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Thursday, December 04, 2014

ASPROVALTA: A FEW DAYS ON THE BEACH



 After my couple of days in Thessalonki I decided to spend some beach time in the north. It had been a toss-up between various locations but in the end I chose Asroprovala, a small beach town about two hours from Thessaloniki. I used to go camping there on my past trips when I was working on research for SHADOW.  This time I made the choice to go there rather than Thassos Island, which I love, or the Halkidiki penisula was because just as I was making plans for Greece, the tomb find at Amphipolis was made pubic. Asprovalta is close to Amphipolis and I decided that I'd take the chance on going to see this remarkable archaeological site. It all fit in with my wish to tour some of the novel's sites as well.

Athina Resort Hotel, Asprovalta

I booked myself into a nice hotel. I'd thought it was going to be right on the beach and it wasn't, but the beach wasn't far away, just a short walk. And the people at the hotel were very welcoming and helpful.
Appropriately, a road named Megalo Alexandrou (Great Alexander)
 
I rescued this little guy from the middle of the road.

The beach
 

A relaxing afternoon

The beach was about a 10 minute walk along a country road. It was a long stretch of sand and not very many people on it at that time of year. So I managed to have a couple of leisurely days just hanging out in the sun, swimming and enjoying a little rest.

The Hotel Gardens
In the evening I sat out in the big back yard of the hotel and wrote in my journal. There was a good restaurant at the hotel too though not many patrons enjoying the delicious food.

Breakfast
 

Dinner

On my second day I asked the hotel clerk to hire a taxi for me so I could make the trip to Amphipolis. The first time I'd been I had walked up the road to from the main highway, and second time took the local bus up to where the old hill fort used to be. This time, as my time was limited and I didn't fancy the long hike, I decided on a taxi ride. And as it turned out, I was glad that I did because the cab driver was familiar with the territory and knew exactly what to show me.

NEXT:  AMPHIPOLIS:  A VIEW OF THE TOMB

Monday, December 01, 2014

THESSALONIKI: VISITING THIS CITY'S RICH HISTORY

I have visited Thessaloniki (in Greek Macedonia) several times beginning with 1979, my very first trip to Greece. I stopped there first specifically so I could go to the Archaeological Museum and see the amazing finds that were on display from the tombs at Vergina. I've visited there a few times since then, usually when I was on research trips for SHADOW OF THE LION.  My stops were brief and each time I'd try to take in a bit of the city.


Thessaloniki (Salonika) definitely has a different ambience than Athens. The city has a long history, founded in 315 BC by Kassandros (who happens to be the villain of my novel) after he coerced Alexander's half-sister Thessaloniki to marry him, thereby getting his foot in the door of the Macedonian royalty. The site was originally the ancient Greek settlement of Thermae. In 146 BC the Romans arrived and took over the city. Christiany had its beginnings in Thessalonki when the Apostle Paul visited. He founded a church there in 56 AD and wrote two Epistles to the Thessalians. The Emperor Galerius took control three centuries later. The first Christian Emperor was Theodosius (379-95) who ended paganism. When the Emperor Justinian ruled (527-65) Thessaloniki became the second most important city of Byzantium after Constantinopole.

The Ottoman Turks invaded Greece in 1430. They called the city "Selanik".  Thessalonki became one of their major cities. , The population of the city was composed of  Slavs, Albanians, Armenians and the largest Jewish community in Europe. Greek Orthodox Christians were a minority.

In 1917 a fire leveled most of the city destroying the old buildings including the entire Jewish quarter. Later the city was rebuilt in an Art Deco style under the supervision of French architect and archaeologist Ernst Hebrard.



When I  visit Thessaloniki I usually stay at a hotel on the main street, Egnatia, making it an easy walk to see all the sights. Just a few blocks from my hotel is the pleasant plateia of Aristoteles with it's palms and gardens and a statue of the famous philosopher a focal point. There are tavernas and shops on each side of the plateia. As I stopped at one for a refreshing drink, I saw a group of men at a table nearby who looked surprisingly just like I imaged the generals in SHADOW must have looked!



Aristotle

The plateia opens to the sea walk with it's beautiful neo-classical buildings and many restaurants and tavernas populated by groups of young people. Thessalonki is a university city and there seems to be a large portion of the population are young folk, likely students. As a result Thessalonki has a lively music and theatre scene.



The old and new sections of the the city are marked by the Exhibition grounds and the seaside walk dominated by the famous White Tower (Lefkos Pyrgos), part of the Fortress of Kalamaria that once formed the corner of the city's Byzantine and Ottoman defences. The walls were demolished in the late 19th century. Before that it was known as the Bloody Tower, an infamous place of imprisonment and execution. It is said that a Jewish prisoner was offered his freedom if he painted the tower white. Hence the name "White Tower".

The sea walk is one of my favorite parts of Thessaloniki. I love the long stroll and after stopping for a delicious lunch of calamaria in pesto sauce, among the company of a bevy of handsome young folk, I set off for a walk, heading toward the White Tower and another of my favorite sites in the city:  the statue of Alexander the Great astride his famous horse Bucephalus.  The statue faces East, toward his conquests. It is surrounded by a wall with a frieze depicting his battle with the Persians, a row of tall sarissas, the spears used by the phalanx troops, and a stand of shields each with the inscription of the tribe or batallion of the soldiers.  Near the statue is theVassilika Theatre where I noticed a large bill-board advertising a production of "Alexander: the Musical". 

 
Alexander the Great
 
Just around the corner is the Archaeological Museum and although the treasures from the tombs have been removed to their original site at Vergina, there are still many fascinating artifacts on display. At the museum cafe while I was enjoying a frappe, I spotted a young man who looked exactly like I imagine Alexander had looked. I tried to take a photo of him as he passed by but didn't get a good shots. That's only the third time in all my travels in Greece I have seen someone who resembled my historical hero.


I had intended to take a side trip to Pella, the Royal City where Alexander was born. However my time was limited so I decided instead to spend the next day exploring the parts of Thessaloniki that I had not seen before. Fortunately my hotel was not far from many of these historical buildings.
Just around the corner I found an Ottoman bazaar.
 

 Near the water front is an early 20th century house that once belonged to a Jewish family now a Jewish museum. During WW II all the Jews in Thessaloniki were rounded up and taken to internment camps. About 90,000 of them were killed. There was once a Jewish cemetary in Thessalonki but it was destroyed by the Nazis.



I wandered down Egnatia Street, past the Bey Hamam, Turkish Baths, and up through the park area of the Plateia Dieikastrion to the site of the old Roman Form.


Roman Ruins
 
Back on Egnatia St. I passed two old Byzantine churches. Many of these churches were converted to mosques during the Ottoman occupation and many others were damaged in the fire of 1917.   I finally reached the famous Arch of Galerius and a little farther up the road, north of the arch,  the Rotonda.


Roman inscriptions and friezes on the arch

Now I was in Thessalonki's Upper Town, the old Turkish area.  I passed through the gardens that surround a 15th century mosque.


Mosque
This area is where the  Turkish consulate is located. Right behind the consulate is the home of Kamal Ataturk, the first president of the modern secular state of Turkey, born in 1881.

 Ataturk's House
 
There are still many Ottoman Turkish buildings (or remnants of ) in this area of town.   One distinct reminder of the old city are the remains of the old 14th century city ramparts constructed with brick and rubble on top of the old Roman foundations.

Old City Walls
You really need more than three days to see and experience all that Thessaloniki has to offer.  Next time I go it will be for a longer stay so I can take in all the things I missed on this trip, including some of the night life which is said to be exceptional.

Pleasure Boat in style of an ancient trieme.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

EXPLORING THESSALONIKI: PART ONE: The Literary Part

Before I left for Greece I was invited by poet friend Manolis Aligizakis to attend his book launch in Thessaloniki. As I was planning to go up north anyway to revisit Macedonia since my book was published, I decided to make a point of going for this event.

I had only just arrived in Athens when I got the train up north for a few days stay in this beautiful northern city, once known as "The Paris of the North". The hotel I'd booked was conveniently located on the main street and not too distant from where Manolis' presentation would be held at the Poeta Cafe.


 
Manolis Aligizakis reading from his new poetry book

It was a pleasant evening and the poetry presentation was held out-doors under the trees in the plateia. There was a nice crowd to enjoy the poetry and music supplied by a talented young man who played the accordian.

The next day I set off to visit the Society of Macedonian Studies who are given credit in my novel as they were helpful with my research when I began writing SHADOW OF THE LION back in 1993.
One of the beautiful things about Thessaloniki  is the long walk along the sea-front.  To get there I walked through a long plateia with palm trees and greenery, lined with shops and cafes. 




All along the seafront are gorgeous old neo-classical buildings, many tavernas and cafes and bustling crowds of young people -- mainly students from the University of Aristotle. 
In fact, at the end of the Square, which is called Aristotle's Square, is a bronze statue of the famous philosopher who was once the teacher of Alexander the Great.

 
Aristotle


 
Aristotle Square

The spirit of Alexander is very evident in Thessaloniki, although it was not established til well after his death, named for his half-sister Thessaloniki, who was co-erced into marrying Kassandros, the man who brought down Alexander's dynasty.  (It's interesting to me as all these people are featured in my novel.  In fact, as I sat at a cafe in the Square I saw a table of men who  resembled what I imagined my generals would be like!)
 
The White Tower

I've strolled the sea-walk many times before during my various research trips to the city.  In the distance is the White Tower, one of Thessaloniki's famous landmarks that dates back to Byzantine and Ottoman times. Across from the Tower I spotted the impressive building that houses the Society of Macedonian Studies. At the edge of a park nearby I found a statue of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great.
King Philip II

I had one of my books with me and wanted to present it to the director. However, when I went there I was told I'd need an appointment, which I didn't have, nor did I have time to set one up as I had only planned for one full day in the city. So I dropped the book off in the hands of one of the secretaries and only hope it got to the right person. (I've never heard from them so I have no idea if it was delivered).

Society for Macedonian Studies

After leaving there I walked back toward the sea. Ahead of me I could see the silhouetted outline of the famous statue of Alexander on his horse Bucephalus.  This is one of my favorite sights in the city and one I have paid homage at many times. The monument has Alexander facing East toward his conquests.  Surrounding the platform are the tall sarissas, the pikes used by his phalanx, as well as their shields all marked for the various units in the army.  It's an impressive sight!



 

Alexander the Great


Right near there is a theatre and what a surprise to see a large poster advertising a production "Alexander, the Musical". I can't imagine what it would be like!  After paying homage at the statue, I walked back over to the wonderful Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

Vassilika Theatre

Archaeological Museum

On my very first trip to the city back in 1979, they had just put the finds of the royal tombs of Vergina on display. What a thrill that was to be one of the first to observe them!  Since then the finds have been returned to the tombs and I have also viewed them there, a much more impressive sight than just seeing them in the museum cases.  There are still a few Alexander-themed finds in the museum as well as other interesting artifacts.

 trireme with seige equipment
 
 pottery
 
 Bust in style of Alexander
 
  Marble blocks inscribed with Alexander's name
 
 gold diadem
 
 
gold coin inscribed with Olympias, Alexander's mother

My intention was to go on a side-trip to visit Pella, the ancient capital where Alexander grew up, and one of the settings in my novel. However, my time was hurried and instead, I decided to explore the city because Thessaloniki has a long and rich history.  So the next day, instead of taking the bus to Pella, I spent the morning visiting some of the places in Thessaloniki I had not seen before, in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Turk parts of this amazing city.

NEXT: A Historic Walk in Thessaloniki