Volos is an attractive little city with a long history stretching back deep into antiquity, and although large parts of the old town were destroyed by the devastating earthquakes of 1954 and 1955, some older buildings still remain. Orange trees line many of the streets, and at this time of year their plentiful fruit provides a cheerful blaze of colour. I’m told the oranges aren’t sweet, being of a variety best used for marmalade, which probably explains why they don’t seem to get picked by passersby. Good – I like seeing them.
Many years ago, when I was still in primary school, we had a calendar which featured Moncreid’s “Still Life with Oranges.” I loved that picture – I could almost taste the succulent oranges. The green jug was similar to one we had, we too had bone-handled knives, but the kilim on which they rested fascinated me. It spoke to me of far-off lands, of fairy tales and exotic peoples, of different ways of life. I was enthralled.
Oranges, lemons, mandarins and other varieties of citrus fruit abound now. Buy them in the street markets, choose at the supermarket, get them from greengrocers, or stop to shop from a tiny roadside stall. “Are they sweet?” you ask as you climb out of the car. “Absolutely! Here, taste.” The seller will whip out a knife and peel the succulent fruit in a second. “No, no, that’s OK, ” I usually say, “I believe you.” A bag or two is filled, a euro or two is handed over, a word or two about the weather is exchanged. Everybody’s happy.
The tables in the fruit and vegetable markets would complain, if they could, about the huge heaps of citrus stacked upon them. Oranges, oranges and still more oranges. Even though the produce market is packed with fruit and vegetables, with fresh fish and cured meats, with olives, cheeses, herbs and flavoured olive oils, preserves and sweetmeats, breads and baked goods that would surely tempt the gods, it’s the oranges that are the most distinctive. You can’t miss them.
The fruit and veggie market is always lively, a meeting as well as a marketing place, with buyers and sellers alike chattering and yelling. The news of the day is announced and pronounced upon, gossip’s passed back and forth, babies and children are fussed over, and all the while supplies are bargained for. Produce inspected, weighed and the sale concluded, the goods are tucked into bags and baskets as the shopper continues on their way. No need to hurry. Lots to see. Much to talk about.
Street markets are a common sight throughout Europe. Many towns and cities grew from ancient beginnings at crossroads where merchants from exotic parts set up bazaars to buy, to sell, to swap news, to plot, to scheme. In short, to engage in all the activities man is capable of.
Several of these markets are historically significant, well documented in book and film, essential destinations for tourist and trader alike. There is much to explore, both in open air and covered street markets, while the careful observer will note that little has changed with respect to human behaviour. Sadly now in certain countries local markets are fast becoming targets for those whose twisted minds seek to sow horror and carnage.
As one travels further and further east across the Balkans, away from the sophisticated culture of urban areas and deeper into the simpler life of isolated rustic communities, the street market has much more in common with its ancient counterpart. The exchange of goods, especially fresh produce, is vital to the well-being of the community. It is not unusual, even today, to encounter people clad almost entirely in handmade garments, people who have never gone beyond their village of birth.
On to the fun! Friends have been regaling me with stories of their fantastic buys in recent months, and as it’s been some time since we visited a Volos street market, we decided to do so this past Friday. Small neighbourhood markets take place on most days, typically offering fish and fresh produce, while the Wednesday and Friday markets are the largest with regard to clothing and household goods.
They can be huge, occupying several blocks, so these markets are required to rotate their locations in order not to inconvenience residents and shopkeepers on a regular basis. There’s a roster determined by the municipality, but because the clothing markets are situated in an area of upper Volos, away from the town centre, it’s not strictly necessary to know exactly where they will be held – it soon becomes obvious as you drive along where the hustle and bustle is.
It’s also apparent that parking is a problem: the streets are narrow, the vehicles numerous, the obstacles many, the crowds large. Nothing for it but to get stuck in. Literally. You can see why we don’t often go. Hubby dropped me at an intersection and went off to sandwich the car somewhere; thank goodness for cell ‘phones which make it possible to locate each other in the throng.
We often joke that you can clothe yourself from head to foot as you meander through the stalls, such is the variety of goods on sale, from shoes and socks, underpants and some rather improbable-looking bras, to sweaters, coats and headgear. You can eat too, if street food’s your thing – souvlaki, sausages, grilled corn on the cob, the ubiquitous sesame bread twists. The smells are tempting but I confess to a certain reluctance to sample them.
You can take care of personal grooming; you can accessorize; you can clean, carpet, curtain and cushion your home; dress up your dining room; brighten your bedroom, and toss a few new tschotsches about while you’re at it. Depending on your taste of course.
While you may occasionally see a soul selling some interesting item from the ancestral home, the bulk of the goods consists of cheap imports though lately it’s clear that stock has been obtained from defunct business enterprises. This is where the bargains are to be found, good quality clothing in particular – if you’re prepared to rummage through the piles stacked on the trestle tables. Designer pieces turn up – sometimes with the labels removed which I’m told is the practice when prestigious names clear their overstocks – to the delight of the savvy buyer.
Most of the vendors are Roma people, often referred to as gypsies – an offensive term. The Roma in Greece are settled in tightly knit communities, are citizens, and aren’t as a rule itinerant. Their native language remains intact, and certainly here in Greece the Roma are fully bilingual. (It’s worth noting that the Roma I recently encountered in Bulgaria speak a different Roma dialect, as well as Bulgarian.)
The Roma and their history have been of interest to me since childhood, but I’m not going to elaborate on their culture now – I’ll drone on about it another time.
What all the vendors do have in common is their patter, pitched at ear-splitting volume. Roma women often sit atop the tables stacked with their wares, tossing garments at would-be shoppers:
” Come on, my love!” they bawl.
“Look at this beauty! Where will you find such a bargain! Don’t think for one moment you would pay this pitiful amount in the snooty store!”
Their helpers dart about, taking the money, retrieving the goods, cajoling the doubtful into a purchase.
“Girls! Girls! Would I lie to you? Would I? You think I’m selling things? Am I selling things? I’m not selling things, girls, I’m not selling! I’m giving it away!”
All good fun. I’ve never encountered rudeness, I must say, and find it absolutely fascinating, though I’m not made of stuff stern enough to spend a lot of time in the raucous atmosphere.