Wednesday, 18 November 2015

A Flying Visit to Thessaloniki

Irini sees my office window open and says good morning. ‘Have you noticed how every morning I say “Kalimera Jennifer”?’ she adds, reminding me we’re neighbours and sighing contentedly at another beautiful day. ‘Does England have sun like this?’ Every now and then, however, my work as an editor and agent takes me away from this rather old-fashioned sort of life; for example, to Frankfurt book fair in mid-October. 
Uncertain how many days I’d need at the fair, and wanting to fit in a little time to enjoy the city – being your own boss has its advantages as well as costs – I waited until I was there to book a flight home. My best option, it seemed, was to stay three days and fly back to Greece via an overnight in Thessaloniki. It was so much cheaper that the saving would fund a hotel room – so why not make a flying visit? The Aegean flight left at the reasonable hour of 11 a.m. on the Friday, allowing me plenty of time to pack and make my way to the airport. I hadn’t planned on going out with the Australians on my last night in Frankfurt.

My base at the fair had been with my Australian publisher client, giving me an invitation to the Thursday night drinks party. We got talking to a funny, clever Dutch man in a good suit who worked for a newspaper book club. I can’t remember what we all talked about for so long, but we were joined by an interesting woman who had started a book-related website, by which time the red wine had run out and our Dutch friend had moved on to white, and soon announcements were telling us the fair was closed for the day. A dozen of us went off to dinner then and in the noisy tapas restaurant the wine and conversation continued merrily. After the chaps who ran the company responsible for shipping to the fair generously insisted on paying the bill, it would have been rude to put my foot down when they cajoled us into a nightcap afterwards at the Frankfurter Hof bar.

The taste-makers of the literary world do their earnest business at this grand hotel during the fair, but late at night in the bar you can hobnob alongside if you have the stamina. It is a dangerous place where the booze can make you feel glamorous and successful enough to flash your plastic card around in a way you regret when sifting through your receipts at a later date. Magically, several glasses of champagne materialised unbidden in my hand, thanks to other people’s plastic. We were a long way from Megalo Horio. What would Irini have thought, if she’d known?

I’m not sure exactly when I got myself a cab to my rented apartment in Offenbach. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in my comfortable bed, nonchalantly stretching, and picking up my phone to see that it was past eight. As my mind pieced things together, I saw I’d set the alarm for four in the morning, which must have made sense at the time but was no use to me now. I had a fast shower, packed my bag and dashed for the train for the airport.

Naturally, I was not at my best when I arrived a few hours later in Thessaloniki. Still, it would have been fine, except that when I’d booked my flight and told my friend Yianni of my plan to spend 24 hours in his home town, he had asked his father to meet me at the airport and show me around. There he was, a cheerful man waiting at arrivals with a handwritten sign saying ‘Jen’. I gave him my best smile and he kissed me on both cheeks. My computer had inexplicably stopped connecting to the internet a day ago, so I didn’t even have the address of my hotel. Yiannis’ father must have wondered if his son had gone a bit off the rails.

‘I like kosmo, Jennifer,’ said Yianni’s dad when I talked to him about liking the peace and solitude of Tilos – as if I hadn’t been in a very different environment only hours before. Kosmos – crowds, people. In Victoria Hislop’s excellent novel The Thread, she describes Thessaloniki of 1917 as the most vibrant and cosmopolitan city in Greece. It had become part of the Greek state just five years earlier. She tells how Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side until a series of devastating catastrophes changed everything.

Thessaloniki was crowded as we drove downtown, passing neoclassical villas dotted among the modern blocks. I remembered Yianni telling me how the streets in the centre had been dug up for a new metro line but work had halted because of the economic crisis. I’d been amused to see, when looking for a hotel online, that many of them showed their view of a busy road as a selling feature. Thankfully the place I’d booked was set back, a lovely old building, though my room smelled of cigarette smoke. ‘Are you sure it’s not a smell of bleach, since the maid has just cleaned the room?’ asked the man on reception. I had a shower, left the window open, and went for a walk.

Crossing Egnatia Street, I found a little shop advertising pizza and pasta takeaway for one euro fifty. I grabbed a slice and it was surprisingly good, made with fresh ingredients. I ate it as I wandered the streets towards the port, passing through curving old streets that looked as if they got lively at night. The waters of the Thermaic Gulf were still and grey, reflecting the cloudy sky. I started to follow the waterfront avenue to the White Tower, dating from the Ottomans, then veered off towards the Arch of Galerius.

The city was established in 316 BC by Kassandros and named after his wife, half-sister of Alexander the Great. The apostle Paul brought Christianity here in 50 AD, and a Roman officer called Demetrius was martyred here in 303 and became the city’s patron saint. The old buildings scattered around the city are Roman, Byzantine – it was the second biggest city in the Byzantine Empire – and Ottoman. Yiannis’ dad had pointed out the Byzantine churches that had been allowed to stand in Ottoman times as long as they were lower than the mosques, and a hammam that had still been in use until recently.

Thessaloniki was excellent for bargain shopping that afternoon; I found a pair of jeans for twenty euros and then satisfied myself with an eighty-cent iced coffee to keep myself awake. I found a computer repair shop and took mine in to see if they could do anything. The man ran out of time to fix it but didn’t charge me anything. Yiannis’ dad was struggling with the traffic when he came to meet me, as protesters were marching down Egnatia Street. 

He drove us to the upper part of the city, following the Byzantine walls to the edge of the castle and what was one of the most fearsome prisons in Greece. The lights of the city were spread out around the harbour below. We went to a traditional taverna which was still almost empty when we arrived around nine thirty, but gradually the musicians started playing rembetika, and the tables filled up. I ate a succulent dish of beef and aubergine and tomato, baked in the oven with cheese melted on top, and we shared horta and baked potatoes and white wine. I thanked him for bringing me there and we discussed how rare it was when you first arrived in a city to find the best places to eat. He talked about his few days in Rome. ‘Then fagame tipota. The food was nothing.’

As he drove me back downtown, he pointed out an elegant mansion. ‘That’s where Kemal Ataturk lived.’ I asked him to drop me somewhere near Aristotelous Square – he’d said this was a central meeting point – so I could walk for a while. The city that had been grey by day was full of colour by night. Grand art deco buildings were illuminated and gorgeous, and without it feeling crowded there was a gentle buzz of nightlife. Alleyways around Athonos Square were now filled with tables and people eating and drinking, musicians playing. Many of the crowds were young people, students. I suddenly remembered that Yiannis had told me Thessaloniki for him was all about going out at night. I now understood.

Streets were dug up, buildings were falling down, the city was dirty, noisy, the hotels on the kentriko dromo grey with smog, there was too much traffic and parking was ‘gangster’ fashion as Yiannis’ dad had called it. More importantly, as the political demonstration that evening had reminded us, people were gradually losing everything they’d worked for through taxes and cuts and unemployment. Yet people still managed to have fun.


It was just before eight in the morning when I set out again down the same streets, feeling considerably more alive than the day before. I thought I heard the bass boom of music – but maybe it was something else. I turned a corner and saw three young men in t-shirts and jeans exiting a doorway onto the street. One of them shouted, ‘Techno!’ I looked up and saw lights flashing behind some dilapidated shutters, and a discreet sign for a club, Tokyo. Nearby, others were leaving another cafĂ©-bar. ‘Kali xekourasi… keh kalimera,’ someone called out: have a good rest and a good day.

I thought as I had the night before how peacefully Greek people party, with none of the violence of English nightlife. I was taking photos, trying to be discreet and capture the scene where early risers sat outside on the streets drinking their coffee while late partyers stood around chatting quietly, when a couple on a motorbike drove right up to me and the young man said, ‘Shall I smile?’ I thought he was being aggressive but he and his girlfriend waved as they left and I wished I’d said yes and taken their photo. Instead, I took pictures of the artsy graffiti. A poster in the window of a linens shop seemed to be advertising the late, great singer Stelios Kazantzidis for 14, 985 euros.
Thessaloniki is famous for its bougatza, a pastry that’s usually filled with a sweet cream – which seems about as healthy as a particularly decadent doughnut – but at To Neon on Leontos Sophou Street I discovered bougatza can also be filled with meat or with spinach and cheese. I chose the latter and the baker sliced it into bite-sized morsels. It was hot from the oven and the spinach as fresh as if it had been picked the day before.    

It was good wandering the streets on a Saturday morning before they got busy. I came across the Bezestan, a fifteenth-century covered market where luxury goods such as jewels and fabrics were not only sold but also stored, functioning like a bank; the building had been restored after the 1978 earthquake. Not far away was today’s covered market, where tripe hung on hooks and a man was butchering a pig that hung from a hook. There were aisles of fresh fish and crabs, and outside a little old man sold bags of horta. On a nearby street, I spotted something unusual: vending machines and a picture of a cow; closer inspection revealed that you could re-fill your own bottles with locally produced milk. What a brilliant idea. There were bookshops and honey shops… I liked this place.

I had to leave soon, so I chose just one church to visit: Aheiropietos. It was built in the fifth century AD on the ruins of Roman baths, and decorative mosaics dated from then. Until the fourteenth century, it was the Great Church of the Holy Virgin. Inside, it was splendid: an airy hall with two rows of marble columns on two floors. In 1430 when the city fell to the Ottomans, it was the first church to be converted to a mosque. After liberation in 1912, restoration began but from 1922 to 1923 it hosted refugees from Asia Minor. This was during the population exchange after the Greco-Turkish War, when Muslims were repatriated in Turkey and Christians in Greece, displacing two million people. Aheiropietos became a Christian church again in 1930. The name means ‘not made by hands’.


Dashing back to the hotel, I stopped at a juice shop and got a detoxing concoction for two euros. My flying visit of 24 hours in Thessaloniki had been a pleasure. I’d come back for the shopping and the nightlife and food, and next time I’d visit some of the art galleries and museums and see more historic monuments. And maybe I wouldn’t come straight from Frankfurt. Maybe I’d convince the boss to send me to Thessaloniki Book Fair instead.