The delights of a provincial rather than a capital city is an acquired taste, one that I have been lucky enough to gain in an Eastern European nation on three memorable occasions. My experience was all the better for it and not just with my first love in Pecs, Hungary. The first time I traveled to Ukraine, I did make it a point to visit the capital, Kiev. That was my second stop though. My first one was Lviv, a sparkling jewel of a city in western Ukraine. Lviv colors my opinion of Ukraine to this very day, even nine years after my first visit I cannot help but have a fondness for Ukraine because of that initial experience. It pains me when I hear people discuss Ukraine as though it is a dangerous country that should be avoided. Ukraine may have dangerous regions (the Donbas where an asymmetric war continues to rage is to be avoided by tourists) and endemic corruption (signified by the national government in Kiev), but Ukraine for me is a charming place full of magic rather than malevolence.
Lusting After Lviv – Falling For A Ukrainian Super Model
Lviv was then, what it still is today, the historical hub of Ukraine, a place where I could reach out and touch the past. On my return trips to the city I felt a sense of nostalgia, not just for Lviv’s past, but my own past in the city. The friends I met and kept over the years, the mystical churches that deepened my curiosity for the mysterious sensuality of the eastern world and the sheer exoticism of finding renaissance architecture in far eastern Europe. Kiev on the other hand, was a raucous and at times, menacing metropolis. I am fortunate that I avoided making it my first stop in the country. I have never been back and have no plans to go there again. I enjoyed certain aspects of the Ukrainian capital and the city center was well worth visiting. Conversely, there was something impersonal and at times outright inhuman about Kiev.
Perhaps it was the Stalinist architecture to be found on its most famous avenue or the hectic pace or the pushing and shoving on the metro that remains so vivid in my memory. Whatever the case, I could hardly wait to leave. I sensed then what I can still feel today, I would be unlikely to come back for a visit. If I did, it would only be to pass through the city. Bigger is rarely better and Kiev bore that truth out for me. Lviv is my idea of a Ukrainian super model, sleek, seductive and spectacular. Voluptuous in its charms, my eyes ogled its many beautiful buildings. I felt a pathological sense of romance in its city center. If there is such a thing as lusting after a city, then I fell for Lviv with uninhibited inclination. And I hope to get back to Ukraine, to visit Uzhhorod and Mukachevo, the type of provincial cities that are likely to give me a Lviv sized experience. Now when I look at a map of Ukraine, Kiev has vanished and all the smaller cities in the country are magnified. To lust like this, is to live travel forever.
Anywhere But Athens – Beyond The Obvious
My first visit to Greece last year was made with one thought in mind which can be summed up as “anywhere but Athens.” The capital of the classical world has never appealed to me. Perhaps it comes from disappointment at its failure to host the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games. When Athens lost out to Atlanta, it lost something else, my respect. Then there are the stories I have read about the congestion and pollution that clogs and clouds the city. I have never heard a single person ever say anything nice about its modern iteration. The Parthenon, the Acropolis and a clutch of world class museums filled with astonishing artifacts do not provide enough an allure for me. This is snobbery in reverse, I find a perverse pleasure in the provincial when it comes to Greece. I cannot see the appeal of Athens. That is likely the product of my imagining throngs of tourists crowding me out. These feelings and an affinity for Byzantine and Ottoman history led me to first set foot on Greek soil in Thessaloniki, a city whose modernity is unsightly in the extreme.
What I found was another Greece mostly unknown to the western world. One with deep multi-cultural roots. Thessaloniki had more in common with Balkan culture than modern Greece, a place where digging in the dirt had unearthed entire worlds that existed before the blight of fires, wars and unchecked development smothered whole swathes of antiquity. Thessaloniki was an acquired taste, one that did not come easy. It asked visitors to look beyond the obvious or the famous, to the obscure and the infamous, to the Ottomans, the Sephardic Jews, the Byzantines and to the Rome of late antiquity. I want to believe that the difference between a visit to Athens and one to Thessaloniki, is like the difference between staying in a former five star hotel and staying in someone’s home. There is hospitality in search of your wallet and hospitality in search of your heart. Thessaloniki for me, was all about the latter.
Crossing Frontiers – My Wildest Imagination
At some point during my visit to Thessaloniki, I began to look further afield. My eye was not drawn to the obvious in Greece, neither islands nor Athens caught my attention. Instead, it was the hinterlands that I began to focus on. Those provincial outposts of interest that no sane tourist would take time to visit. This would be my Greece in the future. Thessaloniki made all of Thrace suddenly seem possible. The region, a Balkan borderland holds a magnetic attraction for me. I know not a single person who has traveled in its more obscure parts. I have not been back to Greece since my visit to Thessaloniki, but I already know what will come next. Crossing frontiers in my mind, as much as on the land.
The frontier between Greece and Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia, the frontiers that only exist on a map and now appear in my mind. At one time these frontiers were as unfamiliar to me as any other lines drawn upon a foreign land, now I want to become as familiar with them as the lines on my hand. My future travels in Greece, will be like my past ones in Hungary, my future travels in Ukraine will be like my past ones in Hungary and my future in Hungary will be a place like Pecs, and in Ukraine a place like Lviv and in Greece a place like Thessaloniki. I could never have imagined the day I set foot in Pecs, that I was entering a whole new world, one that led the way down a path of endless possibilities. Soon it will be time to go back and go beyond my wildest imagination.