It only took me eight and a half years to return to a place I had never been. Bear with me, because this will require a bit of explanation. My first trip to Eastern Europe occurred in the spring of 2011. That was when I flew into Sofia, Bulgaria with a plan to travel overland to Thessaloniki in Greece to visit the Museum of Byzantine Culture and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From there I would make my way to Serbia and then Sarajevo. There was only one problem with this plan. After Greece fell into a prolonged financial crisis, all international trains travelling across Greek borders were cancelled. The reason was simple and startling, the Greek government was in such dire financial straits that they could not afford international train connections. While the rest of Europe and much of the world had suffered a great recession, the Greeks were suffering a full-blown depression. Not only would I not be able to take a train from Greece to Bulgaria, but even if I did get to Greece traveling overland from there would require bus trips. This was a thought I did not relish. Thus, I decided to make other plans.
Those plans took me from Bulgaria to Bucharest and eventually to Budapest and Belgrade. This plan B put me in Hungary for the first time. It would come to dominate my travels for years to come. Between 2011 and 2019 life kept getting in the way of a trip to Thessaloniki. There were trips to a multitude of Eastern European nations, including a return to the Balkans, but I never got any closer to Thessaloniki than I did on that first trip. The city slowly drifted out of my mind, until I noticed that Wizz Air made several weekly flights between Budapest and Thessaloniki. This meant it was finally time for that long forgotten Balkan journey. The trip would allow me to widen the southern circumference of my Eastern European travels. I could already trace the paths of my travels across the region in an expanding circle from the Baltics to the Balkans with Budapest the center point of this pattern. That circle would now extend further south to the glistening shores of the Aegean, where I would finally visit Greece’s second largest and much lesser known city.
The Gardeners of Thessaloniki – Digging Up Bones
At the Budapest airport I expected the check in at Wizz Air to be filled with the usual sharp elbows and chaotic jostling that had made my other experiences with the airline less than ideal. I was shocked to find not one person in line. The counter attendant was pleasant and helpful. I immediately surmised that Thessaloniki was not exactly an autumn destination. The attendant said there were 60 empty seats out of a maximum capacity of 170 on the plane. Thessaloniki was not a preferred destination for those traveling to Greece, especially this time of year. When people think of Greece it is either of sparkling islands or Athens. While this is understandable, it is also a shame. For the depth of history in Thessaloniki, along with its situation along the Aegean, make it well worth a visit.
The first time that I can recall hearing of Thessaloniki had nothing to do with Classical Greece. Instead, it was in connection to the First World War. Historian Alan Palmer had written a famous history of the military campaign that originated from the city. It was entitled, The Gardeners of Salonika, after a pejorative name that France’s wartime Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau gave to the Allied soldiers who spent several years doing almost anything but fighting a military campaign. I never read Palmer’s book, but I also never forgot its title. The fact that a massive contingent of forces from seven different countries – led by large numbers of British and French troops – spent more time tending the land around them they did engaging the enemy is one of the war’s more bizarre ironies. To make matters even stranger, these same forces would later help spearhead a breakthrough offensive in September 1918 that led to Bulgaria becoming the first of the Central Powers to sue for peace. This led to a domino effect where each of the Central Powers soon did the same. Nevertheless, Salonica – as it was then known – became a byword for a stupendously stagnant military adventure characterized by do nothingness. Counterintuitively, this historical debacle made me want to visit the city even more.
Surrounded By History – Besieged By Modernity
There were innumerable other historical attractions to Thessaloniki. The amount of history that had occurred in the city since its founding 2,300 years ago was mind boggling. The tide of human affairs had washed over this port city again and again, leaving faint and illuminating traces of civilizations past stranded on an urban shoreline. Stretching from the glory days of ancient Macedonia through the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Turkish empires all the way up to modern Greece, the city played a starring role in the region. Thessaloniki had been sacked numerous times, riven by earthquakes, a large portion of it burnt to the ground and witnessed one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world disappear in less than thirty years. The grand stage on which this history played out was a natural harbor on the Aegean Sea. Conquering, occupying and ruling Thessaloniki guaranteed historical actors that grand stage. That stage had been on the verge of collapse in more recent years with Greece’s financial woes, but the city had been through much worse countless times before. Thessaloniki’s history had its own internal logic, one that resisted easy characterizations.
The complexity of Thessaloniki’s past now makes it a magnetic attraction for the historically inclined. The only problem is selecting the proper starting point to access what bled so dramatically from one era into another. Thessaloniki’s past is less about chronology and more to do with an infinite number of curiosities. There were empires and ethnicities, the worse and worst aspects of humanity, mesmerizing architecture besieged by modernity, the disappeared and depraved. Solun, Salonica, Selanik, Thessaloniki, all the same place with somewhat similar pronunciations, but dramatically different pasts. This was a city that both buried and preserved its history. That past was a riddle waiting to be unraveled, with the joke on people like me who were both foolish and arrogant enough to believe they could somehow come to understand it.