My Greek odyssey was bookended with visits to two destinations in the north of the country; neither of which warranted independent blog entries. On first glance, the cultural and natural wonder of Meteora and the major city of Thessaloniki may seem unrelated, but Greek Orthodoxy and Byzantine architecture are characteristic of both identities. This is probably a flimsy connection to justify grouping them together, but I’m running with it. In late August, I arrived in Trikala in Central Greece after a lengthy overnight trip from Bulgaria. I was surprised by how developed Greece appeared and how proficient at English the Greeks I encountered were; both of which contravened assumptions I had made based on the country’s dire financial circumstances. The effects of the crisis are not really identifiable for a tourist, especially since locals continue to engage in a cosmopolitan lifestyle as bars and cafes are full in the evening throughout the week. I used Trikala as my base to visit Meteora, which was a visually stunning introductory to Greece. I deliberated ad nauseum about the concluding stages of my trip, but all roads led to Thessaloniki anyway if I were to avoid flying into the Western Balkans. I stayed in the grungy second city of the Byzantine Empire and the modern Hellenic Republic for two nights.
Meteora is among the most extraordinary sights on the planet and a rightful claimant to the title of “eighth wonder of the word”. Colossal oval-shaped rock formations rise from barren and relatively flat grasslands to create a captivating landscape similar to the Karst Mountains of Southern China. Some of the formations are, however, steeper than that seen in China, which results in the exposition of black rock as the inclination is too substantial for plant growth. The most beguiling attribute of Meteora is the preposterous positioning of six Greek Orthodox monasteries on top of these granite peaks. The monasteries were constructed five to six hundred years ago and once numbered twenty. Extensive foundations were built on the sides of the peaks to support the precariously situated complexes. I caught the bus up to the largest monastery, Great Meteora, and walked between the others. The interiors of complexes were rather uninspiring and alike; it’s the views which are awesome. I ended the day by hiking through a verdant valley between the rock formations to Kalambaka, before departing the area.
Thessalonians are overtly proud of their Macedonian identity and their city’s rich history. Thessaloniki was the primary port of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. It became the capital of the province of Macedonia under Roman occupation and the second city of the Byzantine Empire until its collapse in the fifteenth century. Considering the anonymity of Thessaloniki from a tourist perspective, I was surprised to find the city dotted with surprisingly extensive Roman ruins and several astonishing Byzantine edifices, more so than Istanbul and Athens. The most impressive are the expansive remains of Emperor Galerius’ palace that are located in the heart of the city,
surrounded by towering apartment blocks. Connected to this complex is the arch of Galerius and the wonderfully preserved seventeen-hundred year old circular Rotunda that originally served as a colossal pagan temple. Thessaloniki was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the early fifteenth century, which began five hundred years of Islamic rule. Traces of this epoch that exist in the central area of the city include Turkish baths, small mosques, the wooden houses of the Old Town and the robust fortified towers of the city walls. While Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century, Thessaloniki was not liberated until 1912 after the first Balkans War. The historic region of Macedonia was partitioned between four neighbouring countries, which has spurned continual animosity between the Greek-speaking and Slavic-speaking areas based on the usage of the name and the identity of Alexander the Great. It is now the second city of Greece and remains the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia.
Thessaloniki boasts numerous archaeological and architectural wonders, but it is fundamentally a modern and unattractive city. The layout follows a conventional grid-plan with four lane boulevards and heavy traffic, so it lacks the Old World charm of the central areas of other European cities. The building typology is uniform throughout Thessaloniki: unimaginative and plain six storey apartment buildings with vast balconies. The promenade area and the old Turkish residential areas on the slopes above the business district are reasonably appealing.
The constituent commonality between Meteora and Thessaloniki is the Byzantine architecture of Greek Orthodox churches. Ancient churches from the Byzantine era can be found on virtually every city block in Thessaloniki. Byzantine churches are much smaller than Latin churches (slightly larger than a cathedral chapel) and feature the Greek-cross layout (symmetrical). The Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki exhibit remarkably minimal stylistic variation. The external surfaces consist of exposed red brick and stone, the roofs are composed of terracotta tiles and they usually a small dome above their centre points. The Byzantine era is celebrated in Greece as the Golden Age of the country’s faith and is thus often referred to as the Greek Orthodox Empire. The monasteries of Meteora were built to replicate the architecture of this bygone era. The museums inside are quite interesting because they espouse nationalistic propaganda, glorify the Byzantine state and abue the Islamic Turks for subjugating the Greeks to “slavery”.
From my first meal in Greece, I knew that I would love the country’s culinary offerings. I tentatively began my examination of Greek cuisine by ordering classic dishes at a taverna in Trikala. I enjoyed an ultra-garlicky tzatziki (my favourite kind), traditional Greek salad (tomato, cucumber, green capsicum, olives, oregano and a slab of feta on top) and souvlaki. In Greece, souvlaki refers to skewers of meat with pork and chicken the most common varieties. Weeks later in seaside Thessalonian restaurant, I ticked off another Greek classic, prawn saganaki, which I had never previously sampled before. The prawns were smothered in a rich tomato sauce with feta mixed through. On my last night in Greece, I ordered Thessaloniki’s signature dish: soutzakakia, a plate of flavoursome skinless veal sausages. I also enjoyed a heavenly eggplant dip (tangy instead of smoky) and tzatziki that tasted like Turkish cacik (cucumber dip) to its detriment.
Meteora was a stunning and unique sight, an unmissable destination in Europe. Thessaloniki though should only be visited if transiting from the South of Greece to the Balkans. There are some appealing attributes to the city at least, particularly the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman relics.
That’s all for now,