Jan 25, 2015

Jan 18 - 21: Thessaloniki

My first visit to the city of Thessaloniki came in 2003 as the bookends to a stay on Mount Athos. I remember having a wonderful time, visiting churches and Roman and Byzantine ruins‎, but there were two events in particular which stand out. 

The first was inadvertently getting heat stroke and stumbling lost through the streets until the two Tims, who were sharing the hotel room with me, came upon me and led me back. (No fear of that happening in January!) The second, and far more profound, memorable moment came when, after admiring the church and the crypt and the iconography at the basilica, I finally found myself standing before the fragrant, myrrh-streaming relics of St Demetrios. If you've been there, you know how inadequate words are to describe this kind of encounter.

This time I arrived in the city by train, having skipped about 90 kms of walking because I knew my time ‎in the Schengen area was drawing to a close, and spending those three days in Thessaloniki was more important to me than stubbornly walking all the way. That decision did mean I missed visiting the extensive archaeological site at Pella, but it should still be there on a return visit. It also meant that instead of experiencing the Greek countryside, even from a speeding train, I slept most of the way.

When I arrived in the city, I paused a few moments to get my bearings and then set out. I'd found a highly-rated and inexpensive hostel online the evening before, about a four kilometre walk from the train station. Along the way, I stopped in at the hotel I'd stayed at twelve years ago and inquired about the price of a room. It wasn't unreasonable, but until the weather gets warm enough for me to start camping, I'm trying to find the cheapest options. ‎In this case, €13 per night for a bunk in a dorm room seemed about right, so on I went.

The other stop I made was to pay my respects to the patron and protector of Thessaloniki. After twelve years, I once again ‎found myself in front of the relics of St Demetrios, and I returned there every day I was in the city, save for the last morning when I sped by in a cab at 6:30.

After making my leisurely way across the city and uphill towards the Ano Poli (Old City) neighbourhood, I located my hostel on a steep, narrow‎, cobbled road. This part of Thessaloniki escaped damage during the great fire of 1917, so it was spared the subsequent rebuilding and modernisation that took place closer to the harbour. (That being said, some of the properties in the area look like they'd benefit from a large conflagration.)

The hostel is simply amazing. It's run by people who have travelled extensively, and understand what a backpacker (or other itinerant) needs. I suppose it's a given that staff in a place like this will be friendly, but the ladies at Little Big House were wonderfully helpful. I had several great conversations with my fellow sojourners‎, and discovered that I had a friend in common with one of them.

The next few days involved lots of walking, although without my backpack. I visited churches and museums, and walked along the extensive seafront boardwalk. The weather wasn't brilliant, but at least it didn't rain while I was there. 

Sunday evening, I got to know the two other guys sharing the dorm with me.‎ The guy from Winnipeg is a landscaper by trade, an economist by education. He works three seasons, and travels to warmer climes in the winter. The Greek is a Rhodes scholar, but not in the traditional understanding of the term. He lives in Rhodes, and is in Thessaloniki for his final chemistry exams at the university. (In Greece, postsecondary education is free, and you can write your exams at any time.) I was amused that I was rooming with Philip and Alexander.

Monday I slept in and had a leisurely breakfast at the hostel (buffet for €2) and then did my laundry (also €2). This is a fantastic place! The rest of the afternoon was spent heading generally west back towards the train station and downhill.‎ I stopped in again at St Demetrios, but several of the other churches were closed. Eventually I found myself walking through the major club district near the ferry terminal. (Pretty boring on a Monday afternoon.) Daylight was starting to fade rapidly, so I headed back to the hostel, stopping on the way to buy some food at a supermarket. My fellow Canadian and I shared a meal together in our room, and the scholar joined in the discussion. He had an exam the next day, but felt prepared enough to take a break from studying. It was a very pleasant evening.

After breakfast on Tuesday, I struck out on a large circuit of churches. On the way to Osios David, I spotted the church‎ dedicated to the Taxiarchi - the heavenly powers. It's a relatively new church, dating to the 14th century. Sadly, none of the original iconography has survived. The current array of saints lining the walls at eye level are all from Thessaloniki. It was a truly impressive display of the local talent. Maybe in another millennium or two, the faithful of Toronto will have some saints of our own to venerate.

My next stop was Osios David. The photo of the apse mosaic on Wikipedia doesn't do it justice. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Hosios_David‎) The most striking feature of this late 5th or early 6th century mosaic is that Christ is depicted without a beard. The mosaic had been plastered over, probably during the Turkokratia when the church was converted to a mosque, and was only rediscovered in the late 20th century when a section of the plaster fell away, revealing the long-hidden masterpiece. Photography is prohibited, so I spent quite a bit of time here, absorbing it all and recording my observations in my Moleskine. (Too lazy to transcribe that, sorry. Come visit Thessaloniki!)

From there I headed downhill along ‎Agia Sofia street to the 7th century church of the same name. (I passed the mid-5th century Church of the Acheiropoietos on by, since I'd visited it the previous day. Big, beautiful, peaceful, and about 4 m below the modern street level.) Agia Sofia was built on the site of a 5th century five aisled basilica, and was the city cathedral until the Turkish conquest of the city in 1460. St Gregory Palamas would've preached here, and this is where he was buried. {I'm not sure when his relics were transferred to the modern cathedral, also on Agia Sofia, very close to the waterfront.}

On Monday, I had noticed a Canadian‎ flag flying in a small park opposite the church of Agia Sofia. The street running south of the church is called Mackenzie King. These were very unexpected finds in the heart of a city which is well over two millenia old, so when I passed by again on Tuesday, I stopped in to the restaurant facing the park to see if they knew anything. Allegra, the server with whom I struck up a conversation, was a little fuzzy on the details, but she did give me the password for the restaurant's WiFi. Here's what I found out:

When I told her of the role Mackenzie King (and Canada) had played in her city during World War II, she was deeply moved.‎ With the lunch rush past, and no time pressure on my part, we were able to chat for quite some time before I finally decided to continue my wanderings.‎ She had told me about the catacombs just across from the southwest corner of Agia Sofia, but by the time I arrived, the church was closed for the afternoon. I had a good look at the 5th century baptistry in the courtyard, 5 m below the modern street level (the catacombs were a layer lower), and then made my way to the Archaeological Museum.

After walking slowly through the exhibits ranging from the Bronze Age to the late Byzantine period, I struck out for the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodios. These brothers were monks who were born and raised in Thessaloniki, and their legacy includes the invention of an alphabet for the Slavic peoples (the modern version of which is known as Cyrillic) and the first conversions of the Slavic inhabitants of the Balkans. The Slavs had arrived there in force in the late 6th century, and after harassing the borders of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire which was much distracted by threats from the Persians and Arabs in the east, they established agricultural settlements, eventually paying tribute to the empire without being fully subjugated. (Imperial support for their evangelisation also had political motivations.)

I'd venerated the relics of St Cyril while in Rome, and I'd already selected Bulgaria as my next destination, so I was eager to visit. Sadly, the church was locked when I arrived, although there were several people setting up mattresses on the side porch under the extended eaves when I arrived in the late afternoon.‎ I took a few pictures and then headed back towards the heart of the city along the pedestrian boardwalk beside the shore. There was a surprising number of people out walking and cycling for such a cool overcast day, but it is a beautiful walk.

I walked back to the catacombs, and by this time they had reopened. After visiting Rome, I suppose my expectations were set too high. There were a few barrel vaulted corridors and two rooms, but it wasn't at all what I was expecting. Sadly, there was no printed information available, but judging from the distance below street level, they must have dated to the first few hundred years of Christianity.‎ (The apostle Paul preached in the city and wrote two epistles to the Christian community there, so it is a very ancient church.)

Heading towards the Rotunda, I stopped in at a perfectly beautiful little church, St Theodora. It's another 14th century church with elegant brick work, but sadly, the icons and frescoes with which it was once adorned did not survive the long centuries of Turkish occupation. The church custodian, Haralambos, told me that, like most of the many small churches and chapels in Thessaloniki, this was never intended for use as a centre for parish life. The parish churches are much larger, and also quite often 700 or 800 years older. The purpose of these tiny chapels was to serve as an outpost of monastic spirituality in the midst of the city. Before the days of motorised transport, it was not a simple matter for people in Thessaloniki to visit the great monastic centre of Mount Athos. The solution was for the tiny churches to have priest-monks sent to the city. (The Greek word describing this type of church is "metochion.")

Anyway‎, the sun had set by the time I walked the next block to the Rotunda. As it turns out, this Roman monument is closed to the public after 3:30, so I just headed back to the hostel where I cooked up the last of the pasta I'd been carrying since Italy. By this time, the Winterpegger had moved on, and there was a new person in the dorm, another student. It was a quiet evening in the room, as both were studying intently.

Wednesday I got packed up after breakfast, and began a "farewell tour" on my way to the bus station. I knew there's a 3:30 bus to Sofia, so I was in no rush. I headed back downhill to the Rotunda, a building erected in 306 under the reign of Galerius. The experts aren't sure of its original purpose, but it was converted to a church soon afterwards. The surviving mosaics are stunning, but unlike my last visit, we were not allowed up on the scaffolding to get a closer look. 

Continuing along the same path, I walked past the triumphal arch of Galerius, which depicts his triumphs in the Persian wars. I sat a bit in the sunshine, wondering how to spend my last few hours in the city. Eventually I stopped in to the church of Panagia Dexios at the edge of the square. I remembered visiting the church twelve years ago, but nothing more about it. This time I had more Greek phrases available to me, and struck up a conversation with an extremely short woman at the candle stand. With my flourescent-draped backpack and my walking stick, I am a rather conspicuous figure, and she asked all the usual questions. Then she told me about the side chapel in the church where there's a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos. "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!"

From there I walked over to the current cathedral, the Church of St Gregory Palamas. The church chandeliers were not lit and it was fairly dark inside. As I stepped over the threshold I could see the mist from my breath, which was very odd since it was warm and partly sunny outdoors. Thick walls on the church and no central heating, I suppose. The atmosphere was markedly different from the hustle and bustle of the street. I went to the side chapel and paid my respects, and then sat for a few minutes savoring the calm.

From there, I headed uphill again along Agia Sofia. When I arrived at Canada Park, I stopped in at the restaurant I'd visited the day before. This time I ordered lunch, and had another very good talk with my friend from the day before. 

Afterwards I continued on my way to ‎St Demetrios for one last visit, and then continued on to the international bus terminal. Along the way I spotted a sign pointing slightly off route to the Church of the Holy Apostles. According to one information pamphlet, this 14th century church has "magnificent mosaics" but it was locked.

On my arrival at the station, I found that churches aren't the only things that are closed in the city. The OSE bus service to Sofia runs three times a day every day except Wednesday, and the office was locked. Undaunted, I bought a train ticket for the next morning (6:55 departure) and took a cab back to the hostel I had checked out of just a few hours previously. The folks at reception were surprised to see me, and very apologetic when I told them about the office hours. They were happy to book me in for another night, and to arrange a taxi for the next morning. It's only 4 km, but I prefer to avoid walking before sunrise.

‎I was in a different room for my last night, and the first new dorm-mate I met was someone I'd been speaking with after breakfast for a bit. Cyril is doing an ultralight bicycle trip to Asia, and it was very interesting comparing gear with him. We continued our conversation in the sun on the terrace, where we were eventually joined by two others from the room. They had made dinner reservations at a nearby restaurant that features live folk music, and invited me and Cyril to join them. It was an incredible evening. We arrived at 8:00 and finally left at 12:30. And then we headed uphill to the tower overlooking that section of the city. 

It was 2:00 by the time I was settled in to bed, and my taxi was set to arrive at 6:15. It arrived promptly and we sped past St Demetrios in the dark, arriving at the station soon after.

My next update, from Sofia, will be both shorter and more prompt in arriving.

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