Along the road between Florina and Edessa in Greece’s far north, Western Macedonia turns quietly, imperceptibly, into Central Macedonia.
Waiting somewhere for us within this new Greek state are beaches of naked abandonment, a forsaken camp for five thousand refugees, a city of Eastern foods, a preposterously grand Orthodox wedding, the sworn sighting of a miracle…
For now though, we are making our way through the lowlands: surrounded on both sides of the road by yellowy green fields sauntering off into the distance to join the mountains, lurking like mages, Greek thugs, on the horizon – just waiting for their time to join in.
Florina had been a sweet spot to stop at earlier in Western Macedonia. A town set down in a gap in the forested hills. Nicely run down centre. Buildings looking more Greek than many we had seen on our days travelling through northern Greece: balconies, and a more southern look as if ready for the sun rather than the snow.
There is a river flowing through this oddly vivid university town, which is rare enough – often rivers in Greek towns have dried up or flow somewhere away from sight, covered up and concreted over – but in Florina they have used it well, building a little walkway, café tables sit by small bridges on the river edge. If one squints hard enough, it even has a sort of Parisian feel.
We sit and eat a lunch of Florina’s smoky red peppers and watch the Floriniotes cycling past: eccentric women in long colourful blousy dresses capering along the river. Uninvited, one erratically enthusiastic lady comes careering over to us and asserts loudly “You must have fallen in love this place no?, I’m sure of it! Alitheia sou layo! You know… this is the city of artists!”
I think she has coined this nomenclature herself. But the next place we reach, Edessa, is certainly known as the city of water.
A large waterfall plummets to the ground, with a sound of thunder, in the very centre of the town – a town of prosperous-looking tree-shaded streets and modern squares.
The waters flow over smaller waterfalls, down streams, into dams. We stand on a ledge behind the falling sheets of water. And find, behind this main fall, there are a collection of stalactite and stalagmite rich caves.
We enter one, groping and peering into the sudden gloom, and there, all alone in the dripping damp, is an old woman.
She’s sat in a tiny wooden falling-apart booth, wedged into the cave.
This seems to be her job. To sit here in the cave and wait for unlikely visitors.
She also seems to be smoking two or three long cigarettes at the same time, the smoke filling her broken-down hut, and – as all elderly Greek women throughout the country like to do – scribbles at a puzzle book with a pencil.
She collects our 50 cents. We stare for a while in the darkness at the piles of high twisting calcite and the white ribboning walls – graffitied with various “Giannis Loves Maria”s and “Panathinaikos Hooligans” – and then out again, past the scribbling old lady in the dark, just about visible, wreathed in smoke, into the bright light and thundering water.
Edessa’s station – built back when Greece was under the Ottoman Empire rule – is a pretty but sturdy old depot. Looking like a painting, the building is set on its own, away from the town under large trees which allow only the most tenacious rays through.
A thoroughly unelectrifed train rolls in – burping diesel steam – over the sun flecked scene.
But on an unexpected line. So we watch as old women lug overflowing trolleys over the rails to get a foot up on the ladder to haul themselves up into the train.
No announcements, just an old flapping paper tacked on the porter’s old wooden door detailing the trains: one every few hours.
The train feels no compulsion anyway to keep to any sort of timetable. The driver waits for everyone to finish conversations, finish cigarettes, before leaving, hopelessly late. The station master rousing from his slumber to wave his green flag long after the train has started its painfully slow departure from town out into the countryside beyond.
“Welcome to heroic Skra” the sign reads.
Skra is unimpressive. A village with nondescript small metal roofed stone buildings.
My travelling companion’s interest is strangely alert though. “You hear of this town all the time at school,” says Giristroula. “It’s a big deal. Everyone knows of Skra…”
And so we’re here. But I feel at a loss as to what to make of it really. It has a history as the scene of a tremendous battle during the First World War where the Greeks held on desperately to defeat the Bulgarians. This proved a significant victory for the Allied forces and was won at huge cost to the Greeks, with many deaths. But try as hard as I can, I can’t feel much for this place myself.
But then I see, in the town square – built around the one tall plane tree as most Greek town squares are – a local girl, aged maybe just 16 or 17, sat staring at one of the memorials to the lost. She is in tears.
She might be crying over a recent break-up with a boyfriend, of course, but I’m surprised too when my fellow Greek traveller – normally completely impassive at these kinds of things, battles and patriotic scenes meaning little to her – gets out of the car to inspect solemnly another statue monument to the fallen in the village.
I feel there is something more here for the Greeks than I am ever going to understand.
The surrounding nature is something I can understand though. And Western Macedonia has much nature.
The day before, we had crawled along an arrow-straight road of tacky motels. One after the other, identical, aside from the names on large standing signs outside.
(Giristroula had taken her childhood holidays up here in northern Greece, driving alongside the old Yugoslavian border in her father’s cheap old Zastava – Yugoslavian-built – car. Frequently breaking down, so close to the car’s original home…and roared past by the Mercedes and Audis that Greeks were now buying with the totally new notion of loans. Buying with little thought of the future, changing the face of Greek roads. And the country.)
The look of the Loutraki of Aridaia improved considerably though as we headed from its main road up into its loutra – the natural spa.
We are quickly surrounded by dark green woods, deep canyons, hill climbs, caves – without puzzle book women – and indoor and outdoor natural spas, open all night. We sneak in for free at 2am, the caretaker on door duty not even raising his eyes – staring, confused, concentrated on a badly tuned radio in his hands – and lap ourselves in the restorative waters.
Now here in Skra we are surrounded again by more deep woods that – on going for just the idea of a short walk – suck and sip and draw us further and further in towards the turquoise lake in the middle of the thick capacious forest.
A cascading waterfall above us, we go for a swim. But even in the unyielding Greek summer heat coming through the trees, the water freezes us to the bone. So we try to push and tussle our way out of the woods again – a place that looks exactly where nymphs, sylphs, sirens, dryads, centaurs and all the rest should surely gather.
And suddenly we see a fleeing figure. A female form flying through the trees near us, dressed all in flowing white.
We stand and state, thinking of muses and mythologia… Until we then see photoshoot cameramen following in hot pursuit. Reality, for us, crashing through the magical landscape.
And reality hits even harder as we get back into the car and cross over harsh, inaccessible, heavy-wooded mountain ranges to the east of Skra. The ranges suddenly falling down into abrupt flat land.
A land of utter nothingness here. We descend into the dry unforgiving plain, towards the border with the country of Macedonia. And the camp of Idomeni.
The town of Idomeni is insignificant. A handful of houses.
Disturbingly though, as we enter this small village, I see at least two of these houses are flying a 21st of April, Greek junta flag. The foiniks – the phoenix.
The celebration of this 21st April date is the marking of when the fascist dictatorship took grip of Greece for 7 extreme, painful years in 1967.
It is troubling to see these flags flying in the town that was recently the focus of the world’s attention where, just before this summer we are travelling in, up to 15,000 refugees from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan were massed, desperate to cross the border.
The very border that we can see fenced off and guarded before us.
This flat open land is a cauldron of heat. We walk in the mid-afternoon glare, along the fences between Greece and the country of Macedonia – all the time painfully aware that we are being closely observed from station huts on the border.
The refugees have now been re-located from this iniquitous space, but some of what was here still remains. Wooden tent frames, canvases, clothes, cooking things, old forgotten possessions, have been swept up and piled into huge hills of debris.
I look down on the dusty turf as we walk around and see the tragic sight of one small girl’s pink shoe lying abandoned on the ground. It feels a dismal, melancholy place.
Idomeni is the last station out of Greece. The whole of Europe sits on top of this train line, like a giant elephant balanced on a circus pole. The train line is fenced and protected too. We walk along to the large, old station.
“Were you here when the refugees were here?” I ask the two train guards on the station platform – one short, bald, stubby, bellicose; the other tall, grey, bespectacled, hostile.
“Nai…” Yes… they reply slowly.
“What was it like?”
They talk robustly at Giristroula, who has to work hard translating for me.
“It was bad. They were bad men. Scum. Fighting with each other. Wanting to fight with us. They shouldn’t come here. They should stay where they come from. They could die. What do I care?”
Their answers shock me. I didn’t expect this lack of compassion or humanity. Naively I somehow imagined a sense of empathy here, with them having seen the refugees first hand.
The two rail workers start to eye me up and down.
“Where is he from?” they ask. “Einai apo kei pano?” they ask – is he from ‘up’? Up as in, from up there, Europe.
Giristroula tells them I’m from England.
“And he’s your husband? Why did you marry him then?” they start to snap. “Why not a Greek, eh? De sou kanan oi Ellines? Se tylixe?” – did he trick you..?
I point to the land along the straight railway line running into the distance with a shimmering dance of heat “Is that Macedonia?”
“What?” They both stop dead.
“The land over there. I guess that’s Macedonia is it?”
“What?” they repeat, staring at me with turned faces of sudden hate.
“Oh…” I say, realising my mistake “Sorry I mean, um, you know, as you say, F.Y.R.O.M.”
Their faces don’t clear of enmity and aggression “F.Y.R.O you should say. No M…”
Former Yugoslav Republic Of… doesn’t really make sense, but I know better than to mentioning this now.
We make our way to the car as things start to feel far too belligerent. They start to follow us closer. “Is he drunk? Does he have problems?” they say.
As we drive off I think how, just before the summer I had been in Piraeus one day, stood on the platform at the railway station, and watched as wave after wave of refugees flowed from the port and the ships towards the trains.
A fast moving, unstopping river of people. I had waited and watched three trains leave, packed to the rafters with so many faces and bodies so as I couldn’t get on.
Men had come up to ask us practical questions about how to find a certain area in Athens at the other end of the Piraeus line, or how to travel further on into the country. Each was kindly spoken, complaisant, though clearly tired and disconcerted and anxious. Fixed ahead, looking, hoping, for something.
The train ride, when I finally managed to get on, was taken with what felt like tangible of optimism amongst the refugees. A real sense of relief seemed to flow through the carriage.
It depressed me as the decayed Idomeni station receded in the car’s wing mirrors – the two railway workers stood glaring at our departure – that this is where the journey led for many of those people.
And, despite the great displays of care shown by so many Greeks on the Aegean islands that I had heard about and read about, it depressed me to see some of the reactions they faced here, where their journeys had stalled.
The car is pointed south, towards Thessaloniki, but we swerve left. Not ready yet for Greece’s second city of Byzantine churches, ancient alleys, shopping boulevards and copacetic cafes. Instead, we head to the fat three clawed cat’s paw peninsular, scratching into the Aegean Sea: the Halkidiki region.
‘San tin Halkidiki… den ehei’ – Like Halkidiki… nothing. This is what they say, and it is easy to see why they say it.
Though Halkidiki was once an unwanted area.
It was given by the government to the Greek decedents forced from their homes in Turkey during the great Population Exchange of 1923, as Turkey finally fully released Greece from its crumbled empire.
The government didn’t know what to do with this inconvenient swell of people coming back to live in Greece. Land by the sea wasn’t wanted then. What could you grow on it? So the disenfranchised people were fobbed off with large parts of Halkidiki to live on.
It is now the most sought after holiday land in the country. The Greek families forced from Turkey have made their fortunes.
We drive on high roads looking over pine tree-guarded sea views, down Sithonia – the name of the second leg of Halkidiki: less built up than the first leg – to Platanitsi.
The scorched bister-coloured earth and scattered gnarled olive trees sit like the top of a cake, while below rocky white-icing vertical cliffs fall down to small beach bays.
Having climbed down a scrabbling cliff face, we swim in the sea and look along the perfect turquoise waters to Mount Athos, burnished on the blue sky in the heat. Distinct and excluded, over on Halkidiki’s third leg.
The great monasteries on Athos, dating back to the 8th Century do not allow women onto their hallowed grounds.
So as not to complicate the life of solitude and chastity for the 2,000 monks in the 20 monasteries, no female is permitted.
No female animals either: so no she-goats, mares, chickens… Though, due to their good mousing abilities, the monks turn a blind eye to female cats. They also ‘forgave’ a wrecked boat of migrants containing 4 Moldovan women that recently washed up on its shores.
We think of trying to get over there, and Giristroula copying the rare few audacious spirited-sisters who have landed on Mount Athos disguised as men, sometimes disgused as sailors, in their attempts to observe and mix with the monks.
But then we think how Platanitsi and the nearby beach of Kavourotrypes are not really the place for putting more clothes on.
Kavourotrypes – meaning crab holes, and there are stretches of rock with hundreds of small round holes side by side like some sort of planned crab housing estate – was first settled in the 60s and 70s by the hippy movement.
Colonising the sandy beaches and swollen, rolling rocks – where their artistic expression can still be seen in the carving of large mermaids and other forms on the beach stone slabs – the hippies found Kavourotrypes a haven for nudity and free love.
We run into Giristroula’s old violin teacher. An old straggly wild-haired kook: the maverick of the Thessaloniki State Conservatoire. He tells tales of finding himself in his youth in this paradise of nonconformity and naturism. He still returns every year.
But things change.
“Mprosta pane ta frikia… kai piso oi ergolavoi” they say in Greece – First come the hippies… and then the civil engineers follow.
So now families crowd under stripy umbrellas, games of racquets slap and clack, a beach bar runs with a thudding generator due to the lack of electricity here.
Giristroula’s violin teacher and the rest of the hippies have been pushed, with resentful, hurt faces to the very edge of the beach. Or further along to the small descended Platanitsi beaches where nudity – and, to my English, fastidious, shifting discomfort, quite obvious free love in the shallow rock caves – can still happily exist.
The Greeks of our party – Giristroula and some of her friends who have joined us – comprehensively join the naked misrule on the beach.
I sit up on top, reading under the trees, resolutely buttoned up.
At the very southernmost tip of the toe of Sithonia is Porto Koufo.
We sit and eat a great fish meal and look out on Greece’s deepest natural harbour, as a hot sun walks over us, high in the sky.
The bay is a huge heart-shaped inlet that gives reason to its rather ridiculous name – Port Deaf – as it is so naturally secluded you cannot hear the open sea beyond.
Just like me, Greece’s enemies were taken with this place too. So taken that they graciously used the harbour to shelter their ships ready to attack the country.
But both the German Second World War submarines and the war ships of Persian king Xerxes the Great, 2,400 years earlier, have long gone, lost and defeated, while Halkidiki, Porto Koufo, this great fish taverna, the untroubled blue sea, remain. All still here, under the golden corrugated sky.
We enter Thessaloniki creeping through the traffic along the curving sea front. The emblematic White Tower of the town stood a smirking distant figure at the far end of the choked promenade.
We turn off the front and battle further to get up the climbing streets towards the old, upper town, Ano Poli.
It is homecoming of sorts for Giristroula who lived over 10 years in this city and we meet friends in the dark-lit institution that is the Igglis restaurant.
A vine-covered restaurant on an old back street square, taking its name from a local area outside Thessaloniki where English soldiers were stationed during the First World War and where the local Turkish immigrants made incredible wine, and naming it – almost correctly – after the English retinue there.
And now this wine, and some great traditional dishes, are served up here to a rabbley, alternative crowd, with photos of black and white resistance fighters on the walls, candle wax and wine rings staining the tables.
The next days are spent by Giristroula and I in the old town: lounging with the old men, cigarette smoke rising to the ceiling unwavering, koboloya – worry beads – swinging unceasingly, in perfect ramshackle cafés like the Taverna Macedonia.
This old café looks as timeless and distinctive and as much built into the ancient city walls high over Thessaloniki as the freakish 14th Century Church of Panagia Eleousa we saw jammed into its too-small-for-it cave up in the Prespes lakes.
We take walks around and up and down the narrow streets and stairs of nearby Tsinari, past the beautifully broken down miniature Ottoman houses, the Macedonian architecture. Frequently unsure exactly what century we’re in.
Gnawing on warm koulouria – the hard ring breads, coated in sesame seeds, sold on the streets through all the former lands of the Ottoman Empire, but especially here in Salonica – as we walk round the ancient Roman market.
We late-breakfast on the stock Thessalonikian morning staple of cream filled pastry bougatsa and chocolate milk.
Lunch is taken at small back street mageieria – restaurants ONLY for eating: no attempt at frills or decoration or ambience, just incredible, cheap, old-style dining, like in the terrific – fairly filthy – basement Nea Follia, hiding on the innominate Aristomenous Street, behind the crumbling Ottoman Alatza Imaret mosque.
Souvlakis and gyros are good in Thessaloniki – and have their own idiosyncratic touch, as all areas in Greece do, by always being served with ketchup or mustard.
Thessaloniki must be the city of food.
We are here, however, for a wedding.
Yiannis picks me up in his battered car at the corner of the street opposite the remains of the old Ottoman fort that was turned into the infamous Yedi Kule prison at the turn of the last century.
We drive through the old city gates into Ano Poli and down the twisted streets to the city below, running late.
My heavy, barrel-built, driver bellowing at every other car on the street and cursing every piece of bad luck he’d ever had in his life from the day he was born.
We are late to attend the dressing of the groom.
Yiannis bursts through the door, loudly proclaiming his arrival. I enter behind, following him into a large room. A room full of devoted Orthodox Christians. Music plays from somewhere. And everyone has a quite prodigious beard.
Giristroula, studying music at the conservatoire in Thessaloniki years ago, had, in her first year of studies made friends with a fellow violinist, who turned out to be a dedicated Orthodox Christian. And so now here I am. In a noisy room full of them.
I dwell on how in a matter of days I have gone from a beach of naked hippies to a room of bearded Christians via a tavern of anarchists, and wonder if this is a perfect representative journey of Greece and its people.
The great tradition before the wedding is for the men gathered to put the different items of dress – the shirt, the trousers, the jacket – on the groom, as he mock pretends to resist, before he is to make his way to the ceremony. Coming late as we have, Yiannis and I are only left with just a sock each.
The wedding is to start in only an hour or so, but the bottles of tsipouro are being passed around over heads. The groom glugging his fill.
There is a problem with his cuffs.
Should he wear cufflinks or go with the buttons? I watch as 10 large, hirsute, Greek men crowd over a shirt and fuss and fiddle and flap and argue and wave hands at each other. Every one of these bearded men with a heated point of view on the cuff situation.
I wonder if this is some perfect representation of Greek life too.
Someone starts cutting at the tiny buttons with a huge glinting knife. I decide to sit down and have another drink of tsipouro.
Finally, and very late, we leave to make our way to the church, everyone singing the traditional song as the groom takes the lead down the road to the ceremony:
“Simera ga, simera gamos ginetai
s’oraio perivoli, s’oraio perivoli
Simera apo, simera apohorizetai
i mana apo tin kori, i mana apo tin kori
Gabre ti ny, gabre ti nyfi n’agapas
Na min tin emaloneis, na min tin emaloneis
San to vasi, san to vasiliko stin gi
na tine kamaroneis, na tine kamaroneis”
Today there’s a wedding
In a nice garden
Today the bride leaves the mother
Groom, love the bride
And don’t be bad to her
Treat her like basil in the soil
Moni Vlatadon is one of the oldest Byzantine churches in northern Greece. The only one to still carry out Byzantine services in Thessaloniki. Up in the old town again, by the Great Gate, the finest views back down over the city. Peacocks strutting in the courtyard.
One of the Beards clasps me by the shoulder as I look out on the 14th Century terrace towards the sea and the vague glimmer of Mount Olympus beyond.
“We Christians make sure we get the best views eh?”
Another Beard takes me inside. The paintings, frescos, on the walls and columns and arches take me by surprise and slightly alarm me.
Put up in the Byzantine rein, they were attacked by the occupying Turks as the Ottoman Empire swept over Thessaloniki and all the biblical paintings, the depictions of Christ, have been hacked with knives and implements and thousands of small chipped holes litter the walls, scoring the saintly faces, as if dotted by some rapid machine gun fire.
It is quite fantastic, and quite unsettling.
The Beard shows me a small worn stone step in the church where he tells me the apostle, St Paul, preached to the people of Thessaloniki.
Before I can raise an obvious query to this, the wedding party enter the church.
To say an Orthodox wedding is a big affair doesn’t do it justice. Hundreds of candles hang, illuminating the scene of four elaborately dressed – gold flecked – priests in front of a grand decorated altar; a group of chanticleers singing low, droning Byzantine songs; packed guests crowded in formidable heat.
The embellished priests begin their reciting of flowing ancient texts.
At first the best man’s duty appears to be to stand behind the couple waving a fan, as time moves ornately slow in the thick heat.
Then the priests places two garlanded crowns on the couples’ head and the best man has to change these over and over on top of the groom and bride. Twisting and twirling his arms, while the priest rubs the gold wedding rings on their foreheads.
The intense singing hum filling the church, becoming louder, more ominous.
The guests stand, rapt, watching the service.
Then suddenly break-off, and leave to go outside to have a chat.
Outside the church is a hub of chatter and laughter, people catching up after years. Old women preparing the boubounieres – the tied lace bags that all guests are given as they leave a Greek wedding, full of koufeta – almond sugar-coated sweets.
Then the guests return back to the church to gaze, enraptured again, at the long, protracted, hymeneal service.
Back and forth they traipse in and out.
Keen interest picks up in the crowd though as one old priest – curly beard to his navel, white Kalimavkion hat resting over his eyes – begins the traditional warning to the bride.
“H de gyni na fovatai ton antra” – the woman must be frightened of her husband…
The hundreds-strong congregation’s necks all elongate as one, craning to watch to see if the bride follows the modern update on the tradition… and all settle back, smiling, pleased, when they see the bride does indeed stamp on her husband’s foot.
The priest continue with his toneless demands that she obeys and respects out of fear of her husband – the husband currently hobbling on one foot.
And then it’s over. After what feels like hours, and as the sonorous singing continues from the group in the corner of the flickering vivid church, we pile out of the Vlatadon monestary.
The groom is grabbed and thrown into the sky over and over again. Cars leave, blaring horns, arms out of the windows holding lit flares, as we descend into the Thessaloniki night.
The gledi – the wedding party – is held in the epicentre of bar and clubland: Ladadika.
Down near the port gates, this area is named after ladi – olive oil – as the bars are now in what was once the 19th Century warehouses. It was then the Jewish area; then the red light area full of brothels. Now a living historical monument. And, for this night, containing our spilling crowd of drunk revellers in its narrow, cobbled streets.
The drinking and dancing carries on till well into the middle of the next day.
At one point I find myself sat out on the street with Giorgos. A portly man, his round head haloed by hair. Giorgos had trained for years to be a monk, before falling in love and giving it all up for his wife.
As another bottle is drained, Giorgos is holding up better than me. We talk about religion.
“But you’re not really supposed to believe that Jesus walked on water, are you?” I say, in a slurry manner.
“Certainly you are,” Giorgos says to me, matter-of-factly.
“But isn’t it, you know, a metaphor or a sign or something? You don’t have to literally believe it happened. I mean, you know, physically it can’t happen can it…”
“I have seen it myself,” says Giorgos.
This sensible, logical, conversant Giorgos.
“Yes. What I say is perfectly true…” he continues, as I stare, unsure of what I’ve just heard.
“At Mount Athos. I saw it. A monk. One day we were both on the rocks and he looked out onto the sea. And from nowhere, from the depths, an arm appeared holding a shining silver icon. And I watched as the monk stared out at this offering. And then I saw him. I saw him slowly walk out over the waves to collect this held icon.”
I look at Giorgos. The sober-thinking, rational Giorgos, looking back at me impassively.
I look at the drink in my hand. Then back at Giorgos.
I look about me, at the city of Thessaloniki and the nightime ballet of Greek life going on all around.
I look up at the Greek sky, the stars shining white as bones. I think of the often magical Greece I have seen, and am still yet to see, as we travel along our north country journey.
And I can almost believe it to be true.