Thessaloniki - A Historical and Modern Greek City

Neither Gill nor I had ever been to Greece before a recent trip to Thessaloniki. Shameful, I know. And, let’s be honest, it’s not the first place in Greece most Brits usually head for.

But the country’s second largest city is a revelation, and will hopefully loom larger on our tourism radar screen in years to come. It certainly has much to offer Silver Travellers.

History

Reading Victoria Hislop’s The Thread had at least given us an insight into the city’s tumultuous history and multi-layered culture before we went. The novel’s main characters let us experience Thessaloniki’s key 20th century events through their eyes, and really helped to add some context for our own visit:
  • The great fire of 1917 that ripped through the heart of the city, burning over 30% of its central area; fanned by the fierce northerly Vardaris wind, the fire swept through 250 acres of buildings, destroying 9,500 homes, most of the city’s churches, banks, schools, printing presses, hotels and shops. 72,000 were left homeless, most of them Jews from the labyrinthine Ano Poli (Old City) area.
  • In 1922, the city’s cosmopolitan and religious mix endured a sea change. Until then, Jews, Muslims and Christians had happily co-existed, living cheek-by-jowl in the narrow streets of Ano Poli. But with the rout of Greek Christians in Asia Minor, Muslims returned to Turkey and evicted Greek Orthodox Christians fled from Smyrna, some ending up in the Thessaloniki homes just left vacant by departing Muslims.
  • The moving city memorial to Thessaloniki's Jewish community, transported to Nazi death camps in 1943During the 2nd World War, Nazi Germany occupied Thessaloniki from 1941. They persecuted the city’s Jewish population, stripping them of their homes and businesses, and interning them in a ghetto near the railway station. Most of the city’s remaining 50,000 Jews were promised land in Poland and herded onto trains in 1943, before being slaughtered in the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belsen.
  • After the 2nd World War had ended, a bitter and violent struggle for power ensued in Greece, between government forces and the Communist-led Democratic Army. Thessaloniki was one focal point, partly because of its strategic location in northern Greece, close to the mountainous terrain near the borders of Albania, Bulgaria and old Yugoslavia, where partisan fighters had led the resistance against the Germans during the war.
  • The Great Thessaloniki earthquake of 1978 was another disaster for the city, destroying many buildings, some of which have not been restored to this day.

The Thread’s narrative ceases in 2007, just before the next cataclysmic event to impact the city, and the country. The Crisis of 2008 remains a constant reference point for many of the people we met during our trip. Wherever the fault lies, it has resulted in financial turmoil, a national debt the size of Mount Olympus, mass unemployment and an uncertain future for many, particularly the young.

Prior to Victoria Hislop’s 20th century tale, Thessaloniki played a central role in many civilisations - Macedonian and Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman. Each of these has left a deep footprint on the city’s contemporary soul, and immersing yourself in this vibrant multi-layered city makes you feel like an H. G. Wells time traveller.

Thessaloniki today

Fellow Silver Travel Advisor writers Jennie Carr and Jacqueline Jeynes have also explored Thessaloniki recently, and have written excellent articles on both the city’s history and its current attractions:

Jacqueline visited in September and Jennie in December. I was lucky to be there in April, warm spring sunshine wrapping itself around us as we wandered the atmospheric streets, or dodged others on the recently extended 7 km long promenade, arcing around the Thermaikos Gulf and pulsing with walkers, joggers, cyclists and street entertainers.

Aristotelous Square and the Thermaikos Gulf from the balcony of Orizontes at the Electra Palace HotelAfter the 1917 fire, the city was reimagined by French architect and urban planner Ernest Hebrard. The Mediaeval and Ottoman past was replaced with modern European features - wide boulevards, contemporary roadways, squares and parks - with some Byzantine heritage retained.

The focal point of the city today is Aristotelous Square, a broad, grand boulevard gently rising from the waterfront to Mitropoleos Street and with its longer plaza extending up as far as the central artery of Egnatias Avenue. The Square is an important hub for the city and for Greece, used for rallies, political speeches, cultural events and festivals. Lined with bars, cafés and restaurants, it’s a fun place now to people-watch, and indulge in an ice cream or a cold Greek Mythos beer.

Food

Octopus in the vibrant food markets of ThessalonikiFood plays an important role in Thessaloniki’s past and present. Book a morning session with the enlightening Eat and Walk team, operating out of the Marmita Cooking Lab on Mitropoleos Street. Founder Smaragda will make you a strong, traditional Greek coffee and serve up breakfast, including freshly made local dishes - Koulouri bread rings, Byzantine-inspired and usually coated in sesame seeds; and bougatsa, filo-pastry wrapped sweet or savoury pastries, a Thessalonikan dish but influenced by Ottoman Turks.

At the same time as you’re munching and guzzling, Smaragda will use a slide-show to give a fascinating insight into the city’s culinary history and everything that has shaped its multicultural gastronomy today.

Despina will take over to give you a tour of the markets. Wandering through the 80 year-old Modiano Market - between Vasileos Irakliou Street and Egnatias Avenue - was one of the highlights of our trip. We dived into the darkest corners of enchanting shops with her, sampling  local olives, a few cheeses, some sweet jams, honey and nut biscuits that clung satisfyingly to the teeth. We heard about the influence of Persia, its spices still used widely today, and food originating from all the other earlier empires, bringing the slide-show to vibrant modern life.

Intoxicating goodies in Modiano MarketClose by is the much older Kapani Market, quieter than Modiano but with interesting shops and tavernas tucked away down its narrow alleyways.

At the end of the tour Despina took us for a light lunch, in the shadow of one of the city’s remaining Ottoman hammams. Lightly toasted bread, plump oily anchovies, real - not Lady Penelope pink - taramasalata and satisfyingly grainy hummus were helped down by strong tsipouro, with anise and Titanic quantities of ice cubes.

This is intelligent, fun and tasty tourism, giving a deep insight into Thessaloniki’s food culture.

The city is the undisputed gastronomic capital of Greece. Take the opportunity to graze at some of its many animated restaurants, ouzerias and tavernas. Outwardly at least, the financial crisis does not seem to have impacted Thessaloniki’s appetite in any way. And interestingly, at least in the central areas we visited, nearly all of the eateries offer Greek food. It was refreshing to see a place confident in its own cuisine, and not be assaulted on every street by smells from Thailand, China, India, Lebanon, Italy and all points in between.

Ouzou MelathronOur lovely host Evdokia took us to a couple of excellent restaurants. Ouzou Melathron is in the funky Karipi arcade, not far from the Modiano Market. Mezedes - sharing dishes kept on coming - a Cretan salad, smoked mackerel, omelette with special pastourma meat crisped on top, chicken souvlaki on pitta bread, roast garlic potatoes, a moussaka-like dish served on a long, thin, curved plate, and with chunks of tender beef, rather than lamb, and mushrooms rather than aubergines, all with a thick cheesy crust. We waddled back to the hotel.

At Zythos, we sat at a small wooden table on the pavement of Katouni Street, at the epicentre of the intriguing Ladadika district. Once the heart of the city’s olive oil industry, it is now a constantly animated area, with bars, restaurants and music venues filling its narrow, cobbled streets and old warehouses. Grazing on mezedes - sharing dishes - is patently the way people like to eat in this part of Greece. We were soon dividing up a large Greek salad, topped by a huge slab of herby feta cheese, fresh mackerel, sea bass and mashed potato, and small red mullet, then traditional Halva, a sweet of Arabic origin, with ice cream and dark, wild cherries. Followed by more waddling.

Octopus in traditional taverna PanellinionLater in the trip we ate at the excellent Panellinion restaurant, on the fringes of Ladadika, gorging one gluttonous lunchtime on fresh octopus, grilled mushrooms and some chicken livers as soft as my distended Greek stomach. And our final lunch in this epicurean city was at the charming Basilikos, a tiny bistro on cobbled Egyptou Street in Ladadika. They served us a tabbouleh salad, meatballs in a delicate deep-fried crumb, and grilled halloumi.

If you love food that’s fresh, traditional, interesting and good value, that alone is a good enough reason to visit this enchanting city.

Exploring

Thessaloniki is a living museum and needs to be explored on foot, wherever possible, although there are good bus and taxi services for less mobile Silver Travellers.

We enjoyed the expert insight of two professional guides, to help peel away the centuries of history behind the modern city.

The White TowerWe walked miles with Anastasia, through Ladadika to Aristotelous Square, along the promenade to the city’s most prominent landmark the White Tower, and then through the middle of the city, learning about the sites of important remains from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, stumbling across Muslim hammams with their tortoise-like domes, and gawping at grand Byzantine, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. We did jump in a taxi to visit the more elevated Ano Poli, where we stood by the old city walls and looked down across the entire breadth of Thessaloniki, to the Aegean Sea, and - across the Thermaikos Gulf - to the hazy, snowy peak of Mount Olympus that would so bewitch us a few days later.

And, taking refuge from the spring heat, Anastasia introduced us to the frappe coffee, first invented here in Thessaloniki in 1957, by a Nescafe sales rep. It’s now a symbol of post-war Greek coffee culture, and has since been adopted - and adapted - worldwide. Gill is not a coffee-drinker but enjoyed the alternative iced hot chocolate. Either way, sitting on the balcony of the Propyleon cafe (on Eptapirgiou Street), sipping a chilled Greek beverage and looking down on this beguiling city was pretty close to tourist heaven.

Gill and guide Nena at the Archaeological MuseumLater in our stay, Nena - another professional guide - interpreted the dazzling contents of the city’s Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Byzantine Culture for us. In the former there are remarkable exhibits from the Archaic period (8th century BC to the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC) through all other epochs and empires to the period of Ottoman rule (mid 15th century until the early 18th). The Byzantine rule was effectively a continuation of the Roman Empire in the east of Europe, surviving the fragmentation of the Western Empire in Rome in the 5th Century AD and lasting until the Ottoman Turks took over, a thousand years later, in the 15th century. During this long Byzantine period, Thessaloniki was second in importance only to Constantinople (now Istanbul), being closer than Athens to the centre of empire. Huge importance was attached to religious icons of the Greek Orthodox Church around this time, and a startling number are on display in the latter museum.

One of the many things we loved about Thessaloniki is that it is still very much a working port. Container ships the size of small towns lay at anchor in the hazy harbour, and cranes tower over the quayside, like oil derricks on steroids.

A typical scene in Ano Poli, Thessaloniki's Old CityPier 1 of the port has been remodelled and open to the public since 1912. It offers scintillating views back over the promenade to the city’s waterfront area, and - especially in the early evening light - is a popular destination for photographers and young lovers. Drop into the Photography Museum here for an exhibition of old photos and information that give a revealing history of the port - one of the largest in southeast Europe - and its perennial importance to the city. There is also a funky art gallery, and an arty cinema, and - best of all of on a warm, sunny Macedonian day - the Kitchen Bar. Grab one of the outdoor tables next to a shade-giving olive tree, order a cocktail...and luxuriate in the view back to the city, and out to the Aegean Sea.

If you’ve got time to extend your trip beyond Thessaloniki, passenger ferries run from here to the North Aegean islands and to Athens.

On another sunny day, after you’ve strolled the length of the promenade, explored the White Tower Museum, and taken photos of the fun Umbrellas art installation, climb on board one of the boats departing from close to the White Tower. They run frequent trips around the harbour, play cool music, and are free. Yes, free. The first drink is expensive by landlubber standards, but not excessively so, and thereafter drinks are half-price. Each tour takes 30 minutes and offers yet another brilliant perspective of the city, the port and the Gulf, all the way over to Mount Olympus.

Where to stay

We stayed at the grand Mediterranean Palace Hotel. In a great location, near the port, on the edge of vibrant Ladadika and a 10 minute walk to Aristotelous Square, it’s a little jaded internally ... but then which of us isn’t?

A better option is the Electra Palace Hotel, part of the Electra Group. A landmark building, in an imposing Byzantine-inspired style and overlooking Aristotelous Square, this is relaxed luxury in a perfect location. On our final night, we had dinner with Evdokia at the hotel’s Orizontes Roof Garden restaurant. Sitting on its curved outdoor balcony, sharing cocktails, tempura prawns and fresh local fish, and gazing out across the Thermaikos Gulf really was the perfect end to our stay in this welcoming, intriguing, fun city.

Beyond Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki will easily keep you entertained for an extended city break, but if you have time to explore further afield there are plenty of other exciting options for Silver Travellers, whatever your interests or activity levels.
  • Halkidiki and the Mount Athos area
  • Meteora
  • Mount Olympus and the Pieria Riviera

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Thessaloniki

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