Sunset over the Thermaic Gulf
There are direct routes to Thessaloniki. Greece’s second city is enjoying a boom off the back of its strategic position at the waterfront of south-eastern Europe and low-cost flights made their way here some time ago. But for a more thoughtful approach take the train from Athens’ Larissa station.
IC52 from Athens to Thessaloniki
Four (?) daily inter-city services mooch out of the Athenian suburbs across the Attican hinterland. Quickly into the mountains that dot the Greek mainland the mythically-minded traveller will pass Parnassus, the home of the Muses swiftly followed by Thermopylae, where a Greek fighting force famously held out against Persian invaders until betrayed. Later – perhaps after a visit to the buffet car, from the other side of the train Mounts Pelion, piled on Ossa can be seen. Before the final approach to Thessaloniki begins, mighty Mount Olympus itself, the home of the Gods, looms into view. Its jagged peaks look a daunting prospect from here – no wonder Apollo and co chose this as their resting place.
Its the crucial location of Thessaloniki, Salonika to the Ottomans and Illyricum to the Roman and Greek predecessors, that has made it such an important place. Look to the north and there’s Macedonia – freshly dubbed North Macedonia to resolve the decades-old naming dispute – Bulgaria and the rump of Europe stretching away. To the east, the old Empires that the city was once part of, now modern-day Turkey. And then the sea – the Thermaic Gulf, pierced by three peninsulas to the north of Thessaloniki. Empires rise and fall, but like Constantinople to the east this has been a much-coveted bounty.
Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki
So here it is today – let’s say you’re coming off the train and are boggle-eyed for Byzantium. Good news: it’s all around you. Linger a while at the Roman agora – lest we forget the Byzantine Empire saw itself as being ‘Romanos’ – not just the inheritors of the Caesars, but the Roman Empire itself. Further south, when Constantine XI led his soldiers in the final, fatal battle on the walls of Constantinople he rallied his troops as ‘the descendants of Greeks and Romans’ The city fell, but in the hearts of its defenders it was Rome that fell that day with Constantinople.
Thessaloniki had changed hands fifty years previously, first to the Venetian Republic and then to the Ottomans. Centuries later, in a modest house, the city’s most famous son of the Ottoman era, Kemal Ataturk was born in 1881. The Young Turk movement was headquartered in the city. His home, within the walls of the Turkish Consulate hides a rarely seen item behind the hefty metal door: a flag of the Republic of Turkey.
Time is of the essence for a breathless whizz round the many fresco and mosaic-dotted orthodox churches to be found within the old city walls.
Yes, you’ll find yourself walking along busy streets – even the waterfront road looking out to Olympus has the familiar urban Greek cacophony of traffic. This is a living and fast-growing city with an youthful energy alongside millennia of the past. So from the Arch of Galerius, a satisfying Roman sight, you can gaze up to the Byzantine towers at the heights of the city, studded by grafitti-covered walls. Don’t go up there yet, however. Instead, one of the wonders of the Mediterranean awaits at the Rotunda.
Built as a Roman place of worship and comparable in shape to the Rome’s Pantheon, it spent centuries as the city’s cathedral and still has the mosaics to show for it. On the morning I visited, just walking in was enough to be dazzled. The sunlight pierced the upper windows and greeted the pilgrim and slowly revealed the recreations of Ephesus, Petra, Rome and Pompeii, and the completely lovely birds and fruit on offer to those who reach the Elysian Fields. Its centuries as a mosque have also left a strong mark. I liked it so much that having walked in and around I exited and then entered again.
A familiar name to Byzantine buffs, the Church of Hagia Sophia, is the logical place to start. Unlike its namesake in Istanbul it remains a place of worship. The city’s patron saint, St Demetrious, has his own vast and ancient basilica, complete with a crypt with a satisfyingly low ceiling. But the true delight of Thessaloniki is nosing round the history that lurks round so many corners. High in the Upper Town, the Ossio Monastery hides in a tangle of tiny lanes and Ottoman-era wooden houses.Waiting inside its tiny interior is a series of frescoes you’ll probably have more or less to yourself. It’s not like the rest of the city is a case study for overtourism: on the sunny January day I was there I saw very few other tourists. My only company in most stops I made were surprised-looking guards taking in the sunshine.
Candles in St Demetrious
Orthodoxy is not the only faith that has played a part in the city’s story. In 1613 over two-thirds of the population were Jewish, and several notable synagogues can be found here. The Monastir Synangogue and adjacent Jewish Museum not only tells the story of the Jews arrival here, but also their tragic extermination at the hands of Nazi occupiers in WW2. Today the Jewish population is less than 2000.
Religion is also what draws in large numbers of Russian pilgrims and tourists. Signage in many tourist attractions here is in Greek, English and Russian. Many are heading – hard-to-get permits in hand – for the monasteries of the Athos Peninsula, which for over 1000 years has been a cloistered place shut off from the outside world. Anyone can glimpse these places from the water, but only men may enter. The Athos Peninsula is the only place in the EU where Freedom of Movement is restricted to ensure the gender division remains intact.
As you would expect from such a crucial Ottoman city there are also remnants of mosques and hammams too. The most striking is the Yeni Mosque, now used as an exhibition space. The changes Thessaloniki has been through are striking. Not for the first time, the post-independence population movements that utterly transformed Greece and Asia Minor came to mind. Today 140,000 muslims live in Greece, a mixture of Albanian immigrants and Turks.
If you still have breath, take (possibly another) evening hike up to the city walls. The views across the sea and beyond are sublime at any time but this is when locals come and a very pleasant hubbub descends.
It may seem odd for this city of fortress walls and golden mosaics to have a hip scene, but it does. Co-working spaces, boutique hotels (try the Blue Bottle for an affordable and enjoyable stay) and coffee shops showcase the modern city. There is an emerging food scene in the Ladadakia area, colonising abandoned buildings and setting loose creative relish. But it is the history that left the big impression on me. OK, along with the grilled octopus and ‘Byzantine beetroot salad’ – served with cream and apple, since you ask.