Along the road between Florina and Edessa, Western Macedonia turned quietly, imperceptibly, into Central Macedonia. Waiting somewhere for us within this new Greek state were 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 were making our way through the lowlands: surrounded on both sides of the road by yellowy green fields sloping 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. A nicely run-down centre. Buildings looking more Greek than many we had seen on our days travelling through northern Greece: open balconies, and a more southern look, as if ready for the sun rather than the snow. There is a river flowing through this 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’ve used it well, building a little walkway, café tables sitting by small bridges on the river edge. If you squint hard enough, hold a hand over one eye, Florina could even have a sort Parisian feel. We sat and ate a lunch of the town’s signature red peppers and watched the Floriniotes cycling past. Eccentric women in long colourful blousy dresses capering along the river. One overly enthusiastic woman came careering over telling us loudly “You must have fallen in love this place no? Yes, yes… I’m sure of it! Alitheia sou layo! You know… this city is the city of artists…” I had the feeling she just coined this herself, but the next place we reached, Edessa, was definitely known as the city of water. A large waterfall plummets to the ground with a sound of thunder in the very centre of Edessa. The old town seemed to have been left to rot and decompose in the sun, but the new district was full of prosperous-looking tree-shaded streets and modern squares all centred round these falls. The waters flow over smaller waterfalls, down streams, into dams. Behind the highest falling sheet of water there was a collection of stalactite and stalagmite rich caves. Entering one – groping and peering in the sudden gloom – we found an old woman, all alone here in the dripping damp, in a tiny wooden falling-apart booth wedged into the cave. She was waiting for any unlikely visitors, and was smoking what seemed to be a whole pack of cigarettes all at the same time, resting them in the ashtray, the smoke filling her broken-down hut, and – as all elderly Greek women throughout the country like to do – she was scribbling at a puzzle book with a pencil. She collected our 50 cents and we stared for a while in the dark at the piles of tall twisting calcite and the white ribboning walls – graffitied with various “Giannis Loves Maria“s and “Panathinaikos Hooligans” – and then out we went again, past the scribbling old lady in the dark, just about visible wreathed in her smoke, into the bright light and thundering water.
Edessa’s station – built back when Greece was under Ottoman Empire rule – is a pretty but sturdy old depot. Looking like a painting with the building set back on its own, away from the town, under large trees which allowed only the most tenacious rays through. A thoroughly unelectrifed train rolled in – burping diesel steam – through this sun-flecked scene. But it had come in on an unexpected line. So we watched as old women lugged overflowing trolleys over the rails to get a foot up on the ladder and haul themselves up into the train. No announcements, just an old flapping paper tacked onto the porter’s old wooden door detailing the trains: one every few hours. The train felt no compulsion to keep to any sort of timetable anyway. The driver waited for everyone to finish conversations, finish cigarettes, before leaving, hopelessly late. The station master in his old peaked hat rousing from his slumber on his chair to wave his green flag long after the train had started its painfully slow departure from town out into the countryside beyond. We drove onwards ourselves.
“Welcome to heroic Skra” the sign read. Skra was unimpressive. A village with nondescript small metal-roofed stone buildings.
“But you hear of this town all the time at school,” Giristroula said. “Everyone knows of Skra…” It has a history as the scene of a tremendous battle during the First World War, the Greeks holding on desperately to defeat the Bulgarians and provide a significant victory for the Allied forces, won at huge cost with many deaths. But try as hard as I could, I couldn’t feel much for this place. But then I saw, in the empty town square – built around the one tall plane tree as pretty much all Greek town squares are – a local girl, aged maybe just 16 or 17, sat staring at one of the memorials to the lost. She was in tears. Her body heaving in great gulps as she stared at the memorial. And I was surprised too at Girisrtroula, usually so impassive at these kinds of things – battles and scenes of great patriotism usually meaning less than nothing to her – plodding around, inspecting another monument to the fallen. I guessed there was something here for the Greeks, something deep in the psyche, than I was ever going to understand.
The day before, we had crawled along an arrow-straight road of tacky motels. One after the other, identical, aside from the names on the 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 here, so close to the car’s original birth place…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 as a whole. Things improved considerably though as we headed away from the main road up into the Loutra of Aridaia – the natural spa. We were quickly surrounded by dark woods, deep canyons, hill climbs, caves and pools. We sneaked into the spa at 2am, the caretaker on the door not even raising his eyes – staring, confused at the badly tuned radio in his hands – and lapped ourselves in the restorative waters. And now here, just outside Skra village, we were surrounded again by deep green woods – exactly the sort of place where nymphs, sylphs, sirens, dryads, centaurs and all the rest should surely hang out together. However as we continued east the thick green died away. We crossed over harsh, inaccessible, wooded mountain ranges to the east and then fell down into abrupt flat land. A land of utter nothingness. We descended slowly, a little unsure of ourselves, into this dry unforgiving plain, towards the border with the country of Macedonia. And towards the camp of Idomeni.
The town of Idomeni is insignificant. A handful of houses. Disturbingly though, as we entered this small village, I saw at least two of these houses were 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, harmful years in 1967. It was troubling to see these flags flying in this town that was recently the focus of the world’s attention where, just before this summer, up to 15,000 refugees from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan were massed, desperate to cross the border. The very border that we could now see fenced off and guarded before us.
This flat open land was a cauldron of heat. We walked in the mid-afternoon glare, along the fences between Greece and the country of Macedonia – all the time very aware that we were being closely observed from station huts on the border. The refugees had now been re-located from this iniquitous space, but some of what was here still remained. Wooden tent frames, canvases, clothes, cooking things, old forgotten possessions, had all been swept up and piled into huge hills of debris. I looked down on the dusty ground as we walked around and saw the rather tragic sight of one small girl’s pink shoe lying abandoned on the floor. It felt 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 was fenced and protected too. We walked along to the large, old station.
“Were you here when the refugees were here?” I asked the two train guards on the station platform – one short, bald, stubby, bellicose; the other tall, grey, bespectacled, hostile.
“Nai…” Yes… they replied slowly.
“What was it like?”
They ranted at Giristroula, who had 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’d come from. They could die. Die in their own country. What do we care?”
Their answers shocked me. I hadn’t expected this lack of compassion, lack of humanity. Naively I somehow imagined a sense of empathy here, with them having seen the refugees first hand. The two rail workers start to eyed me up and down.
“Where is he from?” they asked. “Einai apo kei pano?” they ask Giristroula – Is he from ‘up’? Up as in, from up there, Europe. Giristroula told them I’m from England. “And he’s your husband? Why did you marry him then?” they started to snap. “Why not a Greek, eh? De sou kanan oi Ellines? Se tylixe?” – did he trick you..?
I pointed to the land along the straight railway line running into the distance with a shimmering dance of heat “Is that Macedonia?”
“What?” They both stopped dead.
“The land over there. I guess that’s Macedonia is it?”
“What did you say?” they repeated, staring at me with turned faces of undisguised anger.
“Oh…” I said, realising my mistake “Sorry I mean, um, you know, as you say, F.Y.R.O.M.”
Their faces didn’t clear. They leant closer. “F.Y.R.O you should say,” one of them jabbed a finger into my chest. “No M…” Former Yugoslav Republic Of… didn’t really make sense, but I knew better than to mention this. We made our way to the car as things started too belligerent. They followed us closer.
“Is he drunk? Does he have problems?” they said, walking after us. We got in the car. As we drove off I thought how, just before the summer we 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. We had waited and watched three trains leave, packed with so many faces and bodies we 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 politely spoken, complaisant, though clearly tired and disconcerted and anxious. Each of them fixed ahead, looking, hoping, for something. The train ride, when we finally managed to get on, was taken with what felt like a tangible of optimism amongst the refugees. A 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 was 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 saddened me to see some of the reactions they must have faced here, where their journeys had stalled.
Our car was pointed south, towards Thessaloniki, but we swerved left. Not ready yet for Greece’s second city of Byzantine churches, ancient alleys, shopping boulevards and cafes. Instead, we headed 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. It is very beautiful. 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 now to live in Greece – Greeks who had been living in Constantinople or areas of Asia Minor. Anyone who was Orthodox Christian was not welcome in Turkey after 1922. There had been a terrible genocide of Greek minorities in Turkey, and then when the Greeks failed with their ‘Big Idea’ to violently grab all the historically ethnic Greek-inhabited areas in Turkey, after they had got cocky at the end of World War 1, further dreadful repercussions followed. Prime Minister Venizelos had thought he could capitalise on the disintegrating Ottoman Empire and push for greater chunks of Turkish lands the Greeks believed to be theirs, but failure meant ethnic Greeks were forced to cross over to Greece. Muslim citizens of Greece sent to Turkey to fill the now vacant old Greek towns. Land by the sea in Greece wasn’t wanted back then, what could you grow on it? So these newly 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 wrenched over from their lives in Turkey have made their fortunes.
We drove 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. We headed for the coast of Platanitsi. The scorched bister-coloured earth and scattered gnarled olive trees sat like the top of a cake, while below rocky white-icing vertical cliffs fell down to small beach bays. We climbed down a scrabbling cliff face and swam in the sea and looked along the perfect turquoise waters to Mount Athos, burnished on the blue sky in the heat, distinct and excluded, over on Halkidiki’s final third leg. The great monasteries on Athos, some of them dating back to the 8th Century don’t allow women onto their hallowed grounds. They say this is due to it being the Virgin Mary’s garden and she doesn’t want other women to share it with her. The story is that the Virgin was in a boat on her way to Cyprus to see the recently resurrected Lazarus when a storm blew her onto Mount Athos’ coast. She was so overwhelmed by its beauty she asked her son for it. Although I prefer the earthy version of Greek mythology – Mount Athos being a huge rock that Poseidon threw at one of his enemies. Anyway – whatever it was that created this incredible place – so as not to complicate the life of solitude and chastity for the 2,000 monks in the 20 monasteries here, 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 four Moldovan women that had recently washed up on its shores.
We thought of trying to get over there – Giristroula copying the rare few audacious spirited-sisters who had landed on Mount Athos disguised as men, sometimes disgused as sailors, in their attempts to observe and mix with the monks. But then we thought how Platanitsi and the nearby beach of Kavourotrypes are not really the places for putting more clothes on.
Kavourotrypes – meaning crab holes, and there are stretches of rock here 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 carvings of large mermaids and other great forms on the beach stone slabs – the hippies found Kavourotrypes a haven for nudity and free love. We ran into Giristroula’s old violin teacher here. An old straggly wild-haired kook: the maverick of the Thessaloniki State Conservatoire. He told us 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 hidden, 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 had joined us – comprehensively joined the naked misrule on the beach. I sat up on top, reading under the trees, resolutely buttoned up. As much as I might have thought I’d become Greek over my few years here…it was clear the transformation was nowhere near yet complete.
At the very southernmost tip of the toe of Sithonia is Porto Koufo. We sat and ate fish and looked out on Greece’s deepest natural harbour, as a hot sun walked 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 can’t hear the open sea beyond. Just like me, Greece’s enemies were taken with this place too. So taken that they 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 little fish taverna, the untroubled blue sea, remain. All still here, under the golden Macedonian sky.
We entered Thessaloniki creeping through the traffic along the curving sea front. The emblematic White Tower of the town stood as a smirking distant figure at the far end of the choked promenade. We turned off the front and then battled to get up the climbing streets towards the old, upper town: Ano Poli. It was homecoming of sorts for Giristroula who lived over 10 years in this city and we met friends of hers 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 good traditional dishes, were being served up here to a rabbley, alternative crowd. Old photos of black and white resistance fighters on the walls. Candle wax and wine rings staining the tables.
The next days were spent by Giristroula and me 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 looked 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 took walks around and up and down the narrow streets and stairs of the nearby Tsinari area, past the beautifully broken down miniature Ottoman houses, the Macedonian architecture, frequently unsure exactly what century we were in. Gnawing on warm koulouria – the hard ring of bread, coated in sesame seeds, sold on the streets through all the former lands of the Ottoman Empire, but especially here in Salonica – as we walked round the ancient Roman market. We late-breakfasted on the stock Thessalonikian morning staple of cream filled pastry bougatsa and chocolate milk. The heat kindling the streets around us. Lunch was taken at small back street mageieria – restaurants across Greece that are ONLY for eating: no attempt at frills or decoration or ambience, just great, cheap, old-style dining. Thessaloniki has its terrific – fairly filthy – basement mageieri Nea Follia, hiding on Aristomenous Street, behind the crumbling Ottoman Alatza Imaret mosque. Thessaloniki must be the city of food – Greece’s heart and its belly.
However, we were here for a wedding.
Yiannis picked 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 drove through the old city gates into Ano Poli and down the twisted streets to the city below, running late. My heavy barrel-like driver sweating and bellowing at every other car on the street, cursing every piece of bad luck he’d ever had in his life from the day he was born. We were late to attend the dressing of the groom. Yiannis burst through the door, loudly proclaiming his arrival. I entered behind, following him into a large room. A room full of devoted Orthodox Christians. Music was being played somewhere. And everyone had quite a prodigious beard. Giristroula, while 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 there I was… In a noisy room full of them. I dwelt privately on how in a matter of days I had gone from a beach of naked hippies to a room of bearded Christians via a tavern of anarchists, and wonder if this was a perfect representative journey of Greece and its people.
The great tradition before the wedding is for all 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 had, Yiannis and I were only left with just a sock each. The wedding was to start in only an hour or so, but the bottles of tsipouro were being passed around over heads. The groom glugging deeply, wiping at his flushed face and alcohol-soaked beard with the back of his hand. There was a problem with his cuffs. Should he wear cufflinks or go with the buttons? I watched as 10 large, hirsute Greek men crowded over a shirt and fussed and fiddled and flapped and argued and waved hands at each other. Every one of these heavy men with a heated point of view on the cuff situation. I wondered if this was some perfect representation of Greek life too.
“10 Greeks… 15 different opinions!” someone said to me, laughing, nudging me hard in the ribs, pointing at the room of chaos in front of us. Someone else then started cutting at the tiny buttons with a huge glinting knife. I decided to sit down and have another drink of tsipouro.
Finally, and very late, we left to make our way to the church, everyone singing the traditional song as the groom took 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. It is high in the old town again, by the Great Gate, the city spread beneath. Peacocks strutting in the courtyard. One of the Beards clasped me by the shoulder as I looked 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 led me inside. The paintings and frescos on the walls and columns and arches took me by surprise. Put up in the Byzantine reign, they were attacked by the occupying Turks as the Ottoman Empire swept over Thessaloniki and all the biblical paintings, the depictions of Christ, had been hacked with knives and swords and thousands of small chipped holes litter the walls, scoring the saintly faces, as if dotted by rapid machine gun fire. It was both a fantastic and unsettling sight. The Beard showed me a small worn stone step in the church where he told me the apostle, St Paul, preached to the people of Thessaloniki. Before I could raise an obvious query to this, the wedding party entered the church. To say an Orthodox wedding is a big affair doesn’t do it any justice. Hundreds of candles hung, illuminating the scene of four elaborately dressed priests – gold and jewels and brocades – in front of a grand decorated altar; a group of chanticleers were singing low, droning Byzantine songs; packed guests crowded in the formidable heat. The embellished priests began their reciting of flowing ancient texts.
At first the best man’s duty appeared to be nothing more than standing behind the couple waving a fan, as time moved ornately slow in the thick heat. Then the priests placed two garlanded crowns on the couples’ head and the best man had to change these over and over on top of the groom and bride. Twisting and twirling his arms, while the priest rubbed the gold wedding rings on their foreheads. The intense singing hum filling the church, became louder, more ominous. The guests stood, rapt, watching the service… Then suddenly broke-off, and left to go outside to have a chat. Outside the church was 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 returned back to the church to gaze, enraptured again, at the long, protracted, hymeneal service. Back and forth they traipsed. In and out.
Keen interest picked up in the crowd as one old priest – curly beard to his navel, white Kalimavkion hat resting over his eyes – began 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 followed the modern update on the tradition… and all settled back again, smiling, pleased, when they see the bride did indeed stamp on her husband’s foot. The priest continued with his toneless demand that she obeys and respects out of fear of her husband – the husband that was currently hobbling on one foot.
And then it was over. After what felt like hours, and as the sonorous singing continued from the candle-lit group in the corner of the dark flickering church, we piled out of the Vlatadon monestary. The groom was grabbed and thrown into the sky over and over again. Cars left, blaring horns, arms out of the windows holding lit flares, as we descended into the Thessaloniki night. The gledi – the wedding party – was 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 olive oil warehouses. It was then the Jewish area; then the red light area full of brothels. Now a living historical monument. And, for this night, it contained within its quarters our spilling crowd of drunk revellers in its narrow cobbled streets.
The drinking and dancing carried on till well into the middle of the next day. At one point I found 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 was drained, Giorgos was holding up better than me. We talked about religion.
“But you’re not really supposed to believe that Jesus walked on water, are you?” I said, slurring slightly.
“Certainly you are,” Giorgos said to me.
“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 have happened can it…”
“I have seen it myself,” said Giorgos.
I stared at the sensible, logical, sober Giorgos.
“Yes. What I say is perfectly true…” he continued, ignoring me as I looked him ovr, trying to work out what I’d just heard.
“At Mount Athos. I saw it,” Giorgos said. “One day I was stood with a monk. A friend of mine. We were both stood on the rocks and we were looking out onto the sea. And then, from the depths, all of a sudden an arm appeared holding a shining silver icon. We both stared at the icon, not knowing what to do. And then I watched as my friend started walking out to this offering. I saw the monk slowly walk out over the waves to collect the icon.”
I looked at Giorgos. The previously rational Giorgos. He looked back at me impassively. I looked 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 me. I looked up at the Greek sky, the stars shining white as bones on the black cloth. I thought of the often magical Greece I had seen, and was still yet to see, as we travelled along our north country journey. I could almost let myself believe it to be true.