Getting to know the Thessalonians through the Ages
Thessalonians, the Epistle in the New Testament, refers to Thessaloniki. St. Paul set foot on European soil in nearby Kavala, were he baptised Europe’s first Christian, Lydia. St Paul then shared the message of Christianity in Synagogues in Thessaloniki around the year 52 AD.
For a significant portion of Thessaloniki’s multi-cultural history, Orthodox Christians of Greek descent were not the majority. Thessaloniki was a refuge for Sephardic Jews who were fleeing persecution from the Inquisition. The streets of Thessaloniki were filled with the musical sound of Ladino – a Judeo-Spanish language. This rich aspect of Thessaloniki’s cultural heritage was all but wiped out during the Second World War, when Thessaloniki suffered a devastating loss of over 95% of its Jewish population. Find out more about the Jewish contribution to Thessaloniki’s culture at the Jewish Museum.
Thessaloniki was also home to a fascinating sect of muslims, called the Donmeh. These were originally followers of the charismatic Jewish mystic Sabbatai Zevi, who followed him into Islam when he was forced to convert in the 16th century. They practiced Islam outwardly, while keeping some of their original religious practices privately. This was a group of immense influence in Thessaloniki in the late 19th and early 20th century. People of culture, education, and wealth, they played a great role in the life of the city. The Geni Tzami – the magnificent “New Mosque” in the Exoches district – was built for the Donmeh.
During World War I, Thessaloniki became an even more cosmopolitan city. It was home to hundreds of thousands of troops from many lands fighting on the Macedonian front. In those days, the cafe life of the city was in full swing, as the streets and beer halls filled with soldiers of the Allied powers. In addition to many troops from Serbia, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, there were some soldiers from as far away as India and Vietnam.
One of Thessaloniki’s famous citizens was Kemal Attaturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic. The home he grew up in is at the foot of Ano Poli and now serves as a museum and the Turkish consulate.
Thessaloniki’s Best Neighborhoods for Culture
Thessaloniki’s downtown has seen a fascinating transformation over the last decades. Neighborhoods once overlooked and run-down have enjoyed a cultural resurgence, without losing their authentic character and charm. For dining and drinking, check out the Ladadika across from the harbor, as well as the Ano (“upper”) Ladadika. This area around the commercial square has been a hub for centuries before falling into decline, and now it is back, with chic wine bars and clubs sharing the streets with the original spice merchants, and old “hans” reinvented as spaces for avant-garde culture. The Bensousan Han is worth checking out.
Much of the downtown of Thessaloniki has been completely reimagined as a result of a devastating fire in 1917. What is now Thessaloniki’s most iconic Plaza – Aristotle Square – is in fact a relatively recent addition to the city. Designed by the urban planner Ernest Hebrard after the fire, it was finally realized in the 1950s. Thanks to his incorporation of Byzantine motifs, it expresses a strong aspect of the city’s heritage. The elegant Olympion Cinema defines the square with its curved facade (with the Electra Palace doing the same from across the plaza), and is the main venue for Thessaloniki’s International Film Festival and a screening room for fine cinema from fall through late spring. This is a popular meeting point, lined with chic cafes.
Ano Poli – the “upper town” – was not affected by the fire of 1917 and so it preserves a traditional character. Here, along the cobblestone streets lined with traditional Ottoman style houses, you have a strong sense of the city’s past. The neighborhood is filled with significant Byzantine monuments. Go to the Vlatadon Monastery for the view, to tiny Osios David for one of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics to be found anywhere, and to Agios Nikolaos Orphanos for the secret garden that surrounds it, hidden behind a high stone wall. Come up to Ano Poli for the best view in Thessaloniki, from the Trigonio Tower, by sunset – just as the locals do.
The area around the Roman Agora is great for galleries, vintage clothing stores, music cafes, and a famous flea market called the Bit Bazaar. The agora itself – although it dates back to the 1st century AD – is actually new to the city as we know it: it was only rediscovered by accident in the 1960’ There is a fascinating small museum underneath the Ancient Agora – the entrance is hidden in the northwest corner of the excavation.
Tasting the Best of the City
Thessaloniki is famous for its hand-held meat delight wrapped in a pita. The first thing to know is how to order: in Athens, it’s called a souvlaki. But in Thessaloniki, the shaved meat in a pita is called a Gyros. A “Souvlaki” in Thessaloniki means a skewer of cubes of grilled meat (that same thing is called a “kalamaki” in Athens, but that’s another story). The second thing you need to know is that a gyro in Thessaloniki is a commitment – it’s a tremendous portion of crisp, seasoned, juicy meat with your choice of salads or spreads, stuffed into a pita. Come hungry. And keep it wrapped as you eat so it does not burst. Thessaloniki prides itself not just on quality but also on the generous size of its portions.
Bougatsa – a tender, flaky pie – is Thessaloniki’s favorite morning snack. It comes in sweet cream, cheese, spinach, and minced meat versions. It must be eaten hot, with a small fork. Chocolate milk is the usual accompaniment.
Thessaloniki also has some famous sweets. Try Trigona (“Triangles”) – these crisp phyllo triangles soaked in syrup and then filled with pastry cream are a specialty that was first invented in the hilltop suburb of Panorama. For Tsoureki – the sweet bread enriched with egg and butter, go to the specialist Terkenlis, whose flagship store is on the corner of Aristotle Square and Tsimiski street. You won’t need a map- just follow the scent.