Warm autumn days in Thessaloniki

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Young men in formal robes stand in front of gleaming golden walls and porticoes. Above them, wings of the Archangels float in the air. The mosaics of Thessaloniki’s ancient Rotunda are included in the UNESCO World Heritage “Paleochristian and Byzantine Monuments of Thessalonika,” and rightly so.

In terms of sightseeing, we always try to eat our cake as soon as possible – that is: not to save the highlights for the end but to go immediately and see the things on top of our wish list. Decades of travelling have taught us that unexpected changes of plan can occur …. So on our first day in Thessaloniki, as soon as we have checked in, we walk down into the town and enter the Rotunda.

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30 m high and round, it is a sturdy building from antiquity – the Roman Emperor Galerius had it built in the 4th century, perhaps as a mausoleum for himself. Galerius was a strict persecutor of Christians for most of his life – but soon after, the Empire became Christian and quickly turned the Galerius’ Rotunda into a splendid Christian church. The golden mosaics in the cupola and on some arches are still partly preserved and still magnificent. In 1591, the building became a mosque and with that status came a free-standing minaret. After all that back-and-forth, today it is a non-religious historical site.

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Over the next few days, we seek out many more churches, archaeological excavations from the Roman period such as the excavated Roman Forum, and walk along the remnants of the sturdy city walls. Yet five days are not enough to see all the Palaeochristian and Byzantine sites on the UNESCO list and everything else we thought we would like to see in Thessaloniki. Especially as we spent the better part of two days on excursions travelling into the nearby countryside (see our previous post, “The tomb of Philipp II in Vergina“).

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The second big item on our sightseeing wish list of “cakes” was the Byzantine Museum. Thessaloniki was from the start one of the most important cities in the Eastern Roman / Byzantine Empire, and there are a lot of early Christian objects on display: The marble columns and huge stone sarcophaguses look quite Roman to us. In the early years, the burial rules were apparently quite lax – short of cremation, the early Christians could do everything as in heathen times, including extravagant grave goods, painted tombs and funeral banquets.

How to become a martyr

Later on, the style shifted to the typical Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, and painted wooden icons of saints and holy martyrs we had never heard of. This even increased after the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople in1453 and ended the Byzantine Empire. Church authorities then promised every martyr for the Christian belief the same status as the traditional saints. In those days, martyrdom was quite easily accomplished. So it became rather popular for Christian losers to run out into the street and insult Islam in public. Muslim authorities at times were rather annoyed that they had to behead all those people in order to prove their authority.

Spells for the dead

In the Archaeological Museum (another sightseeing highlight), we especially liked the stylish bowls from the Island of Chios, and the statues of the Egyptian gods the Romans started to worship in the later years of the Empire. At least in Makedonia, there was also a custom of putting spells written on a strip of metal into the tombs, which reminds us of the Book of the Dead in Egypt. But we also noticed with delight some details like the profession of “flatterer” at formal banquets, the manufacturer’s name on stones for slingshots, or the sales contract for a little slave girl written on a huge stone slab certainly heavier than the girl.

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Oh, and then of course, the cakes themselves. Both guidebooks we used for our travel to Thessaloniki had a special section on the best confectioners in town, with suggestions on how to incorporate several of them into a day walk. So we sampled our way through Trigonas (cream-filled triangles) at Stratos, Tsoureki (yeast loaves with sweet fillings and a chocolate icing) at Terkenlis bakery, and variously filled Koulouri (sesame rings – similar to Turkish Simit).

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Strong Greek coffee goes quite well with all of this.

And when the weather returned to summer on our last evening of the journey, we even did a short boat cruise along the coastline of Thessaloniki.

Notice: Our trip to Thessaloniki was organised and paid for entirely by ourselves, we do not have any association with the sites and shops mentioned or depicted above, and we did not receive any sponsoring.

We used two travel guidebooks and one history book:
DuMont Reise-Taschenbuch Chalkidikí & Thessaloníki. 2017.
Lonely Planet Greece. 2018 (we had the previous edition).
Mark Mazower: Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews. 2005

11 Comments

  1. I so agree with you about seeing the things on the top of your list first. The problem often becomes what to put at the top, especially in a place like this with so much history. It looks like your guidebooks served you well in finding great places to see and things to do. I chuckled at your comment about the Muslim authorities being annoyed at having to behead Christians to prove their authority.

  2. I like your thoughts about visiting your most important spots first. Plans often get interrupted. I am sure you did not miss the Thessaloniki Rotunda. It looks quite stunning inside! So fun to have a list of confectioners in town. Definitely a way to replenish your energy.

  3. Seeing the things at the top of your list is a great way to start off the trip that way you are able to do what you want most. I also LOVE visiting the historic buildings and churches – seeing the intricate details of the architecture and the dedication and quality of work they put into them. It is amazing to see buildings still in quality condition after hundreds of years.

  4. Rotunda looks impressive and good to know its history from Mausoleum to Church to Mosque to today’s non-religious site. Your article has given me serious goal to visit Thessalonik specially for the histoery and heritage.

  5. I like history and looks like Thassalonki is full of it. I am impressed at the way the Rotunda has been maintained and all the wall paintings in the museum. The Rotunda reminds me of the the round tower we saw in Copenhagen.

  6. Thessaloniki looks like a beautiful place to visit. I would love to visit the Rotunda. I also think the Byzantine Museum would be fun to visit. I remember learning about the Byantine empire in school, so it would be interesting to see artifacts from that period in time in person.

  7. Thessaloniki undoubtedly has a lot of history in it. You can see it just from the magnificent architecture of the buildings and its own religious sites. A walking tour is a must here for sure and of course you can never go wrong with a cake and a strong Greek coffee after.

  8. Greece in general is full of history and Thessaloniki is not an exception. We are like you when it comes to sightseeing we don’t want to keep the best for the end. I haven visited Historical attractions in Greece, but I can’t remember if I have visited any church. I should add to my list to see some Roman churches when I go back there

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