Welcome to Day 2 of popping my solo cherry in Thessaloniki! Before you go any further, make sure you’ve caught up on Day 1!
I spent the day seeing some landmark sites and exploring Ano Poli or “Upper Town”, the oldest part of town. In its hilly windy charming roads lies the city’s soul, echoing the same contradictions as the city below. Quiet and lively, youthful and traditional, all seamlessly intertwined.
If you love museums then you’ll love Thessaloniki. It has over 20 museums and galleries spread across the city. Day 2 started with a leisurely stroll to the Museum of Byzantine Culture, while taking shade under the many trees lining the street. The museum is packed full of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and history exhibiting the character and beauty of that era.
It was in this museum, where the walls are flanked with people whose skin colour wasn’t too far from mine, that I had my first and only questionable racial experience in Thessaloniki.
I approached a room with willful abandon, taking in the cool air wafting in the corridor, as I spotted one of the museum attendants approaching her chair outside the room. The moment she realised I intended to enter, she stood right back up and followed me in. At first I just thought she followed everyone that entered, however, I walked in and saw a (white) woman in there, by herself, left to her own devices. I ignored it as she became my second shadow and as I approached a tomb to look closer she shouted ‘Yasou!’. Startled I turned round with a puzzled look, she looked at me blankly, I turned back and continued walking. I approached another artefact and she shouted again, ‘Yasou!’, all this while focussing her attention solely on me and not the other (white) people that had entered. My irritation had reached its limit; I turned round, annoyed and walked out of the room, looking at her as she tried to avoid my gaze. The icing on the cake happened as I left; the woman followed me out and sat back down in her chair, leaving all the other (white) people in the room unfollowed. I may be crazy but that a suspect experience for me. These kinds of experiences are almost always par for the course when travelling while black but they don’t feel any better each time they happen.
Leaving the museum on a bit of a downer but determined not to let it ruin my day, I made my way to the White Tower, one of Thessaloniki’s most recognisable landmarks. It’s been used as a fort for defence and also a prison, at which point it was known as the “Tower of Blood” or “Red Tower”. It was painted white in 1891 by a Jewish prisoner and then called the “White Tower” and the prisoner was freed as a result! Look at God! The tower is now a museum exploring the city’s history and the different cultures that have shaped it. There are no English signs in the museum so you definitely need the free audio guide available; however, you have to leave a form of ID at the entrance. I walked round and round the tower, through the rooms until I got to the top where the view was breath-taking. The gulf at the front, the city either side and Upper town and the mountain in the back, the 360° views were magnificent.
After all that walking, I was the definition of tired! I took a break in a café sipping on an ice cold frappe with a splash of Baileys, listened to music and edited some pictures. After about 30 minutes, hunger was calling so I packed my bag and went on a food hunt. I walked down the main street, Tsimiski, lined with countless shops, restaurants and cafes on both sides and picturesque buildings on side streets and picked a quaint little spot to get a tasty gyro. With my lunch in hand, I made my way towards the Arch of Galerius.
One of the things I love about Thessaloniki is how unassuming and unpretentious it is; how you’re able to walk round the corner and be faced with a 4th century church or in this case a Roman arch.
The arch was constructed to celebrate the Roman Emperor Galerius’ victory over the Persians. It was a lot bigger but now only parts of the arches and 3 pillars remain. I sat on a bench eating my hot, flavourful chicken Gyro, chasing away pigeons with the arch framing my view as I watched local residents meet and head off into the busy Egnatia Street.
Stomach full, fingers licked and mouth cleaned, I headed to the Agia Sofia. Yup you read right, the Agia Sofia in Greece. As I walked into the church I noticed a man that was taking care of thr candles on the side, I walked around and stumbled on him again, this time I asked him to tell me more about the church and he was delighted to. He told me it was once a mosque, damaged by the 1917 fire and then gradually restored. It was apparently built as a smaller version of the Hagia Sofia in Turkey.
Walked back out onto the street, prepared myself for the uphill trek into the enchanting Upper Town for my next free walking tour. I made a few stops on the way. I stopped at the Rotunda, dating back to 306 AD; it’s one of the oldest religious sites in the city. The building’s super thick walls explain why it’s withstood a number of devastating earthquakes through time. It is pretty remarkable!
I continued on uphill through the narrow streets and stumbled on the Roman Forum, the social and religious centre of Roman Thessaloniki, just up the road from the Nitra Gallery. Both were unfortunately closed when I got there. Remember what I said about this city being so unassuming. Case in point!
Again, I’m the first one to arrive at the tour meeting point and Giorgio notices this, “You’re first again!?” he shouted surprised, “Yeah, see it’s not true what they say about black people and time” I replied with a chuckle. We talked about what I’d been up to all day while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive.
We made our way through the Church of Profitis Ilias, Church of Osios David, Tourbe (Tomb) of Musa, Vlátadon Monastery with the peacocks in the courtyard and more. Our tour guide, who’s also a very talented musician, told us the history of the Bouzouki in Greece and then played us songs on his Bouzouki. As the sun set, the tour ended and my tour guide invited a couple of us to join him and his friends as they go and play some music. We walked and landed at Trigoniou Tower and it’s easy to see why tourists and locals alike favour Ano Poli over other neighbourhoods. The view from here is unreal! The entire Thermaikos Bay is right in front of you with the magnificent Mt Olympus peaking where the water ends.
We enjoyed the sunset views and then I left to have dinner at a traditional taverna I had heard great things about called Taverna Igglis. While I was there, K messaged me and asked what I was doing and she decided to come with B to join me for dinner at the restaurant. Cats roam hella free here, even inside the restaurant, I had the shock of my entire life when one brushed past my leg under the table as I was drinking water. I literally poured it all over myself haha!
After dinner we decided to head towards the Anti-Racist festival happening even though we it may have been over. As we got to the White Tower, the boardwalk buzzing with people, lights twinkling and smells of food filling the air, we saw these boat bars. There are 3 boat bars (more like ships) in this area, bobbing along the water, playing different types of music. We picked the pirate ship to board blasting oldies and off we went sailing on the Thermaic Gulf. It’s free to enter but you have to get a drink when you’re on board. As we sailed talking about Nigerian weddings and American college sororities and fraternities, we were interrupted by strobe lights piercing the sky and loud drums and we realised the festival was still on! We got back to the port and with renewed determination, made our way to the park.
It’s now 1 am; we’re walking briskly in the direction of the lights and we started seeing throngs of people, hearing the deep base bumping filling the air and excitement swiftly ensued. So we followed the music to a cordoned area with an elevated stage, blue lights and a full band playing rhythmic tunes. Every corner along the park and boardwalk was packed with people of all ages, eating, dancing, drinking and enjoying the vibes. K and I moved on to the next area where traditional Bouzouki’s were being used to entertain with Greek communal dancing as the perfect accompaniment. We watched as men and women locked hands around each other, swayed and dipped as the music instructed. The festival started in 1998 to support immigrants and unite the different colours, ethnicities, religions, etc. in the city and is a celebration of solidarity, comradeship and togetherness.
Make sure you come back next week for the final part of the popping my solo cherry series!
Until next time xx