The Lefkos Pyrgos (White Tower), down by the seafront, is the symbol of Thessaloniki. It originally formed part of the city walls before they were demolished in the late nineteenth century.
The Arch of Galerius was built in 298-299 AD to commemorate Galerius’s victory over the Persians and is in remarkable condition. The pillars are decorated with friezes celebrating the victory.
The central arch spanned the old Via Egnatia, the road built by the Romans in 2nd century BC to connect Dyrrachium (now the city of Durres in modern Albania) on the Adriatic coast to Byzantium. Dyrrachium was a Roman colony and opposite the Roman ports of Bari and Brindisi on the other side of the Adriatic.
The Arch formed part of the road that connected the Palace of Galerius and the Rotunda. The Rotunda itself is a very impressive circular red brick structure built by Galerius in 306 AD. It’s not clear whether it was intended to be a mausoleum for Galerius himself or as a Temple to Zeus.
It is one of the few intact Roman buildings in Greece. In the Christian area it was turned into a church (Agios Georgios) and later still a mosque after the city fell to the Turks in 1427 – a single minaret is still standing.
Inside it is vast, with 6m thick walls and domed roof (originally with an opening or oculus in the centre) which is an impressive engineering achievement.. In the Christian era the dome would probably have depicted Christ Pantocrator, but this is no longer visible – possibly removed when it was turned into a mosque.One of the few figures that can be made out is the head and tops of the wings of an archangel.
In the dome there are some wonderful scenes of buildings and peacocks.
I managed to take the shot below of Christ appearing to the disciples, but most of the faces have been obliterated. This was a frequent occurrence when churches were turned into mosques, in accordance with the Islamic injunction against depicting the human form.
The inside of the building was undergoing a lot of restoration work, so it is hard to convey the interior through photographs (apart from the fact that it is also very dark).
Interestingly I saw this cross on one of the entrance arches into the Rotunda. During the period of Iconoclasm in Byzantium (8th century) there was a major theological dispute in the eastern church over whether it was acceptable to depict Christ and the saints. Opponents of images (the Iconoclasts) quoted the 2nd commandment to support their case and pointed to Muslim successes in battle against them as evidence that the prohibition of images would enable them to stem the Muslim advance. Wall mosaics and frescoes depicting figures were replaced by this simple form of cross.
Finally as I left the building I noticed a feature which seems to sum up the history of this ancient city. Over one of the entrance doors, carved into the stone lintel, was Arabic calligraphy (presumably a quotation from the Quran) – and above that an icon of St George and the date 1912, the year when Thessaloniki became part of Greece again.
Parts of the Palace of Galerius can still be seen and visited for free in a square in modern Thessaloniki, though much if it is covered over by the surrounding blocks of flats.
Galerius was one of the four tetrarchs, (one of two junior emperors, the other being Constantius) appointed by Diocletian in 293 AD to rule a quarter of the Roman Empire alongside his co-emperor, Augustus. As well as building the Palace and part of the city walls, he also built a hippodrome, triumphal arches and the Rotunda.
On the ground it is difficult to get a sense of what the different parts of the ruins relate to the Palace as a whole, though as with many sites in Greece it is well signed and the information boards are written in excellent English.
Much of the lower part of the city of Thessaloniki was destroyed in the fire of 1917 and had to be re-built. It is interesting to note that the lower storey buildings (3rd from the right in the top right hand corner of the above photograph) are typical of the housing that was re-built after the fire. Much of this old style of building was however destroyed in the German bombardment of the city during the Second World War or replaced in the building boom from the 1950s onwards.
The first lesson I learned on this trip to Greece was to bring a map of the place I am staying in. I thought it would be easy to find a street map of the city at Thessaloniki airport, but there was nothing in the arrivals area. Not to worry, I’m sure we’ll get one with the car hire.
No, of course it was foolish of me to expect it really.
Thus it was that we find ourselves driving into the city with a small map printed from Google at the last minute just before we left home. It soon becomes clear that it’s totally inadequate for finding our way round the city. Apart from the fact that we don’t know where we’re going there is also the huge volume of traffic on the road. Normally I like to ease myself into driving abroad (on the other side of the road and in an unfamiliar left hand drive vehicle) with some quiet roads. No chance of that here.
After what seems like several circuits of the city, some of the buildings are becoming familiar. Didn’t we go past that University building a few minutes ago? None of the signs seem to indicate ‘centre’, so I am navigating blind, grasping at the names of some of the areas that I recognise vaguely from reading the guidebook, desperately trying to put together a mental map of where we are against where I think the hotel is.
Eventually I stop at a car spare parts shop and ask the way and am plunged straightaway into using my Greek and more importantly trying to understanding the answers. Amazingly it turns out that we are only 1.5 kilometres away from the hotel, but it might as well be 100, as once again we start to make another circuit of now familiar landmarks.
I stop again, this time at a garage and a very helpful man draws me a clear map. We are now really only a kilometre or so away and the key is to look out for the Cathedral of St Demetrios.
Finding the hotel after two hours of circling the city was only half the solution. Where on earth can I park? For Thessaloniki is indeed the city of the car. Traffic chokes the roads and there are parked cars everywhere. If anywhere is remotely parkable, there will be a car parked there and, out of necessity, cars are frequently double and triple parked.
Our hotel is near the ancient Roman Agora and I circle the square several time looking for an empty space. The only one I can find is in a public car park charging 1.90 Euros an hour. The ticket looks a bit like a lottery scratch card as you have to scratch off the date, hour and minute of the time when you parked your car so that the traffic warden or parking inspector can tell how long you have been there.
Having settled into the hotel, I keep returning to the car and in the hope that I might spot a parking space for a longer spell of parking, but in vain. Eventually I give in and decide to buy enough tickets (13) to cover me for the following day we are spending sightseeing in Thessaloniki. Which is why the top of my car’s dashboard gives the impression that the driver is desperately seeking to win the lottery. And, of course, the second lesson I learnt was to hire a car in the city before we left on our travels and not at the airport – otherwise you just end up paying for the privilege of parking a car you’re not using.