Even under a scorching sun, the facade of the port terminal in Thessaloniki is looking its age. Built in 1911, this so-called customs building is the oldest reinforced concrete building in the city. The Constantinople, boat on which Marc’s grandfather sailed, docked in these waters on October 15, 1922. If Hagop landed, he set foot on the soil of a cosmopolitan city marked by the influence of his future country. The city center was reorganized by French town planner Ernest Hébrard after a big fire in 1917.
The wide avenues bear its paw and modern planners have added cycle paths. They must be shared with drivers who confuse them with parking spaces and cartoneros, ragpickers pulling carts loaded with boxes picked up in the street. You might think you are in Buenos Aires. One of these arteries, Tsimiski Street, leads to the Armenian Cultural Center.
Thessaloniki also served as a refuge for thousands of Armenians after the genocide, the base of a still large local community. Sossie Mouchlian, she left Lebanon after the explosion of the port of Beirut last August. “She destroyed my house”, she explains. As her husband has Greek nationality, she has withdrawn to this country whose language she does not know and she is waiting for a priest who must accompany her to a vaccination session.
The Turkish consulate protected as a fortress
Father Stéphanos is also an Armenian from Lebanon. He cannot tell us about Thessaloniki in 1922, but he shows us around the Church of St. Mary, built in 1903. “An apostolic church”, he specifies. The city also has mosques, vestiges of five centuries of Ottoman occupation. At first glance, they appear less well maintained than the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was established in 1881 in Thessaloniki.
The white building has become a museum to the glory of the father of the Turkish nation. It also houses the Turkish consulate and is protected as a fortress. A police bus outside, security guards inside. In the courtyard, our bikes are safe. Free entry. Visitors just need to register on a register. The list has just been enriched with the name of the grandson of an Armenian. The cyclo-historical hike continues at Villa Allatini, seat of the regional administration of Macedonia. In 1909, the vast house was used as the supervised residence of Abdülhamid II, the “red sultan” deposed by the Young Turks, future organizers of the genocide. He himself had 200,000 Armenians massacred in 1894-1896. In the garden, a bust of Moses Allatini recalls that this ancestor of Marcel Dassault was the first owner in the 19th century.e century.
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The entrepreneur was a prominent member of the Jewish Salonist community, the majority in “Balkan Jerusalem” and exterminated by the Nazis. One last departure through the upper town and you have to think about leaving this city where history emerges on every street corner. After 50 kilometers, hunger prompts us to respond to the call for signs indicating taverns and hotels, by a lake, near Apollonia. False joy.
The descent leads to a ghost town, where dogs, cats and storks seem to be the only inhabitants. Mattresses are abandoned in the streets, trash cans are overflowing, a big teddy bear is lying around on the ground. We set foot in an abandoned holiday site, which has been transformed into a migrant accommodation center. Evaporated. “They’ve been gone for two weeks and I don’t know if others will come back”, explique Kiriakos.
With Abdullah, a young Iraqi, this Greek runs a grocery store for these missing customers. The grocer offers us fresh water and has not wasted his day. We buy him enough to cook a feast. Pasta and sardines give us the strength to roll to the sea and Asprovalta. The campsite is not yet in service. «No water, no water» (” no water “), the keeper repeats. Three words of German are enough to convince him to open the barrier. For lack of fresh water, the sea will suffice for showering.
A new stage begins, flat. Sandy beaches stretch past the Strynomian Gulf. This cove is more tempting to put on a swimsuit. It is deserted. It’s not for nothing. The rocks are covered with sea urchins, as the path is with thorns. We hadn’t had a flat tire since Marseille? Here it is, it is done, but Kavala is reached, for a day arrival, once is not customary.
Christians, “Atatürk threw them out”
Wedged on the seafront between two buildings, the Acropolis hotel is an irresistible eye-catcher. The establishment has an old-fashioned charm, like its owner Athina, who smokes a cigarette. “Ride your bikes and put them in the hall”, she suggests. The elegant lady is 80 years old, speaks distinguished English and understands French. “My mother taught me that”, she says.
She is a descendant of the 1.5 million Christians driven out of Asia Minor in 1923, after the Greek defeat against the Turks. “Atatürk threw them out”, she thunders in her deep voice. Four hundred thousand Muslims have gone the other way. Rather than Istanbul, the octogenarian prefers to say “Constantinople” or «Poli», like this sign announcing the Turkish metropolis 460 kilometers outside of Kavala.
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The rain, which had abandoned us from Italy, chose this moment to find our wake. Tiny frogs dance under our wheels and under the storm. Once soaked, there is only one salvation: roll and roll again, and especially not to stop, at the risk of chattering your teeth. Unless, of course, if a new puncture forces you to take refuge under the advance of a carpentry to repair. ” You need help “, asks a carpenter. No, but we appreciate the proposal.
The dead don’t mix
The batrachian party is over. We dry off while driving and we are greeted in Komotini by the song of a muezzin. The Muslims of Western Thrace, which remained Greek, were not targeted by the great exchange of populations of 1923. In Aratos, the church is to the left of the great straight line which cuts the village in two and the mosque is located to the right. In Sapes, it is the dead who do not mix. Each community has its cemetery, separated from each other by the small secondary road that leads us to Turkey.
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Like minarets, Greek army vehicles are increasingly visible. A soldier comes out of his guard post as he approaches the banks of the Evros, the river that separates the two countries with tense relations. He doesn’t speak English, but the signs speak for him. It is forbidden to go further and photograph the wall that Greece has erected in an attempt to prevent migrants from entering its territory.
We must turn back and take the asphalt lined with speed limit signs for tanks. Tankers are not allowed to drive over 60 km / h. We are content with 25, a pace sufficient to see a Turkish flag growing, fluttering in the wind on the horizon. It becomes gigantic. Turkey is keen to mark its territory and we have been promised the worst: “You might not pass. “ In addition to the pandemic, there is geopolitics.
Celebrated as a champion
A quarter of an hour later, we cross without a hitch the bridge which crosses the Evros under the gaze of amused Turkish soldiers. They invite us to advance towards a monumental border post. « Cigarettes ? Alcohol ? », asks a customs officer, gently searching a satchel. « No, sport ! », we answer. Joke done, we find ourselves driving on the emergency lane of a four lane.
We are celebrated as champions. Truck drivers are sticking their thumbs out the window, car drivers honking their horns as they greet us. There are 200 kilometers left to reach Istanbul. Our decision is made. We will board a bus in Kesan, where the drivers set up our bikes in the cargo hold as if they were handling crystal chandeliers. Beautiful encounters delayed us. Others are waiting for us in the town of Hagop.
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Friday July 23: Last stop of the trip, in Istanbul