Monday, November 7, 2011

Greek tourism revival, despite financial woes

People gather on the shore of the Thermaic Gulf in Salonika, Greece, Oct. 13, 2011. - People gather on the shore of the Thermaic Gulf in Salonika, Greece, Oct. 13, 2011. | Eirini Vourloumis / The New York Times

It was early August, and clouds of tear gas drifted through much of Athens, the remnants of protests against austerity measures. But the country’s financial woes seemed far from the minds of the smartly dishevelled young Greeks packed onto the roof terrace of the newly opened Fragile bar in Salonika, about 500 kilometres north of the capital. T-shirt-clad art students shouted over a mix of vintage doo-wop and nineties alt-rock, or ducked into the covered bar area, which evoked a vaguely postal theme, its corkboard-lined walls cross-hatched with packing tape.

“We wanted something simple, and we did all this alone – everything, there was nothing here,” Mirsini Linou, 24, said as she drummed on the raw wood bar. In July, Ms. Linou opened the space in the up-and-coming Valaoritou area, hiring friends as bartenders and DJs.
Fragile is one of several creative, no-frills nightspots that have opened in Salonika in the past few months, joining a bevy of recently launched cultural sites and creative projects in Greece’s second city. Even as their country teeters on the brink of default and struggles with debt, Salonika’s youth are embracing a do-it-yourself ethos resulting in a wave of arts and nightlife venues that they hope will hold up in tough times.
The youth movement is building on rich historical foundations. Salonika, which lies on the northern edge of the Thermaic Gulf, is the capital of the Greek region of Macedonia (not to be confused with the Republic of Macedonia). Punctuated by palm trees and relics of antiquity, maze-like city streets open to century-old marketplaces, where ripe produce, freshly dismembered livestock and an extravagance of spices still form the city’s commercial heart.
Historically one of Europe’s oldest and most multi-ethnic cities, Salonika (called Thessaloniki in Greek) is home to architectural marvels that testify to its centrality in Byzantine, Ottoman and Sephardic Jewish history. The city is anchored by Aristotelous Square, where curved, columned façades open to the waterfront in one direction and frame views of the historic Ano Poli (Upper City) in the other.
Though it has only about one million people, compared with five million in Athens, Salonika is widely considered the cultural capital of Greece. Festivals abound, most notably the International Film Festival, which draws hordes of film buffs to the city each November (this year Nov. 4 to 13). It has also produced many of the country’s most acclaimed bands, visual artists and designers. Yet despite Salonika’s vibrant cultural output and young population – students number around 150,000 – over the past few decades, its municipal leadership grew increasingly conservative, withholding support from projects that veered from its entrenched brand of Macedonian monoculturalism.
Last year, though, Yiannis Boutaris, a tattooed, quick-witted former winemaker who turns 70 in January, won the mayoral election by about 350 votes, making him the city’s first socialist-backed mayor in 24 years. Mr. Boutaris quickly shook up the stagnant government, appointing a young staff that set to work opening up and re-examining the city’s multicultural legacy.
“I think people were looking to be liberated from something that’s so restrictive and narrow-minded,” said Marina Fokidis, a curator of the city’s third Biennale of Contemporary Art, which runs through Dec. 18.
For the biennale, exhibitions have been installed in long-ignored Ottoman and Jewish landmarks. Contemporary works that address the modern Mediterranean’s mesh of cultures are on display at Yeni Djami, a former mosque built for a community of converted Jews; the Bey Hamam, an Ottoman-era bathhouse; and Alatza Imaret, a 15th-century Ottoman mosque and hospice once famed for its colourful minaret. The biennale also extends to Salonika’s five major museums, including the State Museum of Contemporary Art, which houses the Costakis Collection, one of the world’s best assemblages of Russian avant-garde art.
The nightspot that best embodies this grassroots vibe might be Coo, a café, bar, music space and gallery that also has its own radio station and record label, home to quirky experimental acts, from ambient pop to electronica. Run by a collective, Coo opened last October and quickly became a go-to spot for Salonika’s hard-partying artistic set. During a recent visit, everyone there seemed to be involved in some kind of off-centre cultural project.
Another new arrival is Cocktail Bar, which opened in May in a disused office building in a semi-derelict business district known more for its prostitutes than its white-collar workers. Its five owners (four are under 30) renovated the airy industrial space themselves, decorating it mostly with materials left by the previous tenants: The sleek concrete bar is propped up on cinder blocks, and the walls are lined with slate-hued cardboard. The owners themselves tend bar, serving seasonal house-recipe cocktails made with mostly organic ingredients. The crowd – teenage stoners, aging hipsters, dressed-down professionals – is as eclectic as the soundtrack, which ranges from deep house to Armenian pop to gangster rap.
“Maybe people used to drink five drinks and now they have two or three,” said Koureas Grigoris, 38, a former photographer who owns two of Salonika’s best-loved rock bars, Urban, on the popular nightlife stretch of Zefxidos Street; and the tiny, perpetually crowded Xena Diafora (Greek for Compilation of Foreign Music). In July, he opened a third spot, Kantina Tropicana, in a converted fabric market. Though the bar is regularly packed, Mr. Grigoris said the numbers are not always reflected at the register. “But it’s okay,” he added. “It’s better to have a place full of people who want to be out and listen to the music. Not everything’s about money.”
The New York Times News Service
SALONIKA— The New York Times News Service

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