Reusing plastic-ware, buying pasta in bulk, walking four miles to find a pair of pants for under 5 euros. This is the life of the student. Although there is some necessity in this, perhaps partly based in the hesitancy that accompanies uncertainty in what the future may hold, the frugal life (some call it scrounging, I call it resourcefulness) is one of excitement, independence, investigation, and often of great reward. This nicer side of frugality showed itself in its full glory in a recent trip I took to Greece. I’d like to tell you about it.
Thessaloniki is not a tourist town, as such. It is a college town, a port town, and a town that you can fly to for the equivalent of 27 US dollars. Thessaloniki was an important city in the Roman empire and later the “co-reigning” city of the Byzantine empire. The city is also the home of the early church to which Paul writes, a symbol of Greek triumph over a 600-year Turkish occupation, and today a bastion of the Eastern Orthodox church. Put all of these things together, and you have in Thessaloniki the perfect weekend getaway for four Catholic Studies students.
After a two hour flight, we arrived in Thessaloniki. Once on the ground we saw very quickly that we were not in Italy. The bus we rode into town was punctual to the minute. The signs on the way to the city center were in the Greek alphabet (go figure). Most of the churches looked different than Roman churches, and in every window we saw pork, beef, and lamb cooking. One of the first things we did after dropping our things off at the hotel was eat pork gyros, and they were delicious. Then, with no real expectations, we set off exploring the area of the harbor.
The symbol of Thessaloniki today is the White Tower, which looks out across the harbor, a single turreted pillar standing between the city and the sea. On Sunday morning — after mass at what might have been Northern Greece’s only Roman Catholic church — we found in the White Tower a museum of the city’s 2,300-year history (free admission and English audio-guides), which recounted the founding of the city, the emperors and wars it had seen, and its role as a cultural center over the centuries. The White Tower, we learned, was previously called the Red Tower when in 1826, the Tower’s Christian prisoners were massacred against it’s walls. It was whitewashed upon Greece’s reclaiming of the city in the First Balkan War in 1912. Reaching the top of the tower, we could see Mt. Olympus 62 miles across the bay, as well as the entire city. We spotted two castles at the top of the hill, and decided we would spend the rest of the day seeing what they were all about.
On the way up the hill we went through the Roman forum, and the picturesque/quaint Ano Poli (“Old Town”), the part of Thessaloniki that wasn’t destroyed by a fire early last century. We stopped in several Orthodox churches, all with ornate wood carving, icons from floor to ceiling, and an absence of Roman Catholicism’s sculpture.
We saw four wandering dogs for every person, noticed that the Greeks play basketball almost as much as soccer, and wished that olive trees grew in our American front yards, too. And then, finally, we reached our castles.
Much of one castle we saw from the White Tower at the bottom of the hill was actually ruins of the city’s walls. Not being a tourist town, Thessaloniki didn’t put up explanatory plaques or labels for us, but we determined that one of the castles was of Turkish origin, and the walls were much older, probably from the Byzantine era.
We explored these castles and walls thoroughly as the sun sank over the bay. By “explored” I of course mean “climbed on, around, and in.” It is a sad man who didn’t once wish and imagine he had a castle to climb around. So, for several hours, we climbed on rocks. Getting back to our cheap hotel later that day, we had the feeling of accomplishment that often accompanies the exploration of castles and towers. We thought it strange that going home the next day meant going back to Rome, rather than to Minnesota. We tucked ourselves in for the night, four men in three beds, thankful that we had the willpower, curiosity, and tight budgets that made our trip to Thessaloniki the adventure it turned out to be.