For years after my first, haunted visit, I couldn't bring myself to return to Thessaloniki. Not because the "second city of Greece" can seem—at least at first glance—to offer less to the traveler than its bossy older sister, Athens; nor because Thessaloniki, although famed for its nightlife, doesn't go out of its way to entice visitors. (When I finally did go back, and warily mentioned to a cabbie my impression of his native city, he laughed in agreement. "Kratoume ta hartia konta mas!" he chortled. "We keep our cards close to our chest!")
Nor was it the strange sense of sadness that I kept feeling that first time I went: a melancholy lurking in certain quiet side streets or the occasional decaying villa that I'd sometimes be surprised to come across on an otherwise busy avenue—its shutters rotting, its stucco crumbling, superbly indifferent, like an aristocrat fallen on hard times, to the surrounding din of children and automobiles and, perhaps, off in the distance, the self-satisfied honking of a ship leaving the great harbor. Like many very old cities, this one, I knew, had its reasons to seem sad, disasters both natural and man-made: devastating fires (the last, in 1917, destroyed half the city), invasions, massacres, and religious persecutions. The latter in particular seem to be a hallmark of Thessalonian history, from the persecutions of Christians by several Roman emperors (7,000 Christians were martyred in the city's amphitheater) and then by the Ottomans, to the destruction of the city's vital Jewish community by the Germans after their invasion of Greece in 1941.
No. The reason I couldn't go back was that I had loved all this about Thessaloniki—the secrets, the deep reserve of its tiny, jewel-like Byzantine shrines, the sense of old wounds not quite healed—and was afraid it had somehow changed. I kept hearing that Thessaloniki was on the upswing, its industries (oil, shipping, tobacco) booming, its art scene suddenly vibrant, and that it was full of young and fashionable people. And that's what had me worried. There is a poem by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, written in 1918, called "Since Nine O'Clock," in which the narrator, sitting alone at home in the evening, recalls the bygone excitement of certain cities he's known in his youth: "streets made unrecognizable by time,/bustling shops whose movement has been stilled." There are places, Cavafy says, you cannot revisit; any attempt will bring you nothing but nocturnal regret. And yet, 15 years after that initial visit, it seemed I had to go back. When I first went to Thessaloniki, it was as a graduate student in classics, and the city was merely a place I thought I had to see. Since then I've strayed into other worlds: the early-20th-century one of Cavafy himself, whose poetry I am now translating; the mid-20th-century one of my Polish-Jewish relatives, whose lives and deaths I am chronicling in a new book. Yet these worlds, as it turns out, are also encompassed by Thessaloniki, a city whose Byzantine past was well-known to Cavafy, so many of whose poems take place during that era; a city whose rich Jewish life also came to an end in the 1940's. And so even though I tried hard not to go back, everything in my life, it now seems, was pushing me to return to a city that, when I did, was just as busy as I'd been hearing, and yet just as dreamily melancholy as I'd remembered.
Thessaloniki has, indeed, been both very busy and very sad for a very long time—almost 23 centuries. Founded by the Macedonian king Cassander in 316b.c. (it's named for his wife, Thessalonica, Alexander the Great's half-sister), it was prized by the Romans, who made it a provincial capital (the city lay on the crucial Via Egnatia, which connected Italy to Byzantium). Cicero visited during his exile; so, famously, did the Apostle Paul. It became a great metropolis under the later Roman emperors. In the fourth century, Constantine built an enormous harbor there, which can be seen from the huge palace complex constructed by his predecessor, the Christian-hating Galerius. Thessaloniki was a favorite of the Byzantine emperors, too, who regarded it as second only to Constantinople itself, and who lavished on it a staggering number of artistically important churches. When the city became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1430, those churches started sprouting minarets. (Atatürk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey, was born here.) In 1492, after their expulsion from Spain, the Jews who were to become such an integral part of the city's cultural and commercial life began to arrive; by the mid 20th century they made up just over half the population. Only a handful survived the Nazi invasion of 1941. The Jewish cemetery in the southeastern part of town was razed by the Germans; its headstones were used to pave roads. The site is now the grounds for the annual Thessaloniki International Trade Fair, which draws 300,000 people every September.
The superimposition of the ongoing commercial life of Thessaloniki on a site that bespeaks the city's greatest tragedy is, somehow, typical. Thessaloniki seems always to have been poised between two poles: past and present, north and south, Europe and the Middle East, Byzantine and Ottoman, Muslim and Orthodox, the mountains above, the water below. These tensions give the city its special richness. (Discreetly, almost tenderly stacked behind some churches are the minarets that the Turks had added, long ago; next to these you'll sometimes glimpse tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions, all that's left of that great cemetery.)
Like so many things Greek, Thessaloniki is divided into two. (Classical Greek sentences were divided into "either-or" clauses whenever possible, and this seesawing, polarized rhythm has infected pretty much every aspect of Greek culture ever since.) Thessaloniki's seafront and the broad, cacophonous east-west boulevards that run parallel to it constitute the city's public face. Along the water runs Nikis Boulevard, with its innumerable, interchangeable café-bars, indistinguishable in every respect—the canvas umbrellas, the generic Europop, the sleek sunglassed clientele—except, bizarrely, for the kind of candles used on the tiny tabletops. Then, moving away from the water, Mitropoleos and Tsimiskis Streets—the latter is hung with strings of miniature white lights year-round—where the fanciest shopping is to be had; then Egnatia, the Broadway of Thessaloniki, noisy and crucial, named for its illustrious Roman predecessor; and, finally, Ayiou Dimitriou (St. Dimitrios) Street, at which point you're at the base of the hill that forms the other half of the town, or the Ano Poli, the Upper City, which is less kempt, more residential, but which conceals some of the city's greatest historical attractions.
On the waterfront, the languid arc of Nikis stretches from the old Custom House on the west (the left-hand side, as you face the city from the sea) all the way east to the squat, round Turkish fort known as the White Tower. In the neighborhoods and parks abutting the water are the shops, the markets, most of the nightclubs, the restaurants, the wedding-cake Belle Époque hotels and consulates, painted in ice cream colors (pink, cream, robin's-egg blue), the theater (named for Melina Mercouri, Greece's most famous actress—remember Never on Sunday?—who eventually became minister of culture), and, of course, the museums: the small but excellent Archaeological Museum, the vast Museum of Byzantine Culture, the Jewish Museum, and something called the Museum of Ancient, Byzantine, and Post-Byzantine Musical Instruments, whose mysteries I couldn't bring myself to broach by actually going in.
The focal point of the city's lower half is a great gap that opens up halfway along the harbor, between the Custom House and the White Tower: Aristotle Square, Plateia Aristotelous. (Aristotle, who among other things was Alexander the Great's childhood tutor, was born in the northern town of Stagira, not too far away, and everything—streets, grocery stores, beaches—tends to be named after him.) The square is, in fact, a giant rectangular piazza whose long side lies perpendicular to the harbor; as it moves away from the water it eventually becomes a broad avenue itself, opening up a vista that sweeps straight up through the old Roman Forum to the Upper City beyond. As with any self-respecting Mediterraneancity, the real action isn't in the square, but in the shade. Along either side of the plaza, for several blocks to where the square becomes an avenue, is a long, unbroken arched colonnade, pockmarked in many places and somewhat shabby, but imposing nonetheless, in the shade of whose columns are countless small cafés, bars, ice cream parlors, bookstores, and tavernas.