Back home, I’d usually start my hour-long, Florida Turnpike commute by tuning into National Public Radio. Chances were, Sylvia Poggioli or Jacob Goldstein was reporting on the European debt crisis, and what a freeloader Greece is to the Eurozone.
“The country is up to its unibrows in debt and the unemployment rate is nearing the 90 percent mark,” Sylvia would say in her awesome Italian accent (I especially liked it when she said her own name during each story’s sign-off. It sounded like a song: “Syl-via Po-jo-li, NPR News.”). But then the program would segue into another NPR Pledge Drive, and I’d quickly switch over to satellite radio.
Greece is my father-in-law’s country of birth, so all this talk about the rest of Europe hating on the Hellenic Republic made me sad – a sentiment slightly tempered following Him and I’s own excursion within the country.
If Greece is in the throes of economic hardship, no one bothered to inform Thessaloniki, the country’s second-largest city and the administrative center of the north. Instead of working, every resident between the ages of 18 and 40 is shopping. They’re dripping in brand-new designer duds with additional purchases dangling from their arms. Cafes are packed from early in the morning until, well, early the next morning. During the daylight hours, each customer is armed with a cigarette and a €8 coffee. At night, it’s a cigarette and a €16 cocktail. If Greece is in debt, my guess is the missing money funded nicotine, caffeine, booze and couture.
Both Him and I had traveled to Greece before, but we happily added the country to our World Trip itinerary to visit cosmopolitan Thessaloniki, Bobby’s hometown. He and his brother, Harry, co-own their late parents’ waterfront condo, and they had recently remodeled the unit. So we readily accepted Him’s parents’ generous offer of allowing us to regroup at this stylish abode and, as an added bonus, they would join us in a few days’ time.
Thessaloniki is located almost due north of Athens, and most visitors must fly to the capital first before catching a connecting flight to Macedonia International Airport. Our flight from Tel Aviv, Israel, was no different, although we nearly missed our connection due to a mob of passengers masquerading as a customs line. From Macedonia International Airport, we took a public bus (€.80) into town where Yannis, a young family friend, showed us to Bobby and Harry’s childhood home, a seventh-floor condo on Nikis Street. With all new appliances and furniture, marble floors and a balcony overlooking the Thermaic Gulf, the condo would have impressed any guest. After nearly six months of dorm rooms and shared shower stalls, it was sheer paradise to Him and I.
Our first priorities were showering and tossing the contents of our backpacks into the washer-dryer combo. Then we opened the sliding doors leading out onto the balcony and lounged luxuriously across the sofa. Due to the building’s proximity to the Nikis Street sea wall, all we could see from that horizontal position was blue water, creating the illusion that we were on a ship. The sun was out, the breeze was fresh and we were high enough above the promenade that the chatter from the constant stream of people strolling by below melded together into a not unpleasant hum. We were soon asleep.
But then we heard marching.
We stepped onto the balcony and looked down Nikis Street to see a few hundred people parading southeast on the promenade, moving as one giant cluster from the port to the White Tower. They proudly broadcast their grievances via messages spray painted across banners and white bed sheets, but as they were scrawled in Greek, Him and I couldn’t read them. However, we figured it was safe to assume the catalyst for their shouts was new austerity measures – probably those requesting Greek workers actually work.
This was the first protest Him and I had witnessed on the trip, so, naturally, I wanted to be in the thick of it, photographing. Him reluctantly agreed to tag along to the base of the White Tower.
The Greeks, I must say, sure know how to throw a protest party! This one included a live rockabilly band, balloon sellers, twirling children and old ladies armed with pots and pans they were just itching to bang together. Him and I enjoyed the music – and the people watching – and then made our exit.
Unable to simply relax in a foreign city, we returned to the White Tower Museum (€3) a few days later for a Thessaloniki primer. A sloped stone staircase winds itself up inside, pausing at each of the six floors to reveal exhibits covering the city’s history. Here’s a small sampling of what we learned en route to the 360-degree view at the tower’s top:
Cassander, King of Macedonia, founded Thessaloniki in 315 B.C. and named it for his wife, Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander The Great (they shared a dad, King Phillip II). In doing so, he united 26 small settlements located in the vicinity.
Thanks to its strategic location on the Thermaic Gulf and the Via Egnatia (the ancient Roman road connecting Rome with the empire’s eastern colonies), Thessaloniki has always been an important cosmopolitan area with a diverse multiracial culture; during the Byzantine Era, it ranked as the second-most important city after Constantinople. In 1430, the Ottomans captured Thessaloniki, and it wasn’t until 1912 that the city was liberated and incorporated into the Greek State.
It was the Ottomans who built the 30-meter tall White Tower in the 15th century. The tower’s name has evolved throughout history from the “Lion Tower” to “The Fortress of Kalamaria” to “Kanli-Kule,” or “Tower of Blood,” to reflect the period it served as a Turkish prison and place of torture. According to legend, the edifice owes “The White Tower” name to a Jewish prisoner who earned his freedom by whitewashing the exterior in the late 19th century.
In addition to the White Tower, intrepid visitors can learn more about Thessaloniki’s rich history by touring the informative Archaeological Museum, Manoli Andronikou 6, (€8). The Macedonian and Hellenistic collection on display includes intricate gold jewelry and trinkets excavated from royal tombs dating back to the 6th century B.C. Him’s favorite artifact, however, was a funerary altar that seemed to depict the ancient precursor to the “photo bomb.” (In reality, the altar shows a famous tragic actor, Marcus Varinius Areskon, with a female mask hovering over his shoulder to indicate Areskon’s “aptitude for performing female parts as well.”)
I took note of a T.S. Eliot quote used in the introduction of one exhibit exploring Thessaloniki’s Jewish history because it pretty much summed up our World Trip, then drawing close to its inevitable end.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
During our visit to the gravesite of Bobby and Harry’s parents, Armenian refugees whose families fled persecution and death at the hands of the Ottomans, Him and I continued the hike up to the city’s defensive walls. These stone barricades date back to Thessaloniki’s founding and once stretched for 8 kilometers to connect with the White Tower. Today, only 4 kilometers still stand, much of which was rebuilt during the 14th century.
Thessaloniki was an important base for the spread of Christianity, a designation reflected in the city’s impressive assortment of churches, cathedrals and basilicas constructed between the 4th and 15th centuries. The Rotunda, also known as Agios Georgios, was my personal favorite monument. Roman Emperor Galerius (305-11) constructed the massive round structure (possibly with the intention of making it his mausoleum), but it was converted into a Christian church some time between the late 4th century and mid-5th century and then, during Turkish rule in the 16th century, a mosque. Today, the Rotunda is a deconsecrated museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
When we arrived, the Rotunda was empty save for a handful of other tourists. Several levels of scaffolding dominated the inside perimeter of the edifice to accommodate restoration on the intricate mosaics near the domed ceiling. But the workers were absent, and the rickety wood boards and steel bars appeared long forgotten like an unearthed skeleton picked clean. Somehow, their towering height added to the ethereal nature of this cavernous space, now just a shell of its former hallowed self.
A reflection on our time in Thessaloniki would not be complete without mentioning the superb hospitality of Bobby and Harry’s aunt and cousins and family friends Yannis and Rosa. They all took time to introduce us to their beautiful city and treated us to some truly delicious Mediterranean cuisine. We couldn’t have felt more welcome, and we hope that we can one day repay their generosity by hosting them in the U.S.