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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

EXPLORING THESSALONIKI: PART ONE: The Literary Part

Before I left for Greece I was invited by poet friend Manolis Aligizakis to attend his book launch in Thessaloniki. As I was planning to go up north anyway to revisit Macedonia since my book was published, I decided to make a point of going for this event.

I had only just arrived in Athens when I got the train up north for a few days stay in this beautiful northern city, once known as "The Paris of the North". The hotel I'd booked was conveniently located on the main street and not too distant from where Manolis' presentation would be held at the Poeta Cafe.


 
Manolis Aligizakis reading from his new poetry book

It was a pleasant evening and the poetry presentation was held out-doors under the trees in the plateia. There was a nice crowd to enjoy the poetry and music supplied by a talented young man who played the accordian.

The next day I set off to visit the Society of Macedonian Studies who are given credit in my novel as they were helpful with my research when I began writing SHADOW OF THE LION back in 1993.
One of the beautiful things about Thessaloniki  is the long walk along the sea-front.  To get there I walked through a long plateia with palm trees and greenery, lined with shops and cafes. 




All along the seafront are gorgeous old neo-classical buildings, many tavernas and cafes and bustling crowds of young people -- mainly students from the University of Aristotle. 
In fact, at the end of the Square, which is called Aristotle's Square, is a bronze statue of the famous philosopher who was once the teacher of Alexander the Great.

 
Aristotle


 
Aristotle Square

The spirit of Alexander is very evident in Thessaloniki, although it was not established til well after his death, named for his half-sister Thessaloniki, who was co-erced into marrying Kassandros, the man who brought down Alexander's dynasty.  (It's interesting to me as all these people are featured in my novel.  In fact, as I sat at a cafe in the Square I saw a table of men who  resembled what I imagined my generals would be like!)
 
The White Tower

I've strolled the sea-walk many times before during my various research trips to the city.  In the distance is the White Tower, one of Thessaloniki's famous landmarks that dates back to Byzantine and Ottoman times. Across from the Tower I spotted the impressive building that houses the Society of Macedonian Studies. At the edge of a park nearby I found a statue of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great.
King Philip II

I had one of my books with me and wanted to present it to the director. However, when I went there I was told I'd need an appointment, which I didn't have, nor did I have time to set one up as I had only planned for one full day in the city. So I dropped the book off in the hands of one of the secretaries and only hope it got to the right person. (I've never heard from them so I have no idea if it was delivered).

Society for Macedonian Studies

After leaving there I walked back toward the sea. Ahead of me I could see the silhouetted outline of the famous statue of Alexander on his horse Bucephalus.  This is one of my favorite sights in the city and one I have paid homage at many times. The monument has Alexander facing East toward his conquests.  Surrounding the platform are the tall sarissas, the pikes used by his phalanx, as well as their shields all marked for the various units in the army.  It's an impressive sight!



 

Alexander the Great


Right near there is a theatre and what a surprise to see a large poster advertising a production "Alexander, the Musical". I can't imagine what it would be like!  After paying homage at the statue, I walked back over to the wonderful Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

Vassilika Theatre

Archaeological Museum

On my very first trip to the city back in 1979, they had just put the finds of the royal tombs of Vergina on display. What a thrill that was to be one of the first to observe them!  Since then the finds have been returned to the tombs and I have also viewed them there, a much more impressive sight than just seeing them in the museum cases.  There are still a few Alexander-themed finds in the museum as well as other interesting artifacts.

 trireme with seige equipment
 
 pottery
 
 Bust in style of Alexander
 
  Marble blocks inscribed with Alexander's name
 
 gold diadem
 
 
gold coin inscribed with Olympias, Alexander's mother

My intention was to go on a side-trip to visit Pella, the ancient capital where Alexander grew up, and one of the settings in my novel. However, my time was hurried and instead, I decided to explore the city because Thessaloniki has a long and rich history.  So the next day, instead of taking the bus to Pella, I spent the morning visiting some of the places in Thessaloniki I had not seen before, in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Turk parts of this amazing city.

NEXT: A Historic Walk in Thessaloniki

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

ENGLAND 2014: A FEW DAYS IN LONDON

I always love visiting London. When I first arrived there Sept 1, I stayed at my favorite place, the Indian YMCA, a centrally located, reasonably priced hostel-type hotel near Warren Station.  I always enjoy browsing the area. Right across the square is the former home of Virginia Woolf and various other members of the Bloomsbury Group of writers also lived in that area.  Just down the street is the Fitzroy Tavern where writes such as Dylan Thomas hung out while in London. Naturally, I like to stop in there just for the writerly atmosphere.
 
Dylan Thomas and Others

George Orwell

The well-stocked bar


 
The Fitzroy Tavern, London

My main purpose for spending time in London on this trip was to attend the Historical Novel Writer's Conference (Sept 5,6). So after my 3 days visit in Wales, I returned to London and took up residence in a student dorm at the International House in Waterloo,  on London's south side (across the river). It was conveniently located near a tube station in order for me to reach the conference which was at the Marlybone Campus of the University of Westminster.
 
 

 
 Statue of Sherlock Holmes across from the University
 
I went to the meet-and-greet and registration of the first day (Sept 5) and enjoy myself meeting lots of other historical writers. My biggest thrill that day was running into renown writer Margaret George, whose work I admire. I had spoken to her at the Surrey International Writer's Conference two years ago when I attended one of her workshops, and I'd explained my concern over the length of SHADOW OF THE LION.  She had told me "Just don't worry about the length. Keep on writing!" Imagine her surprise (and delight) when I told her that I'd listened to her and now I had a two-book contract, with volume one already published. 

That evening we went for a dinner at a nearby restaurant for the Hardy's Historical supper  and enjoy some good food, wine and camaraderie with a group of the writers.


The next day I attended the all-day sessions of various workshops. And I made sure I went to one that Margaret George was participating in.  I also enjoy hearing from  the keynote speakers and a couple of other presenters who were successful historical fiction writers.  I met one of the writers from Oxford who is a good friend of Robin Lane Fox whose book about Alexander the Great I referred to for some of my research for SHADOW.



My last day in London I chose to go on a London Walk. I love these walks and this time decided on the Dickens & Shakespeare Walk.  The American professor who was our guide proved to be entertaining as well as informative. 


We strolled around all the parts of town where Dickens was inspired to write several of his books such as "Pickwick Papers" and "Great Expectation."
 





We also visited the district near the Jewish Quarter where Shakespeare lived with a Huguenot family and penned many of his famous dramas.  There is a memorial to him and a plaque to his two friends who 'rescued' Shakespeare's folios after his death and saw that they were published. Otherwise we might not have had the privilege to enjoy his work.

 
Monument to William Shakespeare
 

Guildhall
 

Smithfields Market

 

We also toured the noted areas of that time, such as the Guildhall (from the 1400s) the Smithfieds Market that had signs depicting the cruel punishments meted out of people those days, the place nearby where William Wallace (Braveheart) was slaughtered as well a number of other fascinating old London sites.



After the walk, which took about 2 hours (or longer) I went to see St. Paul's Cathedral. By that time I was tired from the walking and headed back to the Indian Y where I had chosen to stay for my last night in London.  The next day, I headed out to Heathrow for my flight to Greece. 





NEXT: GREECE: My first stop: THESSALONIKI.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

ENGLAND 2014: FIRST STOP, CAERPHILLY, WALES!


 
Caerphilly Castle

My father, Rev. Fred Filer, grew up in the town of Caerphilly, Wales (Caerffili) and ever since my very first trip overseas in 1973, I have made it my first destination. When I first began visiting there my two old uncles, George and Reg, were still living in the family home on Windsor Street.  Every time I go to Caerphilly, I pass by the house where my father and his 6 brothers and 1 sister were raised.
Windsor Street

 I still have cousins living in Caerphilly and the nearby towns so it is a family reunion each time I'm there. These days I stay with my cousin Andrea and her husband Paul in their grand old mansion that was once a mining boss's house. Down the street from Andrea's house is St Martin's church where some of my relatives are buried in the church graveyard. Unfortunately Andrea's mom, Sheila suffered a major stroke a few years ago and is confined to a care facility.

 
St Martin's Church



Caerphilly has a long and interesting history. When dad grew up there it was mainly a mining town. Dad worked in the mines at nearby Bedwas from the time he was 14 yrs old until he was in his 20's. When the mining strikes began in late 1920's - 1930, he lost his mining card because he was a union organizer, so her immigrated to Canada as a farm worker. Later he became a Baptist minister.
The town is located in the Rhymney Valley and gave its name to Caerphilly cheese which originated in the area.
 
 
 

Around AD 75 the Romans built a fort there during their conquest of Britain. Following the Norman invasion of Wales in the late 11th century the area remained in welsh hands. In the 12th century the area was under control of the Welsh chieftain Ifor ap Meurig. His grandson Gruffyd ap Rhys was the last Welsh lord in the area. In 1266 the English nobleman Gilbert de Clare took the area and  began the construction of Caerphilly Castle on April 11, 1268.
 
 

I love this castle as I grew up hearing stories about it. My father used to play in the castle when he was a boy. So I call it "my castle" (which amuses my cousins), and every time I visit I make sure I take a tour there to check on things. Caerphilly Castle is the largest castle in Wales, second largest in Britain (after Windsor) and one of the best preserved. There is an interesting story about the castle. It is said to be haunted by 'the Green Lady', who was the unfortunate wife of Gilbert de Clare.  You can read about it here: http://www.europeupclose.com/article/the-green-lady-of-caerphilly-castle/

I love to explore the castle and imagine what it was like at the time of Gilbert de Clare. Every time I go there are new displays. It's certainly well worth a visit especially if you like castles!



 
 
Take a stroll around the moat and lake and visit the Druid stone circle.
 


Originally, Caerphilly was just a small settlement south of the castle. Now the town has grown, almost become a bedroom community of Cardiff to the south.  During the 1700s it was a market town. Today it's a bustling, pretty place, surrounding the castle. I always enjoy my walks through town and that breathtaking view you get of the castle.

 
 
 
 

 A good place to enjoy it is at the Old Courthouse Pub where you can sit out on the patio with a fabulous view while you eat your fish and chips and have a pint of beer or a glass of wine.


There are some good pubs around the town and I always get together with my cousins. This time there were just a few of us but we had fun, and I was able to sign a copy of my book for Nicola.


 

I'll be back again next year, if possible. Caerphilly is like a second home to me!

NEXT: Back to London for the Historical Fiction Writer's conference.