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 fifteen thousand refugees, 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’d used it well, building a little walkway, café tables sitting by small bridges on the river edge. If you squinted 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 famous 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
“You must have fallen in love this place no? Yes, yes… I’m sure of it!…I can see it in your faces. Alitheia sou layo! You know… this city is the city of artists…”
I had the feeling she just coined this name herself. However the next place we reached is definitely 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 flowing over smaller waterfalls, down streams, crossing and merging. Behind the highest falling sheet of water, we fell into a collection of stalactite and stalagmite rich caves. We groped and peered in the sudden gloom and found an old woman, all alone in the dripping damp, sat in a tiny booth wedged into the cave, waiting for unlikely visitors. Wreathed in cigarette smoke in her hut and – as all elderly Greek women throughout the country like to do – scribbling at a puzzle book with a pencil. The old woman 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“. Then out again into the painful bright light and thundering water. We walked through the town. The old men stared at us from the old cafes as we passed. The same stares you get whenever you enter a town or village anywhere in the country as a stranger. Half curiosity, half challenge. I never really knew how to respond. The twitching whiskers of the squinting sisterhood of local ladies, the children gawping with bulging eyes. Men who stop dead in the middle of the road and whose heads turn a full 180 degrees to follow you as you stroll by. The blue circles of the hanging Eye emblems dangling on strings in the windows of the cafes and shops to ward off bad spirits always seemed to me to stare with a defiance and an interrogation too.
Edessa’s station – built back when Greece was under Ottoman Empire rule – was 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 – 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 out from the town and into the countryside beyond.
“Welcome to heroic Skra” the sign said.
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 despite the odds 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 didn’t feel much for this place myself. 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. She was 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. Of course she could have been crying over recently break-up with a boyfriend or something. But I was surprised too at Giristroula, usually so impassive at these kinds of things – battles and scenes of great patriotism usually meaning less than nothing to her – plodding around, solemnly inspecting another monument to the fallen. I guessed there was something in Skra for the Greeks, something deep in the psyche, that I wasn’t ever going to understand. I smiled to myself at the sight of an old man taking his donkey with him through the doors of the local village chemist shop though.
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 holidays in her father’s cheap old Zastava – Yugoslavian-built – car, frequently breaking down, so close to its original birth place. Roared past by the Mercedes and Audis that Greeks were now buying with the totally new notion of loans. Changing the face of Greek roads, and the country as a whole. Things had improved considerably though as Giristroula and I headed away from the main road up into the Loutra of Aridaia, the natural spa. We were quickly surrounded by dark woods, deep canyons, caves and pools. We had 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.
Now here, just outside Skra village, we were surrounded again by deep green woods and water and waterfalls – exactly the sort of place you’d expect all the nymphs, sylphs, sirens, dryads, centaurs and all those classical creatures should surely gather together and hang out. Giristroula and I plunged briefly into one of the pools under the falls. The water was ice cold even on this roasting day.
Continuing east – the road shimmering in the heat like a mirage, sunlight detonating like explosions off passing car windows – the thick green woods died away. We crossed over harsh, inaccessible-looking, wooded mountain ranges and then down into an abrupt flat land. A land of utter nothingness. We descended slowly, a little unsure of ourselves, into this dry plain, towards the border with the country of Macedonia. And towards the camp of Idomeni.
The town of Idomeni was 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 the 21st of April date is the marking of when the fascist dictatorship took grip of Greece for seven 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 when, 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 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. They 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?”
“Bad. They were bad men. Scum. Fighting with each other. Wanting to fight with us. They shouldn’t come here. They should have stayed where they came from. What do I care if they die?”
Their answers shocked me. I hadn’t expected such a lack of compassion, such a lack of humanity. Naively I somehow imagined there would be a sense of empathy from the men 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 Giristroula. “Einai apo kei pano?” – Is he from ‘up’? Up as in, from up there, Europe. Giristroula told them I’m from England.
“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 glimmering dance of heat “So that’s Macedonia then is it?”
“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, you know, as you say, F.Y.R.O.M…”
Their faces didn’t clear. “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 to feel a little too belligerent. They followed us closer.
“Is he drunk? Does he have problems?”
We got in the car and as we drove off I thought how, just before the summer we had been in Piraeus, stood on the platform at the railway station. We 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 left, packed with so many faces and bodies that 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 interaction was friendly, though the men were clearly tired and anxious. Each of them fixed, looking and hoping for something ahead. The train ride, when we finally managed to get on, was taken with what felt like a tangible sense of optimism amongst the refugees. 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 for the refugees on the Aegean islands and throughout Greece that I had heard about, it saddened me to see this other reaction 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. 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 has an incredible beauty to 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 released Greece from its crumbled empire. The government didn’t know what to do with this 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, and they moved in great numbers to Greece. 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 old 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 which the Greeks believed to be historically theirs, but failure just meant more Greeks were forced to cross over the border from theirs homes. 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. Halkidiki is now the most sought after holiday land in the country. The Greek families wrenched over from their lives in Turkey had 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, Kassandra. We were heading for the coast of Platanitsi. Scorched biscuit-coloured earth and scattered gnarled olive trees sat like the top of a cake, while rocky white-icing vertical cliffs fell down below to small beach bays. We stopped to scrabble down the cliff face and swam in the sea, looking along the perfect turquoise waters to Mount Athos. The mountains burnished on the blue sky, distinct and excluded over on Halkidiki’s final third leg. When Alexander the Great died, his architect Dinocrates of Rhodes suggested the entire mountain should be carved into a statue of Alexander holding a small city in one hand and the other pouring from a gigantic pitcher a river into the sea. Sounds utterly nuts. Shame they never did it. It’s a land for the monks now.
The great monasteries on Athos, some of them dating back to the 8th Century don’t allow women onto their grounds. They say this is due to it being the Virgin Mary’s garden and how 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 all for herself. Although I personally prefer the more earthy version from Greek mythology – Mount Athos being a huge rock that Poseidon threw at one of his enemies landing with a clatter into the sea. 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 now in the 20 monasteries there are no females, no female animals: 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 that had recently washed up on its shores containing four Moldovan women migrants who had been abandoned in the sea by human traffickers.
We thought of trying to get over there ourselves – Giristroula copying the few rare audacious spirited-sisters who had landed on Mount Athos disguised as men, sometimes disgused as sailors, in their attempts to observe and mix in 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 – their artistic expression still in the carvings on the beach stone slabs – the hippies found Kavourotrypes a haven for nudity and free love. As Giristroula and I now teetered along the beach, we ran into Giristroula’s old violin teacher – 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” – 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 any electricity here. Giristroula’s violin teacher and the rest of the hippies have been pushed, with resentful faces to the very edge of the beach. Or further along to the small hidden beaches under the cliffs where nudity – and, to my English, fastidious, shifting discomfort, quite obvious free love in the shallow sea caves – can still happily exist.
The Greeks of our party – Giristroula and some of her friends who had joined us here – happily took part in 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 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 here and looked out on Greece’s deepest natural harbour as a hot sun walked all over us, high in the sky. The bay is a huge heart-shaped inlet that gives meaning 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 have been taken with this place. So impressed that they used the harbour to shelter their ships ready to attack. 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, all still remain. 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 the honking, fuming traffic to get up the climbing streets towards the old, upper town. Ano Poli. This is where our Thessaloniki days were to be spent: lounging with the old men, cigarette smoke rising to the ceiling unwavering, koboloya worry-beads swinging unceasingly in the heavy air in the perfect ramshackle cafe Taverna Macedonia. The old taverna looking as timeless and as built into the ancient city walls high over Thessaloniki as the freakish 14th Century Church of Panagia Eleousa we had seen jammed into its too-small-for-it cave up in the Prespes lakes. Giristroula and I took walks around and up and down the narrow streets and stone stairs of the Tsinari area, past the beautifully broken down miniature Ottoman houses, feeling frequently unsure exactly what century we were in. I listened to the Thessalonikians as they passed us, talking with their heavy “L” sound accents. “Eh Malllaka, halllara…” We gnawed 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 Thessaloniki – as we walked round the ancient Roman market. We late-breakfasted on the Thessalonikian morning staple of cream filled pastry bougatsa and chocolate milk as we sat outside with the heat kindling the streets around us. Lunch at small back street mageieria – tatty but essential places across Greece that are ONLY for eating: no attempt at frills just great, cheap, old-style dining slapped out onto the plates. 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 had once been the infamous Yedi Kule prison. We drove through the old stone city gates into Ano Poli and down the twisted streets to the city below. We were running late. My heavy bull-like driver was sweating and bellowing at every other car out 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 of the hotel room, loudly proclaiming his arrival. I entered behind, following him into the large room. It was 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 here I was, in a noisy room full of them.
The great tradition before a Greek wedding is for all the men of the party to gather and put different items of dress – the shirt, the trousers, the jacket – on the groom, as he mock pretends to resist, before he makes 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 our 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 the shirt and fussed and fiddled and flapped and argued and waved hands at each other. Every one of these big heavy men with a heated point of view on the cuff situation.
“10 Greeks… 20 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 beautiful 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, by the Great Gate, with the city spread beneath. Peacocks strutting about 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 hazy gleam 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, all the depictions of Christ and the apostles, 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 faintly 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.
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 sang low, droning Byzantine songs. Packed guests crowded in the formidable heat. The embellished priests began their reciting of the 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 found his role, changing 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 together, rapt, hands to their mouths, watching the service… And then suddenly they just 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 – 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 into the church to gaze, enraptured again, at the long, protracted, hymeneal service. Back and forth they traipsed. In and out, 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, as the husband hobbled on one foot next to her.
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 was held in the area of Ladadika. Down near the port gates where all the bars are, in what were once Thessaloniki’s ancient olive oil warehouses. This was the Jewish area, then the red light district. Now 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 a man called Giorgos. A portly man, his round head haloed by hair, Giorgos told me he had trained for years to be a monk, before falling for a girl he married and giving it all up for love. 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 previously sensible, logical, Giorgos.
“Yes, it’s perfectly true…” he continued, ignoring me as I looked him over.
“At Mount Athos. I saw it. One day I was with a monk, a friend of mine. We were both stood on the rocks and we were looking out onto the sea. 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 collect this offering. I saw him walk out over the waves to take the icon as clear as I see you…”
I looked at Giorgos. He looked back at me impassively. I looked at the drink in my hand. Then back at Giorgos again.
I looked about me, at the city of Thessaloniki and the nightime ballet of life going on all around. I looked up at the Greek sky, the stars shining white as bones on the black cloth. I thought of the magic Greece seems to have within it. I looked back at Giorgos. I almost let myself believe it all to be true.