It has been a cold, cloudy and wet January in Crete.
Added to that, we now have new doors and windows in our house and that process was a little stressful, given that it inevitably meant being exposed to the elements at times and the house gained a layer of dust.
So it was with some relief that John and I left for Thessaloniki last Wednesday for a short break to celebrate belatedly John’s birthday again! The weather forecast showed that while it might be colder in the northern city, it would be sunny.
Aegean Airways have a direct flight from Heraklion to Thessaloniki and it lasts only an hour. As an added bonus, the view from the air was very clear and we had very beautiful views of the Greek coastline and Mount Olympus.
The cost of the bus fare for the ride from the airport to the centre of Thessaloniki (a distance of 17km) was quoted as being 80 cents in my 2012 Lonely Planet Guide of Greece. However, it had gone up in price to 2 Euros which still seemed a bargain! I had booked 4 nights in the Tourist Hotel, recommended by friends of ours. Despite it’s rather dubious name, it turned out to have a wonderful location near Thessaloniki Bay and the Pier. It also had very helpful staff and while it was a little noisy for country bumpkins like ourselves, it was a small price to pay for being able to walk to restaurants, the cinema and the sea. Whilst we had information about what to see in the city with us, I am always keen to get more information. I had identified where the Tourist Office was but unfortunately, it appeared that it had been closed at least for the winter and perhaps on a permanent basis. The poster advertising ‘The Greek Experience’ were still there but in addition were a lot of cardboard boxes.
So back to the Rough Guide……… Thessaloniki Municipality has a population of about a third of a million people. The population of the Metropolitan Area of Thessaloniki and surrounding area is nearer a million people. Whilst we did see some congestion in the City, it does have an aura of spaciousness. It is very pleasant to walk about. There is no Metro until 2018 but walking and travelling on buses was good for us. There is a busy cafe culture, delicious cakes to eat, markets, and lots of young people around.
From our limited experience, it seemed a friendly and lively place to be.
On the second day, we followed The Rough Guide walk and took a bus to the Kastra, where you get a wonderful view of the city below.
This area is also called Ano Poli which was the Turkish Quarter during Ottoman times. It largely escaped the 1917 fire unlike the area below it.
After buying some post cards (I am on holiday!) we visited a monastery and a very quiet, lovely Byzantine church, the Church of Osios David which has 12th century frescoes. The woman who had opened the Church, was not very friendly and I could see why. She was quietly reading her book in the peaceful and atmospheric garden, and she probably was not so keen to be interupted. We carried on down the staircases and small streets, admiring the houses and enjoying the relative quiet. We did take some liberties on the route, missing out one or two things but we did want to see where Ataturk, the founder of present day Turkey, was born in 1881. Well, we thought we did but the initial impression was not very favourable!
The museum is in the grounds of the Turkish Consulate, surrounded by a large fence and a van load of Greek riot police. No pictures taken here, then! Eventually, we found the entrance and rang the buzzer. Once inside, it was fine with very interesting information, although not much on his personal life after he left school. Rather late in the day, we asked a charming young museum assistant about the cause of Ataturk’s death at the age of 59. It was cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by heavy drinking, smoking and eating and a very stressful job! Suddenly, he did become a bit more real and I followed this up later on ‘Google’, with some other queries.
We walked passed some of the Roman parts of town, the Galerius Rotunda and the Arch, just missing the opportunity to see the Palace of Galerius. It looked hugely interesting from above but opening hours were Mon – Thurs until 3pm each day. Despite the fact that we were going to be in the city till Sunday, we had missed our chance as it was 3.10 on a Thursday. Ah well.
One of the great joys of coming to a city is the entertainment. We went to see the film, ‘The Imitation Game’ which was playing at a cinema close by. What a good film, it is!! Based on a true story, it aroused many emotions and was completely engaging and thought provoking. Thessaloniki, has a film festival every November. Now there is an idea for John’s birthday!
We went to a ‘Musical’ called Cherchez la Femme, described as an ‘interactive music and dance event’. It celebrated the prolific work of the Greek folk singer and composer Vasilis Tsitsanis, who died in 1984. The musical was based around a dramatic frame, with the central theme being the presence of women in Tsitsanis’s songs. John navigated his way admirably to and from the theatre which required a bus journey. It was a great show with high quality dancers, musicians, singers and actors. It was high energy and very cleverly put together.
Our understanding of the show was only in broad terms (we had read a little bit about his life and the importance of women in his life) but the quality of the production was a joy to watch. By the end of the evening we had no doubt that Vasilis Tsitsanis was highly regarded by the audience (mainly our age) as they sang and clapped to the music and this was confirmed by the receptionist at our hotel. At first, he was not impressed by the fact we had been to a musical but his attitude changed when we told him that it was about Tsitsanis and he told us that he thought very highly of the man.
Today (back in Crete, we went for lunch at a taverna in Koutsounari and there in front of us was a huge picture of the great man himself. We have a couple of CD’s now and we both felt the musical was the highlight of the trip.
We also liked the choice of restaurants. We are used to cheap prices here in Crete so the cost of alcohol was a bit of a shock at the beginning. We did eventually find ‘local wine’ at reasonable prices but I have to admit the couple of bottles of very nice white wine was one of the treats of the trip!
We enjoyed ‘The Kitchen bar’ on the Pier. We ate risotto and a pizza at Domenic’s in the Ladadika distict which has developed into a very nice, lively eating and drinking area. We loved the live Greek music there. In the same area we found a taverna with a very nice ambience and on the way to the theatre, discovered by chance, something similar. Both were cosy, warm, cheap and welcoming providing a similar experience to that which we find where we live. We visited the Archaelogical Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture, enjoying the exhibits including the wonderful golden jewelry. We also visited and had a seat in the Church of Agios Demetrios. It is a big 5th century church and here there are impressive mosaics.
The Museum at the Roman Agora was hidden for many years under houses in the Jewish Quarter. When the great fire of 1917, burned down the houses, they were not replaced and archaelogists started to investigate the site. This is a bath area. and this is the only column left. It was put back but in the wrong place but when they realized they decided not to move it again!!! Below is the White Tower Museum with its exhibition of the history of Thessaloniki and has wonderful views from the top. The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki was a sobering place to visit. Thousands of Jews from Thessaloniki lost their lives during the 2nd World War. There was much information to digest and in retrospect we might have visited the museums in a different order.
There can be no doubt of the city’s importance throughout the ages as a centre of trade, culture and economic activity.
We had a great break and there was a wonderful surprise to finish our trip. A new piece of road on the way from Heraklion to Kavousi, had been opened whilst we were in Thessaloniki. So it was with some joy, I put my foot down and probably saved about 5 minutes on the total journey time of an hour and a quarter.
Now when is the next trip away? Oh yes, Berlin at the beginning of March. Nice thought!!!!