Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Other Greece In The Other Macedonia

There are two Greeces and two Macedonias.  The first Greece is the aquamarine island covered one filled with small fishing villages, fresh seafood and boats carrying sun-kissed  tourists.  The other Greece is the breadbasket of the country; rural, rugged, and decidedly untouristy.  The first Macedonia is the a fore mentioned northern most region of Greece; the second Macedonia is technically the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), an independent country north of the Greek border that is recognized by most of the world yet whose name is disputed by its southern neighbors.

While the FYROM will be the last leg on our Balkan adventure we visited the Greek Macedonia early in our trip.  We had returned to Greece again with the goal of exploring the central and eastern environs of the country.  We clambered over the hills and monasteries in Meteora before setting out for Thessaloniki and the Aegean Sea in the east.  I'm not sure what we were expecting to see along the way--perhaps the sun drenched coast and quaint fishing villages that beg tourists to visit.  Instead, our drive took us through the flat and dusty plains of central Greece.  The roads were mostly in good condition alternating between freshly rehabilitated and still under construction leaving us to rely on common sense rather than our GPS.  The land was alternately rugged and somewhat fertile with farm tractors far outnumbering private vehicles.  We drove through one small town after another with each looking more forlorn than the last.  Greece's economy has been on a downward spiral for some time and this was so apparent as we drove through kilometer after kilometer of the countryside.  Even in the middle of the week businesses appeared to be shuttered--with the exception being places selling farm equipment.   We had lunch one day in the mountain village of Edessa where the highlight of our visit was their giant waterfalls.  (Well, the highlight of Sidney's day was watching a graffiti covered train come through the station while we were eating lunch nearby).  The waterfalls were a pleasant surprise but their beauty was marred by the obvious neglect that surrounded them.  Grass and shrubs were overgrown and then there was the graffiti. Graffiti seems to be the national signage of Greece with everything from road signs and buildings to trees and even vehicles being covered with the colorful artwork (?), vandalism (?) symbols of free expression (?).  There was just graffiti everywhere.

Standing under the waterfalls of Edessa

Taking a break from exploring the Bey Hamam in Thessaloniki
And yet more graffiti
Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city after its capitol Athens, wasn't quite what we had been expecting either.  With the city sitting on the edge of the Thermaic Gulf I had visions of crystal waters and fresh fish gracing every menu.  Instead I was disappointed to hear that because of the rampant pollution the water was neither clean nor the source of the fish on restaurant menus.  The streets were filled with people but they appeared mostly to be disenfranchised youth lounging at cafes or hanging around the waterfront.  Again, the amount of graffiti here was unbelievable. Maybe it is because I have worked in inner cities for so long but the sight of that much graffiti had me wondering about the levels of crime and personal safety of the area.

Thessaloniki is a city with a long history so we were excited to visit her most famous landmarks.  Despite the intense July heat we dutifully set out to explore the area.  The Bey Hamam didn't disappoint.  Having visited a functioning hamam in Istanbul we knew what to expect and enjoyed following Sidney through one chamber after another exploring each nook and cranny.  The Roman Agora in the heart of Thessaloniki was another surprise.  It still amazes me that in this ancient part of the world one minute you can be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the modern city and in the next you are standing in the middle of ancient ruins.  Now that is cool.  What wasn't so cool however; were the boarded up graffiti covered store fronts that circled the ruins.  The juxtaposition between the preserved old and the neglected new was ironic.  There were other sites we had hoped to visit but upon arriving at them we found them shuttered.  (I don't think it was the day of the week we were visiting either because by the looks of the overgrown grass these sites hadn't been opened to the public for some time).  What we did find were restaurants that were open for business and knew how to treat customers right.  While none of them were full all were eager to serve us and staying away from fish, we were treated to some of the simplest but tastiest food we had eaten in a long time.  It wasn't fancy but it was served with a smile and as Sidney said, "made his tummy happy".  Now it really doesn't get much better than that.

A beautiful view of a not so clean bay

I wanted to like Thessaloniki and the Macedonia region of Greece; I really did.  It is Greece after all!  So many people had raved about the region that I was excited to visit. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high.  Or as Glenn said, after all of the traveling we have been doing in the past couple of years, it was time we experienced a dud.  I can honestly say that Thessaloniki and the Macedonia region of Greece is an area I won't be rushing back to.  Perhaps we missed out on the real treasures but I left there feeling a bit depressed and wanting a bit more.  Or perhaps I need to stick to visiting Greece's islands.  I wanted the area to be cleaner, brighter, and better cared for.   As a first time visitor I'm not sure if the conditions we saw are a direct reflection on Greece's fragile economy or if that is the way the city has always looked.  I hope it is the former since that gives me hope that it can turn around when the economy rebounds.  I do love this region's wine though, and am pretty sure I will be able to find it at home.  That will be my Thessaloniki / Macedonia / Greek souvenir.

Ancient ruins right in the middle of the city

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