Peter and Elizabeth - RTW 2009-11 travel blog

Roman Agora

The view of the Rotunda along the approaching road

Cat walking around the scaffolding inside the Rotunda

The attached minaret

The Rotunda from near the Galerius Arch

The Galerius Arch

Intricate detail on the arch

The ruins of the Palace of Galerius flanked by modern apartment buildings!

My cat friend at the Palace of Galerius

View of the waterfront from the top of the White Tower

The White Tower

The cool statue of Alexander the Great

Funky transport. Check out the sexy lady on the window!

One of the many churches we saw around the city (Agios Sofia,...

And another!

The other side of the last one!

Agios Dimitrios

Old folks playing cards in the park!

Another church!

Another church!

January 22, 2011

We had a really early start this morning but at least this time we went for the taxi option rather than the long walk to the train station! We’d had a good 3 days with Dave and Sabine and it was a shame to be leaving so soon. We were worried about getting over the Greek border with Elizabeth’s visa having expired so our “Plan B” was to return to Skopje but both Dave and I commented that we hoped we didn’t see each other quite that soon! At the train station we were offered a taxi to Greece for a mere €100! We passed and went for the significantly cheaper €12 train tickets!

The train ride passed pretty quickly and before we knew it we were at the borders. Obviously, we didn’t have any problems getting stamped out of Macedonia but Elizabeth was a bit scared when we got to Greek immigration. My passport was barely even looked at but the border guard took Elizabeth’s passport and told her to report to the police station in 10 minutes! He was doing this with everyone but it didn’t help calm her at all! I was trying to make her slightly less nervous as any sign of guilt might be seen by the officers but she didn’t feel very comfortable having to go to the police office on her own. Within minutes she was back and happy as they hadn’t looked too closely at her passport and stamped her straight in. She was very relieved and I told her that now she was in Greece she wasn’t allowed to moan or complain about anything!

Once at Thessaloniki train station we walked into the centre and found a hotel. With the potential of being turned away at the border we hadn’t booked anything but had a couple of places tentatively lined up and the first we found had spare rooms and a decent rate. We couldn’t check in yet though so we left our bags and went to get lunch. There seemed to be a lot of cafés around selling coffee and only coffee (including Starbucks!) but we found a little café that did food too and we both tried the souvlaki, which is basically just a shish kebab! It was, at least, Greek food though!

Back at the hotel room we had an afternoon nap and then booked some more of our Greece stuff, including some hotels, car hire for exploring Northern Greece and a flight to our first island for next week. We were both quite excited to be here now and combined with relief that made for a good, if tiring, first day!

For dinner we went to a lovely restaurant called Molyvos. It was quite busy when we arrived but by the time we left people were queuing for tables! I wanted to try some local dishes and they had a special “plate meal” which contained 5 small plates of different foods. The one I chose had salted tuna, smoked herring, minced meat and octopus, tzatziki and kebab with hummus. Every single dish was really tasty, with the minced meat/octopus thing being my least favourite and the tzatziki definitely the best! Elizabeth had meatballs in a lovely, rich tomato sauce with rice and these were very good to. It is difficult to tell when you just arrive somewhere how good the food is value wise but if this was the quality of the food we were going to be eating we certainly weren’t going to go hungry! Maybe the litre of homemade wine helped, too!

January 23, 2011

Today was a pretty full day with plenty of sites visited but nothing taking us very long. We were conscious of the fact that most things in the city are closed on Monday so we tried to squeeze as much into the Sunday as we could. We got up at a decent time and had breakfast before hitting the streets.

The first stop was the Roman Agora, an open “museum” containing Roman ruins and not containing much information on the site itself. The area was free to walk around and there didn’t seem to be very much in the way of security and so we just strolled around the site. There is supposed to be a museum here, underneath the old arches, but it was shut for some reason so we were soon exiting the opposite end of the site, passed the barking dog.

The next stop was the Rotunda. This was a large church built by Emperor Galerius during the Roman inhabitance of the city but more recently has been converted into a mosque and had a minaret added alongside. Inside the Rotunda there was a fair amount of reconstruction work going on and it was difficult to see all the brickwork and mosaics amongst the scaffolding although what you could see was very impressive. However, I have to admit I was more interested by the black and white cat who was doing laps around the third or fourth level of the scaffolding for the 10 minutes or so that we were inside!

Just south of the Rotunda was the ornately carved Arch of Galerius. Unfortunately, alongside the carvings were the more recent “signs” of the local youths feeling that people need to know they were into Anarchy by them graffiti-ing symbols all over the ancient ruins. It was sad to see something which the city was obviously trying to preserve spoilt by an ignorant minority. Graffiti is such a major problem all around Europe and we’ve seen it everywhere we’ve been although we haven’t seen anything quite as bad as some of the trains we had seen as we departed Skopje yesterday which were covered from top to bottom in various “tags”. It’s quite pathetic, in my opinion, that someone is so unsure of who they are and what they stand for that they feel the need to try and project it in such an ugly manner. Whatever happened to voicing opinions rather than scribbling them down with a spray can?

From there we entered the ruins of the actual Palace of Galerius. The site here was quite well kept and covered quite a large area. It was funny to see the area so centrally located and surrounded by modern blocks of flats, though. The outlines of the basilica, bath areas and other rooms were quite clear to see and small pieces of the mosaics were left in situ so that you could get an idea for the design and decoration of the palace. The larger, neighbouring hippodrome was almost completely lost underneath the modern structures and I suspect will remain this way unless someone is willing to buy up huge chunks of expensive real estate and knock them down in the name of history and archaeology! There were so many stray cats running around the site it was quite amusing. What wasn’t quite so amusing was the fact that the site was covered in sand which made it smell like a massive litter tray. I wasn’t sure whether the wet patches were from rain or cat urine!

Although these sites had been quite interesting, they hadn’t taken us very long at all and we were soon down at the waterfront and enjoying the cool yet bright weather. As it was still quite early we decided to treat ourselves and stop at Starbucks for a quick coffee! It might’ve been January but we braved sitting outside, too, taking up a good spot to watch the world go by.

The next stop was the White Tower and its museum. I really expected this to be a bit crappy and wasn’t holding out much hope other than some great views from the top. However, inside we found a free museum with free audio guide and some excellent displays detailing the history of the city from the Roman ruins we’d seen earlier today right up to modern day cultures and city life. In fact, the information we learnt here about the Agora, Rotunda and Palace of Galerius was really interesting and in enough depth as to not bore you to death! It might actually have been useful to have come here first but I guess we had the “this is what you just saw” version! Having the audio guide was good, too, as it didn’t seem to be quite as long or detailed as the Greek signs which were around the six floors of the museum. As a result, we left feeling educated rather than bored and we were also rewarded at the top with some lovely views. Even the sun had come out to say hello!

The museum took a lot longer than we were expecting so by the time we left we were more than ready for lunch. The waterfront was littered with little cafés and restaurants but they seemed over-priced so we looked towards the Lonely Planet for a recommendation. We were struggling to find the restaurant we wanted but eventually we were asked by a local if we needed any help. As it turned out, she was a waitress at the Myrsini restaurant and we were stood right outside it! The restaurant served Cretan food and there was no English menu but the staff were really helpful and described all the dishes to us in detail. Elizabeth eventually went for the veggie bake and I chose the meatballs in yoghurt sauce. The food was great and we were both stuffed so when the waitress asked us if we wanted dessert we both replied that we were full. She said we couldn’t say no as it was included anyway and she turned up with a large plate of Greek yoghurt, honey and nuts and it was very, very tasty!

After lunch we walked along the water and saw a massive, very impressive statue of Alexander the Great which was quite imposing over the promenade. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without some graffiti but thankfully I was able to get some pictures without that in!

Walking along the waterfront was really pleasant. It wasn’t too busy as we are so far out of the tourist season but it was lively enough with plenty of people taking Sunday afternoon strolls and enjoying the cafés along the road. It was a shame the road was so busy along the water as it detracted from a peaceful environment. At the end of the harbour we found the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, the only state photography museum in Greece. The exhibits here focused on various projects as part of the 21st International Photography Meeting. Over the course of 2010 and, now, 2011, there were around 90 different exhibits under a general heading of “place” and we were able to see many of them. In the gallery itself they had original copies of some of the exhibits but the best thing was an interactive area where you could select any of the exhibits you wanted and you could see a slideshow of all the pictures taken. Of the ones we looked at and really liked or remembered were “The Last Things”, “The Last Wall” and “Signs of Time: Neghev and the Dead Sea”.

“The Last Things” was a series of pictures showing an underground bunker in the UK which would be used in the event of a war or attack on the country’s leadership. It was interesting to see as these things are not exactly common knowledge and the photographer was granted special dispensation to go inside and take pictures. Even then, his photos were censored by the government and certain things were blanked out. “The Last Wall” was a series of pictures from Cyprus depicting the line between the Greek and Turkish parts of the island and the ongoing anguish and pain suffered by the people who still have to live near this boundary. “Signs of Time” was interesting to us as it showed some images of the Dead Sea which reminded us of our time in Jordan and the near impossible task of trying to stand upright in the saline waters. The pictures, much like mine, were of large sandy, desert-like waste lands and weren’t of much interest other than we recognised the landscape. The exhibit was really good and interesting and for only €2 it was a bargain and all we’d spent all day!

In the evening we went for dinner at a restaurant called Paparouna where I went for the healthy Caesar salad (smothered in parmesan and dressing with about a million croutons!) and Elizabeth had a vegetable risotto. It wasn’t exactly Greek food but it continued the great food we’ve had lately!

January 24, 2011

Yesterday I’d tried to sort a few things out and failed dismally so as we didn’t have as much to do today I gave some of them another go amongst some other chores. I successfully downloaded the road maps for Greece onto my TomTom (yesterday it wouldn’t accept my credit card), booked a flight from Thessaloniki to Rhodes (ditto the credit card problem), cancelled a flight with Jetstar that I’d booked in error (and got a full refund thanks to them changing the departure by about half an hour and me saying it wasn’t convenient!) and called my Dad to wish him happy birthday. By lunchtime I’d spent as much as I’d recovered but at least we had everything planned and sorted!

When we finally ventured out we started off by visiting some of the churches around the city, starting with Agios Sofia and then another church around the corner. The architecture and design of these buildings is really amazing and it is a pleasant surprise when you turn a corner and see one of these impressive buildings immersed in the city. The next stop, and probably our main one for the day, was Ataturk’s House at the Turkish Embassy. Ataturk is known as the modern day hero in Turkey and changed the country into much of what you see today. He was in fact born here in Thessaloniki in the house which is now a small museum inside the grounds of the Embassy. After waving our passports at the guards at the gate we were met by a young girl who showed us into the house. I don’t imagine they get many people coming to visit here but the displays were interesting. The basement included a number of pictures of Ataturk meeting various dignitaries from around the globe. The first floor was fully furnished and although this wasn’t the original furniture used by his family when they lived here, the young girl told us that all the furniture did belong to Ataturk and was brought from his home in Turkey when this house was turned into a museum. Amongst the items on show were a number of Ataturk’s outfits and suits and these really showed what a well-dressed man he was. The house was quite cool to see but I have to confess that I know very little about Ataturk and as we aren’t planning on visiting Turkey I expect this will be the extent of my education for now!

We stopped for lunch at a place called Kyprion Gefsis where we were again faced with no English menus but a very helpful and friendly owner. We had a choice of a Cypriot dish called sheftalia or more souvlaki. Given we could get souvlaki almost anywhere we decided to try the sheftalia and I made the mistake of going for the “large” rather than the “small”! Elizabeth made the correct call! The food was really good – sheftalia is basically a mincemeat sausage which is spiced and flavoured and served in pita with salad and, in this case, a healthy portion of fried potatoes! I was so stuffed when I finished but I was determined not to leave any waste!

The next stop was Agios Dimitrios (I’m starting to learn Greek as I reckon “agios” means “saint”!). This church has an interesting crypt area and we ventured down into the basement first and were surprised how open and airy it was. It even had areas which led to ground level and provided quite a bit of natural light in the crypt. Usually these places are dark, dingy and quite confined, with narrow passageways and poor lighting but this was the exact polar opposite. You didn’t even have that creepy feeling of death here that you had with so many others either. The church itself gets its name from Saint Dimitrios, the patron saint of Greece. Dimitrios was martyred on this site along with his family during the Christian persecutions in the 4th Century. It is believed that people who visited this site and the place where his body was left after his death were cured of certain ailments and for this reason he was sainted. His remains were assumed to be lost but artifacts discovered in the crypt of the church in the 1930s and 40s are believed to be those of Saint Dimitrios and are now displayed in the main church. Interesting, huh?

After finishing in the church we headed down towards the main ferry terminals in the hope of finding some updated ferry schedules but none were available for the routes we needed other than for tomorrow, which was no help at all! Back at the hostel we booked a few hotels for the islands, hoping that my investigative work into the expected ferry schedules was accurate!

We went for dinner to a place called “ΦΟΥΛ ΤΟΥ ΜΕΖΕ”, which translates to “Full of Meze” and by the time we left we sure were full of meze! We decided to go for the variety of smaller dishes and picked tzatziki, bouyiourdi (baked feta, peppers, onions and tomatoes with meat), skordalia (potato puree with garlic) and meat balls as well as our first taste of the local, Mythos beer. The food was amazing and we ate so much more than we needed to but it was certainly worth it!

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