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A second beer, maybe, eventually, ordered and arriving at Cafe Captein & Co in Amsterdam, where Lastegeweg and Oude Waal meet.
The sun has blazed today, meeting with force my mind’s idea of the appeal of European summer heat, and baking my meandering cycling round Rotterdam and later wandering round this perfect place. In all my visits here I don’t think I’ve ever managed to find just this spot to sit. This is the city of quick interruptions to peaceful moments, alleys ending on seedy streets lined with beautiful houses and canals. Is it real? Here I am, back in Europe like before, same dreams of people, places and things, timetable in hand, in constant motion apart from these few moments. The sun streams over the gable end. What heaven is this?
All through long months of lockdown and British isolation I thought of mundane and ordinary train journeys in Europe. Escapes to nowhere special, in rattling and half-deserted train carriages. A kind of daydream. Something specific, and simple, and unattainable.
As if taunting me somewhat I the spent the summer not scratching this itch, but having it amplified. I wrote for a book on train travel in Europe, suggesting in wondrous and agonising detail a route down the spine of the continent. Wrote, planned, but not travelled. It was simply too hard to contemplate such a journey.
Then with summer over a year-old obligation to speak at a conference in Denmark reared its head. A full overland trip was still impractical – time, family and other work commitments saw to that. But there was some precious time, if I was careful, and quick. So suddenly after much waiting I was in Aalborg for two days, somewhat amazed to be outside the UK. On the first night I just walked, and walked, in the rain, with the quiet waters of the Limfjord and dinging bike bells for company. The next morning I went out to the west of the city and swam at a beautiful bathing pool in bright sunshine, and drank coffee, and felt very Danish.
On Wednesday afternoon, obligations fulfilled I dodged off with happy freedom towards the station and departed Aalborg for Fredericia on a comfy rubber-headed Danish DMU bound, eventually for Copenhagen Airport. Trains on the u-shaped route through Denmark take around five hours to travel from Aalborg Airport to the capital’s hub. It is glorious. The flight takes 45 minutes but is no fun at all.
Not intending to do much talking I sat in the quiet coach. On a Danish train this is a very quiet place indeed. Even the ruffle of an opening crisp packet (me) and chocolate bar (me again) sounds like a rip in the fabric of time. The gently rolling countryside and forest passed by. The clouds darkened. I did nothing other than looked out the window as everything moved, open. There was a 20 minute delay which appeared to be caused by a woman with a young family being ejected from the train. We trundled on.
Fredericia was the sort of place that having detrained you immediately wonder if you should have got off at all. I was rather cold for the first time in several months. The rain dripped down in the darkness. Stragglers like me waited for the Esbjerg service. Esbjerg was mainly notable as the former Danish destination for ferries from the UK, now sadly stopped else I would probably have headed home this way. On boarding the train everyone seemed to disappear and I was left more or less alone in the coach. We stopped often. The number of passengers thinned out, and it thinned out further when I changed again at Bramming, waiting for a southbound service coming from Esbjerg, heading to Ribe. This turned out to be a bit like a Welsh bus, decked out in Arriva blue and bound, like I was to be the following morning for Niebull over the border in Germany.
Therefore it had taken some planning and effort to reach Ribe, my destination for the night. I’d wanted to come here for some time, lured by its deep antiquity and colourful tiny houses. When making this plan I had not quite banked on Ribe being as completely dark as it turned out to be, and an inky night showed the city off in a moody, unwilling light. Ribe, presumably very jolly on a warm summer’s night was almost all shut up. No-one on reception in my hotel to say Hej or God dag or even to take my money it seems (they asked for it by email when they woke up pretty quickly) and only two places open to buy food. One was a pizza place that served a large slice of doner kebab pizza which I ate with the relish of someone who hadn’t for 9 hours. The other was a late shop that sold an ice cream for pudding and some backup breakfast for the following morning.
Some people would have stayed until daybreak but my over-enthusiastic timetabling meant I was Hamburg-bound before dawn, returning to the station to take the 6am train south to the near-mythical Niebull. At one end of the Tonder-Niebull shuttle I had pored over for the train travel writing project, Niebull loomed larger in my imagination than Niebull turned out to justify. It had two things going for it, however. First, it wasn’t Tonder, which in the pre-dawn downpour was dour and deserted- though a very nice town, I now gather – and second that it had a station cafe selling coffee. The drink was cold and the train to Altona was 20 minutes late but I didn’t care. Hamburg Altona station was another place I was eager to visit, and the two hour journey passed with impatience. I already knew it wasn’t a patch on Hauptbanhof, but found the selection of long distance trains berthed there – my reason for coming – a little underwhelming and a sketchy vibe outside the station. A shame really, as if I had been more organised and sorted myself with the Altona-93 t-shirt I’d wanted it would have filled the spare hour I ended up working. But no matter.
The rest of my time in Hamburg hammered a few nails from my only other visit, when I only had time to run from HbF to the Rathaus and back, grabbing a coffee and a change of clothes on an epic London to Oslo overlander maybe 12 years ago? The time disappears, but Hamburg looked lovely by the Elbe, if I was finding the German take on Covid rules rather striking after the Danes complete lack of them. I don’t blame them for being thorough, I wish we were, but the difference struck home. The main cases in point was a man arguing about whether I was fully vaccinated or not before serving me a coffee and the woman at check-in who declared my Danish Covid test to be a vaccination certificate until I insisted it was a test and pointed out that it had the word ‘test’ written all over it. It was good also to walk much too far with a heavy bag, almost get run over through tiredness and briefly set eyes on the Alster lakes.
One more train to the airport, a fast flight home that felt more like 2018 than 2021, a wish for a journey, any journey, happily granted.
January and February. A month stuck. Rooted in winter’s icebox, with stubborn unshifting darkness and the deepened dread of endless lockdown. The bastard quarantine of human instinct, spirit and freedom.
There should really be no swimming. No anything. But with small guilt, small thrill I’ve crept out in the Saturday darkness to the ancient church and the river beyond the field.
Each time in the early morning, before light, each time without spectacular dawn or great reward. The roads heading north are dark but not deserted, each Saturday time alone with my thoughts both welcome and unnerving.
The first swim is on a bitter morning, well below zero, with frost on the grass tussocks and a low mist hanging over the water and the bank beyond. Three young swans, sentinel in the water, swim over to see what the fuss is about and seem put out when I jump in next to them. They drift off downstream and leave me to it. A man walks on the other side and we ignore each other. The shock of the water and the cold air stays for the weekend.
The following week it snows, then floods. Cancel the uncancellable. Second swim is turned up mud and me sinking into the riverbank, badly prepared and cursing, fighting myself getting dressed, annoyed that other people are here.
There’s a bonhomie from them at odds with the general air. I feel stupid for engaging one in conversation, confessing where I’ve come from and then reading too much into his reply.
The third visit it is raining heavily, with a biting wind. The heavy flow makes doing very much very hard and though it has its moments it is a force to claim great relief or enjoyment from something that should be a source of both. I wonder if I should just call it quits and stop for now. It would surely not be a defeat to sit and wait for the pond to reopen In the meantime I struggle along, in the water, its riddles and tangled branches, scrapping away for the sake of keeping going and bloody mindedness.
Then dawn arrives, but not instantly. On 13 February the freeze has been here for a sub-zero week, and the car temperature slips to minus three as I park up. On the drive over the sky was pink, rosy-fingered as dawn for Odysseus. I bet he was never this cold. The strong wind from the east took things lower still. Finding small shelter by the blackthorn I struggle out of too few layers and quickly drop in, here for a good time not a long time. The water feels fine but head and shoulders prickle and sting as I edge along towards the overhanging tree, dropping with clear ice. It feels like I’m in the Highland river I once stubbornly swam in every day on a sparkling Easter week in Scotland.
Back to 2021 I’m scared of getting out and sprint from the bank back to my clothes. All decorum out the window I change quickly and stomp uphill, noting with alarm my hand appearing to claw as I stop for a photo of an ungenerous sun. Hypothermia didn’t arrive and on the way home I felt like I mentally left behind what I’d just done. Now back at the front of mind it has some magic about it, but tough. If all this is makes me tougher still it doesn’t feel it, but another week, another week closer and I am still here.
Two days before Boris Johnson sets out a road map out of lockdown that everyone already knows the riverbank has warmed up by around 20 degrees. Dawn is even more spectacular than last week, and I get a little more of it. Spring’s herald is a handsome pheasant pecking round in the undergrowth, not very bothered by my presence. It’s lovely to be able to swim for a little longer and change in warmer air. Downstream I can hear a voice first exclaiming loudly on entering the water, then shouting affirmations of ‘I am grateful! I am grateful!’. I walk past him but leave him to it, happy in the water alone.
Lengthening day outpaces my earlier starts and sunrise plays out in front of me as I drive over for the last swim of February. On one side of the road a vast full moon bobs up and down over the trees as the road rises and falls, like a fast-motion night in moments. Then the sun, vast and orange, ascends through a belt of white-grey cloud. It is quite the start to the day. Walking down to the river it’s apparent how things have turned cold again, and my legs are cold, and that I have somehow forgotten my towel. All these things contribute to a panicky swim, and a feeling of unease and fear that sticks around all day. I can’t help at times like this but feel annoyed at the lengths I’ve been going to to swim, and how I’d like to stop, but almost certainly won’t. I’ve come this far. This is a one-way journey, and there is no going backwards.
On March 31 the pond opened and I went down instead of up on the first morning, the first chance. I was excited and ran the last stretch, anticipating a queue. There wasn’t one, but there was a fair crowd, and instantly the same mix of gentle conversational hubbub, faces I knew well enough to greet and some of whom greeted back. Everyone smiling, laughing and cold, many reunited and keen to get back into routines and grooves.
The water wasn’t quite the release it had been last summer, swimming again after months away. Some of the strangeness of the river was absent here, the struggles to get dressed, unsure if others would come jogging or walking by, or the complete isolation of early on a winter morning with not a soul to be seen anywhere. The fixedness of home after journeys elsewhere. A place so familiar after so much completely alien. Moments in a year swirling like tiny eddys round a half-sunken branch.
A night time pilgrimage to the mothership, Arsenal Stadium N5.
From inside the path along the Clock End side of the ground: history, atmosphere and ghost noise.
Where I stood, and sat, and where thousands with me and before me did the same.
The crackle in the air of evening kick-offs. Everything felt close. Energy bouncing off the low roof and spinning away round the floodlights. A train speeding past on its way north.
Plenty of company.
If ever a chance presents itself, I must have said on dozens of occasions, I’d like to ride to or from Ilkley. This small town is the home of my in-laws and the usual terminal point for journeys on the northbound highways of England. It’s also 230 miles from home which is really quite a long way.
Following through on that vague notion and doing this ride had never really felt like a realistic prospect, which is partly why I’d allowed my brain to wander off and construct entirely unrealistic giant cycles along this theme without any rest breaks – the whole thing in one go, or even a London-Ilkley-London over three days, or some other flight of fancy when far from a bike saddle. It was something to always be talked out of, or in the decade-plus of raising our young children, to have something far better to do than actually do.
Then 2020 happened, and COVID led to lockdown and an immense change in my own circumstances, and that rarest of windows to do something as ridiculous as this opened up. This time when I vocalised the wish we both realised there was no reason not to. So one July day we fled north, keen to wake up somewhere else after months in one place, this time with bike symbolically shoved at the back of the car. It emerged for a brief and triumphant ride from a farm in Northumberland we were staying on to Holy Island, a ride to be written about more elsewhere. And then again, on a chilly morning, from an ancient cottage in a village high in Wharfedale. From there the bike and I rode home.
I’ve done long rides before. Ten days of titanic, rarely wind-assisted efforts in Botswana and Namibia. Long days in the saddle around the Home Counties, proving I don’t know what to I’m not sure who. Various rides around Ilkley, some organised, most not, and most recently the brutally beautiful Fred Whitton Challenge in the Lake District, 115 miles of cramp-filled delight.
I’m not sure looking back at this how it stacked up to those. I never meant it to, this was partly about taking an opportunity, partly a plan I came up with during the depths of lockdown to reconnect with as much of England as I could and partly giving the voice of no reason in my head – a constant, loud and demanding one – a chance to let off some steam. Take the reins old boy, let’s ride for days on end and see who wins. In the end we called it a draw.
The first, 6am stage of the ride was over very familiar territory. The back side of Wharfedale, Otley and a climb over Harewood. Then into the unknown of pretty yorkstone-built Leeds commuter villages, the gloriously daft and enormous maypole at Barwick-in-Elmet and a tunnel under the A1. A giant climb looming unexpectedly out of one West Yorkshire village into another. From here the route threaded south and east, occasionally bumping disconcertingly onto bridleways that I eventually learned to anticipate and intercept, over the M62, along quiet lanes and then through a web of railway lines, the River Don and canals.
My only pitstop that day was Imogen’s uncle’s house in Retford, where I ate an entire plate of Jaffa Cakes and had two cups of tea in fifteen minutes before getting going again. I nosed east along to the toll bridge over the Trent at Newton and had possibly for the only time in my life a genuine thrill at crossing the border from South Yorkshire into Lincolnshire. Possibly not, too. This happened again on entering Nottinghamshire, and each successive county. At one point I recall crossing back in to Lincolnshire, which is interesting given that my main thought as I crossed the county was that its roads were so quiet as to make me question whether it even existed at all.
As with all long day rides, eventually the milestones arrive, just further down the road than you’d like them to. First a metric century, then an imperial one, and still quite a long way from the night’s stop at Little Bytham. My head was starting to loll in the familiar action of one who is running on empty. I made the last few miles by a combination of listening to music and dreaming of not cycling for a while. Then late in the day I arrived, ate the biggest plate of food I felt I could get away with, drank a beer in the pub garden and then went upstairs and fell fast asleep. The Mallard broke the rail speed record close to here. I broke no speed records.
On the morning of day two the first thing I noticed was that I was red and sore and lacking suncream. The forecast was hot and this made me somewhat anxious, so I set out as early as I felt I could in search of supplies, – thanks to the benevolence of the pub landlord who cooked me breakfast while expressing bafflement at what I was doing. Exchanges like that, I am convinced, are rocket fuel for long-distance sportspeople. The less others see the point, the more determined I got.
After a dalliance on the west side of what was now a route largely tracking the old Great North Road I stocked up, and then moved south of another psychological barrier, that of Peterborough – usually the first stop on the East Coast wallopers out of King’s Cross. Perhaps this allowed me to convince myself I was closer to home than I was, as the next section was arguably the toughest mentally of the whole ride. A largely unbroken straight line south to Royston via Huntingdon, with the A1 at my side, mile upon mile of not being as far along as I thought I was. Fatigue was making me feel bored, and while lovely villages like Uffington and Barnack had been thrilling discoveries at first, I was ready to be closer to home and on roads I knew well. Then again, arriving in Royston felt like a big achievement. It is not often you can say that. Royston reflections: it was old and pretty, there was nowhere convenient to buy a coke and the loo was closed and bolted.
The final section of the ride was over roads I cover frequently – picking up the route home from Cambridge over the Old-Old Cambridge Road, and then the roads that pick their way over the slopes of northern Hertfordshire taken when riding to friends’ holiday dacha in Essex. With 200 miles in my legs the hills were heavy going and I was losing the battle against my planned average speed, if only by a few minutes an hour. I resolved not to care much about that nor that I was able to see that Imogen and the kids had driven the entire route in little more than half a day including a lunch stop and had now overtaken me to arrive home. I wasn’t far behind, and puffed along from Potters Bar to Barnet. It felt slightly unreal to be passing London Transport bus stops, and then a tube, and through the fog I started to consider that I had completed the ride, and was cycling down our street where I get filmed arriving. Winnie asked if I missed her soft toys.
And that was that. I shan’t be doing it again, I don’t think. But goodness me, what a ride.
At summer’s end.
Just once this year things as they should be.
It took an hour to drive to Granchester. The familiar roads leading to kids football venues gave way gradually to flatter and more rural Cambridgeshire, only just in the countryside before reaching the quiet village itself, just a bump of thatched roofs leading to the meadows and the River Cam. The place reminds me of Jeffrey Archer though it understandably celebrates its associations with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Lord Byron more vigourously. Still, we didn’t linger beyond noting that we liked it.
Grantchester on a sometimes sunny Saturday morning also brought a reconnection with the English countryside after the troubles of the past few weeks, lockdown, lockdown and more lockdown. The water is why we came, arriving exiles from the healing depths of the Fleet ponds. The Corporation of London were, and are in no hurry to liberate us cockney swimmers back to our own water, so we’ve become nomads roaming the land as far as we dare with dense, vague government guidelines and children along for the ride.
So here was a cricket green, open fields, a church spire and at this hour just us interlopers doing our best to look innocuous stripping off by the water’s edge. Imogen, born in these parts, couldn’t get in quickly enough. I took a few seconds, letting my feet sink into to muddy bank and pondering getting emotional. I wish I really had. Then comes the wonderful familiarity of being submerged in cold water. It only took a second and I felt like a mer-man, even if I don’t look like one. The Cam doesn’t look like much but it has a current and is deeper than me and I seemed to disappear round a bend quite fast which was a bit of a jarring thrill.
After a few minutes we were out and after flask coffee mooched along the bank, keeping distance from others until we reach the pleasant terraced streets of Newnham. This would be a nice place to live, I thought, as it turns out everybody else who has ever walked past thinks as well. I have yet to think better of the idea.
On our way back we saw three elderly women having their constitutional swim quite naked. They retreat back round a secluded bend – the ladies stretch, clearly. Before rounds of cheese and pickle sandwiches I couldn’t resist another swim, slightly longer this time and just as blissful. Winnie told me I cannot do backstroke in a river. ‘Says who?’ I replied. I felt free. On the way back to the car we threw a ball around a bit, enjoying simple things together. It was nice to feel cold like that and then warm up.
During the following week a dam broke. Not the pond. We have to wait. But the Serpentine opened if you join the club. So I joined, as did Imogen and Marcie. After an early start it felt like a long way down there and the rewards were so-so – goose-poo and tepid water, but there was the reassuringly pondish hubbub of conversation and it was the next best thing, I tell myself. It felt both too easy a solution to the ‘pond problem’ and too hard in a world turned upside-down. It can’t last, and it doesn’t. As soon as that started it stopped, overwhelmed by swimming desperadoes like me. That was ok while it lasted.
Better water awaited on Bank Holiday Monday in Oxford. Leaving early again – sorry offspring, again – we drove to Jericho, walk along Port Meadow and swim some widths of the Thames. This is the real thing – kids in as well, gentle current, rowers steaming by and falling in with comic regularity. An egret prodded along the foreshore opposite, a deer made a splash and a swim for it before sprinting off towards the railway tracks, like a very English and crocodile-free version of the Mara River. A walk, a picnic, another swim, the bright and endless early summer sun steaming down.
The Men’s Pond people sent an email hinting at some version of reopening. I was scared for them and the pond in high summer. We would be better with cooling water and lessening ardour for a refreshing dip. Leave it to us nutters.*
There’s somewhere else, too, which I’ll tell you about if you ask me very nicely that’s not far from north London’s outer suburbs and where the water is deep and cold even after a rainless Spring, where the current offers the perfect endless pool. Maybe you need to be there at 6.30 to have it all to yourself.
*This post isn’t about the palaver of getting the ponds back open again. To be honest I think I’d better let the trauma pass a little before going back over that one. Suffice to say you can now swim in Highgate Ponds again, with a little planning and a little paying, neither of which are that painful unless you think they are really quite agonising, in which case they are. Whatever floats your, umm.
Midsummer in a year like no other. In the still and silence of the early morning I sunk into the river, the sweet stream that packs a punch that has come to symbolise this time of exile from most things that are familiar and normal. We found this place, or maybe it found us, half an hour from home and every inch the secret river. So much has gone, snatched away in what feels like seconds. Quietly we’ve made this place something new, somewhere we’d never have otherwise come.
It’s deserted by the ancient-sainted church, which looks Norman, and is. Round the corner a path leads to a small gateway onto common land which slopes down to the river plain. I’ve always been here alone but the place is filled with spirits. As it seems to be every week the cloud was high and layered, a little misty but pointing the way down to the water’s edge, and an easy put in. There’s not much else easy about the swim here. The current is stronger than it looks, giving a good workout up to a willow tree and a sunken branch that’s good to aim for, and then a float back down.
There’s a family of coots here, a few ducks and the odd jogger or morning dog walker, but mostly just me, no locked doors, no lifeguards, a different sense of being an outsider.
Go on, you say it, because I’ve thought it, I like it better.
There’s a bridge to swim down to and then after this week’s rain a bit of a fight to get back upstream. And then a clamber out and a few shivers, even after all the heat. I walked back to the car turning full revolutions, the village away to the east, the row of handsome poplars further upstream, woods at one o’clock.
The journey back passed gabled houses and medieval stonework in the town centre, and then off, home again, Tony Blackburn’s bad jokes for company. Coming here points to the past and to the future and new things.
The solstice tilts the year forwards and downhill, to a summer to speed through and an uncertain autumn, with the chill of winter far away and absent from mind. So much of this river is unknown, too, where it comes from, where its springs and rills turn into the intentional stream that bends round the corner and under the bridge.
A worry: what happens when eventually it can’t carry on being perfect every week? But it doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be here. I’ll take what I can get. There’s no dancing with friends under late-night blue sky this midsummer, with sunbeams making things the sweetest dark yellow, but there’s cold swimming and comfort in the river, and the clouds, and the morning.
Sunset over the Thermaic Gulf
There are direct routes to Thessaloniki. Greece’s second city is enjoying a boom off the back of its strategic position at the waterfront of south-eastern Europe and low-cost flights made their way here some time ago. But for a more thoughtful approach take the train from Athens’ Larissa station.
IC52 from Athens to Thessaloniki
Four (?) daily inter-city services mooch out of the Athenian suburbs across the Attican hinterland. Quickly into the mountains that dot the Greek mainland the mythically-minded traveller will pass Parnassus, the home of the Muses swiftly followed by Thermopylae, where a Greek fighting force famously held out against Persian invaders until betrayed. Later – perhaps after a visit to the buffet car, from the other side of the train Mounts Pelion, piled on Ossa can be seen. Before the final approach to Thessaloniki begins, mighty Mount Olympus itself, the home of the Gods, looms into view. Its jagged peaks look a daunting prospect from here – no wonder Apollo and co chose this as their resting place.
Its the crucial location of Thessaloniki, Salonika to the Ottomans and Illyricum to the Roman and Greek predecessors, that has made it such an important place. Look to the north and there’s Macedonia – freshly dubbed North Macedonia to resolve the decades-old naming dispute – Bulgaria and the rump of Europe stretching away. To the east, the old Empires that the city was once part of, now modern-day Turkey. And then the sea – the Thermaic Gulf, pierced by three peninsulas to the north of Thessaloniki. Empires rise and fall, but like Constantinople to the east this has been a much-coveted bounty.
Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki
So here it is today – let’s say you’re coming off the train and are boggle-eyed for Byzantium. Good news: it’s all around you. Linger a while at the Roman agora – lest we forget the Byzantine Empire saw itself as being ‘Romanos’ – not just the inheritors of the Caesars, but the Roman Empire itself. Further south, when Constantine XI led his soldiers in the final, fatal battle on the walls of Constantinople he rallied his troops as ‘the descendants of Greeks and Romans’ The city fell, but in the hearts of its defenders it was Rome that fell that day with Constantinople.
Thessaloniki had changed hands fifty years previously, first to the Venetian Republic and then to the Ottomans. Centuries later, in a modest house, the city’s most famous son of the Ottoman era, Kemal Ataturk was born in 1881. The Young Turk movement was headquartered in the city. His home, within the walls of the Turkish Consulate hides a rarely seen item behind the hefty metal door: a flag of the Republic of Turkey.
Time is of the essence for a breathless whizz round the many fresco and mosaic-dotted orthodox churches to be found within the old city walls.
Yes, you’ll find yourself walking along busy streets – even the waterfront road looking out to Olympus has the familiar urban Greek cacophony of traffic. This is a living and fast-growing city with an youthful energy alongside millennia of the past. So from the Arch of Galerius, a satisfying Roman sight, you can gaze up to the Byzantine towers at the heights of the city, studded by grafitti-covered walls. Don’t go up there yet, however. Instead, one of the wonders of the Mediterranean awaits at the Rotunda.
Built as a Roman place of worship and comparable in shape to the Rome’s Pantheon, it spent centuries as the city’s cathedral and still has the mosaics to show for it. On the morning I visited, just walking in was enough to be dazzled. The sunlight pierced the upper windows and greeted the pilgrim and slowly revealed the recreations of Ephesus, Petra, Rome and Pompeii, and the completely lovely birds and fruit on offer to those who reach the Elysian Fields. Its centuries as a mosque have also left a strong mark. I liked it so much that having walked in and around I exited and then entered again.
A familiar name to Byzantine buffs, the Church of Hagia Sophia, is the logical place to start. Unlike its namesake in Istanbul it remains a place of worship. The city’s patron saint, St Demetrious, has his own vast and ancient basilica, complete with a crypt with a satisfyingly low ceiling. But the true delight of Thessaloniki is nosing round the history that lurks round so many corners. High in the Upper Town, the Ossio Monastery hides in a tangle of tiny lanes and Ottoman-era wooden houses.Waiting inside its tiny interior is a series of frescoes you’ll probably have more or less to yourself. It’s not like the rest of the city is a case study for overtourism: on the sunny January day I was there I saw very few other tourists. My only company in most stops I made were surprised-looking guards taking in the sunshine.
Candles in St Demetrious
Orthodoxy is not the only faith that has played a part in the city’s story. In 1613 over two-thirds of the population were Jewish, and several notable synagogues can be found here. The Monastir Synangogue and adjacent Jewish Museum not only tells the story of the Jews arrival here, but also their tragic extermination at the hands of Nazi occupiers in WW2. Today the Jewish population is less than 2000.
Religion is also what draws in large numbers of Russian pilgrims and tourists. Signage in many tourist attractions here is in Greek, English and Russian. Many are heading – hard-to-get permits in hand – for the monasteries of the Athos Peninsula, which for over 1000 years has been a cloistered place shut off from the outside world. Anyone can glimpse these places from the water, but only men may enter. The Athos Peninsula is the only place in the EU where Freedom of Movement is restricted to ensure the gender division remains intact.
As you would expect from such a crucial Ottoman city there are also remnants of mosques and hammams too. The most striking is the Yeni Mosque, now used as an exhibition space. The changes Thessaloniki has been through are striking. Not for the first time, the post-independence population movements that utterly transformed Greece and Asia Minor came to mind. Today 140,000 muslims live in Greece, a mixture of Albanian immigrants and Turks.
If you still have breath, take (possibly another) evening hike up to the city walls. The views across the sea and beyond are sublime at any time but this is when locals come and a very pleasant hubbub descends.
It may seem odd for this city of fortress walls and golden mosaics to have a hip scene, but it does. Co-working spaces, boutique hotels (try the Blue Bottle for an affordable and enjoyable stay) and coffee shops showcase the modern city. There is an emerging food scene in the Ladadakia area, colonising abandoned buildings and setting loose creative relish. But it is the history that left the big impression on me. OK, along with the grilled octopus and ‘Byzantine beetroot salad’ – served with cream and apple, since you ask.