Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Thessaloniki provides colourful introduction to Northern Greece

It was an early 5 o'clock start for our drive to Girona and flight to Thessaloniki, Greece. We watched through the departure lounge window as some tweaks were made to one of our plane’s engines, and then we were off. We arrived and quickly found a taxi for the 30-minute ride into town. We may have been taken on the ‘scenic route’ through the charming old town, high up on a hill overlooking the city. Regardless, we were soon deposited at our hotel in the trendy Ladadika area. 
 
By now it was time for lunch. The lady at reception, who looked like she thoroughly enjoyed her food, suggested a couple of restaurants and marked them on a map for us. But our walk through narrow, congested streets in 34-degree heat was somewhat frustrating. Finally, we arrived at the suggested fish restaurant. It was a little different from what we were used to, with dogfish and other ‘cheap’ fish on the menu alongside anchovies and sardines. We opted for the tomato salad and red mullet but when it arrived we were a little disappointed since it was several small mullets; however, they were very tasty. The local Greek beer was so good.

The restaurant was located on a side street that became completely blocked off when someone came and parked their car between two others. This caused people to back up or abandon their cars because they were going nowhere. It was the first of several times we were going to see this. Now a little refreshed, it was easier to people-watch. Every woman bar none was wearing jeans, like a uniform. We could see that the quality of the clothes wasn't very good in a lot of cases. By now it was time for dessert and we were brought some very sweet cakes. Too sweet for my taste.

We decided to explore one of the main shopping areas and were soon surprised but happy to discover a decent sized Marks and Spencer's. Of course I made a line to the Food Hall only to be cruelly disappointed — No Battenburg cake! In fact the server had never heard of it but she did take a note of the name. Undaunted we had a look around the store and of course I left with some Mark's underwear. Unbeatable.
 
Now it was time to head towards the water. One side of the street was lined with restaurants and the other a wide promenade overlooking the bay. We walked around the old port entrance and had a look out at the ships waiting for their cargo. Modern Thessaloniki lies on top of four other cities. It was founded in 315 BC by King Cassander, Alexander the Great's brother-in-law. After the fall of the Macedonian kingdom, the city came into Roman hands. During that time, a port was built and the city became prosperous due to its strategic place on the Roman Via Egnatia, a road running through modern Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.

After the fall of the Roman empire in 476AD and numerous barbaric invasions, the city became depopulated. After a short-lived occupancy by Slavs, Saracens and Normans, the city became part of the Byzantine empire around 1204 AD. Around that time, despite intermittent invasion, Thessaloniki sustained a large population and flourishing commerce, resulting in intellectual and artistic endeavour that can be traced in the numerous churches and frescoes of the era.

The Byzantine empire was unable to keep Thessaloniki from the advancing Ottoman empire. The city was sold in 1423 to Venice and was later conquered by Sultan Murad II and became a part of the Ottoman empire. Around the 15th century, a large number of Sephardic Jews inhabited Thessaloniki. By then the city had become one of the most important in the Ottoman Empire, viable as the foremost trade and commercial center in the Balkans. The railway reached the city in 1888 and new modern port facilities were built in 1896-1904.

Following two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, Thessaloniki became part of Greece. The Great Fire of 1917 left 72,000 inhabitants homeless and changed the architecture of the city. A large part of the city was rebuilt under French architect and archeologist Ernest Herbrard, and transformed into the modern European metropolis it is today.

Thessaloniki fell to the forces of Nazi Germany April 1941 and remained under German occupation until October 1944. The city suffered considerable damage from Allied bombing and almost the entire remaining Jewish population was exterminated by the Nazis. After the war Thessaloniki was rebuilt and recovered quickly, with a rapid growth in its population and a large-scale development of new infrastructure and industry throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, the impression today is of a city in a sad state of repair. The sidewalks are falling apart, as are many buildings, and gardens in public places are totally overgrown. Austerity has severely hit modern Greece.

We spent most of our evening wandering about Ladadika, where the central market and bazaar used to be in Ottoman times and earlier. After the fire of 1917 the area went into a period of continuing decline and eventually total abandonment. In 1985 it was declared a historical monument by the Ministry of Culture, and building was prohibited in order to preserve its original style and character. Ladadika soon came back to life with small tavernas, bars and restaurants opening in newly renovated old buildings and welcoming locals and tourists of all ages.

Although the restaurants in the main square were quite busy, many down the side streets were not. We opted to eat in the main square but only certain things were available on the menu. Still full from lunch, I just had a salad and a big glass of lemonade from fresh lemons with sparkling water. Mmmmm. Busier restaurants usually included live entertainment in the form of a bazouki player and a guitarist. We wanted to go to a place well known for it's live music but it was not to be on this Friday night. It was dead quiet.
 
We took a long post-dinner walk up the very crowded promenade to the White Tower, the symbol of the city. It was whitewashed by the Greeks in 1912 but today has reverted to its original colour. The old Ottoman tower has been used as a fortification and a notorious prison before becoming a museum today.

Back at our hotel, a converted olive factory, it was time for bed. Unfortunately, the air conditioning was not working on this hot and humid night and all we could do was throw open all the windows. All I can tell you is that the Ladadika district was jumping with talking, yelling, laughing, very loud motorcycles and music until five in the morning. What a sleepless night!
 






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