In strict academic terms, one could describe Trouba as an old Piraeus neighborhood of ill repute, a quarter full of brothels, opium dens and – mostly illegal – gambling clubs. Yet, such a definition, although true, strips the place of the dark glamour, the historical background and the cultural heritage it unquestionably possessed.
For someone, like me, who is too young to know or to remember the place in its prime, vague images and scattered words come to mind when trying to put my hometown’s dazzling, colorful past on paper: cabarets, whores, gamins, movies, potheads, sailors, lights, brothels, songs are only some of them.
Coming to understand that a brief explanation would be unfair or, at the very best, inadequate, I will borrow a comment on Trouba I found in a Greek actress’s book of the same name:
A Chronile of Brothels
As far back as the establishment of the city as Greece’s main port goes, Piraeus had to face social plagues common in every port around the world. It was only natural that among all those women arriving at the city from every corner of the country there would be those practicing the oldest profession: prostitution.
The emergence of common women in Piraeus, however, resulted in a mountain of spoken and written protestations on behalf of the law-abiding householders who were obstinately asking the Police forces of the time to oust those sinful beings from the quarters. The first official, Police authorized brothel in Piraeus started its business in 1852, two years before the British-French Occupation, to serve officers and ships’ crews.
Meanwhile, prostitutes kept coming. In an attempt to deal with the problem once and for all, the government gave away two pieces of national lands in a region called Vourla for the erection and operation of brothels. According to the assignment contract no other brothel would be erected within the city nor could a woman of the settlement work outside the delimited area of Vourla.
No woman was without a pimp, a “partner” in receipts. Their staying within the settlement was obligatory from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. At midnight, the main gate was being locked by the police guard patrolling the perimeter. Despite the strict security measures, however, the pimps would sneak their way in. Murders had become an every day routine and the cause was always the same: a woman.
The “business” was thriving, running uninterrupted for 60 years. When the settlement emerged, the area was practically uninhabited. In 1932, though, and after the arrival of refugees from Smyrna (in 1922), Vourla had turned into a heavily populated region. The citizens could take it no longer. Finally, in 1937 the government stopped the operation of brothels in Vourla. The time of the much more alluring Trouba had come!
When & Why Trouba Turned Sinful
Tradition has it that the famous neighbourhood was named after a water pump (troba in Greek). Since 1860, this water pump was placed in a well situated near the port, at the beginning of Defteras Merarhias Street. The pump used to supply moored ships and wagonettes with water for years.
The broader region of Trouba was surrounded by Miaouli Coast – the main road through the port – Filellinon, Kolokotroni and Sotiros Dios Streets with the streets Filonos and Notara being the center of activities. Ironically enough, given the region’s sinful past, Trouba’s geographical limits were set by two churches: Saint Spyridon and Saint Nicholas.
In Trouba initially settled people arriving from the island of Chios in Piraeus, in mid-19th century. The area gradually grew in importance and finally came to be the financial centre of the port. A jewel in the city with two and three-storey mansions, with stores and shipping companies, hotels and cafés on the waterfront.
After Asia Minor catastrophe and the destruction of Smyrna the port and the streets surrounding Trouba became swarmed with refugees, fact that apparently annoyed the bourgeois citizens who, forgetting their own past, reckoned that the neighbourhood got degraded and started moving to Athens. During WWII, repeated bombings caused extensive destructions to the broader area around the port. Trouba was permanently abandoned by most of its residents. It was then that the first brothels made their appearance with a clientele consisting of German officers and Greek profiteers.
This once illustrious part of the city had irrevocably turned into what came down to history as the neighborhood of “the red lights”. The quarter’s main streets were overflown with brothels, cabarets and adult movie theatres. By the end of the war, night pleasures had prevailed throughout the entire region. The period following the war, up until the late 1960’s, was the heyday of a neighborhood that has passed into legend.
What Happened in Trouba, Stayed in Trouba …
Trouba was considered a benchmark of… not so legal transactions! Every day, ships from the world’s seas were gathering at its threshold: smuggling, shady deals, drug trafficking and other such activities were an every day routine. All kinds of people, colors, outfits and attitudes could be encountered there. Anything most boisterous, weird and spectacular could be seen popping in and out of Trouba’s cafés, taverns and hotels. But as soon as the sun was setting, the place and the people were changing. It was only Under the cover of darkness that a whole mystery world was being unfolded.
The noisy brothels, the dark bars and the flamboyant cabarets had been welcoming cash loaded clients till morning. Trouba could satisfy even the most demanding ones and nothing was blameful. With its radiant vigor, Trouba was the most prestigious Greek “sightseeing” after Acropolis! Apart from seamen, the neighborhood of paid love was the destination of all those men craving to have fun without limits and defuse their libido; in a strongly conservative society where girls remained virgins until marriage and the banner of urban centers was the triptych “country – religion – family”, the anonymity offered in that colorful city corner was more than appealing.
The Girls (… and the Fleet)
Behind the music and the lights, the working hours of the almost 500 women of Trouba were almost inhumane: they worked 12 hours a day – from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The daily clients were up to 100-120 and if the prostitute could not live up to this expectation was considered “old” and done with. Twice a week they went through medical examinations, imposed by both government and madams.
The average charge was particularly low. Of this, a very small percentage was handed out to the “service” (paramours, crones, homosexuals) and the rest of the money was shared between the whore and the bawd.
There was, of course, one and only case when the girls were more than happy to offer their services… the arrival of the US 6th fleet in Piraeus was for Trouba what the Marshall plan was for Europe! To the 500 women at least 2000 more were added during the mooring of the fleet and out of them only a few were actual hookers; maids or plain country girls were coming down to the port for some extra cash for they knew that in two days they could make the earnings of two months!
Everybody in the neighborhood worked at a feverish pace: when the sailors set foot in Trouba – and they always did – the touts were all over them, trying to lure them to whichever cabaret was paying their salary, the girls were giving it all and the families that had, for whatever reason, remained in Trouba were hanging signs on their front doors explaining that no kind of services was to be provided from any woman of the household!
The Educational System of Trouba
Permanent and loyal clients of the brothels in Trouba were the students of the nearby schools. The young men would cut class and sneak into the strictly forbidden quarter to learn the tricks of love from the experts. For some reason, the students’ preferable school subjects to skip were French or Latin…
The girls were particularly affectionate with them. The first-timers, especially, were treated with extra care and understanding. Some of the girls, being aware that the students were quite short on cash, even provided payment facilities: one out of six students was getting it free of charge! According to a friend’s father, a student himself at the time, there was a whore who accepted only students as clients.
Another “student” memory, although not so happy this time, came from my own father and it includes Trouba and, if that’s not awkward enough, his French lady teacher! She was a big, strong, handsome woman who, when not in class, was patrolling the sinful quarter in search of her students, beating the hell out of the unlucky one to get caught! To the students’ great disappointment, her reputation preceded her and if the name of her school happened to be mentioned, all doors in Trouba were closing loudly to their faces…
Trouba in Arts
The many stories of the already legendary Piraeus neighborhood became the source of inspiration for Greek cinema. Hereby, You are presented with the most distinguished ones:
- One of the highlights is a 1960 film “Never on Sunday”, which tells the story of Ilya, a self-employed, free-spirited prostitute who lives in the port of Piraeus. In the film stared Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin while the signature song and the bouzouki theme of the movie became hits of the 1960s and earned the composer, Manos Hatzidakis, an Academy Award. Mercouri won the award for Best Actress at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.
- In 1963 the film “The Red Lights”, directed by Vasilis Georgiadis, introduces Trouba to the world. Nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film /and losing to Fellini’s “8 ½”, the movie follows the individual stories of 5 prostitutes, their misery, shattered dreams and hopes for a better future, only a short time before Trouba shuts down.
- A year later, Dinos Dimopoulos’ film “Lola” is released. Exemplary acting performances are given by Jenny Karezi as the prostitute in the title role and Nikos Kourkoulos as Aris, Lola’s just released from prison betrayed paramour; monumental lines and magnificent music make this film an unforgettable Trouba classic.
- Last but not least, the film “Welcome, Dollar”, directed by Alekos Sakelarios, will once more bring Trouba to the limelight, this time in a comic turn of events.
At the same time, countless songs have been composed for this quarter; for its whores, its bohemian vagabonds and its decadent glamour.
In the dens and joints of Trouba, many famous Rebetiko singers worked and thrived, such as Markos Vamvakaris, Yannis Papaioannou, Michalis Yenitsaris, Takis Binis and Stelios Keromitis.
Day and night the cafés and the gaming clubs were overwhelmed by the sound of bouzouki and baglamas and the smell of hashish.
The Violent “Gentrification”
The history of Trouba is truly impressive. At times, its streets were home and refuge to crowds of the most disparate men. The area stubbornly survived a catastrophic bombing with some of the ruins it left behind still visible, even today. Yet, its history has also been tragic, given the way Trouba was ripped of its soul, overnight. On September 12 1967, police forces, acting under direct orders from the junta-appointed mayor of Piraeus, hunted down and banished from the grounds almost 500 women, sealing their “homes”. The mayor, Aristides Skilitsis, had set in motion what he self-proclaimed to be the “gentrification process” of the city, according to the European standards. What really happened, however, was the violent depredation of the port’s urban identity.
Today, in Filonos Street, the heart of legendary Trouba, shoe stores and garages prevail. Among them gape, forgotten by time, ruins of the mansions where once lived wealthy families before those same mansions, sad relics of glorious times, forever gone, come to house hookers, lads in their first erotic stirrings, rebetes, pimps, paramours and potheads.
Trouba as the younger of us have known it, through “The Red Lights”, “Never on Sunday” and “Lola” no longer exists. Nor does it exist for those who reveled in its cabarets, strolled its streets and tasted its magic in its prime. The beauty of Trouba lies in narrations, in Rebetiko songs and behind the sealed mansion shutters. It is concealed in old memories. Trouba is now nothing but a legend; a charming urban legend once, however, every bit as true…