Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Greece 1- Around Thessaloniki

4th to 8th December

Instantly Greece looked different to Bulgaria. Don’t get us wrong, we loved Bulgaria, but Greece just seemed, well, modern. The houses were well maintained, the sides of the roads were not strewn with large amounts of plastic, destined to be blown about, shredded and get ploughed into the soil, but never rot. It even seemed sunnier – until it rained. So we drove through the grey, unappealing plains around Sidhirokastro, and across two ranges of hills before descending towards the Aegean at Thessaloniki. By the time we reached Thessaloníki’s suburbs the sun was back with a blinding brightness, making us feel that we’d at last reached Southern Europe…perhaps we’d outrun the winter!

Thessaloníki is a big place. It has a lot of traffic. Coventry’s ring-road, a place I (Lesley) loathe, is pussycat tame by comparison. In the middle of the afternoon on Saturday 4th December it was insane, with cars parked in every space available and even double parked for much of it. There was no room for our van, which was frustrating as the streets looked lively and inviting with people strolling about or sitting outside cafes. Rob was hungry. He could see nice food. He was stuck in crawling traffic. You can imagine his mood! In the end the only thing we could do was pass through the city and move on to find somewhere for the night. We’d already planned to tackle Thessaloníki on a weekday anyway, when the bookshops were open. Perhaps it would be calmer then.
Thessaloniki traffic

We drove about 20 km, past the airport, to the beach suburbs around Peréa, or Peraia, or Περαία. There’s a serious dilemma here. How should we spell some of these Greek place names? It would be silly to write them in the Greek alphabet. The trouble is the Latin transcriptions of these can have several alternative spellings and some of them are more likely to make an English speaker mispronounce the name. To make it worse, some of these are based on ancient, rather than modern, forms of the names. Imagine someone arriving at Dover asking for a ticket to Londinium. Rob is going to agonise over each one, but generally the attempt will be to give an initial spelling which helps with the pronunciation, but with common alternatives in brackets. I (Lesley) take no responsibility for this, since it’s all Greek to me!
Thessaloniki seafront

So, we arrived at Peréa (Peraia) at about 5 p.m., and drove through the centre, down to the seafront and along to smaller Néi Epivátes (Neoi Epivates), where we parked right by the beach, just down the street from some interesting looking restaurants. By 8 p.m., when we were stepping out for a night on the town, a gale had blown up and we were resigned to being buffeted all through the night. Perhaps a carafe of wine would help us sleep! We had a lovely first meal in Greece – huge portions of taramasalata, roasted aubergine, potatoes cooked in cheese and ham sauce, whitebait (gavros – which was translated somehow into English as arrogants) and grilled sardines – and all at a huge nearly-West European price of 35 Euros. Oh yes, Greece is modern alright!
Néi Epivátes

The next morning, Sunday, we woke rather tired due to the windy night and the fact that we’d parked “head down”. This is a phrase we’re going to take away from this trip. It seems I (Lesley) am very sensitive to my horizontal plane. I’ve always been a bit princess and the pea-ish and am unable to sleep until I’ve brushed every last grain of sand/toast from the sheets, and now it seems I wake all through the night with multifarious aches if my head is even the teensiest bit lower than the rest of me. Maybe we should have invested in those chocks we poo-pooed in the camping shop last February.

We had a very lazy morning, watching the windsurfers, who obviously appreciate this windy weather, whizz past while we ate our boiled eggs. We moved on about midday, following the coast away from Thessaloniki, passing through the attractive port of Mihanióna (Michaniona) where we had lunch of two portions of freshly cooked doughnuts topped with nuts and syrup. We gasped when they arrived as they were generous, to say the least, and I’m afraid to say that we managed to scoff the lot!

We pulled up at Palioúra Epanomí mid-afternoon, where we’d read that there might be an open camp site, and decided to wild camp instead by the beach in front of the closed up and deserted holiday apartments. I’m sure this would be frowned upon in the middle of the summer, and it would be crowded and unpleasant to try it in high season, but in December it felt fine and none of the fishermen who came and went while we were there batted an eyelid at our presence. It wasn’t until the sun was setting that we really appreciated the panorama across the bay, with its fine view of Mt. Olympus, and the next morning this was even more spectacular as the snowy peaks of the home of the ancient gods were clearly visible in the far distance.

Palioúra Epanomí – Olympus views

We will also remember this spot for the friendly dog that settled outside our van for two days and nights, begging for scraps and accompanying us on walks with Charlie. We cannot work out the status of some of these dogs – she was well fed and healthy and appeared to have a favourite house she would go to, but had no collar and appeared to live on the street. Are they true strays or do they belong to someone? In any case, as we went we saw her transferring her affections to the fishermen, who fed her titbits.
Palioúra Epanomí and Sadie the dog

We stayed for two nights here mainly because it was such a nice spot and the weather was so good, and to have a break after a few days of longer drives. For the first time in 8 weeks we got the barbecue out and grilled sausages over driftwood on the little beach.

We returned to Thessaloníki on the Tuesday, 7th December, with the intention of having a look around the city. The parking situation nearly defeated us, and we spent an hour crawling around congested streets before we spotted a supervised open-air carpark within the docks area, but luckily only a stone’s throw from the busy seafront boulevard. The parking attendant came out of her booth, a bit disconcerted at the width of our van, but we breathed in and managed to squeeze through the barrier (note to other motorhomers – we are are 2.3m wide with wing mirrors out). The congestion in the city is staggering, and the reason – too many cars – easy to see, but a practical solution in such a densely populated city is hard to imagine. We were glad we did stop though, as, once out of the car, it is an attractive, lively city with a lot to commend it in terms of atmosphere, even if a bit less in specific sights. We stopped for a coffee in the central Aristotle Square, a well-proportioned space that was open to the seafront on one side, and bordered by smart colonnades filled with pavement cafés at which well-dressed people enjoyed cappuccinos at €4 each. The centre of the square had Christmas lights and a life-sized nativity, which looked incongruous in the bright sunshine. The Greek financial crisis was not much in evidence in Thessaloníki on the day that we were there!
Thessaloniki – Aristotle Square

We stocked up from the English-language selection at a nearby bookshop, although gasping somewhat at the West European prices here too – after 3 months in the old Eastern Europe, the costs in Greece are coming as rather a shock. Next we visited the market area, a wonderful confusion of noise, people and great fresh food as any market should be. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were reminded strongly of the markets in Athens, including the numerous small restaurants in the further arcades. We had a lunch of fried fish at one of these, and came away from the stalls with two small fresh bream-like fish, the Greek name of which we never noted.
Thessaloniki fish market

Thessaloníki is an ancient city, known earlier as Salonica, but was largely rebuilt after a disastrous 1917 fire. A clutch of old byzantine and Turkish buildings survive, but the heart of the city is now on a grid plan, designed and built in the 1920s, but whose avenues are largely lined by 5- or 6-storey apartment blocks that are probably no older than the 1970s. The long, straight white canyon-like streets look like many a Mediterranean city from Spain through Italy to here, but at street-level it is a mass of small shops and cafés, and different neighbourhoods have an almost villagey feel. We decided that, despite the traffic, it looked like an interesting place to live.
Thessaloniki – Arch of Galerius and Rotunda

We returned to the van after dark through the main shopping area, which was positively buzzing with retail activity at 6 p.m. and reminded us of Oxford Street in London. The Christmas lights had come on in Aristotle Square and we would have liked to stay longer, but with overnight parking at the docks not possible, we needed to settle somewhere else, and opted to return to the Peréa area where we had stopped 3 nights earlier. Rather a long way, but at least we slept soundly and quietly, better in fact than on Saturday for we were not this time buffeted by a gale.
Thessaloniki – evening outside a café – note the Christmas tree

The next day, Wednesday 8th December, we opted to plunge into Thessaloniki’s traffic chaos once more for one last view of the city, on our way west to Veryína (Vergina), and drove through the higher districts to see the areas that partially escaped the 1920s reconstruction. They are all modernish blocks of flats now but follow an older, more wiggly street pattern up steep hills, bounded by ruinous but still huge Roman-Byzantine city walls which run tight up against tatty housing blocks. It looked like a colourful area that will reward more leisurely exploration on some future visit.

Thessaloniki – walls

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