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THESSALONIKA

(also known as 'Salonika' and 'Thessaloniki')
 
 
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GENERAL
 
Thessalonika, or Thessaloniki as the Greeks call it, is the second largest city in Greece, has a major port and is nicknamed affectionately ‘The Queen of the North.’   It is a University City with a cosmopolitan feel, a vibrant, bustling centre for trade and commerce, administrative centre for the North, a gastronomes delight with a buzzing nightlife and in 1997 won the prestigious title of European City of Culture. 
 
 
HISTORY
  
Thessalonika is steeped in a total of over 4000 years of history, having been built on the site of pre-historic settlements dating back 2000 years BC. The present city is said to have been founded in around 315 BC by King Kassandros, the Macedonian husband of Alexander the Great’s half-sister.  Located on the Thermaikos Gulf, in the heart of the province of Macedonia and adjoining Halkidiki, Thessalonika lies on the main trade route between the Levant and the Balkans.  In Roman times the City became the capital of Macedonia and a cultural crossroads for trade and commerce; even today this City plays a major role in the economies of both Greece and the Balkans.  As a consequence, Thessalonika was fought over by warring factions who sought to control this main artery of trade and who left in their wake a legacy of cultural diversity and impressive fortifications.  During the Byzantine era, Salonica, as it was then known, was the second city after Constantinople (Istanbul), remaining so until it’s sacking by Saracens in 904.
 
There is a particularly strong Turkish feel to the City resulting from the Turkish occupation of Thessalonika which lasted from 1430 until 1912.   In fact, Kemal Ataturk (or Mustafa Kemal Pascha as he was also called), who is revered as the founder of modern Turkey, was born in Thessalonika in 1881.  As a thriving City, Thessalonika has also attracted many migrants.  In particular, 1492 saw an influx of 20,000 Spanish Jews, in 1923 a wave of ethnic Greeks arrived following their expulsion from Turkey and latterly ethnic Albanians from the war torn Balkans.  
 
Thessalonika has continued to have its share of hardships well into the 19th Century.  In 1917 the Great Fire of August swept through the town destroying half the buildings from the waterfront to the trade centre and raising the Jewish quarter to the ground.   Although the city centre was rebuilt, the beautiful Byzantine churches and monuments that survived the fire stand out against their modern counterparts as a reminder of all that was lost.  World War II saw the City occupied once more, this time by the Germans, and large numbers of the Jewish population were sent to concentration camps, never to return.  Post war, Thessalonika worked hard to regain its kudos as a centre for trade, despite political instability and the oppressive military Junta which fell in 1974 - only to be rocked in 1978 by a massive earthquake which caused substantial damage again to many of the buildings. 
   
 
CITY SIGHTS TODAY
  
Despite its difficult history, Thessalonika carries on undaunted. Whilst it is still a relatively undiscovered holiday destination, it is becoming increasingly popular for a long weekend or City break, assisted by direct flights and a flight time from Gatwick of just over 3 hours.  For those who are looking for something different, it is also an ideal starting point for exploring unspoilt Northern Greece, especially Halkidiki.
 
Accommodation should be booked in advance if visiting the city in September and October as this is the popular festival time and accommodation can be scarce.
 
The focal point of the City is the attractive waterfront, where the White Tower or ‘Lefkos Pirgos’ stands defiant.  This tower was built in medieval times on even older foundations and has become synonymous with Thessalonika.  The ruling Turks used the tower for executions and in 1826, the Sultan executed his own bodyguards in the Tower.  The locals dubbed the tower the ‘Bloody Tower’ and in response, the Sultan had the tower painted white!  Today the Tower houses an interesting Byzantine Museum and those with a head for heights can climb to the top of the tower, where fantastic panoramic views of the City and Harbour will literally take your breath away.
 
Finding your way around the streets is fairly straightforward, as a good portion of the city has been rebuilt from the harbour area in a grid system of wide tree lined boulevards running parallel to each other. This has resulted in a good mix of modern and old-town architecture. The main high street, Odos Egnatia, is situated several blocks back from the harbour and from here many of the important city sights are within walking distance.   Right in the centre of the waterfront is the Greek National Tourist Office that offers advice to tourists and has many helpful leaflets.
 
Even if you are only passing through Thessalonika, a visit to the Archaeological Museum is an absolute ‘must’.  This museum houses a magnificent collection from the royal tomb of Phillip II, (the father of Alexander the Great), discovered at Vergina in 1856 and excavated in the 1900’s.  There are beautiful works of art, gold and silver on display, including an awesome casket containing Phillip’s bones, made of gold and decorated with the star of Macedon.  The site at Vergina is believed to be the ancient capital of Macedonia, Aegae, and further interest in the museum has been sparked following the dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).  The Greeks believe that finding the site and the Royal Tombs proves irrefutably that Macedonia is Greek and therefore no other country has the right to be called Macedonia.
 
To the north east of the town the medieval City Walls remain standing, together with the only section of old town to survive the fire of 1917. Today this section is called the Kastra District and is a charming jumble of narrow streets waiting to be explored.  There is also a colourful open air Turkish marketplace with lots of stalls waiting for those who wish to try their hand at a little haggling.  Close to the Kastra District is the home of Kemal Ataturk, a small piece of Turkey, which is maintained by the Turkish Government.  The house is open to tourists, but you will need to take your passport to gain entry!
 
At the eastern end of Egnatia Road is the Arch of Galerius built in 303 AD.  This Arch is etched with scenes from the Roman battles at Armenia and Mesopotamia to commemorate the Roman Emperor’s victory over the Persians in 297 AD.  A short stroll from the Arch is another ancient building called the Rotunda, which was built as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Galerius and dates from 306 AD.  During the Ottoman rule a minaret was added and this building was used as a mosque.  Later the minaret was abandoned and the building was used as a museum but is currently the university church of St George.
 
Some of the most beautiful buildings in Thessalonika are the Byzantine churches.  The most well known are Agia Sofia Church, an exceptional green domed church built in the 8th Century and Agios Dimitrios, built over the remains of Roman city baths in Egnatia Road.  Agios Dimitrios was largely rebuilt following the 1917 fire, but is noted for its lovely mosaics. Other sights in the city include the Roman remains of the Palace of Galerius and Thessalonika’s Folk Museum.
     
 
SHOPS and NIGHTLIFE
   
As befits a major city, Thessalonika has the full range of amenities, as well as a Cathedral, University, Hospital and a British Consulate, yet manages to retain a more laid back atmosphere than Athens.  The café culture is alive and kicking in Thessalonika and not to be missed is the Ladadika district, full of Bohemian chic, boutiques, handicraft shops, cafes and traditional ouzeries serving up mezes (an assortment of small dishes to complement your ouzo).  Whilst Ladadika is relatively quiet during the day, this is a popular evening venue where Thessalonians of all ages come to dance the night away.
  
Bars and Clubs are also concentrated in the narrow streets behind the quayside boulevard Nikis. There are many cafés up by the castle that keep going until late into the night. The cities main music venue is the multidisciplinary complex Milos, out in an old warehouse at Andreou Yioryiou 56 (Tel. 031 – 525 968 infoline). There you will find several tavernas, cafés and bars as well. 
 
 
MAINLAND CONNECTIONS
 
Thessalonika has excellent links with the rest of Greece and Athens in particular.  From the main line railway station, trains run regularly to Larissa, Volos and Athens.  There are also international train connections from Thessalonika to Istanbul in Turkey, Sophia in Bulgaria and Belgrade in Serbia.  However, it should be noted that in Greece some sections of the railways still operate on a single track and some of the rail schedules have, at least in the past, had a reputation for being somewhat unreliable.
 
Alternatively there is an excellent motorway running south from Thessalonika through Larissa and on to Athens resulting in an excellent intercity bus service, from the main bus station to Larissa, Volos and Athens. (NB The Greeks call even their coaches ‘buses’). There are also good links running east to Kavala and Alexandroupolis, west to central Greece and south east to the Halkidiki peninsulars and Mount Athos.  When boarding intercity buses you should buy your ticket from the bus station prior to departure and in my experience the intercity buses usually leave on time to a strict timetable.
 
Thessalonika airport has both domestic and international flights and is located to the south of the City.  Package holidays are available from both the major and Greek specialist tour companies, but they tend to be either short breaks or fly drive holidays.  Several scheduled, as well as Charter airlines fly direct from the U.K. to Thessalonika during the summer months, usually from April to October.  Flying time from the U.K. is approximately 3 hours 10 minutes.  Olympic Airways and British Airways offer scheduled flights from the U.K. to Thessalonika all year round. Olympic Airways has daily domestic flights from Thessalonika to Athens and several of the larger Greek islands, including Crete. The internal flight time to Athens is approximately 40 mins.
 
Thessalonika has numerous ferry connections to the Northern Aegean islands, the Cyclades, and the Sporades islands.  In addition there is a hydrofoil service to Skopelos, Skiathos and Alonissos in the Sporades.  However, ferries to the smaller islands are usually circuitous, and it should be remembered that changing schedules and adverse weather conditions could affect all ferries.  Therefore timings should always be checked locally or prior to departure.
 
        
 
 
The foregoing information was last reviewed in November 2006. Things change, and whilst we are often travelling in Greece we do rely to some extent upon others to provide updates in order to keep the site as current and accurate as possible!  If you have any updates or information that you think should be included here, please do mail the webmaster@aguide2greece.com  - thank you.
 
                  
 


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