Jail in Northern Greece
There I was. Having escaped Hungary and the former Yugoslavia unharmed, I found myself free in the Northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Goodbye east bloc.
Thessaloniki boasts many Byzantine and Roman monuments, the White Tower being the best known. The city made its debut on the world stage when the European Union selected it as the Cultural Capital of Europe for 1997. With the largest port and exhibition center in the area, it is the commercial crossroad of the Balkans.
Tourists do come here, but not like they do to Athens or to the Greek Islands. Not like James Bond’s Meteora or fertile Corfu, but it is nonetheless a touristy location with all the usual facilities. It is also the place where people get the official documentation required to visit Mount Athos, something I really fancied myself doing.
Mount Athos is on a peninsula where there are no roads. One needs to take a ferry to get there and mostly people hike from monastery to monastery. It is a place of reflection. Only one catch, only men are allowed to go there. Not boys, men. And it was not all that long ago when men had to have a full beard as well. That would certainly exclude me, I didn’t really need to shave yet with my 18 years of life in the fast lane!
For Greeks, Mount Athos represents national tradition and a part of Greece that has preserved Greek-Christian traditions for over a thousand years. It is a sacred peninsula for those interested in theology, philosophy, history, Byzantine and post-Byzantine art and eastern mysticism.
But I didn’t make it there….. . Read some more about it!
What I found fascinating on my first day in Thessaloniki was the Byzantine walls in the city. They run through the back of the town, away from the tourists. These were ruins of a great wall in Europe. It reminded me of the Berlin wall, and what I imagined to be the Great Wall in China. Of course it was no-where near those proportions; the walls were not restored and in places completely gone over time.
It fascinated me and I followed the ruins for a few miles till I came to this huge round tower made out of the same kind of stones as the Byzantine walls, except it was restored and maintained. A castle’s keep; you know the round tower with little turrets on top. Outside there was an entrance with ‘emotional’ people queuing. It appeared to be something religious. Men and women stood there solemnly, holding green cards, and occasionally the door would open and someone would be led inside by a guard.
People came out crying, and I envisaged some oracle inside. Something mystical, something religious. So I stood there with the others. Trying to look solemn, holding out my green (international student) card…. I was frowned upon, so I did not persevere for too long, and walked around the round wall. It was high, made out of huge rock blocks and was inductive to climbing. My rock climbing friends at home did not know me as a rock climber, and I most certainly was not. I put my KT-26 Dunlops (probably Australia’s most popular running shoe) to the test here, and climbed up.
It was surprisingly easy with good cracks and handholds galore. In 15 minutes I was up. The wall was several meters wide and it had four turrets on top. There was a solid walkway on top joining the turrets. I looked down inside, expecting to see an oracle in process, a weeping statue or a bleeding Jesus. But no, it was a regular run of the mill park with benches, a bunch of relaxed people reading papers, smoking cigarettes. Before long they were pointing to me as if I was something religious myself.
I walked the perimeter of the wall and was suddenly apprehended by a Greek uniformed man carrying a large gun. Had WWIII broken out? I couldn’t figure it out. But this guy wanted to take charge of me. He asked me for ‘passeporte’, which I think I understood right. He marched me to a turret, got to an intercom on the wall and yelled into it.
More yelling through the little wall mounted baby phone. Yelling came back. And soon thereafter three more soldiers appeared on top. All with weapons and knives! This did not look good. I was meant to be having fun here. Did I do something wrong? Had no one climbed up here before? What was the big deal? Not like climbing up the outside of a skyscraper, this is some old Byzantine relic, maybe a monastery or just a venue for religious events?
My passport didn’t mean much to them. They made me show them where I climbed up. That was certainly not the way to go down I realized pointing down the wall where I came up. I had to scratch my head and wandered myself how on earth I would’ve gone down the wall if they hadn’t rescued me! Going up is a bit of a one-way thing… Going down is much trickier.
Fortunate for me they showed me the official way down. Stairs leading through the inside of the wall. The wall was more of a building on this one side and had rooms and corridors running off it. From the outside none of this was visible. Although I had this strong sense of relief that I was rescued from having to climb down, I was concerned about the way they seemed to ‘march’ me down. Two of them in front of me, two of them behind, weapons at the ready… bayonet just about in my back. They were polite and carried my little daypack for me. I really didn’t know what to think of this situation.
Outside the building they took me to a little stone house and tried to interrogate me in Greek. As was expected, it was all Greek to me. After an hour or two a man appeared who spoke a little bit of English. He was to be my interpreter.
I explained I was Australian, I was 18, I was on holidays, not going anywhere in particular, just roaming around aimlessly; backpacking. I was looking for adventure and fun and apparently found it. He told me that nobody here was going to believe me. Eighteen year old males were at home doing what their dad told them. They might be in school, or starting a job, but not running around foreign countries with a backpack! What could I say but the truth?
Eventually they did believe me, but that took another hour or two. When the most serious looking of the uniformed men, the one with the most brass on his uniform, was convinced of my story the whole lot burst out in relieved laughter. I was offered cigarettes from the lot of them.
The interpreter told me to take one. It was custom, I could not refuse just because I had never smoked before! Do not insult them, just light it, hold it and look as if you are smoking he told me… I was smoked out just sitting there for hours and hours being interrogated. The interpreter hardly helped with the language, but he seemed friendly enough.
I have Cystic Fibrosis, and the last thing I should do is smoke, but I put one to my lips and had a whiff.
It took another thirty minutes before I managed to get out of the interpreter what the problem was and why they wanted to know what I was doing.
Turned out I had climbed into the local goal. They initially thought I was escaping, then they thought I was smuggling something in. It was hard to believe that my story was true because in their culture it was nigh on impossible for an eighteen year old to be on his own in a country where he could not even speak the language.
Well, that was enough adventure for one day. The rest of the touristy stuff, the other Byzantine white tower on the beach, the rest of Thessaloniki, it was all too insignificant after my little brush with the law. I needed to get away from all this. Applying for a permit for Mt Athos seemed too much of an effort, I needed an instant fix. So I figured that maybe if I caught the train to Mt Olympus, and went for a long walk to the top I would feel better.
This was not going to happen either, but the idea was there and it got me out of Thessaloniki. I did manage to get to the foot of the legendary Mount Olympus. There was clean air, plenty of snow, it was away from people, and it did clear my mind and lungs! It would prepare me for the metropolis called Athens.and it did clear my mind. It would prepare me for the metropolis called Athens.
Just to come back to this fascinating peninsula called Mt. Athos, the main monasteries there are (click on them to take you to more info): The monastery of Konstamonitou, The monastery of Docheiariou, The monastery of Xenophontos, The monastery of St. Panteleimon, The monastery of Xeropotamou, The monastery of Simonopetra, The monastery of Gregoriou, The monastery of Dionysiou, The monastery of St. Paul, The monastery of Great Lavra, The monastery of Karakalou, The monastery of Philotheou, The monastery of Iveron, The monastery of Koutloumousiou, The monastery of Stavronikita, The monastery of Pantokrator, The monastery of Vatopedi, The monastery of Zographou, The monastery of Esphigmenou, and last but not least The monastery of Chelandari.