Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Thessaloniki: The Greek Adventure Part V

After three full days in Meteora, we decided it was time to move on. There were a few paths we hadn’t explored, a cave we hadn’t visited, but we both felt that to stay any longer would have suffered from diminishing returns. Also, Steph was keen to have a full day in the northern city of Thessaloniki, from which we were schedule to fly home.

Upon arriving in Meteora, we had been delighted to discover that there was a direct train from the town to Thessaloniki once a day. So on a cool, clear morning, we left our friendly guest house, carrying our bags and followed by an overly friend dog, and walked down to the train station. The train rolled in exactly on time, covered in the customary graffiti. Inside, the train was old and worn, but not uncomfortable. We had assigned seats, but there were very few passengers.

The journey lasted nearly four hours, but passed by quickly enough. As usual, I spent a majority of the journey staring out of windows, watching the country flow by. We knew the train would be passing near mount Olympus and hoped for a good view of the peaks, but by the time we rolled by, the clouds and mist had closed in and there was very little to see.  In truth, the entire journey afforded very little to see - lots of little towns, too small or lacking in tourist interest to even make it into our guidebooks. The second half of the journey hugged the eastern coastline of Greece, so we did get some nice views out toward the sea, but the land seemed dry and undeveloped.

Our only regret on that journey was that we hadn’t packed enough food and water, as neither was available on the train. By the time we pulled into Thessaloniki, we were so hungry that we stopped to eat in the train station, at a fast-food chain called ‘Goodies’.  It wasn’t the worse fast food ever.

After the peace of Delphi and Meteora, it was a bit shocking to step out onto the crowded and noisy streets. Thessaloniki is a large and sprawling city. At first glance it appeared ugly and intimidating. After taking a moment to get our bearings, we set off into the heart of the city, carrying our bags, and hoping it wasn’t too far to our hotel. Well, we got a bit lost, but we found it in the end.

Our hotel, which had been chosen based on its cost (cheap) and its central location, was an interesting building.  I suppose it was once a grand old Victorian style hotel, as it appeared to have been constructed for giants. The doors were at least nine feet tall, and the ceilings at least fifteen and possibly more.  The bathroom in our room was obviously a later addition.  The view from our window looked out onto a messy collection of the backs of other buildings, most with balconies crowded with junk.  Still, it was cheap, not uncomfortable, and came with a half-hearted breakfast, which was still better than nothing.

After dumping our stuff, we set off for the waterfront, hoping a bit of sea air would help blow away the stiffness of travel. Thessaloniki’s sea front is a long curved harbour, paved all the way around.  It begins at the actual shipping harbour, and runs around until it reaches the White Tower, an old medieval tower, and the city’s most recognizable landmark.  The walk is pleasant enough, although the road that runs next to it is always busy, and just on the other side of the road is a nearly endless stretch of bars and restaurants that are busy during the day and overflowing at night.

For me, Thessaloniki’s only real attraction was its archaeology museum, which is top-notch. Rightly famous for the huge amount of golden treasuries from Macedonia, it also contains a nice collection of other artifacts from Ancient Greece and Rome.  My wife was also interested in seeing the city’s small, Jewish museum.  The Jews have a long, varied, and interesting history and association with the city, and, despite its small size, the museum does a very good job of presenting it.  (Once again, they could make it a little easier to find!).

Between the museums, and a lot of sitting in the shade by the white tower, gazing out at the sea, we managed to fill the rest of the day.

On our last full day in Greece, we decided to walk up the city, following the old Roman walls, to explore the ‘Old Turkish Quarter’ and just see what we could see. On the way, we stopped by the church of St. Dimitris, notable for two reasons.  First, it contains the relics of St. Dimitris, patron saint of the city, and this is still a big, important draw. Of more interest to me was the large crypt, much of which is open to the public. Although it is empty now, save a few broken pieces from long lost tombs, it was fun to wander amongst the dim, echoing chambers.

As we left the church and started up the hill, we soon realized that the day was one of the hottest we’d experienced in Greece. Luckily, since we had no particular schedule or time-table, we were able to stop whenever we wished for a sit and a drink. We stopped for one particular drink at a cafe that sat on a ledge above most of the city, and from which you could look down over the rooftops and out over the sea. As I was staring out, sipping my coke, I spotted an odd looking bit of cloud. As I looked closer, I realized it wasn’t a cloud, but the snow-capped peaks of a distant mountain. The actual body of the mountain had faded to a deep blue which had sunk into the sky and ocean around it. I pointed this out to Steph, and she realized that it must be Mount Olympus. Wow, suddenly it all seemed to make sense. There was the top of the mountain, seemingly floating in the sky, like...well, like the heavens, I guess. It was a magical little moment for me.

At one point, Thessaloniki had a pretty extensive set of Roman walls (later added to and improved in the Byzantine era) and a good chunk of these walls still stand. We wandered around these for a bit, taking in the views. At one point a Greek woman came by, shook her head at us, and then showed us where to get the really good view by ducking through a hole in a fence.

From there, we wandered around the Old Turkish quarter, which, in truth, didn’t seem either old, or particularly Turkish. Then we headed back down to the main section of town. We passed by the giant ‘Rotunda’, and extremely impressive building, originally built by the Roman Emperor for an unknown purpose, then made into a church of St. George, then into a Mosque, then back to a church.  Now, it sits completely empty, except for scaffolding. You can wander in – it is strange being in such a huge building with nothing in it. The Greeks don’t seem quite sure what to do with the building now, and probably wouldn’t have the money if they did, so there it stands for the moment.

We also stopped for a break at one of Thessaloniki’s famous sweet shops and ordered a small selection of unknown pastries. Now, I’m a man who likes his sugar, but one bite of most of these little morsels was all I could stand. To simulate the experience at home, go to your kitchen cupboard, get a jar of honey, and drink it. Sprinkle in a few nuts if you are so inclined.  Unsurprisingly, Steph loved them.

We had dinner late that evening, although we were still only just finishing as most of the Greeks were coming in. As we walked out of the restaurant in the cool and dark of the night, the whole city of Thessaloniki seemed to make more sense. In the dark, most of the ugly graffiti was lost, and the streets were alive with hordes of people. Thessaloniki is a University town, and it appeared that all of the young men and women that had seemed absent in much of the rest of Greece, were here.  Nor did this crowd seem to be worried about the economy; they were here to have a good time.

Well, it was good to see, but for Steph and I, our good time was coming to a close. We took a slow walk back to our hotel, in no real hurry, but with nothing much left to do.

The next morning, we paid our bill early and caught a taxi to the airport, which is some ways out of town.  As it turned out, we arrived so early, that British Airways hadn’t even set up their check-in booth yet.  Time passed, as it always does, and eventually we were on our plane, flying back to England.

My wife and I have a joke that is probably shared by many who live in Britain: ‘How do you know when you’re home? It’s raining’.  Although we loved our Greece Adventure, I think, more than any of our other trips, we were happy to arrive home. While it is often cold and wet, England is a beautiful country. It was nice to get home to where the air is fresh and clear, the land is green and alive, and the graffiti is kept to a minimum.

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