In 1916 a writer for the National Geographic was struck by Salonica’s seeming indifference to the needs of the tourists who came on the trail of its past. “So little indeed has she yet taken in, as the remainder of Europe has so profitably done, the possibilities of a past that I was unable to find there a map of the city…”*
I’ve found Thessaloniki to be a puzzle. I’ve met proud Greeks who on the one hand are inimitable hosts and paragons of hospitality, but who on the other hand are rabidly against the integration of newcomers to their city and region.
I’ve seen beautiful statues and monuments, arches and tumuli, with craftsmanship that outshines anything you can make today. But the city is mostly filled with infill, post-war, blocks of featureless apartment buildings. And it’s aggressively dirty and neglected.
I’ve noticed posters against fascism and graffiti everywhere communicating resistance to what is seen as a growing group of extreme right wing people in this country. The bus we were riding from Vergina back to Thessaloniki was stopped by police not too far from the offices of the Golden Dawn.
Throngs of tourists from all over stream out of cruise ships and walk the promenade that hems the coast… from the port to the White Tower. Two-laned roads become more like six with scooters and motorcycles weaving in and out. You’re on your own, kid.
Once you leave the city, it’s a different story. You can see the mountains, smell the pines. You get the sense that you are in a different Greece. We went to Sani today, a high-end resort on the Kassandra peninsula.
A visit to the royal tombs in Vergina also showed us another side of this region. Rolling hills, marine rivers, intersperse with farmland. Our tour guide, an expert on royal Macedonian history, presents a theatrical and memorable picture of the culture, the story. We are reminded that the language here in Greece predates our own. That the technologies and arts practiced here came first and informed many civilizations.
History and heritage. Got that here. But it’s almost as if, this is where a lot of things began, yes, now let’s move on to other things. Thessaloniki has an edge and it’s not comfortable here. The crisis has affected this, yes. And yet, I think the issues go deeper, to the fact that there are those who claim this land as their own by blood and religion and those who have no such claims.
Onward to Skopje in the morning. Skopje is in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, but don’t say the “M” word aloud in conjunction with Skopje in front of a Thessalonikan unless you have some time.
*H.G. Dwight, “Saloniki,” National Geographic, 30:3 (1916), 221 from Mark Mazower, “Salonica, City of Ghosts,” (2004), 192.