As we stepped out of the marble-floored coolness of our hotel lobby and onto the Thessaloniki sidewalk, a wave of HOT slammed into us…in the shade. We wandered a few blocks and found ourselves squinting in the white-hot sunlight of a pretty European square ringed by tourist hotels and covered in umbrellas and café tables. We grabbed the lead cab at a taxi stand and asked the driver to bring us to the top of the city.
The taxi driver was chatty and friendly, and I happily explained that we hailed from Boston, USA and that we were excited to be in Greece to celebrate with our friends for their wedding. Along the way he pointed out churches and bits of ruins among the city bustle and declared that “Thessaloniki has very many good sights!”
The taxi delivered us to the base of a crumbling castle wall perched high above the city amidst terraces of concrete houses with a view of the glittering blue ocean below. A dusty black dog had thrown himself down in the shade against the base of the wall. As we approached he yawned and stretched his skinny legs but didn’t bother raising his head to check us out.
Following a walking tour in our guide book, we meandered downhill past quiet houses still waking up on this Sunday morning. We found our way to a plaster-walled monastery tucked in among evergreens. We walked through a wrought iron gate and across a silent courtyard. Around the corner, we found a wire enclosure housing a dozen peacocks sprawled in the dirt or hauling their heavy plumage up and over a low stone wall as they scratched for seeds. We popped into an exhibit room tucked into the walls of the monastery chilled by an AC unit cranked up to frosty. A stern woman in sensible shoes kept watch over us as we admired the exhibit of 17th century Greek Orthodox religious icons; wood slabs with images of apostles painted thickly on both sides and glowing withgold leaf.
We wandered further down the hillside, navigating worn stone staircases and windy stone streets. Apartments were shuttered where the sun fell and thrown open in the shade; windows and balcony doors beckoning the breeze inward. Houses were built tumbling on top of each other, creating intimate neighborhoods where you could eavesdrop on your neighbor’s telephone conversation while sipping coffee at your own kitchen table.
Locals who we sought out on the street not only pointed us in the right direction, they generously walked with us for a half block to help us find a tiny thirteenth century stone church. While Mohit got a personal tour from the lady keeping watch over the church, I sat in the shade of an olive tree. A small turtle lurched out of the shade of a bush, plodded across a patch of sun, and bumbled back into the grassy shade among the ivy that grew up along the church walls. The scene was set to a backdrop soundtrack of techno-mixed Rihanna, courtesy of the church lady’s daughter’s iPod.
We took refuge from the now-midday heat at the huge Church of Agios Dimitrios, home of Thessaloniki’s patron saint, a Greek Orthodox who was killed for secretly preaching Christianity during strict Roman rule. The crypt under the church was dimly lit and smelled of dampness and old candles. Locals filed past the mosaic tile images of saints on the walls and took turns pressing their lips to the saints’ feet.
We found a hole-in-the-wall local café with menus printed only in Greek letters. The woman behind the counter (whose proud demeanor told us she owned he place) explained her specialty to us in halting English: souvlaki sandwiches, puffy flat bread wrapped around grilled cubes of chicken and mint-spiced lamb meatballs (“ball meat”, as described comically by our hostess), drizzled in garlicky yogurt and piled high with a salad of cabbage, parsley, tomatoes, and onion slices drizzled in lemon juice. We confidently ordered two and then ate them perched on high stools outside on the sidewalk. Mm mm mmmmmmm.
We continued down the hill to ocean and watched a bride and groom on their wedding day photo shoot. Impossibly tan with a pulled-back mane of dark curly hair, the bride posed in her strapless buttercream gown pressed against the wall of the White Tower, mostly solo, and only occasionally with her linen-clad groom as an accessory.
With tired feet and jet lag kicking in we scanned the multitude of sidewalk cafes and chose one based on the comfortableness of its rattan couches. We ordered tall iced Nescafes which arrived with a dish of plastic-wrapped sweet biscuits. Despite the caffeine jolt, Mohit was blissfully napping within a few minutes in the corner of the couch. I alternated between people watching, jotting notes onto pilfered hotel stationary, and reading my current travelogue (the thoroughly enjoyable “Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World ”)
As an orange sun sank into the ocean, the air cooled and the breeze quickened. The city came to life as the café tables around us filled with fashionable locals wearing huge sunglasses and dark tans. Street hawkers paused to offer bootleg DVDs, fake Rolex watches, and beaded necklaces. A dark-haired boy stopped to offer a silk fan for sale and we politely declined. He paused and gave Mohit a long curious look , then asked him “….Pakistan?” We laughed and I said “No. India. (which answered the question he was asking much better than “America” would). He considered Mohit for a moment more and then skipped off.
For dinner we chose a jam-packed restaurant perched on a concrete pier that juts out into Thessaloniki’s harbor. The venue is a converted warehouse, the surrounding cobblestone street embedded with old train tracks. Bar tables lined the sidewalk between the warehouse and the water’s edge, and I considered the risk of sipping cocktails perched on a high stool only inches from the edge of the pier, which had no curb or railing. Mohit ordered skewers of meat served with yogurt sauce and I chose risotto with a confetti of vegetables and shrimp. We left just as the place appeared to be really filling up so that we could head back to the hotel to grab our bags and a taxi to the airport. Our next stop: Crete!