Most of the Greek tourism ads feature pretty much the same thing – sparking seas, sun-kissed islands populated with bronzed, improbably long-legged beauties clad in micro-kinis lounging on a pristine beach or sitting on a bar stool gazing adoringly at some Adonis-like bartender mixing a lethal multi-coloured cocktail that will be adorned with a pink umbrella.
These ads must pay off because many of these islands ‘enjoyed’ a record number of tourists arriving by plane, ferry, private yacht or enormous cruise ships that deposited thousands of slightly dazed passengers (‘Tell me again just where we are, dear’) on islands like Santorini or Mykonos for a few hours every day.
However effective these ads may be, they tell only part of the story of the attractions of Greece. Yes, the seas are sparking and the islands are appealing. Too often overlooked, however, is that mainland Greece has much to offer.
We recently spent a fascinating week in northern Greece when we visited the cities of Kavala and Thessaloniki. Now, telling many Greeks that you are spending time in the northern part of the country generates the same reaction a New York hedge fund manager would get if he said he was taking a vacation in North Dakota instead of the pretentious playground of the Hamptons. My wife, for example, received a puzzled text message from a friend on one of the islands favoured by Greek A-listers. “What in the name of Zeus are you doing in Kavala?”
What, indeed. After a short flight to Thessaloniki and an easy drive on an almost empty motorway surrounded by fertile farm land we arrived at Kavala to join friends from Istanbul at one of the best hotels in Greece, the Imaret. The Imaret was built in the early 19th century by Mohammed Ali, an Ottoman Albanian born in Kavala who rose through the army and later moved on to found the dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952.
Located in the old part of Kavala, the sprawling building is a beautiful example of late-Ottoman architecture with graceful domes, several courtyards, pools, and arched-walkways. An imaret was a multi-function building serving as a soup kitchen, school, and refuge. After the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s the imaret was used to house Greeks who arrived from Turkey. The building is still owned by the Egyptian government and was carefully restored to its current state about 15 years ago.
The old town of Kavala with its steep cobble-stoned streets retains much of the Ottoman architecture – so much so that we heard a Greek tourist remark that entire area reminded him of one of the Turkish soap operas that Greek TV loves to show.
The trip was particularly poignant for our friend Ahmet because his family originated from Kavala. He had brought a picture of his family’s home hoping it still existed. One of the waiters at the Imaret took one look at the picture and said it most definitely existed, right next to the school he attended. After trudging down one hill and up another past the magnificent aqueduct built by Suleyman the Magnificent we found the house that is now owned by the Greek government.
|Suleyman The Magnificent's Aqueduct Leading To Kavala's Old Town|
That very satisfying discovery was compounded during a visit to the Tobacco Museum – still filled with the rich scent of the region’s basma tobacco – where we found a picture of his grandfather who was one of the leading tobacco merchants of the day.
Ancient history buffs will want to visit nearby Philippi, renamed by Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) in 356 BC, but perhaps better known as site of a battle during the Roman civil war in 42 BC following the assassination of Julius Caesar when forces of Marc Antony and Octavius defeated the armies of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius.
After a couple of days of light sight-seeing and delicious meals of fresh fish followed by Turkish sweets we headed back to Thessaloniki to meet other friends revisiting the past. One of the first things to strike you about Greece’s second city is how vibrant it is compared to Athens.
Perhaps this is due to the city’s progressive, outspoken mayor Yiannis Boutaris, who does not fit into the stale, sclerotic Left/Right rhetoric of most Greek politicians. Thessaloniki was once one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe with large Jewish and Turkish Moslem communities living alongside their Greek Orthodox neighbors. During World War II about 56,000 Jews from Thessaloni were deported to concentration camps. Today the once-thriving Jewish community has been reduced to less than 2,000. Most of the Turks left after the Balkan Wars or during the forced population exchange in the 1920s.
Boutaris has made a determined effort to attract both groups back to Thessaloniki. He calls the Turks ‘our brothers’, and his efforts have generated more than 100,000 Turkish visitors to the city every year. He has also made special efforts to attract the Jewish community and has called the deportations ‘the darkest moment’ in Greece’s history.
The friends we met in Thessaloniki are Jewish with deep roots in the city. As we were having dinner in a lively neighbourhood one of them commented that our table reflected the rich cultural heritage of Thessaloniki with Jews, Moslems, Greek Orthodox and even a Protestant (me) all sharing in the ‘bonhomie’ of the occasion. It was a good reminder that breaking down barriers with good food and wine is much more effective way to heal ancient phobias than building imposing walls.