The Lure of Greece

They wants us to visit, says Angela Epstein. She tells us why we should

By Angela Epstein, October 11, 2012
Thessaloniki has a fine coastal setting and ancient architecture

Thessaloniki has a fine coastal setting and ancient architecture

It was a good enough place to park. A large, open-air pay and display a few minutes walk from the port, surely this was the perfect spot to leave our car and explore the fascinating maritime city of Thessaloniki (Salonika).

So we did. And it was. But the heart ached a little at doing so. For 70 years before, this patch of concrete, Eleftherias Square, like the city itself, bore witness to terrible treatment of the most populous Sephardi community in Europe.

It was in this very place, back in July 1942, where we now nudged our car among the shoppers and tourists, that all male Jews between 18 and 45 years of age were ordered to present themselves and in the searing summer heat forced to perform degrading acrobatics for their Nazi tormentors.

After the humiliations, the ragged and exhausted group were dispatched to labour camps. The community was forced to pay two and a half billion drachmas to free those who survived. The following March the Nazis began deporting Thessaloniki’s 50,000 Jews to Auschwitz, completing their heinous work in just three months. Only 1,500 survived the Holocaust.

Today, a simple but staggeringly beautiful sculpture lies on the seafront outside the square, remembering this brutally decimated community once known as Le Madre de Israel — the mother of Israel — because of its size.

Today’s Greece may be in economic turmoil. Indeed, as we jetted out from Manchester, keen for a trip that combined Jewish culture, ancient history, decent weather and some beach time too, friends and colleagues with their compasses pointing elsewhere expressed concern about everything from food shortages to riots. Their concerns were misplaced — everywhere we went, we were given the warmest welcome and encountered a keen urge for Brits to return to the country.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand why there is a reluctance to visit, particularly Greece’s second city. The architecture is rich and vibrant , the Roman ruins such as the Arch of Galerius spectacular and its signature monument — the White Tower, once part of the walls that enclosed the city — a stunning landmark. Astonishing given that a great fire swept through Thessaloniki in 1917 destroying many of its buildings. Another which did survive houses the Jewish museum where the story of how Jews once dominated this noble city, distinguishing themselves in the field of textiles, mining, printing as well as producing distinguished philosophers and physicians is told.

We began our trip in Athens, spending the weekend in the Greek capital and booking into the King George Palace, the city’s oldest hotel with its gracious architecture and breathtaking views of the Acropolis.

On Friday night, we joined a pick and mix of travellers to pray at the city’s only synagogue and then dine at Athens’ kosher restaurant courtesy of the Chabad movement. The famed Lubavitch hospitality didn’t disappoint, nor did a Shabbat creep through the late afternoon heat to look at antiquities such as the Temple of Zeus before retreating to the welcoming comfort of our hotel. However, it was to Thessaloniki that we travelled our quest to find out more of Greece’s once vibrant Jewish community. And on Sunday morning we took an internal 40-minute flight to the heart of the Thermaïkos Gulf.

There was a time when the streets of the city would be deserted on the Sabbath and on Great Jewish Holidays, and there were more than 30 Synagogues, numerous chapels and parish schools and the great traditional “Talmud Torah Agadol” School.

Today, there is just one synagogue, offering an evening service. My husband Martin attended with our 14year-old son and only a handful of uninterested men. We learnt afterwards from the city’s young Chabad rabbi that the community pays for men to attend the service and make up a minyan.

Yet the city caters reasonably well for the kosher tourist. Our newly-made rabbi friend steered us to the kosher restaurant nearby at the Astoria Hotel. Though for the more authentic Greek experience go to the Orfeas glatt kosher taverna, which on some nights offers some genuine plate- smashing Hellenic entertainment. The menu is small (including, ahem, calf in red wine) but with abundant salads, deliciously tasty.

Since we were travelling with our son and eight-year-old daughter, we decided to stay outside of the city, in the village of Agias Triada 20 minutes away. Opting for the bright, clean and friendly family run Sun Beach Hotel, it meant we could bribe them with beach, pool, bucket and spade before serious sightseeing.

Both Athens and Thessaloniki can be enjoyed by combing city sites with a coastal setting. On our return journey, we stopped over at Cape Sounio, on the southern tip of the Athenian Riviera, just 30 minutes from Athens. We picked up a car from Avanti, a friendly, Jewish -owned family firm, whose co-patron Salvadore organises walking tours of Jewish Athens and Thessaloniki.

The drive is a delight, slicing through Attica and culminating in a beautiful gated resort comprising bungalows and villas with spectacular views of the Temple of Poseidon rising above a dramatic coastline. This was an oasis of luxury, including a kids’ club with its own swimming pool and climbing wall. Daughter Sophie disappeared while we dawdled by our bungalow’s private pool.

For the Jewish traveller tired of the world’s other kosher hot spots, it’s time to put this magical country back on the map.

- easyjet fly directly to Athens from Manchester and Gatwick. They also offer a direct service to Thessaloniki from Gatwick.

Last updated: 3:36pm, October 11 2012