Our first destination in Greece was Thessaloniki. I know, I know, not where most first time tourists to Greece visit. But, we aren’t like most tourists. Or, at least that is what we like to tell ourselves.
Thessaloniki was founded way back in 316/315 B.C by some dude named King Kassandros of Macedonia and is now the second largest city in Greece, with over a million inhabitants in the metro area. That said, it didn’t really feel like a big city to us. And, it never really felt overly crowded. And, there was tons of good food. So, it was a perfect start to our Greek holiday.
I mean, when this is the view from your hotel room window, how can a city be anything but cool? There are so many ancient ruins in Greece, this one didn’t even have a sign up telling us what it once was.
Besides the view from our window, Thessaloniki was cool in other respects as well. It sits right on the water (the Aegean Sea, which is an arm of the Mediterranean), and on sunny afternoons (which we didn’t experience) you can see Mount Olympus over the water.
The symbol of the city is the “White Tower.” The exact date of construction is apparently unknown, but scholars believe it was built back in the 15th century and probably replaced an older tower. It was once called the Tower of Blood, because it was used as a prison and a site of mass executions. Grisly, huh?
The city is surrounded by ancient walls and fortresses and, let me tell you, climbing up the hill to see those walls is quite the hike. I can’t even imagine doing it on a hot sunny day.
In addition to the cool old walls, there is the Rotunda. The Rotunda was built way back in the year 306 during the rule of Emperor Galerius. Back then, it might have been used as a place to worship Zeus. Or, it might have been intended as a burial place for Emperor Galerius (who ended up being buried somewhere else). Who knows? Of course, what we do know is that at some point around the year 400, Christians took over and turned it into a church. Because of course they did. Then, in the 16th Century, Muslims took over and turned it into a mosque. Then, in 1912, it was turned back into a church. These days, I think it is just a museum piece.
Near the Rotunda is the Arch of Galerius, which was constructed by Galerius to celebrate a victory over the Sassanid Persians. (Nope, I have no idea what I just wrote. Prior to visiting Greece, I’m pretty sure I had never heard of Galerius or Sassanid Persians. Turns out Galerius was a Roman emperor from 305-311 and Sassanid Persions were an ancient Iranian dynasty.) The Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda together are a Unesco World Heritage site.
And there are more ruins. This was the ancient Agora of Thessaloniki. Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited so we only got to admire it from the outside. Good thing there are ruins absolutely everywhere in Greece.
But, visiting Thessaloniki doesn’t mean only learning about ancient history. There are actually some fun, more modern sculptures right on the waterfront. Some of them depict historical characters, like this statue of Alexander the Great riding his horse. The statue was created by an allegedly famous sculptor named Evangelos Moustakas (I hadn’t previously heard of him) and was erected back in the 1970’s. Although not readily apparent from this photo (taken in a rare sunny moment in Thessaloniki), the statue is over 20 feet high (not counting the base) and weighs four tons. It was big.
We especially liked “Umbrellas,” created by Giorgios Zoggolopoulos (nope, hadn’t heard of him either). These umbrellas stand about 42 feet tall. And, if Google is to be believed, the artist was in his 90’s when the sculpture was installed. Crazy, right? Apparently, the city illuminates the Umbrellas with different lights sometimes, such as pink lights for breast cancer awareness month. Pretty cool.
Thessaloniki was a wonderful introduction to Greece, and it only got better . . . .
What a great location for your room – you were certainly in the middle of things….