Monday, May 21, 2007

Frappé In The Rain

"Welcome to the city of dampness," was how Theo, my local contact in Thessaloniki, greeted me. And although I'm sure he was exaggerating the weather seems to be wanting to prove him right with a steady serving of drizzle interspersed with regular downpours. And although Thessaloniki might not be everyone's number one sun, sand and sea destination the city has much to offer. Thessaloniki has always been Greece's second city, during the Byzantine period it played understudy to Constantinople and today to Athens; but Salonicans don't mind as they take things easy drinking their frappés (which, by the way, were invented in Thessaloniki) because they know that in terms of culture and nightlife they are number one. And so with Theo and a few of his friends I indulged in a spot of cafe culture, something I have rarely done on my trip (partly from expense and partly because nursing a solitary drink in a place crowded with groups of chattering people is a sure-fire way of feeling lonely).

At first glance it would be hard to guess at Thessaloniki's historical pedigree as most of the town is modern and extraordinarily unspectacular owing to a huge fire in 1917 which destroyed most of the city. Of the buildings that did survive many were churches, some amongst the oldest in the world. So, every so often, whilst wandering through the city, you will come across these squat, dowdy brick buildings sitting incongruously amongst the bland concrete jungle. And although the churches aren't particularly pretty to look at from the outside either, some of them have exquisite mosaics and frescoes inside. And if you're lucky you might even come across an old Turkish bath or Ottoman mosque, but you might not know as they look just like the old churches.

One aspect of Thessaloniki's history that I found rather intriguing was that, during the Ottoman period and after the fall of Iberia to the Catholics, it became the Jewish capital of Europe as the exiled Sephardic Jews found a new, more welcoming, home for themselves. And up until the beginning of the last century the Jews formed the majority in the city (before WWII there were more Jews in Thessaloniki than Jerusalem). What makes this particularly interesting is that, following the Nazi occupation of Greece when some three quarters of the Jews were killed and much of their property destroyed, very little remains to testify the once-vibrant community, and this, coupled with the scant attention that is paid to the Ottoman period of their history (unless it's the Greek resistance movement), means that this is a facet of their history of which many Salonicans are only vaguely aware.

1 comment:

Katerina said...

Excellent article about my favorite city! I spend 5 years of my life there for archeology studies. The best five years of my life. I was looking for frappe article and I found a memory. Thanks!