First Impressions: Thessaloniki and Northern Greece

If first impressions really lasted, then I would have left Thessaloniki almost as soon as I arrived. I guess it was always going to be tough to follow on from my Macedonian experience. I was genuinely sad to leave Skopje and had toyed with the idea of staying even longer, but enough was enough. It was time to get back to the task at hand. I made my arrangements with the refugee organisations I wanted to volunteer with in Northern Greece and I got on yet another bus.

I didn’t help myself. The day before leaving Skopje, I was determined to get to the Millenium Cross at the top of Mount Vodno outside the city. The cross may not look like much from a distance, but it’s 66m high – that’s almost twice the height of Christ The Redeemer in Rio. The climb up is killer. The climb down is worse. So, by the time I got off my bus in Greece the following day, my legs were like jelly and could barely support me, never mind the added bags and baggage. I was more than tired. The hostel I had booked was not well located and involved a pretty rough uphill climb to the old town that would take me about 40 minutes. I couldn’t face it. I got a taxi.

Thess1

Cue bad impression number 1.

I’m no stranger to scheming taxi drivers. I’ve visited and lived in some of the dodgiest hot spots for it and consider myself a reasonably savvy traveller, so before I got in the car, I checked for the usual things. Was he running a meter? Did he know my destination? I showed him the pin in google maps. No problem! What I didn’t check, however, was if he could give Robert DeNiro a run for his money in the psychotic taxi driver department.

We had barely left the bus station when he began twirling his rosary beads (or whatever equivelant he had). Gradually, the beads came closer and closer to my face. Grinning like the complete freak that he obviously was, he drove down the middle of streets with oncoming traffic, swerved for no reason and drove in the opposite direction of my hostel. I squirmed and shifted, mostly to avoid the rosary beads, and double checked my Google Maps. I asked him why he was going the wrong way. He suddenly spoke no English, but hairpinned it back in a direction that Google approved of. The rosary beads swung within a couple of inches of my face and he began chewing his lip and laughing a strange little laugh. I pictured my death. Strangulation by rosary beads. I clutched the door handle, budged a little to the right and felt sick. I was going to have to tell him to stop. I was going to have to get out. I consulted the map on my phone again. Thank God for GPS. The hostel wasn’t too far away. I could walk. My legs would be just fine.

“I’ll be ok from here.” I told him.

He ignored me and drove faster, flying through little cobbled side streets. (Pedestrian?) I clutched the door handle, but this time it was to steady myself from the bumps and the surprise twists. He continued to ignored me, but the beads had stopped flicking into my face now. Instead, they were wrapped around white knuckles that clutched the steering wheel. His eyes were focused firmly ahead. We swivelled to the right and lurched forward down the tiniest, darkest street yet. The lighting was sparse enough to be spooky.

I was freaking out.

“Stop the car,” I said more firmly.

The car came to an abrupt stop.

“Is ok,” replied one of his other personalities, “we’re here.”

I looked around the narrow street of shuttered, residential buildings. What was he talking about? But the car had stopped and I was taking advantage of that. I quickly stumbled out of the taxi and saw a man leaning over a balcony above. I called to him and told him the name of my hostel. Did he know where it was?

“Ruth?” He asked. It was a moment from the twilight zone. What was going on? “Welcome.”

The taxi driver was standing beside me.

“Is here.” He told me. A little sign, hidden behind a parked car, showed the name of the hostel. I looked at my google maps and saw that it was alright. I had made it. I wasn’t dead. I threw money at the taxi driver, now the picture of sanity, and grabbed my bag.

Legs buckling beneath me, laden down with bags, I climbed the 20 or so steps at the side of the building to the main door of the hostel, while its grinning, nodding owner stood at the top and watched me. Not once did he offer to help. Oh, the things I felt like saying to him. I held my tongue. What was the point? I had barely even arrived and already I was looking forward to getting out of Thessaloniki.

White Tower small

The second day really wasn’t any better. My legs were stinging in the way that I thought only a sever case of sunburn stings, all pain and discomfort and irritation. Mixed with the aching of muscles, I was the grumpiest I can remember being since this trip began. I had two small tasks I needed to do that day that turned into missions of epic proportion:

  1. Get to an ATM
  2. Pick up some essentials from the Supermarket.

Easy, right? I’d normally have both done before I’d give it a second thought.

Not in Greece.

The ATM and the Supermarket were both pretty far away, in opposite directions. The location of my hostel became a source of real annoyance as I had to manoeuvre steep hills and countless steps to get anywhere simple in the old town of Thessaloniki. As if the hills and steps weren’t enough of a challenge, the simple task of walking down the street was nightmarish. The footpaths were jammed with people walking so slowly they may as well be stationary. Even with malfunctioning legs, I was Speedy Gonzalez by comparison. Weaving in and out around them is fine until you come across a group, all plodding along or stopped for a chat, blocking up the path. They are oblivious to other people and the only way to get around them is to step out onto the narrow, windy roads where the crazy taxi drivers of this world lurk, just waiting to mow you down. (The terrifying driving was, I learned, not isolated to my trip to the hostel and I’ve tended to stick to walking since then).

With my missions finally completed, my tired legs carried me back to the hostel where I could cocoon myself and pretend that today wasn’t happening. Tomorrow would be better, I told myself.

And it was.

It seemed that my experience of Thessaloniki improved in direct proportion to my recovering legs. I discovered that there was an International Documentary Festival happening in the city, which cheered me up and went straight onto my ‘to do’ list.

Festsmall

Each day got a little better and when I found a flat a few days later and moved in with two really lovely volunteers also working with refugees, things really started to look up. I began my voluntary work with Help Refugees a few days after arriving in Thessaloniki .

Help Refugees small

With my legs back to normal and a new sense of purpose, I quickly forgot the bum start to my new city and got excited about the possibilities ahead. Spring was springing in Thessaloniki and I was determined to make the most of it.

 

 

43 Comment

  1. Beth says: Reply

    That’s scary! I was holding my breath just reading it, but it will be one of the more memorable trips that will stay with you for life! Keep on the alert and may your God go with you.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks 🙂 It’s all been a lot better since!

  2. robin Rue says: Reply

    Greece is on my bucket list. I have been wanting to go there for years!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      It is gorgeous and I’ll be seeing a lot more of it, so I’ll keep you posted 🙂

  3. I actually have to say that although a nightmare for you, I found myself chuckling at your taxi driver experience. Horrible to experience, I’m certain of that, but in retrospect, certainly kind of funny! Glad to trip got better as you went along. What a story to tell! Thanks.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Haha, always happy to entertain 😉 I realise it sounds a bit melodramatic in hindsight. It’s made a bit funnier when you realise that he’s not a rogue taxi driver over here. They’re all a bit mental!!!!

  4. A funny and fantastic insight into the unstructured, sometimes unconventional ways in different countries. I grew up in India, and while visitors love its color and cultural vibe, it takes a while to get used to the sensory overload 🙂

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Absolutely. It can be a bit crazy, but you gradually adjust and start to appreciate it as it is

  5. Note to self: No cabs when I start traveling to Greece! I’m glad your legs are feeling better though, and that your time in Thessaloniki is getting back in line with what you were expecting.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Brandi. Don’t let me put you off!!! Greece is really lovely

  6. I would have thought about leaving immediately too, after those first impressions! What a nightmare taxi ride, the drive really does sound a bit psychotic. I’m glad that things are steadily improving for you, I hope that continues.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Jessica, yes, it definitely all got better since then.

  7. Eek about the taxi driver! But I’m glad your legs are back to normal and you can enjoy your surroundings.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Amber, it’s all good now

  8. This looks like a stunning place to visit.

  9. nicki says: Reply

    looks absolutely beautiful, even though you had such a scary taxi drive there.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Yes, I definitely started to appreciate it after those first days

  10. wow. Traveling out of the states can be scary. I hope you have a safe trip and better memories to come.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      I wouldn’t know as I have not travelled extensively in the states and usually prefer to immerse myself in the history and culture the rest of the world has to offer. Mostly, I have a wonderful time. Maybe in the future I will have the opportunity to travel more in your country but for now, one little incident isn’t enough to put me off!

  11. Emily says: Reply

    Wow these are some amazing views in the pictures you’ve included. I hope to visit one day, although traveling can always be interesting.. Stay hopeful! I hope you enjoy your time there!! 🙂

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      It’s definitely interesting

  12. Ohhhhh wow what a first day, eh?? I haven’t been to Thessaloniki yet, just Santorini and Athens which we loved loved loved!!! I hope things get better for you, Greece is amazing! 🙂

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      I’m so looking forward to visiting Athens and Santorini! Everybody says such good things about both.

  13. What a crazy taxi ride! You’re so lucky to have made it safely. Yup that was a bad start, but we hope to hear more about the awesome time you had in Thessaloniki.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Guys. There will be loads more

  14. Elizabeth O. says: Reply

    There really will be bad experiences from time to time. I don’t think that’s how it works in general though. I’m glad that you eventually had a great time there.

  15. I’m sorry about your experience with the taxi. I’ve been to so many places and had bad experiences as well, although it’s not as much as the good ones. There will be times wherein you’ll feel like leaving as soon as you get the chance.

  16. Oh man. We have all had our good and bad trips. We have been in a car accident while in a taxi driving in Cuba. It’s not fun, but it is now our most told story from all our trips. All the great holidays just tend to blend in together.

  17. jen says: Reply

    What a crazy experience! My friend was just in Greece for 3 weeks working with the refugees.
    xo
    jen
    effortlesseverydaystyle.com

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Oh, I wonder if she was in the same area as me? Maybe I met her…

  18. Glenda says: Reply

    Thessaloniki and Northern Greece looks so beautiful. I totally love all the pictures! Better to focus on the great experiences.

  19. Laura says: Reply

    Sounds like a hectic trip. That’s travel though, not all beer and skittles.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      That’s a great saying. I’m going to remember that one!

  20. Ellie says: Reply

    I loved visiting Greece! It’s such a beautiful country but I’ve never been to Thessaloniki. Your photos give me serious Wanderlust!

    Ellie

  21. Ashlea says: Reply

    Sooo do not take a taxi in Greece. Yeah I would have been freaking out thinking of human trafficking and etc.

  22. blair villanueva says: Reply

    That’s scary! Even here in the Philippines we also have many taxi drivers like that so it is advisable to be always alert and knows where you will go.
    Hope it would never stains your appreciation for Thessalonika and just a new lesson to learn.

  23. stacey says: Reply

    This is scary. I can’t believe the taxi driver treated you this way. They can be scary though, I never visited Thessalonika and this is making me want to do that anytime soon. Glad you ended up being safe, sometimes hotels and hostels look great on paper.

  24. Anna says: Reply

    I love your writing! I read the title and thought “oh no…” but I should have seen it coming! Lovely stuff! X

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Haha. Thanks Anna. My first thought was “oh no…” too, but onwards and upwards 🙂

  25. Vana says: Reply

    Hi, I am so sorry for your first impression of Thessaloniki ( which is my hometown and although I am leaving far far away I love and I missed a lot). Congratulations for your decision to go to Greece to help! These pure people have to deal with a tragic reality and an unknown future! Greece as well has a very big problem with so many refuges ”forgotten” there and none seams to have the will to give a solution…
    Thessaloniki s a very beautiful city, has many interesting places to visit and near there ( Chalkidiki) about one hour drive, you will find some of the most wonderful beaches on the world!
    Enjoy your stay there, drink a cappuccino at the seaside cafes, eat amazing food ( Ladadika have many traditional restaurants), visit the old town, the Archaeological Museum ( you will see the treasures of Macedonia found in Vergina graves), the old byzantine churches, and much more …
    Oh I missed my Thessaloniki
    give her a Kiss from me 🙂
    Vana

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Hi Vana,
      Thankfully it got much, much better after that! Thessaloniki is a great place to visit – amazing food and drinks and the people are so friendly. I’ll certainly raise a nice Greek beer to you at one of the seaside cafes (why do coffee, when you can go straight for the beer 😉
      Ruth

  26. Vana says: Reply

    Thank you Ruth!
    Usually we start with a coffee, and after we drink beers or wine or ouzo and tsipouro!
    Please try tsipouro, you will not regret it…:)
    Vana

  27. […] think that by now I’d know better than to get into a car with a Greek driver, but needs […]

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