Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thessaloniki: A Vibrant City with an Ancient Culture

We arrive at our destination in Thessoloniki after catching a ferry to Volos and then a regional and local bus to the main centre where our AIRBNB hosts have a small apartment.  They are out of town for the first part of our stay so we have the place to ourselves.  Their friends let us in and give us a run down of their beautiful apartment, conveniently located in the heart of the city.  We use Thessaloniki as a base for a couple of weeks and plan to do a few side trips from here.

Thessaloniki is a vibrant city, with an active café culture, creative street art, monasteries, icons, monks and candles and a population that is still quite religious.  There are Roman ruins that hint of this cities past prominence situated at the cross roads of two important Roman roads.  The new city that has evolved around it made us question what Emperor Galerius would say if he saw this city today.   Thessaloniki was also an important Biblical city.  Paul came here on his second missionary journey and preached in the city’s synagogue for at least 3 weeks.  The city sits on top of its ancient ruins so many of these ancient sites may never see the light of day.  However, we were able to enjoy the Roman Agora, the Galerius Palace and Arch, the Hagias Sophia church as well as the Church of Demetrious. 

The sunsets in Thessaloniki have taken our breadth away. The fashion conscious women of this city can be found parading the promenade and would easily rival their counterparts in Nice.   The food is excellent and we feel this is perhaps the choice of the younger, trendier population in Greece.

But there is a dark side.  Thessaloniki is one Europe’s most populated cities and one of its most polluted.  After spending 3 weeks in Skopelos, a sleepy pedestrian village, our senses have been confronted by the impact that unsustainable populations of humans can have on a place.  Whatever your stand on climate change, when you live in a place that is enveloped by smog, it is hard to dispute that man has certainly left his mark on the environment…a mark that can only have an adverse impact on our natural cycles.   We both come down with sore throats and personally feel the health effects that big cities have on its populations.

One of the fun things we did in Thessaloniki was to see 3 films in 3 days during the Thessaloniki Film Festival.  The Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the Balkans and the top festival in South Eastern Europe.  The film festival gives a chance for lesser known directors and independent films to get exposure.  We enjoyed the festival although 2 of the 3 films we saw were quite sombre in what I understand was the general feel of the entire festival. 

The first film was called Voice of the Voiceless and highlighted the plight of deaf children who are exploited in many big cities.  This particular film was set in New York and based on a true story.  It told the story of a young teenage girl who was taken from the security of her home in Guatemala with the assumption of her family she was going to learn sign language.  Sadly she becomes nothing more than a slave, earning money on the trains for her masters.  It is a silent film, giving you a sense of what it must mean to be deaf.  The silent movie told through the eyes of the deaf girl gives you a real insight into her world and her feelings. 

The second film, Hide Your Smiling Faces, is the story of two brothers dealing with the death of their friend.  The story is about their unsupervised summer, which seems completely devoid of any fun or meaning.  We felt that many cultures, especially Greece where we saw this film would find it hard to connect with this movie.  Both Steve and I reflected back on our own teenage summer holidays, which were full of fun, friends and play.  This movie was incredibly depressing and despondent and perhaps only relevant in the US where it was set. 

The third movie we saw was thankfully far more upbeat.  Called Hank and Asha, it was the story of two strangers who start up a friendship using video messages.  Asha is a conservative Indian girl studying at film school in Prague.  Hank is a film producer who lives in New York.   The story documents their friendship and ultimately the hard choices that Asha has to make, given her conservative background and parental expectations.

While we were in Thessaloniki, we were also able to witness the Ohi Day celebrations.  The sounds of the fly past was deafening and the parade put on by the army in a massive display of their military might a little unnerving!  But it was a celebration of the fact that in 1936 the then Greek Prime stood up to the ultimatum issued by Mussolini with a single word ‘Ohi” meaning No. Greece had a choice - allow the Axis forces to enter or face war. Greece chose to go to war and thousands of Greek people took to the streets chanting “Ohi”.  The celebration is a little ironic in that today, Greece is facing the choices put before them by the forces who control the EU but has chosen to face austerity measures rather than the harder choice of saying ‘Ohi'. 

One day we took the bus to the old town of Thessaloniki.  After exploring the ruins scattered around the old town, we ended up at the Castle Cafe to watch the sunset over a drink.  Unfortunately, the city is engulfed in a thick layer of smog. The cafe owner seeing my camera says, "you are unlucky, you've come on a bad day.  The views from here are usually amazing."   As it turned out, while the city was covered in smog, the clouds in the sky contributed to a stunning sunset.  I happily snapped away and remembered that every cloud has a silver lining. 

Thessaloniki is also an ideal place for street photography.  There is so much happening both on the promenade and around Aristotelous Square.  I loved to just sit on a bench in the square (a few minutes
walk from our apartment) and people watch.  The square is surrounded by beautiful architecture and opens out to the ocean.  In the distance, the old city looks down, from its perch on the hill.  Sometimes, I walk about and ask random strangers if I can take their portrait.   Steve is not too keen on being part of this exercise, so it was a good opportunity for me to practice my 10 words of Greek! 

Toward the end of our stay, the smog cleared and we had a day of beautiful blue skies and warm weather.  We took the opportunity to go out on one of the boats on the harbour.  The boat rides are free but you are expected to buy a drink.   It is really relaxing to sit there and look back at Thessaloniki from the water.  We really enjoyed the evening and had timed the outing perfectly as we caught another brilliant sunset. 

Our stay in Thessaloniki eventually came to an end.  Over drinks at the rooftop bar of one of the hotels on Aristotelous Square we said goodbye to one of our favourite cities in Greece.  We had got to know this city quite intimately over the time we had been here.  Our hosts eventually came back and we also spent some time chatting to them about life in Greece and got a better appreciation for what it meant to live here during an economic crisis.  But now it is time to catch a flight to Istanbul – our last destination in Europe.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Goodbye Skopelos!

Our 3 weeks in Skopelos unravelled slowly.  We relaxed so much that I got out of the habit of blogging and didn’t write anything for an entire month…and I have finally sat down to recount those stories…

Most of our time in Skopelos was spent in a local Taverna.  We got to know the chaps who ran it and they let us spend lazy afternoons working on our laptops and reading our kindles while we sipped frappes and ate kebabs.  The blue ocean lapped lazily in front of us and our Greek Island getaway turned out even better than I had imagined it would. 

Being out of season meant we got a taste of real island life.  Many of the local men seemed to frequent the tavernas to smoke or play board games.  The women were busy at home, cooking lunch or washing down the paved streets in front of their houses.  We got to know a few of the locals as we walked back and forth from our studio at the top of the hill.  They would often give us a sprig of basil or some chestnuts or call us in for a drink.  Occasionally we would buy the fresh seafood from the fishing boats down at the port and cook it fresh for lunch.  It was a wonderful community and I loved being part of it for a short time. 

Occasionally we would catch a bus to another part of the island, which is how we ended up discovering Glossa.  Glossa was the place where much of the movie Mama Mia was set.  While we were not able to make our way to the tourist drawcards from the movie, we had a great day in this village.  After an enjoyable lunch at a café with a stunning view of the ocean, we decided to discover the town.  It was while walking up and down the cobbled stone streets, that we met Dmitri.  He was tending to his donkeys so I stopped to take a few photos and we started chatting.  One thing led to another and we were soon invited to his house where we met his wife over drinks and preserved plums, a traditional Greek sweat from Skopelos.  

It was amazing to hear the stories from Dmitri’s life.  He had travelled the world while working on Greek shipping vessels.  From Cairo to Colombo, Rwanda to Cape Town he had travelled for long periods sometimes only coming home after a few years at sea!  When I asked what that was like, he replies, “it was just a job!” However, he was really excited to learn I had grown up in Colombo as he had wonderful memories of going ashore on numerous occasions.  Of course it would have been a different world back then. 

The weather during our stay varied from wonderful sun kissed days to gale force winds and rain.  I think we had more sunny days than not and count ourselves lucky because we are here out of season and the weather in October is unpredictable.  On one of those good days, we caught the bus to Panormas.  It was a much quieter village with a beautiful deserted beach.  We stretched lazily on the deck chairs and enjoyed the sun, the sea and the sand and Steve braved the cold waters for a dip. 

After spending 3 weeks in this beautiful Greek Island, we finally said goodbye to whitewashed cottages, friendly smiles and chats over fences, the many strangers who be-friended us, stunning sunsets and waking up on many days to a gorgeous sunrise, the blue green ocean and the fisherman by the port. 

What a treat to buy the day's catch and cook it for lunch!  We also say goodbye to the chaps at the International Cafe who prepared beautiful frappes and the wonderful family that were our hosts! 3 Generations of Greek women who entertained us with their stories and the sounds of their play. We will miss you Skopelos!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mama Mia: Skopelos is Stunningly Beautiful

So we finally arrive in Skopelos after catching the ferry from the port of Volos.  This is the place I had been dreaming of ever since we saw the movie Mama Mia!  We’ve chosen this spot as a base where we
will finally put our backpacks down for a while to write, to be creative and to indulge in the luxury of a bit of rest and relaxation to reflect on everything we have learnt and where we wish our future to take us.

The daughter of our host is waiting at the port to pick us up.  The little apartment we have chosen is situated up on the top of the hill so I am glad we are not lugging our packs up by foot.  We circle the island to reach our studio, as like most Greek Islands, this town is a mostly car free zone.  Georgia is waiting for us when we reach Kastro Studios.  She is a friendly lady and is already chatting nineteen to the dozen with Steven.  He occasionally interrupts to let me know what she is saying. 

She leads us up a narrow stairway and throws open the door of the balcony and I gasp.   I could not have imagined such a view.  The photos on the website did not do this place justice.  She explains that we’ve been allocated the best studio as it is the low season and there is no one else here.  We have a 270-degree view that includes an ocean view to the left and a view of the town to the right.  It has just been raining the last few days and today the town glistens in the sunshine, as if it has only just been whitewashed.  For many years now, I have fantasized about experiencing life in a little white Greek cottage with an ocean view.  It’s not exactly a Greek cottage but I feel my dream has just come true.  The entire town of Skopelos is painted white with splashes of blue and the occasional green or red to highlight windows and other features. 

Stunning simplicity…what more can I say.

I now understand why so many photographers, artists and writers come to the Greek Islands in search of inspiration.  I am already beginning to feel I could stay here for awhile…and feel my mind and body unwind.  The landscape before us changes colour as the afternoon turns into evening and we sit on the balcony and take it all in.  When the sun sets and the lights come on in town, there is a completely different kaleidoscope of colours and my camera works over time!  

I wake up the next morning to a spectacular sunrise.  Still half asleep, I grab my camera and start shooting before climbing back into bed.  There will be plenty of time to write and explore – but for the next few days, I want life to unravel slowly.  I am woken up again to the sounds of church bells.  It is Sunday morning and every church in town rings their bells around 7 am to remind us it is Sunday morning.  The sound is incredible and quite beautiful.  I look outside but it looks like a ghost town – there isn’t any sound or movement yet.

We eventually make our way down to the port.  The way down is beautiful with a different scene around every corner.  The blue and white theme predominates but there is no monotony to this conformity.  Colourful bougainvillea adds a splash of colour to the stark white-washed walls. 
Pomegranate, orange and other citrus plants are still bulging with fruit but the grape vines are now withering in the courtyards with the onset of autumn.  It all serves to remind us that people on the islands are far more self-sustaining than their city counterparts. 

We are quite surprised to find how quiet the island is.  The tourist hordes have all gone home and the little alleyways are almost deserted.  Doors and windows that would normally have been wide open in the summer are shut, guarding those inside against the slight chill in the air.  Most of the tavernas are also shut but we find a little place by the water that is still open.  Locals sit around having a coffee and playing board games.  It feels truly authentic and despite the cooler weather, I am glad we are not here during the peak season.  Later today we will buy groceries so we can live like locals but on our first day here we indulge in a plate of souvlaki and enjoy the ambience of Skopelos. 

As we make our way back to our studio, we stop on the way to chat to a family sitting outside the stone steps that lead to our place.  Later we find they are the daughter and son-in-law of Georgia, our host.  Their two little girls are giggly and shy but eventually make friends with us.  In Greek and English they explain they have lived here for 7 generations.   Why would you choose city life they ask, when we have this beautiful island to wake up to each day?  Why indeed.  The crisis has not affected Skopelos as badly because the fame of Mama Mia brings boat loads of tourists each summer, hot on the trail of the sites made famous by Merryl Streep and Peirce Brosnan.  Angelo works hard in the construction industry and is annoyed at the bad propaganda that all Greeks get in the media. 

Eventually, we say good night.  It feels good to be getting to know our neighbours and making friends.  Community is after all what makes a place feel like home…

As we continue to explore further, we meet more of the locals, all of whom are keen to chat and ask where we are from and if we love Skopelos.  They clearly love their island home. 

We have travelled the world in search of community, and as I look around me, I realise that here in the Greek Islands people have lived communally for generations.  Houses are not walled in from intruders or neighbours.  Kids walk home alone, and people gather in the tavernas with the neighbours for a drink and a chat and sometimes to watch a game. 

If only I could speak Greek, here is a place I could easily call home…