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Thessaloniki City of Contrasts

Perhaps not as famous but with a historical heritage equal to and probably more diverse than Athens Thessaloniki is Greece's second largest city. Situated on the Gulf of Thermaikos in the Aegean Sea, the city is a strategic trading port for northern Greece and the Balkans. It is also renowned for the universities and colleges that attract students from all over Europe. Thessaloniki has a rich cultural heritage, dating back many centuries. There are references to Thessaloniki in the New Testament, the most famous of which are St Paul's letters to the Thessalonians, the oldest records of Christian literature.The city was founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedonia, on a site of old monuments dating back to 2300 BC.

It was named after his wife Thessalonica, who was Alexander the Great's sister. Over the years, Thessaloniki has suffered invasions by many cultures, including Slavs, Arabs, Saraces, Normans, Catalans, Turks and Nazis. It is testament to the strength of this city that it has prevailed through each incursion, with its ancient Byzantine monuments intact.

I live in a small town just outside Thessaloniki. All my life I'd read books and articles that had waxed lyrical about Greece's culture, its beautiful weather, the sunshine and the beaches. Because Greece is a popular holiday destination winter is never mentioned.

Only when I moved here in August 2003 did I discover that snow is not uncommon, particularly in Northern Greece. Greece's winter runs from November to March, and the temperature can drop below freezing.Parking is at a premium in Thessaloniki, which boasts much of the charm of a historical city. Narrow streets with cobblestone pavements are a common feature ? wonderful to walk through but not very easy when driving a large motor car! Thessalonians park their cars everywhere - on pavements, street corners and in "no parking" zones, because there is simply not enough parking. Double and triple parallel parking is a common sight.

There are a few municipal parking areas, and these are situated close to the places of interest around the city.The White Tower is the symbol of Thessaloniki. It overlooks the city's waterfront, and is considered the city's most important historical site. It looks like a giant rook chess piece and it is grey in colour - not white.

The tower was built in the fifteenth century, and served as a prison during the Ottoman Empire's occupation of Greece, from 1430 to 1912. During this time it was known as "The Bloody Tower". When the inmates were executed the bodies were positioned at the top of the tower, so the blood would run down the sides as a fearsome reminder to the Thessalonians of the power of their invaders.

After Thessaloniki was liberated, the Tower was whitewashed as a symbolic gesture of cleansing. We were told that a Jewish prisoner painted the tower all by himself to obtain his freedom, but were not been able to substantiate this rather "romantic" story.Today the White Tower is a museum. We walked up to the top, using the stone staircase that winds its way up and around the inside of the structure.

There are three levels on the journey up, as well as benches situated near the windows for unfit visitors that need to rest during the climb. The steps are neither steep nor narrow; there are just rather a lot of them! The view is well worth the climb, affording a 360 degree radius over the sea and the city as far as the eye can see. On a clear day Mount Olympus is easily visible.

At the foot of the White Tower mementos and memorabilia of the building are sold, as well as postcards and souvenirs of Greece. There are also photographers who will take a picture of visitors with The White Tower in the background. Walking is really the best way to get around Thessaloniki, because there's so much to see, and most of the historical site are within close proximity to each other.

There are dozens of pharmacies, as well as shops selling clothing, toys, stationery and antiques. There are also plenty of restaurants and pavement cafeterias. It makes a visit to Thessaloniki town very pleasant indeed.There have been a number of earthquakes in the area over the last two thousand years, which means that Thessaloniki has been rebuilt several times, on top of the ruins of the previous city. This is noticeable when looking at some of the shops, which although accessible from the street, are located below street level. Many churches have withstood the earthquakes and remain standing, accessible via stairs leading down to their entrances from the street.

The last earthquake was in 1978.Three blocks from the tower is the next historical sight, a clear illustration of what the city was like two millennia ago. Surrounded by high-rise apartments, street level shops and restaurants, we approached what appeared to be a vacant plot in the centre of the city.

As we drew closer we saw brick walls and arches rising from the ground. When we got to the fence around the area we were amazed to look down upon a labyrinth of ruins. To find this in the middle of modern-day Thessaloniki was very exciting. Its name is Galerius' Palace, and it was the home of the Roman Emperor of the same name.Built at the beginning of the fourth century AD for Emperor Galerius ? he ruled the area between 305 and 311 AD, the site is now protected, and currently undergoing intensive restoration.

Architects are working on the site, and visitors can explore the ruins using designated paths. There is a lot of information about the palace on boards erected along the paths. Some of the intricate mosaic floor tiles are still in place, and we were able to identify bathrooms and a very sophisticated drainage system. Galerius' Palace extends to the very walls of the apartment blocks surrounding the site, so it's not hard to imagine how much of the palace has been covered by modern architecture.Two blocks from Galerius' Palace is the magnificent Arch of Galerius. Built to commemorate the Emperor's victory over the Persians in 297 BC, the stone arch contains carvings celebrating the battles.

It's a testament to great architecture that this structure has survived two thousand years and the earthquakes that have ravaged Thessaloniki. An information board next to the arch told us it was a part of four entrances situated where the ceremonial road from the palace complex met the city's busiest thoroughfare.Behind the arch we saw a massive circular stone structure with a huge domed roof. This building, the Rotunda, was again built for Galerius, and appears to have been his place of worship. It is thought that it became a Christian Church during the reign of Emperor Constantine, some 20 years after Galerius' death. Although this building is also being restored, we were able to walk inside.

There are platforms on two levels just above the ground. The roof is clearly visible when entering the building and looking up. There are recesses accessible off the ground floor, with intricate mosaic tiles on the ceilings. Again, it's astonishing that this colossal structure has remained standing through the centuries and forces of nature. It is believed to be the oldest Christian church in Greece, and one of the oldest in the world.

Further up Egnatia Street is a green park, full of benches, neat flower beds and trees. When we saw a fence surrounding a large area our curiosity was piqued ? remembering Galerius Palace we hurried towards it.Covering over two hectares, the Roman Forum is yet another reminder of Thessaloniki's rich history. Situated almost two metres below the street level of modern Thessaloniki, the Forum was build around 297 AD.

There are stone benches along three sides, overlooking a large open area which brought to mind illusions of gladiators and lions. Two arcades are situated on opposite sides of the Forum, a few metres lower than the arena floor. This was a market place, and it's easy to see where punters would have traded their goods. Pieces of an enormous ceramic vat have been restored, and this is displayed at the entrance to the market.

We estimated this probably held more than five hundred litres of wine ? enough for a really serious party! On the fourth side of the Forum are the well-preserved ruins of what looks like merchants' rooms or meeting venues. Sadly the restoration underway on this site means we have been denied access to this section of the Forum since 2003. On the same site is a building that housed the Roman Baths. This is well presented with many of the original bathroom fittings, and is well worth visiting.North of the Roman Forum is the most important of the city's 57 churches. Agios Demetrious has been gutted by two fires, the first in the sixteenth century and the second in 1916.

The church we see today was restored in 1947, and some of the original marble pillars that survived the fires are still standing and bear faint smudges of smoke as testimony to the infernos that destroyed the earlier church. It is full of exquisite ornaments and beautiful paintings of Saint Demetrious. He is the Patron Saint of Thessaloniki, and was commander of the Roman forces occupying Thessaloniki. In 303 AD the Emperor ordered Demetrious to execute all Christians living in Thessaloniki. Because Demetrious was a Christian, he refused, and was martyred. There is a holy display of his remains in the church, as well as a crypt underneath the church through which visitors can walk.

The crypt is the original church, and is fascinating. It consists of a series of rooms containing the original fount and altar. Other important churches include Agios Sofia, Agios Katerina and the Church of the Holy Apostles. All contain excellent examples of mosaics, wall paintings and relics of the Byzantine era. I confess it is rather disconcerting to see security guards seated inside a couple of the churches, and they were not praying. With so many antique artefacts around security is obviously a priority.

There are a number of museums in Thessaloniki that are full of information about the history of the entire Macedonian area, as well as the cultures that have been a part of this region. We visited the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, which contains information and detailed displays of the area's struggles, specifically concentrating on the 30 years before 1912. The Archaeological Museum contains treasures of the Hellenistic era and Alexander the Great.

The displays are very well displayed and information boards provide comprehensive details of each item, its use and where it was discovered. The Byzantine Museum contains many relics from that era, and includes a number of marble tombs. There are other museums, covering subjects such as theatre, cinema and Greek folklore.

Thessaloniki has a proud literary history, and today hosts events such as the Thessaloniki International Fair and the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.The market is another exciting place. Centred along several streets the vendors ply their wares in front of some old, rather shabby buildings.

This merely adds to the charm of the market, and shoppers can buy a wide range of goods from the many sales points. Butcheries, fishmongers, vegetable grocers and clothing shops abound, with sellers venturing outside their shops to entice shoppers. The prices are really good, and patrons can select different types of olives and olive oil as well as cheese and spices. Tourists are well catered for here, and there are a number of shops selling Thessaloniki memorabilia. And I've had some of my best meals at the taverns in the Thessaloniki Market!.There is much to see and do in Thessaloniki, and I know I have only covered the most prominent features.

The cuisine in Greece is amongst the best in the world, and dining out is a really enjoyable experience. There are many restaurants all over Thessaloniki, offering a good selection of traditional Greek and Mediterranean food. There are also a number of International fast food outlets, such as MacDonald's and Appleby's. The city is really lively at night, with many nightclubs, bars and restaurants staying open all night long. There are excellent cinemas and theatres, as well as a planetarium.Thessaloniki may be a city of contrasts, but through the ages she has retained her identity, and is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited.

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to see first hand some of the most important historical places in Europe, if not the world.

.The writer was born in Africa, and lived there for the first 38 years of her life. She worked in the world of public relations for over five years, running her own PR company and dealing extensively with the world of journalism and the print media.

She is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/, a site for Writers.

Her blog can be visited at: http://www.writing.com/authors/zwisis/blog.

By: Sarah Todd


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