Well, I can tell by my empty tiny tube of toothpaste and by my empty contact lens solution bottle that my trip is exactly half over. (The toothpaste and the lens solution need to last 4 1/2 weeks, each)
I had two bus rides from Kalambaka to Trikala to Thessaloniki on Monday. On the way I had a nice conversation with a young Greek man. He had been working in Germany but had quit his job to come home to Greece on the promise of a job here. Just as he got back to Greece the Greek financial crisis broke and his job went south. Poor guy—-he says it’s going from bad to worse for the Greek people now.
I got a city bus at the main Thessaloniki bus station, which got me to my hostel with the subtle, sophisticated name of ’RentRooms-Thessaloniki’ which I found through Hostelworld.com. It’s beautifully located and made a great starting point for a walking tour laid out in my Lonely Planet guidebook. However, when I did the tour the next day, I discovered that this Lonely Planet author has trouble telling east from west and also left from right—it certainly made it more challenging. Nevertheless, I had an enjoyable four hours of viewing several Byzantine churches and their very old frescos. One church, the enormous 5th century Church of Agios (Saint) Dimitrios honored Thessanoniki’s patron saint, killed in a Roman bath in 303 AD by Emperor Galerius for preaching Christianity. The church was built on the spot and the remains of the Roman bath can be visited under the church. This church had been made into a mosque by the Ottomans, who plastered over the mosaics, thus preserving them until 1913 when five 8th century mosaics were revealed.
Another ‘stop’ on the walking tour was the Roman Agora which was begun by the Macedonians in the 3rd century BC and which really buzzed later, under the Romans. You can still see the outlines of the shops, plus a restored theatre.
Then Ataturk’s House came into view which is inside the Turkish Consulate. Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk’s real name) was born here, under the Ottoman rule in 1881. He became the founder of modern day Turkey in 1925. I often think of ‘Ataturk’ as ‘Ataboy’ which, at the bottom of it all, may be appropriate.
Then, right near my hostel was the #10 stop on my tour, the Rotunda, built as a mausoleum by Galerius but never used for him. Constantine made it into the first Christian church in Thessaloniki—later the Ottomans made it a mosque and put up a minaret, which still stands. It’s a huge round building with some frescos remaining, overlooking the terrace of the hostel on which I eat my breakfast each morning.
I ended this day’s tour with lunch of the ever-present Greek salad and a beer. Shucks, these tomatoes didn’t taste nearly as good as the ones at the tavern in Kalambaka. That man said theirs were grown by his family in a garden on the edge of town. These in Thessaloniki tasted just like our supermarket ones. So it goes.
Next was the White Tower down by the water—the Gulf of Thessaloniki, part of the Mediterranean. The book says it was called the ‘White Tower’ because it was actually whitewashed in 1913 to expunge a bloody past when the Ottoman Sultan
massacred a bunch of young men that he deemed ‘disloyal in 1826. Interestingly the plaque on the White Tower told a different and much more benign story as to the tower’s name.
Two wonderful museums, the Archeological Museum, and the Museum of Byzantine Culture finished me off for the day. It turns out that Thessaloniki was a very important city in the four centuries BC and the ones after, as well. This whole area really went gung ho for the new Christian religion, and, of course, the Biblical St. Paul wrote letters to the Thessalonians. Alexander The Great was born in Pella just a few miles from here in 356 BC.
*Greeks eat a lot of honey. It was served with my cornflakes as well as spread over yoghurt with walnuts, a dessert brought gratis after dinner.
*Greeks smoke a lot. The majority of young people and many old people seem to smoke. I have a suggestion for them during this financial crisis—-actually quite a few people roll their own, inserting a tiny filter.
*Greeks are very gracious about helping a traveler find her way!
*Greeks seem to be very religious. On buses, many people (not just old ladies) cross themselves when the bus passes a church. When I visit the old Byzantine churches, there are visitors of all ages and both genders paying homage.
*Many of the Greeks, especially in the north, are light-haired and blue-eyed.
My roommate, Marie, from Australia but of Greek heritage, and I visited the Domaine Gerovassiliou Winery on Thursday. We managed the two city buses that took us about 30 km from the heart of the city into a very rural region. We walked about 30 minutes from the bus stop and finally arrived at the winery.
We had a tour of the vineyards, production facilities and an extensive museum of all things relating to wine including 2000 cork-pullers, which culminated in tasting the wines. It was most pleasant—we were the only visitors and when we left, a workman was dispatched with the owner’s huge BMW (with all leather interior!) to drive us back to the bus stop. How nice! One of the best things of the visit was some semi-hard goat cheese served with the wines.
On Friday I finally finished the Walking Tour, this day’s highlight being the Mediano Market. Wow! The fresh seafood was beyond description and the varied meats—pig head, tripe, rabbit, goat, and of course the usual beef, pork and chicken were astounding. That settled it! Thessaloniki is being added to my list of cities in which I will rent an apartment and spend five or six months when I get too old to backpack around countries. So far my list consists of Syracusa in Sicily, and Luang Prabang in Laos.
The walking tour ended in a cafe bar way out on a pier in the harbor with an espresso and sweets while relaxing on a comfy couch—ah bliss! While in the market I couldn’t resist buying a small amount of goat cheese, olives, bread and cashews for my dinner, which I later ate on the balcony of my hostel room with a Mythos beer. Ah, heaven!
Getting back to my hostel was not quite as heavenly as I got very lost. I would ask directions, showing my hostel X’ed on a map and get more lost. After going back and forth for an hour, I FINALLY figured out that I had X’ed the wrong street on the map. I had X’ed Menelaou instead of Melenikou. You know, now the names look quite different but they didn’t when I X’ed the wrong one! So it goes.
I’ll spend a couple more days here in Thessaloniki and then head back to Athens.