I had been intrigued by Greece’s second largest city ever since travelling to Athens a few years ago, when I saw a lot of references to it in the media during the trip. I felt like it might offer a more eastern European flavor (it is only 60 miles from the Bulgarian border) and a better grasp of what everyday life in Greece is like, something which has been all but obliterated in the tourist towns of the islands and the Peloponnese.
Just strolling around the downtown area, I casually encounter a triumphal arch from the era of the emperor Galerius, further on, the remains of a Roman forum; I even spotted an ancient bathhouse next to a bus stop. Several of the neighboring towns have extensive ruins and gorgeous tomb artifacts from the era of Alexander the Great, whose family hails from Pella, a town reachable about 40 minutes from Thessaloniki. The archaeological museum and the Museum of Byzantine History, in particular, are of an extremely high standard and house ancient royal pieces of incredible delicacy and artistry.
Churches and Orthodoxy
Orthodox churches dot the urban landscape throughout Thessaloniki. Many of the buildings still in use date back to the 400s CE and the art and architecture inside have been carefully restored from the years in which they were converted to mosques. Small shrines dedicated to a particular saint are scattered throughout the city sidewalks. Near these churches it was common to see someone stop by for a brief prayer or to light a candle.
Ano poli, literally the ‘upper city,’ is an old area of Thessaloniki that clings to the high cliffs above the town center. There are several medieval castles and fortifications here as well as an Ottoman prison. With its sweeping vistas of the bay and Mt. Olympus in the distance, this place is great for a vigorous walk and a bite of lunch with a view. Back in town, Ladadika, the old Jewish quarter, is now a maze of quaint cobblestone streets and a haven for trendy restaurants. Delicious, fresh mezethes (small plates) with a carafe of crisp white wine can be had for a very reasonable price. One restaurant, incredibly apologetic for not having an English menu, painstakingly translated every one of the chef’s offerings that night. Needless to say, the food was delicious.
Kindness of Strangers
I found out the hard way that it is more typical to explore the attractions of Pella, which has the excavations of the ancient (300 BC era) city on one side of town and the archaeological museum on the other side, by rental car. Seeing as I had arrived by public bus, hoofing it around the not-insignificant distances was mandatory. Observing my plight, the employees at both the museum and ancient site helped me out by immediately offering to give lifts in their own cars between the two places.
Red Carpet Treatment
Completely by chance, I was walking along the harbor when I discovered that the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival was about to kick off. The annual festival takes place in early November. It was simple to secure tickets for a show the following night (a Romanian film with English subtitles), which included a Q&A with the director afterwards. Viewers even got to cast their ballot for the film, as it was up for an audience appreciation award.
The Sweet Life
Walking around town, there seem to be about three bakeries for every citizen in Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki is well-known as the pastry capital of the country, due in large part to the strong influence Turkey had in the region for centuries. Bougatsa, a cream or cheese-filled filo dough pastry, is typically eaten for breakfast. I also encountered syrup-soaked wedges of gingerbread in several shops that were both a surprise and delight.