Saturday, September 04, 2010

2010 Travel Notes #15: On to Thessaloniki

I re-entered northern Greece on a Monday morning prior to my Friday flight back home. My original plan had been to "tag" Thessaloniki and go on to Skiathos, the island home of "Greece's Dostoevsky," Alexander Papadiamandis. As it turned out, I spent the rest of my trip based out of Thessaloniki. In my view, Greece's second city is an absolute delight.

The border crossing between Bulgaria and Greece is now open, so I was just motioned-on through without stopping. One soon sees why Thrace, and this part of Macedonia, has always been so coveted. The mountains give way to fertile river valleys, with lush, irrigated fields stretching as far as one can see. My original plan was to find a place to stay out on the highway somewhere between Thessaloniki and Veria (Berea.) As it turned out, there were no places "out on the highway." Veria did not seem to provide a good base of operations, so I resolved to find a room in the city, even though I had previously checked online and was alarmed at the prices listed for Thessaloniki hotels.

The city is magnificently situated--strung out along low hills that wrap around a wide, sweeping harbour. Consequently, from most anywhere in city, one has a view of the sea, as well as the benefit of the sea breeze. An expansive concrete promenade separates the city from the water's edge. This serves the same role as Central Park in New York--a pressure valve for the stresses of city life. The park easily contains the walkers, joggers and bicyclists who flock here--with plenty of room left for all sorts of other activities. One of Thessaloniki's main thoroughfares divides the boardwalk from the city proper. Immediately inside this clogged traffic artery is block after block of outdoor cafes facing the sea. They are generally crowded with young Thessalonians--smoking, chattering away, and nursing their frappes. I took the exit off the E95 into the city, and before I knew it, I was stuck in traffic on this very street, between the cafes and the sea. I was searching for a hotel, and I would occasionally see a sign for one up one of the side streets--itself clogged with traffic. Working my way around to the establishment and then finding a parking slot would have been horrendously difficult (only later did I learn the bus drivers were on strike, which may have tremendously aggravated the traffic flow in the city.) I was still not well, and was becoming weary. Off in the distance, next to the sea, I saw a gleaming high-rise. As I inched closer, I was able to make out the sign over this shimmering oasis: The Makedonia Palace Hotel.

The Makedonia Palace Hotel was decidedly not the kind of place I had been frequenting on this trip--valet parking, doormen, a gleaming marble lobby, bellhops, a bar/lounge. Nor did I particularly look like their normal business traveler--a bit frazzled, shirt-tail out, backpack over one shoulder. I went up to the front desk and simply asked if they had a room. When they said they did, I replied, I want it. Did I want a room with a balcony overlooking the sea? But, of course. The room was every bit as nice as the public areas of this hotel implied they would be. The cost came in at 89 euros ($110) a night, which I considered a tremendous bargain, given the location. The breakfast buffet was not included, but by this time, I was ready to splurge just a little. I ended up staying here three nights, and by the time I had left, felt better than I had in weeks.

Thessaloniki is a modern city, primarily due to a disastrous fire in 1917 and Allied bombing during World War II. I did not find the modernity to be as oppressive or soulless as I experienced in Athens, or say Patras. Even so, Thessaloniki has a rich, eventful, often violent history--and it was this I came to explore. Reaching the city centre was a bit of a walk from the Makedonia Palace, but strolling along the seashore promenade made every step of it enjoyable.

My goals for the day were modest: the Haghia Sophia, the Basilica of St. Demetrius, the Metropolitan Church of St. Gregory Palamas and the Byzantine Museum. The Haghia Sophia is not as old as once thought, but still dates back to the 7th or 8th century. From the outside, it is imposing and blocky. From the inside, the three aisle church is quite beautiful. There are no remaining frescoes or mosaics on the walls of Haghia Sophia, which are covered with geometrical designs, instead. The church was converted into a mosque in 1585, heavily damaged by a fire in 1890, rebuilt by the Turks between 1908 and 1910, and only restored to Christian worship in 1912. There are some hanging icons in the church, all in a very westernized portraiture style. One has to look up to see what does remain--in the dome and in the apse. The mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, surrounded by the Theotokos, the Archangels and the Twelve Apostles is absolutely stunning. The mosaic of the Virgin with Child above the apse is equally impressive, indeed, remininscent of the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople. Scholars date these mosaics to the 9th-century. I also enjoyed the nearby Church of the Panagia Achieropoietos. This is one of Thessaloniki's oldest churches, dating to the mid 5th-century, now far below current street level of the city. The Church of the Panagia Achieropoietos is a simple three-aisle basilica, with timbered ceiling. Panagia Achieropoietos has the distinction of not ever having been structurally altered during its long history. This was the first church converted to a mosque when the Turks conqured the city in 1430, and remained so until the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912.

When I came back up to street level, I noticed several motorcycle policemen on the corner. Soon, they were joined by others. In the distance, I could hear the sounds of chanting and bullhorns and drums. Curious about what was happening, I moseyed back down to the street corner. Two blocks up, I could see a demonstration heading my way. At long last, I was seeing that which supposedly was keeping so many travelers away from Greece this summer. The marchers soon reached my street. They were orderly, chanting in unison to a beat. Many looked like college students, in shorts and tee-shirts. But many more were middle-aged and you might say, well-fed. I saw one Communist placard, and one I assumed to be anti-American. But like I say, there were an orderly crowd--hardly a mob that would instill alarm. Indeed, no one paid them much mind, no one got up from their frappes in the cafes. I later learned that the bus drivers and hospital workers were on strike while I was in Thessaloniki. I am all for a lifestyle centered around sitting in the shade, smoking, and sipping on a frappe--as long, of course, as there is someone to underwrite it. That seems to be where Greece is today in its economic woes. They have cultivated a decidedly first-world lifestyle, with a crush of civil servants and generous pensions, but underneath is a second-world real economy.

I walked further up into the city, and had to wait on yet another street demonstration to pass. Once the marchers were out of the way, I passed the ruins of the old agora and made my way to the Basilica of St. Demetrius. The church is immense--a 5-aisle basilica with 2 levels of balconies on each side. The original church was constructed soon after the martyrdom of St. Demetrius in the early 4th-century. Through the centuries, the church has been reconstructed many times due to fire, earthquake and conquest. The structure served as a mosque for many centuries, until restored to Christian worship after the reconquest of 1912. The Basilica of St. Demetrius was largely destroyed in the fire of 1917. But in the rebuilding from that, many theretofore unknown mosaics from many centuries were uncovered, and are restored today. I spent quite some time here, both venerating the relics of St. Demetrius, exploring the church and crypt.

By this time, I was already exhausted again, so I walked no further up the hill. I angled down to the Church of St. George, or the Rotunda. No one is quite sure what this building was originally intended for, though it was most certainly attached to the Galerian Palace, whose ruins adjoin. But in time, the pagan edifice was converted to a church. The rotunda contained 8 recesses. The one facing east was extended and converted into an altar. During the Turkish occupation, the structure became a mosque, with a minaret added to one side. Today, the altar remains in place, but the building mainly serves as a museum and art exhibit hall, with displays of early Balkan photographs occupying the other 7 recesses.

I left there and walked underneath the arch of the Kamara--the ruins of the old Galerian palace. Had I still be interested in antiquity, I would have lingered longer here. As it was, I was running out of steam. I spotted a likely outdoor cafe, and settled down to rest a bit. I spent about an hour here, enjoying my frappe, my water and my snacks, as well as watching the world go by. I see how a Greek frappe break could be habit-forming. The other customers who were there when I got there, were there when I left.

I continued down the hill towards the sea. Along the way, I passed by the 12th-century Church of St. Pantaleimon, as well as the tiny 14th-century Church of the Metamorphosis of the Saviour. My last stop was the Metropolitan Church, with the relics of St. Gregory Palamas. I was surprised to find the church closed. So, I stopped by a barber shop for a quick trim, and then made my way down to the sea walk. Here, I headed east, past the statue of Alexander (who, in a bizarre art imitating life sort of way, does look like Brad Pitt), past the White Tower, and then inland for a block or two. The Byzantine Museum was my last stop of the day. I had been traveling for three weeks and had so far managed to avoid all museums. But I was anxious to see this one. What impressed me most were the displays showing personal and/or everyday items such as rings, jewelry, glassware and beautifully painted ceramic plates. One display noted that Byzantine matrons liked to display their plates on shelves in their home. This last Spring, the wife and I went on a tour of homes in the "Azalea District" of the city near where we live. Reading this, I thought of those homes where the Junior League wives would have a de rigueur Welsh cupboard prominently located, lined up with Spode and/or Blue Willow plates. Nothing new under the sun. But anyway, I got my money's worth at the Byzantine museum. I looked at every single display. When I finished up here, it was only a short walk back to the sanctuary of my wonderful Makedonia Palace. Here I could collapse onto a soft bed, and should I so desire, open the drapes and watch the sun set over the Aegean.


Milton T. Burton said...

Another superb post though I could have done without the mention of Brad Pitt. As the Bible says, there is a time and a place for everything, and I do not like to be catapulted into a frenzy of loathing while reading a fascinating travelogue. Indeed, now that Arthur Schlesinger and Susan Sontag are dead, Pitt, Jim Carey and Robin Williams are the prime focuses of my relentless hatred. Otherwise, very enjoyable.

John said...

Thanks, Milton. My computer was trying to crash during the preparation of this post, which limited it somewhat. Brad Pitt does not bother me at all. One gets the idea that he doesn't take himself that seriously, and he does seem to have a life outside Hollywood. Pitt seemed an odd choice to portray Alexander, though I have no idea what Alexander should have looked like. I did enjoy the movie, however, primarily for its portrayal of Babylon, the Persians and the Indians--rarely seen on cinema. Brad Pitt as Achilles in "Troy," however, was a howler. Look for the street scene of Troy featuring, among other things--llamas.

Milton T. Burton said...

I remember him in Troy stomping around outside the walls and bellowing HECTOR!! like a petulant child.

One note: did you notice that while the plot was drawn from the Iliad it resolutely avoided any mention of or actions by the gods?

Anonymous said...

Brad Pitt? In Alexander? I think it was Colin Farrell who played Alexander and not Pitt. Anyway, thank you for finding my hometown a delight :)
[A Thessalonian born Greek, turned Athenian]

Dana said...

When I was first inquiring into Orthodoxy, the day I visited the nearest Greek church (about 90 min away) happened to be St Demetrios' feast day. The priest had been sent a cotton ball with some of the myrrh of St Demetrius on it, and receiving the myrrh was my first true "Orthodox blessing". Also, my Greek uncle came to the US around 1930 from somewhere near Thessaloniki.


John said...

Of course you are correct! I guess I'm getting senile. But up close, the statue did put me in mind of Brad Pitt, and I guess I was thinking of him in "Troy." If I ever return to visit mainland Greece, the two places I particularly want to return to are the Peloponnesse and Thessaloniki.

I find the story of St. Demetrius to be very compelling. One interesting thing about his life and martyrdom is that it is so closely connected to this city in general, and this church in particular.

Sophocles said...


Your travel posts have been wonderful. Thank you so much for very enjoyable reading,

I'm sorry if I missed it, but have you been to Mount Athos? Since you're in those neck of the woods...

s-p said...

Another "wish I coulda been there with you" post. I've had friends bring back oil etc. from St. Demetrios' Church but I've never seen a picture of it until now.

John said...

Thanks, Sophocles. I purposely did not go to Mount Athos, for 2 reasons: 1) I am not ready, and 2) it deserves its own separate trip.