Last week we had a short break in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, in the north of the country in the province of Macedonia. I had a particular reason for wanting to go there, it’s been on my bucket list for a while, and this was our first ever trip to Greece. I don’t think it will be our last!
The city, formerly known as Salonica, has a fascinating history – founded by the ancient Macedonians (although after the death of Alexander the Great) it’s been ruled by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans and, finally the modern Greek State. Under the Ottomans it became a cosmopolitan city, populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews, the latter emigrating here when exiled from Spain and Portugal and becoming the largest ethnic group until they were deported and murdered by the Nazis.
Flying out from Manchester we spent 4 days in the city staying in the Bahar Boutique – a small, chic, boutique style hotel in a very buzzing area of bars, cafes and restaurants not far from the sea front. The room was small but very nicely done up in a contemporary style.
As usual, we kept ourselves busy, so lots to write up. As a start, here’s my overall impressions.
It’s not particularly pretty. In the past it was famous for a picturesque skyline of domes and minarets, but most of the old city was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1917. Since then it has undergone a modernisation and Europeanisation with a plan devised by the French architect Ernest Hébrard after the fire, and Hellenisation also saw the removal of most traces of the Ottomans, with almost all the minarets removed as churches that had been converted to mosques reconverted to churches. Some Ottoman era buildings can be seen, scattered around the city centre, though.
There was a massive influx of Greek refugees in the 1920’s from the territories if the former Ottoman Empire, with Muslims moving in the opposite direction, during a period of what today we would call “ethnic cleansing”. This put additional pressures on the city which spread out with sprawling suburbs.
The city centre is compact and walkable, but transport, buses and taxis, are relatively cheap if you want to get out a bit further afield (as we did on one day)
There’s a lot of graffiti all over the city. Not street art (although there is some of that) but true graffiti. Probably much of it political but it was difficult to tell as most is in the Greek alphabet.
Very friendly indeed, hospitable and helpful. What more can I say? Oh, they clearly enjoy sitting drinking coffee and enjoying their food!
And they certainly have plenty of opportunities to do just that. It seemed like almost every other building was a café or restaurant! The food was excellent and I’ve now become addicted to the favourite Greek way of serving coffee – Freddo Espresso.
One rather unique aspect of Thessaloniki are the “bar boats”. There’s a number of boats dressed up as triremes, pirate ships and the like which provide “free” half hour trips around the bay. The deal is that you buy a drink for around 5 or 6 Euros, with subsequent drinks usually 3 Euros cheaper. This means the trip costs about 3 Euros which we felt was quite a good deal.
Today it’s a low rise city, 8-10 storeys high, of mainly anonymous concrete blocks with glazed balconies. There are, however some gems in amongst the generally bland architecture, including some attractive Modernist buildings
and old churches and other buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman (and some Roman) periods.
And not everything was destroyed by the fire. The upper town avoided the conflagration (although the majority of the houses in the old town have been rebuilt in approximations of the original designs) and we stayed in Ladadike, an area of the old Jewish quarter that was relatively untouched by the inferno and where some older buildings survive.
Museums and Galleries
For once, we didn’t spend much time visiting galleries and museums, but there is a good selection to choose from, not all of them in the city centre.