Disembarking from an MSC cruise ship at Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, it’s obvious it stands apart from the rest of the country. Situated at the head of the Gulf of Thessaloník, it seems open to the rest of the world, with a wide ethnic mix and an air of general prosperity.
There are substantial Roman remains and the many churches constitute a showcase of Orthodox architecture through the ages, while you can catch glimpses of the Turkish city both in the walled Upper City (Ano Poli) and in the modern grid of streets below: isolated pockets of Ottoman buildings, many of them Islamic monuments, which miraculously survived the 1917 fire.
Modern Greek architecture is exemplified by Art Deco piles dating from the city’s twentieth-century heyday. Ruins, churches and buildings make Thessaloníki pleasant for sightseeing on an MSC Mediterranean cruise excursion. Pella, 40km west of Thessaloníki, was the capital of Macedonia throughout its greatest period and the first capital of Greece after Philip II forcibly unified the country around 338 BC. The site today is a worthwhile day-trip from Thessaloníki. Its main treasures are a series of pebble mosaics, some in the museum, others in situ.
The site of Vergina, 75km southeast of Véria, undoubtedly qualifies as one of Greece’s most memorable attractions. This was the site of Aegae, the original Macedonian royal capital before the shift to Pella, and later the sanctuary and royal burial place of the Macedonian kings. From outside, all that’s visible is a low hillock with skylights and long ramps leading inside, but once underground in the climate-controlled bunker you can admire the facades and doorways of the tombs in situ, well illuminated behind glass. Finds from the site and tombs, the richest Greek trove since the discovery of Mycenae, are exhibited in the complex.