Cretan skies and Macedonian museums

I have recently returned from a thoroughly enjoyable and mostly relaxing family holiday in Greece – a week in Crete, near Chania on the north-west coast, followed by a few days in Thessaloniki. Most of the first week was spent by the pool and on the beach – a genuine first for a Higgitt holiday. Since I actually managed to do some reading, despite the presence of a four-year-old, it’s an experiment I plan to repeat.

This really was the view from our room (taken on my iPhone).

As well as books, I brought along a pair of binoculars with the hope of doing a tiny bit of stargazing. I have fond memories of a long-ago holiday in Portugal, staying in a converted hill-top windmill, when my dad helped me to see Jupiter’s brightest satellites with his binoculars. (Little did I know then that I would later know something about their discoverer, Galileo, and their use for determining longitude on land.) Apart from some moments of looking skyward when out in the countryside, and a view of the moon through the Royal Observatory’s 28-inch telescope, that has really been it for me and actual astronomical observing.

Obviously this Perseid is not mine, but from the NASA site and 2006.

I was pretty much foiled on this holiday as we were staying nearer the city and other well-lit areas than I had anticipated. In fact, I’ve seen nearly as many stars on a clear night in London, and so my son’s first view of the milky way is still ahead of him. However, we were both rewarded by some great views of a daytime moon – which passed from the west across the blue, blue skies above the sea, lasting even until a Mediterranean lunchtime – and some glorious sunsets. On our second night, all alone on our hotel room’s balcony, I was lucky enough to look up from my book to see a large, bright meteor – a Perseid, I assume – burning up as it moved vertically downwards, apparently in no tearing hurry: transitory, but no lightening flash.

Apart from the remarkable appearance of some clouds(!) that flurried across the sky in what counted as a major bit of weather for an August day in Crete, there was one other notable thing in the skies: fighter jets. Initially, unthinkingly, I assumed that they were just in the area for some sort of exercise, and it was only when I looked at the map and noticed that the water to the south of Crete is the Libyan Sea did I work out just where they were flying and why. Waiting a few days later at Chania airport we saw – and heard – them taking off and spotted the lines of military hangers beyond the civilian runways.

The second part of our holiday was a few days in the fascinating city of Thessaloniki, the capital of the Greek periphery of Central Macedonia. It was certainly hot, traffic-filled and hard work after our restful week in Crete, but it is a city packed full of history – and bars. (Perhaps one better for our 20s and pre-parenthood!) It has inspired me to get on with reading Mark Mazower’s Salonika: City of Ghosts, which has been sitting on our shelves for some time. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman Empires – this place had seen them all, as well as being a centre of Jewish life and culture, before the Nazi occupation.

At least in the heat of August, Thessaloniki does not seem to be much of a tourist city, which seems a shame as there are some wonderful things to see, some of which have clearly had serious money spent on them in recent years. I just hope they survive the current economic crisis. As well as a host of Roman remains, including the wonderful Rotunda, and Byzantine walls and churches, the city is blessed with some really great museums. Firstly there was a city history museum, within the historic White Tower. This had masses of information via the audioguide and some innovative design (some of which, my guidebook told me, had something to do with Apple) as well as the landmark building and fantastic view to pull in such punters as were available. We all enjoyed the spiral stairs, maze of rooms and view, and the design and content were great for the adults, if not the little kid.

Sadly, two of the best museums had almost no visitors apart from us. These were the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture, both in 20th-century buildings (1960s and 1990s respectively) and both with recently revamped displays. I have, in my life, seen plenty of southern European archaeological museums, which used to be rows and rows of stuff in dusty cases, with minimal labels. I was amazed to see how these places seemed to have skipped a whole half century of museology, from the early 20th right into the 21st. They looked wonderful, and they made the pots, statues, paintings and mosaics speak of past cultures rather than simply themselves. In addition, there was engagement with the history of the archaeology that ensured these objects are with us today, and the more recent history, science and museology that was both informative and pleasingly reflexive.

Museum of Byzantine Culture
Gold wreath from the Archaeological Museum

Both museums were a joy to be in, even with a young child (although I would like to have had the chance to go back by myself). My son particularly enjoyed a film that showed traditional glass-making techniques and a series of rather whizzy interactive displays in an exhibition called, pleasingly, ‘From Fragments to Pixels‘. I must also tip my hat to the lovely-looking, shady courtyard café-restaurants. If you’re ever in Thessaloniki, go to one of these for a frappé then, invigorated, immerse yourself in some real ancient treasures.

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