station on a line to nowhere. As they ask in Bitola, “Why would anyone want to go there?”

Walking the Border

I stayed on the train to the small town of Kastanee, where I joined a little throng of Turks, all of whom were walking and pulling bags to the border.

The sun was out, and I enjoyed the experience of crossing yet another Balkan border on foot (the first on this trip was at Pogradec in Albania), but it did say a lot about European politics that in late 2019 I was struggling to get across so many disputed frontiers.

Beyond Kastanee, the road was encased on both sides by high barbed wire fences, as if in a spy novel.

The border was about a kilometer from the town. I was happy that the sun was shining in December. In a slanting rain, I doubt “walking the border” at Kastanee would be much fun.

At the Greece checkpoint, there were armed soldiers everywhere, but they stuck me as a stage props in a Greek tragedy.

The guard on duty in the kiosk stamped my passport, and then I walked through another no-man’s land to the Turkish side.

In no time I was through Turkish immigration and customs—a guard rifled through my backpack, amused at all my maps—and searching for a ride into Edirne, ten minutes down the road.

I thought maybe there would be a shuttle bus into town, but there wasn’t.

I opened negotiations with a cab driver who wanted €25 for the short ride (it wasn’t my day for bilateral talks with taxi drivers). In the end I shared a taxi with some of the repatriating Turks who had walked with me across the border.

We each contributed €2 to the liberating cause and a few minutes later I was getting out of the car near the main square of Edirne, happy to be back in the historic city that, on earlier travels, I had found so alluring.

Edirne: “The Window into Our Harem”

I knew from my first trip to Edirne that the bus station was out of town and that it had wall-to-wall buses heading all over Turkey, so I wasn’t worried about making a connection to Gallipoli. I would sort out the schedule when I got there. In the meantime I walked through the old market, did some Christmas shopping, and had a festive lunch in a restaurant on the main square.

I decided not to return to the old fortress on a hill in Edirne, where the last battles of the first Balkan War were fought. (It fell to the Serbs.) I had been before. Once back home I did dig out the passage in Jacob Schurman’s book on why the battle of Adrianople had so soured relations between Serbia and Bulgaria (which even today are not very good).

Schurman describes how the two countries fell out over the spoils of the first Balkan War (1912):

They [the Serbs] had also a direct claim against Bulgaria. They had sent 60,000 soldiers to the siege of Adrianople, which the Bulgarians had hitherto failed to capture. And the Servians were now asking, in bitter irony, whether they had gone to war solely for the benefit of Bulgaria; whether besides helping her to win all Thrace and Eastern Macedonia they were now to present her with Central Macedonia, and that at a time when the European Concert had stripped them of the expected prize of Albania with its much desired Adriatic littoral!

As it turned out, the Turks managed to hold on to the city at the end of the Second Balkan War (1913). McMeekin writes: “But the Ottomans insisted that they must hold on to Adrianople, which, as the first European capital of the empire, predating the conquest of Constantinople, had more than strategic value. As one Ottoman diplomat told Dr. Danev, ‘Adrianople is a window into our harem.’”

Toward Gallipoli

After lunch, and another walk—this time to some of the soaring mosques that line the city—I hailed a taxi and went to the bus station, to plot my last course of the day, this time to the Gallipoli peninsula (aka Gelibolu).

I thought it would be breeze to book a direct bus from Edirne to Gallipoli, but as I asked around the bus station and lined up at various company ticket windows, I learned that there was only one direct bus that day, leaving in three hours.

Perplexed by this answer in such a land of instant bus transport (in Turkey, buses go everywhere, usually leaving within thirty minutes), I finally figured out that I needed first to go to Kesan and that from there I could change to another bus or mini-van for Gallipoli, which is what happened.

Lord Byron’s “Dripping Limbs” and “Ague”

Ten minutes after deciding that I needed to relay myself via Kesan to the peninsula, I was on the road, squeezed into the back of packed mini van.

I cannot say it was the most pleasant ride of the trip. Not only was I wedged into a small seat, with my backpack at my feet, but the driver drove like a possessed madman (as many do in Turkey).

At the bus parking lot in Kesan not one but about five drivers all wailed in my direction—the local version of Sic transit gloria mundi—so I would choose their van for the ride to Gelibolu.

I finally paid one of them and took a seat on a bus, but it didn’t move for about forty-five minutes. After a while I wondered if maybe I had given money to a confidence man who didn’t have a bus, but eventually a driver finally turned up at the van and we set off.

At least the drive only took an hour, after which I caught yet another bus and then a ferry (from Eceabat to Çanakkale), which at sundown on a clear December day made the trip across the Dardanelles Strait.

It’s one of the world’s most dramatic maritime settings, and it’s near to where Lord Byron made his famous cross-channel swim, later writing in jest at himself and his mock heroic stunt:

If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!
If, when the wintry tempest roar’d,
He sped to Hero, nothing loth,
And thus of old thy current pour’d,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!
For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat to-day.
But since he cross’d the rapid tide,
According to the doubtful story,
To woo,—and—Lord knows what beside,
And swam for Love, as I for Glory;
’Twere hard to say who fared the best:
Sad mortals! thus the Gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest:
For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.

I arrived in Çanakkale with neither dripping limbs nor the ague, and shortly after settling into my hotel I began making the rounds of curbside travel agencies so that the next day I could tour Cape Hellas and Anzac Cove, two of the principal battlefields at Gallipoli—of which First Sea Lord Winston Churchill asked before the fighting there began in 1915: “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”

Next: The battlefields around Gallipoli. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.