Major cities don’t, as a rule, work well into road trip itineraries – in fact, they imply the very antithesis of the open road, lovely unexpected villages and great landscapes. Anyway, we’re setting off from Athens – so one city is definitely enough! Then there’s the location – it’s a bit of a distance from everywhere – 500kms from the capital and not a lot around it at an initial glance….
BUT – we have a few days to play around with, everyone seems to be going there on mini breaks ( I blame Ryanair!), it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are some great beaches in the region for our last few days resort treat and, finally, we can fly directly home (Ryanair of course!!) so don’t have to return to Athens.
So we go to Thessaloniki…
Location, location, location! In 315 BC, Cassander, the King of Macedonia, consolidated the population of 26 surrounding settlements within the walls of a new city, which he named after his wife, the sister of Alexander the Great. Connecting several trade routes between Europe and Asia, the city quickly became a major hub and seaport and the most important city in the whole Balkan region.
It continued to flourish as a trade, cultural and administrative centre after succumbing to Roman rule in 168 BC. It was second only to Constantinople under the Ottomans. Then of course there were the Ostrogoths, Slavs, Saracens, Normans and Franks – all wanting control of this strategic territory.
Under Ottoman rule, the Muslim population increased and, by c1500, some 8575 Muslims outnumbered the 7986 Greek inhabitants. Around this time, Spain’s Edict of Expulsion demanded its Jewish population convert to Christianity or face torture by the Inquisition. The Ottoman emperor invited fleeing Jews to resettle in his territories and, by 1519, 15,715 Jews formed 54% of Thessaloniki’s population. Roll on to the start of the 20th century and this was the largest Jewish city in the world with some 60,000 Sepherdic Jews in residence.
The Great Fire of 1917 probably started by accident when a spark fell into a pile of straw in a house of refugees. About 1 square kilometre of the city was destroyed, including 9500 houses, 12 mosques, 16 synagogues, banks, schools and most of the newspaper printing houses. Over 50% of the city’s shops were wiped out, 70% of the workforce was suddenly unemployed and more than 70,000 residents were left homeless. It being the Jewish sabbath, the city centre was relatively empty that day so, incredibly, no fatalities were reported. Half the Jewish population, now destitute, left the city to reestablish their lives elsewhere. The Jewish population was further decimated of course, during the German Occupation of WW2.
Holocaust Memorial, Waterfront, Thessaloniki
On June, 20th, 1978, an earthquake destroyed many buildings and killed over forty people.
In 1988, the Early Christian and Byzantine sites of Thessaloniki were declared UNESCO World Heritage Monuments .
The sea has always been an integral part of the city’s history so the WATERFRONT is an obvious place to begin our tour.
The newly renovated 5km PROMENADE stretches from the port to the distinctive Ottoman WHITE TOWER and on to the concert hall….
After the Great Fire, there was no quick rebuild – rather major urban planning on what was almost a blank canvas. The downtown area was redesigned and orientated towards the sea with fine boulevards, apartment blocks, squares and parks.
Heading away from the seafront, the older streets and neighbourhoods have retained their character….
This IS Greece! So there will be plenty of churches to visit (providing a welcome escape from the heat for a while!) and some wonderful frescos and murals to admire…
The ancient walls, castles and excavated sites will keep every historian and archaeologist happy!
It’s worth a bit of huffing and puffing for the spectacular views…
And then there’s the food!
We had 2.5 days so had time to wander at will and walk everywhere. I couldn’t do it all in one day on foot – especially in the heat (early July). The waterfront and lower town are very manageable – and if the climb to the upper walls and fortifications seems too much, there’s always the Hop-On-Hop-Off service…
Where we Stayed
We wanted somewhere central so we could walk everywhere. It had to have free parking – somewhere we could lock the car and forget about it for a few days. And we didn’t want to pay too much for the accommodation!….
Bit of a tall order in any city these days!!
URBAN DONKEY (Isn’t that a great name!!) fitted the bill. This newly renovated property offers minimalist designed rooms with fridge etc. There is free on-street parking and it’s about a 15-20 walk to the waterfront. (€144 total for 3 nights, July).
What I particularly loved……
I loved the excavated sites surrounded on all sides by the modern city…..
….and the road signs that include the etymology of street names.
Getting to the Beach…
Despite its extensive seafront, the city doesn’t have an immediate beach area – the closest being 17km from the city centre. The beaches are accessible by bus or boat…
Finally – the Verdict!
Was it worth it?
As a mini-break destination, Thessaloniki is DEFINITELY worth a visit. It’s great for a few days – there are plenty of sites, museums, walks, etc. to pass the day and the city is known for a lively night scene that caters for every age and taste.
Having said that, it’s still a city and it demanded a different mindset after spending the previous week wandering through the Peloponnese, Delphi and Meteora.
We enjoyed our few days but I was very glad it wasn’t the end of our trip – we like a few days at the end to relax – preferably at a pool or a beach and preferably in a place with absolutely no sightseeing attractions that might take me away from my book and my cocktail! Thessaloniki was Busy! Busy! Busy!
I don’t think we’d have included it if we had to drive the 500kms back to Athens. We were able to return the rental at Thessaloniki Airport and fly direct from there.
These 3 nights in Thessaloniki were part of a 17 night trip to mainland Greece which included: