Saturday, April 7, 2018

Holiday in Thessaloniki 2018

We spent nine days in Thessaloniki, longer than we usually spend in one city. Our experience was influenced by being out of season (end of March to early April), and I imagine some things are different during the summer. We also had the pleasure of meeting a long-time friend and her husband, so we were able to spend time with them and see things from a local perspective.

We stayed at the Queen Olga Hotel, which is a comfortable 3-star hotel that provided everything we needed without the sort of luxury we don't need and don't want to pay extra for (things like a swimming pool and spa). We asked for a room with a sea view, and it was absolutely worth paying a bit more for this. The balcony faced the sea, and on clear days there were views of Mount Olympus in the distance. We had some beautiful sunsets, and it was interesting to see the ships passing by. The hotel is located slightly east of the city centre, within reasonable walking distance of most of the sites and attractions.

Queen Olga Hotel

View of Mount Olympus from the seafront

We got into a habit of going to see museums and sites in the morning, having lunch somewhere, and usually resting in the hotel during the afternoon, sometimes going out again in the evening. Because we did such a lot of walking, it was necessary to pace ourselves and not get too exhausted. We hardly used the buses, which were very crowded.

Thessaloniki is a large, busy city. It is not designed primarily to cater for tourism, and the places of interest are scattered among everyday businesses and streets. This makes it interesting to explore and observe. The traffic can be heavy and some drivers are aggressive, so pedestrians should be extra vigilant when crossing the street, even when they have right of way. Without wanting to be too critical of a place I loved, I must mention that the air tended to be polluted, from both traffic and industry. The city metro is currently under construction, and when it opens this may reduce the level of traffic and improve the air quality. Also, many Greek people smoke, even in places where smoking is forbidden, such as inside restaurants. 

The seafront contains a promenade and bicycle lane running along the sea. At all hours of the day and night, people walk and cycle along, some walking their dogs. East of the White Tower there are several parks between the road and the seafront. We particularly enjoyed the Water Garden, with its ponds, frogs, turtles, koi fish, and bathing birds. West of the White Tower the road runs alongside the promenade, and on the other side of the road there are many cafes and restaurants and various shops. Parallel to the seafront in this area is the main shopping street, with many department stores and international chains. Further west you reach the port, which seems to be very active at all hours.

Water Garden
Turtles at the Water Garden

Thessaloniki contains many impressive museums and sites, and there's something for everyone. 

The White Tower: a 15th century tower by the sea front, also used as a prison for a while. It contains an exhibition about the city's history, and the view from the ramparts is impressive. Around the tower is a pleasant park, and nearby you can take a boat for a short trip around the bay.

The White Tower
View of Thessaloniki and the White Tower from a boat

The Archaeological Museum contains many impressive treasures from the region, from prehistory to late antiquity. Anyone interested in archaeology could spend many hours looking at the exhibits. As usual, I looked out for images of lions, and also enjoyed many other items. There is a gift shop, but no cafe.

The Museum of Byzantine Culture explores the early Christian era up to the Late Byzantine era, and contains elements of architecture, art, artefacts, and manuscripts. It is an interesting and well-designed museum, and while the gift shop was closed, the restaurant was well worth a visit.

The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, unlike most other museums and sites, was open on Monday (but closed on Saturday). It is a relatively small museum focusing on the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. This community made up a significant proportion of the city's population, at some times around half, and contributed to the local economy and culture, particularly during the nineteenth century. However, during the Holocaust about 49,000 Jews from Thessaloniki, around 96% of the city's Jews, were sent to concentration camps and killed. Their names are recorded on a monument on the ground floor. Photography was not allowed in the museum. The signs on the exhibits include Hebrew for the benefit of Israeli visitors.

The Museum of the Macedonian Struggle showcases the struggle of the Macedonian Greeks for freedom from the Ottoman Empire during the 19th and early 20th century. It demonstrates that issues of national identity and statehood should not be taken for granted. Macedonia became part of the new Greek state in 1912.

The Folklife and Ethnological Museum features pre-industrial technological items and traditional costumes. It is housed in a beautiful house, with an impressive stained-glass window. 

We visited the Ano Poli (the old upper town), and saw the old city walls, the Trigoniou Tower (16th century), Vlatadon Monastery (14th century, with a peacock farm), and the Pasha Gardens (strange early 20th century decorative rock formations). We also saw the Roman Forum or Agora.

Trigoniou Tower

Vlatadon Monastery

Among the churches we saw: Saints Cyril and Methodus Church, located just outside our hotel, so we could hear the bells ringing. Agios Dimitrios Church, dedicated to Thessaloniki's patron saint. The current building was restored in 1948, and incorporates elements of earlier churches on the site. We were unable to visit the crypt, which is closed on Mondays. Agia Sophia Church is a 7th century copy of the famous Agia Sophia in Istanbul, but smaller, and contains beautiful mosaics, but photography was not allowed. The cathedral is the metropolitan church of Agios Gregorios Palamas, 20th century, with neo-classical and neo-Romanic elements.

Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius

Agios Dimitrios Church

Agia Sophia church

Agios Grigorios Palamas

Thessaloniki is full of statues and art installations. Along the sea front we saw the famous umbrellas, the statue of Alexander the Great, which was impressive and imposing, and a statue of Karamanlis. Elsewhere, the Lambrakis monument and a few memorials to Macedonian freedom fighters and Greek soldiers.

Umbrellas, by George Zongolopoulos
Statue of Karamanlis

Alexander the Great

Lambrakis Monument

We took two day trips out of the city. The first was an organized tour to the sites of Pella and Vergina. At Pella we first saw the museum, with its impressive mosaics and other works of art, then toured the ancient site, where that day a children's choir was rehearsing for the opening torch-lighting ceremony of the Thessaloniki Marathon, to be held the next day.

Then we visited Vergina, where the site of the tombs has been turned into an underground museum shaped like a tumulus. The museum was dark and no photography was allowed, but seeing the finds so close to where they had been discovered created its own impact.

Our second day trip was to Ancient Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle. Entry to the site is free during opening hours, and we happened to be there alone with my local friends. The ancient remains were not all that impressive, but the location was particularly beautiful, a hill overlooking the sea, with blossoming trees all around and the sound of birdsong. 

Thessaloniki is full of good places to eat, with various types of cuisine and different price ranges. We can particularly recommend Garcon Brasserie on the sea front (sit on the balcony overlooking the sea), the B Restaurant at the Byzantine Museum (a classy place with excellent service), Elia Lemoni and Elliniko for authentic Greek food, and we even had an enjoyable Chinese meal at Huang's restaurant near the YMCA building. 

This was a particularly enjoyable holiday, and we hope to return one day and see even more of Thessaloniki.

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