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It is an exaggeration to surmise that I go to places off my usual route when overseas, merely so they can serve as writing prompts.
It is, but not as much of one as it should be. There have been several trips in my life where I spent more time writing about what I was experiencing, than actually experiencing it. Particularly when I’m fairly far north.
Larisa is not as far north as, oh, Hull; but it’s still occasioned some reflections. Including the reflections I’ve just written.
Getting to Larisa from Salonica involved me taking the train. The rail disaster on that same track was three months ago, and most people still hesitate to board the train. I made a point of boarding a train; that was the kind of ornery reactiveness I gravitate towards when I’m outside my comfort zone.
The rail approach to Larisa is through a run-down neighbourhood, and I momentarily had a sinking feeling that my unarticulated Thessalian Gothic fears were going to be realised.
When I got off the train, I was just puzzled at my own temerity, venturing into a place I knew nothing about. What exactly was I doing here?
When my friend Vangelis Lolos pinged me that he was coming to pick me up, I asked him the same question.
“Anthropological research!”, he said, relaying back to me my own earlier perplexity while in Sitia.
The walk from the station is through a somewhat featureless part of town, as is often enough the case for railway stations in Europe; so my “what exactly was I doing here” was still left a hanging question…
… right up until we hit the city centre.
Larisa, as I got to experience it in a weekend, is a joyous cake of piazzas and fountains and parks and monuments, and hip Greeks (wearing, now that I think of it, a bit more black than they do in Salonica) spilling out of cafes and onto the pedestrianised sidewalks. And the cake is held together with cohesive town planning and an intelligible grid.
I’m not used to this kind of thing in Greece. I’m used to twisty mazes and no tree in sight, not malls and greenery. It’s a prosperous, coffee-drinking city in Greece, with the same cafe-hoppers as in any number of other Greek cities—except its cityscape has been allowed to loosen its corset and breathe.
I found it magnificent. I grinned the whole time at the novelty of it.
As noted, the locals I met (including Vangelis himself) were puzzled at my enthusiasm. They live there, and they know the downsides of living there. And when I asked them what they were, the list was familiar enough.
And see, they were the downsides to living in regional Greece in particular, or Greece in general. But those other cities in Greece didn’t have MALLS. MALLS, MAN. Where else in Greece has come up with pedestrian malls?
It gets better. The prefecture has pioneered the use of roundabouts in Greece.
A lot of the forward thinking, I am informed, can be attributed to Aristides Lamproulis (1921–1999), mayor 1980-1994. There was much annoyance in the city with the strange novelties the communist mayor brought in, the fountains and piazzas and pedestrian malls: WHERE ARE OUR CUSTOMERS SUPPOSED TO PARK?
They like the malls fine now. As did I.
The roundabouts (which were the initiative of the regional administration and not the city) are the only initiative to have been universally applauded from the beginning.
The comedian Lakis Lazopoulos is from Larisa, and his TV skit series Ten Little Dimitrises (1992–2003) was huge enough to have influenced the Greek vernacular: it’s become commonplace in contemporary colloquial use to drop the preposition after “go”. The expression that most Greeks first noticed that trend in was pame platia?, “Wanna go [to the] piazza?”, one of the catchphrases from the show. And having been to Larisa, I can see why Lazopoulos’ character wanted to go the piazza. Everyone in Larisa goes to the piazza, or next to it. And one piazza keeps spilling into another.
An even bigger shock for a Greek city was how big Alcazar city park is: a park that starts at the rerouted river Peneus, and the statues of local notables,
then was extended into what was the local open market, and the inevitable (for that time period) monument to the WWII Resistance,w
and keeps going all the way up to the notorious Alcazar stadium—and, to its west, the tomb of Hippocrates:
Larisa is in Thessaly, and Thessaly was at the edge of the Greek classical world: the action was in Athens and the Peloponnese. So Larisa is rather proud that Hippocrates, Mr Oath, worked and died in Larisa.
The Alcazar park would not be out of place in Germany, with its bike-rider traffic instruction course, its pavilions, and its peacefulness (at least until you get to the stadium).
Getting to the park involves treading the Archbishop Anastasius footbridge, over the now defeated Peneus river, rerouted in the 30s.
What it bridges over is old, and for Greeks of a certain age, it triggers the Pavlovian reaction of the old song:
“At the river of Larisa, called Peneus,
If perchance you do not want me, that’s where I’ll go drown.”
There would never have been a settlement of Larisa if there wasn’t a river there first. As anyone who has played Civilization knows. But the river has outlived its usefulness to the the city, as I am told, so by the time it was dammed, it was no longer a big deal to the city.
Still, very pretty bridge. The river now just needs some rowboats to be completely Cambridge. (And fewer lovelorn suitors from the 60s…)
The prosperity of Larisa did need an unwelcome side-effect of the river to be vanquished though. Hence the riverside statues of local notables include Emmanuel Manousakis.
Manousakis was a Cretan doctor who worked in the military, specialising in infectious diseases. He got a job with the army medical corps in Larisa as a demotion in 1935, after being photographed by the media in the wrong place at the wrong time. And since he was already there, he mobilised the army medical corps to help eliminate malaria in Larisa, as the river Peneus was being rerouted.
The urban grid is what makes the city all work. In comparison with most of the large cities of Greece, Larisa was a small place, 10k people when incorporated into Greece, and that gave the opportunity for some actual city planning to happen. Something quite impossible in the medieval streets of Iraklio, for example.
As a result, the good news is that there is a discernible grid, with wide open streets, linking piazza to piazza, and pleasant to walk down.
The bad news is that Larisa, queen of the plains of Thessaly, is flat. Very flat. So flat, locals say “flat” in English for emphasis. Which means that every street corner looks identical to every other street corner.
It is astonishingly easy to get lost here. Even with Google Maps on. Believe me, I wasn’t even trying to get lost. (In fact, I was convinced I was lost when I went out for coffee on Sunday morning—when it turned out I’d ended up at exactly the same place I’d gone for coffee Saturday morning.)
Larisa has a balance of Ancient marble and Byzantine and Ottoman brick—something not a lot of places have in Greece (because not a lot of places were prospering cities in both Antiquity and the Middle Ages.) The first ancient theatre of Larisa, up has been adopted as the city logo.
It is the focus of a flurry of restoration work at the moment. The surrounding buildings over the centuries looted the theatre as building material. The surrounding buildings are now slowly being taken over and levelled by the archaeological service, and they are looting the bits of the theatre right back.
It is a point of local pride, which my cicerone Vangelis was delighted to relay, that Larisa was a big enough deal to have had two theatres in antiquity. (The mumbled follow-up is, the Romans built the second theatre for theatrical performances, because the more imposing first theatre had been turned over to gladiatorial sports.)
The second ancient theatre is a humble little ruin, only a couple of marble seat rows shaded by surrounding apartment buildings.
I had not noticed the cypress trees planted all around. Vangelis pointed them out to me, and yes, they are a nice touch. They are a cemetery tree in Greece, but this quiet humble theatre ruin does have that feel about it.
The second theatre has already been used live, and as you can tell from the brand new marble additions in the restoration, the first theatre is going to get a lot of modern bums on seats in time.
The Byzantine brick isn’t represented by the original basilica of St Achilles, which endured for a millennium. It’s changed location a couple of times since, each time on what is as close to a hilltop as the very flat Larisa can muster. The original basilica survives only in its foundations, and apparently was close to being reduced to its foundations when the Ottomans arrived anyway; its Byzantine brick ended up repurposed as the nearby Bedesten (market).
In a more cozy manifestation, bits of Byzantine villas from Justinian’s time poke up in a city green space, on top of the underground carpark of St Bessarion, next to the Music Hall that was my own landmark. (My AirBnB was around the corner.)
My trip was motivated by wanting to meet Vangelis Lolos, whom I have known on Quora for close to a decade now, and from whom I have learned so much about my culture. He did not disappoint as a host, or as a conversationalist, or as a friend. His country is lucky to have welcomed back someone who combines such erudition and such dry wit (at least for a Greek; the dad jokes, I am choosing to pretend didn’t happen).
It is, on the other hand, melancholy to realise that Quora has taken such a tumble in recent years, there really wasn’t much going on currently on the site that we cared enough to talk about…