As travellers stampede towards Athens and the Greek islands, Thessaloniki is all too often left in the dust. But Greece’s second city is a true chameleon: shady cloisters and churches balance its fast-paced nightlife and youthful verve. Ancient ruins stand feet away from just-opened cafes, while chic cocktail bars blend effortlessly into a backdrop of portside grit.
Home to three quarters of a million people, Greece’s second city, THESSALONÍKI – or Salonica, as it is was once known – stands apart from the rest of the country. Situated at the head of the Gulf of Thessaloník, it seems open to the rest of the world, with a wide ethnic mix and an air of general prosperity, stimulated by a major university and a famously avant-garde live music and entertainment scene. The food is better here too and there are some very sophisticated restaurants, but also wholesome traditional food on offer in a great number of old-fashioned Turkish-influenced ouzerís and tavernas.
The city has enough to offer the visitor for two or three days, at least. There are substantial Roman remains and the many churches constitute a showcase of Orthodox architecture through the ages, while you can catch glimpses of the Turkish city both in the walled Upper City and in the modern grid of streets below: isolated pockets of Ottoman buildings, many of them Islamic monuments, which miraculously survived the 1917 fire (see Brief history). Modern Greek architecture is exemplified by Art Deco piles dating from the city’s twentieth-century heyday, around the time of the first International Trade Fair in 1926, an event that continues to this day. Thessaloníki’s many and often excellent museums cover subjects as varied as Byzantine culture, the city’s Jewish heritage, folklife, musical instruments, Atatürk (who was born here) and, more recently, modern art and photography.
When King Cassander of Macedonia founded the city in 315 BC, he named it after his wife Thessalonike, Alexander the Great’s half-sister, whose name in turn derived from the Macedons’ decisive victory (nike) over the Thessalians. It soon became the region’s cultural and trading centre, issuing its own coins, and when Rome conquered Macedonia in 146 BC, the city (under the name Salonica) became the natural and immediate choice of capital. Its fortunes and significance were boosted by the building of the Via Egnatia, the great road linking Rome (via Brindisi) with Byzantium and the East.
Christianity had slow beginnings in the city. St Paul visited twice, and on the second occasion, in 56 AD, he stayed long enough to found a church, later writing the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, his congregation there. It was another three centuries, however, before the new religion took full root. Galerius, who acceded as eastern emperor upon Byzantium’s break with Rome, provided the city with virtually all its surviving late Roman monuments. The first resident Christian emperor was Theodosius (reigned 379–95), who after his conversion issued the Edict of Salonica, officially ending paganism.
Under Justinian’s rule (527–65) Salonica became the second city of Byzantium after Constantinople, which it remained – under constant pressure from Goths and Slavs – until its sacking by Saracens in 904. The storming and sacking continued under the Normans of Sicily (1185) and with the Fourth Crusade (1204), when the city became for a time capital of the Latin Kingdom of Salonica. It was, however, restored to the Byzantine Empire of Nicea in 1246, reaching a cultural “golden age” until Turkish conquest and occupation in 1430.
Thessaloníki was the premier Ottoman Balkan city when Athens was still a backwater. Its population was as varied as any in the region, with Greek Orthodox Christians in a distinct minority. Besides Ottoman Muslims, who called the city “Selanik”, there were Slavs (who still know it as “Solun”), Albanians, Armenians and, following the Iberian expulsions after 1492, the largest European Jewish community of the age.
The modern quality of Thessaloníki is due largely to a disastrous fire in 1917 which levelled most of the old plaster houses along a labyrinth of Ottoman lanes, including the entire Jewish quarter. The city was rebuilt, often in a special form of Art Deco style, over the following eight years on a grid plan prepared under the supervision of French architect Ernest Hébrard, with long central avenues running parallel to the seafront and cross-streets densely planted with trees. During World War II the city was occupied by the Nazis, who decimated the Jewish community. After the war more reconstruction was necessary to repair bomb damage, though this was interrupted in 1978 by a severe earthquake that damaged many older buildings.
Thessaloníki’s opulence has traditionally been epitomized by the locals’ sartorial elegance, but the boom of the 1990s is long gone and an increasing number of boarded-up shops indicate that Greece’s economic malaise has taken hold here. A permanent underclass lives in shantytowns near the port, consisting of Pontic or Black Sea Greeks, Albanians and eastern European refugees, as well as a growing community of Afghans and Africans.