Thessaloniki is real. As I wind down this first day here, my primary impression is that there’s nothing fake about this city, a town that hugs the hills along the northern Greek coast and quietly goes about it’s thing. Thessaloniki about as real as it gets (for a tourist, anyway).
You see, this is striking because there are places I visit that aren’t. They exist almost in isolation from the rest of the world or as time capsules. Some of my favorite places are like this. Florence is one of these places; as a result, even though I love it, I’m also disappointed by it. You can’t go to Florence for the real Italy.
The biggest cities of the world are just too massive to fall into this trap, although some of their neighborhoods may. They have other drivers and livelihoods that sustain them. It’s the smaller cities or locales (like the Greek Islands, I’m sure) that become caricatures of themselves.
Thessaloniki isn’t a biggest city and never has been. Although it was the most important city in the Kingdom of Macedonia, that kingdom ended in 168 BCE. It was the second largest city in the Byzantine Empire. And it is the second largest city in Greece.
Thessaloniki, in many regards, reminds me of Naples. It’s dense, although not nearly as dark, and it’s palpable. The city is stepped on an incline that leads inexorably toward the Thermaic Gulf, its apartment buildings are packed in tightly, obscuring the earth like massive concrete scales encrusting the skin of a lizard.
And while the city has history, it’s not beholden to it. It has continued to build over the millennia, layering on top of and around it’s past. Some older structures remain, such as this church (Church of the Virgin Mary Chalkeon) which dates to 1028 and whose foundations sit well below street level, whereas others have been lost forever. And yet the city moves forward.
So, you may see images of the White Tower (the symbol of the city), but the city doesn’t revolve around or depend on it. The tower, unmissable on a walk along the shore, was built on the site of a Byzantine fortification and during the period of Ottoman rule was a terrible prison known for torture and executions.
A climb up the tower is now pleasant if somewhat bland, with a few displays available exclusively in Greek, which I don’t speak. At the top, the pigeons were unafraid.
I was excited to see the Archaeological Museum today. Although museums can wear on me, there were in fact some fantastic displays of things I haven’t seen featured elsewhere, such as these sling stones and arrowheads from the 4th century BCE.
And this display from a child’s grave was heartbreaking. Excavators of the grave found clay figurines of oxen and dogs, as well as a figurine of Telesphorus, a minor child-god of healing. And with all of this, was a coin for Charon, to pay for the child’s passage to the underworld. I imagined the oxen may have been toys, but really don’t know. Perhaps they served another purpose entirely. We may not understand everything, but it is clear that the grief at the loss of a child is universal.
I realized after this museum that I didn’t actually want to see the Museum of Byzantine Culture – at least not now. And so I turned back toward the sea and my hostel.
Along the way I visited the Hagia Sofia, an ancient church dating to the 7th century, whose structure is based on its namesake in
Constantinople Istanbul. The interior is dark, but also remarkable for some astounding mosaics.
I admit that I swoon a bit over Byzantine mosaics. They are almost always spectacular.
I passed the afternoon wandering the streets around the hostel, seeing the crumbling remains of the Greek Agora and Roman Forum.
And somewhere above that stood the Church of St. Demetrios, whose current structure dates to the 7th century. This is a beautiful church, and one of the largest in Greece. It was likely even more beautiful in the past, however, as many of its Byzantine mosaics have been lost over time, likely due to centuries of use as a mosque and the great fire of 1917 that destroyed much of the city.
Finally I passed the Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius. The Rotunda, like many places here, has served as a church, then mosque, then church again. Late in the afternoon I found it closed, and our schedules won’t coincide again this trip. That’s how things go with my travels. I’m OK with missing some things, and today’s meanderings gave me plenty to see.
I paused for a cappuccino next to the Arch (cafes are everywhere here), watching the passers-by. For the local population, this is entirely unremarkable. And that thought, alone, is quite remarkable.
In the end, this was exactly the day I needed today: no agenda and no pressure, just relaxing and seeing what came along. As it turns out, Thessaloniki is the right place for that, with sights scattered about almost at random. I can imagine that some people might say that this was the wrong place for a poorly planned trip. But honestly, I think it turned out to be the perfect place to find out what the next few steps would bring.
And that felt good.