Mount Olympus and Thessaloniki

Tuesday 12th April 2011, Epinomi, Chalkidiki Peninsula
We woke this morning to a really cold world where temperatures dropped from 28 yesterday afternoon to 3 this morning!

This evening we are exhausted and very disenchanted with this area of Greece. It has been a day of highs and lows – literally.

Before moving on from Meteora we drove up to follow the circuit through the perpendicular towering rocks with their monasteries perched precariously on their summits. Already coaches were arriving, disgorging tourists into the arms of souvenir sellers at the gates of the monasteries. Outside each one there was a notice informing women that they would not be allowed in if they were wearing sleeveless tops, shorts or trousers. I believe though, the monks are still prepared to wrap ladies up in cloth sheets in order to keep the cash rolling in.

For those of you who skipped my request to read our previous Meteora report, here are a few of today's photos to show you what you missed. I urge you again, go back and look at the report. It's an amazing place.

Agia Triada, Meteora

Agios Nikolaos, Meteora

Varlaam, Meteora

Great Meteora, Meteora

Agios Stephano, Meteora

Rosanou, Meteora

Looking down on to Kalambaka, Meteora

Much of the rest of the day has been spent driving east. We drove past Trikala, a very pleasant place that we visited in 2008, and from then on have been in free fall, never having travelled this way before. One look at the outskirts of Larisa decided us not to struggle into the centre. Its greatest attraction seemed to be a recent temple dedicated to the Goddess Ikea, deity of the home.

The Greeks are having a passionate love affair with concrete and most of their towns are squat, ugly, white concrete blocks with flat roofs and solar panels designed to heat an attached hot water cylinder that sits beside the satellite TV parabola. The roadsides are thickly littered with advertising hoardings and the horizontal road marking for driving are farcical. New signs are simply painted over the old ones with no attempt made to remove them. Frequently there are three or more conflicting sets of markings, all faded and almost indecipherable. At one point priorities had changed and we found ourselves driving along with all the signs indicating we should be coming from the opposite direction! It can be unnerving.

We found ourselves channelled onto the Athens-Thessaloniki motorway. It's the only realistic way to get across Greece. The miles quickly disappeared and we found ourselves at the foot of Mount Olympus sooner than expected.

Our first sight of Mount Olympus

Passing the entrance to the only campsite we knew of in the region that was open, we decided to drive up onto Mount Olympus before booking in for the night. This was an exciting experience and we can now add it to Modestine's CV of achievements! Twelve steeply winding miles up the mountain brought us up to the snowline though none of the gods were in evidence. Views down to the sea and along the coast were magnificent, but the coastal plain, like most of the stretch we've travelled today, is flat and uninspiring. Eventually Modestine ran out of road. There was nothing but a dirt track leading up towards the snowy summit.

Team Olympus

Triumphantly we turned round and began the descent. We'd seen only four cars on our way up and could potter our way down stopping for photos as we wished. At one point we were overtaken by a chariot of raven-haired Greek goddesses on their way down into town for a night of revels at the Dionysus Disco Bar.

Ascending Mount Olympus

View of the coast from up in the gods, Mount Olympus

Then our troubles really began! The campsite was firmly closed against us when we returned. So too were all the other campsites in the area. Ian pointed out to the owner that the camping guide said he should be open from 15th March and we'd driven some 150 kilometres to get here. He said the guidebook was "silly" and suggested we use an hotel down the road. In the end, with two hours of daylight left, we decided to take the motorway beyond Thessaloniki and down onto the Chalkidiki Peninsula. Getting round Greece's second city in the half light of evening, following the Greek road signs and weaving through the traffic lanes is quite horrid. It's not made easier by us not having a decent map at a reasonable scale. We've been unable to buy one for this part of Greece. Unfortunately too, we've had to abandon plans to visit the Macedonian region of the country.

After coping with various diversions that took us into areas unmentioned on our map we somehow made it to Epinomi, a coastal resort that held no interest for us except for the all-year campsite. Asking somebody for directions his response was "camping kaput!" We might have known it! As a last resort we followed signs down to the beach where a tavern has a few messy static caravans out the back and agreed to let us stay. We are now alone on this dark site with four large dogs prowling outside our door, whining, barking and grunting at us. I hope they don't bite! Soon we must brave them all to cross with our torch to the loo in pitch darkness. There is not even a bulb in the toilet block. For this we are being charged 17 euros! Even worse, we don't know where to go from here as there are no other reliably open sites that we know of anywhere between here and the Turkish border which we cannot cross for another eleven days because of Modestine's insurance.

Wednesday 13th April 2011, Epinomi, Chalkidiki Peninsula
We are back at the same campsite tonight. There is no choice. On the bright side, although the dogs slept on our doormat last night and were waiting to escort me to the shower block this morning, they seem generally peaceful and the cacophony of barking eventually stopped overnight so we were able to sleep. After our grumps to the management the lights have been repaired in the showers and the basins cleaned. Of course the water is too cold to shower in the morning but that's academic anyway as there are no hoses or shower heads! The staff though are lovely and this evening have given us their code so we can access the internet. They also told us that if we drove to Thessaloniki's Temple to IKEA we could park for free and catch the bus into the city very cheaply from there.

So that is what we did. Leaving Modestine as a temporary votive offering to the deity, we spent best part of the day exploring the city centre. It has to be said that Greece's second city lacks the classical splendours of Athens. It has a long history and was once considered to be on a par with Constantinople. It was founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon and named after his wife Thessaloniki, half-sister to Alexander the Great. It became part of the Roman Empire and an important trade hub on the route between Europe and Asia. During its period of Ottoman control the Muslim and Jewish population grew. Following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492, the Jews in Thessaloniki counted for 54% of the total population.

In the early 20th century, during the Balkan Wars, the Ottoman rule in Thessaloniki was overthrown and the city was annexed to Greece in 1913. In 1917 much of the old city was destroyed by a massive fire that left many thousands homeless. The present city has been almost entirely rebuilt since the 1920s. Regrettably it is not a very aesthetically satisfying city, consisting of concrete flats tightly packed in along the shore rising up the hillside to the old city walls and fortress on the hills above. While the centre looks smart and lively, the further back from the seafront you go the more dilapidated and decayed the streets and graffiti-ridden buildings become. The old Turkish quarter has narrower streets and is generally more interesting though it is very scruffy and dirty. There are a few art nouveau buildings that have survived near the centre. They'd be fairly unremarkable in many cities but here they are aesthetically more satisfying then the buildings around them.

Platia Aristotelous, Thessaloniki

Nikis, seafront flats, Thessaloniki

Citadel and city walls, Thessaloniki

Turkish quarter, Thessaloniki

The city's Aristotle University is the largest in Greece and there is a huge student population.
Statue of Aristotle, Thessaloniki

University students enjoying iced coffee in the sunshine, Thessaloniki

There are however a few building of note, some even included on the Unesco World Heritage list. We discovered several Byzantine churches and the white Tower, on the sea front, which has become the symbol of the city. Built in the early 16th century, supposedly by the architect Sinan, it was once used as a prison for captive Christian boys forced to convert to the Islamic faith. Following their massacre there the tower was later painted white in an attempt to expunge its history, hence the present name. We also found the Arch of Galerius, dating from around 303AD to celebrate his victories in Asia, and the Rotunda intended as his mausoleum but converted by Constantine to a Christian church. It is the oldest of the city's churches.

Byzantine church near the market, Thessaloniki

Byzantine church of Agia Sophia, Thessaloniki

White Tower, Thessaloniki

Arch of Galerius and Rotunda, Thessaloniki

Detail of the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki

During the morning we sought out the Jewish Museum. This had been mentioned to us by an agreeable contact we'd made through an earlier blog with a researcher from the University of Tel-Aviv specialising in the history of the Jews in Salonica. It proved a fascinating morning. We'd no idea of the importance of the city as a haven for displaced Jews throughout Europe. Here they flourished in all aspects of the city's life until the Nazi occupation. In 1943 some 50,000 Jews were deported from the city and exterminated in the concentration camps of Germany and Poland. Of course there was also much to learn about the beliefs and customs of the Jewish faith. Unfortunately Greek museums have very strange opening hours. With so much to absorb we had insufficient time to do the museum justice. Then of course, all the other museums had closed for the day so we were left with the rest of the afternoon to explore the remainder of the city.

For lunch we avoided the many trendy bars crowded with young Greeks chatting volubly – Thessaloniki is contending to become European Capital of Youth in 2014 – and made our way to the market where we found a fish cafe amidst the other stall holders. When we said we couldn't work out anything on the menu the owner dragged us into his little kitchen to show us the contents of his fridge and freezer. We selected some pink seafish about six inches long. We've no idea what they were but they were very nice served with what we suspect were cooked dandelion leaves in olive oil and a tomato salad. The day being hot and still a lot of walking to do we chose to drink glasses of water with our meal. A couple of gentlemen at a neighbouring table called over that England was a very nice country and we should drink Greek wine with our lunch. A few moments later the waitress placed a jug of retsina on our table. It was a present from our fellow diners!! They raised their glasses and we drank to each other's countries. When they left they called "iassos" and waved good bye. How very friendly! Unfortunately I needed to drive Modestine back to the campsite in a few hours time and Ian couldn't really cope with so much wine in the middle of the day so we left nearly half of it. As it was Ian nodded off on the bus back through the city.

There is only so much walking we can cope with on a hot day so around 5pm we took the crowded bus back through the interminable scruffy suburbs to IKEA where Modestine stood patiently waiting. Here we did a quality control of Swedish meatballs and can vouch from them being exactly the same as the ones we've tested in Spain, Sweden, France, Germany and Portugal. We've got little Swedish flags pinned up in Modestine with the name of the places where we've tucked in to meatballs and lingonberry jam. Also queuing for his supper tonight was a black robed, bearded orthodox priest. I'm sure as it is lent he would have selected the Scandinavian salmon option but it must be very hard for him to be forced to dine alongside so many obvious unrepentant sinners prepared to trade their souls for Swedish meatballs.

So this evening we've not needed to cook - handy when this campsite doesn't seem to have anywhere to wash up except in cold water in the wash basin in the dark. The dogs welcomed us back with boisterous delight and have settled on the doormat to guard us again. No doubt they will accompany me to the loo later. They look so hurt when I shut the door on them but there really isn't room in the toilet for me, an Alsatian, a Labrador and several of their large assorted friends of doubtful lineage.

Thessaloniki does have some notable museums. We are wondering how long we can cope without decent showers so we can perhaps return tomorrow to visit the Byzantine and Archaeology museums.

The city is also the birthplace of Mustafa Kemel Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Thursday 14th April 2011, Epinomi, Chalkidiki Peninsula
Well as you see we are still here. It turned freezing cold and poured with rain all night so this morning there was just one bedraggled Alsatian patiently standing guard when we crawled out to face the day. Presumably the other animals had sought shelter beneath the dilapidated caravans overwintering nearby.

The sun came up. It was actually quite hot but there was an icy wind whipping in across the sea from the snowy peaks of Mount Olympus towering to the clouds across the bay. It didn't look the sort of day to go off exploring the Halkidiki Peninsula so we decided to return to Thessaloniki to discover some of its museums. This time we were experts, sweeping into IKEA car park and jumping straight on to the bus into town like old Thessaloniki hands.

Aware that all the museums would be closing by 2 or 3pm, we quickly we made our way to the Museum for the History of the Macedonian Struggle. This is housed in the former Greek Consulate and at the time of the Macedonian wars it was central to the co-ordination of the activities of the Greek Freedom fighters.

Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, Thessaloniki

We found a well presented collection of photos and documents chronicling the country's struggles to seize back the Macedonian area of Greece from Turkey. The history of the Balkan wars is very complex indeed. The more I learn the more I know that I don't really understand it. However, after a couple of hours investigating I'm definitely a little the wiser now. I'm asking Ian to write a summary of the conflict as he has a far better grasp of it all than I do. I'm better at cookery though so have added my own special recipe at the end.

Ian writes
The Balkans is a region that has long memories and short fuses. As we write the International Court of Justice is hearing arguments in a lawsuit over Macedonia’s row with Greece over its name. Poor Macedonia has to use the awkward initials Fyrom (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - not even an abbreviation based on its own language) which seems rather hard. But the conflict goes back a long way - over 2000 years in fact. The ancient kingdom of Macedonia fell to the Romans and when the empire was split Thessaloniki became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire which later became the Byzantine Empire. Over the centuries Slavs, Serbs, Albanians and Turks all moved into the area as the Byzantine Empire contracted, and Byzantium finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Gradually the Ottoman Empire too declined, losing territory to the Hungarians, Serbs, Slavs and Greeks. Since the 1820s the Greeks and Bulgarians in Macedonia were fighting for freedom from Turkish domination and in 1912 the Balkan League was formed, with Russian support, by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro to take Macedonia away from Turkey. With a combined force of 750,000 men the First Balkan War was declared in October 1912 and the Balkan allies were soon victorious. The Bulgarians advanced to the outskirts of Constantinople; the Serbian army achieved victory at Kumanovo and joined forces with the Montenegrins to enter Skopje. The Greeks occupied Thessaloníki. An armistice was agreed on 3 December 1912 but in January 1913, war resumed. Again the Balkan League was victorious: Ioánnina fell to the Greeks and Adrianople to the Bulgarians. A peace treaty signed in London on 30 May 1913 meant that the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territory, including all of Macedonia, which was to be divided among the Balkan allies. But the allies soon fell out and the Second Balkan War began when Serbia, Greece, and Romania quarrelled with Bulgaria over the division of their joint conquests in Macedonia. Two days after the London treaty was signed Serbia and Greece formed an alliance against Bulgaria who on the night of June 29/30 1913 attacked Serbian and Greek forces in Macedonia. The Bulgarians were soon defeated, however, and a new treaty was signed on 10 August 1913 following which Greece and Serbia divided up most of Macedonia between themselves, leaving little for Bulgaria. Greece gained southern Macedonia and Serbia northern and central Macedonia. This did not solve the tensions in the Balkans, which reached their climax with the assassination of the Austrian heir-apparent in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. After the First World War northern Macedonia became part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia and in 1944 the Anti-Fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia proclaimed the People's Republic of Macedonia as part of the People's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The region had considerable autonomy and, following the collapse of communism, seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991. So, a long and tortured history, and exchanges on the internet demonstrate how entrenched and extreme attitudes can be. In the light of this the story told in the Museum was remarkably moderate in tone giving the social and economic background of the region in the 19th century with displays of weapons, uniforms, photographs of kilted and mustachioed freedom fighters, dioramas, even the brush used by a patriarch to tidy his beard. The museum is appropriately housed in the building of the Greek consulate general from 1894 to 1912, and during this period the building was used as a cover for fighting activities, many of the “special clerks” being in fact army officers organizing resistance in the region. Thessaloniki remembers its freedom fighters and activists in swaggering statues scattered across the city.

Greek Freedom Fighters, Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, Thessaloniki

Greek Freedom Fighters, Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, Thessaloniki

Statue of a Greek Freedom Fighter, Thessaloniki

Statue of a Greek Freedom Fighter, Thessaloniki

Jill's recipe for Macedonian Salad
For this Balkan dish the main ingredients are old bits of Turkey, Greece, Bulgar wheat, and a sprinkling of mixed Serbs. Stir everything violently up together and serve chopped and shredded. This is not a popular regional dish as it leaves a very bitter after taste.

Leaving the museum we stopped for a quick takeaway cheese and spinach pie on a bench before scuttling along to the Museum of Byzantine Art. Regrettably much of it was closed but what we could see, covering the earliest period from the 4th to 6th centuries, was free. Mainly it contained church sculptures, friezes and mosaics taken from destroyed Byzantine churches of Thessalonica. There were also locally found examples of tools and domestic implements – needles, mirrors, jewellery, coins and even fabrics. There were also ceramics and glass as well as painted tombs, coffins and funerary artefacts.

Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 6th cent. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki

Textile, 6th cent. Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki

Christogram, Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki

Mosaic, Byzantine Museum, Thessaloniki

I've always been a bit vague about the definition of Byzantine. Basically it is the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire which had become too large to administer from Rome so split around 330. In the eastern part Constantine the Great founded the city of Byzantium or Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Orthodox Christian Church developed separately from that of Rome. The three essentials in the development of Byzantium were the ancient Greek civilisation, the Roman heritage and Christianity. Byzantium therefore is synonymous with Greek Christian Orthodoxy.

Gradually the power of the Roman Empire in the East diminished, overrun by Slavs to the north and Arabs to the east. Byzantium became confined to the area of the southern Balkans and Asia Minor and developed an increasingly Greek identity. Eventually it succumbed to increasing attacks from the Ottomans and Constantinople was eventually overthrown in 1453.

Exhausted both physically and mentally we stopped for a coffee in the rather pretentious - i.e. expensive and almost deserted – museum cafe. Our guidebook assured us the nearby Museum of Antiquities was open until 8pm. I was suspicious but Ian was naively confident. We arrived at 3.15 to find it closed and deserted. The grounds were crowded with enormous, carved stone sarcophagi from the city's ancient necropolis as well as many inscribed columns, some dating back to the period prior to the division of the Roman Empire. So we got something from our visit and suspect what we'd seen in the Museum of Byzantine Art may well have duplicated some of the architectural exhibits anyway.

Sarcophagi in the grounds of the Museum of Antiquities, Thessaloniki

Sarcophagus at the entrance to the Museum of Antiquities, Thessaloniki

Walking back into town we discovered the Art Gallery. That too had already closed! Why oh why don't they work out a rota so that at least one museum stays open throughout the day? It is almost impossible for visitors to see round more than one museum or a couple of churches each day.

Finally today, returning to the centre of town we chanced on Navarinou Square and the ruins of a large palace complex originally built to accommodate the Roman Emperor, Galerius Maximianus (250-311AD) on his visits to the city. Curiously it's not mentioned in any of our guide books.

Baths of the Palace of Galerius, Thessaloniki