If the Germans could see us now, they’d never give us any more loans,’ says my friend Efi. She has a point. On a Friday night on Thessaloniki’s Valaoritou Street, it’s hard to believe Greece is dicing with deficit. Skaters in baseballs caps shoot pool at low-lit cocktail bar La Doze, a glossy crowd lingers beside paintings of rioters upstairs at Toss Gallery, the cotto-and-rocket pizzas are flying out of the ovens at Poselli, and an electro-punk outfit called Bitch Wavez plays the packed-out Coo bar.
Until a few years ago, this warren of arcades housed hardware stores and haberdasheries. Now bartenders dispense Caipirinhas at retro Cantina Tropicana and Midori Sours at Bord de l’eau, a minimalist ‘drink room’ that morphs into graphic-design and jewellery studios by day.
This capacity for regeneration is typical of Thessaloniki. At 2,300 years old, Greece’s second city has weathered many waves of merchants, migrants and marauders, but with more than 200,000 students it also has a youthful energy. I’ve been coming here for its November film festival since I was a young reporter in the 1990s. It was one of the reasons I fell for journalism; that my job was to watch films all day, and then trawl bars late into the night. But I fell for the city, too: for the misty sunsets from the waterfront cafés, for the spice stalls and faintly seedy meze joints in the bazaars, for the traces of Byzantine and Ottoman splendour that survive among the street-art-covered modern blocks. This casual juxtaposition of historic monuments and urban culture is Thessaloniki’s trademark.
Athens might have the Acropolis, but Thessaloniki has long been Greece’s real cultural capital. For a city of one million people, the number of monuments and museums is astonishing: 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 29 museums dedicated to everything from archaeology to avant-garde Russian works. The Dimitria festival, a three-month-long celebration of the arts first celebrated by the Byzantines, was revived in 1966. Then there’s the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, which runs from June to September this year, with 43 artists from 25 countries taking over unexpected venues, including a former mosque, prison and slaughterhouse.
While the rest of Greece has been hit hard by the debt crisis, Thessaloniki is enjoying a quiet renaissance. This is mostly down to the maverick mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, a winemaker and recovering alcoholic with seven tattoos and a fondness for Converse trainers. Known as Kir-Yianni (‘Mr John’, the name on his wine labels), 72-year-old Boutaris is more radical than most politicians half his age. ‘His appeal is that he’s not politically correct,’ says Panos Remoundos, founder of Creativity Platform, a network for local artists and designers. ‘He’s a businessman, he’s not corrupt and he supports the arts and entrepreneurs.’
Designers from Thessaloniki are constantly winning major international awards, so locals realised this could be their competitive advantage. To get the inside track on the city’s start-up scene, I join one of the design walks recently launched by Handpeak, an offshoot of Creativity Platform. In the backstreets behind the White Tower (Thessaloniki’s waterfront landmark) I discover Eleni Hasioti’s retro-inspired swing dresses, bottles of cold-pressed olive oil at O-olive and laser-cut beach racquets at 3D-printing workshop Make.
Another neighbourhood creating a lot of buzz recently is the area around the Roman Forum, a vast archaeological site hemmed in by apartment buildings. (It’s a spectacular backdrop for the three-day Urban Picnic festival every summer, showcasing local bands and star-spangled film screenings). Within a few blocks I meet two jewellers, both called Margarita, making petal necklaces and chess-piece pendants, and a collective of architects who build elegant furniture from electrical cables and drainpipes. When Aliki Tsirliagkou opened Nitra Gallery here in 2012, the area was rundown and rents were cheap. ‘Everyone said I was crazy,’ she laughs. ‘But the crisis has been cathartic – you can build something new on burnt ground. And it’s brought a collaborative spirit that makes me optimistic.’
Thessaloniki is an affordable basefor artists, but it’s also cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Multiculturalism isn’t just a politician’s buzzword here – it’s part of the city’s identity. Until 1912, Thessaloniki was still an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, and most residents spoke six or seven languages. Atatürk, founder of the secular Turkish state, was born here in 1881. Commerce and culture flourished, largely thanks to the city’s sizeable Jewish community until the Nazi occupation. Now, there are plans to build a Holocaust memorial centre at the railway station where more than 50,000 Jews (a quarter of the city’s population at the time) were transported to death camps.
Much of Thessaloniki’s Ottoman character went up in smoke in 1917, when a fire destroyed most of the city centre. It was redesigned by French planner Ernest Hébrard, with a grid of boulevards leading off Aristotelous Square. This seaside plaza, lined with colonnades and cafés, is filled with gossiping shoppers and indolent dogs day and night. Ships and seagulls ebb and flow across the Thermaic Gulf. On a clear day, you can see Mount Olympus on the horizon.
A couple of blocks away is The Excelsior (doubles from about £90), a smart little hotel built in 1924, recently made over in soothing shades of chocolate and cream. There’s a quiet roof garden for breakfast and an upbeat diner that’s a favourite for lamb souvlaki and bloody strong Bloody Marys. More businesslike, The Met Hotel (doubles from about £85) has a rooftop pool overlooking the docks, a futuristic Asian restaurant and a Saatchi-esque art collection. But it’s somewhat out on a limb, in an industrial area that’s ripe for gentrification but not quite hip yet.
Another district that remains stubbornly scruffy is Ano Poli (Upper Town), a jumble of wooden houses squeezed between the ancient city walls. Nudge aside the couples at the top of Trigonio Tower for dramatic views of the city and sea. Wander downhill and suddenly you’re in a village marooned inside a metropolis: scrawny cats drink from marble fountains, stout matrons sweep the courtyards of Byzantine chapels, and bouzouki players sing for their supper at old-time tavernas. My favourite is Igglis (a laughable transliteration of ‘English’), where you’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than a tenner a head no matter how much tsipouro (Greek grappa) you knock back.
For a fresh update on the traditional tsipouradiko bar, wander downhill to Pende Portes, near Valaoritou. Every carafe of ouzo comes with a surprise meze: slices of buffalo sausage; sardines with caramelised onions and capers; flash-fried shrimp with tomato and thyme. It’s a delicious and slightly dangerous way to road test Greek spirits.
Next door, Sebrico is down-to-earth and dirt-cheap. It’s run by a collective of amateur chefs who excel at hearty dishes such as slow-roast pork knuckle and giant spalobrizola (flank steak) doused in truffle oil and grape must. The obscure cheeses from small producers are a revelation.
For something smarter, take a taxi (and a GPS) to Duck, a farmhouse kitchen incongruously in the middle of an industrial estate on the way to the airport. It’s worth the risk of getting lost for the fluffy taramasalata, grilled grouper with wilted bitter greens, and mandarin millefeuille.
I can never go to Thessaloniki without popping into Local, a wine bar that’s as relaxed and urbane as its owner, Nikos Vangelopoulos. He has compiled a superb list of Greek wines, including the mayor’s elusive (and expensive) Kir-Yianni Blue Fox, a blend of the year’s best red grape varieties. The meat dishes are knockouts; Vangelopoulos uses five butchers for different cuts. But salmon carpaccio with marinated samphire and panzanella with Cretan rusks are a perfect match for a bracing, bone-dry Assyrtiko white.
The best hangover cure in town is breakfast at Mia Feta Bar, where organic yogurt from the Kourellas family farm is served with healthy toppings of linseed and pomegranate. (I even went back for lunch to try the delicate nettle risotto with feta mousse.) After breakfast, I wander along the new waterfront, a three-kilometre boardwalk with 13 sculptural gardens. Thirteen years in the making, this ambitious project was finally completed in 2014. It’s already had a transformational impact akin to Barcelona’s seafront makeover. On a sunny Saturday, the whole city seems to be here – fishing, biking, busking or just gazing out to sea. At night the shimmering lights reflect in the water like ships’ masts.
Leafing through a guidebook back at The Excelsior, I come across a newspaper article from 1931 that could have been written today: ‘From seven to 10, the quayside is black with strollers and the cafés are crammed. Crisis? But where do people find the money to pack these places.’ Locals have lived through invasions and occupations, natural disasters and financial crises, but they’ve always known how to have a good time.
For more information about Thessaloniki, visit www.thessaloniki.gr
The inside track
Thessaloniki-raised Aliki Tsirliagkou worked in London before going home to set up her gallery Nitra
‘The Roman Forum neighbourhood is the city’s new artists’ quarter, full of neoclassical buildings where the bourgeoisie once lived. This is where its ancient history, Byzantine past and contemporary culture come together. I usually have my morning coffee at Loux [i](+30 23140 12381Chatzis pastry shop has been around since 1908: try the galaktompoureko, a syrupy custard pie that takes you back to ancient Constantinople.
I like to wander through the old Modiano and Kapani markets on the way to two of my favourite museums, which are in converted warehouses on the quay: the Museum of Photography and Contemporary Art Centre. Next door, Kitchen Bar is great for a sunset drink. Gazing across the city from the deck, it feels as if you’re on a boat. If the weather’s fine, head out of town to Gialos at Krini for fried squid and roast octopus by the sea. During summer, just go to any of the bars on pedestrianised Iktinou and Zefxidos streets. Everyone is there!’
This feature was first published in Condé Nast Traveller June 2015
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