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Under the influence
Under the influence
22 January 2005
Athens hogs the limelight, but there are other cities. Paul Hamilos tries Salonika.
I like this city enormously. I can't believe it's ours! exclaimed a leading Greek politician visiting Salonika for the first time after it had been liberated from the Ottomans in 1912. Arriving by train from Athens, I momentarily feared that I had crossed the Greek border and mistakenly arrived in some anonymous Balkan city. With grey office blocks on every corner, and traffic clogging the roads, my first impression didn't quite live up to that of the victorious returning Greek, but a walk along the seafront soon changed that.
Despite a chill in the air, the pavement tables were full. Overlooking the Thermaikos Gulf, Nikis Avenue has a bewildering array of stylish bars that wouldn't look out of place in Manhattan; some (Tribeca, Elvis, DaDA) sound as though they were imported brick by brick. You wonder how they can be so popular during the day. What do these people do? Don't they have jobs to go to? But, as my friend Mihalis told me: We live to go out. And when the money runs out, we find a way of borrowing some more.
The bars add to the sense that there is something almost un-Greek about Salonika; less surprising when you learn that much of it was rebuilt after a fire in 1917, with French architect Ernest Hébrard adding wide avenues and a grid plan. Athens may be the biggest village in Greece, but Salonika is a modern city in a European style.
The 20th-century reconstruction hides a fascinating, multicultural past. It has been ruled at various times by the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, with Venetians, Normans, Catalans and Brits all making cameo appearances throughout its long life, each leaving their own physical or psychological footprint.
Much of the Ottoman influence has been expunged, though there is something of Istanbul in the central bazaar, with stalls selling anything from sweets and spices to live animals and handmade furniture. The old Jewish Modiano meat and fish market attests to the former presence of another important community, sadly no longer to be found in any significant number.
Vassilis, a local artist and filmmaker, offered to show me around. We started off with dinner at the Dore-Zynthos followed by a beer at Elvis, where DJ Pale Penguin (also known as Gregory) played house music. Then it was next door to Thermaikos, where the furniture is imported from Camden Market and the mojitos could be straight out of Havana. After that, Art House, where students nodded their heads to electronic beats.
By then it was 5am and our beds beckoned, but for many the night was just getting started. Vassilis recommended a number of clubs in Xyladika, near the old railway station, where old warehouses and factories have been converted into multi-venue complexes. Whether we wanted pop, funk, jazz, house or something more traditionally Greek, he was sure we would find it.
Next morning, our hangovers demanded the restorative powers of some quiet contemplation in Salonika's numerous museums. The modernist red-brick of the Museum of Byzantine Culture conceals a classical treat of sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and icons. Over the road, the Archaeological Museum houses more gold ornaments than P Diddy's dressing table. The Costakis Collection at the State Museum of Contemporary Art consists of 1,275 works of avant-garde Russian art, all the more remarkable given that Costakis himself worked as a driver at the Greek embassy in Moscow.
Older sights occasionally pop up out of nowhere: walk along the busy Egnatia Avenue and you'll find the third-century arch of Galerius and the Roman Rotonda.
Later we dined on politiki kouzina (like traditional Greek food, but with added Anatolian spice) at To Peran. Delicious Turkish-style kebabs with yoghurt, souzoukakia (Smyrna sausages) and all manner of stuffed vegetables were matched by a Macedonian red wine. For all Salonika's modernity, sometimes you need reminding of how things were when the line between east and west was a little more blurred.
Posted by the Guardian Unlimited