Balkans 2014 Diary #9: The Time I Developed An Entirely Rational Hatred Of Children Playing The Accordion (Thessaloniki)

View from Thessaloniki Port

5th October, 15:36
Godzilla Food Bar, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

I am here for one reason and one reason only – to watch Chelsea v Arsenal. Therefore this entry may be written in a mildly distracted manner.

Waking up in a Skopje hostel at 5:15am after 4 hours’ sleep, having had to pack my bag in the dark at 1am so as not to wake my room mates, and having had to listen to two of them make out complete with impassioned squelchy noises hereafter, was a novel and hopefully never-to-be-repeated way to end my stay in a city. But things were about to get worse on my arrival at the bus station at 5:40am.

Thessalonian graffiti.

Thessalonian graffiti.

“Can I buy a one-way ticket to Thessaloniki please?” “One moment.” A moment passed. 5 minutes passed. “Errr… how long do I have to wait?” “5 minutes.” Another 5 minutes passed. Hugely on edge, I hopped from foot to foot like a small child desperate for the loo. “I think the bus is in 10 minutes…” “Yes, on Platform 1.” THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M GETTING AT! I wanted to shout in despair. To be fair, the woman at the ticket booth seemed agitated too. Eventually a glamorous blonde woman appeared and told me to follow her, so I obeyed. In her office, she slowwwwwly typed out my passport details and printed the tickets. Noticing my frantic clock-checking, she laughed. “It’s ok, the driver has to come to my office before he leaves. He won’t leave without you!” Phew.

Sunrise over the Macedonian motorway.

Sunrise over the Macedonian motorway.

I spent the journey exhausted, mildly disgusted (the leftover vegetable rice tasted significantly worse for wear the morning after), and being thoroughly sniffer-dogged at the border control, where I encountered my first baggage since the airport on Day 1. The customs officer took great sadistic delight in ripping open and rooting through a vicar’s carefully taped box of goods, which angered the vicar. They had a shouting match during which the vicar pointed at his collar animatedly, at which point I’m pretty sure he was saying something like “Trust me, I’m a vicar!”. #sass #Vicargate2014 #hashtags

Early morning mist around the mountains.

Early morning mist around the mountains.

It took a rip-off taxi to get to the far-away uphill province of my hostel, Little Big House. Though the room wasn’t yet ready, there was a complimentary coffee latte thingy with a biscuit awaiting me. Despite disliking both coffee and biscuits, I forced them down. The latte was very light and frothy – I’m sure someone who likes coffee would have enjoyed it. Unfortunately I still don’t like coffee.

Complimentary coffee latte and biscuits.

Complimentary coffee latte and biscuit.

I’d like to say that on leaving my stuff in the room and receiving a map of the city, I went crusaading around the streets finding Hellenistic ruins on every corner and stuffing my face with hummus, before sunning myself on a beach and being fed grapes by tanned, toned and topless Greek men. In reality I was absolutely knackered so tried to sleep, but failed, so just stayed in bed all afternoon. Occasionally, I’d chat to a room-mate – Nikos from Crete, who was excited to meet a Brit as he was visiting an engineer friend in Derby in November and wanted to know the cheapest way to get there from London (I obliged, amused that someone could be so excited by the prospect of Derby); a guy from Alaska who had travelled all over; a guy from Hong Kong who went to bed at 8pm.

I managed to rouse myself in the evening to hang out some more with the Alaskan guy, who was sitting outside in the hostel courtyard with some German girls, who were studying in the city for 5 months, and a guy who was half Australian/half Uruguayan and had cycled from Vietnam to Greece (aside from having to fly over the India/Pakistan area as visas were hard to get hold of) on a single-gear bike. Not only was this an impressive feat, but he had a host of stories to tell from it – he’d caught dengue in Indonesia, and while in Thailand he had ended up going back to a hotel room with two British guys under the pretext of being offered weed, only to realise upon leaving their bathroom and finding them stark naked and waiting for him that he’d been lured in to join them in a threesome (an offer he did not take up).

The Kamara.

The Kamara.

Consulting the map the next morning after a sleep that, for the first time in weeks, I actually woke up feeling refreshed from, I decided to go and see the ancient ruins. I was particularly enthused by the prospect of ancient Greek ruins, as I’ve seen a number of Roman ruins from both domestic (Bath) and international (Italy) trips, but never Greek, and I was obsessed with Greek mythology as a little girl.

The Rotonda.

The Rotonda.

However, the Rotonda – so intimidating from the outside – is underwhelming within; it’s a shell with a few frescoes. There was no history or context provided within or around, as with the Kamara, an ancient arch nearby. More to my disappointment, both were Roman ruins.

Odeon at the Agora.

Odeon at the Agora.

But my woes dissipated when I found the Agora, as – although improved and extended by the Romans – it was originally a Greek building. I pranced around taking a load of photos of old stones and columns, suddenly energised by a combination of lovely weather and excitement. Although my desire to go to Greece had been tempered by age, the thrill I’d had so many years ago of reading about ancient Greek life, culture and religion came flooding back and I was weirdly invigorated to feel like a young’un again.

Ancient ruins at the Agora.

Ancient ruins at the Agora.

A cryptoporticus remained intact and served as the entrance to a museum about the area. While many of the finds had been transferred to the Archaeological Museum, some had been kept in tthis museum, which told the history and development not only of the Agora as was, but of the site as is, and how one man’s dedication to fighting the excavation finally succeeded. It was all pretty interesting, with one small downside; I was the only visitor to the museum at that time, meaning that the guards were pretty much stalking me. Every time I walked into a room, the guard in the next room, checking I wasn’t enacting a full-on Roman orgy against the glassware or smuggling a column into my handbag. Luckily I wasn’t – the only thing I was tempted to steal was a phallic vase in Dionysus’ honour, because LOL, PHALLUSES!!

Penis-shaped vase.

Penis-shaped vase.

By now it was early evening, so I wandered in the general direction of the port, as there was apparently a lively restaurant scene nearby. This took me down the scenic, pedestrianised Aristotelous Square (pedestrianised in Greece meaning ‘for foot passengers and rogue motorcyclists who get angry at you for getting in their way even though THEY’RE the ones in YOUR way). As I walked along here, I was approached by a cheerful man wielding a laminated leaflet. “TONIGHT AT THE WHITE TOWER WE’RE HAVING A REGGAE FESTIVAL!”

Aristotelous Square.

A teeny tiny bit of Aristotelous Square, right by where I was accosted by the reggae guy.

While distracted by the leaflet, he had put a cotton wristband on my wrist and tied it. “MAKE A WISH!!” “Err… ok,” I said, confused, and made my wish. “Now, give whatever is in your heart,” he said. I knew this was coming. Because obviously I really wanted to pay for something I didn’t want and hadn’t asked for. As I hesitated and got out my wallet, he made polite conversation. “Where you from?” “England.” This sent him into raptures as he began blowing kisses and telling me he loved English people. “Your boyfriend is very lucky!! …you do have a boyfriend, yes?” I know lying is wrong but… “Yeah, yeah, I DEFINITELY have a boyfriend.” I held out a Euro to stop any more questions about my imaginary boyfriend. “A little more?” FFS. By now, desperate to get away, I gave him a 50 cent piece and told him I had no more money before hurrying away.

Giant sun loungers on the port.

Giant sun loungers on the port.

A stroll along the seafront led me to the port itself, replete with huge wooden sun loungers which couples and friends were clustered across. The sun was beginning to set, so I sat and watched it go down, turning the sky all sorts of vibrant colours. The only thing that ruined this soothing half-hour was one of my mosquito bite scabs becoming dislodged and bleeding profusely over my ankles. With no plasters or tissues to hand, I had to resort to scraping the congealing blood off with a cardboard chewing gum pack wrapper. #classy

Once the sun had disappeared, it was time to seek the restaurant area. Settling at a restaurant called Zithos, intrigued by the buffalo meat options, I instead opted for the pilaf rice with mince and herbs. Sounded plain, but edible. In reality it was my fourth all-out foodgasm after the Sarajevan klepe, the Ohridian crepe and the Skopje trileche. Surely nothing could impinge on my foody bliss?

Sunset over the port.

Sunset over the port.

This is me, so of course it could! I’d quite enjoyed the tourist-pleasing sound of accordions in the distance as I ate. Until it came closer, and closer, and next time I looked up from stuffing my face there was a small girl playing it RIGHT NEXT TO ME. I ignored her and fixated on my plate, hoping she’d get the message. But still she played. And when she finished playing, she waited. Waiting like Dylan Jack the Ripper outside a brothel at closing time. Clearly bored, she tried to hurry along the process of squeezing some cents out of me by requesting payment in Greek. I shrugged. She put out her hand, so to pretend I had no idea what she was asking for, I stared at her as one might stare at a UFO landing. She FINALLY got the message. Finally.

Food BLISS - pilaf rice, fresh bread and retsina.

Food BLISS – pilaf rice, fresh bread and retsina.

A few minutes elapsed as I sipped at my retsina (ordered for geeky Countdown purposes). And then the dreaded sound of the accordion piped up once more. Please no – please God have mercy… Another child accordionist appeared. Irritated, I shook my head. She moved on immediately. Excellent! Still, doesn’t make it les annoying when you have to do it another 3 times during one meal. All I wanted to do was sip wine that, after initial revulsion, had become palatable to my tastebuds, and feel like an absolute luvvie IN PEACE AND QUIET.

The rest of the evening was uneventful aside from getting monstrously lost on the way back and stumbling across a large group of people randomly dancing outside the Rotonda, and since the previous night’s sleep had worked wonders I had another early night. Day 3 I’d planned to spend at the Trigonion Tower, Gardens of Pasha, various museums and the White Tower, before chillin’ at a beach on Day 4. Key word in all this: PLANNED.

Trigonion Tower.

Trigonion Tower.

Thursday dawned very hot and very sunny. Now, the Trigonion Tower was not far from our hostel, but it was all uphill. Rather steeply so. I had a cursory look around it, but there wasn’t much to see – it was standard ruined fort fare – aside from the panorama of the city from the roof. Half melted, I walked downhill through the Gardens of Pasha – again, not much to see, just standard gardeny things like grass and trees that you can find in your local park, alongside slightly more unusual fragments of ruins. There was a beautiful Orthodox church in the distance but I couldn’t quite harness the energy to wander over and look inside it – it was just too hot.

View of the city from the top of the Trigonion Tower.

View of the city from the top of the Trigonion Tower.

It seemed that entry to the White Tower required payment I wasn’t convinced I wanted to shell out on, so – tired from the 40 minute walk – I found an ice-cream parlour and paid way over the odds for water and strawberry ice-cream, eating it by the White Tower and looking over the Med. Imagine my horror when I saw another guy walking towards me as I ate, clutching a laminated sheet and some wristbands. “WE’RE HAVING A REGGAE NIGHT DOWN HERE TONIGHT! DO YOU WANT TO COME??” “No thank you.” “WHY NOT?” “I’m… busy.” “HOLD OUT YOUR WRIST!” “Why?” “So you can have one of these LOVELY wristbands! Why not?” “Will I have to pay?” “Only whatever is in your heart to pay…” “No thanks, I have no heart and no money.” He walked off, dejected.

The White Tower.

The White Tower.

It was time to set out on a quest to find the museum, but unfortunately the helpful signs dried up when they were needed most. This led to an inadvertent detour through an industrial area. What is there to say about Thessalonian industrial areas? Very blue, very deserted. Save yourself the hassle; don’t bother, and keep a closer eye on your map. The Archaeological Museum, when I finally found it, was really good but again it was deserted. There were no phallic vases either, although I discovered an amphora with swastika decorations within 2 minutes of being in there, so all’s well that begins well.

Swastika amphora.

Swastika amphora.

By the end I was more or less crippled, but I needed to hike across town to find somewhere to eat. After another mile-long walk I found Zithos and decided I needed to try the rice with shrimps, chicken and egg – not as eye-wateringly good as the pilaf rice, but tasty enough. Unfortunately the scourge of the night before returned; no sooner had I placed my order than an accordion-playing brat sprang up next to me. I shook my head. Within the next half hour, no fewer than 4 more accordion-players bothered me. By the time I’d finished my meal, my hatred towards children was like peak Childcatcher and I’d pretty much developed a phobia of accordions.

Shrimp/egg/chicken and rice.

Shrimp/egg/chicken and rice.

Day 4’s planned beach excursion unfortunately never happened, mainly because it was cloudy and cold. So, after a very lazy morning/early afternoon lazing around and chatting to my Athenian room mate, and armed with a ticket for the Byzantine History Museum, I returned to the museum area, this time sans the industrial area detour. This museum wasn’t much different to the previous one, except that rather than focusing on the city’s Roman heritage, it concentrated on the post-Roman era (Byzantine), which I knew pretty much nothing about. To the point where I didn’t really know it had ever existed. I’m still not convinced it was the most fascinating era in early European history, but it was good to learn something new.

Graffiti.

Graffiti.

It was unfortunately time to take a break from Zithos when it came to dinner, as it didn’t offer moussaka and I’d made a vow to try moussaka at least once while I was in Greece. Through some frenetic TripAdvisoring, I’d been informed that Rouga – down a little side street off a street off Egnatia, the city’s central road – was not only the second best restaurant in the city, but served the best moussaka. So, after being harassed on the way by some teenage boys who started shouting at me in Greek for reasons unknown, I had moussaka at Rouga. And it was very good (albeit very hot), as was the complimentary bread and olive paste I was treated with on arrival.

What I'm assured by TripAdvisor is the finest moussaka in Thessaloniki.

What I’m assured by TripAdvisor is the finest moussaka in Thessaloniki.

While there were no child accordionists around (success!), I made the mistake of drinking a 1 litre bottle of water by myself quite quickly. Although I’d managed this the night before no problem, today my body decided it was so used to being mildly dehydrated (I used to compete with myself as a child to see how long I could go without drinking anything – I’m convinced I once managed a week) that it wasn’t going to process the water well. As I started to walk towards the area I’d agreed to meet Athenian room-mate at for an electronic music night, I began to feel bloated with water and extremely nauseous. By the time I was on Tsimiski street – another main road – I was staggering a bit and trying very hard not to throw up, although it seemed like an inevitability. Luckily after half an hour I felt ok, and was kind of relieved that I couldn’t find my room-mate in the general vicinity of the electronic evening so I could go back to the hostel and have an early night. #granny #oldbeforemytime #morehashtags

Entirely unexplainable chapel at Thessaloniki station.

Entirely unexplainable chapel at Thessaloniki station.

The only thing after that that requires a mention is the chapel at Thessaloniki station (a corner of class in an otherwise underwhelming building), how average the souvlaki I had at the station was (I think it’s something you need to like salad or condiments for, and I hate both), and how utterly third world the toilets are. They’d have to be PRETTY bad for someone who’s about to embark on a 9 hour coach journey to reject them.

Signing off,
A Jen who is wincing just thinking about those loos

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