Wednesday, 26 July 2017

November Weekend in Thessaloniki

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
If, on a Saturday morning, you wake up surprisingly early in your Sofia flat and decide that you have nothing to wear; if the thought of greasy meat stew makes you feel sick; and if you have respiratory problems that make you feel like you played alongside Dizzy Gillespie all night long, don’t call your shrink!

Your condition can probably be described in three lines of Latin scribbles, but it has another, less frustrating name: “You’re in need of Thessaloníki!”
Instead of taking tranquilisers, get in your car and head south. It’s high time you visited your local Marks & Sparks. It’s time you ate octopus, olives with oregano, and aubergines with garlic, washed down with lots of retsina, and finished off with cookies for dessert. It’s time you breathed in the sea breeze while taking a refreshing stroll amongst the remnants of what latter-day historians have described as a “Balkan omelette.”

You may be surprised to learn that Thessaloníki is closer to Sofia than Burgas. If you start out around 7am, with the drive lasting about four and a half hours, you could reach the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia in time to smell the aroma of morning coffee and cheese-filled phyllo pastries.

By around 11:30am, however, things already get moving. The luxurious boutiques and jewellers along the Via Egnatia and Tsimiski Street have just opened.

This is also the time when the Agora Modiano, the food market where you can buy a gallon container of quality olive oil or a large tin of salted anchovies, is already wrapping up its active business for the day. The octopus, squid, and beef tripe vendors are all smoking cigarettes now, leaning on their stalls.

The number of joggers is dwindling along Leof Nikis, the promenade linking the famous Salonika Customs House to the even more famous White Tower, but the pavement is coming alive with couples aged 50 and over. They have lost their zeal for shopping, and so they spend their Saturday mornings basking in the sun at the outdoor cafés.

At the same time, their offspring makes up for being too lazy to go running by indulging in some active shopping. The women of this city, considered to be the most elegantly dressed in Greece, traditionally spend this day of the week inspecting what new delights D&G, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton or Zara have to offer.

These ladies are probably the reason why Thessaloníki is amongst the best shopping locations on the Balkans, the ideal spot for the Christmas gift frenzy. With its dozens of designer shops and several malls, its modern restaurants and cafés, and urban planning reminiscent of Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora (which possesses a grid of straight streets, built in the aftermath of the 1917 fire that burnt several entire neighbourhoods to the ground), the city centre resembles a medium-sized American town.

One of the peculiarities of Thessaloníki is that shopping season is year-round. Even in the beginning of January, the buying frenzy makes it seem as if Christmas was right around the corner. Greek women race through the boutiques, touch, try on, twirl in front of the mirrors, buy, pack up, sort out, and carry their purchases around in an armful of bags. Finally, completely exhausted, they go for lunch, happily showing off their purchases to their husbands, who have just been relieved of several hundred euros.

Aside from popular culture, however, Thessaloníki’s Balkan past oozes from every crevice, inviting you to take an intriguing stroll through its variegated historical heritage.

A central Balkan seaport and melting pot of nationalities and cultural traditions, under the Ottoman Empire the city was one of the most troubled spots on the peninsula.

Although Bulgarians, Turks, and Greeks have waged several wars for Thessaloníki in the past hundred years, most of them believing they had solid grounds for their territorial claims, at the beginning of the twentieth century the city belonged to the Jews. Of a total population of about 120,000 citizens at that time, some 55,000-70,000, or more than half, were Jews. They outnumbered the second largest ethnic group, the Turks, at least twofold.

Thessaloníki of the Jews

Driven out of their native lands, the Jews had been settling in Thessaloníki for nearly 20 centuries. In fact, they can be considered as the founders of the modern city. When 20,000 Sephardim settled there, fleeing the Reconquista of the Spanish monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinando of Aragon, the city was still in ruins from its conquest and takeover by the Ottoman Empire, under which it was renamed Salonika.

The Jewish community was accepted favourably by the Sublime Porte, and settled in what is now the city centre, between Via Egnatia and the sea, from Vardar Square to the intersection of Tsimiski and Mela streets. It continued to expand over the next 400 years. When the great fires of 1890 and 1917 devastated Salonika, they destroyed the homes of about 54,000 Jews, as well as some 30 synagogues and 10 schools.

The first attempts at modern urban planning were made in the construction of the present-day Baron Hirsch, Kalamaria, and Rezi Vardar quarters, built when people attempted to recover from the disaster.

The oldest synagogue of those that burnt down once stood at the intersection of Kalapothaki and Dimosthenes streets, near the harbour. One of the two that survived is Yad Lezikaron, in Herakleios Street. The other, which was established by immigrants from Monastir and is called Monastirioton, is located in Syngrou Street.

During the Second World War, Thessaloníki’s entire Jewish community was interned in concentration camps. Most were slaughtered; hardly any survived.

Thessaloníki of the Bulgarians

The mid-nineteenth century saw the beginnings of the Bulgarian national liberation movement, which eventually led to the foundation of modern Bulgaria. At that time, about 10,000 Bulgarians lived in Salonika. Their community was a fifth the size of the Jewish one, two-fifths of the Turkish one, and two-thirds the size of the Greek one.

However, the city was one of the most important ideological centres of the ensuing revolutionary struggle. For that reason, many people in Bulgaria still believe that Salonika is rightfully theirs. They continue to call it by the adapted toponym Solun, instead of the ancient Greek Thessaloníki, and they dream of its port access to the Mediterranean and of the Salonika Customs House. The latter has even become an idiom in the modern Bulgarian language, as a popular, almost mythical emblem of easy-come-easy-go wealth.

The customs house itself is at the west end of the waterfront promenade, and Bulgarians often risk arrest by taking pictures of it. That might be the reason why this innocent activity is forbidden by the Greek authorities.

The Bulgarian Boys’ Gymnasium was situated in the centre of old Salonika. It was the first secondary school for Bulgarians in the region of Macedonia and the Aegean Thrace. Many Bulgarian intellectuals of the mid-twentieth Century studied there, then migrated to Bulgaria after Thessaloníki was incorporated into Greece following the Balkan Wars of 1911-1912.

One of its graduates was Simeon Radev, who left behind some picturesque descriptions of relations amongst the city’s various ethnic groups. Another was the Bulgarian symbolist poet Atanas Dalchev, whose work has been translated into more than 15 languages. His father, a lawyer and teacher at the school, had a house in the Ladadika area, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1914.

Thessaloníki of the Turks

The hill north of the centre, known as Kastra, was a Turkish quarter in the nineteenth century. Turks had settled there when the city was a provincial capital in the Ottoman Empire, but their community never exceeded a fourth of Salonika’s population. Still, their presence led to one of the most important processes in the Balkans, from the standpoint of modern Europe: the foundation of the secular Turkish state.

The Young Turk Revolution sprang from Salonika – or, to be more precise, from Kemal Atatürk’s house in Odos Aghiou Dimitrou, which is now a museum and property of the Turkish Consulate. It is a textbook example of the architecture of that era. It stands at the foot of a maze of streets full of such houses, which zigzag up to the top of the hill and the city wall running along it.

Kastra is the only part of Thessaloníki that has preserved its historical appearance. But only in terms of architecture, as the area’s Turks were repatriated under the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange agreement.

Thessaloníki of the Greeks

Following all of these dramatic events, the Greeks became the city’s primary residents. For nearly a century now, they have inhabited it entirely. Not only do the magnificent Byzantine ruins and churches all over the centre break the monotony of the modern buildings, they also give the Greeks a confident sense of living in a place that is historically their own.

As far as modern Greek culture in Thessaloníki goes, its most pleasant facet is apparent in its restaurants. They are almost everywhere, and most of them are quite good, with reasonable prices.

In Kastra you can find truly authentic Greek tavernas, with retsina on tap and an abundance of achtopodaki, kalamaraki, tarama, tsatsiki and every other culinary delight you would expect to find in a Greek seaside town.

Further down the road, towards the waterfront, the traditional places begin to thin out, and are interspersed with modern restaurants serving nouvelle cuisine and bakeries that give off an intoxicating aroma of vanilla, cinnamon, and freshly-baked biscuits.

In the Plateia Aristotelous, you can still buy salep - a drink made from milk and orchids. It is another trace of the Ottoman Empire that also used to be sold in the streets of Plovdiv and Sofia.

There is a dense concentration of traditional restaurants in Ladadika and the smaller streets between Venizelou Street and Agora Modiano.

The list of pleasures that can be incorporated in a two-day Thessaloníki therapy session is quite lengthy. The effects are invigorating – apart from the inevitable stomach heaviness resulting from overeating. After 48 hours, you can return to Sofia feeling terrific, having realised that the diversity on this planet is something to be celebrated, and that it’s no bad thing that Salonika fell to the Greeks.

After all, at least there’s a place about 300 kilometres away from Sofia where you can eat something other than grilled meatballs or greasy stew.




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