The train ride to from Athens to Thessaloniki was annoyingly long and hot, and it felt like we were regressing to Eastern Europe from whence we just came. Thessaloniki is very near the border with Bulgaria, and it feels like it. Prior to 1912 and the subsequent ‘population exchange’ between Greece and Turkey (which you can all read about here), Thessaloniki was a major Ottoman city with a mixed population of Greeks, Bulgarians, and Turks. It was also home to Europe’s largest Jewish population and at one time was proposed to become a kind of proto-Israel. Sadly, WWII happened before these plans could be realized and Thessaloniki was left with a legacy of identity confusion, if not quite crisis.
To add to the confused essence of Thessaloniki, there was a massive fire in 1917 which was blamed on a Frenchman cooking an aubergine (as they do). The whole city was destroyed and rebuilt in a ‘non-oriental’ style. The streets are wide, the buildings are low, and there is minimal evidence left of the city’s deep Ottoman heritage. It is a very pleasant small city, but the appearance and atmosphere of Thessaloniki doesn’t captivate like Athens and Istanbul. That said, because it’s such a small city with relatively few tourists people are very friendly and everything is quite manageable.
A highlight of our time in Thessaloniki was a food tour that we did with the bombastic and entertaining guide Despina and an incredibly dull couple from Ireland. In addition to walking food tours, Despina and her business partner teach cooking classes in their fabulous ‘food laboratory’ and clearly have a passion for the past and present culinary landscape of northern Greece. Before we embarked on our food-walk Despina made us traditional Greek coffee and read Jeff’s fortune in the sludge. Evidently it was… good. We think.
We walked through Thessaloniki’s traditional markets and scarfed down crunchy sesame bread, different types of feta, gruyere, a weird camel meat salami, tons of olives, and of course, mezze and ouzo. We visited a large produce market and the price-to-quality ratio was impressive – and maddening. I bought produce for like 3 meals for under 2 € – why isn’t this possible at home?!? Some of the markets were run down and in disrepair, but we saw young hipster types beginning to move in and reuse the space. There was a small batch coffee roaster that seemed to be the first pioneer of this new wave, and we spent some time chatting with the owner about his process. It was nice to see the beginnings of a resurgence and hopefully the markets of Thessaloniki make a comeback.
One of the most historically significant sites in Thessaloniki is also the least advertised. The founder of modern day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was born in the city in 1881 in a small home that is still standing. Naturally, because the Greeks and Turks are BFFs everyone is really happy about this arrangement and there is no animosity whatsoever. In fact, the Turks built their embassy around Atatürk’s house, ya know, just to make sure it stays safe. (side-bar: this was the second time on this trip that we inadvertently set foot on Turkish soil; our visit to TRNC was the first).
The house and museum are small but it is interesting to learn about the life of Atatürk and reflect on what a different place the world is because of his life. In the garden of the house is a pomegranate tree planted by Atatürk’s dad, which makes you realize the relative recentness of the modern world as we know it. The museum has some fabulous photos of old Salonika (Ottoman Thessaloniki). The photos show a city dotted with the domes of many bathhouses and the minarets of many mosques, none of which survive today. Damn that careless Frenchman and his aubergine!
We also spent some time exploring some of the cool old buildings of Thessaloniki that managed to survived the fire. We saw the Agios Dimitrius church with its spooky crypt, the surprisingly cool Rotunda church, and the old Byzantine era-prison the White Tower.
Overall, Thessaloniki was a pleasant, quiet respite from the crowds of Athens. The city won’t awe tourists but since we had time it was nice to see a different slice of Greek life. After 4 quiet days, we headed to the magical island of Crete!