Thessaloniki is redolent with a chaotic – and even decadent – air, set in the West but facing the East, proud of a past characterised by Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman influences, yet imbued with modern, contemporary momentum.Thessaloniki (or Salonika) is not as popular as the capital, Athens, and does not exert the same draw as the absolutely exquisite Greek islands, but its streets are full of the delights that warrant flying there to be able to stand before the White Tower. Here, then, are some of its myriad charms.
Although a typical drink throughout the country, in Thessaloniki, frappé coffee is a religion. You will see them everywhere and at all hours, local folk sipping away at them in huge glasses, stuffed with a sort of evolved, iced cappuccino topped generously with foam. Cafés, bars, restaurants, ice-cream parlours… it is served in all kinds of establishments, but the best of them all is Paradosiako, an exquisite café and ice-cream parlour located in Aristotelous Square, the hub and heart of the city.
Thessaloniki is a city of churches. Marvellous churches, like Agios Panteleimon, the Church of the Acheiropoietos and Agios Athanasios. However, the most iconic church in the city is clearly the monumental Church of the Rotonda or Agios Giorgios. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1988, together with the Arch of Galerius (just over 100 metres from the Rotonda), this is the oldest church in Thessaloniki or, as some sources would have it, the oldest church in the world.
Sport is taken seriously in Greece, and in Thessaloniki, no less so. It is quite an experience to visit that volcano of passions, the Toumba Stadium, to see PAOK FC playing. Or, if your thing is basketball, head for the clamorous Alexandreio Melathron arena, home to the historic Aris FC.
Adjacent to Aristotle Avenue stands the Ladadika, the former oil market. You can find all kinds of shops and stalls in this maze of alleyways, a blend of Western market and Arab souq, with wares ranging from food to garments, and from spices to implements. On the south side, near the sea, is an area with the most contemporary restaurants in the city.
The epitome of the Mediterranean diet, Greek food is an orgasm on one’s taste buds. Bent on savouring one of the most widely acclaimed cuisines in the country, it would be a sin to visit Thessaloniki without tasting such local delicacies as xoriatiki salata, melitzanosalata, moussaka, youvetsi, bouyiourdi or mydia saganaki.There are excellent restaurants and taverns all around the city, but Neos Galerios (Apellou 3) is one of those small family restaurants (a variation on the Spanish Casa Pepe) where you can eat plenty and well for a moderate price.
In 1917 Thessaloniki was devastated by a fire from which only the upper district of Ano Poli was spared. Ringed by part of the old Byzantine and Ottoman walls, this jigsaw of steep, winding streets, and one-storey houses with colourful patios, enjoys privileged views of the rest of the city down below. You can walk up to Ano Poli, but the climb is likely to wear out your shoe soles. Your best bet is to take bus 50 which follows a circular route past the city’s cultural landmarks.
Thessaloniki is Greece’s cultural capital, particularly when it comes to the world of cinema. The majestic Olympion Theatre, located in beautiful Aristotelous Square, is the site of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the leading event of its kind in the country. Less than five minutes away lies the old harbour which has been partly remodelled and given over to cultural activities. One of the old shipyards now houses the Thessaloniki Cinema Museum. The rest of the refurbished shipyards host such events as the local editions of the Barcelona In-Edit (a music documentary film festival), and OffsideFest, a football documentary film festival.
The symbol of Thessaloniki is the White Tower, the sort of landmark which visitors to any city are bound to come across, even unwittingly. Once used as both a fortress and prison, the structure you see today was built during the period of Ottoman domination by Suleiman the Magnificent, most likely on the site of a pre-existing medieval construction. The White Tower is the point of departure for a walk down the Nikis, a promenade which stretches for several kilometres along the city’s seafront.
Mt Athos lies about three hours’ drive from Thessaloniki. Sacred to the Greek Orthodox Church faithful, this mountain rises from a rocky peninsula alongside the Aegean Sea. Around twenty monasteries are located on this mountain, including some of the oldest and remotest monasteries on earth, which are home to about 1,500 monks. The Holy Mountain enjoys a form of local autonomy and access to it is restricted. Women are not allowed to set foot on the mountain, while access to male visitors is limited to 200 Greeks and 10 foreigners per day.
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Ever since the first event in 1955, Documenta has been held in Kassel every five years. As the fourteenth edition approached, the modern cultural event packed its bags and moved to Athens for the first time. Under the title “Learning From Athens”, the 2017 event has adopted proposals with political connotations. Running from 8 April to 16 July, this the largest and most important contemporary art exhibition in Europe is being co-hosted by both Athens and Kassel. As Documenta lands on Greek soil, we leave behind the Acropolis and venture into the heart of a more contemporary Athens.
National Museum of Contemporary Art
The main Documenta exhibition is housed in the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST Museum), which was inaugurated in 2014. An exhibition featuring works by over 80 artists will form the backbone of a journey with dark overtones from colonial times to the economic pragmatism of today. One of the leading and most interesting galleries in Greece, the museum is located on the premises of the former Fix Brewery – built in 1962 and designed by architect Takis Zenetos in collaboration with Margaritis Apostolidis. The brewery closed down in 1982, having produced what was the most popular beer in the country for decades. Kallirrois Avenue & Amvr. Frantzi Str
Those interested in counter-culture should make a point of visiting the Exarchia district. This bastion of anarchism in Athens has often been the scene of major demonstrations during the most difficult moments of the economic crisis. Exarchia is the closest thing to one endless, open-air art gallery. It is a striking display of street culture, with every single stretch of building frontage acting as a potential canvas; indeed, you are unlikely to find any patch of wall not covered in graffiti. By way of an Athenian version of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, Madrid’s Malasaña, London’s Camden Town or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Exarchia also boasts some of the best cafés in Athens, as well as the most highly recommended book shops and stores selling comics, records and second-hand clothing.
In the Gazi district of downtown Athens you will come across a huge cultural centre which was founded with the aim of promoting the art scene and enshrining the site’s industrial heritage (it houses the Industrial Gas Museum, dating from 2013), as well as arousing public awareness about social issues. Built in 1857, this complex was originally a gasworks. Amid chimney stacks, furnaces and huge gas tanks, attesting to the site’s recent past, Technopolis is the venue for virtually daily must-visit events in the fields of music, cinema, theatre and the visual arts, such as Fashion Week or the Athens Jazz festival. 100 Pireos Street
A self-managed theatre with one of the liveliest cultural agendas in Athens. The Embros Theatre is housed in the former headquarters of one of the leading publishers in town. But, when the business went to seed, the owners were forced to sell the building, which was acquired by a popular theatre company and turned into one of the most frequented theatre venues in Athens. However, the venture was short-lived. The company split into two and the building fell into disuse. In 2010 the auditorium was acquired by the Athens City Council but, in view of it hosting zero activity, it was occupied by a group of actors. Ever since the theatre has been hosting all kinds of artistic and cultural events, as well as operating as a social centre. Riga Palamidou, 3
Former Gestapo Prison
Surprisingly, a place bearing such a historical burden as this former prison has been overlooked by most tourist guides. It is located on Korai Street, opposite the Panepistimio metro station. Visitors can venture into what once concealed a clandestine prison of the Gestapo. Now designated a Historical Memory Site, under the German occupation during World War II it was where communists and other members of the Greek left-wing were incarcerated. It makes for an emotionally charged visit, of which the highlights are the picture gallery and the carvings made by the revolutionaries during their confinement. 4 Korai Street
One of the trendiest venues in town. In the morning, this multi-purpose space operates as a specialty café and a refuge for the bearded crowd working on their laptops. After lunch, which in Greece ranges from three to five o’clock in the afternoon (and the Booze Cooperativa cuisine is highly recommended), it turns into a bustling bar and stays that way until the wee hours. But, the great draw of Booze Cooperativa is the exhibition room hidden in the basement. On display in this gallery are works by some of the most evocative names from the local alternative art scene, while the theatre room on the floor above is the first choice for upcoming, alternative Athenian playwrights. 57 Kolokotroni Street
After so much art and culture sightseeing, the time always comes to replenish your strength. And, talking of good food, there is nothing quite like Greek cuisine. There are dozens of spots where you can get delicious traditional Greek fare in Athens, but Avli tops them all and it’s set in one of the most picturesque yards in the city where you can taste all the homemade Greek specialities. And, in between helpings of keftedakia, loukaniko and moussaka, be a daredevil and have a few sips of ouzo. Locally made, this is one of the most popular drinks in Greece, characterised by its high alcohol content (from 37% to 50% proof), strong flavour and liquorice aroma. 12 Agiou Dimitriou
Monastiraki Flea Market
All trips tend to end off with a round of shopping. And, when you’ve been on an alternative tour of Athens, this should be negotiated at the Monastiraki Flea Market. Monastiraki is renowned as one of the major shopping hubs in Athens, and it also features numerous boutiques. However, on Sundays, this area, particularly along Ermou Street, becomes one huge flea market where you can pick up practically anything, from antiques to out-of-print books, vinyls, second-hand clothing, furniture… This rounds off your perfect Sunday morning programme, after having tucked in to a whopping breakfast of cheese or spinach pastry, washed down with a Milko (the Greek Milo chocolate drink) or a huge frappé coffee (although this is the speciality in Thessaloniki).
Texto de Oriol Rodríguezmore info