Thessaloniki City Walls

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At one time Thessaloniki was completely surrounded by massive city walls. They ran all along the northern side of the city, descending down the hills on the the eastern and western flanks down to the sea, and continuing along the seafront. They were constructed during the Byzantine era in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries AD, with later modifications by the Ottomans.

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As the city grew and expanded, large sections were demolished as part of the Ottoman authorities restructuring of the city. The walls along the sea wall were the first to go at the end of the 19th century, followed by large sections in the lower, flat area of the city. However substantial sections remain along the top of the hill and on the east side of the old city.

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We climbed the steep hill beside the walls up to the Trigonion Tower at the north east corner of the fortifications on a hot afternoon. There were great views down to the bay. I could just about make out the distant mountains, including Mount Olympus, but view was hazy and they don’t show up on my photos.

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The tower was built in the 15th Century on the foundations of a previous, Byzantine structure.

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The walls are constructed of stone with some horizontal bands of brickwork. I reckon that the stonework would have been whitewashed (I saw evidence of this along a more sheltered, less weathered, section) with the brick work forming contrasting bands like the old walls of Constantinople. Caernarfon Castle was constructed like this deliberately to mimic Constantinople.

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There’s a substantial stretch at the top of the old city, which we followed before descending back down towards the sea front,

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The Rotunda and Arch of Galerius

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The Rotunda is a magnificent Roman building which is one of the main tourist attractions in Thessaloniki. It was built on the orders of Roman Emperor Galerius in 306 AD as part of his Imperial complex along with a triumphal arch and a large palace. It’s not clear what it was for – possibly as a mausoleum for Galerius or a temple.

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The Rotunda is a massive circular structure with a diameter of 24.5 m and walls are more than 6 metres thick. Originally it had an oculus (a hole in the centre of the dome) like the Pantheon in Rome, but that’s been filled in (I’m not sure when).

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The Emperor Constantine had it converted into a Christian church (Church of Asomaton or Archangelon) in 326. This resulted in some modifications including the construction of the sanctum and the western gate opened to become the principal entrance, whereas the south entrance, which faces the rest of the Roman complex, had previously been used.

The building was used as a church for over 1,200 years until the city fell to the Ottomans. In 1590 it was converted into a mosque(the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi) and a minaret was added. It was used as a mosque until 1912, when the Greeks captured the city during the Balkan War. It was re-consecrated as a church, dedicated to Saint George (Agios Georios) but the minaret was left in place. It’s no longer in regular use as a church but the Greek Orthodox Church has access to the monument for various festivities some days of the year.

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After it’s initial conversion into a church the Christians decorated the walls and dome of Rotunda with a mosaic, and some of which can still be seen today. Originally, the figure of Christ was depicted in the centre of the cupola inside a shining sphere. Unfortunately, little of this remains. However, below the cupola, bands of angels, martyrs and the saints of early Christian times are have been preserved in significantly better condition. Remnants of mosaics are also visible on the ceilings of the recesses. The remains of mosaics around the dome are still impressive today and must have been stunning when originally installed.

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The remains of the triumphal arch are to the south of the Rotunda and has crafted marble panels on each pillar celebrating the victory of Galerius over the Sassanid Persians at the Battle of Satala.

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Originally it was eight-pillared gateway forming a triple arch, but today only the north western three of the eight pillars and parts of the masonry cores of the arches above remain. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive structure.

Until relatively recently the arch used to straddle one of the main thoroughfares through the city. But the road has been diverted and widened, by-passing the arch.

The Agora, Thessaloniki

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The Agora is the old Roman Forum and is right in the city centre, just to the north of the Aristotelous Square, which is rather like it’s modern equivalent. It was discovered by accident in the 1960’s when the area was being developed. It was constructed during the 2nd century A.D. on the site of an older Forum from the Macedonian period.

It’s possible to see the remains from the street, but we paid the 4 Euro entry fee to get a closer look, and gain entry to the small museum on the site.

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The Macedonian Heritage website tells us:

The square Upper Agora was paved and surrounded by stoae (porticoes) with two-tiered columns and decorated floors. On the eastern side there was the library and the odeum. Because of the considerable difference between the two levels, a ‘cryptoporticus’ (double subterranean stoa) was constructed under the south portico of the Upper Agora

The cryptoporticus was something of an ancient shopping mall with a row of shops fronting the ancient shopping street.

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The small new Museum is reached by passing through the remaining passage and has an interesting collection of artefacts found on the site together with information on the history of the Agora, right up to modern times.

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At one time there was a series of statues of the Muses facing the Via Egnatia. These were called the Incantadas (Enchanted Idols) by the city’s Sephardic Jewish community. By the 19th century, much of the colonnade was lost, but a segment remained, incorporated into the courtyard of a Jewish home. These were taken by a French archaeologist and can now be found in the Louvre. So it’s not just the British who are guilty of plundering Greek heritage!

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The large Odeum, or Odeon, a theater which would have been used for musical performances and gladiatorial contests, has been reconstructed and is still used for summer concerts.

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The White Tower

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The White Tower, which stands on a prominent spot on the sea front in the city centre is probably the best known sight in Thessaloniki.

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It was built in 15th century as a fort as part of the city’s defences and replaced an older 12th century Byzantine fortification. It was later reconstructed by the Ottomans.

It doesn’t look particularly white these days. It got it’s name when it was whitewashed at the end of the 19th Century, but this has largely worn away leaving the natural honey coloured stone visible. The paint might not have stuck but the name has!

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Originally, it was surrounded by defensive walls that enclosing the tower and which were could support heavy guns, but they were demolished at the beginning of the 20th century. These walls are clearly visible in some old photographs and the foundations can still be seen.

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Today it’s a museum containing a very interesting exhibition about the history of the city and with great views over the city from the top of the tower. Entry was a relatively modest 4 Euros, which included an audio guide.

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Until the Day Breaks

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Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the rugged hills. (From the Song of Solomon)

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My main motivation for our trip to Thessaloniki was to visit the Mikra British Cemetery, as it’s there that my Great Grandfather is buried. He died on 19 August 1918 while in Greece as part of the British Salonika Force (BSF). So our visit was 100 years after his death (although we were a few weeks late).

Until I started researching my family history I didn’t really know that there were British troops in Greece. But they were there as part of a French led campaign between 1915 and 1918, initially sent in to assist the Serbs who were being attacked by the Bulgarians, supported by the Germans and Austrians.

Greece was a neutral country but the Entente force was “invited” in by the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was pro-Entente. The Greek King, Constantine I, however, was pro-German, so the political situation was tense to say the least. An internal struggle in Greece led to the King being deposed and replaced by his son in 1917, and Greece joined the war supporting the Franco-British led force which also included Russian, Italian, and Serbian contingents as well as British and French colonial troops from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Indochina.

By the time the Salonika Force arrived, the Serbs had already been defeated and after an initial offensive the front stabilised. The Allied armies entrenched around Thessaloniki, which became a huge fortified camp, leading the French Premier Georges Clemenceau to mock them as “the Gardeners of Salonika”. There was a final push in late 1918 when the Bulgarians were defeated.

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Over 10,000 British members of the Salonika Force died, more than half of them from malaria, dysentery and other diseases. Initially, the Commonwealth dead were buried in the local Protestant and Roman Catholic cemeteries. The Anglo-French Lembet Road Military Cemetery was used from November 1915 to October 1918. The British cemetery at Mikra, Kalamaria, was opened in April 1917, remaining in use until 1920.

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My Great Grandfather, Arthur, was a regular soldier in the Royal Field Artillery when the Great War broke out and he was off to France with the British Expeditionary Force on 18 August 1914, so he was one of the first to be sent out to the war. Somehow he survived (he was a driver and I suspect he was ferrying officers around) and was discharged at the end of his service period in March 1916. Surprisingly, this was normal practice for Regular soldiers. He wasn’t home for long, though, as on 9 June 1916 he was sailing out of Preston to Greece having been called up into the Army Service Corps. As someone who could drive (a relatively rare skill in those early days of motoring) he was assigned to a Mechanical Supply Company.

Like many of the British troops out in Greece, it would appear that he died of disease. His death record states that he died in No. 29 Hospital and his cause of death is recorded as “died”. Well that’s pretty obvious. I guess that was to disguise how he died as the authorities probably didn’t want the public to know how many troops were dying from disease.

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Mikra cemetery is next to the Greek cemetery in Kalamaria, which in 1918 was were the British force was based and on the outskirts of the city. Today it’s been absorbed into the urban sprawl. We got a taxi out there from the city centre – at a cost of 8 Euros each way.

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The cemetery is like those that we’d visited in France, very well looked after with pristine headstones – not the usual Portland Limestone but local stone – mainly marble. There are 1,810 Commonwealth dead buried here and 147 other nationalities, including Russians, Serbs, Greeks and even some Bulgarians. It’s a peaceful spot and a beautiful (if that’s the right word) memorial.

It was easy to locate Arthur’s grave. The Cemetery records are accessible online and provided details of exactly where he was buried – the headstones are numbered and laid out in neat rows. There’s a copy of the record in a cupboard in wall by the cemetery gates too.

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We soon spotted that the headstones of non-Commonwealth dead had a slightly different design of headstone.

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Non-combatants are also buried here.

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At the top of the cemetery, next to the cross, there are memorials to Troops and nurses who died on ships sunk on the way to Salonika, including the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic.

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I’ve no doubt we were the first visitors to Arthur’s grave. It was a moving experience for me to stand beside it. We left a small bouquet of flowers, including red roses for Lancashire, which I’d bought at the flower market that morning.

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Afterwards we spent some time looking round the cemetery and also chatted with three members of a family who were visiting the grave of a relative. After spending about an hour and a half in the cemetery we left and caught a taxi from the rank across the road and headed back into the city centre. I was glad that I’d been able to fulfil my ambition to visit my Great Grandfather and pay my respects on behalf of the family. He’d survived the first two years of the war on the Western Front only to die of disease in a forgotten front far from home, only a few months before the madness ended. Rest in Peace Arthur.

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Impressions of Thessaloniki

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Last week we had a short break in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, in the north of the country in the province of Macedonia. I had a particular reason for wanting to go there, it’s been on my bucket list for a while, and this was our first ever trip to Greece. I don’t think it will be our last!

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The city, formerly known as Salonica, has a fascinating history – founded by the ancient Macedonians (although after the death of Alexander the Great) it’s been ruled by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans and, finally the modern Greek State. Under the Ottomans it became a cosmopolitan city, populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews, the latter emigrating here when exiled from Spain and Portugal and becoming the largest ethnic group until they were deported and murdered by the Nazis.

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Flying out from Manchester we spent 4 days in the city staying in the Bahar Boutique – a small, chic, boutique style hotel in a very buzzing area of bars, cafes and restaurants not far from the sea front. The room was small but very nicely done up in a contemporary style.

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As usual, we kept ourselves busy, so lots to write up. As a start, here’s my overall impressions.

The City
It’s not particularly pretty. In the past it was famous for a picturesque skyline of domes and minarets, but most of the old city was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1917. Since then it has undergone a modernisation and Europeanisation with a plan devised by the French architect Ernest Hébrard after the fire, and Hellenisation also saw the removal of most traces of the Ottomans, with almost all the minarets removed as churches that had been converted to mosques reconverted to churches. Some Ottoman era buildings can be seen, scattered around the city centre, though.

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There was a massive influx of Greek refugees in the 1920’s from the territories if the former Ottoman Empire, with Muslims moving in the opposite direction, during a period of what today we would call “ethnic cleansing”. This put additional pressures on the city which spread out with sprawling suburbs.

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The city centre is compact and walkable, but transport, buses and taxis, are relatively cheap if you want to get out a bit further afield (as we did on one day)

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There’s a lot of graffiti all over the city. Not street art (although there is some of that) but true graffiti. Probably much of it political but it was difficult to tell as most is in the Greek alphabet.

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The People

Very friendly indeed, hospitable and helpful. What more can I say? Oh, they clearly enjoy sitting drinking coffee and enjoying their food!

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And they certainly have plenty of opportunities to do just that. It seemed like almost every other building was a café or restaurant! The food was excellent and I’ve now become addicted to the favourite Greek way of serving coffee – Freddo Espresso.

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One rather unique aspect of Thessaloniki are the “bar boats”. There’s a number of boats dressed up as triremes, pirate ships and the like which provide “free” half hour trips around the bay. The deal is that you buy a drink for around 5 or 6 Euros, with subsequent drinks usually 3 Euros cheaper. This means the trip costs about 3 Euros which we felt was quite a good deal.

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Architecture

Today it’s a low rise city, 8-10 storeys high, of mainly anonymous concrete blocks with glazed balconies. There are, however some gems in amongst the generally bland architecture, including some attractive Modernist buildings

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and old churches and other buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman (and some Roman) periods.

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And not everything was destroyed by the fire. The upper town avoided the conflagration (although the majority of the houses in the old town have been rebuilt in approximations of the original designs) and we stayed in Ladadike, an area of the old Jewish quarter that was relatively untouched by the inferno and where some older buildings survive.

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Museums and Galleries

For once, we didn’t spend much time visiting galleries and museums, but there is a good selection to choose from, not all of them in the city centre.

A grand walk on Howth Head

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I’m back in Ireland this week – working not on holiday, but I caught an early ferry over on Sunday morning, arriving in Dublin just after midday as I often do so that I can spend a little time exploring what has become my “second home”! The weather was looking reasonably promising so I’d decided to get out for a walk. I’d thought about driving into the Wicklow mountains but on second thoughts felt it would be nice to have a walk along the sea shore so decided to go for a walk on Howth Head, the headland to the north of the city centre that my ferry passes sailing into Dublin Port. It’s only a few miles from the port and it took me about half an hour to drive over there.

I’d done my research beforehand and knew that there were a number of way marked routes I could follow. I’d decided on the longer “Bog of Frogs” route, about 12 km long, that starts at the Howth DART station near the harbour and follows the coast round before cutting across country back to the start.

I’d planned to park up near the harbour as I knew there were plenty of car parks, but when I arrived they were jam full and it was clearly going to be a struggle to find a space. So I drove out of the town centre up inland and managed to find a spot on the Summit car park on top of the cliffs near the Baily lighthouse, part way round the route. There was no reason why I couldn’t start here as the route would bring me back, so that’s what I did.

I followed the path down the hill and after a short distance was on the route. All the routes are waymarked with different coloured arrows. I was following the purple route with a few minor diversions.

Straight away I was greeted with a view over the Baily lighthouse that stands at the end of a peninsula on the south side of the headland. I see it every time I sail into Dublin. It’s still a working lighthouse so it isn’t possible to walk right up to it.

The skies were dark and cloudy over Dublin to the west and as the lighthouse was in that direction it didn’t make for a good photo. But it was clear and bright over to the east, so this photo was taken after I’d walked along the path past the peninsula

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Carrying on the narrow path was high up on the cliffs and there were good views down to the sea. It could be hairy on a windy day.

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Looking over to Poolbeg and the south wall with the olfd power station chimneys dominating the view

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There’s some nice houses up on the top of the cliffs looking over the sea

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Turning a corner I could see a Martello Tower along the coast.

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The marked route turned inland before the tower but I wanted a closer look so carried on along the coastal path for a while.

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It’s been converted into a luxury holiday home.

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I carried on the coastal path a little further before turning inland and, passing lots of expensive houses, looped back along the road to rejoin the purple route which now cut inland heading towards the north side of the headland.

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The path crossed the golf course (watch out for golf balls!!) and as I climbed I could see the sea on to the north with views across as far as the Mountains of Mourne over the border in Northern Ireland.

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At the other side of the golf curse I entered the wooded area known as the “Bog of Frogs”

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Fortunately after a dry summer it wasn’t so boggy (although there were boardwalks to keep walkers’ feet dry) and I didn’t see any frogs!

The route now climbed up into heathland before descending down into Howth

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but I took a slight diversion climbing a hill to take in the views over the sea and the harbour and toward the small island known as “Ireland’s Eye”

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The route continued down the hill, across some fields and passing another golf course and a Gaelic sports field, through a housing estate and then down a path arriving at Howth DART station, the “official” start of the walk.

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However, I’d started part way round and so had only completed about two thirds of the route so I had a few more miles to go back to my car. Howth is quite an attractive town and harbour. I’d visited it some years ago during the winter when it was cold and quiet, but this day was quite different – sunny and warm and heaving with people walking around and enjoying a pint and sea food in the many bars and cafes that line the harbour.

I decided to take a break from the walk and explore the harbour. There’s actually two – one a fishing harbour where, being a Sunday, there were plenty of boats moored along the quays

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then there’s the “pleasure boat” harbour. Didn’t look like there were many people out sailing!

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I walked out on the harbour wall to get a better look at Ireland’s Eye

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heading back

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The beach to the east of the harbour wall

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I spent about an hour looking round the harbour before resuming my walk along the purple route. It took me up past another Martello tower which overlooks the harbour and which today houses a radio communication museum.

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The route now followed the narrow road on the side of the cliff as far as the Kilrock carpark and then back on to the cliff top footpath.

Looking back to Howth

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and along the cliff path

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After almost an hour after setting out from Howth harbour, the Baily lighthouse came into view – and there was the Irish Ferries boat Ulysees sailing past towards Dublin Port.

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I’d also seen the Stena Line’s Adventurer sailing past in the distance about half an hour before.

It didn’t take long now to climb back up to the top of the cliff and the Summit car park.

This had been a grand walk. It had been busy in Howth and also along the cliff from the Harbour to the lighthouse – there were several large groups of young tourists who slowed me down a little as it was difficult to pass on the narrow path. But it was good to see them enjoying their walk too.

Back at the car I changed out of my boots and set off driving back through Dublin and on to Naas where I’m staying and working this week.

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