Trip 2010: Greece part 1 – Thessaloniki & the journey to Xanthi

Saturday 10 April

Arrived in Thessaloniki at around 11 am and was relieved to be able (finally!) to withdraw some euros and have something to eat and drink. Thirteen hours (the train ran slow) with just half a bottle of water – nightmare. Hotel: OK but grubby; still, beggars can’t be choosers. I’d paid a deposit when I booked, although neither I nor the hotel manager could remember how much this was and it took her ages to find out. When I took out my credit card to pay the outstanding balance she smiled and asked: “You don’t have cash?” This, i was to discover, would be a recurring experience in Greece: everywhere you go there is a reluctance, often even a refusal, to take card payments. According to an article i read (in The Economist i think) this is to avoid having to declare the income for tax purposes.

Walked up to the old city walls. There’s a platform where you can get a great view of the city. You don’t seem to be able to go up on the walls themselves though.

View of Thessaloniki from platform next to the old city walls

Walked back down via the Vlatadon Monastery where i saw a fenced off area containing graves (of monks?) and found a ‘bookshop’ which had very few books but was instead full of lots of disappointing icons (why does the Orthodox tradition depict Jesus and his mother looking as though they’re suffering from jaundice!?). The shop was presided over by a plump, worried looking woman who never stopped knitting as she listened to a radio programme that sounded suspiciously like a soap opera.

I was unsure whether to go into the church as (a) I don’t know the Orthodox etiquette (I was trying to watch the visitors to see what they did); and (b) I felt bit of a hypocrite since i’m not Orthodox. In the end I went as far as the vestibule and peered in from there. The church was quite full, despite there being no service in progress; and as people left, more would arrive. I don’t know if Greek people are always this religious or whether they’re visiting because it’s Holy Week (according to the Julian Calendar). The one thing I didn’t see, but had expected to, was monks.

Greek Orthodox roadside shrine in Thessaloniki

Next I visited the house where Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was born. This is in the grounds of the Turkish Consulate and isn’t accessible from the street; instead you use the intercom system at the Consulate’s main gate to request entry: a strange experience – like i was sneaking into some secret sanctuary. I half expected to be asked for a password! A smiling man came down and let me in. He took my passport, explaining he’d give it back when I left, and then told me to wait at the entrance to the house for his colleague who would unlock the door. I wondered at the emphasis on security. Are the Greeks hostile to the museum? Or is the caution just a product of the difficult history that Turkey and Greece share? Certainly, I never noticed a single local so much as glance at the place as they passed outside. In a way this is strange as the building stands out from those around it: apart from being pink it’s also the only old building in the street. In fact, there are very few Ottoman houses in Thessaloniki it seems. If the Turks hadn’t insisted on the house being retained as a museum there would be nothing to show the current generation of Thessalonians what this area of their city used to look like. Ironic in a way.

At first I was the only person in the House (except the official), which was unnerving as he followed me around, observing me the whole time. It was a relief when some Turkish tourists arrived half way through my visit (he watched the Turks too, which was interesting). The house had been nicely restored to look much as it must have done when Atatürk lived there – except for the many photographs, newspaper article reproductions and books about the Great Man (I assume he didn’t collect memorabilia about himself).

Most interesting was a bedroom in which some of Atatürk’s clothes were displayed in glass cabinets. They looked smaller than i’d expected. A few of the shirts were slightly stained with age, one pair of trousers was frayed. There was also a collection of household utensils such as spoons and tea glasses. It was touching to see these things; it’s when we see objects from someone’s everyday life that we realise they were real, a flesh and blood person like ourselves and not just a character in history. I liked the school report cards on one of the walls too: he seems to have struggled with his German and Russian studies a bit.

Rotonda

Later I walked along the road to see the Yeni Hamam (from the outside only) and the Orthodox church next to it. I walked into the latter by mistake, thinking it was somehow connected to the Hamam. This is a mistake that is easy to make as, unlike a Catholic (or Anglican) church, an Orthodox church doesn’t have a steeple and is topped with a domed roof not unlike that of a mosque – or at least this was the case in northern Greece. Another difference is that the church is decorated with paintings (icons), rather than statues, of saints. It must still have been Lent according to the Julian calendar, yet the images of the saints weren’t shrouded (is this only a Catholic tradition?). On two tables lay odd displays of pink things: flowers, toys, sweets.

Also had a look at the Rotunda, the Arch of Galerius and some very impressive ruins, before continuing down to the seafront where I saw horse-drawn traps and the famous White Tower.

If i’d had the energy i’d have liked to have explored the seafront area more as it was a very interesting, not to mention attractive, looking place. I didn’t have the energy however and i was extremely thirsty: it was time for a teahouse. Alas, unlike the Turks, the Greeks aren’t great tea-drinkers and take a ‘homeopathic’ approach to the beverage. Still the bar-cafe in which i ended up had attractions of its own, in particular a friendly cat who wandered about the place, acting for all the world as though he were the proprietor: leaping up onto bar stools, examining the customers, inserting himself into conversations. An equally friendly lady (who seemed to be the actual proprietor) brought me a little dish containing a few pieces of ‘Turkish delight’ (although I’m sure they don’t call it that here!) with each pot of tea. I didn’t recognise it at first. When i asked her it what it was she thought for a moment and said: “It’s like cheese”. Like cheese? Incidentally, the public presence of women is one of the big differences between Turkey and Greece. In Turkey you are largely served by men, apart from in governmental settings or very modern shops and cafes. Not so in Greece.

Thessaloniki seafront

All in all, Thessaloniki was actually a pleasanter experience than i’d expected (i’d been given the impression there was little to see there, which is definitely not true) and there was only one disappointment: my failure to find a bookshop selling contemporary Greek fiction in English translation. All i was offered was Homer!

Sunday 11 April

Woke relieved to find no creepy-crawlies had appeared in the night (yes, it was one of those hotels). Breakfast didn’t seem to be included so I washed, dressed, packed and left hoping that the Starbucks I’d spotted the previous night across the road would be open. It wasn’t: Greece observes Sunday closing, predictably I suppose. Shame: i was curious about what sort of food Starbucks serves in Greece. The stuff on offer at their coffeeshops in Turkey was much better than in the UK.

Arriving at the Railway Station i immediately hit a snag: the lady behind the counter curtly informed me that the next train to Xanthi was full; I would have to wait till 3.41 pm to travel which meant that i wouldn’t get there till nearly 8 pm (assuming the train got there on time which in Greece seems rarely to be the case). It was a good job i’d given myself two nights in the town.

On the plus side, the man at the cafe where I bought breakfast was thrilled when he discovered I was a Liverpool supporter. Good job he doesn’t realise how nominal that support is! There were about 6 cafes at the station, along with a mini-market and… an Orthodox chapel! I’ve never seen anything like it. As I was buying my ticket I noticed a service was underway: going to church in a railway station – how bizarre! Mind you, there are roadside chapels everywhere you go in Thessaloniki. Icons are even more ubiquitous; you see them displayed all over the place: hotels, shops, cafes. It’s like a Greek version of the photographs of Atatürk you see in Turkey. I wonder if the Kemalists got the idea of having people display those photos from the Orthodox tradition of venerating icons? Two definite parallels with Turkish culture: the love of worry beads/rosaries and the display of the big blue eye which is supposed to ward off evil.

So, this turned out to be a day spent sitting in railway station cafes, drinking (a memory of) tea and watching Greek television: a black and white documentary about the German invasion of Greece during WWII, a report on the Greek economic crisis (not that there’s any sense of crisis on the streets of Thessaloniki), a programme about Greek folk music and how the instruments used for it are made. Old problems, new problems, no problems.

Thessalonki-Xanthi train journey

When the time finally came to get the train to Xanthi i found that it had already been standing at the platform for ages. Everyone else evidently knew this would be the case and so most of the seats were taken. Mind you, i seemed to be the only foreigner on board. The train was quite comfortable: blue padded seats with metal footrests. I found it disconcerting that i couldn’t find the places we were passing through on a map but they were just villages. This is a sparsely populated part of the country: very green and very flat but with mountains in the distance. One thing i noticed for the first time was the amount of graffiti in Greece. Interestingly, this is often in the Latin alphabet. Also, on a hillside in the middle of nowhere: a shop with a big sign saying – in English – ‘Cash & Carry’. The Greeks tend not to transliterate English words, which makes them stand out more; i could never work out if there was more English used in signs than in Turkey or whether the English was just more noticeable.

Towards the end of my journey i got talking to the nice Greek girl sitting next to me (whose name was Yulia). She helped me decipher the station announcements which i found unintelligible; i dread to think where i’d have ended up without her assistance. I wish we’d got chatting earlier as she was very interesting to talk to. She’d visited England twice as her brother was a student at Cambridge and she’d also been twice to Istanbul. However, whereas she’d liked England (despite the rain) she wasn’t keen on Turkey at all. We were just getting to her reasons, which appeared to be mostly to do with the male-dominated nature of Turkish society, when we reached Xanthi and I had to depart (scrambling across the rail tracks). From the station I took a taxi. The driver spoke no English but barked at me in fragmentary German: “Aufsteigen!”, “Vier. Halb. Euro.” Still, he got me to my hotel: cleaner than its Thessaloniki counterpart but with all the charm of a multistory carpark.

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