France’s WWI legacy in northern Greece

Victor kissed his wife one last time, grabbed his knapsack and hit the road. He needed to cross Paris to catch the train that would take him to the front. Many months later his family received word that Victor had been killed in battle a few kilometers outside of Florina, northern Greece. What his family was not told was that he was among a group that left a significant legacy in the region of Macedonia.

World War I scholars and specifically those who have studied the Balkan Front talk about some of the bloodiest and most heroic action of the war as having taken place there. What is less known is that the French soldiers serving on the massive Eastern Front left behind more than their memories of four years of war. The know-how behind wine production and bottling sparkling water and even the brass wind instruments of Florina have their roots in those days. Today, a group of locals are trying to revive this history in order to attract European tourism to the region.

?The French in a way expanded ?military management? to the education of the local residents and refugees so that they could in future become integrated members of a French administration,? explained Vassilis Mavrommatis, a PhD candidate at the Ecole de Louvre?s School of Museology in Paris. They contributed to regional development by building roads, irrigation works and other life-improving projects, and also to schools by promoting music education. ?They tried to ?conquer? the Greeks culturally. A characteristic example is that they trained locals to the standards of French military bands,? said Mavrommatis. ?The famed brass winds of Florina and Igoumenitsa are an echo of the tradition handed down by French musicians.

?Meanwhile, many of the French soldiers who ended up in northern Greece were involved in wine production, one way or another, and were able to discern the potential of local grape varieties. They went on to teach the people how to grow vines, spray the plants and water them, how to collect the grapes and make wine so that they could increase the yields of their farms.?

They were equally interested in the sparkling and curative mineral waters of Macedonia, becoming the first to bottle Florina?s sparkling water and creating the Pozar baths for soldiers wounded in battle at Aridea in Pella.

?The activities were even published in the London Times,? explained Mavrommatis, ?compelling the British to think up ways to use the sparkling water found at the village of Metalliko in Kilkis, which was under their jurisdiction.?

Mavrommatis added that, ?today, Macedonia and the Eastern Front are very prominent in history books in French and British schools, and this history cultivates in many the desire to visit the place where there great-grandfathers once fought.?

According to the French consul in Thessaloniki, Christian Thimonier, who has traveled to the region, has seen a great deal of interest expressed by French people to visit as well. ?The Louvre is planning an exhibition on ancient Macedonia for this year, while there will also be a related documentary broadcast on French television,? he explained. ?I believe that these will draw French visitors. Meanwhile, an exhibition is set to open in July dedicated to Xino Nero [a Macedonian brand of sparkling water], while there are also plans to build a memorial to the French soldiers who fought there.?

For the project to go ahead though, there first needs to be a space that can operate as a permanent information center for visitors. The local authorities, however, refuse to cede any of the school buildings in Amyntaio and Xino Nero that have been suggested for the purpose. ?While we have been working very hard for this specific issue we have noticed that the local authorities are really laid-back about it all,? said Anthimos Tortokas, a board member of the Amyntaio Ecotourism Society, which is one of the biggest champions of the project. ?We are very concerned because the promotion of tourism is a matter of survival for many local businesses. It?s a shame to let such an opportunity slip away because of a bureaucratic snag.?

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