The Monkey visited Thessaloniki, Greece in July 2002. It may have been a slight logistical error on the Monkey’s part to visit this part of the world in July: the weather was stunningly sunny, yes, but also oppressively hot. Every day, an oven outside. Even monkeys don’t enjoy sweating. To simulate the feeling, you might turn a dozen hair dryers on yourself while viewing these images…
The Monkey had limited time to go to Greece, also known as the Hellenic Republic. Of course, the first place most anyone thinks of going in Greece is either Athens or one of the white-washed islands. Fair enough, but Thessaloniki is an intriguing place to visit in its own right. A large port city on the Aegean Sea, it was the second city of the Byzantine Empire (after Constantinople) and the predominant cultural center of the region of Macedonia under the Ottoman Empire, when it was known as Salonika. At that point, Athens was a shadow of its former self and Salonika was the gem of the region, a center of learning, commerce, and cultural life, home to significant Greek, Turkish, Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, and Jewish communities.
It was here, to the relative religious freedom of the Ottoman Empire, that many of Iberia’s Jews came after their expulsion by the Inquisition in the late 15th Century. Boasting some 60,000 Jews as late as 1918, Salonika was the most Jewish city of the Balkans, a distinction it held until the Nazi occupation led to mass deportations to the concentration camps.
As the Ottomans were overthrown in the First Balkan War (1912), Bulgarian and Greek allies raced each other for the prize of occupying Salonika and its surrounding region. The Greeks won the race by a matter of hours and Thessaloniki became the great city of northern Greece. Today, Thessaloniki retains a Balkan atmosphere that Athens, deep in the Peloponnese, lacks.
Pithikos’ arrival in Thessaloniki. He took the overnight train from Sofia, Bulgaria and arrived feeling surprisingly refreshed.
Thessaloniki’s most famous landmark is Lefkos Pirgos, the White Tower. The tower dates from Byzantine times, when it was one of the corner turrets of the city’s walls. As Salonika modernized, it outgrew the ancient limits of the walls and many sections were torn down, but the tower was left standing. During the 19th Century and earlier, it was known as the Tower of Blood, for it served as a prison and execution site under the Ottomans. Today, it is a museum and a great vantage point for vies over the harbor and the city. The Monkey was keen to visit Lefkos Pirgos, as he lives nearby another Lefkos Pirgos in Astoria, Queens, New York, home to the largest Greek community outside Greece.
The Monkey takes in the view from atop Lefkos Pirgos. The promenade along the waterfront, Leoforos Nikis, is full of lively cafés that are in turn full of pretty young Greeks checking each other out. If the cityscape here looks excessively modern it is worth recalling that Thessaloniki was heavily destroyed by a fire in 1917. Redesigned with modern boulevards and a grid street system by the Frenchman Ernest Hébrard, Thessaloniki’s modern face took shape.
The Monkey enjoys a night out in one of Thessaloniki’s lively restaurants, but the bubbly retsina wine made his head start to spin.
Retsina wine is a Greek specialty. In order to keep wine from spoiling on long journeys, ancient Greek vintners used pine resin to seal the wine containers. The reaction of the resin with the wine gave retsina wine its unique taste and tingle. Not everyone is a fan, but everyone should try it once.
The Monkey visits one of the buildings that helps explain the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Ottoman era Salonika. In this house in 1881 was born Mustafa Kemal, the future forger of the modern Turkish state (then known as Atatürk). Today, the house is operated by the Turkish Consulate and receives hordes of visitors from Turkey eager to tour Atatürk’s childhood home and see some of his personal effects.
The Monkey takes a breather while climbing the hill into the upper town, Ano Polis, where the Ottoman administrative class lived above the bustle of the low town. In the background are more remnants of the 14th Century Byzantine walls and another tower similar to the waterfront Lefkos Pirgos.
The old Byzantine city walls slope down toward the seaside and central Thessaloniki. It was a good vantage point for the Monkey to take in the city and the Bay of Thermaikos. Had it been a very clear day (unlikely with summer smog!) the Monkey should have been able to see Mount Olympos, the home of the ancient Greek gods, far in the distance across the water.
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