Balkan Honeymoon Post 4: Greece, Albania, Montenegro


Wednesday morning- we arrived in Thessaloniki (commonly known as Saloniki) without too much trouble (although the Turkish-Greek border crossing would be the worst we went through on our trip, with both countries making everyone get off and show their bags to a customs agent). We began our day at the White Tower museum, a pre-Byzantine structure used for various purposes over 1500 years: for defense, as a fire tower and finally today, as a museum of the city’s history. As we advanced from the ground floor up to the top, we were shown displays on various time periods in the city’s history, along with the accompanying oral descriptions, hearing about the city’s origins, its patron saint Demetrious and development under the Byzantines, Ottomans and finally Greeks. At the top of the building we went out on the roof to experience the views of the city and water from the heights of the building and then it was off with our guide Hella, who we had been put in touch with through Marcia, the curator of the museum at Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Greek synagogue in NYC.


Stowing our bags in Hella’s car, we spent several hours driving around various neighborhoods of the city, learning about its Jewish history- the development and flourishing under the Ottoman empire when Jews flocked from Spain after the expulsion to repopulate the city, forming distinct communities as well as synagogues while also possessing a greater Jewish community that interacted with government authorities. We were told of the development of Jewish schools and hospitals and the building of mansions and villas by the wealthier Jewish families, then got to see what remains of these sights during our tour of the city. We also visited the Jewish museum run by the Thessaloniki Jewish community.


Most powerful of course was hearing about the effects of the Holocaust on this once-majority Jewish city. Most of the city’s Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust. We visited the railroad station from which the Saloniki Jews were deported; today it still in use as a commercial rail link. Of the 43 synagogues in use prior to WWII, only one was left intact, the Monasterion synagogue, which we visited. Unfortunately the Jewish community that survived the war never needed a larger space.


We also learned of the humiliation of the Jewish population in a public square before deportations began and the desecration of the city’s Jewish vast Jewish cemetery by the Nazis, on whose site now stands a Greek university. One would think that when the near-annihilation of an entire community is discussed, tombstones, synagogues and even personal embarrassment would pale in comparison. However the former all play a powerful role in the psychological and emotional toll of warfare and victimization.


Of particular interest in the story of Salonika’s Jewish history is the tale of the Donme–the followers of Shabbetai Zvi. Although he had been cast out by the leaders of his hometown community in Izmir, Shabbetai Zvi gained a huge following in much of the former Ottoman Empire, and Saloniki was home to many of those followers. When Shabbetai Zvi converted to Islam, a significant group of his supporters did as well, although they remained a unique group with characteristics of Judaism and Islam, becoming crypto-Jews of a sort, not fully accepted by the Jewish or Muslim communities. In the early 1900s the Donme community in Istanbul built its own mosque. However when an expansionist Greece lost its war against Turkey and the two countries agreed upon a population transfer, the Donme, as Muslims, were lumped together with citizens of actual Turkish ethnicity, despite their Sepharadi descent precluding any such Turkish connection. Ironically enough, when WWII began only a couple of decades later, this misfortune was revealed as a huge windfall for the Donme; its population was spared the horrors of the Holocaust by virtue of this retrospectively serendipitous occurrence.


After our Jewish tour of Thessaloniki, we visited the Ethnographic Museum, housed in a mansion that once belonged to the Jewish Modiano family. With its upper stories closed off to the public, the museum was still impressive with its unique display of hydro-powered mills of various kinds, designed so that they could actually be run with the flip of a switch, allowing us a glimpse of how communities throughout the regions of Greece once utilized water power to cut wood, produce fabrics and prepare foodstuffs.


At the museum we were met by some Thessaloniki friends, Fani and Ana, who took us out to a winter carnival, for hot drinks and to see some of the vestiges of Roman dominion in the city. After helping us buy our tickets for the all night train to Athens and loading us down with refreshments for the trip,  they said goodbye and we were once again on our way to a new city, this time heading south further into Greece.


The train ride was fairly unpleasant–filled with stops for smoke breaks (seemingly pointless when half the train smoked on board the train anyways), the lights on and people talking loudly all night long. Although it was a packed train on a weeknight, no one seemed to need to get a night’s sleep. Although we found very few English speakers, Greece would turn out to be the country where we ran into the most Arabic speakers–while walking on the train I met a man from Syria who was excited to hear Arabic; as we talked another man came up and joined in, so that we had a trio conversing in Arabic amidst a sea of Greek.


After finally arriving in Athens, we found our way to our hotel and collapsed for a few hours, waking up in early afternoon and quickly heading out toward the tourist center located a 15 minute walk away. Arriving there we bought the pass to enter the archeological sites and made our way fairly quickly through the Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, the Museum of the Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Palace and the Acropolis, punctuated by the Parthenon and the impressive views from atop the Acropolis. From there we went to the Parthenon Museum, with its unique layout and inclusion of various artifacts excavated from the Acropolis area.


After our archeological visit, we located the synagogue, only to be told that we would have to return in the morning to enter. Instead we walked to Gostijo, an incredible Ladino-styled restaurant run by a member of the Athens Jewish community under the aegis of the Athens Chabbad family. After eating our fill of Sepharadi delicacies and meeting a family from Maryland who would also be in Athens for Shabbat, we called it a day and returned to the hotel.


Friday morning we visited the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art. From there we went to the Athenian Jewish Museum, which was most unique in showing the clear contrast between Romaniote and Sepharadi traditional outfits and religious apparel.


Friday night we joined the one functioning synagogue in Athens for a very sepharadi service, with the rabbi of Athens as well as the hazzan, originally from Israel and of Algerian descent, both leading the service. The synagogue used, Beth Avraham, is the “newer” one, built just before WWII by the Sepharadi community. As it was renovated and modernized in the 1970s, the synagogue has lost much of its Sepharadi flavor and looks quite a bit more like an American Ashkenazi synagogue.


Across the street sits the older synagogue, about a century old, from the Romaniote community. Today the ~2000 members of the Athenian Jewish community, predominantly of Sepharadi descent, barely suffice to complete a weekly Shabbat quorum; daily services are not held, and Ets Hayyim, the older synagogue, is only used on the high holy days, when both synagogues are packed. This building too has been remodeled and appears a bit differently than it once did (when its teva was all the way in the back). The bottom floors comprise the Jewish community’s offices and a space to eat (while the upper floors of the one year old kosher restaurant are used by the Chabbad for activities, including an impressive children’s play area on the second floor).

After tefilot, we returned to the restaurant/Chabbad House to eat dinner with about 20 other travelers, mostly Israelis, with some American Jews, one Allepian living in NY for 20 years now and one member of the local community, Alex, who spoke incredibly flawless Hebrew from one year in Israel, 6 decades ago. We had a delicious and lively meal discussing where everyone was from and was headed to. Many of the Israelis had apparently decided to come to Greece at the last minute, in place of vacationing in Israel. Many also commented on how deserted the tourist scene appeared. The Hendels explained that the hardest thing for Greeks to face at the moment was the harsh and unpredictable taxes that crippled a nation struggling to get back on its feet. At the same time, it was interesting to see a gigantic line of taxis waiting to take passengers who weren’t there; all part of the same company, they couldn’t compete with one another. Every free market restriction and regulation comes at a price; we paid more than market value for our trip, while a line of taxi drivers sat idly and unproductively, complaining about not having made more money.

Shabbat morning services brought with it a treat, with a newborn girl being named. After musaf, kiddush was held across the street at the community center. Leib, the son of Mendel and Nehama, is the star of the synagogue, going up to the teva and following members around as they shake one another’s hands. The rabbi too, is clearly on good relations with the various community members, and the whole family has learned Greek, with Leib learning Greek at the community daycare, Hebrew from his parents and English from the babysitter. He sang beautifully at lunch in both Hebrew and Greek.

After lunch, we walked toward Lysikrates’s Monument, Hadrian’s Gate, Olympeion (the Temple of Zeus), the Zappeion building (where a holiday fair was being held) and the impressive Panathenaic Stadium where some Olympic events were held in 2004. We then walked up to the Parliament building, just in time to catch the 4pm Changing of the Guard. From there it was back to the synagogue for minha. For minha, a large crowd arrived, mostly “non-usual” congregants, who were there for one of a seemingly large number (~7) of death anniversaries (hashkavot) being recognized. An approximately 30 minute long ceremony consisted of tehilim read alternatively by the rabbi, chabbad rabbi, hazzan, kohen and the shammash, followed by the hashkavot read individually by the rabbi and qadish recited by a male relative. By the final recitation it was time for ‘arvit and then havdala, after which pastries were served to all of those in attendance.

Racing back to the hostel, Eliana and I gathered our bags, said our goodbyes and took a bus to the main bus station. There we purchased our (very expensive) bus tickets to Ioannina and waited the three hours for our bus to arrive. At 10:30pm we left; by 4:30am we were in the Ioannina bus station, warming up inside and recharging our computer batteries (which were close to dying).

Sunday am: Once the bus station (and we) had woken up, we left our luggage at bus station and walked from there to the Kastro- the old walled city. There we found the street of the synagogue (just inside the Kastro entrance), which was locked, then walked up to the Municipal Ethnographic museum, held inside an old mosque, abandoned after the 1920 population transfer saw the city‘s Muslims move to Turkey. The old mosque complex, dating to the 1600s, includes the masjid (mosque) and rooms for the medrasa (school), as well as the mausoleum of the pasha. The entrance to the masjid-turned-museum offers an incredible view of the mountains and water. Inside, the museum is divided into three sections–the Christian one, with silver, weaponry and various costumed figures, Jewish, with embroidered curtains to hang in front of the Aron from the local Romaniote community and Muslim, appropriately displayed in the inner prayer room of the mosque. From there we walked south to the Castle, of much earlier origins, but refortified in the 1800s. We saw the Byzantine Museum (archeological) and small treasury displaying silverwork and jewelry. After borrowing a phone and calling Isaak, the founder of the Greek Jewish Museum in NYC, we headed out to meet him in front of the Kastro. We then walked together around the outside of the Kastro, in the historic neighborhood. The Jewish community began in the walls of the Kastro, then spread outside as well, until there were two Romaniote synagogues- one within and one outside of the Kastro. (The one outside, which had been desecrated, wasn’t needed after the war, so the government redid it into an apartment complex for the remaining Jews; Diane and Isaak rent one of the apartments today). The inner synagogue was spared because the mayor told the Germans that the building was needed by the city for storage (possibly for the museum).

The central square was where the outside community was rounded up; the square outside of the castle is where the Kastro Jews were gathered. Of the 2000 member community, about 160 returned after the war. Isaak and others have identified many of the people in pictures they received from the Berlin Museum of the roundups. Some of the buildings are still the same. We saw a number of Jewish homes from the outside community, several mansions, the school and the old age home. After stopping at Isaak and Diane’s apartment (in the Jewish community complex) for some snacks and to see photos, we continued walking in the Kastro walls to see the many houses (and even blocks) that were once Jewish. Today the synagogue is used only on holidays and can’t even be opened on Sundays (so we couldn’t see the inside).


Returning to the bus station, we picked up our bags and boarded a 4pm bus for the Greek-Albanian border. After the one hour time change, we got to Albania a bit after 4pm, getting on a minivan bound (eventually) for Tirana. The driver was stopped by the police at least 6 times, yet each time it turned into more of a social scene as our driver seemingly knew every uniformed office in Albania. Arriving late at night, we found a place to stay in the center of the city.

Monday am- we walked around the city center from 9-12, seeing the small National Museum (which closed except for swords belonging to Skanderbey, the Albanian national hero, himself a very interesting character, and a photo exhibit), Clock Tower Museum and Archeological Museum, visiting the mosque in the center of the city, George Bush street, the Justinian Fortress and the various other relatively minor attractions. That evening we met with Professor Zorba of the Albania-Israel Friendship Association, a young professional member of his group and the son and granddaughter of one of Albania’s Yad Vashem-recognized Righteous Among the Nations.

Tuesday morning we headed to Shkodra via bus, dropped our things off at the Kaduko hotel and found a taxi to take us to Mes Bridge, Drisht Castle and Rozafa castle, for several hours of rural Albanian sights. Returning to Shkodra, we picked up our things and went with the same taxi driver from Shkodra to Ulcinj. From there we took a surprisingly expensive bus ride to Budva and then from there a shorter, cheaper ride to Kotor. After a minor adventure finding the Kotor Old Town Hostel, we settled into its beautiful building set in the walls of the old city.

Wednesday morning- at 7am I ascended the fortification walls set behind the old city, climbing up past an old church to the base of St. Ivan’s Fortress. After descending, I spent another 90 minutes wandering around the very small old city, finding the “palaces” (14th – 18th century mansions) and old churches. After taking advantage of the hostel’s microwave to have a meat brunch and checking out of our room, we wandered around the old city, then entered the Maritime Museum, set within the walls of one of the palaces. From there we stopped at St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, with its 1200 years of history. We then returned to the hostel and after a short break, left the old city via the southern gate, walked to the bus station and boarded the bus for Dubrovnik. The bus ride was very beautiful, winding along the water, with mountains and the sunset in the background. Arriving in Dubrovnik, the bus stopped briefly, then continued on to Bosnia and, eventually, our destination of Mostar (thus we were in our third country of the day, and fourth in just over 24 hours).



About the Author
Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics from NYU and an MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies from the IDC Herzliya. He has also studied Jewish, Islamic, Israeli and British law. Steven has served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress.He edits and teaches part-time. He can be reached via email at