Thessaloniki was a throwback destination for me, a call back to my previously aborted plans of eight years before. It was not long after entering the city that I slowly began to slip back into the same type of traveler I was during my initial foray into the Balkans. On that journey, I met an American traveler who has long since been lost to me. He was the one who had first introduced me to the Free Tour in Bucharest. This novel arrangement was a way for European cities to showcase their hidden delights and secret passageways to the past. This was especially important for places that might be considered second tier cities such as Sofia and Sarajevo, Bucharest and Bratislava among many other places emerging from the deep freeze that was the Cold War. Due to free tours, I was able to stand where Romanians had in 1989 while demanding the downfall of Ceaucescu, sneak a peek at the Red Star that diabolical symbol that once graced Sofia’s skyline atop the Communist Party Headquarters and walk through the same area where parts of Schindler’s List were filmed in Krakow. The insights and acquaintances I had gathered on Free Tours remained some of my most pleasant travel memories.
This was before my travel became intensely personal, becoming centered chiefly on Hungary. The upshot was that I stopped searching for free tours. That was until one evening in Thessaloniki when the idea that there might be a Free Tour of the city suddenly occurred to me once again. Thessaloniki was the kind of second tier city that could use a bit of marketing to visitors from outside of Greece. Free Tours were done by locals, but not for locals. It was an opportunity for foreigners to gain local knowledge while getting in on the secrets and treasures hidden by the massive urban façades that had been imposed upon Thessaloniki. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were Free Tours scheduled for every day in Thessaloniki. One started close to the waterfront, while the other took visitors into Ano Poli, the evocative upper town. The next one was to take place at 5:00 in the afternoon.
The Secrets They Conceal – A City Exposed
The website offering information and directions for the Thessaloniki Free Tour directed everyone interested to meet their guide outside of the Electra Palace Hotel. This was in the city’s pulsating heart, a stone’s throw from the sea wall where locals and tourists promenaded each day. It was interesting that the Free Tour would start in a rather obvious place because the best thing about these tours was that they almost always focused on the quirky and quixotic. Local knowledge was the Free Tours greatest selling point. In this regard, the Thessaloniki Free tour would not disappoint. At the appointed time I found the guide holding a red umbrella while chatting with a growing group of travelers. A wide array of nationalities was represented. These included Israelis, Germans, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Belgians, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians and Turks. The guides name was Georgios, a rather tall, handsome Greek who looked like he was in his mid to late 20’s. He had the kind of natural warmth that lent itself to making friendships with strangers in a matter of minutes.
Georgios began the tour by asking everyone their name, nationality and to tell the group something they disliked. The latter was a source of great laughter, especially after a German woman said she did not like everyone looking at her while trying to answer such a question. It was not long before Georgios was giving us a quick rundown of Thessaloniki’s origins by anointing members of the group as certain historical figures important to the city’s founding in 315 BC. Before long we were headed off on a journey that drifted between past and present, myth and reality. The theme of Georgios’ program could best be summed up as finding the unknown among the known. He stated that Thessaloniki hides its treasures rather than displays them. The city could best be exposed and explained by finding what was hidden in plain sight. This was not so easy to do. While the ignorance of tourists concerning Thessaloniki’s past was understandable, for locals it was surprisingly the same. Few were aware of their ancestors or historical antecedents who had shaped the city. To understand the past meant going to places that on the surface showed no signs of the secrets they concealed.
Behind The Veil of Indifference – A Dilapidated Discovery
Georgios was a prime example of the indifference to the past shown by present day Thessalonians. He took the opportunity to call himself out for this indifference while sharing an illuminating story. Two years earlier Georgios had been leading a free tour when an Israeli, originally from Thessaloniki, told him about the building he had grown up in. He said that it was on one of the side streets just off Aristotelous Square, the city center’s pulsating heart. Georgios told him that this building did not exist anymore, since the area was wiped out in the horrific fire of 1917 when two-thirds of Thessaloniki was reduced to ashes. The man insisted that the house was not destroyed by the fire. He even produced a photo of it from years before.
Georgios had politely, but firmly maintained his stance that the building had long since ceased to exist. The man decided to show Georgios and the rest of the tour that the building was indeed still standing. He convinced George to allow them to take a short detour to the purported house. Sure enough, the house was still standing though it was in utter disrepair. When Georgios finished telling this story he pointed out the same house. It was still there, a multi-story structure in an all its dilapidated charm. Georgios used it as a prop to remind us to look closer at our own hometowns for those places that should be obvious to us, but of which we are blissfully unaware. The message was clear, take a closer look and the hidden will reveal itself. An amazing world was waiting to be discovered by each one of us. There was more of this to come on the tour.