Your nearby, yet effective getaway for the Balkan winter
Issue 4, January 2007
by Albena Shkodrova; photography by Elena Filipova
It is very important to always have a place close by where you can go and forget about everything. In the Apennine Peninsula this may be Rome, in Iberia there is always Barcelona, and in the Balkans it is Salonika.
Less than 200 miles south of Sofia, this is the city that an increasing number of Bulgarians and foreigners living in the area are using for their customary January getaway.
After the endless succession of Christmas and New Year pre-holiday, high holiday and post-holiday celebrations you may even start longing for a full week at the office. There is, however, a better alternative: sit at the wheel and head south, where, along with the aroma of coffee and cheese filo pastry, the morning wind blows in a reminder that January and February are only 59 days long.
You will cheer up just seeing the relaxed local populace, not to mention feeling the sea breeze from the Aegean, the dash of the mercury 10 notches up and the aroma of marjoram and canella in the market, quaintly called Agora Modiano. All this plus the white-and-blue chequered tablecloths and the simple retsina glasses in the restaurants with which you may wash down sun-dried octopus are amongst the remnants of what latter-day historians have billed the Balkan Omelette.
Until only a few days ago it took about four and a half hours to drive from Sofia to Salonika. One of the best presents that the New Year brought to the Balkans is that it reduced this time by 45 minutes without even building a new road.
With the accession of Bulgaria to the EU, customs checks at the border are being abolished, which has reduced the number of cars queuing at the Kulata border checkpoint considerably. So, if you get up at 7am, you can reach Salonika in time for a late breakfast. Things normally get moving at around 11:30am. The elatively luxurious boutiques and jewellers along the Via Egnatia and Tsimiski Street will have just opened.
This is, however, the time when the Agora Modiano, where you can buy a gallon container of good quality olive oil or a large tin of salted anchovies, is already finishing its active business for the day. The octopus, squid, and beef tripe vendors are all now quietly smoking cigarettes, leaning against their stalls.
Salonika's greatest attraction, the Leof Nikis promenade, is basically a road linking the Customs House and the former jail. Nowadays, however, this is hardly the first thing that would come to mind, especially if you are only here for the weekend. Until about noon the pavement swarms with people having their morning jog, then it is occupied by older couples. Having lost their zeal for shopping, they spend their Saturday mornings basking in the sun at the outdoor cafes.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers