Thessaloniki: Macedonian Elegance
Greece’s second city is brimming with life. Thessaloniki doesn’t just follow Athens. Thessaloniki creates its own rules and paradigms, and yes, Athens sometimes follows. And then the rest of Greece follows. Kind of like how the ubiquitous frappe coffee burst onto the national scene sometime in the 1950’s; a local barista with some time on his hands singlehandedly changed the course of Greek cafeterias (and he didn’t even get his dues. Sigh). And with it a whole culture changed. So yeah, Thessaloniki’s credentials are sharp, thank you very much. Heck, inventing the frappe would’ve been more than enough to cement its stature. Never mind the thousands year old history and seminal architecture.
As it turns out, the capital of Macedonia is much more than coffee and mpougatsan (we’ll get to that part later, you’ll thank me, too). Even though it’s culinary virtue is unsurpassed, its history is fascinating.
And it doesn’t hurt that the city’s original founder happens to be one of Alexander the Great’s generals; Cassander.
With various conquerors along the ages, ranging from the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans, Thessaloniki has a multicultural vibe about it. Since the times when Thessaloniki flourished under the ethnically diverse Byzantium, its face has been one of acceptance and multi-religion. The Jewish presence in Thessaloniki was big, as it was one of the main Sephardic centres after they were driven out of Spain.
Similarly, the Asia minor influences are strong. Some half a million Anatolian Greeks from Turkey landed on Greek shores during the 1920’s, lending it further cosmopolitan appeal.
This is all mirrored in the city and its populace.
THINGS TO SEE
The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 razed a third of the city, including a big chunk of the Jewish quarter (There is still one synagogue left). However, many of the city’s old structures were spared. Anything on the upper mezzanine of the city was saved. And that includes Ano Poli, or the Upper Town. This part of the city provides some scenic vistas of the city, particularly in the evening. The Venetian Heptapyrgion fortress is also up there along with the old city walls.
Galerius’s Arch is a 4th century construct by Emperor Galerius standing proud in the middle of the city, and does in fact include a visual sculpted tale of the Persian attack in 3 BC . The similarly impressive Rotunda right next has been used as a mosque, church and Roman temple during its century old existence. Having survived earthquakes, fires and just about every kind of ignominy it is nothing short of impressive.
Same goes for the Hagia Sophia church. This church has been around since at least the 11th century and once inside, the magnetism draws you in. The mosaics and painting as well as the intricate furniture is riveting.
Naturally, the city’s symbol, the majestic White Tower is something to be experienced in all its splendor. The wily Thessalonikans have transformed the inside of the tower into a veritable state of the art museum that includes VR and interactive types of learning. Plus, it’s pretty to look at from the outside, while you’re sipping on that frappe. Boom!
You’ll be wanting to stock up on culture, too. Fear not. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is where you can find out about the city’s history.
THINGS TO DO
At just under a million inhabitants, Thessaloniki is by no means big. But, that is essentially one of its draws. With a big proportion of the populace being students, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time.
The youth gather outside, on the streets, on the squares and the pavements sometimes. Al fresco living beats any other living, and when you’re in Thessaloniki you should just enjoy the fact that you can do anything and everything outside.
Aristotelous square is the seaside plaza lined with bars, cafes and palm trees that the youth prefers. Flanked by tall, impressive neo-classical buildings and the sweet smell of the Thermaic Gulf, the promenade which runs by it is an ideal stroll.
Navarinou square is also a popular haunt for Greece’s biggest student population. It has a bohemian feel about it with street musicians and performers.
FOOD & DRINK
In Thessaloniki you’ll eat well. That’s no secret. You are in Greece, after all. But Thessaloniki has a few tricks up its sleeve. One of them is the newly coined mpougatsan. A cross between the croissant and the traditional fillo pastry cream mpougatsa. It was invented in the city, just like the frappe and the koulouri-the traditional bagel like dough that Greeks eat for breakfast and/or lunch.
And if you want to survey the fine products that you put in your mouth, you definitely have to visit the Modiano and Kapani markets, housed in a 1922 building that is in itself a pretty sight.
Thessaloniki is a gem. The architecture, the food and the history are all tremendous. But as always with Greece, the people are its biggest magnet. For it’s the people that make the city. And when a city is founded by greatness, the results can never be anything but great.