Sprawled along the waterfront, Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is known as the Nymph of the North.
If you have ever been to Greece, chances are you didn’t visit my hometown. I can’t blame you, since Athens attracts all the interest as far as archaeological sites are concerned, and the islands are far more suitable for summer vacations. I’d dare say, though, that if you conducted a little survey before planning your vacations and found nothing worth visiting in Thessaloniki, then you should really start questioning your Google skills.
The city was founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon, who named it after his wife Thessalonike, half sister of Alexander the Great. Thessaloniki might not have a Parthenon towering over it, but it bears over 2000 years of history, from the Macedonians to the Romans, then the Ottomans and finally the Hellenic republic. And you can see the traces of all these civilizations just walking down the streets.
While Athens is all about ancient Greece, Thessaloniki is all about Byzantium. You probably know the Byzantine Empire as the Eastern Roman Empire, but do stop using that term right this moment as it is nothing but a confession of ignorance. There is no such thing as the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was what survived of the fall of the Roman Empire and it spread all the way from Italy to western Turkey and even to the northern coasts of Africa and the southern coasts of Spain. So while the rest of Europe was plunging deep into the Dark Ages, Byzantium was flourishing. Of course, it was all about Christianity, so don’t expect to find anything interesting that is not related to religion. But do expect to find tiny oasis of preserved Byzantine churches or Byzantine fortresses (turned Ottoman prisons, turned modern day museums) right in the city centre. If we are all lucky enough to see the day when the Thessaloniki metro will finally be finished and operating, you might even get to visit the most well-preserved remnants of the via Egnatia – unless the next government/minister/mayor decides that our transportation is more important than our heritage and 2000 years of the history of mankind, and tears everything out for the sake of the subway (Greece is probably the only country in the world where discovering the commercial heart of an ancient city right under the commercial heart of a modern city is seen as inconvenience).
I won’t lie to you, Thessaloniki is a vast ocean of ugly grey concrete. It wasn’t always like this, but a few decades of bad city planning and anarchical construction were enough to ruin this beautiful city. If, however, you feel like getting a glimpse of real Greece and not the live-your-myth nonsense, then this is the city you should visit. True to its cosmopolitan character, Thessaloniki is a melting pot of Balkan, Eastern and European cultures. Here you will find bazaars just as lively and colourful as the ones in the East, you will see villas that you’d only expect to find in Northern Europe, you will try food and pastries that against all common sense you will insist on calling “Turkish”, you will have ouzo and raki in taverns that seem to have popped out of travel guides from the previous century and, walking the streets, you will hear more languages than you can even imagine. It is coarse, loud, straightforward and painfully honest; just like any true Greek.