The trains have not been running between Greece and other European countries for about 2 years now due to Greece’s economic problems. My real choices were to fly (boring) or take the bus (hassles, 10-hour trip, border crossings and ripe for some adventure)! So of course, I chose the bus.
The taxi got me to the ramp to the Buyuk Autogar (bus station) in about 20 minutes, but it looked like another 30 minutes before it would cut through the traffic to get the additional half kilometer to the actual bus. So out I got, rolling my bag through the chaotic, motionless, noisy traffic! The bus did not depart till 10:30, so plenty of time to kill. When we finally left, I was pleased that there were only about 20 of us on the double-decker oddly named “Crazy Holidays” with a small “cafe” on the lower level, serviced by a most somber-looking attendant. The drab cafe consisted of six indifferently decorated rectangular tables bolted to the floor. Most of my fellow passengers are Turks or Greeks. There is also an Armenian gentleman who looked like Hercule Poirot, to add to the mystery. His English was fair, and he had many questions about my trip. He was a businessman who goes between Armenia and Greece with frequency, he told me with a smile. However, he did not directly answer my inquiry as to what kind of business he was in. It was three hours through rolling countryside on our right and the Aegean Sea on our left before we reached the border. We checked out on the Turk side and immediately pulled over so that everyone could spend the next 30 minutes in the duty-free shop! I just roamed around the area, but as you are in “no-man’s land” there is not far to go!
Then we were off for the short jaunt to the Greek side. The douane police collected our passports, and decided to pull three of us out for further questioning. Well, of course I was one of them! I was led into a small room furnished in a very utilitarian fashion. Not much to the questioning. I was asked if the knapsack I was carrying was all the luggage I had. When I told him I had a bag on the bus, he just smiled and nodded his head. The officer talked more about his cousins in Milwaukee than anything relevant to the business at hand. It was all very pleasant and with passports stamped, we all got on the bus.
The one thing that you notice is that the landscape changes from hilly to mountainous nearly the moment you leave the border. They are beautiful with little towns nestled between them. The land is peppered by many farms growing cotton and raising hundreds of sheep. The road we took hugged the coast all the way to Thessaloniki. Dusk came and went and we were treated to the view of small villages in coves running along the sea lit by the lights of the towns and the full moon that also illuminated the sea. As the hours passed, more and more people got off the bus till there were only three of us left by the time we arrived at our destination. We reached Thessaloniki at 11 pm, and with a short taxi ride, I was at my hotel. A hot, welcoming shower and comfortable bed was waiting!
The city is located on the Aegean Sea deep within a natural harbor. It is the second largest city in Greece after Athens. Thessaloniki covers a hillside. From the harbor, you can see from the downtown with its business and historical districts to the residential Kastra area atop the hill.
Woke up the next morning and realized that it was Sunday, so again most places would be closed. The day was sunny and warm, and promised to get warmer. I found the promenade and walked down to the White Tower, a 15th century cylindrical structure, built as part of the fortification of the harbor and at times through history also functioned as a prison. I was approached by a guy who asked me if I spoke English! Told him I was probably as lost as he was! He was looking for the town hall and I was in search of the Byzantine Museum. As it ended up, they were located next to each other.
The museum was interesting enough with a lot of pottery and icons from Greece’s Byzantine past. The most interesting thing was the displays of the pottery and other every-day objects that were not under glass, but were heavily guarded. The other museum in the area is devoted to Thessaloniki and Macedonia. This is a pretty impressive place as the pride in Macedonia and Greece is evident throughout.
As the day started to wane, I headed back to the promenade where, as in most European seaside towns, everything seemed to be happening! It is full of cafes facing the sea and common areas with benches where people sit to talk and watch the children feeding the pigeons and chasing each other with gleeful screams. There are also balloon and toy sellers hawking their products. It seemed like all of Thessaloniki is there on a late Sunday afternoon! Aristotle was born near Thessaloniki and a park is named after him.
As I wandered around after dark, I ran into the Haiga Sofia Church, built in the 600’s. It is actually closed, but I managed to tack myself on to a Spanish group that was getting a tour of the church! Perfect timing! The interior needs work, but the icons are beautiful still. I walked around and fortunately no one spoke to me in Spanish. When the tour group left, I did too! I made my way down Egnatias Street, the main east-west street. It wasn’t long before I reached my hotel again after a full day of drifting through the city.
Monday proved to be another busy day. I set out early in search of the old Roman agora, an open area used for social gatherings, politics and business meetings in ancient times. Then I found out that, as in many countries, museums are closed on Mondays! At least I got the chance to see the agora through the fence, but couldn’t get access to the museum.
I visited the 7th Century church of St. Demitrios, a beautiful little church right in the middle of the city. It is full of amazing icons. It is also full of amazing little kids! There is a pre-K and kindergarten group from a religious school who have come there to get religious instruction on how to make the Orthodox sign of the cross and kiss the reliquary containing St. Demitrios’ bones. They were trying so hard to remember and to be good by not talking— and failing completely at both! Cute! Cute! Cute! Everyone was laughing at them as the teachers tried to keep them in line and attentive! Outside is quite a different world. Lots of older kids, elderly and just plain poor begging or selling cheap religious items to passers-by. It is a scene that I will get used to as I travel to Athens. There are many undocumented from Turkey and south Asia here, and with the poor state of Greece’s economy I am at a loss to figure out why they are there or stay. You especially notice the poor elderly. It is sad to see people at this stage of their lives begging for money to provide themselves with the essentials of life.
I grabbed a quick lunch at a small cafe near the church, and then started to make my way up the steep hill to visit the Byzantine/ Ottoman fortifications. It is a deceptively long climb due to the serpentine streets along the hill. There is nothing much left of the fortification itself save the walls. People have built houses and small shops within the grounds, and there are restaurants and cafes as well. I somewhat regretted going up there in the early afternoon as the commanding view of the harbor must be stunning at sunset!
As time was going by all too quickly, I got a taxi to the lower city again to see other ancient sites before it got too late. I saw the triumphal arch of Roman Emperor Galerius and the Rotunda that was meant to be his tomb, all built around 300 AD. (Galerius actually died and was buried in present day Serbia.)
As it was getting dark, I left this area full of college students and eventually found myself walking along Venezalou Street looking for a side street with quaint restaurants that I had seen walking there earlier in the day. The lane was quite atmospheric! Tea lights and bird cages along the lane with life-sized figures adorning the second level. It seemed like a nice little haven within the city. As I got there about 5:30, there were very few patrons. The food was fairly good, but the “feel” of the area would be enough to make it a worthwhile stop!
As I left, I decided to take a long walk back to the hotel. This took me along Fragon Street, a small Roman Catholic area with ornately decorated buildings with the Catholic church as the center. I suddenly heard the sounds of intense classical piano. I know I had heard it before, but couldn’t identify it. It was coming from the conservatory. I sat on the stoop and just allowed my mind to drift and blend with the music as it poured out of the building and reverberated through the neighborhood.
It seemed a perfect way to end my time in Thessaloniki.