I was warned before I left Rhodes, that the northern part of Greece is different from the islands. This statement would prove to be true. I suppose there are several reasons for this. One is simple distance. Islands tend to be more isolated so of course each has its own style. Also, the northern part of Greece is in the region of Macedonia which roughly corresponds to Ancient Macedonia (Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great) which is not the same as the modern nation of Macedonia. Apparently, there is some contention between modern Greece and modern Macedonia over that name. Modern Macedonia formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Greece did not appreciate and has even taken modern Macedonia to court over their chosen name. This is ironic because ancient Greeks did not consider ancient Macedonians to be true Greeks, whereas, Macedonians such as Alexander the Great sought to be the ultimate Greek and even “enlighten” the rest of the world with Greek ways. Thessaloniki is the leading city in this area and the second largest city in Greece. Another city with biblical connections, it is more like Athens than most cities in the islands, yet unique in its own right.
I took the overnight ferry from Rhodes to Piraeus. From Piraeus, I took the metro to the central train station in Athens. After a brief wait in the station, I caught the train to Thessaloniki. Contrary to my pre-summer expectation, this was my only train trip. Most of my travel had been bus, car, ferry, or good ol’ fashioned walking. It was about three hours to Thessaloniki, then I had a mostly uphill walk to the hostel in which I would be staying. The bags made it difficult and other than taking one day off in Patmos, I had been on the go since Samaria Gorge. My legs were still quite sore, but I made it. I laid down for a couple of hours, then went looking for food. Like most cities that I had visited, Thessaloniki had a central area with restaurant, bars, cafes, etc. I found a place to eat, then after a short walk, called it a night.
This city is very much still in touch with its history. Most of the sites are in the middle of town. This is not a new town with the same name built near an ancient site, this is a city that has expanded from its original place. At one point in its history, it was considered a “co-capital” with Constantinople of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. And the city is very much aware of it. There is a pride here that I felt in few other places along my journey. I walked the entire city and saw all the major sites in one day. It wasn’t really that bad, but another long day after a series of exhausting ones. It became difficult to enjoy some of the later sites as much as the earlier ones. There are several Byzantine churches and monasteries. One, Vlatadon Monastery, claims to house the spot where Paul preached while he was here. I stopped after this visit, at the Byzantine Café, because how could I not stop at a place called Byzantine café? Then I continued along the Old City wall, most of the way down to the port. I stopped for shisha, of course, and made another stop at the Rotunda. This is easily my favorite spot in Thessaloniki. As it sounds, it a rounded building built for worship, by the Romans. There are many mosaics and four huge windows which insure light from the sun enters and shines in the middle of the floor at any given time of day, lighting the middle up with this golden color like light from heaven. At one point, it did serve as a church, now seems set aside for tourists. Thessaloniki’s most iconic site is the White Tower, down near the port. There are winding stairs that take you to the top. Each floor is dedicated to a different aspect of the city’s history and/or culture, a uniquely themed and organized museum. There is also a statue of Alexander the Great nearby, just to remind you how important a city it is. It was named after his sister, after all. There are other sites that I didn’t get to, but took in from the outside. The Agia Sophie is a church that once served as a mosque. There is a Roman Agora. I caught these on my way back to the hostel. I found the Hertz office, which although the sign said it was open, had already closed. That night I reserved a car online for the first day of my extended road trip through the rest of the country.
Another biblical and historical city, the ruins of ancient Philippi are near the modern city Kavala. Although founded earlier, Alexander the Great renamed it for his father (Phillip). In the archaeological museum, there is also an inscription of a declaration by Alexander setting the official boundaries of the city. According to the biblical account, Paul, Silas, and the rest of his company (possibly including Luke) stopped by a river just outside of the city where they met and baptized a woman named Lydia. Lydia can be considered the first European Christian. I stayed in the village named for her, right next to the chapel along the river. There is a chapel where weddings and special events are held and a baptistry along the river where one can be baptized if they are so inclined. There was no one else there when I visited. I enjoyed a nice, peaceful time of reflection. Philippi is a pretty typical ancient Greek/Roman city. There is a fairly intact theatre. There is a place called the “prison of Paul” where he and Silas were imprisoned while they were there. There is debate as to whether this is the right spot or even was a jail. There are also the interesting remains of an octagonal chapel. All that remains is the foundation which suggests the shape, but with a little imagination, you can picture how it must have looked.
I made my first mistake of my road trip. I realized that I missed Pella, birthplace of Alexander the Great. Pella was lies just outside of Thessaloniki. I should have gone there, before heading to Philippi, but I had to go west anyway, and decided to make another stop along the way. The ruins are not that spectacular. There is nothing that says, “Alexander the Great was born here” or anything like that. There are some impressive mosaics. There’s the remains of the temple of Rhea, the mother of all the gods, which I had not seen anywhere else so I did not feel like I wasted my time and I was glad to walk where Alexander must have run around as a kid. I had lunch in Alexander the Great Square and was on the road again. Because of almost missing Pella, I felt like I had to make up time. This was probably the longest day I had of the road trip.
Berea (Veroia)
I mostly stopped here because of its brief mention as one of Paul’s stops in Acts. This meant that I hit all his major stops on the Macedonia/Greek portion of his second trip (Philippi, Thessaloniki, Berea, Athens). I would feel incomplete without having made it. There is not much to the archaeological museum, but I did learn of a site nearby known as the School of Aristotle and added it to the list. I made a stop at the place that is marked as Paul’s Bema where he supposedly preached, then was off to my hotel, just outside the city. Not much to see here, but a nice, quiet little town.
School of Aristotle
I got up reasonably early the next day and headed to the site known as the School of Aristotle. This is a free place to enter (if you can find it, do not count on google maps, but I happened to see the sign while I was doing just that.) It is also a fairly recent discovery and has not been “spiced up” like other archaeological sites. There are only a couple of signs and much of the area has been overtaken, by growth of the surrounding woods. (Being from Mississippi, it reminded me of some of the random stops along the Natchez Trace.) There was one area, in which several flat stone slabs were arranged around a central stone. I imagined this as an outdoor classroom and sat on the central stone, because surely Aristotle sat there while he taught Alexander and his classmates. Although there is not much to this place, archaeologists are almost certain that this was the location of Aristotle’s school. And we know that Alexander the Great was his student for approximately two years before he had to go serve as king after his father, Phillip, was assassinated. So, despite the lack of flair, for me, this was one of my favorite places. Again, the main purpose of the trip is to see where History happened.
Got Shisha?
A google search brought up several places in Thessaloniki that had shisha. I only stopped at one. Again, didn’t get the name, but numerous google reviews claimed it was the best in Thessaloniki. Did not compare so can’t confirm the validity of that claim. It wasn’t bad….although, I must admit, I did not care for the atmosphere here. It definitely thought highly of itself. It screamed, “hey, shisha is cool and we have it”, like most hookah bars you will find in the U.S. Anyway, it would be my last taste for about 10 days until I returned to Athens.
Again, the purpose of this trip has been, primarily, to see History. As I was brainstorming what this trip would be, I thought I would need to go to modern Macedonia, I definitely wanted to see where Alexander and Phillip were from, not to mention the biblical sites. It turned out to be unnecessary. I could see this Macedonia without even having to leave Greece. Sure, it means I don’t get to add Macedonia to the list of countries that I’ve visited (yet), but I suppose there are more important things in life than making impressive lists. Well, unless you are Alexander the Great and intend to rule the known world. Guess I’m not that ambitious.


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