Published: May 2009
By Daniel Mendelsohn
Thessaloniki, northern Greece's history-rich port, has played unwilling host to several empires. Returning after a long absence, <b>Daniel Mendelsohn</b> finds an up-to-the-minute modern city, still suffused with a beautiful sadness.
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.
Even in the frantic activity near the water, you're reminded of Thessaloniki's great age, of earlier versions of it that drift to the surface as in a palimpsest, teasing you with a sense that you're a visitor here even more fleetingly and insignificantly than you might have imagined. Near Aristotle Street, a few blocks north of the water, is the Kentriki Agora, the Central Market. It's been a central marketplace since at least the 1500's, when the Turks built the fabulous Bezesteni here—a low, sprawling structure that now stands at the market's eastern edge, topped by six symmetrical domes, and that continues to function as an indoor emporium. On this side of the market, I was overwhelmed by the vivid profusion of sights and smells that hasn't changed in centuries, and that inevitably brings to mind the word bazaar. Outside of a spice shop crouched vast wooden barrels of dried herbs and seeds; in a nearby meat market hung carcasses of lambs and rabbits and chickens, the last with heads still feathered, pungent in the afternoon sun; everywhere were enormous briny barrels of olives in all imaginable colors and sizes; among the fresh produce, luscious yellow oval pears called Santa Marias, which, I was happy to hear, you can buy only by the pound. In one corner, under a tarp, a stall with exotic plants; across from it, more carcasses of lambs, their tiny, slightly sinister teeth exposed.
West of the market, hugging the waterfront, is the warren of small winding streets that forms the neighborhood called Ladadika, once an olive-oil market (ladi means "oil"); not far from here are the city's best hotels—the vast Makedonia Palace, with its optimistic profusion of balconies; the sleek new Andromeda, which inhabits a beautiful 1920's villa on Komninon Street, one of the small capillaries that run up from the water's edge, perpendicular to the great artery that is Nikis. Apart from the mysterious museum of musical instruments, there's not much to Ladadika except nightlife: whole streets devoted to rows of café-bars, with canvas chairs and little tables, to small restaurants, to loungy hangouts, some clearly meant for tourists (Café Different, Taste of China), some with the blank, anonymously industrial, vaguely hostile façades of nightclubs that only locals know about—or get into. There's a surprisingly quiet little square where Katouni Street ends, a plateia with a charming fountain (in the form of an obelisk topped by a glass globe), where you're as likely to find an old-fashioned taverna as to end up in a trendy café run by dreadlocked postgraduates. Across the square, a wonderful 19th-century wedding cake of a building houses the Medousa restaurant, which takes its name from the bas-relief of the medusa that hovers over the entrance. It's buildings like these that conjure the city's most wistful self—its days, early in the last century and all through the century preceding it, as a plush bourgeois European provincial center at the edge of the decaying Ottoman Empire, having as much to do with the Balkans as the Mediterranean, deliciously stranded between cultures and eras.
East of Aristotle Square—in the direction of the White Tower—is a cheery maze of shady streets where, during the day, there is a flower market. Unlike the area around the Bezesteni, which falls silent after dark, smelling of dead meat, this neighborhood—a maze of unnavigable streets—comes alive at night. As evening begins, tables and chairs appear outside nearly every storefront, and the neighborhood erupts in music and food, continuing far into the night. When I came back to Thessaloniki, last autumn, I strolled around this area late each night, happy to be supplicated by the barkers who stand outside, each trying to pull you into his taverna. Every night I would give in to a different barker at a different taverna, and found myself seduced, all over again, by the Greek equivalent of comfort food: mackerel soaked in vinegar, onions, and dill; fresh tzatziki, the ubiquitous cucumber and yogurt dip; fresh whole sardines or anchovies (ghavros) breaded, lightly fried, and smothered in lemon; amazingly tender octopus—quite often they arrive with their legs hanging nonchalantly off the plate—served with nothing more than a chunk of lemon; bifteki, a sort of Salisbury steak; kokoretsi, fried innards; paidakia, lamb chops; skordalia, purée of potatoes and garlic.
After dinner, a harborfront stroll is mandatory. The lulling noise, as old as the city itself, of water lapping against stone is interrupted, in a typically Thessalonian counterpoint, by some more contemporary sounds. The week I was there, the trade fair had attracted, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of guests, a number of anti-globalization protesters gearing up for the European Summit about to be held in the city; one of them, a slender girl with cotton-candy pink hair, was rather good-naturedly playing protest songs and speeches on a little boom box in the middle of the promenade.
The Upper City, a steep climb away from the water, is Thessaloniki's more private face—working-class, friendly, a bit grimy. But the past is never far away: up here, the massive remains of the city walls are rarely out of sight. First built when the city was founded, extensively overhauled by Constantine the Great, and then added onto and fortified by the Turks (the White Tower is a remnant of this period: it used to be called the Bloody Tower but was eventually, literally, whitewashed), the walls surrounded Thessaloniki on four sides until remarkably late. Until, in fact, the 1860's, when the seaside stretch of wall, which ran along what is now Nikis, was torn down by the Turkish authorities in order to beautify the city. But the western, northern, and eastern perimeter survives, for the most part. Ten feet thick and 40 feet high in most places, the walls keep popping into your field of vision wherever you walk in the Upper City, even if you're not looking for them: giant, with many courses of brick and stonework, they're currently adorned with grass and wildflowers that grow between their stones and serve only to emphasize the vast age and heft of these now useless civil defenses.
The way the massive ancient walls snake through the city's most earthy neighborhoods bespeaks a paradox that characterizes Thessaloniki's staggeringly rich collection of Byzantine churches, most of which are to be found in the Upper City as well. It's true that many of the devout who come to Thessaloniki are content to worship at the vast church of St. Dimitrios—the largest such edifice in Greece, built on the site of the martyrdom of this homegrown saint and rebuilt in the 20th century, after the city's 1917 fire. (The saint's relics were brought back to Thessaloniki in 1980 from Italy(integral) and now lie in an elaborate silver reliquary near the entrance.) Or they might stop in at Ayia Sophia, one of the city's most ancient churches, noted for the unique "windblown leaves" design of its column capitals; or Ayios Georgios, St. George's, the sanctuary that now occupies a great Pantheon-like rotunda, which in the fourth century a.d. was the center of Galerius's palace complex.
But for all their beauties, these grand structures are not as moving as the dark, mysterious little sanctuaries that even the most modest hike to the Upper City will reveal in remarkable profusion.
In these churches, most of which suddenly arise in the middle of crowded residential blocks, I felt the quiet, mysterious Thessaloniki, the Thessaloniki of the too-rich past, the Thessaloniki of hidden histories and secret wounds. Although they are still in use, they seem almost to have been abandoned. Churches, for instance, like Ayios Nikolaos Orphanos, which you approach by way of a walled courtyard, through an allée of scraggly olive trees with a couple of fallen columns lying to one side; and yet, after this apparent neglect, there is a burst of activity, even if it's just visual activity. Inside, the church's walls are covered in an astonishing array of vividly colored paintings: the wedding at Cana, the miracles of Saint Nicholas, a soulful John the Baptist sprouting honey-colored dreadlocks.
The same odd yet characteristic juxtaposition of stillness and excitement is at work in Ayia Ekaterini (St. Catherine's), which sits in an empty little plaza all the way up the western wall. This is a working-class neighborhood—here the grandeur of the harborfront seems remote—and there is again a sense that the shrine is on its own. Yet when you get close you feel, again, the energy: the apses and transepts pile atop one another in a way that brings beehives to mind, and the impression you walk away with is that the shrine derives a kind of confidence from the ornateness of its dazzling brickwork, and is blissfully indifferent to the lines sagging with bright laundry a block away. There is something in these churches that allows them, like the city itself, to maintain a muted privacy, a quiet acknowledgment of History. So it is, too, with Ayios Pandeleimon, a block's walk from St. George's. On the day I visited, it was surrounded by pomegranates in full fruit, the cistern within the courtyard covered by a magnificent grapevine. The caretaker, though courteous, made sure I didn't sit on his bench.
But my favorite church remains the Church of Osios David, a tiny structure set on a porch high up in the Upper City, where a toothless old woman explained to me, in a hopeful mixture of Greek, French, English, and (I think) Italian, the wonders of the mosaics and paintings: a rambunctious Ezekiel with a bull and a lion, an inexpressibly tender fresco of the Virgin bathing the infant Jesus. Outside on the patio, I caught my breath at the sweeping views all the way down to the Lower City. In one corner of this heavenly terrace, on that very warm day, someone was playing country-and-western music.
This all-too-typical contrast in Thessaloniki of stillness and activity, past and present, a kind of melancholy and a kind of violence, is also characteristic of the city's Ottoman monuments—most of them small, domed buildings that suddenly pop up on a side street or amid a cluster of otherwise undistinguished concrete apartment buildings. But Thessaloniki's oldest self—its classical self—offers more surprising moments of stillness and cool. Just below Ayios Dimitrios, at the dead center of the city, is the Roman Forum, with its tiny, perfect theater, its elegant colonnade: here again, a strange emptiness, a sense of too much space, can tinge one's admiration of the ruins with a kind of regret. Even the Archaeological Museum, farther down toward the water, feels quiet and introspectivecompared to the big museum in Athens. It has opted for focus over size, and the result is that everything you see, you remember: a dazzling sampling of Hellenistic mosaics (one floor's decoration depicts the seductions of Ganymede by Zeus, Ariadne by Dionysus, and Daphne by Apollo; you can only assume this was the floor of someone's bedroom), Roman glass (there's a fabulous little jar whose belly is shaped like a baby's face, in iridescent green), sculpture (a professional actor's immodest tomb monument; plus ça change), and above all gold. The Derveni Krater, a vast, ornate Hellenistic vase,represents the acme of ancient metalsmithing; but to my mind, as with so much else about this city, smaller is better—and more evocative. There are gold wreaths here that imitate laurel or olive so realistically that the berries quiver on the precious twigs; there is also a pair of pins, sinister in their length and pointed, with great incised balls at the end, of the sort Greek women once used to fasten their elaborately draped dresses. It was a pair of pins such as these that Oedipus used to blind himself; somehow, in Thessaloniki, it is easy to think of tragedy while looking at beauty.
And it was of tragedy and beauty that I thought, again and again, on this return to Thessaloniki, which has known both so well; it was of both that I thought on my last night there when, during a final walk along the waterfront, I bought an ancient paperback of the complete poems of Cavafy from an old man selling books off a table near the White Tower. Cavafy's poem "The City," though an ode to Alexandria, suits Thessaloniki, in its faded grandeur, its compelling entwining of the ancient and the contemporary, of capitalism and regret, of bourgeois Victorian plushness and Middle Eastern secrets. The poem is an imaginary dialogue between the narrator and someone who claims to want to leave the city and never again return: "I'll go to another land," that person says, "I'll go to another sea./I'll find another city, one that's better than this." To which complaint the narrator rightly counters: "New places: you won't find them; you won't find new seas./The city will follow you."
Thessaloniki followed me. Even when I thought I had done with it, it made me come back.
Thessaloniki is Greece's second-largest city, with a population of 788,000. Olympic Airways (800/223-1226; www.olympicairways.gr) flies once a day from New York to Athens, where you can catch one of eight daily flights to Thessaloniki. There are also five daily express trains from Athens—though the six-hour trip can be noisy and crowded. The city holds its popular annual film festival and trade fair in September; if you plan to visit during this time, be sure to make hotel reservations well in advance.
WHERE TO STAY
Andromeda A boutique hotel on a quiet downtown street a short walk from the harbor. The 44 rooms range in style from African to Art Deco. DOUBLES FROM $275. 5 KOMNINON ST.; 30-2310/373-700; www.andromedahotels.gr
Capsis Bristol Hotel This 1870 building once housed the city's first post office. It's now a 20-room hotel with a bistro-bar, the Medousa. DOUBLES FROM $275. OPLOPIOU AND KATOUNI STS.; 30-2310/506-500; www.capsishotel.gr
Makedonia Palace Grand and modern, with lots of marble. All 284 rooms have balconies; ask for one with a view of the sea. DOUBLES FROM $282. 2 MEGALOU ALEXANDROU BLVD.; 30-2310/897-197; www.grecotel.gr
WHERE TO EAT
Dodoni The best ice cream in Greece: chocorello (creamy chocolate with cherries), kaimaki (made with mastic, crystallized tree resin), and, of course, pistachio. 13 NIKIS BLVD. (ON THE SOUTHEAST SIDE OF ARISTOTLE SQUARE); 30-2310/442-455
Olympion Café This is where the locals meet to gossip and people-watch. Absolutely de rigueur for late-afternoon frappedes (iced powdered coffee)—the national post-nap beverage. LUNCH FOR TWO $54. 10 ARISTOTLE SQUARE; 30-2310/284-001
Taverna Konaki A neighborhood hangout in the Upper City, run by an attentive husband-and-wife team. They make a fabulous ghavros saganaki (fresh anchovies cooked in feta cheese, mustard, pepper, and dill); loukanika (grilled seasoned country sausage); and bouyiourdí (cheese sautéed with hot peppers in tomato sauce). For dessert, homemade baklava and kazan tipi, a quivering custard topped with sesame seeds. DINNER FOR TWO $22. AKROPOLEOS AND MOREAS STS.; 30-2310/213-390
Tottis A taverna serving typical Greek mezes (appetizers): dried mackerel soaked in vinegar, onions, and dill; sardines, breaded and fried; tender octopus. This is ouzeri food, Greece's answer to tapas—small plates of highly savory dishes that contrast perfectly with ouzo, the famous anise-flavored liqueur. DINNER FOR TWO $22. 3 ARISTOTLE SQUARE; 30-2310/237-715
Archaeological Museum Archaic, classical, and Hellenistic sculptures from Thessaloniki and Macedonia. (Now under renovation and only partly opened through next spring.) 6 MANOLIS ANDRONIKOU ST.; 30-2310/830-538
Museum of Byzantine Culture Sculptures, wall paintings, mosaic floors, metalwork, coins, and religious engravings and icons from the Byzantine period. 2 STRATOU AVE.; 30-2310/868-5705
Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki Photographs and artifacts trace the history of the city's Jews from the third century b.c. until the Second World War. 13 AYIOU MINA ST.; 30-2310/250-406; www.jmth.gr
Museum of Ancient, Byzantine, and Post-Byzantine Musical Instruments Thessaloniki's newest museum displays reproductions of 280 musical instruments. 12-14 KATOUNI ST.; 30-2310/555-2636
Ayios Dimitrios 97 AYIOU DIMITRIOU ST.
Ayia Sophia AYIAS SOPHIAS SQUARE
Ayios Georgios ROTUNDA SQUARE
Ayios Nikolaos Orphanos 20 IRODOTOU ST. (UPPER CITY)
Ayia Ekaterini IOUS AND SAHTOURI STS.
Ayios Pandeleimon IASSONIDI AND ARRIANOU STS.
Church of Osios David EPIMENIDOU ST. (UPPER CITY)