Exercising into his­tory

Rappahannock News - - OBITUARIES • NATURE - BY AL­FRED S. REG­N­ERY 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

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.


St. Paul’s jail cell in Philippi.

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