Our plan was to rent a car in Athens and take our time seeing the countryside on our way to the Balkan states. But Greece threw us a curveball: any car rented in the country must stay in the country.
So our plans had to change.
We took a train to Thessaloniki at the northern border of Greece, where we could catch a bus to Bulgaria. This port city on the Aegean Sea is the second-most populous in the country after Athens, but it still only has around 315,000 residents in the city itself. The larger metropolitan area of Thessaloniki has just over 1 million inhabitants, though, so it’s a good balance of approachability and infrastructure.
Considered the cultural capital of Greece, Thessaloniki hosts a large number of festivals throughout the year, including the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and the International DMC DJ Championship, and it will be the site of EuroPride in 2020.
We, of course, were there for the history.
Founded in 315 BC, Thessaloniki has its share of Roman monuments, including the Rotunda of Galerius, built in the 4th century AD and one of the city’s 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Over the years it has been reincarnated as a polytheist temple, a Christian basilica, a Muslim mosque, and again as a Christian church. It was originally built for the Roman Emperor Galerius, but the intricate mosaics that have made it famous were commissioned by Emperor Theodosius I after Galerius’ death. The detailed figures of saints, trees, birds, flowers, fruit, and stars are made of silver, gold, gemstones, and pearls.
We also visited the Ekklisia Panagia Dexia, an Eastern Orthodox Church with a spectacular interior that sits next to the ancient Galerius victory arch (Αψίδα του Γαλερίου) that originally marked the road connecting the rotunda to the emperor’s palace.
As with Athens, Thessaloniki is covered with ancient monuments, so much so that locals no longer notice that they’re drinking their coffee or eating their lunch next to history. But we noticed, and we loved every minute of it.
Up Next: A bus ride through the Balkans