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 cafĂ© 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.  

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