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Today I am introducing you to my home town, which also happens to be the city where my friend and partner-in-crime Pauline spends most of her Greek time, thanks to her husband, who also grew up in Greece's second-largest city. So this week's postcard comes from the both of our hearts!
Thessaloniki is one of the most ancient Greek cities and, historically, arguably the most diverse, with Muslims, Christians, and Jews sharing this buzzing city up until the turn of the last century. I grew up in the busy, culturally rich city center. As kids, we'd play tag next to the ruins of the Roman palace of Galerius (4th century AC!). We'd meet up with friends at the Kamára, the local name for the ancient Arch of Galerius, and Thessaloniki's university students (including our kids!) still meet there to go out and enjoy the city's vibrant nightlife.
The ancient history continues further up the road with the Rotónda, a 4th century Roman pantheon, built to copy the one in Rome, and which has been recently renovated. This building is truly a testament to Thessaloniki's multiculturalism and place in history's crossroads. Built by Romans, later converted to an Orthodox church, then to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, back again to a church in the early 20th century, and finally transformed to an art museum.
My high school was just a five-minute walk away from the Rotónda, a few steps away from the Church of Agia Sofia, erected in the 7th century as a copy of the famous Hagia Sofia in today's Istanbul. The main shopping street of Tsimiski was our hang-out back then (no malls in those days!) and we'd always get a "koulouri", that iconic street food, a round sesame-coated bread loop with just a touch of sweetness. You can still see people selling them on wooden carts throughout the city.
Thessaloniki is a port city and as a teenager, I used to go for a walk along the waterfront to clear my head, passing the city's most famous landmark, the White Tower (that's it, pictured at the top of this card). Today tourists & residents alike walk the renovated boardwalk all the way from the old port buildings, which often house art exhibits, down to the modern Concert Hall, the "Megaro Mousikis". On a clear day you can see across the Thermaic Gulf to Mt. Olympus and people are always taking selfies at the outdoor sculpture of Umbrellas by George Zongolopoulos.
There are so many buildings, corners, and smells that I love in this city. It is worth wandering through the old Modiano market area, climbing up to the the Kastra, with the remains of the castle that once surrounded the city. Explore the personal treasures & moving stories at the Jewish Museum. You can even see the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, which now houses the Turkish Consulate. The Archaeological and Byzantine Museums are conveniently located next to each other and will give you a good idea of the history of the city.
One of Thessaloniki's more striking features is the old neo-classical mansions that still dot the city. A few have been renovated and reopened as museums and cafes but there are still many like this one that can lead you to dream of what they were like in the past…and what they could be like in the future! Pauline teases me that this just might be our next adventure, restoring them to all their glory!
Thessaloniki has a reputation for being Greece’s gastronomic capital and every time Pauline & I meet up there, we’re always eating out. Our favourite restaurants? We love the popular Diagonios just off Tsimiski Street for soutzoukákia spiced meatballs and freshly boiled greens. For a special treat, there’s the more upscale Epta Thalasses for fresh fish. Cretan cuisine has taken hold in the city, with yummy dishes at Mourga & Haroupi. Lunch at Sebrico near the man courthouse is always fun - you can hear lawyers discussing their cases if you listen carefully! My own personal favorite is out of town, literally in the middle of an industrial park - Duck Private Cheffing - read all about innovative chef Ioanna Theodorakaki in my earlier blog.
No matter where you go, though, make sure you have bougátsa for breakfast! Pauline swears by this cinnamon-dusted custard pie at Paradoseiakó café in the green suburb of Panórama. But Panórama, a former summer village up the hills outside of Thessaloniki (and now an overcrowded suburb!) is really famous for its trígona, phyllo triangles soaked in syrup and filled with rich custard cream. You always see people at the airport holding boxes from Elenidis, the traditional pastry shop that still specializes in this local treat. Other must-haves: mussels and other seafood, especially mydia saganáki, mussels cooked in a rich tomato and feta, usually spicy sauce. Bouyourntí is a meze that you can easily make at home, it is baked feta (remember the frenzy a couple of years ago?) topped with tomato slices, spicy peppers, and herbs. Delicious!
If you ever plan to visit Thessaloniki drop me a line and I will gladly share more tips with you. 😉
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