The very north of Greece might well be ‘The Yardstick’ by which we can measure the veracity of living in a significantly indebted nation, because Greece has been enjoying a severe reality check of late, together with a boringly repetitious ticking off from the Germans.
Perched in their ivory towers, most of the verbiage about Greece seems to have come from the many postprandial hacks who occupy their litter strewn desks, in and about the capitals of the world. These well distanced diagnosticians - who no doubt think Greece to be mainly about Diogenes, Euripides or even Feta Cheese - generally believe that a country can be described in terms of cartoon clichés from the past and perhaps the sound of smashing dinner plates - in some hardly remembered Greek restaurant in London’s Notting Hill Gate. A country traditionally visited by seasoned travelers - other than those who visit for a two week hedonistic break in Mykonos - Greece seems to be turning a corner and getting back on course. Not only according to the all-knowing Brussels pundits, but also by Greeks themselves.
The pain started six years ago in Orestiada, the second city of Evros. Evros is also the name of the river that separates Greece from Turkey to the south and to the north, The Republic of Bulgaria.
As you travel south from the Bulgarian border on the E85 towards Orestiada, you can see the busy Turkish City of Edirne on your left hand side, across the River Evros, with its many Minarets. With four remarkable Ottoman Mosques and many sprawling historical buildings - pink and shining in the sun – it immediately confirms that the vital contrast between the two countries is immense. And it is here that the differences also begin to show and the story starts to open our eyes, to some sort of reality, far away from a cloying media dominated world.
Sunday in Edirne (their Monday) is lively and alive with activity everywhere. Amongst the many shops there are mountains of affordable well designed clothes stores, stuffed with all manner of electrical goods and kitchen ware, and with so many restaurants; it appears to be like a holiday town. It also seems that you can eat anything you like in Edirne, provided of course it is a Kebab!
By contrast, across the river in Orestiada it is practically dead, with rows of empty shops and very few people about, despite the fact that Sunday is traditionally a day for the many Greek Orthodox Churches, for people to promenade in the streets and for Greek café life to flourish. These days talk in Orestiada is generally about the price of logs and the almost doubling in price of heating oil from the previous year. The increase in VAT on food stuffs and the attendant hike in prices - generally unreasonably so – obviously leaves some unscrupulous food shops with a nice little earner and this too is also a major source of gossip.
Stuck to the telly, Greeks are served up a daily diet of waffle – there are about ten TV stations to choose from – from a bunch of wind bags whose only wish is simply to be seen on the box. With impossible ideas and multiple choice alternatives; little of it makes any sense, under the present difficult circumstances.
Spike Milligan once said – apropos the then Irish question –that the best solution was to put a large post in the middle of Ireland, and to tow it out to sea. This now appears to be one of the ‘flat earth’ political alternatives these wind bags now suggest; but how I wish they would stop talking!
The historic philosophy behind the EEC, EC, and finally the EU now seems to have been blotted out by us all, and these days only appears to be about money and dodgy economics. Once it was all about war, domination and political intrigue, and of course the Germans. However, like the Bulgarians and to some extent the Romanians, the lure of EU money has always been a great imperative in the Balkans – along with being in NATO – and this was surely so for Greece in 1981, when it became the 10th member of the European Community.
Since then the whole ethos of ‘Poor little Greece’ has changed, and now we see a cabal of political elite – mostly devoid of shame – who have sucked the Greek banks dry, with a look of total innocence that completely baffles even me! Asked to define the difference between Bulgarians and Greeks, I was surprised to find more things in common than differences.
Finally it occurred to me that the difference was that Bulgarians wanted to do things, but couldn’t, and that Greeks could, but didn’t want to! Maybe it is once more about that old stereotype bon mot; the one about a Greek going into a revolving door last, but managing to come out first! And this may well have been how Greeks defined themselves in 2008, but unfortunately the door has recently become a little stuck, and is in need of some WD 40.
In this part of Greece, Greek attitudes have changed dramatically since then and now in 2014, everyone is more than aware that the good old days are over and that Greece’s claim to being universally middle class has gone. No more easy loans – from an abnormally friendly and amenable bank manager – just blank looks and a firm demand for prompt payment, business is now consciously improving customer service and reducing hotel prices and property costs too.
So where does this leave our erstwhile or would be intrepid visitor to Greece? Is Greece getting better and why am I banging on about the northern part of Greece which is called Thrace or Thraki to the natives? The answer to that question is very simple, I live here.
Throughout modern history, the River Evros was always regarded as a secret place. It was next to Turkey after all – the Greeks old enemy – but it also teemed with the most spectacular flora and fauna. A naturalist’s paradise - and where you are more likely to see a Kestrel sitting on a gatepost, than a crow - Evros Region is full of wonders. It is also farming country and where you can find the fabulous Greek National Park near Tychero. Hard core Greek - Alexander the Great came from Greek Macedonia and his mother was born on the mystical island of Samothraki – this part of Eastern Thrace is hardly known by foreign travelers at all, but remains full of wonder.
When you arrive at the Aegean, Greece once more becomes the ubiquitous family holiday destination of yore. With its deserted beaches and its striking scenery – not forgetting the first rate campsites - the Thracian coast has a lot to offer its visitors at very reasonable prices. You can, if you wish, lie on a beach like a sardine in a tin - getting bronzed to the sound of rap music - but considering the many hundreds of kilometers of deserted sandy beaches on offer, many of us would rather not and of course, they are all free.
Greece also has a lot of little airports and the internal flight costs from Athens are very small, especially if you order your tickets in advance, and Thrace is no exception. With airports in Alexandropoulis, Kavala and Thessaloniki many are regularly visited by cut price carriers from different parts of Europe.
Finally, what is really good in Thrace are the Greek language skills. In Thrace, English and German is widely spoken, even in my little village corner shop, close to where I live and a place which is very easy to live in!
Copyright © Patrick Brigham – May 2014 Rizia Evros Greece