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Phespirit goes to Greece
Thessaloniki     January 2011

Phespirit's first travels of 2011 were also his first travels on mainland Greece. When making the essential arrangements, he assumed that a Mediterranean climate would provide welcome relief from the cold grey gloom of January in England. Only later did he learn that Thessaloniki's average temperature at this time of year ranges between 9°C and a mere 1°C. Luck was on Phespirit's side, however, as for five whole days he enjoyed cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid-teens. Setting aside half-days for arrival and departure, the plan was to spend two days looking around Thessaloniki itself, and then a day visiting each of Pella and Vergina.

Thessaloniki was a daughter of Philip II of Macedon, a sister of Alexander III (the Great), and the wife of General Kassandros. It was the latter who, in 316BC, named the city in her honour. Today it is Greece's second city, after Athens; previously it had been a Byzantine city and an Ottoman city. The evidence of its past is scattered all about this sprawling metropolis that gazes down Thermaic Gulf to the Aegean Sea. There was plenty for Phespirit to explore.

His first day was occupied with all the top-drawer tourist attractions. These included relics of Roman empire - the excavated Agora, the stocky Rotunda, the isolated Arch of Galerius, and the remnants of Galerius's Palace - the ages-old churches of Panagia Ahiropiitos, Panagia Chalkeon, Agios Dimitrios and Agia Sofia, and finally a flurry of museums - archeological, Byzantine and contemporary art. This day also took in the White Tower, once a fortification at the coastal end of the Ottoman defences, now an emblem for Thessaloniki.

Phespirit's second day in the city was more subtle. He set to walking sun-soaked streets that follow the old Byzantine ramparts. These still loom large and rugged amidst the shacks, town houses and apartment blocks of modern Thessaloniki. His gentle five-hour hike was punctuated by detours to assorted curiousities along the way. Most notable among these were the small atmospheric Church of Osios David, and the Atatürk Museum. The latter was the house in which the founder or modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was born. Today it is located within the compound of the Turkish Consulate. Phespirit had to hand over his passport before being given a free personal tour.

The trips to Pella and Vergina each entailed boarding a coach at Thessaloniki's large concrete-domed bus station at the western end of the city. Pella is best known as the birthplace of Alexander the Great, but Phespirit's forty-minute journey was not rewarded with the chance to explore its ancient ruins. The site was inexplicably closed for the day. At least the museum was open, yet Phespirit couldn't help feeling slightly cheated. The situation was similar at Vergina, where the remains of the royal palace were closed for conservation work, but the museum of the royal tombs was open and quite magnificent. It was at Vergina that Philip II of Macedon was assassinated and his son, Alexander, was proclaimed king.

Back in Thessaloniki, Phespirit's last night in the city was occupied at the Panellinion restaurant. Having been well fed he set about jotting notes for this web page whilst draining his last glass of Limnos and reclining on fake-leather seats by the door. Towards the front of the restaurant a dozen middle-aged women were raucausly celebrating affairs unknown, occasionally breaking into song and clapping along. Phespirit was comfortable then; there in that restaurant, in that city. For more than two millennia people have sang and laughed and clapped in that city. Phespirit was content to have been present in the twinkling of an eye.

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