Monday, 9 May 2011

Thessaloniki, Greece

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” 
~Cesare Pavese
On May 7th, I left Bucharest on an overnight train to Sofia, Bulgaria.  I arrived in Sofia at 7 a.m. on May 8th (two hours later than expected).  Again, this is a difference between eastern and western Europe.  In France, Germany and Austria, I could estimate train arrival times by five minutes.  This is not the case in Romania and Bulgaria.

 Bulgarian countryside.

The train terminal in Sofia was the most confusing one I've seen yet.  I looked around, and could not find a ticket booth.  I could not find an ATM.  I could not even find a tourist information booth.  It was raining, cold, and overcast.  I hadn't read my Rough Guides' description of Sofia, but something told me that it was as sobering as the synopsis of Bucharest.  I stood in the train terminal, completely confused, wanting to be anywhere in the world but in Sofia, Bulgaria.

That's when Franz # 58 materialized and said, "What you need?"

I stood there for a minute trying to figure out Franz's ulterior motive.

Franz was staring at my expectantly.  "What you need?" he repeated.

That's when I decided I wanted out of Sofia.  I just wasn't sure where I wanted to go.  My mind started shuffling through the options.  Belgrade?  Plovdiv?  Istanbul?  "Tickets?" I asked, meekly.  Franz stared at me, uncomprehending.

A light bulb went off somewhere in my noggin.  "Greece!" I blurted out.  This was a word that Franz understood.  He motioned for me to follow, and I accompanied him upstairs, where there was a booth selling bus tickets to Thessaloniki.

 Random lilypad in a park in Thessaloniki.

Twenty minutes later, I was on a bus headed toward Greece.  It was quite surreal.  There was a verbal dialogue going on in my head.  The dialogue went something like this:  "OMG, I'm going to Greece! OMG, I'm going to Greece!  OMG, I'm going to Greece!"  When we crossed the Bulgarian-Greek border four hours later, the dialogue shifted to:  "I'm in Greece, bitches!  I'm in Greece, bitches!  I'm in Greece, bitches!"

The bus stopped for 30 minutes so that we could pee, poo and eat.  I bought some Toblerone chocolates and proceeded to stuff my face.  No wonder I look so ROUGH.

One reason why I enjoy taking local transport (buses and trains as opposed to planes) is that you get to see so much of the countryside.  The Bulgarian countryside was hilly and covered in bright green, moss-colored trees.  But when we crossed the Bulgarian-Greece border, the landscape started to look a lot like northern California.  Openness, hilliness, dark green scrub vegetation, and something you'd see outside of San Fransisco or Berkeley.  This pumped me up.  A lot.   

Picture of the Bulgarian countryside taken from inside the bus.

This is what the Grecian countryside looks like.  (I took this picture in September 2009 in Berkeley, California.)

The bus dropped us off at the central bus terminal in Thessaloniki.  Someone, I think it was my dad, told me that the adage "It's Greek to me" is true.  There are not many English speakers in Greece and the Greek alphabet does not have the same characters as the English alphabet.  This makes it doubly difficult for tourists to communicate with the locals.

 The architecture in Thessaloniki is very beachy.

While I'm not sure about statistics, my experience thus far has confirmed that the majority of people in Greece do not understand English.  This created some problems at the bus terminal.  I had no idea where I was in relation to the city center and no one could tell me how to get there. 

Some Roman ruins in the middle of Thessaloniki.
The White Tower.  Supposedly this is one of the top attractions in Thessaloniki.  I could not figure out why...

I bought a pack of gum and sat on a bench for 10 minutes, chewing.  I ate the entire pack of gum in one sitting because I was agitated.  I didn't know how to get into town or even where to stay once I did.

 Hagia Sofia, a famous church in Thessaloniki.

The inside of Hagia Sofia.  I read that this is Byzantine architecture.

Another picture from inside Hagia Sofia.

I finally found a lady in an official-looking uniform who understood English and explained that Bus # 31 would take me downtown for $0.90 Euro.  At that moment, one of the automatic doors opened, a breeze rushed into the bus terminal, and I caught a whiff of myself and almost gagged.  At this point, I'd been traveling for 18 consecutive hours and I smelled like shit.  I'm sure I looked worse.  My hair felt incredibly greasy, like someone had dumped a bucket of Crisco over my head.  It was time to find a hotel and take a shower, pronto!

 Another blackmail photo.  Me looking ROUGH.  REALLY rough. 

I bought a map of Thessaloniki and got onto the bus.  The map was in Greek and I couldn't figure out where we were or what route the driver was taking.  I got off at a stop that seemed "central" and was lucky to stumble onto an inexpensive hotel within five minutes.

I showered for what felt like forever and took an evening stroll along the Aegean Sea.

The Aegean Sea.

And again.

Some cool artwork along the Aegean Sea.

Some not-so-cool "artwork" along the Aegean Sea.

Me by the Aegean Sea.  Still looking ROUGH even after a 30 minute hot shower and 10 hours of sleep.

So begin my adventures in Greece... 

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