Thessaloniki is both Greece’s culinary capital and the perfect base for exploration, finds Neil McQuillian
As you might expect from a city that’s 2,322 years old, Thessaloniki swirls with history. Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans: they’ve all had their say here, but don’t even attempt to go about your explorations chronologically – you’ll only get giddy. For Thessaloniki’s layers fold and furl in on themselves like the filo in bougatsa, the must-try local pastry.
Take the impressive Roman Rotunda, rich with mosaics, which later served as the church of St. George and later again as a mosque (it stills bears a minaret and now hosts Christian Orthodox services again on some Sundays). The seventh-century Hagia Sofia church, meanwhile, occupies the site of a Roman nymphaeum (a sacred spring where nymphs were said to dwell). Seek out Thessaloniki’s Byzantine churches – converted to mosques under the Turks-and you’ll find their original Christian mosaics and frescoes are gradually being restored.
From an open-air museum to the more traditional sort, Thessaloniki’s 35 museums do a fine job of capturing the city’s kaleidoscopic cultural heritage, with all bases covered, from archaeology and Byzantines to contemporary art, photography and music. There’s a children’s museum, too, as well as a museum dedicated to cinema.
Never mind armies, Thessaloniki have fed empires, and the city is justifiably considered the gastronomic capital of Greece. For a sugar boost, pop into any zacharoplasteio (patisserie) for a kazan dibi milk pudding, courtesy of the city’s Ottoman legacy, or a triangular trigona panoramatos, oozing with custard. Bougatsa, meanwhile, can be sweet, with cream, cinnamon and sugar, or savoury and filled with cheese. Wash them down with a cup of orchid-flavoured salepi from a street vendor.
Come dinnertime, follow your nose around the cobbled, portside Ladadika district, where hip little bars and tavernas jostle for space and custom, or try an elbow-to-elbow ouzeria in the Athonos Square district for ouzo and mezzedes (meze). With a major university nearby, the city’s youthful population means post-prandial dancing is easy to come by.
From the sweep of Thessaloniki’s waterfront-where locals take their evening volta (stroll) past the White Tower – you can just make out Mount Olympus brooding across the Thermaic Gulf. The legendary home of Ancient Greece’s gods isn’t just there to be venerated-you can climb it, raft, mountain-bike or paraglide down from its heights. At Olympus’s foot stretches a 43-mile coastline studded with sandy beaches pretty enough to tempt a deity from its eyrie, while seaside villages such as Makrygialos invite you to slow down and enjoy succulent seafood.
With its cultural institutions and heartwarming restaurants, Thessaloniki is also a brilliant place to visit in wintertime. Combine your visit with snow sports at Seli, the country’s first ski centre, established in 1934 on Mount Vermio’s southwestern flank. Or head two hours’ drive northeast from Thessaliniki to Lailias. There may be fewer gods in residence in these mountains, but the skiing ’s divine.
In northern Greece, all roads lead to wine. Thessaloniki (where you might hace got a taste for the local stuff) makes a good base for regional wine tourism, with a well-established vineyard network to glug your way around. While you’re in the area, visit ten-mile-long Lake Kerkini. This important willow-fringed and lily-dotted wetland features buffalo and birdlife, from threatened pelicans and pygmy cormorants to various birds of prey. Local restaurants serve up the best of Kerkini’s underwater bounty-look out for eels, roach and carp on menus.
Ig you enjoyed Thessaloniki’s Archaeologocal Museum, another must-do trip from town is to the archaeological site of Aigai 9near what is now known as Vergina). There are countless splendours here, but the jands-down highlight is the tomb of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedon. The wealth on display-both in terms of gold and of craftsmanship-is breathtaking, and a potent symbol of central Macedonia’s riches. British Airways flies to Thessaloniki from London Garwick. Flight time: three hours, 15 minutes.
article by Highlife, British Airways