Day One – Wednesday
It’s a long old drive from Athens to Thessaloniki – around 550km or 330 miles. There was nowhere in between that grabbed our attention, so we decided to make the journey in one day, which meant an eight hour drive along the toll roads.
Setting the alarm early, we were on the road just after 8am, but as soon as we joined the motorway we became caught up in some traffic following an accident, so it took an hour just to get out of Athens. It was good once we got going though, listening to some podcasts whilst cruising along the motorway. We stopped for a lunch break at Lidl in Larisa, and filled our empty fridge and cupboards while we were there before continuing on our way, polishing off a packet of Percy Pigs as we went.
It was motorway all the way to Thessaloniki, courtesy of an €880m project funded by the EU. Over the course of our journey we went through ten or so toll booths – a few euros here and there – and we ended up paying a total of €78 in tolls – ouch! We didn’t think it would be cheap, but weren’t expecting it to cost that much. The motorway did take us through quite a few long tunnels though, where the alternative would had us criss-crossing mountains which we weren’t going to do. When we return to the UK, I won’t be complaining about the toll for the Dartford Crossing or paying road tax!
When visiting cities we prefer to stay at a campsite for security reasons, as we tend to be away from the van much of the time. As there are no campsites in or around Thessaloniki, we’re staying at a camperstop on the premises of a motorhome and caravan dealer/camping store about 20km outside of the city. The camping (and all services including electricity) is free of charge which is great, and the owners apparently do this because they like motorhomers to be able to visit their city safely. The staff are friendly and very helpful, providing maps and comprehensive tourist information. I’d contacted them a few weeks ago asking them to order the 2018 ACSI book in for me, and it was there waiting when we arrived, so excellent service!
Day Two – Thursday
There’s a bus stop outside the camperstop and it takes two buses to get into the city centre, changing at the terminus by the IKEA store. It takes around an hour, but the buses are regular and its a good service.
After topping up our caffeine levels at a café of our favourite Greek coffee chain Mikel whilst overlooking the Galerius Arch, we walked up to the Rotunda. Built in 306AD as a temple or mausoleum, it was (like so many such buildings in Greece) turned into a mosque when the Ottomans invaded, then back to a church. Amazingly for a UNESCO World Heritage site, it only cost €1 to get in.
Further down the road is the Bey Hamami, a multi-domed Ottoman bath house with separate male and female areas dating from the 15th century. Today it’s used as an exhibition centre, but you can wander round and explore all of the rooms on the ground floor (the upstairs is closed for safety reasons).
Of course the Romans also settled in Thessaloniki, and the Roman Agora (Forum) was just around the corner.
By now it was time for lunch, and purely by chance we found ourselves walking through the Vlali-Kapani market where there are stalls selling meat and fish, fruit and veg, spices and nuts – all sorts. It’s the sort of market that most people wish was their local market at home.
There was a small, family-run café at the edge of the market which looked good, so we decided to stop for lunch. Both opting for the souvlaki, we weren’t disappointed as it was by far the best souvlaki we’ve had here in Greece (and we’ve had a few). The meat was tender, well seasoned and full of flavour, and all the better not having charred peppers and onions.
Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that we look out for stolpersteine on our travels We first saw these in Berlin, and since then we’ve found them in Prague, Graz and Venice. These are small simple brass paving cobbles which are placed where victims of the Holocaust lived, worked or went to school, and these can be found right across Europe. I think this is an excellent way to remember the victims of the Holocaust – it’s so important that we don’t forget what happened.
Whilst the stolpersteine of course mainly commemorate Jews, there are also many commemorating homosexuals, people from ethnic minorities, the handicapped, members of the resistance and so on. I’d read that there were a number of stolpersteine outside what was the First School of Thessaloniki, remembering some of the 149 Jewish pupils who went there, so our next stop was the Jewish Museum to find out more.
Surprisingly, the lady in the museum wasn’t aware of the stolpersteine, but one of her colleagues knew where the old First School was, and marked it on our map. Inside the museum, the information boards told the story of the Jewish population in Thessaloniki which had been there since at least 50AD, and which grew significantly when the Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 under the Spanish Inquisition. By the 1940’s there were some 50,000 Jews in Thessaloniki, 96% of whom were murdered at Auschwitz or Birkenau. There was a lot of information and exhibits surrounding the events under Nazi occupation, and it really hits home when you see close up the yellow stars that they were forced to wear, the ‘striped pyjamas’ and read personal accounts of what went on – harrowing stuff. The use of cameras wasn’t allowed, so no photos.
During the course of the day we’d seen many people in “fancy dress”, so we asked at the tourist information office what was going on. They explained that it was to do with Lent. When we googled it later, we found that it was Tsiknopempti, the Greek Orthodox equivalent of Shrove Tuesday – the last day before Lent for which some people dress up. Many Greeks give up meat for Lent, so there’s a bit of a tradition for pigging out on meat, and over the course of the day we passed many impromptu barbecues on the pavements.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking along the seafront to the White Tower, and after a stroll around the centre of town we stopped for a drink before returning to the van for dinner.
Day Three – Friday
Our first stop was to try and find the stolpersteine, which meant getting off the bus before arriving in town, which isn’t as easy as it sounds when surrounded by the Greek alphabet. We got off the bus at what I thought was the right stop, but we couldn’t see any stolpersteine, and after a while we gave up and set off for the centre along the seafront, a good couple of miles walk. On the edge of town we came across the famous umbrella sculpture.
After a coffee we returned to the market to have lunch at the same café as the day before. We’d wanted to try the local speciality of leek and orange sausages, but they didn’t have any and so we had to make do with more souvlaki… shit happens!
Next we went to the tourist information to ask about the stolpersteine. The ladies there weren’t aware of them but they kindly rang the school, and the person there gave the exact street address of the old school building. Before setting off to find them we went to explore the port area, and passed the Holocaust Memorial placed in the square where the Jews were gathered before being sent to their deaths.
Much of Thessaloniki was destroyed by a fire which engulfed the city in August 1917. Attempts to put out the fire were hampered due to the dry conditions, and the lack of water because of the war. The port area wasn’t destroyed by fire, and over time became very run down. However in recent years it’s been regenerated, and it’s now a lively part of town with lots of bars and restaurants. After walking through this area we sat people watching on the quay for a while, before setting off to find the stolpersteine.
It was quite a long walk to the stolpersteine which took a while to find, but we got there in the end.
After paying our respects, we walked back into the city for a drink and then went to look for a restaurant for dinner. It didn’t take long to find a great restaurant called To Elliniko (translates as The Hellenic) where we had the most fantastic meal. We shared a starter of onions stuffed with mincemeat, pine nuts and cinnamon, and for mains Carol had grilled sardines whilst I went for the grilled octopus. For drink we ordered a bottle of retsina, but neither of us were that fussed by it – it’s a bit of an acquired taste!
We left there feeling as stuffed as our onions, and caught the bus back to the camperstop.
Day Four – Saturday (Today)
We’re spending the today and tomorrow at the van to have a rest after walking some 20-odd miles over the past couple of days, which is good timing as the weather’s rubbish today and the forecast for tomorrow isn’t great. I’ve spent the morning writing this blog update (these things take a lot of time!) and we’ll be spending our downtime reading, and researching our next stop in Sofia which we will drive to on Thursday.
On Monday we’ll go back into the city to explore the old town, and we’ll more than likely spend a day window shopping at the commercial centre by IKEA before we move on.