Guide to SKOPJE

Alcatraz in Thessaloniki


Were there cells with sea view?

If you wanted to have a view from the highest places in Thessaloniki some 30 years ago, you had only two options: to break the law and be imprisoned or to get a job as a prison guard or a clerk.thessaloniki_alcatraz1_balkon3

Among the many surprises that this city has for visitors (the ones who wish to see more than just the shopping centers and shops on the high street) is Heptapyrgion Fortress. It is a little less than three kilometers from the central quay and the famous White Tower. It is not very far, but it takes an hour to climb up the hill along the Byzantine walls.поглед од соседниот византиски замок

You can get there by car, but is it not that simple either because you need to go through a labyrinth of narrow alleys in of the old town of Thessaloniki. This is the only part of town that was not destroyed and completely changed after the 1917 fire and you can feel the spirit of past times.

Why would anyone go through such a physical effort or a dangerous drive? The reason is that Heptapyrgion Fortress tells one of the most interesting stories of Thessaloniki. The fortress was built during the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century on the foundations of an ancient fortification. In those times it was a citadel, a fortified city on top of the hill. When the Ottomans conquered Thessaloniki in 1430 they turned the fortress into a military facility. At the end of the 19th century they decided to repurpose it and used it as a prison building. They built new facilities inside and changed the purpose of the walls which no longer served to keep the enemy out but to keep the prisoners inside.

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This lasted until 1989 when the last prisoners left Heptapyrgion and were transferred to a new prison. The Greek authorities recognized that the fortress is a cultural and historical heritage of the city and should not be used for that purpose, although all prison facilities are still present.

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As we are approaching the building I am wondering if we would feel the presence of prisoners, because it has been only 25 years since they left. We get a positive answer as we open the heavy iron door leading into the courtyard and the impressive main gate. It was a bit confusing standing there in front of a massive medieval structure with brilliant stone ornaments from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. It is so big that it is impossible to take a photograph of the whole building. The eye is attracted to the ornamental details.



But then you notice the prison door with a familiar miniature window that the guards used to see who was coming to the prison.


Heptapyrgion is an unusual place. According to the guidebook it was a notorious prison, especially during the periods of Metaxas dictatorship, the Second World War occupation, the Greek Civil War and the military junta rule. In those days political prisoners were kept there and their hardships were sung in “rebetiko” songs. The songs refer to the prison by its Turkish name, Yedikule. In both Greek and Turkish the name has the same meaning “fortress with seven towers”, but there are actually ten.

What is it like to visit a real prison as a tourist, with no other purpose? Especially a prison that is part of contemporary history and not from some bygone era? We enter the narrow hallway where prisoners made their last steps to their cells. With each step we make through the narrow grey passage covered with green vines we feel the fight between feelings of excitement and creepiness.




We pass several heavy iron doors with small windows, all locked. Everything is quiet. Even the few builders working on the restoration of the building do not make any noise. There are no other visitors at the moment. Although a visit to the Heptapyrgion is a memorable experience, few of those who travel to Thessaloniki come here. Most people stay down below, close to the sea.


The passage ends at the staircase leading to the central watchtower and the two bridges that guards used to monitor prisoners from above.


Unfortunately, you can feel what it is like to be a guard, but not a prisoner. You can see everything from the watchtower: the prison buildings, medieval wall and the courtyard. It is divided into four parts. One is empty, the other is overgrown with vegetation, the third is full of stone objectsfound during recent archaeological excavations, and in the fourth part there is a sad little church. The prayers it heard have not been said anywhere else in the world.

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You can even feel the prison smell. The smell of stale air. We have a free choice to breathe in unfreedom. But were there cells with sea view? The inscription in the department for visitors says that the buildings which were added on the south side, on the outside of the fortress, housed the administrative offices, the women’s section, a military prison and isolation rooms. That side has a view of the upper part of the city and the ships in the distance.

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There are many prisons round the world that have been turned into tourist attractions. One such example is the famous Tower of London where prisoners were kept until the 1950s. It houses the royal treasures of Great Britain and in the past it housed those who tried to steal them. The most famous former prison is Alcatraz island near the coast of San Francisco, USA. The island is listed as one the world’s most frightening places and according to official statistics it is visited by 4000 tourists a day. San Francisco is far from here, but Heptapyrgion can offer a similar experience, at least to a certain degree. It is not an island, but it is definitely Thessaloniki’s Alcatraz.

The Balkans has many other examples of prison tourism. The most infamous one is Croatian Goli Otok, the island where political prisoners were kept in socialist Yugoslavia. The prison was fully operating for 40 years, over 16,000 prisoners passed through it and about 400 of them died during their stay there. Another similar place is the prison island called Algatraz, located in the Montenegrin part of Lake Skadar.


It got its pejorative name because it had the same function as Alcatraz amid a lake full of algae. Local tour guides will tell you that only prisoners who couldn’t swim were kept in it, therefore there was no need for guards. One prisoner managed to escape by sailing on thewooden door of his cell. Now, only ruins are left of the prison building.

Goce Trpkovski