I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Monday, September 3, 2007 Thessaloniki without a map

All the places I've traveled in Europe have had tourist maps you can pick up just about anywhere for free--train stations, hotels, tourist sites, etc etc. So I ordered a map from Amazon for Athens so I could look at it beforehand, but I figured we'd just pick up a tourist map in Thessaloniki to get us around. Hmmm... Thessaloniki does not have a tourist map that we could find. The hotel gave us a map hopelessly out of date with about 30 numbered sites...but no key to what the sites were. We also had a small map in K's guidebook and a map she had printed from the web to help us find our hotel. Cobbling together all these sources we bungled our way through Thessaloniki in one day, hitting almost all the highlights. I recommend that you procure a map before your trip if it's possible.

I was quite excited about breakfast, my first real Greek yogurt! I had read many trip reports describing the creamy tangy yogurt with ribbons of rich local honey drizzling through it and couldn't wait to dig a spoon into some. But wait! No yogurt! Breakfast was pretty standard continental, with delicious mini croissants and mini pain au chocolate, very briny feta, sliced cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, and boiled eggs. The orange "juice," which was orange but not juice, was reminiscent of Tang.

After moving our car into the cheaper parking facility associated with the hotel (now open) we went to a travel agent to book transport to our islands for the end of our trip. Originally, K was going to have to go back to work after we parted in Athens, while I was heading to Naxos. At the last minute her boss gave her extra time off so she planned to go to Corfu. At first she wanted to take the car ferry but when she tried to book online it appeared there were no more reservations available. The travel agent was efficient, booking me onto ferries between Piraeas and Naxos. We then went to the air section where K decided to fly between Athens and Corfu. When we later got a taste of Greek mountain driving, which she would have had to do a lot of to get to the port for a sailing to Corfu, she was very pleased with her decision.

First stop, the White Tower on the waterfront. This has a long and bloody history including a massacre. Closed. On to the Archaeological Museum. Closed. The desk person told us it was to open at 2. According to our guidebook, it's opening hours ended at 3, so we joked all day about making sure to hit it during the on hour! Thwarted in our pursuit of ancient history we decided to do a visit of churches. Got lost.

Stumbled onto the Galerian Palace excavation. The admission was free and the site is amazing, especially the well-preserved elaborate mosaic floors that cover an astonishing portion of the site. The access within the ruins was unprecedented to me. A few areas were roped off, such as the mosaic floor fragments, but otherwise you could pretty much wander around at will.

From there we headed to the Pangeaia Church, which was lovely to visit. We walked up the path from the Arch of Galerius past hundreds of tables of Greeks having their Frappes to the Rotunda. Closed. Although we can't go in, I photograph what my Guidebook says is the only minaret still standing in Thessaloniki. The Turkish conquerors were quite practical. Rather than destroying churches they just reconsecrated them as mosques. This makes sense to me anyway, as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all come from the same root and worship the same God.

On the way back down the hill I was tickled to see motorbikes parked next to the Arch of Galerius. Quite a juxtaposition of Ancient and Modern.

Then we headed over to Agia Sofia church with its sunken garden. After our visit we stop into a cafe for our first Frappe. Well, K had a frappe. Her first and last, it turned out, as It was pretty gross. I had a cold chocolate, as I don't drink coffee as the caffeine makes me jittery. The chocolate was divine, no Nestle Quick, that's for sure (I'm pretty sure the last time I had chocolate milk I was around 10 and it was Nestle Quick). We mixed some Frappe into the chocolate to cut the sweetness and some chocolate into the Frappe to make it drinkable and it worked well. There was a wonderful smell of cedar at the cafe and we lingered as long as we could before heading to Agios Dimitrios.

On the way to Agios Dimitrios, the lartgest church in Greece, we stumbled on the Roman Forum. Again, it was free admission with amazing access to everything. You can sit in the theater and wander through the green rooms behind it (in the picture I'm preparing for my closeup), as well as some rooms that were probably shops in the agora.

Back on track to Agios Dimitrios we again are sidetracked by stumbling on the Turkish baths. More free admission and it is very well preserved, including the fresco decoration in a typically Turkish style. You can wander the rooms of the bath and see everything up close.

We finally made it the Agios Dimitrios church, which was mostly destroyed by fire in 1917 and then rebuilt. It is indeed a large church, though I came to be quite appreciative of the tiny little churches one sees everywhere in the large greek cities. It seems very practical and more in keeping with the spirit of humility Christianity seems to espouse (I am non-religious myself). I made the first use of my binoculars to get a good view of the 5th-7th century frescoes the escaped the fire. The relics of St. Dimitrious are kept in a silver box encased in plexiglass. The Greeks who were visiting the church made the sign of the cross and kissed the box. I hoped it wasn't disrespectful of me not to kiss the icons. There is a lovely silver Madonna and Child by the small gift shop where--behold! We saw our first (and only) tourist map of Thessalonika. It was four euro and at this point we had seen just about all the tourist spots in the city so we passed, but for future reference go first to Agios Dimitrious to get your map if you haven't arrived in Thessaloniki with one.

We got small tiropita and spanakopita from a bakery across the street, about five bites to each piece. 1.80E for three pieces, quite a bargain! We ate them as we walked back to the Archaelogical Museum, where we bought combined tickets with entry to the Byzantine Museum next door for 8E each. Both museums, as were all the museums we visited in Greece, were well laid out and curated. The displays were made in chronological order (again, as with all museums) which makes it easy to take it in without reading every plaque which, I'll be honest here, I just can't do. Well really I don't see how anyone could unless they spent an entire day in every museum they visited.

The display of Macedonian gold was really exquisite and we drooled our way past cabinet after cabinet of delicate leaf crowns, elaborate earrings, coiled bracelets, and coins galore. One of our favorite pieces was a gold medal from an ancient Olympic game. The detail is just amazing, and it was cleverly displayed in a cabinet with a mirror so you could see the reverse. The tiny gift shops sold some jewelry reproductions but nothing really interesting. Until we got to Athens, we did not visit any sites that really grasped the "tourist" mindset, with tons of shops and souvenirs and things to buy. The Greeks are too unmaterialistic to take advantage of the materialism of Americans!

The Byzantine Museum was interesting in that, well, Christianity didn't really change much in the way of decorative arts or in literary tradition, it turned out. One of the finds in the Archaeological Museum was a papyrus, which was rarely preserved in Greece as the climate is much damper than in Egypt where thousands exist. The script had been translated and the rhetoric about Zeus was pretty much exactly what Christian rhetoric would be three or four hundreds years later. The past, the present, the future, always and forever, unchanging, all-knowing, etc. etc. Fill in the blank of your choice of deity here.

Tired and hungry, we had our afternoon meal at Zythos on the water while enjoying the view of dusk on the harbor. In what was to become our lunch (we always ate a late lunch around 2 or 3) tradition, we ordered a Greek salad and one other dish. Today it was zucchini patties, as the ones we had at Opto Tyri the night before had been so good. The waiter seemed put put by the smallness of our order. I asked for the salad by it's Greek name, horiatiki, but got only a blank look in response. I got this response all the way to Athens when trying to be a little polite and use some Greek. K said that in the Balkans if you're not fluent, people don't understand why you would even try and it seemed to be the same for Greek. In Athens, the more tourist-savvy proprietors are happy to encourage your attempts to pronounce the Greek names of dishes and ask for the bill in Greek, etc. The food was good, but not good enough that we wanted to return for dinner.

Heading back to the hotel we passed the Pizza Hut, Applebees, and Ruby Tuesday. Shudder. I will admit that K stopped for her first Starbucks since arriving in Pristina 7 months ago (again, no franchises in a stateless state so there is no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no nothing in Pristina). Back at the hotel we purchased two hours of wireless internet access for 5E; you can use the two hours as you wish during a 48 hour period, so the clock stops running when you log off.

For dinner we walked around the Ladadika neighborhood. It was a quiet night but we were a little on the early side (around 9:00). We reached a little nook of a side street that had been described by K's friend, where he had recommended two restaurants. We tossed a coin to decide between Moulyvous and Agora and Agora (AΓOPA) won. It had outdoor seating, while Moulyvous is an upstairs restaurant, so that was a point in its favor as well. It was not quite as good as Opto, sadly. The mushrooms were beautiful, but were so sour with lemon juice they hurt my teeth and we couldn't eat them. I ordered the stuffed squash blossoms and they came battered and fried, which I hadn't expected. The cauliflower was not in season so we got a salad of arugula and parmesan, and K got meatballs. Dessert at the home was a moist cake, a square that we decided was farina (which I love but K hates; I eat oatmeal because it's so healthy but if I had my choice I'd always eat Cream of Wheat), grapes, and watermelon. The house white was fantastic; we had 500 ml of it which is really the perfect size wine for two, for 3.5E. The total was 29E.

At the hotel we contemplated maps. Our plan for the next day was to visit Vergina and Dion before driving to Meteora for an overnight stay with a visit to the famous monasteries the next morning. Vergina and Dion are both a pretty easy distance from Thessaloniki, and no matter which one we went to first we'd have to backtrack to the main road to the get to the other and then continue on to Meteora. We decided to go to Vergina first because it required less backtracking and then head to Dion. This would put our sightseeing earlier in the day and the driving in the afternoon, and gave us a small stretch of a drive along the coast road, rather than putting the bulk of our drive to Meteora over the mainland. We were very happy with our decision to do it this way the next day, and later when we realized driving inland probably would have involved some mountains.

We were quite proud of ourselves at the end of this day. Because American vacation time is so limited we couldn't really be leisurely anywhere. The guidebooks said you needed two days to see Thessaloniki. While of course we would have loved to have seen more of it, we hit just about every site recommended. We are power travelers.

You call see all my photos of Thessaloniki and all my photos from this trip to Greece if you'd like.

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