I have always loved travelling to places I’ve seen in films or read about in books. The Third Man has taken me to Vienna, James Bond (From Russia with Love) to Istanbul, Peter Mayle to Provence and Ian Rankin to Edinburgh. I’ve wanted to visit Thessaloniki, which sits on the northern edge of the Thermaic Gulf, ever since I read Victoria Hislop’s The Thread, a sprawling family saga that starts in 1917 and continues through the war years to the present day. It is largely thanks to her that I now spend so much time in Crete. Her novels aren’t just very readable. They can turn you into a Hellenophile.
The year 1917 was the defining year for Greece’s second-largest city. A famous print made at that time shows a truly fabulous conglomeration, sitting on a turquoise sea with Roman, Christian, Byzantine and Venetian influences coming together in what could easily be a set for Game of Thrones. But then a fire that started in a kitchen spread with shocking speed. Some 9,500 houses, churches, synagogues and mosques were destroyed. More than a quarter of a million people were made homeless.
The city’s troubles didn’t end there. Bombed by the Italian fascists in 1940 (another 800 buildings were damaged or destroyed), Thessaloniki was seized by the Nazis a year later. Some 56,000 Jews, 96 per cent of the Jewish population, were taken off to the camps, never to return. In the place once known as the “Mother of Israel”, just 1,200 Jews remain.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the modern city and to begin with, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Staggering under the weight of an overpacked rucksack, I’d taken a bus from the airport and was wandering rather aimlessly through hot, crowded streets. There was too much traffic. But then, quite suddenly, I arrived at Nikis Avenue, which sweeps around the seafront and at that moment everything changed. The city is perfectly poised on the water’s edge. The Thermaic Gulf is vast and exhilarating, with gorgeous sunsets, an oversized moon and a sense of calm and emptiness, all of which provides an extraordinary contrast with the clutter you’ve left behind.
I stayed at Daios Luxury Living, a very friendly boutique hotel on Nikis Avenue, surrounded by bars and cafés and perfectly positioned to explore the rest of the city. It has to be said that many of the new buildings of Thessaloniki – that is, the ones constructed after the fire – are not exactly beautiful, but they do have the benefit of all being the same height, around 10 storeys, and this gives the city a sense of homogeny. Ernest Hébrard, a brilliant French architect, also brought a Parisian feel to the new metropolis with long boulevards, pedestrian walkways, expansive squares and plenty of trees, which both provide shade and help with the air quality.
This is an easy city to walk around. The esplanade, which passes the White Tower, a 15th-century curiosity that is famous throughout Greece, is a very spacious boon to cyclists and pedestrians. New public sculptures, including the much-photographed Umbrellas opposite Anthokomiki Park, are witty and attractive. Almost every month there’s a different festival – food, music, jazz, films, wine. There are book fairs and an LGBT Pride parade in June. The Greek word most associated with Thessaloniki is “xalara” which means “laid-back” or “cool” and you really feel it as you begin to explore.
I took a taxi up to the fortifications known as the Eptapyrgio in the north east – a short journey but one that climbs steeply uphill. There was no entrance fee and not a lot to see, but I was there alone and it was all very atmospheric: the ancient walls are still impressive and if you go midweek you can see some of the most horrible prison cells ever built, added in the 19th century.
From here, I walked back following the walls downhill. The path leads you to the fourth-century Rotunda, which was built as the mausoleum of the Emperor Galerius but which later became a Christian church, dedicated to St George. Clearly influenced by the Pantheon in Rome, it’s a real surprise, massive in its proportions but serenely beautiful with some of the most expressive mosaics I have ever seen. I stayed there an hour before continuing down to the impressive Arch of Galerius, built to commemorate his successful war against the Persians. There are plenty of other sites to visit in Thessaloniki, including a large forum, many lovely Byzantine churches and some excellent museums. I’m particularly glad that I had to time to look in on the small Jewish Museum, which is housed in one of the few buildings to survive the fire and which commemorates a part of the city’s history that was almost erased.
But the truth is that what I most liked about the city was just the city itself, strolling around, doing very little. I watched the sun set, sitting in the old port with Greek families and young couples who had sought out the peace and quiet it provides. From there, I walked the short distance to the district known as Ladadika, which somehow survived the fire.