3 Days in Thessaloniki

We spent Wednesday in the Greek countryside getting a flavor for rural village life as well as an insight into national pride and passion.

We awoke in Nymphaio and walked to the nearby Arcturous sanctuary, an NGO committed to balanced habitats of wildlife and people with special attention given to indigenous bears, wolves and shepherd dogs. They have a haven for 13 domesticated bears who were freed from performance (illegal in Greece) and track wild bears to learn of their migration patterns and their interactions with people. There are 23 similar organizations in Europe who lobby the EU for various wildlife and habitat concerns to preserve balance in an increasingly populated Europe.

Later we visited the vineyard of one of the founders of the organization who has also been instrumental in the revitalization of Nymphaio, Yiannis Boutaris. The village population dropped from 3,500 in 1945 to only 60 people in the mid 80's. Today it is at about 480 and continues growing due to donations from former residents and grants from the EU. Nymphaio has historical significance as the first capital of Macedonia.

The vineyards provided a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains from which we descended earlier in the day. There are geographical similarities to California: sandy soil, tan brush dappled with green fruit trees, checkerboards of fields and vineyards and large mountains in a big sky. We toured the production line and tasted the Xinomavro, a complex red varietal with a strong olive overtone. The small tower in the photo is the former residence of the caretakers used today as the visiting residence of Mr. Boutaris. It serves as the logo for the label, Ktima Kyr-Yianni, translated as 'from berry to bottle'.

Finally we visited the tomb of Phillip II in Vergina, a preserved site with amazing treasures. The artistry of the paintings and metalwork was exquisite and it was clear how influential it was on the Romans and the Greek Orthodox Church hundreds of years before the styles came into prominence, and even today on designers like Tord Boontje.

I ended the day reflecting on Greek pride in the past, and survival in the present. When Greeks reference architectural history they reference themselves. When we Americans reference architectural history we reference the Greeks. But the legacy hasn't continued. Rapid urbanization WW2 and the civil war resulted in an oppressive architectural style and a haphazard urban plan in the major Grecian metros that was made only worse after the fall of the Berlin Wall due to a second influx of people. It's easy to confuse the city with Tel Aviv.

Yesterday Jamie DeRosa and I met with architect Aris Georgiou to learn about his role in revitalizing the cultural climate of Thessaloniki through industrial reclamation. His Milos project in 1991 is credited by many as the first wave of cultural rebirth here. The mill cum performance hall/cafe/gallery served as the impetus to gain the city the 1997 "Cultural Capital of Europe" title, leading to his appointment as the director of the Photography Museum. Today he is working on projects to bring beauty back to the block buildings of the modern age. He also said that Thessolaniki has declared buildings built prior to the 1930's as historic and now there's a movement to preserve the few that are left. It's a bitter pill that this decision has come so late in a city that has cherished Byzantian and Roman ruins but has neglected its present.

I'd be remiss to paint a picture of bleakness though. Thessaloniki has a vibrant life filled with caf├ęs, culture and politics. It's shifting from Balkan to European and wrestling with this changing identity. We started Wednesday by meeting with a newly formed policy lab, The Navarino Network, led by Dr. Demetris Keridis from the University of Macedonia. The group's mission is to connect the city to the region, connect science to policy and to educate the public in order to move past historical impediments to a stabilized and cooperative Balkan region. For example, there's a problem with the brand of the city. Neither the residents of the city, nor Europe, agree to what to call it. Thessaloniki, Salonika, Thessolanica, Solun, and more. The same kind of dissent continues when one talks of Macedonia — a major issue that has prevented the former Yugoslav Republic from joining the EU. But the primary concerns on the horizon are cross-border interactions, immigration and Turkey. Unlike Western Europe, the Greek administration wants Turkey in the EU to normalize them much like Germany was normalized.

I've asked all of my hosts, including Elizabeth Phocas, our coordinator about the current state of urban planning here. This is an issue that continues to pop up in each city. If the borders open, or if climate change forces mass movements, how will Thessoliniki or any other European city accommodate the influx of people? What are the infrastructure plans for housing, food and water? How will cultural integration be handled? No one has a good answer to these questions. Rapid urbanization is a growing reality that all of Europe will have to deal with as it comes hand in hand with immigration. In Munich we heard that this was one of the fundamental concerns and reasons for not wanting Turkey to join the EU.

Yesterday evening I trekked to the Upper City to see the ruins of the Roman wall that protected Thessaloniki almost 1700 years ago. it's amazing to see it standing lockstep with modern buildings, graffiti and passing cars. It has caused me to reflect on our own plan to build a fence across our border. We are wrestling with the same issues and perhaps approaching them the same way as the Europeans. Rather than proactively designing infrastructure to handle the inevitable I believe we are building barriers that will ultimately lie in ruins like these walls. History has revealed this time and time again and seeing it first hand drives it home.

Today is our last day in the city. We visited the Thessaloniki Science and Technology Museum and the Jewish Heritage Museum. There is a rich history of the Jews in this city which really gained momentum after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled them from Spain in 1492. The community was thriving until a fire destroyed the entire Jewish section of town in 1917. And they were all but gone after the Holocaust with 65,000 — 96% of the population — killed in 1943. Today there is another thriving community who with funds from the EU built the museum for the 1997 for the Cultural Capital event.

The highlight from the technology museum was the exhibit on ancient Greek technology, from the tools that built the Parthenon, to ships, to armament, to construction techniques.

Tonight we have a Greek send off and will likely go bleary eyed to the airport early in the morning. Fahrist├│ new friends!