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Thessaloniki Modern

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.


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