Thessaloniki in 2 days - Part II: the Roman ruins & Ano Poli, the upper town

After having visited the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of the lower town, I continued my two-day trip by exploring the Roman past of Thessaloniki and the three most emblematic sites built during those times: the Agora, the Rotunda and the Arch of Galerius.

My trip would finish with a climb all the way up to the Ano Poli, the upper town. Crowned by a Byzantine and Ottoman-era fortress, it offers the best panoramic views of the Thessaloniki. Continue reading to check them out!


Thessaloniki: Day 2

 

On the first day of my trip, I had already visited most of the monuments of the lower town. On the previous day, I walked from the port all the way to the White Tower, visiting many of the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments on the way before finishing with a visit to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Check out my first day in Thessaloniki!

On my second day, I planned to climb to the upper town, but still had some Roman sites located right between the upper and lower town that I wanted to visit, so I headed straight to the Triumphal Arch of Maximianus Galerius.

It was built between 298 and 305 AD in commemoration of the Emperor’s victorious campaign against the Persians and consisted of two parallel rows of four pillars each. There were arched openings between the pillars, the central one being wider and higher than the other two. The four central pillars which were covered with marble with relief decoration were larger than the outer pillars and were connected by semi-circular arches supporting a dome.

The reliefs depict the victories of Galerius against the Persians in 297 AD and feature symbolic images erasing the power and unity of the Roman rulers of the First Tetrarchy. Today only the pillars of the western row are preserved, two of which still retain their relief decoration. 

 

Arch of Galerius

Reliefs

Arch of Galerius

 

On the upper part of the street, you will spot the Rotunda. Built in the early 4th century AD either as a temple for the ancient cult worship or as an imperial mausoleum, it is a circular domed building that was connected with the palatial complex through a monumental road, part of which is Galeriu’s triumphal arch.

During the Early Byzantine period (4th to 6th century AD), the Rotunda underwent the necessary changes to be converted into a Christian church. The east bay was opened and widened in order to give place to a sanctuary apse, a perimeter ambulatory was added, along with a rectangular propylon with two circular chapels at the south sides, ruins of which were discovered and are visible today.

At the same period, the church was ornamented with mural mosaics of incomparable art considered among the masterpieces of the Early Byzantine art. During the Byzantine period earthquakes destroyed part of the monument, including the sanctuary apse, which after its restoration was decorated with a fresco of the Ascension of Christ (9th century). 

According to Byzantine texts, the church was dedicated to the Archangels. It was Thessaloniki’s cathedral church between 1524 and 1591, the year in which it was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman conquerors. It remained in use as a mosque until the city’s liberation in 1912. Its dedication since that time to Saint George is owing to the small neighbouring church of this name.

 

Rotunda from the Arch of Galerius

Rotunda

Dome

Closer view of the Rotunda

 

Walking west of Filippou Street you will reach the Roman Agora of Thessaloniki. The first use of the archaeological site of the ancient Agora is dated up to the Hellenistic times, but it has been confirmed that the site was used in the last quarter of the 3rd century until after the mid-2nd century BC.

Of particular interest is the south-east sector, which essentially lies outside the Agora complex. One distinctive structure in this sector is part of a balneary with two rooms, two pools, one cold and one hot, and the furnace on the south side. 

The site was raised in the 2nd century and when the Agora complex was built, rectangular structures (possibly shops) were erected along the street directly to the south. This remained in use until the Early Christian period. 

The Agora, in the shape of a double L, was open to the north covering about 20 hectares. Around a rectangular marble-carved square, three double stoas (a freestanding colonnade or covered walkway) with Corinthian columns were in front of each wing, where there were all public services of the city, capital of the Province of Macedonia. 

 

Agora

South view

Cat on the ruins

 

Just behind the Agora, the Church of Saint Demetrius or Hagios Demetrios is the main temple dedicated to the patron saint of Thessaloniki, St. Demetrius.

The spot used to house a Roman bath, which was replaced by a church on the 4th century AD. 100 years later, the small church was replaced with a bigger three-aisled basilica and then as a five'-aisled basilica in 629.

The basilica is well known for six mosaic panels from the Byzantine times, depicting St. Demetrius with the officials responsible for restoring the church and with children. After the conquest of Thessaloniki by the Ottoman Empire, the building became a mosque.

After the church was damaged by the Great Fire of 1917, it remained in restoration for decades. Tombstones from the Jewish cemetery, which had been destroyed by the Nazi forces, were used to build the restored building that we see today.

 

Church of Saint Demetrius

 

From here, I started my climb to the upper town. Unaffected by the Great Fire of 1917, it is the most authentic and traditional area of Thessaloniki, preserving most of the Byzantine and Ottoman constructions.

The upper town, known in greek as Ano Poli, still retains the stone-paved streets and houses built in traditional Greek and Ottoman style. Here is located the acropolis with its fort, as well as the remaining city walls, all built in traditional Byzantine and Ottoman techniques.

The streets can be quite steep, so in addition to the scorching sun, I was pretty exhausted when I reached the top. But the upper town offers unrivalled panoramic views of Thessaloniki, so it’s definitely worth the effort.

 

Thessaloniki from the upper town

 

One of the points of interest in the upper town is the patriarchal Vlatadon Monastery. It belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and is the only Byzantine monastery in Thessaloniki operating until today. 

The katholikon (main church), built upon the ruins of an earlier church, is a rave variant of the cross-in-square church type, in terms of the dome support. It is surrounded by an ambulatory, like most churches of this era in Thessaloniki. The frescoes revealed during the restoration work after the earthquake of 1978 are of exceptional craftsmanship and date back to 1362, the year Gregory Palamos was canonised. 

There are remarkable collections of portable icons, manuscripts and old volumes dating from the 12th to the 19th century, kept in the monastery’s sacristy. 

 

Vlatadon Monastery

Interior of the monastery

Garden in the monastery

 

The very top of the upper town is crowned by the Heptapyrgion, a fortress from the Ottoman times also known by its Turkish name Yedi Kule. Its name in both languages means “Fortress of Seven Towers”, however, the building has 10 of them.

It served as the main defence of the upper city up until the 19th century before it was turned into a prison that remained open until 1989.

When I reached the fortress, I was surprised to find out that there were no tourists around. Most visitors seem to stay in the lower part of the walls, so I had the entire site for myself.

 

Walls of Thessaloniki

Watch tower

Heptapyrgion

 

If you’re not interested in going all the way up to the Heptapyrgion, you can stay in the lower part of the walls of Thessaloniki, near the Alysseos Tower.

These walls surrounded the city from the Middle Ages up until the 19th century, when a large part was demolished by the Ottomans. The firist fortified structure was constructed in the 4th century BC, but the walls that we see today date from the Byzantine period on the 4th century AD. The northern section of the wall is connected to the acropolis of the city, surrounding the Heptapyrgion.

 

Upper town

Alysseos Tower

Walls of Thessaloniki

 

On the left-hand side on the distance you’ll be able to spot the majestic Agios Pavlos, or St. Paul’s Church.

This new temple, located next to the Byzantine church of St. Paul, was built only in 1997. There are many temples in the area dedicated to the Apostle Paul, which is to be expected ass it was from Thessaloniki that the Christian religion spread across Europe.

The church is located on top of a hill and is topped with a flattened dome that can be seen from different areas of the city, both in the upper and lower town.

 

Agios Pavlos

 

But definitely, the best part of visiting the walls is the wonderful views of Thessaloniki that they offer.

You will be able to enjoy the entire skyline of the city and even spot some of its most relevant monuments: the White Tower, the Rotunda or Agia Sophia Cathedral. There’s no better way to finish your visit than with such wonderful views!

 

Views of Thessaloniki from the upper town

 

Most people limit their visit to Greece to the islands and Athens, however, the north of the country has some hidden gems that are worth a visit. Thessaloniki is certainly one of them.

The Macedonian capital is also a great camp base to explore the surrounding area, including Mt. Athos, Meteora or the ruins or Pella and Vergina. If you’re planning a trip to Greece anytime soon, you shouldn’t miss it out!

 

All opinions are my own.


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