Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Greece: The Quiet Charm of Thessaloniki

The waterfront of Thessaloniki stretches southeast along Leoforos Nikis Street,
seen here from the city pier. Sidewalk and open-air restaurants fill the
ground floors of the residential buildings.

With more than a million people, Thessaloniki has about a third the population of Athens, but it's still Greece's second-largest city.  Its long history has seen it conquered and ruled by Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Turks and the unified nation of Greece.

Each wave of conquest saw much of what existed before it destroyed, and an enormous fire in 1917 destroyed much of what had made it into the 20th century. But the fire also caused a rebirth of sorts, allowing the city to be redesigned, with many streets laid out in an orderly modern grid. 

That's not to imply that the past is invisible. There are Roman, medieval, Ottoman and other ruins scattered about, but what's missing are the hordes of tourists that clamber up the Parthenon in Athens and flood the Forum in Rome. Instead, here the streets are filled with young locals, many of them students at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece's largest university. You'll find young crowds, too, at the bars, restaurants and dance clubs in the Ladadika drinking district and in cafes along the waterfront and on the city pier.

A high school friend of mine, who was a visiting professor here a decade or two ago, said she was happy Jane and I had visited this usually overlooked city. I'm glad we did, too.

Here are some photos.

The White Tower dates to the 1400s and was one of several such towers that, in
conjunction with walls and seawalls, once defended the city. It was once a prison
and known as Blood Tower. It got its current name in 1896 when it was whitewashed.
The whitewash was removed in a 1980s renovation. Today, its six floors house
part of the Museum of Byzantine Culture and focus on the city's history.
A winding stair/ramp connects floors within the
White Tower. Windows offer views of the waterfront.

Aristotelous (Aristotle Square), seen here looking north from the waterfront,
is the city's main plaza, complete with dockless electric scooters.

Reading one's phone while at a table with other people is not just an
American habit. This is at a bar on the city pier.

The Arch of Galerius on Egnatia Street (an ancient Roman road) was built
 around 305 by the Roman Emperor Galerius to celebrate the Roman
 victory over Persia in 297. 

Carvings on the arch depict scenes from
the campaign against Persia.

The ceiling of an old Ottoman-era bathhouse. The circles are
holes that let in light. Today this bathhouse is used as
an art exhibition space. 

The Ayia Sofia church is thought to date to 325, just after the Council of Nicea,
which would make it older than the more famous Hagia (Ayia) Sofia in Istanbul,
which was completed in 537. Architecture experts say this church isn't even
that old, that it was built in the late 700s.

The rather small remains of a rather small Roman
amphitheater coexist with modern apartment buildings
a few blocks north of Aristotle Square.

The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki does more than present ancient objects. It tries
to make visitors think about them in new ways. In this display of  ancient copies of a sculpture by
the Greek Praxiteles, the museum asks what the figure is doing. Is she touching a hem
of her garment to conceal her body or is she about to reveal her body? And why was
this work so popular that copies have been found all over the classical world? 

The view from our room at Antigon Urban Chic Hotel,
just a few blocks north of the waterfront and within
walking distance of bars, restaurants and other attractions.
Everything, from espresso makers to fresh octopus and pork to clothing and shoes,
can be purchased along the covered market streets near Athonos Square.

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