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Thessaloniki: The City of Museums

This majestic city in Northern Greece is rooted in 3,000 years of history and the fact that it is home to one of the largest collections of museums in the Balkans is testimony to this. Not only is Thessaloníki culturally very rich, but a hive of activity and entertainment, so much so that last year the New York Times dubbed it the "Seattle of the Balkans." Anyone who visits this beautiful city will see that it pulses life with skateboarding teenagers, enthusiastic shoppers, stray dogs, beggars and old men selling a syrupy concoction called salep. Thessaloniki lies in the Greek state of Central Macedonia (not to be confused with the independent country the Republic of Macedonia). The city is home to one million people and is Greece’s second largest city after Athens.

 

Getting There

Thessaloniki is around three and a half hours drive from Sofia. It can also be accessed by a direct rain from the Bulgarian capital and the journey takes around six hours. If you do take your car, be aware that finding a parking place is no easy task and designated car parks are not cheap at around 4 Euros for up to three hours. Traffic congestion is an occupational hazard of living here and many of the locals brazenly flout the parking laws. There are plenty of taxis in the centre as well as the bus company OASTH who run 70 different bus routes.

A Little History

Thessaloníki was established in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon. He named the town in honour of his wife Thessalonike. The city grew to be very prosperous and after the fall of Macedon in 168 BC it became a part of the Roman Empire. The city’s important location at the crossroads of East and West saw it continue to prosper through to the 12th century. In 1246 the city, which was now part of the Byzantine Empire was sold to Venice, who ruled it until it was captured by the Ottomans in 1430 and called it Selanik.
Under Ottoman rule the city's Jewish and Muslim populations expanded. The Jews were invited to co-habit the city by the Ottoman rulers, when they were expelled from Spain. Cleverly the Turks believed that the growth in the Jewish population would prevent the indigenous Greeks from dominating the city. Thessaloníki's Jewish population continued to grow and was the largest Jewish city in the world for two centuries, so much so that it was dubbed "Mother of Israel". During the First Balkan War the Ottoman Army surrendered the city to the Greek Army in 1912 and in 1915 during the First World War the city was used as the base for a massive onslaught on pro-German Bulgaria. A large part of the old town was decimated by an accidental fire in 1917, which left 72,000 inhabitants homeless. During the Second World War Thessaloníki, was occupied by Nazi Germany until 1944. The consequences of this occupation were extremely detrimental; much of the city was bombed in Allied raids and the Jewish population was virtually wiped out by the Germans. The city was rebuilt but in 1978, it was hit by a forceful earthquake, which damaged many of the city's Byzantine buildings and monuments. Many remaining Byzantine and Early Christian buildings became UNESCO heritage sites and in 1997 Thessaloníki became a European City of Culture.

Not to be Missed

There is so much to see in this city that you could easily spend a fortnight here and not see half of what it has to offer. The main landmark in the town is the 16th century White Tower, but it isn’t actually white, more of a creamy - grey colour. The tower forms part of the city’s ancient fortification and some of the adjoining walls, which surrounded the city are still standing. It is well worth taking a walk around the city walls; the most intact parts are in the pretty old town, which overlooks the picturesque bay. The old town is called the Upper Town locally and is a quaint area full of traditional Ottoman wooden houses, narrow, cobbled streets and a beautiful Byzantine citadel.

The seafront is 12 km in length and offers views of the city towering above. It also takes you past the Archaeological Museum, the award-winning Museum of Byzantine Culture and the excavations of a Roman Forum. The main museum area starts at Tsimiski Street – you will not have time to visit every museum here and it is best to plan ahead by checking out the Museums of Macedonia website at www.museumsofmacedonia.gr.

The city’s Byzantine churches are not to be missed. St Demetrios, the most important church in the city named after its patron saint Aghios Demetrios, contains underground catacombs and the saint’s imprisonment chamber, whilst Agia Sophia and St Nicolaos Orfanos are filled with ornate frescoes. The Rotonda, which is almost as old as Rome’s Pantheon, used to be a Roman temple to the God Zeus. Next to this fascinating building are Galerius’ Arch of Triumph of Galerius and his palace ruins.
The Ottoman landmarks in the city are also interesting; the Turkish public baths, the Bezesteni market where jewellery and precious materials were traded, the poorhouse known as the Alatza Imaret and the Hamza Bey Camii, which now houses a variety of exhibitions.


 

 

Entertainment

The OTE TV Tower in the centre of the city has a revolving restaurant, which offers panoramic views across the city. The seaside promenade is home to many cafés, restaurants and shops, whilst Aristotelous Square, which runs from the seafront to the Church of Panayia Halkeion is a living architectural museum of some of the city’s old merchant mansions, many of which are now exclusive boutiques and hotels. At the northerly end of the square there is an attractive park and close by lies Thessaloníki's busy central market, a veritable hive of activity as locals go about purchasing their meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. The market also contains hundreds of stalls selling cheap clothing and shoes, flowers, herbs and spices.

Eating, Drinking and Where to Stay

Thessaloníki is a renowned gourmet city amongst Greek nationals. It is filled with lots of small cafes and restaurants selling tasty local specialities and cheap ouzo. If you’re feeling peckish try a savoury or sweet Bougatsa pie or a Soutzoukakia, which consists of grilled balls of minced meat topped with chilli pepper. The city is home to many ouzeris, which are restaurants specializing in the national Greek drink, ouzo. The best of these are Agora, Odos Aristotelous, Vrotos, and Bit-Pazar. The Greeks say you should eat a selection of small dishes with your ouzo. There are some notably good Cretan restaurants in the city; the Myrsini at the back of the State Theatre and Apo Dyo Horia are worth a try. In these restaurants the Turkish spirit Raki is the main tipple.

Thessaloníki is home to some ultra trendy bars particularly on the seafront and in the old town. There are also some great bars and nightclubs at the eastern end of the city in the Krini and Ladadika districts. Students hang out in Kamara round the Arch of Galeriusand this area is home to many cheaper bars and cafes. During the summer the harbor area is filled with “floating bars.” They are a great way to see the Gulf of Thessaloniki whilst enjoying some great ethnic music and a glass of ouzo.

The city has much to offer in the way of accommodation, but it does get crowded during the summer months and it is best to visit out of season or else to book in advance. The El Greco Hotel offers comfortable three star accommodations in the centre of the city close to Aristotelous Square. The Hotel Philippion offers four star accommodation right in the centre of the lush, forested Seich-Sou Park and provides some splendid views over the city and towards the bay. The stunning Hotel Byzantio is located on the West Peripheral and is surrounded by greenery and mountains. It lies close to the water mills and is a great place to relax and enjoy the natural beauty surrounding this wonderful city.

Photographs courtesy of AJ Alfieri-Crispin and Marietta Sopiadou