Impressions of Thessaloniki


Last week we had a short break in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, in the north of the country in the province of Macedonia. I had a particular reason for wanting to go there, it’s been on my bucket list for a while, and this was our first ever trip to Greece. I don’t think it will be our last!



The city, formerly known as Salonica, has a fascinating history – founded by the ancient Macedonians (although after the death of Alexander the Great) it’s been ruled by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans and, finally the modern Greek State. Under the Ottomans it became a cosmopolitan city, populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews, the latter emigrating here when exiled from Spain and Portugal and becoming the largest ethnic group until they were deported and murdered by the Nazis.


Flying out from Manchester we spent 4 days in the city staying in the Bahar Boutique – a small, chic, boutique style hotel in a very buzzing area of bars, cafes and restaurants not far from the sea front. The room was small but very nicely done up in a contemporary style.



As usual, we kept ourselves busy, so lots to write up. As a start, here’s my overall impressions.

The City
It’s not particularly pretty. In the past it was famous for a picturesque skyline of domes and minarets, but most of the old city was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1917. Since then it has undergone a modernisation and Europeanisation with a plan devised by the French architect Ernest Hébrard after the fire, and Hellenisation also saw the removal of most traces of the Ottomans, with almost all the minarets removed as churches that had been converted to mosques reconverted to churches. Some Ottoman era buildings can be seen, scattered around the city centre, though.


There was a massive influx of Greek refugees in the 1920’s from the territories if the former Ottoman Empire, with Muslims moving in the opposite direction, during a period of what today we would call “ethnic cleansing”. This put additional pressures on the city which spread out with sprawling suburbs.



The city centre is compact and walkable, but transport, buses and taxis, are relatively cheap if you want to get out a bit further afield (as we did on one day)


There’s a lot of graffiti all over the city. Not street art (although there is some of that) but true graffiti. Probably much of it political but it was difficult to tell as most is in the Greek alphabet.


The People

Very friendly indeed, hospitable and helpful. What more can I say? Oh, they clearly enjoy sitting drinking coffee and enjoying their food!

Eating Out

And they certainly have plenty of opportunities to do just that. It seemed like almost every other building was a café or restaurant! The food was excellent and I’ve now become addicted to the favourite Greek way of serving coffee – Freddo Espresso.



One rather unique aspect of Thessaloniki are the “bar boats”. There’s a number of boats dressed up as triremes, pirate ships and the like which provide “free” half hour trips around the bay. The deal is that you buy a drink for around 5 or 6 Euros, with subsequent drinks usually 3 Euros cheaper. This means the trip costs about 3 Euros which we felt was quite a good deal.




Today it’s a low rise city, 8-10 storeys high, of mainly anonymous concrete blocks with glazed balconies. There are, however some gems in amongst the generally bland architecture, including some attractive Modernist buildings

DSC05098 (2).JPG

DSC05108 (2).JPG


and old churches and other buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman (and some Roman) periods.






And not everything was destroyed by the fire. The upper town avoided the conflagration (although the majority of the houses in the old town have been rebuilt in approximations of the original designs) and we stayed in Ladadike, an area of the old Jewish quarter that was relatively untouched by the inferno and where some older buildings survive.


Museums and Galleries

For once, we didn’t spend much time visiting galleries and museums, but there is a good selection to choose from, not all of them in the city centre.

Impressions of Canberra


Parliament House

We left Sydney on a Saturday morning, travelling by coach. Canberra is a couple of hundred miles away and as Australia doesn’t have a good inter-city train service, this seemed like the best option for getting there and we found it a convenient and comfortable enough service, rather like the National Express coaches in the UK.  The Sydney suburbs seemed to go on forever, but we eventually started to travel through open country and even saw kangaroos in the wild.

We arrived in Canberra to be greeted with heavy rain and quite cool temperatures. In fact, for all of our stay there, except the day we were leaving, the weather rather reminded me of a British summer – i.e. cool with bouts of rain! This didn’t have much of an impact on me personally, as I spent most of our 4 days there inside the Conference Centre.

Canberra is the national capital of Australia and was only created in the early 20th Century as a compromise alternative to Sydney and Melbourne. Neither of the latter would have been happy if the other had been designated the Capital. Most Australians from Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere I spoke to were quite scathing about the city as being “boring”. However, we quite liked it.

It’s a planned city influenced by the “Garden City” movement, so in many ways it reminded me of a bigger version of Letchworth or Milton Keynes in the UK. It’s very roomy with lots of green space, wide avenues and broad vistas. There was relatively little traffic, which made a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of Sydney. We could cross the road easily rather than standing for what seemed forever at the pedestrian crossings in the Sydney CBD! Transport around the city seemed quite easy with regular buses.


The old Parliament building


View over Lake Burley Griffin towards the National Carillon

There was quite a lot to see and my “other half” didn’t have too much trouble finding things to keep her occupied, despite the weather. There’s a number of Museums, Galleries and places of interest including the Australian Parliament, the old Parliament Building and the National War Memorial.

IMG_4255 (2)

The National War Memorial

There’s even an Aboriginal “Embassy” manned by activists representing Indigenous people whose treatment over the years has been such that they have plenty of grievances. It was originally founded in 1972 to protest about the Government rejecting a proposal for Aboriginal Land rights but now serves as a focal point for the broader Indigenous movement.


The conference kept me busy, but I had a free afternoon and a few hours before we left for Melbourne on the Thursday morning so I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Parliament, a quick look at the National Gallery, the National Gallery sculpture Park (which is accessible after the Gallery had closed) and a very quick visit to the War Memorial.


Impressions of Amsterdam


We’re just back from a short break in Amsterdam. The first time we’ve been to the city (if you don’t count the times I’ve changed planes at Schipol airport!) even though it’s been on my list of places to see for some time. So it was good to finally get there, even though The late August weather was decidedly autumnal and we got drenched in very heavy downpours several evenings (luckily the rain largely held off during the daytime when we were doing our main sightseeing).

We stopped in a hotel at the top end of the Herengracht (one of the three main canals in the canal ring – Grachtengordel in Dutch) which had been created from three adjacent historic canal houses and to get up to our room on the second floor we had to climb the original, narrow, spiral staircases.


Our room was at the front of the hotel so we had views over the Herengracht


and the Brouwersgracht (Brewer’s canal)


We were only there for three nights, which was enough to get a good feel for the city and, as usual, we packed a lot into the time we had. But there was more I would have liked to have seen and so we’ll have to go back.

There’s a lot to write up about the trip, but here’s my general impressions.

The City

  • A relatively small city centre so all the main sites could be easily reached on foot
  • Beautiful architecture throughout the city centre
  • A relaxed atmosphere (we kept away from the dodgy areas in the Red Light District at night)


  • The authorities have a tolerant laissez-faire attitude to soft drugs and prostitution. The former not a bad thing (although I have some reservations). However, I was not at all comfortable with the way women’s bodies are displayed like cattle and although we did our best to avoid it, it was difficult as they were encountered unexpectedly a few times outside the main Red Light District.

The People

  • Generally friendly and helpful although (and I know this as I have some Dutch friends) they can be rather brusque and don’t always appreciate British irony and humour.
  • Everyone speaks English – generally better than I do! Just as well as Dutch is not an easy language, even pronouncing the words is an almost impossible task.

Getting around

  • A very walkable city – but cycling is the main way most locals of all ages get around. We found cyclists difficult as most seemed to ignore the rues of the road and had little regard for pedestrians.


  • A good tram and bus network, although we didn’t need to use it during this visit
  • Boats everywhere on the canals. At one time they were the main form of transport.


Eating out

  • Lots of places to eat and plenty of choice in all  price ranges with good value food available in bars and cafes.



Museums and Galleries

  • The main art galleries and museums are well known and their reputations are deserved. But the queues were horrendous. They can be avoided by buying in advance over the web. We did this for the Van Gogh Museum. But horrendous queues also meant horrendous crowds inside!
  • Many interesting, smaller museums, that don’t suffer from overcrowding.


  • My main reason for wanting to visit the city was to experience the well preserved canal side streets with their characteristic canal houses and warehouses. I wasn’t disappointed.




  • Thousands of houseboats moored on the canals and in the old docks


  • Limited Modern architecture in the city centre, but plenty of new buildings in newly developing areas of the city. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time for exploring outside the historic areas so that will have to wait for another time.

Some examples of modern buildings we did see

The Nemo Science centre designed by Renzo Piano


The concert hall and office developments in the old east docklands


Deep in the heart of Texas

I’m writing this sitting in my hotel room in San Antonio. I’m over here for a conference that starts in earnest tomorrow (although I’ve meetings scheduled over the weekend) but I didn’t want to come all this way without seeing something of the place, so came out a few days early. I guess I haven’t properly adjusted to the time difference as I keep waking up early, so I decided to use the time before breakfast this morning and catch up with a bit of blogging. It’s my second trip to America. The first was about 4 years ago, to Memphis, also on business.

So what of San Antonio? Well it’s hot and fairly humid, but wearing a hat, applying plenty of sun-screen, drinking lots of water and taking it reasonably easy, I’m coping.


The city’s main claim to fame is the Alamo. It’s right in the city centre, five minutes walk from my hotel. and there is some history. The Alamo started as a Spanish Mission, built as a base for converting the local Native Americans to Catholicism and so cement Spanish rule in the area. And there are four more extending along the length of the San Antonio river in the south of the city. More about these in a future post.

Like Memphis the city centre is based on tourism, local government and some commerce. One thing notable to someone from England is that there are hardly any proper shops “downtown” I want to buy some fruit for my room but the only shops that sell food are Drugstores and they don’t sell fresh foodstuff. Not a real bookshop to be found – with some exceptions, nearly all the shops are aimed at tourists. I find it so weird that all the main shopping is done at malls on the outskirts. Memphis was the same. In Britain’s cities we expect there to be a lively shopping centre, although as we see an increasing number of city centre shops closing perhaps what I’ve seen in America is a vision of our future.

The big attraction and honeypot for tourists is the Riverwalk. For flood defence purposes, some of the water from the San Antonio river has been diverted into a loop and this has been landscaped and developed so that it is lined with bars, restaurants and various attractions.

It’s below street level, planted up with trees and has little water features and attractive little bridges. And they’ve extended the approach to the main river itself with pleasant walks to the north of the city centre towards the city Art Museum and to the south there’s a hiking and biking trail.

The architecture in the centre of the city isn’t particularly interesting. The vernacular buildings are of limited interest and the main large buildings are not particularly inspiring or original. There are some modest skyscrapers, including my hotel, and the Tower of the Americas that was built for a World’s fair held in the city. Some buildings have a Texan take on Gothic and Art Deco styles, but nothing that inspires or excites.

However, there are some more interesting buildings in residential districts, such as King William, close to the centre.

There are two interesting Art. Galleries, the City Art Museum yet – which is a little like the Ashmolean in Oxford with a mix of art and artefacts from Ancient civilisations, and. a really good Modern Art Gallery – the McNay Art Museum – which is out in the Northern part of the city, towards the airport. A fantastic collection in a wonderful setting based around inside a modern space linked to a Spanish colonial style house. More to come on them.

There are lots of places to eat. Many of them quite touristy but I’ve had a couple of decent Tex Mex meals and am starting to discover American breakfasts.

I’ve not had any interaction with local people yet, other than in the hotel, shops, bars, restaurants and the like and they’ve all been as you expect with Americans – very friendly and helpful.

I’ve five more days here. My time wil be mainly taken up now with the conference, but tthere’s probably more to see and thngs to find out before I leave.