“Are you going to the islands?” an old man approached me outside the Thessaloniki train station.
“Nope, I’m staying in town” I replied, folding the city map and hiding it in my pocket.
“Why aren’t you going to the islands? Everybody goes to the islands to drink ouzo and party on the beach. I can help you find a ticket to go to the islands”.
I asked him to show me the way to the hotel instead, but as he was firmly convinced that, as a foreigner with a backpack, I must have headed to the islands, I said goodbye and took the first street off the station.
Mainland Greece is totally underrated and I am determined to show to the world that this country isn’t an archipelagos. And so, after one amazing week in Athens, this time I had travelled to Thessaloniki, the Balkan capital of Greece, an important metropolis since the Roman period and the second largest and wealthiest city of the Byzantine Empire. A city which, in this time of the year, smells of jasmine and salty sea.
Here is what I liked the most:
Ano Poli, the old town
The old town is the highest part of the city and from up there you can enjoy a beautiful view above Thessaloniki and the Thermaikos gulf.
Being the only part of the city that survived the big fire of 1917, the area is still characterized by traditional Ottoman houses and colorful houses in the tradition of the Macedonian architecture, stone-paved streets and many stairways.
During the Ottoman period it was the main district of the Turks of the city, while the Greeks and the Jews were living around the port; here you will still find the charm of the ancient Thessaloniki, enclosed within the remains of the city wall.
Ano Poli is the most traditional and picturesque area of Thessaloniki and it isn’t overcrowded by tourists as I feared; it fact, I had the pleasure to wander around its narrow and tortuous streets alone, breathing in the unique atmosphere of this ancient and very quiet neighbourhood.
My suggestion is to spare yourself the uphill trek and reach the top of the hill by bus (22, 23), and then descending it by foot; the area is mostly pedestrian and the fun is in getting lost among its steep streets, discovering an amazing panoramic view around every corner.
Here I visited the Eptapyrgio, the ancient fortress built during the Byzantine Empire era, used at the beginning of the 15th century to resist the Turkish threat and then turned prison at the beginning of the 18th century, until 1989.
While walking back downtown, I found a tiny cemetery located near the hospital “Saint Dimitrios”, which later I found out it’s the Armenian Cemetery of Thessaloniki.
Many Armenians come to Greece to build the railway from Istanbul to Thessaloniki and once the work was completed they stayed in the area.
The first stable settlement of Armenians in Thessaloniki was in 1881 and the biggest community’s growth occurred after WW1; the Armenians were determined to maintain their identity and weren’t interested in Greek citizenship, thus they built their own churches and, indeed, their own cemetery.
Thessaloniki’s street art
No need to hide the fact that I’ve longed for a trip to Thessaloniki after reading about its street art scene. In Thessaloniki I found several big murals, especially in the city centre, plus many old school graffiti all around the town. Some legal walls have been painted thanks to the support of The Box art gallery, while others are part of the “Face Art Public Mural” project launched during the 15th Biennial of Young Artists in 2011.
Here is a unpretentious street art map and a gallery of more street art works in Thessaloniki:
As in every town with a seafront, my favourite activity in Thessaloniki was walking way and back its wide and bright seafront, getting the idea that a great part of the life of this town is concentrated there: in its bars, its parks, around its more or less contemporary sculptures, its bike lane and its skate areas.
My favourite part of Thessaloniki’s seafront is the ‘Dock A’, where an old warehouse from the beginning of the 19th century now accommodates a cultural hub composed of the Cinema Museum, the State Museum of Contemporary Art and the Photography Museum, as well as a cinema and several cafés. I opted for the Photography Museum as the current exhibition is about south-eastern Europe, featuring works by 22 artists from 11 countries in south-eastern Europe who examine how the past continues to be present in this particular area that has been marked by conflicts and wars, and which happens to be also my favourite area of Europe.
The exhibition is very interesting, I could recognize many Balkan towns I’ve been walking through.
The Rotunda area
One of the most lively area of Thessaloniki is the one around the Rotunda, a circular domed building from 306 a.d. which has been built either as a temple of Zeus or its founder’s mausoleum.
This is also the area near the University, thus it is full of nice cafés, bars, street food kiosks and youngsters strolling from one pub to another.
Thessaloniki’s food markets
The most popular food markets of Thessaloniki are located in the city centre, one next to the other: Kapani is the oldest open market of the city, while the nearbyModiano market was designed between 1922 and 1930 by the architect Eli Modiano, from an important Jewish family of Thessaloniki.
Strolling through these markets you will smell spices, admire the many fish and meat counters, sample the ubiquitous Greek olives and sit inside the small traditional taverns to try some ‘mezedes’, the small plates of food served with ouzo. In these two traditional food markets you can find any kind of goods, from fresh fruits and vegetables to cheese, clothes and –alas!- souvenirs.
From Toumba to Kalamaria: unveiling the authentic soul of Thessaloniki
As usual, on my first day in Thessaloniki I wanted to spot some ‘real people’ in the most authentic and genuine neighbourhoods of the town, and so I had a long walk from Toumba to Kalamaria bay, crossing residential areas, several farmers’ markets, abandoned houses, traffic roads and all kinds of ‘real life’ scenes.
During this long walk, the aspect that surprised me the most is that, whenever I was, I could hear the singing and the playful laughs of the kids playing in the school playgrounds.
The area which I liked the most is the Kalamaria bay, with its lazy boats and clear sea. This area developed at the beginning of the 20th century to house refugees from the Greek diaspora in Georgia and Asia Minor, which followed the Hellenic-Turkish War, and it is still inhabited by the descendants of the refugees.
Here the ubiquitous smell of jasmine melts with the salty sea, creating that peculiar scent which will always reminds me of my days in Thessaloniki.
article by Blocal Travel