Bye bye Balkans hello Hellas: Thessaloniki at all costs

Greece promised a return to the EU, prices in euros, a wealth of history and a brand new alphabet for me to fail at learning. Crossing the border at Niki in the late afternoon having lingered in Bitola the change in scenery was almost immediately palpable as the lush greens of Macedonia were replaced by burnt golds, reminiscent of the palette I found Tuscany and Umbria. Stopping for a beer proved a wallet scathing experience. At three euros for a small beer at a nondescript bar it was more than treble the cost I had become accustomed to in the Balkans. (Well Kosovo at least.)

A satisfying conversation with some Greek old boys took some of the sting out of the transaction as we traded complements of each others civilizations. Dickens from him was greeted by exclamations of Thucydides by me, Plato - Shakespeare, Aristotle - Thomas Paine, and on and on. It was all most pleasing but with the sun dipping and a plan to head into the hills forming between me and Fred we hit the road again.

With the wind rising and the sun soon to dip behind the horizon we gave up on reaching Keli (where the old boys had mentioned some abandoned buddings) and instead set up camp behind the fold of a hill on an already harvested field.

The stiff breeze ensured a refreshing evening reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and listening to Roy Orbison laid out under a clear sky learning astronomy from Fred.

It really was a marvelous spot with lovely views over rolling hills undulating in all directions

The changed scenery was a continued source of pleasure as we went our way though the hilly farms and pastures.

Fine looking Keli and her shepherd strewn frontage

Views across lake Petron

I was even visited by an exotic visitor.

What a beauty!

Our aim for the day was Pella. Birth place of Alexander III of Macedon who during his short life bestrewed the earth from Adriatic to Indus. Not a bad an achievement by the age of 33.

Pella was rather more discrete in its trumpeting of this famous son than you might expect but the obligatory statue nonetheless greeted us.

After struggling with the heat on a busy stretch of Greek highway we arrived just before 17:00 to find the main museum closed. Stymied we retired to a bar where the owners son kindly offered the use of their alley for the night so that we could visit the museum the next morning. 

Ravaged by mosquitoes. I have spent more restful evenings. 

Fred's mosquito net was a source of great envy.

Waking at 03:30 to find a veritable cloud of the little blighters feasting on me I reached for my almost empty bug spray and unscrewed the top. Rather than dab some onto my neck as intended I succeeded in pouring a quart of DEET into my ear. This would have been distressing enough but the stink bomb released set half the dogs of Pella into a frenzy. The barking of the dogs and buzzing of the mosquitoes ensured I spent the rest of the night reading Wikipedia articles on Alexander the Great rather than sleeping.

Fortunately the museum was an excellent place to revive as the ancient city, once boasting one of the largest Agoras of antiquity, was explained in wondrous cool and silence with me and Fred the only visitors.

I was particularly taken by this fetching model of Eros striking a wonderfully jaunty pose.

But for me it was the maps on the walls which caught my attention most. I can enjoy mosaics and appreciate the great age of artifacts and walk well preserved city outlines with the best of them but given a map I'll gawp and wonder for hours. Cartography is the most evocative of art forms to my unsubtle eyes. What more stirring sight than the outlines of ancient Sogdiana? Encompassing everything and nothing of the people who lived and live there. The reality of the earth overlaid with the temporal imaginings of people and their political aspirations.

I enjoyed learning that Pella, now lying 25k inland, had in its heyday been a coastal city. The false immutability of our geographical surrounds revealed even in the short course of human hıstory.

With Alexander's empire set to pick up from Trajan's Roman empire as my journey continued east it was especially exciting to trace my route across his conquests; the evocative names of ancient kingdoms, many long turned to dust, alive again for my perusal.

Walking the well preserved ruins of Pella ensured that by our departure at midday I had forgotten my lack of sleep and felt inspired and invigorated.

Just check out those mosaics

Thessaloniki loomed quickly and with it my first glimpse of the sea since climbing inland at Kotor. Greece's second city is, in a very real sense, the daughter of Pella. Taking up the coastal position Pella lost to coastal silting. But it was only in 1912 that Thessaloniki was captured by Greece from the crumbling remains of the Ottoman Empire. The then Greek PM, when asked whether the army should move towards Thessaloniki or Monastir (now Bıtola), replied "Salonique à tout prix!

The Greek army only beat the Bulgarian army to the city by a day meaning this swift commitment to the city was crucial. 

Wandering her streets it quickly becomes clear why this place was so highly sought after by the competing powers of the day. Thessaloniki is an impressive city full of contrasts. It's certainly pious. Orthodox priests were a common sight walking solemnly in their vestments and I have never seen so many well used churches. Entertaining one of the many pretty brick orthodox buildings on a normal Wednesday evening I witnessed dozens of people enter and light a candle in just a few minutes. Still others came and kissed the portraits of the saints. A young woman in floods of tears implored loudly for a salvation incomprehensible to me. No quiet Anglican slow death for religion here then.

But it was also young and tech savvy. The busy bars often included gaming sections. Modern Warfare and WOW took place surrounded by occasionally interested onlookers drinking, chatting and flirting. Elsewhere in the sports bars mean of all ages reclined watching the opening games of the Greek football season. One screen showing the match the next an on going Fifa game. As an avid gamer I was smitten. No geeky stigma here. Computer games were a fully integrated part of the social scene.

The heart of the city on her bustling sea front is the White Tower. A stout hold which gained its current name only in the nineteenth century when an inmate (It was being used as a prison at the time) offered to whitewash the building in exchange for his sentence being commuted. He succeeded and the White Tower stands still.

Thessaloniki's thriving port and expensive sea front bars.

My brief time in Thessaloniki did not end altogether happily. I had taken a room in a 5th floor apartment through AırBnB. The apartment was nice but the lift was... less so.

The door in the picture isn't for the lift but for the floor. There was in fact no door on the lift meaning that as you rode up and down you could reach out and brush against the moving sides of the elevator shaft.

I got the bike up to the room ok but the lift was very tight meaning I had to hoist it up on its back wheel pointed skywards. On my departure as I descended my handlebars touched the door-less shaft. In that moment there was a crash; my front lıght exploded the handlebars twısted and the lıft shuddered. I wrestled the bike back under control but the damage was done.

I emerged on the ground floor with a rising sense of disbelief and panic. Along with the light the front brake was smashed but far far more distressing was the state of my poor saddle.

Over hard months of cycling the leather had slowly molded to my backside and riding style. All gone now.

A slow walk to a local bike shop to buy a cheap new v brake and saddle, added to a quick bout of roadside repairs with much help from Fred, soon saw me on my way.

But the bike didn't look or feel the same :( I couldn't bring myself to leave behind the bent brooks and so I rolled away with a cobbled together tandem.


  1. More wonderful culture and evocative photographs recreated Tom. Horrible effect on your bicycle though. Time for Turkey and parcels from home methinks!! Mum xxx

  2. Lovely photos Tom. Those mosquitoes are pesky though. Pity about the bike but will take no time to wear in a new saddle. Onwards and eastwards. Luv Chris