Orestiada seeks way into the new century

Orestiada is a lively town and, under its winter mantle of snow, a pretty one. Despite having an economy in transition, with new competition from across the now open border with Bulgaria, its cultural life is creative and its volleyball team has been in the first division for 21 years. Yet life for its 22,000 inhabitants moves at a provincial pace. The landscape is flat, its streets laid out on a grid and drivers are mostly polite enough to give way to pedestrians. Apartment blocks now outnumber single dwellings and open squares are few and far between. Traditional kafeneia stand next to modern cafes, cheese pie shops next to fast-food outlets in the main square; bars and restaurants are plentiful, hairdressers even more so. Yet Orestiada is not a typical Greek country town. Actor Antonis Theodorakopoulos commutes weekly from Athens (in just three hours) to direct Aeschylus’ «Oresteia» for the local theater company. Right after rehearsals for this classic follow others for a comedy by Yiannis Xanthoulis, another native of the Evros region. It is being directed by Akis Tsonidis, who, along with the Thrace Cultural Center «Dionysos,» has established an amateur theater festival, events for art and letters, and is also building a modern theater and exhibition complex, all without interrupting rehearsals. The halls of the Orestiada Municipal Cultural Development Company (DEPAO) echo to the sounds of piano and guitar; elsewhere some of the 100 members of a newly set up cultural association titled «The Thracians» are practicing traditional dance steps. Among them is Stathis Gandiris, a career soldier, who is learning to play the gaida. It has been two years since the 3rd army brigade command RIMINI moved out of Orestiada for the nearby village of Kavyli, but the army continues to play a major role in the town’s social life and to boost its economy. Since uniforms are no longer required for soldiers off duty, it is not easy to pick them out from among the groups of people enjoying the town’s social life. «It is true that wherever there are army units, the region’s economy benefits,» said Andreas Matzakos, the commanding officer of the brigade until a few weeks ago. «Officers’ whole families move here, even those of junior officers and ordinary soldiers. They and their wives, who are often school or kindergarten teachers, are a boon to the town. The members of the brigade are part of local society. Relationships are good,» he said. Conscripts have their own problems, even if the Evros region is no longer the distant outpost it was once seen as. Some admitted that they couldn’t get used to the place, but most of the town’s residents seem to have got used to the presence of soldiers over so many years. The other constant for the local economy is the university, which opened in 1999 and has seen its first students graduate from its two faculties – Agricultural Development and Forestry and Environment and Natural Resources Management – which have a total of about 1,000 students. Recently postgraduate programs have been introduced and a students’ dorm is under construction. The main economic activity in the broader region has always been agriculture, although the sector is in flux, affected by cross-border relationships and European Union directives. The sugar factory is a case in point. After it opened in 1975, its good years saw turnovers of around 30 billion drachmas. It employed 153 permanent staff, 400 seasonal workers and has another 4,000 under contract. However, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy imposed a 50 percent reduction in output, over an adjustment period from 2006-2009, promoting a transfer from food crops to energy (such as bioethanol). Permanent staff will be reduced to 90-100. «It is certainly a difficult transitional stage,» said its director, Stefanos Spasis, who expressed concern for the factory’s future. Across the border The local shopping market is conservative compared to the rest of Greece, largely devoid of expensive brand names, chains or malls and affected by the cheaper markets across the border in Bulgaria and Turkey. «Of course we go shopping in Edirne (in Turkey), but also in Svilegrad (Bulgaria), when we have time,» said a local woman, Maria. «Why shouldn’t we, on the low wages we make here?» Edirne and its suburb Karagac make up old Orestiada, the town its inhabitants were forced to abandon in 1923 during the exchange of populations. Now it is just a half-hour trip. Just across the border, signs in Greek announce discounts for visitors. A few Turks have begun to appear in Orestiada’s restaurants and cafes, but many would-be visitors from across the border are put off by the 70-euro charge the Turkish authorities have set for a visa. Bulgarians, on the other hand, are too poor for such luxuries, and mostly come across to work on farms. The roads leading to the Dadia Forest nature reserve on the Evros Delta are well maintained, the villages have a cared-for appearance in comparison with other border areas. Orestiada’s new Mayor Dimitris Mouzas is optimistic. «Orestiada is lucky because it is at a junction,» he explained. «There are European programs which we can derive benefits from if we use them properly.» Stavros Papathanakis, the publisher of the magazine Boreas writes of the need for «sure steps and a creative approach… The locals have accumulated information and wisdom over centuries… within an unstable, difficult and multicultural environment.»

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