The plane’s path from Budapest is straight as an arrow, across the southern Hungarian plain, the whole length of Serbia, the brief interlude of North Macedonia and then one of those quintessentially Greek descents, from the sky you glimpse the sea, blue meets blue and the land seems almost secondary, an unwelcome guest among the more spiritual elements. There is, though, a fine outline shimmering on the horizon. Mount Olympus, the home of the gods.
Right underneath, the capital of what would become one of the most intriguing empires of the ancient world, a flash in the pan of time, one could say, but one that rippled through millennia. That’s not yet Thessaloniki, though, but Pella, birthplace of Alexander, to be known as the Great. Thessaloniki, now Greece’s second largest conurbation, with over a million inhabitants in the city proper and its metropolitan area, was in fact founded by Alexander’s father Philip, and named after his daughter, Thessalonike. She in turn was named after one of his victories, purportedly one of the bloodiest of its times, which established him as ruler of Thessaly, paving the way for the expansion which would take his son Alexander to the gates of the orient.
The plane gently lands on Macedonia airport, a functional if unspectacular affair covered in a sleepy off season haze. They could have named if after Alexander, I muse, but then naming it Macedonia was highly symbolic too. The bloody implosion of Yugoslavia revealed yet another conundrum the world had tried to sweep under the rug, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was born out of necessity. For, to the south of the border, the Greek state was shuddering at the thought that the heritage of Alexander would be worn by a mongrel land that had the audacity to claim the Macedonian rayed solar symbol, the Vergina sun, on their flag. Today’s Macedonians were a mixed bunch, the majority speaking a Slavic language, plus a considerable Albanian population and some ‘leftover’ Greeks. The horror, the horror, Greek authorities said. But then again, the exact nature of ancient Macedonians is shrouded in mystery too. They were likely a Hellenic tribe, but their exact relation to the other Hellenic tribes and their language remain highly disputed. Their name, deriving from the Ancient Greek adjective ‘makednos’ can mean tall, but could have also referred to their geographical location, as highlanders, and thus standing apart from the rest of the Hellenes.
I had a lot of time to think these exalted thoughts as The Worst Bus in the History of Man winded its way from Macedonia airport to the city centre. It is known as bus X1 and is probably a punishment Zeus sent upon his sons and daughters for bickering about meaningless lines on maps. The ticket should theoretically cost 2 euros, but they discounted it to 1.80, which is still robbery- literal robbery in the case of the blog’s industrious co-photographer, whose documentation work was partially left behind on the phone which was spirited away on X1. To add insult to injury, it knows and respects no schedule, is driven by certified maniacs and dynamites any anti-COVID measures by being packed like Alexander’s coffers after he laid waste to half the known world. While X1’s depiction might not necessarily inspire you to visit Thessaloniki, be not mistaken: this is a wondrous city, but best approached by cab, gilded chariot, or perhaps wooden horse, if you’re into classical means of transportation.
We tried to begin the city’s exploration with the iconic White Tower, but alas, it was temporarily closed due to the presence of about half a dozen antivaxxers, who reasonable as antivaxxers everywhere are, were also pro-Putin. The Greek police did disperse them swiftly and efficiently, but the magical gates remained closed, perhaps fearing the return of the Six Fearsome AntiVaxxers with a Portrait of Putin. We gained entry on the next day for a mere three euros- entry tickets to several museums seem to cost three euros, perhaps also the tickets to the Paradise Baths, but this we shall never know as they were closed for, well, reasons which were elaborated to me in the kind of alert Greek way beyond my modest Duolingo skills. The current White Tower, replacing an earlier, Byzantine tower, which had been destroyed, was built by the Ottomans sometime after 1430, the year the town, after a brief spell of Venetian rule, fell to the armies of Sultan Murad II. Some historians argue that it might have been the work of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, but while the chronology matches, there is no clear evidence to support this claim.
Walking an almost straight line inland from the tower, we bumped into the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda, another three euro ticket and another neat distillation of the city’s history. The Rotunda was built in 306 on the orders of Emperor Galerius, who might have meant it as his mausoleum, but sadly for him, he did not make it back from one of his expeditions, and is buried in what is now Serbia. The Rotunda was later converted into a Christian church consecrated to Saint George and embellished with mosaics. Between 1590 and 1912, it served as a mosque, with a minaret, still standing today, added to the structure. While mostly in use as a museum, it remains a consecrated church, considered by some as the oldest still functioning Christian church in the world, another claim in need of closer scrutiny. Roman ruins (and occasionally some more recent ones) seem to burst through the city’s seams. Every now and then busy roads and bustling squares will be interrupted by scaffolding which turns out to contain an archeologist dusting a stone with the kind of blissful slowness you can only learn under the benevolent rays of the southern sun.
Walking another almost straight line from the Rotunda (many of Thessaloniki’s central streets helpfully diverge from the port like arrows), we arrived at the birth house of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This, alongside the food (the blog’s industrious co-photographer has his priorities) was one of the main attractions of our visit so our hearts sunk when we found its windows bolted and the gate apparently very closed. This state of affairs had fooled others as well, as various online sources tagged the house as closed. It isn’t. Upon ringing the doorbell, we were ceremoniously let it- no three euro ticket this time, as the entry is free, but there is a security check, as the house is considered to be the territory of the Turkish Republic.
Atatürk, of course, lead the Turkish army which defeated the Greek forces during the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. The Greeks, aiming to recapture their historical territories of Asia Minor after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, advanced almost up to Ankara, but were ultimately repelled. Their much coveted Byzantine capital, Constantinople, remained Turkish, while Atatürk’s hometown stayed within the boundaries of Greece. A population exchange, traumatic to both sides, ensued, to which Thessaloniki’s Ano Poli (upper town) bears witness. Escaping the great fire of 1917, it preserves the memory of its former Turkish inhabitants. Narrow cobbled streets meander uphill lined by wooden houses with covered balconies. Cats saunter under trees laden with ripe oranges. On one corner, a church that must have once been a mosque, on another, an unmistakably Ottoman fountain.
Today, the neighbourhood is understandably beloved by the hip crowd, with modern bars popping up among the traditional ouzeris, playing the mournful rebetiko, one of the many Balkan answers to the blues. The only way to fully take in Ano Poli’s charm is to wander aimlessly, and as such, we did miss out on the Holy Church of Hosios David and the Alaca Imaret, which both contain priceless art. On the up side, we wandered into another church, the courtyard of which contained several enclosures with fluffy pigeons and chicken, and a monk in slippers and shorts dashed out from an adjacent building to pick up a pizza delivery, clutching a two litre bottle of Coke as if it was holy water. The sunset view from the Trigonion tower, with Mount Olympus looming dreamlike over the horizon is an experience of eerie, timeless beauty. Among the soft clicks of cameras, the happy chatter in a multitude of tongues, the cracks of cans being opened (and the overbearing scent of pot) you can still imagine how thousands of years ago an ancient Greek walked up this hill, looked across the sea to the mountain and believed that her gods were only an arm’s length away and, if asked very insistently, they would answer.
Another ideal spot for sunset enjoyment (or sunrise, if you are brave enough) is the seafront promenade, which stretches over six kilometres, of which four and a half are a neat boardwalk, leading from the White Tower to the Concert Hall. Along it you will find the compulsory Alexander the Great statue (a fine effort as far as Equestrian Statues of Important, Warlike, Men go) and the city’s selfie central, The Umbrellas installation designed by sculptor George Zongolopoulos. The other ubiquitous presence hovering over town, alongside Alexander, is his teacher, Aristotle, who was born in Stagira, on the nearby Chalkidiki peninsula. He lends his name both to the city’s university, and its main square, the latter a rather frenetic affair come evening. Thus, we have reached the exciting topic of what to drink and eat in Thessaloniki, a scientific discipline which requires our full attention in another installment.
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You seem to be managing route-finding far better than we are. We’ve been lost four times today. No matter, we’ve still had an achieving sort of day. Exhausting, but fascinating.
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