Sofia is unlike many capital cities in that it does not have a river and it is not by the sea. Mountains surround the Bulgarian capital with Vitosha in the south an imposing silhouette. Looking down the long shopping streets the outline of Vitosha makes it look like storm clouds are rolling in, but they never arrive, they linger forever on the edge.
Sofia is not the prettiest of cities and unlike many cities in eastern Europe doesn’t have an ‘Old Town’, instead old buildings are nestled amongst new, creating a patchwork of history and modernity. One of the best sights in Sofia is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and it is worth visiting, however my favourite sight was the Rila Monastery, which is a little under two hours by car away from the city and nestled in yet more mountains. The hostel had organized a tour to Rila and this included a short hike up to a cave where a saint had lived. The way out led up some wooden steps and then a fairly small opening between the rocks where contortion was required to get out and back to the stunning forested mountain views before heading down to the Monastery itself. The architecture and the decoration of the Monastery is a real thing of beauty.
At the bus station in Sofia I was lucky to be helped by a friendly Bulgarian (the wife, I think, of a British man) to find the platform I needed to get the bus to Thessaloniki, the port city in northern Greece. The bus ride goes through beautiful mountains and for a time follows the path cut by the river Struma.
Thessaloniki is not a big city and doesn’t contain many things to see. The White Tower by the water is a notable landmark and from there it is a nice walk along the waterfront taking in all the view, which I also did from a bar. Another landmark to see is the Rotunda that has served various religious functions since approximately the 4th century. The hostel I was in had a garden that looked out to the Rotunda and the cats that seemed to wander around there. Looking at the Rotunda I started to wonder, will any 21st century architecture survive as long as this? Is it designed to?
Much of the central area is not old and has a grid pattern that has created some beautiful long streets that run straight down to the waterfront. Walking these in the sun is a joy. In contrast the older area of Thessaloniki is up on the hills and small houses are dotted almost randomly, the streets very narrow and winding with steep inclines to walk in order to get some excellent views over the city while sweat pours. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why but I really like Thessaloniki, it felt like a welcoming place, very unpretentious and it wasn’t overrun with tourists.
I headed south on the train to the capital of Greece, skirting the space between the mountains (including Mount Olympus) and the sea, to get to one of the most famous cities in all of the world and in all of the history of the world. Athens is a dense city with many intriguing little streets populated with bars and food spots, as well as other shops, but also shops where the only remains are shutters sprayed with graffiti. The ancient sites of Athens incudes places such as Hadrian’s Library, the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora, and of course the Acropolis with the Parthenon, as well as other sites. For thirty euros it is possible to get a combination ticket to see all of these, which I did and spent a full day wandering around ruins that helped form the basis of civilisation in Europe. It is remarkable that these ruins still exist today but a testament to preservation.
A more modern structure, but with a classical feel, is the stadium that hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896. This beautiful white U shaped arena is worth a visit. In addition, for perhaps the best views over the city the walk up to the Philopappos Monument is a must. From here you can look to the sea, and you can also look the other way to the Acropolis to get a glorious view of it and the city below.
Athens is a busy place, a hot place, and an important place. The tour is back in full swing.