Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Ice Cold in Alexandroupolis

Ordinary times in Greece.

Alex Lighthouse

I like visiting ordinary places, the nowhere towns and villages that lie beyond the tour agent's brochures and country visitor guides. They are the places where you have the chance to meet the real country. This is not to say that popular tourist destinations are less real than other places. Real people live in real houses and go about real lives in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Prague for example. But, as a tourist in a tourist honeypot you only experience the country through the prism of tourist activities, tourist restaurants and tourism staff. Your view of your host country is therefore mediated through a protective environment created specifically to give you a good holiday experience and to take your money in return. And why not? If you choose to spend your hard-earned cash to visit a foreign country you wish to have a wow factor, amazing memories and your pleasure well and truly catered for.

But what about the country behind the brochure? The places without the incredible historic sites, national parks, resorts or sublime beaches? I decided to go to just such an ordinary city in Greece - one of the most visited countries in Europe. I would avoid the sun-kissed Aegean islands with their idyllic beaches and the Classical cities of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Instead I would go somewhere ordinary for a weekend but still travel there as a tourist. So, I chose Alexandrouplis, a port on the Thracian coast nearer to Istanbul than Athens. So far removed from Classical Greece is Alexandrouplis, that its origins date to the late 19th century as a town that grew up around an Ottoman Turkish railway line but only after the area's capture by Russian troops during the Russo-Turkish war.

Turkey 44

The legacy of the Russians are wide, straight boulevards that were planned to facilitate troop movements but now provide a wide, open welcoming and modern feel. The lack of narrow widing streets instantly banish any stereotypes of quaint Aegean towns. These streets are not the main attractions of Alex, despite the sales, occasional pavement cafes and baklava bakeries, so let's leave them behind after a diversion to the fantastic Thracian Ethnology Museum. Nor are the small, slightly sruffy beaches littered with discarded cigarette butts, though the coarse sand dotted with marble pebbles and the warm Aegean are welcoming enough when compared to inland England.

Alex Beach

What makes Alex a place for a weekend break is the restaurant-lined sea-front promenade. A somewhat busy road during the day, it is transformed into a pedestrian haven at night when bollards prevent cars driving along it towards dark. Alexandrouplians love to promenade in the evenings and take over the road in their droves. From 6 weeks to 90 years old, couples, families and groups saunter along the road to create the most convivial perambulating street party in Europe. The pace is languid, as befits summer night-time temperatures in the high 20s centigrade, yet the atmosphere is bubbles with what can only be termed as glee. Things really get busy after 9 or 10pm when the street becomes difficult to see through the legs, prams and buggies. Stalls selling Middle Eastern jewellery and battery-powered dogs with manic eyes line the sides of the street. Portrait artists set up their easels and wait for subjects to sit themselves in front of the passing gaze and passing interest of thousands of strollers. Trendy open-air bars blast out pumping dance tracks to crowds drinking ice-cold beers and warmly-mixed cocktails.

Alexandroupolis Prom

Night Portrait

Apart from walking, almost everyone is out to eat. Every inch of the pavement above the concrete breakwater is packed with tables belonging to restaurants over the road. Alexandrouplis is one of the best and largest outdoor restaurants outside of Thailand. Each venue serves some of the best and freshest meals you can consume anywhere in the world. Menus bulge with a variety of traditional local salads, fish, seafood and meat. Whether creating a meze of small dishes or eating your way through a three-course meal, the wide range of dishes and variety provided by each chef's take on the same dishes will ensure you can happily satisfy your palate without repetition for at least a month.

Big Wheel

As a vegetarian, I tried two totally different Greek salads, two totally different cabbage and carrot salads, three totally different types of bread, fried cheese and rocket salad. Each was dressed in the sweetest, lightest, delicious olive oil. What better way to finish a meal than to join the throng and stroll along the prom. The restaurant tables thicken towards the locally iconic lighthouse above the Luna Park fairground, with its fast kart track offering exhilarating rides at 2 euros for 3 minutes. Near here is a baklava bakery for honey-drenched sweets to snack on while walking.

Speed Karts

Neither walking or eating are, however, the main occupation of the multitude. While chatter rises into the air in crescendoes, nor is conversation the prime activity. What everyone spends most of their time pursuing is people-watching. Whether walking or sitting, drinking or eating, talking or in silence, each and everyone is looking at their stranger-companions. You are as part of the entertainment as you are being entertained. And what this creates is one of the largest slow-paced festivals of conviviality in the world. That in its own right is enough to recommend Alexandroupolis for a weekend visit, as long as you're able to consider visiting a town without top theatre, without the finest architecture, without world class museums and art galleries, without the best beaches, without the best-preserved ancient monuments. If you can manage with all that then drink in one of the happiest of evening atmospheres with thousands of locals that can be found anywhere.

Orthodox Cross

I stayed in Hotel Park during my stay. Sat on busy Avenue Dimicratis and opposite a small wooded park, it is locally owned and been in the same family for 30 years. The friendly owner speaks good English. All rooms are en-suite with air con and there is a breakfast room and small swimming pool. Rooms are 30 - 40 euros for a single and 60 - 80 euros for a double depending on the season. Alexandroupolis has an airport with connections from Athens and Thessaloniki, is on the Athens to Istanbul rail line and has regular buses to Thessaloniki.

Hotel Park

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