As Anastasia Karachisarli of the Thessaloniki Tourism Organization walked down long broad First Pier jutting into the harbor she explained that during the first week of November the commodious landscaped space would be filled for the 54th International Thessaloniki Film Festival. Walking past the Museum of Photography with its revolving exhibitions of Greek and international artists, she pointed out another restored brick commercial building housing artist studios, the Museum of Cinema and ticked off a year-long list of art events: the International Festival of Photography, the Documentary Festival, the Video Dance Festival, the Thessaloniki Food Festival, the International Book Fair and, not least, the Thessaloniki Hip-Hop Festival. With the ring of truth, Anastasia declared, “Thessaloniki is always pregnant with culture.”
It’s a smart development for a city with a young, highly educated population. Fifteen percent of Greece’s second city is university students. But Thessaloniki has always been smart as evidenced in surviving its tumultuous history. Founded in 315 B.C.E. by King Cassander of Macedon, he wisely named the city after his wife, Thessalonike, sister to Alexander the Great. Over the centuries the city both flourished and suffered as a major port for southeastern Europe, being conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Crusaders, the Ottomans and Nazi Germany.
It survived a devastating fire in 1917 that consumed much of the old port city yet rose again with elegant boulevards, squares and parks designed by renowned French architect Ernest Hebrard. For nearly 450 years, Thessaloniki was the largest Jewish city in Europe. Following Spain’s disastrous expulsion of its highly educated Sephardic Jewish population in 1492, the Ottomans welcomed them to the city. The Jewish community flourished dominating the wool trade, commerce and shipping. Yet by the end of the World War II, 97% of Thessaloniki’s 60,000 Jews had been exterminated in Hitler’s concentration camps. Allied bombing during the Second World War again destroyed much of the harbor facilities, but today the multi-mile long waterfront is lined with fashionable apartment buildings, cafes and the nearly completed landscaped pedestrian walkway. Despite the city’s pivotal location in the violent history of northern Greece, its layers of civilizations are visible everywhere.
Small remnants of the pre-1917 Ladadika quarter, an important Jewish commercial district, has attracted trendy shops and cafes, and the area is still dominated by the vast Modiano market housed in a grand rectangular glass roofed 1922 building. Among the city’s treasures nearby are the excavated ruins of the palace of 4th century Roman Emperor Galerius Maximianus who particularly favored the city. An ancient road once linked the palace, running through his still intact intricately carved Triumphal Arch, with the massive Rotunda. The Emperor intended the Rotunda to serve as his tomb, but instead it has survived for the past 1,800 years as a Roman temple, Byzantine church, Ottoman mosque and now a national monument with its golden frescos undergoing extensive restoration.
Walking up the hill from the Rotunda is the walled center of the post Roman Byzantine city. With a commanding view of the harbor, the successors of the Eastern Roman emperors protected their important commercial port behind massive stonewalls for nearly a thousand years. Extensive restoration has made this neighborhood a picturesque and fashionable warren of old houses and narrow winding streets. From this height the panorama of Thessaloniki with its many layers of history is in full view.
The White Tower is clearly visible from these heights. Built by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century on Roman and Byzantine foundations, it’s virtually the city’s landmark symbol. Sitting prominently on the waterfront, this imposing monument, like the Tower of London, has had a gruesome history serving as an infamous prison until a 19th century fire, resulting in many fatalities, forced the empire’s officials to close the facility. Today it’s a popular tourist attraction and a focal point of the new waterfront park.
Surrounded by popular cafes is one of Thessaloniki’s most beautiful medieval buildings. The 15th century Bey Hamam, a preserved Ottoman public bathhouse, is testament to the sophistication this city has enjoyed during its long history. Only ceasing its original use in the 1960s, its intricate brick and tiled façade is an architectural sculpture and dramatically lit at night providing a stunning visual backdrop as café guest sip drinks. Thessaloniki has a vibrant café scene and one recommendation is to dine at the Oval cafe near the waterfront surrounded by Ernest Hebrard’s Parisian style architectural splendor.
Yannis Boutaris, owner of Boutaris Winery, is the popular mayor of this city of culture, commerce and over 30 museums. He was instrumental in having Thessaloniki chosen as the European Youth capital for 2014. For a city bulging with a young educated population this can only bode well for its future as Thessaloniki adds even more layers to top its storied past.
Location: Thessaloniki, in northeastern Greece, is the capital of the province of Macedonia. The summer playground of the Halkidiki peninsulas of Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos are a short couple hours drive to the south.
Getting to Thessaloniki: Many international airlines offer direct or connecting flights from North American and European cities including Aegean Airlines, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, Olympic Air and Air Berlin. Aegean Airlines offers frequent daily flights connecting Athens and Thessaloniki.
Accommodations: The elegant, centrally located 5 Star Mediterranean Palace Hotel sits one block in from the waterfront overlooking the cruise pier and is within walking distance of most of the city’s historic sites.
Marc d'Entremont was a guest of the Halkidiki Tourism Organization and the Thessaloniki Hotels Association