2-4 August, 2011
Thessaloniki (or Salonika), major port city of Macedonia (the region, not the nation a.k.a. FYROM – complicated isn’t it?) and my first view of another sea – the Aegaean! Thessaloniki reminds me a bit of Trieste, with its long seaside promenade and commanding south-facing embrace of a sea (the Adriatic in the case of Trieste). There is also a coffee connection that I will mention later.
Thessaloniki is one of the oldest cities in Europe, founded in 315BC by King Cassander of Macedonia who named it after his wife Thessalonika, a half-sister of Alexander the Great. After the Romans conquered it in 168BC it held a prominent position on the Via Egnatia (Odos Egnatia is still the main road through the city) linking Rome with Byzantium. The remains of Emperor Galerius’ palace can be seen, as well as his Triumphal Arch (celebrating victory over the Persians) and the Rotonda (Thessaloniki’s version of Rome’s Pantheon), both constructed around 305-306AD. Other landmarks include the 16th c. seafront White Tower and the castle on the hill next to the Old Town.
The Ottoman Empire captured Thessaloniki in 1430 (23 years before they took Constantinople) and held it until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Its incorporation into Greece was confirmed in the redrawing of the political map of Europe following World War 1.
For most of its history, Thessaloniki has been famously multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Sephardic Jews (who had arrived in large numbers from Spain after they were expelled at the turn of the 16th c) comprised a substantial (at times the majority) of the population, until they were wiped out by the Nazis during the occupation in WW2. The euphemistically called “population exchange” of 1922 between Greece and Turkey also reduced ethnic diversity, boosting the “Greekness” of the city, even though the Pontic Greeks from Asia were culturally and linguistically very distinct from European Greeks and lamented the loss of what they considered their “true” home, which their ancestors had inhabited for thousands of years.
In one of the monasteries of Meteora I saw mention of the “Megali Idea” (or “Great Idea”), the Greek irredentist dream of reclaiming all the lost territories of “cultural Greece”, and recreating a Greater Greece of “The Two Continents and the Five Seas”. I have been trying to think what the five seas are. My guess is: the Ionian, the Aegaean, the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara and the eastern Mediterranean. On this trip I have seen all except the Sea of Marmara and the eastern Mediterranean, and I hope to see those later. Together with the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic, that means I will have travelled the Seven Seas! (…sweet dreams are made of these…)
Greek irredentism is not the only game in town in the Balkans of course. Extreme nationalists in Albania, Serbia, FYRO Macedonia and Bulgaria all have similar ideas of their own, and more than one of these groups would be casting covetous eyes on Thessalonika if the opportunity arose.
From my visit to the Museum of Byzantine Culture is the pic of the Lactating Madonna icon (painted 1784, post-Byzantine era) of the Virgin Mary breast-feeding the infant Jesus. Eye-catching. Well, it caught my eye. In the garden of the Archaeological Museum were burial artefacts of early Christianity including sarcophagi. One I took a pic of had held the remains of a man whose profession was “Second Umpire”. I am not kidding. Have a look at the pic with the explanatory text. Who knew the gladiatorial games even had umpires, let alone two (or more?). The notes say this guy was one of the best. Makes me wonder if (like Aussie Rules footy) they started out with one umpire, but then the game sped up and they had to add more! The last pic is of “The Saw” sculpture by a famous Russian conceptual artist Andreii Filippov. It is coming out of the grass and apparently the serrations are supposed to evoke those of the wall of the Kremlin.
On my walks around town I was particularly taken by one building (see pic of reddish building between pics of churches). Then a little later I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop with mostly Greek language books. But I enquired about English language books and was shown a copy of “Coffee-houses of old Thessaloniki”. It was a lovely little book listing about 50 no-longer existing coffee-houses (from the late 19th century to the end of WW2), their locations, old photos and evocative descriptions of their proprietors and clientele. Only 3 euros. It was light so of course I could not resist buying it. But imagine my delight when the building I had taken a fancy to was shown in a photo taken in the 1920s. Apparently it was called the Red House, and the style is “Turkish Baroque”. There is a fashionable cafe on the ground floor now where the old coffee-shop Ermis used to be, and where I had my most expensive espresso on the trip so far. I can’t resist a few quotes from the book, but that will have to be later. I must go now…
(From “The Coffee-houses of Old Thessaloniki” by Kostas Tomanas)
The Coffee-House of Malik Bey – Malik’s coffee-house had leather seating all round the walls, marble tables with cast-iron legs and, in the middle of the shop, four large stoves which burned day and night in the winter. Malik gave orders to his waiters to allow the homeless to sleep on the kanapes (sofas) at night, even if they could not pay…Very early the following morning they would wake up, wash themselves in the fountain opposite, clean the kanapes and go off about their business.
The Coffee-House Almosnino – Chaim Almosnino tried to keep his coffee-house at a high level, that is why he bought his coffee from Leonidas, his sweets from Flocas, his drinks (champagne, liqueur, wines, Perrier water) from the delikatessen-shop of Beza and Revach. Nevertheless, at peak hour he would invent all kinds of ploys to drive out from his coffee-house the poor Jewish families , who occupied a table and ordered “Un gazozikos e tres vazikas” (one soda with three glasses).
The book closes with a poem by Dimitris Paparighopoulos:
Instead of monuments and mausoleums
I want, my friends, near to my grave
To build a coffee-house.
When people drink their coffee,
My bones will enjoy its aroma…
The Big Three beers of Greece are: Mythos, Alfa and Fix. Catchy names that led me to think of appropriate marketing slogans. I came up with:
- Drink Mythos Beer. It’s legendary!
- Drink Alfa Beer. Feel like an Alfa male!
- Drink Fix Beer. Whatever your problem, Fix is the solution!