Thessaloniki is a beautiful city — much smaller and more cosmopolitan than Athens. Beautiful, broad tree lined streets, shady and laden with flowers. Shops look very smart and upscale. Thessaloniki feels quite different from Athens, not only in size but in the feeling of intimacy. Being directly on the water, the extensive malecon (paved walking, biking & jogging area along the water) gives an added dimension. And everywhere, as in most of the places in the beautiful Mediterranean climate, there are coffee houses everywhere and many people eating, drinking coffee and visiting, at all hours of the day and evening. The main decision for visitors is where to sit themselves down for a coffee break since there are so many choices.
With many hotels to choose from, the one we stayed at, the Mediterranean Palace, was perfect, a nice blend of old world charm and modern conveniences with an ideal location near the center of everything. It was also a quick ride from the airport by taxi. The lobby was beautiful and gracious and the rooms were spacious and well appointed as was the bathroom, which included a welcoming bathtub, always a special luxury for me when traveling. Many of the rooms have a sea view.
Close by was the famous White Tower, symbol of the city. Facing the water, the fortification dates back from a 12th century Byzantine era. It was later reconstructed after Sultan Murad 11 captured Thessaloniki in 1430 when it was became part of the Ottoman Empire and served as a notorious prison. In 1912 it was remodeled and painted white as a symbol of cleansing. Now it houses a museum, standing as a history of the city.
Across the street is the malecon, one of whose attractions is a delightful and whimsical sculpture of umbrellas which is often used as a backdrop to photographs. While we were there, a professional photo shoot was taking place. Whether or not it was one of an actual bride and groom or just models was hard to tell in this country of beautiful people.
Along with many upscale shops featuring contemporary designer clothing and shoes, located on one of the shady, treed side streets, is the Jewish Museum. Here, is preserved some of the history of the Jewish residents of the city, who represented almost half of its population before they were deported to the death camps during the first World War, by the Nazis during its occupation of Greece.
Another place of interest is the market, which was and still is very active. From local produce to a well stocked fish section, it offers a lively array of appealing stands and is outstandingly clean. Restaurants, of course, are abundant with many offerings of fresh seafood.
Just a short 22-mile drive, southeast of Thessaloniki, leaving the outskirts behind and headed into the country, on the Halkidiki peninsula, are the extraordinary caves of Petralona. Although I’ve visited various caves, I was stunned by the sculptural landscape of stalactites and stalagmites formed over billions of years and showing evidence of human occupation from the Pleistocene era, according to Dr. Aris Poulianos, head of the excavation team since 1965. From the first time I read of the discovery of the skull accidently found in the cave in 1959 and estimated to be about 700,000 years old and an important link in the evolution of homo sapiens, I’ve been fascinated.
Going through the cave is a multi-leveled experience. Because of the magnitude and beauty of the naturally formed sculptures, it can become to focus attention on the staggering formations since there seems to be another one, equally fascinating, just around the next bend. The experience of walking through, sometimes crouching, just adds another level of excitement. One could make many trips and still not be able to visually absorb all that is around them. The areas that still are dripping give us just a smattering of an idea of what we perceive to be a limited measurement of time, in relation to all of this, is quicker than the proverbial blinking of an eye.
Adding to the awe of going through the cave, deep pools as we gaze down, high, soaring ceilings as we glance up, there is the placement of man-made sculpture. Around one bend, may be seen what looks like a pre-historic mammal, around another may be a group of animals. But for me, the most riveting was an assemblage of three hominids crouched around a fire. This really spoke to me. These figures represented our common ancestry; a time when the pre-historic homo sapiens who were living in these caves were doing some of the same things that we still do. It may take a camping trip to see people crouched around a fire and maybe they’re roasting marshmallows, but there was, in the placement of the figures, something we could relate to today.
Although academics classify the skull remains as Homo erectus, it has also been classified as Homo heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis and early class of Homo sapiens. Dr. Poulianos believes it to be derived from an independent class of hominids unrelated to Homo erectus. Although this and other fossils from the cave are preserved at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki since 1960, other pieces plus replicas are there for us to see at the Anthropological Museum of Petralona just a few steps from the cave. You can’t miss it. You’ll be welcomed by replicas of some of the animals who existed at the time like a saber-toothed tiger, an elephant, and others equally fearsome, out on the lawn.
Excavations still continue and, although there are a number of scientific evaluations, the jury is still out on the extraordinary finds in this cave which has the potential of throwing out existing theories of where we came from and the journey along the way of our evolution. Frankly, it’s completely understandable to me that these pre-historic ancestors on the evolutionary chain settled in this cave. The interior temperature varies little and stays at a fairly constant, comfortable temperature. The outside is the magnificent climate of the Mediterranean. If you can just keep those pesky animals from eating you up, it’s not a bad place to spend a few thousand years!
IF YOU GO
Blue Bay Hotel