By Alfred S. Regnery
All roads, the old saying goes, lead to Rome.
Except they don’t, even those built by the Romans. The Via Egnatia, built in the second century BC, stretched from Byzantium (present day Istanbul), the westernmost point in Asia, into the Balkans in what is now Albania, the heart of Eastern Europe. After 2,200 years, it is still there — in its original form in some places, paved or even turned into an expressway in others, or one of the main streets through Thessaloniki. But it can still be followed from one end to the other.
A friend and I recently followed a couple of hundred miles of this old Roman road, on bicycles, from Macedonia to Thessaloniki in Greece. It was a history lesson — and a cultural lesson, a theological lesson, a current events lesson, and an exercise in physical stamina all wrapped up into one.
The Romans understood the power of a road, and much of their success was the result of the roads they built. Moving things — whether it be armies, or ordinary people, or ideas, religions and philosophies, or traders and their goods — was essential. The Via Egnatia, which stretched for nearly 1,000 miles, connected Europe and Asia and over two millennia countless thousands of people moved between those two continents.
Macedonia, where we started our trek, remains a tiny country of about two million souls, surrounded by Greece, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Albania. Part of Yugoslavia until the breakup of Communist Europe, it is not part of the European Union or NATO and stands, rather proudly, alone, complete with its own language, its own currency, its own border guards and its ancient culture, not to mention intense internal political battles.
We rented bicycles in Thessaloniki and took a train as far west as the line would take us, some 30 miles or so from a little place called Bitola, the second largest city in Macedonia. All of Northern Greece was once known as Macedonia, and the Greeks are still peeved that this little upstart of a country calls itself by what the Greeks consider to be their rightful name.
With a friend I have done about a dozen of these trips — we call them pilgrimages — all to parts of the Euro-Greco-Roman-Christian world. We fly, as they say, by the seat of our pants — no itinerary, no reservations, minimal gear, just a beginning and end point of the journey. We always seem to get along, to find our way, find a place to stay and enough to eat. During the course of it all, we maintain an unending dialogue of every conceivable topic and idea. I wouldn’t want to travel any other way.
“Travel,” Mark Twain once said, “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
And so it was with this bicycle jaunt across Greece. The country is everything you read about — poor, broke, a shambles, massive debt and massive unemployment, but still very much part of the European economy. Rural Greece is full of beautiful scenery, incredible history at every corner, and the friendliest people in the world. And best of all they are as happy as could be, confident that things will resolve themselves somehow and, in the meantime — what the hell, enjoy life to the fullest.
Some of the highlights included an afternoon at Pella, the 4th Century BC capital of Macedonia. The ancient city — the foundations, walls, streets still well preserved — covered over 1,000 acres and comprised one of the most sophisticated urban complexes of the ancient world, including a vast array of buildings, temples, fortifications, and even private residences as large as 30,000 square feet.
Even more interesting, however, was Philippi, founded in 350 BC and renamed, in the second century BC, by Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and the site of the Christian church to which the Apostle Paul wrote his famous Epistle to the Philippians. Even grander than Pella, hundreds of acres of ruins, foundations, streets, pillars and parts of buildings remain. Paul, together with Luke and Timothy, arriving there on their first trip into Europe — along the Via Egnatia — were imprisoned in a little dungeon, and eventually, after escaping as a result of an earthquake, founded the first Christian church in Europe.
Regnery, an accomplished musician (violin, viola), is former publisher of The American Spectator and former president and publisher of Regnery Publishing, Inc. He and his wife Audrey operate the Greenfield Inn Bed and Breakfast just outside the town of Washington.