It was an early start and no breakfast for our trip from Sofia to Thessaloniki. The train left the station at 7 on the dot. It was pulled by a Bulgarian electric loco to the border but the carriages, both of them, were Greek Railways. Pretty clean on the inside but covered with graffiti on the outside – we found this to be characteristic of Greek Railways.
Compared to our last train journey, this one was lightning fast. Because of some unknown coating on the windows my GPS would not work, so I cannot tell you distance and speed. Google maps suggest a distance of 190 miles. But I reckon we were up to 60 mph at times. Even so it still took us almost 6 hours to do the journey. But we did have a border crossing.
For much of the journey we were following the River Struma which is quite large – at least the size of the Avon at Hanham. And the country side is rugged. At about the border it flattens out and I spotted a barrage taking water out of the river for irrigation purposes.
In our compartment we had a Moldovan woman who looked mightily relieved when we crossed the border. She had a formidable array of documents to show to the Bulgarians and the Greeks.
Thessaloniki is, like most Greek cities, at first sight ugly, over run by traffic, and fast and brash. Well it is, but walking round the place you soon find that it is not as bad as you first think. There is always a humanity which overlies the inhumanity of the environment. It was Sunday afternoon when we arrived and everybody was out seeing and being seen.
We walked along the sea front to the White Tower – one of the icons of the city. The sea front road is unique in Thessaloniki – one side is open to the sea. All the other roads are built up on both sides. Thessalonikins can’t handle this, they all stay on the landward pavement with a reassuring building behind them.
The White Tower is no longer white. It was painted by a prisoner in the tower as a means of commuting his death sentence. No doubt this was called a whitewash by the tabloid press of the day.
There are many ancient churches in Thessaloniki – Paul was writing letters to them early in the history of Christianity – and many of them still survive, generally much modified. Aghias Sofia is the most prominent. I thought that its chandeliers were the most interesting feature. Brass Gryphons with lights on their heads take a little getting used to.
And here is another from the same inspiration.
As in most Orthodox churches there are large frescos peering out of the dim, religious light.
Dimmest of all is a virgin and (extremely precocious) child which can just be discerned in the half-dome of the apse. I’m amazed that the picture we have here is as good as it is.
Thessaloniki has its share of Roman Ruins so, of course, we went to look at them. They are mostly the remnants of Galerius Maximianus’s stay in Thessaloniki in 311 shortly before his replacement by Constantine the Great. The Romans certainly built things to last. The walls of the Rotunda are six and a half metres thick.
This building has been a Roman Temple, Christian Church, Islamic Mosque – there is still a minaret outside – , Christian Church again and now archaeological exhibit and exhibition space. Some people claim that it is the oldest Christian church in the world.
In Greece it is a government regulation that if you have some ruins, you must have a stray cat about the place so that the less sophisticated tourist will have something interesting to photograph.
The Arch of Galerius once straddled the major road through Thessaloniki. It now stands beside the major road through the town. The carvings commemorate some battle against the Persians.
But the most unmissable thing about Thessaloniki is the Archaeological museum. This area of Greece is loaded with remains. There is much to be learned about the Greek Dark Ages – after the Mycenians, before the Athenians. I suspect that the Athenians, being the writers of history, missed out all the unimportant bits – i.e. the bits they did not appear in. And there has been, in recent times, much work done on the palace of Alexander and his family. The most spectacular bits have now been returned to the site but much still remains in Thessaloniki. Below are a few photos I took in the museum. The first picture, especially, benefits from being seen in its original size. Click on the image, click “Actions”, click “View all sizes” then click “Original” and wonder at the craftsmanship.