Explore northern Greece for its history, cuisine and shopping - all mixed up as moussaka
Just as people can't hide love or a cough, cities can't hide their history. Thessaloniki is no exception. This part of the Thermaic Gulf was making history centuries before 315 BC, when the Macedonian King Cassander founded a city there. He christened the new settlement after his wife, Thessalonike, the daughter of Filip II of Macedonia, who was herself named after one of her father's victories.
The layers of Thessaloniki's millennia-long history are clearly visible to the unaided eye. The centre's straight streets, built after the Great Fire of 1917, connect the crumbling Ottoman ruins, the Roman Arch of Galerius and one of the oldest churches in the world, Aghios Demetrios. One of the city's main thoroughfares begins from the promenade, passes by the White Tower - which isn't actually white - continues past the Ottoman houses in Ano Poli, and ends at the fortress and the Chain Tower.
In Thessaloniki, however, hedonism usually manages to get the upper hand over history. Teenagers gather near the equestrian statue of Alexander the Great on the promenade to show off their skateboarding skills, rather than to dream of following in his footsteps. Most of the thousands of visiting Bulgarians don't come here for Aghios Demetrios's Byzantine mosaics. They come for the shopping – extra virgin olive oil, genuine Zara clothes and fake flowers from IKEA – and the food, especially the fish.
Symbol of Thessaloniki: The White Tower
Of course, the province of Macedonia's capital contains enough contrasts to remind you that you're still in the Balkans. Shoppers at the chic boutiques on Tsimiski Street jostle past beggars and street dogs. In front of Starbucks you can spot stooped old men selling salep, a syrup still served up the same way it was during the Ottoman Empire – from metal tanks.
Meat seller at the world-renowned Modiano market
The marketplace is enough to give any EU bureaucrat a heart attack. Bulgarian and Romanian women hawk smuggled cigarettes. Butchers display tripe – used to make patsás, or the Greek version of shkembe chorba – in refrigerated shop windows. They also plop liver into plastic tubs and hack apart lambs' heads with a zeal that splashes everything nearby. Whatever you do, don't look down! The fishmonger from the stand next door is likely to dump out dirty water right by your feet.
An ouzo or a couple of glasses of retsina, or resinated white wine, along with eggplant stew in a non-touristy tavern will help you recover from the shock. How would you find such a restaurant? Look for chairs with worn-through wicker seats, paper tablecloths, tin pitchers of retsina, solitary elderly diners, and bills of around 10 euros. They can usually be found in the old Hali, or indoor marketplace.
Shopping in Thessaloniki's fashionable Tsimiski Street
No amount of retsina, patsás and M&S bags can fully hide Thessaloniki's history, however. Theo Angelopoulos' decision to begin Ulysses' Gaze precisely in Salonika was not a coincidence. The film, which won the 1995 Grand Prix in Cannes, describes the long and complicated history of the Balkans. The history of Salonika is only one small part of it, but is likewise long and complicated, involving thousands of characters. The supporting cast has included the Normans, who conquered and pillaged the city in 1185, as well as the knight Boniface of Monferrat, who after capturing Constantinople in 1204 made Salonika the capital of his Kingdom of Thessalonika. The Venetians bought the city in 1423, but after a long siege surrendered it to the Ottomans in 1430. Of course, we shouldn't forget the Zealots, a group of reformers who in the 1340s tried to turn the city into in an egalitarian society free from the aristocracy and the high clergy.
The main characters in the drama, however, are the Greeks, the Turks, the Bulgarians and... the Jews.
Lunch at a sidestreet eatery off Modiano market
Church of Agios Demetrios
The City of Aghios Demetrios
For the Greeks, Thessaloniki has been eternally doomed to second fiddle. In Byzantine times, Constantinople overshadowed it, as Athens does now. Yet for centuries, when sultans lived in Constantinople and Athens was nothing more than a little town with a big name, Salonika was the true heart of Greece.
Perhaps the reason was the city's convenient trade location, on a bay and at the crossroads of two important roads – the route leading from Central Europe along the Struma and Vardar river valleys and the Via Egnatia, which connects the Adriatic and the Bosphorus.
The real reason for the city's prominence may be due to Aghios Demetrios of Salonika. The Emperor Galerius (305-311 AD), notorious for his persecutions of Christians, made the warrior-saint a martyr. That ruler was also responsible for the city's most notable Roman ruins: the triumphal arch and the Rotunda, which since 311 has served as Galerius' mausoleum, as well as a church, a mosque (its minaret still stands), yet another church and a museum which is currently being renovated.
However, rather than seeking revenge, Aghios Demetrios has acted as the city's protector. According to mediaeval manuscripts, he saved Salonika several times when Slavic tribes besieged it during the 5th to the 7th Centuries. The manuscripts fail to mention, however, that one of the most likely causes of the Slavs' failure was their bungled catapults.
The Greeks themselves often fail to mention that during most of Thessaloniki's history, they weren't even the dominant population there. Recently Macedonians have taken to calling the city "our Thessaloniki" adding more fuel to the dispute between the two countries.
Ethnic Greeks begin to outnumber other residents after 1912, when they seized the city from the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan War. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the victory occurred on 27 October, the day after the Feast of Aghios Demetrios. Mass settlement by Greeks began in earnest in the 1920s, when Turkey and Greece exchanged populations.
At first glance the Ottoman traces in Thessaloniki may seem quite scanty – the minaret next to the St George Rotunda, the Hamza Bey mosque, the Bey hamam, the houses in Ano Poli, and the history of the White Tower – which was in fact built by the Byzantines and the Venetians. The tower earned its name in the 1890s, when a Jewish prisoner won his freedom by whitewashing it. Before that, it bore a far more ominous title – the Bloody Tower. When in 1826 Sultan Mahmud II disbanded the Janissary corps by simply slaughtering all the janissaries, the tower was the place where he “liquidated” the garrison in Salonika.
To find traces of the Ottomans, however, you don't even need to get up from your dinner table. Simply wait for your waiter to bring you the obligatory free dessert. This heavenly mix of caramel, semolina and white chicken meat is so delicious that even Greek nationalists haven't dared to Hellenise its Turkish name - kazan dibi.
The Turks themselves most highly prize the part of their Salonika past located at the intersection of Ayiou Dimitriou and Apostolu Pavlou Streets at the foot of the Chain Tower. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born in 1881 in the building now housing the Turkish consulate.
The reformer, who transformed the Ottoman Empire into the secular Republic of Turkey, could hardly have picked a better birthplace. The city was one of the strongholds of the Young Turks – from there they launched the coup in 1908 that eventually toppled Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
The small museum dedicated to Atatürk in the consulate is open to all visitors – at least the ones willing to put up with the rigorous security. Entrance is free.
More Saints: Cyril and Methodius
Cyril and Methodius, the inventors of the proto-Slavonic alphabet, were born in Salonika in the 9th Century. In Bulgaria they are sometimes referred to as the “Salonika Brothers”
Bulgarians despise the date 27 October 1912. At the height of the Balkan War their army raced to reach Salonika before the Greeks and declare it their territory. They considered the city more Bulgarian than Greek.
Although the Slavs – Bulgarians consider themselves Slavs when it suits them – didn't manage to capture the city, they settled in the surrounding region and gradually moved into town. In the 9th Century they were so numerous that Emperor Michael III selected local Greek intellectuals – the brothers Cyril and Methodius – to invent a Slavic alphabet.
You guessed it – they were the same Cyril and Methodius whose disciples brought the Slavic alphabet to Bulgaria and who transformed it into modern Cyrillic. For that reason, most Bulgarians don't believe that the two brothers from Salonika were Greeks on a political mission to unite the Slavs with Byzantium. They consider them pure Bulgarians led by a higher calling.
By the beginning of the 20th Century there were 10,000 Bulgarians in Salonika. During the Revival Period the city was one of the hubs of the Bulgarian national movement. In 1880 a prestigious men's high school was founded there. A few years later the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, or VMRO, which fought to free Bulgarians in Macedonia from Ottoman rule, was also established. Between 14 and 18 April 1903 some of its members decided to attract Europe's attention with a series of spectacular attacks in Salonika. They blew up the French ship Quadalquivir as it left the harbour; they also bombed the Salonika-Constaninople Railway, the city water main and the Banque Ottomane. The actions resulted only in their own deaths.
Many Bulgarians, however, dream about Salonika for other reasons. “If only I had the luck to be assigned to the Salonika customs house! If only they would make me manager for two short years!" exclaimed one of the characters in satirist Aleko Konstantinov's Different People, Different Ideals. Who can blame him for wanting a cut of the lucrative deals and fat bribes flowing through the busy port? The customs house itself deserves attention – the massive building is in the harbour next to the Museum of Photography and the State Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Bulgarians never succeeded in capturing Salonika. On 27 October 1912, the Greek army beat them there – by a mere two hours.
The funniest part is that Salonika hadn't always been the Bulgarians' dream city. In 894 King Simeon started the first of his many wars with Byzantium when the emperor decided to move the Bulgarian marketplace from Constantinople to Salonika. Simeon was furious and didn't rest until the market was returned to the imperial capital.
Mother of Israel
Ladadhika still has some relatively well preserved Jewish houses
The houses in the Ladadhika neighbourhood, the synagogue in Monastiraki, the 1,000 Jews living in the city according to the 2000 census, and a few gravestones at the local Jewish Museum – this is all that remains of the largest Jewish city in the world before the founding of Israel.
Salonika was a Jewish city long before the Byzantines, Bulgarians and Ottomans appeared. As early as the 1st Century, St Paul visited and addressed two of his epistles to the local Jews who had accepted Christianity.
However, Salonika earned the title "Mother of Israel" thanks to the Ottoman sultans. They opened their territory to all Jews expelled from Christian Europe in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries. Jews settling in Salonika came primarily from Spain and Portugal, thus the majority of the city's Jewish population was Sephardic.
The refugees quickly adjusted to their new home and formed the most economically active segment of the population. In the 1880s more than half of Salonika's residents were Jews. The other locals subscribed to the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy – they also spoke the Sephardic language of Ladino and even kept the Sabbath.
Of course, life wasn't idyllic in the Salonika Jewish community. In 1655 a man named Sabbatai Zevy arrived from Izmir in Asia Minor. This charismatic character claimed to be the Messiah prophesied in the Holy Scriptures. Some of the local Jews believed him – and the messianic movement grew to such an extent that the Ottomans were forced to intervene. In 1666 the "Messiah" was arrested and sentenced to death. Sabbatai Zevy then did something unexpected – he announced that all religions were the same and converted to Islam. Around 600 of his disciples followed suit. Thus a new piece was added to Salonika's ethnic patchwork – the "Jewish-Muslims," called by the Turkish word Dönmeh.
When Turkey and Greece began exchanging populations in the 1920s, the Dönmeh's descendents in despair tried to explain that they weren't exactly Muslims in order to avoid relocation to Asia Minor. As it turns out, those who ended up making the move were the lucky ones.
On 9 April 1941 the German army entered Thessaloniki. Two years later the deportation of 46,091 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau began in March. Only 1,500 of the city's Jews survived the war. Those who returned found a different Thessaloniki. Their cemetery, the final resting place for 500,000 of their ancestors, had been dug up by the Nazis and turned into a construction site where the new, post-war Thessaloniki would arise.
10 Dos and Two Don'ts in Thessaloniki
The Byzantine-Venetian-Ottoman Chain Tower
Go Byzantine! At Aghios Demetrios, St Sophia and the Rotunda you'll find mosaics whose beauty matches that of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Look for more Byzantine churches. You only need to stroll through the city centre and Ano Poli to spot at least 10 more, whose names you won't be able to pronounce.
Enrich your cultural life. After Bulgaria, where a Kiss concert is considered the event of the year, Thessaloniki is a breath of fresh air with its lively alternative scene featuring events such as the International Film Festival. If you're lucky, you might even catch a concert by Patti Smith.
Eat. One of the main reasons you're in Thessaloniki is the abundance of octopus, calamari, eggplant purée, dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves, taramosalata, or roe-spread, soutzoukakia, or kebabs, keftedhes, or meatballs, and really, really good bread in the restaurants.
Drink. Retsina and ouzo. In some coffee shops you might actually find a real espresso instead of the traditional frappé. The only drawback is that it will cost you 2.5 euros.
See Olympus - without even leaving the city. Just stand on the promenade on a clear day.
Hike up to the fortress. All the tourists do it – with good reason. The view of Thessaloniki and the Thermaic Gulf is worth it.
Time how long it takes before you hear Bulgarian spoken in the streets or you run into an acquaintance from Bulgaria. It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes.
Look for Macedonian gold. You'll find spectacular royal treasures in the archaeological museum.
Learn about the most important deeds by armed Greek rebel groups in the Macedonian region in the early 20th Century – from the Greek point of view – at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle.
Don't say "Oh yeah, Alexander! He was Macedonian, right?" while standing in front of the statue of Alexander the Great if there are Greeks within earshot.
Don't go to Thessaloniki for the feast of Aghios Demetrios on 26 October. Even if you can get a hotel room, you won't find a free table at any tavern.
And car parking? Forget it!