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Published: March 30th 2005
The White Tower Thessaloniki
Scene of bloody torture and Ottoman oppression during the occupation, then known as the Bloody Tower. Now the symbol of Thessaloniki
The romance of long distance train journeys has been well and truly wasted on me. The Trans-Balkan Express is the now misnamed service from Budapest to Thessaloniki, 15 years ago the route would travel through the former Yugoslavian countries in around 24hrs, now it winds it's way across to Bucharest and Sophia finally arriving in Thessaloniki 36 hrs after departure. It's a long time to find yourself on a train with no company - I was the only passenger using the sleeping carriages for most of the way. The most scenic areas of transit are passed through in the dark, with long hours suffering the wait at border control. I slept a months worth and demolished all the books I took with me.
I'd traveled down to Thessaloniki to see my girlfriend who was on a student exchange program there. Erasmus is a opportunity for students from all over Europe to spend a semester or a year in a university away from home, a great thing in the first few years - but I think unwise in the final year of medical studies. Also terrible timing for me - with the busiest season of freelance web work I hoped that
I'd find Internet cafes that would allow the connection of my laptop. If not this trip would be really difficult.
My first impressions of Thessaloniki were of a larger city than I expected, with horrendous architecture, busy traffic and rude people. But the sea front is nice, cafes and coffee shop culture and despite being rude, some of the friendliest people I've met improved my perceptions. Having endured earthquakes, fires and occupation of the ottomans, it's not surprising that very few buildings date from beyond the 1970's, those that remain are mainly Byzantine Churches, there is also the White Tower - symbol of Thessaloniki, and the castle on the hill overlooking the city.
My first few days were spent trying to find a helpful Internet cafe, I asked at over 20 and not one would allow me to plug a laptop into the network, despite some even having posters of happy laptop users surfing away on the store fronts. Eventually I found a public wifi hotspot at the passenger port of the ferry terminal, no where to power the laptop so was forced to work in 1.5 hr bursts, things eased a little when I got a dial
Main meeting point for Thessaloniki, note the attractive buildings around.
up number that I could use from the student dorm - but all said, Thessaloniki is the least technologically friendly city I have ever tried to work from - (and the CS students at the university study Fortran - yes I am trolling here 😉 )
The difficulties with working and a row with my girlfriend probably coloured my impressions of the city - so I'll try to talk about some of the positive things
; Food and Cakes
- the food is great, generally, lashings of olive oil and the desserts rich with honey and spice can wile away any afternoon. The “fish n chips” was interesting the chips were great but the fish salty to the point where I couldn't eat it - but the sauces with it were great. The White Tower
- known as the bloody Tower during the Ottoman occupation due to the gruesome torture of young Christians that occurred there. Painted white after the uprising and renamed. Symbol of Thessolniki. The castle (will add the name soon)
- a prison until 1989, slowly being restored and opened to the public, quite small but there is a beautiful little church in the
One of the oldest churches in Thessaloniki, currently closed to the public while restoration and archeaology occurs.
grounds that makes it really atmospheric. The Greek students
who I met and talked to were so friendly, invited us to parties that start at 10pm and go on till 5 or 6, had lots of interesting things to say. A few (more) negatives; The traffic
- it is crazy, the rules of the highway give cars right of way at nearly all times even with green pedestrian crossing lights, continual traffic noise throughout the city, (screeching, crashing, honking horns) and only two pedestrianised areas. Hazard lights are used as excuses to stop anywhere at anytime, drive down one way streets. Parking is permissible in two rows, people leave mobile phone numbers on the windscreen in case they've blocked someone in, if not horns are held continuously until someone moves the car - this can take many minutes. Extremely crowed buses and rude passengers
- I'm well aware of differing cultures, but when you get off a bus to let the people inside alight - it is stupid for the other passengers waiting on the outside to push past you, not let the people inside get off, get on themselves, and then refuse to make room
for you to get back on. I guess these attitudes are self feeding - to avoid being stranded on the pavement the passengers refuse to get off which means that people on the bus can't get off, which leads to pushing, shoving and stress.
The end of this story is that I rented a car for four days experienced the terrible Thessaloniki traffic from the drivers perspective, drove out of that dump* and visited much more of Greece, which had some of the most beautiful landscapes, towns, villages, beaches that I've ever seen. *yep I would describe Thessaloniki as a dump - it has potential and one or two redeeming features - but I'd never live there or recommend it for a vacation.
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