Thursday, December 11, 2014

Thessaloniki: Sailing to Byzantium

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
-W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"

Of course a train will also do.  In the wee hours on a Friday morning, Marianna and I set out from Athens to Thessaloniki via train. Salonika, if you will.

Thessaloniki is named for the sister of Alexander the Great.  Legend has it that Thessaloniki was a mermaid, and after Alexander the Great's demise, she would sail to ships to ask the captains for news of Alex.  If they replied that he was dead, she would sink the triremes.
-Marianna

The ride was bleary-eyed, sustained by cake and filtered coffee as we swept past the morning mist.  I dug deep into the cinnamon and sand of the spice planet of Dune-- a fine Hanukkah gift from the Bene Gessarit.  Marianna was Dancing with Dragons.  I would steal a glance at her page when she left for the bathroom.  It was a calm train ride that I would have been happy if it never ended, and we spent days riding the rails--just reading away.

Over and over with Paul's floating awareness the lesson rolled.
-Dune

But arrive, we did to old Byzantium.  We caught a cab to the apartment of Marianna's friend George. His modernist space had a nice view across the city.  We were staying there, and he was staying at his girlfriend's place.  We sat out sipping coffee and chatted of his girlfriend Eleni's desire for a cat.

We ventured out for a walk along the sea wall through the fog down past the Tower of the Undying.  No dragons, alas--just an old Turkish fortress on the waterfront.  The White Tower.

Starving, we made our way to to a souvlaki place.  Apparently, as I learned Thessaloniki and Athens have a tiff over the meaning of "souvlaki."  One place it means "gyro", the other simply a sandwich.  Whatever, the gyro was amazing.  I had my chicken gyro in a baguette with tzatziki.  It was succulent and delicious.

We trekked it back, and spent the night watching Workaholics before passing out early.

Saturday morn Marianna and I made our way

down through the city to the sea--past Alex and his horse to get some cappuccinos out on the Strand.

Some Nigerian fellows were hawking a reggae show and bracelets.  Marianna told me not to talk to them, but I ended up chatting one up.  He was a funny fellow.  We spoke of Nollywood.  He said to me: I only respect four people in America: 1) Barrack Obama 2) Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson 3) You 4) Your princess.  Then he smiled and tried to hawk a reggae bracelet to her.  Why don't you get her a bracelet? Because I bring her pearls.  That got a smile as he left.

Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert.
-Dune

If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets.
-Paul Atreides, Dune

And fish come from the sea. And Bougatza comes from Thessaloniki,

We caught up with George and Eleni, and made our way to Yanni's for a famous Thessalonikian dish: Bougatza.  Bougatza is a Thessaloniki specialty of filo dough stuffed with spinach (savory) or vanilla cream (sweet).  The vanilla cream variety get another level of sweet, with a heavy top layer of nutella-style spread.  For a full covering, add a layer of dusting from confectioner powdered sugar and cinnamon.

The full covered sweet bougatza is divine.  A complexity of flavors ranging from the chocolate-covered filo to the vanilla cream to a heady cinnamon finish.

It was a filo feast.

Thankfully, we kept walking after lunch.  We walked right into a protest.  Greece has been roiled by them as it comes on the anniversary of the death of a student.  I have heard a bit of the story--that one of his compatriots, who was in jail for robbery was on a hunger strike to be able to attend university classes.  In short, it was a bit of a mess.  I was glad to be out of Athens.

We walked past the protest in Thessaloniki I grabbed a few pics of the protest, and the anarchists in the mid-ranks.  This Yank got a few curses from bandanna-clad anarchists for snapping some pics, but it was all pretty civil.



MK's pic
Marianna and I made our way to the wonderful Museum of Byzantine Culture.  The museum was a fascinating, well-curated exhibition on Byzantium.  It looked at the Eastern Roman empire's rise and fall, and shined a light on the world that existed in Byzantium from Constantine to the Empire's fall to the Ottomans in 1453 through basic life, jewelry, funerary customs and art.  I am always amazed at jewelry, and how timeless it always is.  Fashions change, but only so much.

The art was most impressive.  I usually think of the Byzantine stuff as a tad too goyish for my tastes, but some of the other pictures were spectacularly effulgent and reminded me of Klimt's work.

Marianna and I were most impressed with the printings, which had to be done in reverse for proper printing--and in exquisite detail.

Overall, the museum was very well laid-out.  Very well designed and very accessible

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
-W.B. Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"

After the museum, we walked along the seascape and met back up with George and Eleni by the end of the sea wall


 We caught a bus up to The Wall-- built for Byzantium, not the Night's Watch.  We watched the lights of the city come on, then made our way to a cafe on the hilltop to warm up over some red wine.

We walked down throw the maze alleyways of the Old City, until we stumbled upon a restaurant of Crete cuisine that was one of our evening options.  George said that he had looked for the place before, but when he looked for it he was never able to find it.

We sat out under vine leaves and heaters, and the waiter brought us Creten rakija (kraki in Greek) to warm us.  Dinner was utterly incredible.  It was a Crete feast. the contents of which have since been digested and forgotten.  But it was damn good.

George and Eleni
We passed out early from the long day.  The next morning, we walked through the morning fog to a yacht club cafe.  We sipped cappuccinos among the Sunday morning brunch crowd.

After coffee we hoofed it through the city to visit a famous Thessaloniki taverna.  Unfortunately, the place was full with Sunday family dining; fortunately, we managed to convince the taverna to set us up a table outside under a tree.  We were met by a mutual friend Elias, who had an internet exotic pet site.  He sold snakes, rats and cockroaches.  He had over 100,000 cockroaches.

We drank retzina--Greek resin wine mixed with coke, and dined on incredible fare.  Garlicky tzatziki with fried zucchini, horta--a collard greeny-ish Greek veggie and salad.



The main courses were equally delicious.  There was a lamb brisket and aubergine stew, kokoresi--lamb intestines filled with all sort of lamb stuffing, and a delicious roasted chicken dish.  It was a dagla (Greek siesta)-inspiring nap, which Marianna and I took on the train back to Athens that evening.

All and all, a pretty wonderful weekend in Thessaloniki.



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