We got off the ferry from Samothrace at about 9:30 in the morning. There was no compelling reason to hang around Alexandroupoli. Alex, as the locals sometimes call it, has the look of many towns and cities that you see in the Mediterranean–concrete buildings about 5-6 stories tall, and streets clogged with cars.
The 5 hour bus ride landed us right in the center of Thessaloniki (usually called Saloniki by Greeks) , where we had reserved the Hotel Kastoria. The Kastoria, at 25E a night with shared bath, was once an elegant hotel, but now has the aura of a hostel, with its chipped linoleum floors and communal kitchen. I was pleased with the price, but not the location of our room which faced the roaring main street.
Our route back stateside was Thessaloniki–Frankfurt–Atlanta. We had an overnight in Thessaloniki with a departure to Frankfurt the next afternoon. I had spent my time pre-trip researching information on the islands that we visited, and was therefore completely ignorant about the city. This would be my third time in Saloniki this year, but all I knew about was the airport!
What a pleasant surprise it turned out to be! Saloniki is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a rich Roman, Byzantine, and Jewish history. The first afternoon we took a hot, steep walk up to the city walls, where we recovered in a cafe with a couple of draft beers (8E). As we descended back towards the sea we discovered many sites to visit the next morning. As you walk through town you come across Roman ruins which have been excavated during the building of the modern city. The photo below reminds me so much of a Roman street scene, with its ruins interspersed among multistory concrete apartment buildings.
That evening we had the worst meal of our trip. At 8:00 pm, it was hard to find a restaurant among the sea of jam-packed cafes with people drinking 4 E coffees and beers. The economic crisis is not evident in Saloniki. We eventually found a restaurant, but had a horrible salad and gyros for 30E.
The next morning we got up early to see as much as we could before our 3:00 flight to Frankfurt. Most of the Roman ruins are the legacy of Galerius Caesar from the early 4th C AD. The ruins above are from his imperial palace. The Arch of Galerius, below, was built to celebrate Roman victory over the Persians. The area surrounding the arch is a hangout for students, and is a focal point for organizing political demonstrations.
The Rotunda was constructed by Galerius to serve as his tomb, but it served as a church for over a thousand years before it was converted to a mosque following the Ottoman invasion in 1590. Like so many other churches in Greece, the beautiful mosaics and frescos were destroyed during the invasion.
Galerius is famous for his persecutions of Christians during his reign, so it is ironic that the church of Agios Demetrios has survived and is now the most important shrine in the city. Underneath the huge church is the crypt where Saint Demetrios was martyred.
At one time, Saloniki was the home of thriving Jewish community. During World War II, they were gathered up and shipped off to the concentration camps. It was winter and many of them perished en route. The ones that survived met their end in the gas chambers. At the beginning of the war there were 40,000-50,000–now there are only about 1000 Jews in the city.
As the morning wore on, we were running out of time. But we didn’t feel like we could leave without going to see the iconic statues of Phillip of Macedonia and his famous son Alexander the Great. We ran/walked down to the seaside promenade and paid a quick homage.
We caught the airport bus right in front of our hotel, and after arriving at the airport we made our way quickly to the wonderful little Aegean Airlines lounge. Since this would be the last time in a long while that I would enjoy delicious Greek wine, I helped myself to four glasses.