of everyday life
Just an hour’s
drive away from where King Phillip II of Macedonia is buried stands a
towering bronze statue of his son, Alexander the Great, riding a horse. It
overlooks the serene Aegean Sea and has been placed at the heart of a city
named after King Phillip II’s daughter. A few hundred metres away, a much
smaller statue of King Phillip II himself guards the entrance into one of the
three main commercial streets running through the city centre.
Nearby, in the shadows of a
cylindrical-shaped building, a boat bobs aimlessly in the sea. A telecom
tower rises into the sky not far from the grounds of the Aristotle
University. A renovated building, in one of the streets behind the Aristotle
University, reminds the visitors of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, since he was born
in one of its rooms.
The city with such beauty
and history is Thessaloniki. This is the second largest city in Greece.
I fell in love with
Thessaloniki the first time I visited it, back in August 2007. After
attending to matters official, I spent a night in the tiny room of Park Hotel
that overlooked an open plot with some recently unearthed excavations. Early
next morning, with some time to kill before catching the train back to
Athens, I ventured into the nearby city centre which was just coming to life.
A downward sloping street soon took me down to the seaside and a longish
paved waterfront. To the east, in the distance, under an early morning sun
beginning its journey up into the late summer sky, a cylindrical structure
beckoned me. Endless rows of apartment blocks lined the road that ran
parallel to the waterfront. With not much time at my disposal, I strolled
only a short distance but found the walk particularly soothing and
A walk on that waterfront
became a must on all my subsequent visits to Thessaloniki.
In the next few years, I
visited Thessaloniki frequently to attend many of the trade fairs and
exhibitions and so had the opportunity of exploring the city in much detail.
One such trade fair, the Thessaloniki International Fair, held every
September, is the largest such event not only in Greece but also in the
entire Balkan area.
It used to attract a large
number of Pakistani companies until 2012.
International Fair remains the face not only of Thessaloniki but of the
entire country. Held in the sprawling fair grounds just a stone’s throw
away from the sea and Alexander’s towering statue, it is a perfect gauge of
how the Greek economy is doing. Roaming in the endless halls displaying
products from Greece and beyond, dodging hordes of visitors from nearby
Bulgaria and Serbia and examining Turkish and Egyptian trinkets is an
Outside, the rather bland
blocks of Aristotle University, named after that great philosopher from the
Greek classical era who was also the tutor of Alexander the Great, hover
across the road from the north gates of the fair. The city rises gently up
over the hills behind the University on towards Panorama, a chic locality
nestled in the midst of dense foliage, with breathtaking views of the
shimmering waters of the Aegean Sea.
Not far from the Aristotle
University is the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The property is now
part of the Turkish consulate in the city. The actual house where Ataturk was
born, lies in the back lawns of the consulate and has been preserved as a
Although the southern part
of Greece, including Athens, freed itself from the Ottoman rule in the 1820s,
Thessaloniki and the surrounding regions continued to be a part of the
Ottoman Empire for almost another century. Events after the First World War
brought to an end the Ottoman Empire with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laying the
foundations of the modern Turkish state.
The two countries, Turkey
and Greece, parted ways in a manner not dissimilar to that of India and
Pakistan, with mass migrations and horrifying accounts of killings, loot and
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s
house in Thessaloniki, however, continues to be a reminder of those
tumultuous days almost a century back and the role played by him in changing
the history of the region. A smartly dressed official of the Turkish
consulate accompanies all visitors to the house and watches silently as they
take keen interest in the myriad framed photographs that grace the walls and
admire the personal belongings of the icon of the modern Turkish nation.
South of the Turkish
consulate, three parallel roads — Egnatia, Tsimiski and Leoforos Nikis —
pierce the heart of the city and cut across the Aristotelous Square which is
surrounded by elegant hotels and stylish restaurants. It is the preferred
place of all demonstrators, protestors and election rallies. A maze of
traditional bazaars punctuates the three roads, offering glimpses of the city
before the onslaught of globalisation.
Egantia, the northern most
road runs past Roman-era ruins and orthodox Greek churches, large and small.
Few traces of Ottoman-era buildings survive in the city — a largely
dilapidated domed building partly visible behind advertising hoardings and
construction material is perhaps the best remnant of the era.
Tsimiski is the main
commercial road in the city — home to outlets of major global brands,
offices of the Thessloniki Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as many
of the trademark Thessaloniki eateries and bakeries.
particularly known throughout Greece for its wide variety of delicious sweets
and bakery products.
And no bakery in Thessaloniki offers better sweets than Terkenlis, located
right where Tsimiski runs into Aristotelous square. A few years back
Terkenlis opened its first branch in Athens, making it easier for residents
of the Greek capital to taste sweets from Thessaloniki without having someone
bring it to them from over 500 kilometres away.
On the other side of
Tsimiski, partly hidden behind a kiosk, a periptero, is Pata Fristas, the
only outlet I found in Greece that actually sells fish and chips — thus my
preferred eating place in the city!
The southernmost road, the
Leoforos Nikis, initially attracted me to the city. It is this road that runs
parallel to the sea, from the Thessaloniki port in the west to the White
Tower — that cylindrical building — to the east. Walking on the pavement
along Leoforos Nikis, the charms of the inner city recede and an overwhelming
feeling of openness and vastness takes over.
Leoforos Nikis ends at the
White Tower, the unambiguous symbol of Thessaloniki. The tower is stated to
have been a part of the city walls since sometime in the 12th century, but
the present structure is attributed to the Ottomans who used it as a garrison
as well as a prison. A spiral ramp leads up to each of its six floors which
now house a permanent exhibition depicting different eras of Thessaloniki’s
history. A platform at the top of the tower affords stunning views of the
endless apartment blocks rising up over the hills on the one side and a
handful of oil tankers waiting in the choppy waters for their turn to move
into the port on the other.
The writer can be reached
Kathmandu airport on a cold evening in the last week of November 2012, I had
no idea what to expect from the city.
On the road from the
airport to the Park Village Hotel in Budhanilkantha, a village-like resort
located at a short distance from Kathmandu, I saw deprivation, dust, broken
roads — and people, wearing woollen caps to keep warm.
Lanterns and candles lit up
the shops as the city was shrouded in darkness due to loadshedding.
Soon after arriving at the
hotel, I decided to walk around the area, despite being warned about the lack
of security, and discovered the other side of Nepal.
I found the shopkeepers to
be cordial, warm, welcoming and friendly. They talked to me in Urdu-Hindi,
the kind of language used in Indian films. A female shopkeeper selling
chokhatis (a mat to sit and meditate on) and shoes made of parali (dried hay)
explained to me the art of her craft.
The next morning I went to
Vishnu temple to experience mystique and calmness and saw devotees offering
flowers and food in abundance.
Later, walking through the
streets of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, I did not feel like a stranger. I was
enthralled to see women of all ages in the streets, bazars and shopping
malls; they rode bikes and sat on temple stairs with men, talking softly
about things known only to them. I spotted some older women sit by their
tharras (stops), gossiping with older men.
In addition to these, I was
taken in by many other aspects of life in Nepal.
Nepalese love to listen to
music. The minibuses, shops and cafes reverberated with Nepalese and Indian
songs, just like our cafes and restaurants of Shah Alami and Pakki Thatthi in
Lahore. I saw the CDs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Perveen, Mehdi Hasan
and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan at many musical stores. Many people I talked to were
familiar with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
I was particularly
impressed by the arrangement of colourful oil lamps made of wheat flour by a
young Nepalese girl in a temple in Bhaktapur. It reminded me of a scene from
Indian film ‘Devdas’ and Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore.
Oil lamps and fire are
essential to the lives of Nepalese. At Pashupatinath’s temple near the
Kathmandu airport, on the banks of the sacred Bhagmati River, fire festival
is held every evening by the devotees. Woods and essences are burnt in large
bonfires while music is played to take the devotees in a trance-like state.
Animals are treated well at
Pashupatinath’s temple. The title Pashupatinath means ‘protector of
animals’. In history, Punjabis were known as Pashupalan which means the
caretakers or breeders of animals.
A visit to the meditation
place of Gorakhnath, who was a Punjabi saint in the 11th century, at
Pashupatinath’s temple, highlights strong intellectual and spiritual links
between Punjab and ancient Nepal. A number of kanphata yogis, who pierce
their ears to initiate into Gorakhnath’s kanphata yogi school, were
meditating in the sunlight. It is also interesting to note that Ranjha, a
symbol of love in Punjab, was also said to be a part of kanphata yogis.
In Lumbini, near the
birthplace of Gautama — the Buddha — I participated in a big congregation
of monks taking place in the morning. The highlight really came towards noon
when the monks distributed bread and chai (tea) to thousands of their
At the Mayawati temple,
devotees worshipped the peepal tree under which Gautama took birth. Some took
its leaves with them for blessings. Many devotees visiting shrines in Punjab
and Sindh also take leaves of the shrine trees with them.
All trees in the Mayawati
temple were adorned with colourful jhandis (mini flags). It was a surprise
for me to learn about the Buddhist origins of jhandis used so commonly at
shrines in Pakistan.