The ancient Greek city of Thessaloniki has many faces — whether you want to party, learn the history, or gently wander along the Aegean Sea
Thessaloniki, perched on Greece’s northern Aegean coast, is a peach of a city.
As I stepped out onto the tarmac, I felt the warmth wrap around my bones. Just knowing I’m in Greece makes me happy. I’ve only been a handful of times, but this place always leaves me with a relaxed, fuzzy feeling. If you respect the local culture, you are accepted into this country not just as a tourist but like a guest in someone’s house.
Thessaloniki doesn’t feel like a Greek city and, whisper it very quietly around these parts, just over 100 years ago it very much wasn’t. In 1890 only 13.5 per cent of the population here were Greek. Jews made up 46.5 per cent of the people and 22 per cent were Muslim, mostly of Turkish origin. By the eve of World War I, the Greek population of Salonika, as it was then known, was still only a quarter.
With its grand boulevards and open squares, it feels more like a southerly, nautical Budapest than noisy, squawking Athens. It only strikes me later that this is surely the legacy of the city’s Jewish population. The city’s Jews were wiped out by the Nazis … They may be gone but their presence is still very much felt.
This was once a multicultural city, where the footprints of Ottoman and Byzantine empires can still be traced. But Balkan wars, which were followed by two world wars, devastated this city. The vicious Balkan conflagration, a rehearsal for World War I, saw the departure of the Bulgarian population and thousands of Muslims, when this city was won, unexpectedly, by Greece.
The wars of the early twentieth century saw the city overwhelmed when tens of thousands of Greek refugees arrived from Asia Minor and Bulgaria. In 1917 a great fire devastated a city already on its knees. Next came the disaster of the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22 where Greece, egged on by Britain, undertook to conquer great swathes of Asia Minor. The Turks came roaring back, reinvigorated by Ataturk. Smyrna was wiped off the map and concreted over as Izmir, while polyglot Salonika was reinvented as Greek Thessaloniki.
Despite its ancient past, Thessaloniki feels like a very young city. This is a university town, and the past perhaps taught its people to live for the day. The Greeks are the Geordies of the Mediterranean, sentimental, party-loving and welcoming. This is Greece’s second city yet it barely registers in worldwide consciousness compared to Athens or the nation’s sublime island life.
But Thessaloniki offers a richer Greek experience, full of cool bars and sexy food. It has that bracing optimism and never-say-die spirit of all great port cities. All roads lead down to the sea where you can find a nice sundowner shack, drink ouzo, eat fresh calamari and feel that sense of completeness which only comes with a sea view. With a population of 370,000 coupled with a thriving arts and party circuit, I can’t think of a better low-cost flight destination in Europe.
My first meal is at Thessaloniki’s legendary Devido restaurant, where the counters heave with grilled meats, salads, tzatziki and paprika “sos”. This is fast food the way it ought to be done, and proof that when made properly it doesn’t have to make our kids obese.
The Greek gyros and souvlaki are tainted by association with the greasy British doner kebab. This is a masterpiece of marinated, grilled and charcoaled pork, chicken and lamb, heavenly salads adorned with crumbled feta, smoky aubergine dips, and of course, a handful of chips. They’re as much a part of national identity as the Acropolis, brandy and hating Angela Merkel.
After lunch, I visit the Municipal Art Gallery, a beautiful piece of eclecticist architecture with a tragic history in the bosom of the city. It was built in the early twentieth century by Dino Fernandez Diaz, an Italian-Jewish industrialist. The villa was passed to his daughter, Alina, who married her lower class Christian lover against the wishes of her family. It was an example of how love can transcend boundaries before madness and savagery took over in Europe once again.
When the Nazis took Salonika in 1941, they confiscated the property. Alina’s family fled to Italy, where they were murdered by the SS, but Alina and her husband survived the war. The mansion itself is not a sad place; it is strangely optimistic.
The windows are big and generous with light flooding in from all around. Now it is festooned with the very art which her family’s Nazi tormentors set out to destroy. You sense that Alina would be proud of her home’s new mission and on the day of my visit the gallery is festooned by works by Greek Australians. It is modern, upbeat and happy.
It’s a universe away from my swanky lodgings. I’ve got a room at the Met Hotel down by the docks, a vision in dark wood and brown velvet. It’s a shamelessly hip Greek hotel which seems a little incongruous amid the Thessaloniki’s timelessness. But it’s a cosy, chilled, relaxing space and a nice place for an early evening drink before you head off to party central.
The best thing about the hotel is its restaurant, Chan, which does a nifty riff on Chinese/Greek fusion cuisine – it is a much more harmonious blend of cooking styles and ingredients than you might imagine. The restaurant is sexy dark, which is especially good if you’re looking a bit rough. But it is maybe not so great if, like me, you suffer from poor night vision and run the risk of blundering face first into your partner’s chocolate bombe.
It’s all sensuously black; the kind of place you’d expect to see Batman playing footsie with Catwoman, over the crispy duck and the massive gold-dusted chocolate balls smothered with butter caramel. With a rooftop pool and bar – featuring DJs, amazing views over the city and out to sea as far as Mount Olympus – this is definitely a place where money is no object and hedonism still rules.
I’m not convinced Japanese visitors would be hugely titillated by the title of the city’s pre-eminent gay bar, Enola. It’s a lovely, irreverent place with a nice line in eight-foot trannies sporting psychopath chic. You’re guaranteed a good laugh here, and to leave behind your problems for another day.
At the bar, as gay and straight boys and girls dance and drink and carouse and flirt, dance some more and party in the happiest, most attitude-free environment you could hope to encounter, I notice an incredible thing. It is something I can’t imagine seeing in any other major European city. Along the bar next to where I’m dancing, there are about seven wallets and five mobile phones. Their owners have just plonked them down and wandered off to boogie or gossip with their mates. Were I that bad, or that desperate, I could have snaffled the lot in a jiffy. Remember, this is a country where people are, apparently, down to their last few euros. Yet nobody steals off their neighbour.
The next day I’m taken on a tour of Salonika Old Town, up in the hills above the city, walking along the city walls that have seen invasion after invasion, but now gaze dreamily and peacefully over the bay shimmering in the Sunday morning sunshine. This was where the first refugees, forced out of Asia Minor, arrived and were squeezed into the homes of departed Turks and Bulgarians.
It is the most architecturally complete section of this often disjointed city. In Thessaloniki there has perhaps been a reluctance to preserve elements of the past that recast it as a one-time international city belonging to no nation. There is a lot of graffiti in Thessaloniki, some of it witty or just plain funny, such as the proclamation to “Blow up your granny” in the party district. But a lot of it is just destructive, on historic buildings which don’t deserve to be defaced.
I wonder, to my tour guide, Elina, whether there is a disconnection between young people and Thessaloniki’s former life as Salonika. “I don’t think there has been much honesty in the teaching of the past either here, or in Turkey. But it is time,” she says.
Elina has been involved in cultural exchange programmes with Izmir, Thessaloniki’s sister in suffering. Just as Thessaloniki was Salonika, Izmir was Smyrna, the greatest Greek city in the world – far bigger and more successful than Athens on the eve of its utter destruction. Now much of what we think of as Thessaloniki, the food, the culture, the traditions, is actually Smyrniot. And much of Izmir is old Salonika. The two cities exchanged their unwanted residents and erased their collective memories. It seems to me terribly sad and I wish I could somehow visit these lost cities.
Down at the beautiful Agia Sofia, based on the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, we see Russian and Bulgarian tourists arriving to pray. Despite the destruction, this place is still redolent with some of the atmosphere of the old Balkans of Byzantines and Ottomans.
Agia Sofia has changed from church to mosque and back as many times as Thessaloniki has changed identities throughout its history. Each owner likes to think it is solely their property, but ancient Salonika belongs to itself and is of itself. Lunch is taken at the lovely Myrsini, near the city’s ancient White Tower, and the best Cretan restaurant in town. This is no small boast, given that most Greeks rate Crete’s culinary delicacies as the best the nation has to offer.
Order the chef’s specials or the famous Cretan rabbit. The massive lamb meatballs in tomato and oregano were possibly better even than the best albondigas I’ve eaten in Spain, and ought not to be missed. Myrsini is famous for its raki, and their Rakomeze includes raki plus six tapas-sized dishes for six euros. It serves incredible food at an amazing price.
My last afternoon is spent mooching along the gorgeous broad bay picking at seafood and pickles and looking out across the Aegean towards Turkey, over moody seas where countless refugees have drowned escaping Syria. It is just the latest brutal population expulsion in this part of the world. Thessaloniki has seen it too many times.
I have dinner outdoors in a lovely restaurant I stumble upon called Rouga, where I stuff my face with flattened chicken, cooked with wild mushrooms, sage and cognac. As everywhere in Thessaloniki, the service is delightful. Kindness, sincerity and honesty are my enduring memories of Thessaloniki; a city I barely know but absolutely love, a city I must return to.
Down by the docks, with a free shuttle bus to deliver you to the beating heart of Thessaloniki’s throbbing party scene, this is a darkly sensuous place to chill out and refuel before you go dancing again … and again … and again.
Double superior rooms available from around £103