Exploring Thessaloniki: a city of history, conflict, and culture

Thessaloniki

Winston Churchill said it, not me: “We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.

I have generally regarded Greeks as peaceful and keen to help. Yet there is something extra that the old soldier – me – discovered when I visited Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city. I realised then that the nation is also warlike, despite being charming. Greeks know when to be assertive.

I reached the city by road from England, in a hybrid electric car, as I tried to avoid the unsustainable effects of air travel. Thessaloniki, home to at least one million people, is 1700 miles from London, a journey of several days.

When I arrived, it was clear that the city was steeped in history, and despite its beauty, beaches, and wonderful food, Thessaloniki has an association with conflict. I needed exercise, so chose to walk from Thessaloniki’s waterfront, at the northern end of the Thermaic Gulf, which extends into the Aegean Sea.

Thessaloniki Bay - looking out over the Thermaic Gulf
Thessaloniki Bay – looking out over the Thermaic Gulf

Thessaloniki’s ancient warriors

The city was founded in 315BC, and named after Thessalonike, the sister of Alexander the Great, although its strategic location soon made it a target. As I turned to walk inland, before me was the towering statue of Alexander the Great on his faithful horse, Bucephalus. They were both looking east towards lands that Alexander conquered. For my walk, the statue set the scene for the city’s warrior history.

Statue of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki (courtesy efilippou)
Statue of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki (courtesy efilippou)

The White Tower – battles fought and won

Nearby was the White Tower, no longer white, but named so because in the nineteenth century it was whitewashed by a convict in exchange for his freedom. The tower was first built by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century and has hosted many executions since. Today, it stands as a symbol of Thessaloniki’s resilience, a reminder of the many battles fought and won. I moved on rapidly, as somehow the tower made me uneasy. Some say it is haunted.

The White Tower
The White Tower

Women of the Pindos

It was not far to the next warrior statue, a larger-than-life bronze to the Women of the Pindos. The Pindos Mountains form the backbone of Greece and were the scene of fierce fighting between the Greeks and Italians during World War II. The Italians had anticipated a simple fight but no such luck. The Greeks pushed them back, and were fiercely supported by Greek ladies, who hauled huge weights into the mountains to keep their troops supplied. Greece would not have won without the Women of the Pindos, who are discussed in hushed, respectful tones to this day. They are celebrated by statues both in Thessaloniki and the village of Aspraggeloi, in the Zagoria region of western Greece.

Statue to the Women of the Pindos
Statue to the Women of the Pindos

Opposite the Thessaloniki bronze stood the Creta Monument, a statue of a moustached Macedonian fighter, armed to the teeth. One hand rested on a dagger while three pistols were ready to be used, once more reinforcing the warrior nature of the city.

Thessaloniki in World War I

Thessaloniki’s history of warfare is not limited to ancient battles and modern conflict. The city also played a significant role in World War I, as a supply centre for the Allies. Its strategic importance made it a target for German and Bulgarian forces, who launched a brutal attack in 1916. The battle was bloody. Up to 130,000 were killed, wounded, or captured, and a further 80,000 perished or were evacuated thanks to disease. The Spanish ‘flu pandemic of 1918 then followed, killing thousands in the city.

Jewish Museum

A poignant reminder of Thessaloniki’s history can be found at its Jewish Museum, inland from the seafront. The museum tells the story of the city’s Jewish community, which was decimated during the Holocaust of World War II. It is a glimpse of a once thriving population before society turned on its head.

Yet Thessaloniki is not all about warfare. That is simply how old soldiers think. There is plenty to see and do that has no association with conflict, and plenty more to eat and drink.

Thessaloniki’s gastronomic delights

As if on cue, exhausted by warfare, I took a seat at a café’s outdoor table and prepared for a feast. In 2021, UNESCO designated Thessaloniki as Greece’s first city of gastronomy. I started with bougatsa, a filo pastry pie with origins in Byzantine Constantinople. Then soutzoukakia, oblong meat balls spiced with cumin, garlic, and cinnamon. Next koulouria, seeded rings of bread, and lastly a classic Thessaloniki dessert, trigona panoramatos, a filo cone stuffed with cream. I washed everything down with the strongest Greek coffee, leaned back in my rickety chair, and promptly fell asleep despite being high on caffeine.

Trigona Panoramatos (courtesy bestravelvideo)
Trigona Panoramatos (courtesy bestravelvideo)

I left Thessaloniki the next day but resolved to return, as a 24-hour stay was insufficient. The city has much to see, plenty to do, and even more to drink and eat. Should you stay a full week, you would still barely scratch its surface.

Go there and be impressed.

***

If you go…

Where it is

Thessaloniki is in northern Greece at:

40°38′25″N

22°56′05″E

Getting there

Distances

I drove there from UK in a hybrid electric car. Distances are:

London (1700 miles); Paris (1500 miles); Munich (975 miles); Rome (700 miles); Athens (312 miles)

Rail

Train from London to Athens, and then Thessaloniki, a journey that takes approximately 26 hours.

Air

Several airlines offer direct flights from London to Thessaloniki, including British Airways and Ryanair. Flight time is 3-4 hours. The main airport is approximately 15kms from the city centre.

Bus

Via Prague, this journey takes approximately 36 hours.

Parking

Paid street parking works according to a colour scheme, is indicated by a “P” sign and an information plate, and is limited to three hours. A parking meter for paying is always located nearby. Parking is possible if the marking allows and there are no prohibitory signs.

Three colours are used:

White – free parking

Blue – paid zone

Yellow – special vehicles only and that does not mean you

Accessibility

I drove from UK with a passenger in a wheelchair, so it is possible to do, but challenging. Ask my passenger.

Check https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/blue-badge-using-it-in-the-eu/using-a-blue-badge-in-the-european-union to see if a UK Blue Badge is valid. The rules continue to change.

Places to eat

Marea Sea Spirit

Margariti Lori 13, Thessaloniki 54622

Tel: +30 231 025 7696

Web: https://mareaseaspirit.gr

Email: info@mareaseaspirit.gr

Navona Day & Night

Leof. Meg. Aexandrou 2, Thessaloniki 54640

Tel: +30 231 089 7444

Web: https://makedoniapalace.com/gastronomy/

Email: info@makedoniapalace.gr

To Steki Tou Papagalou
65 Ithakis, Thessaloniki 562 24 Greece

Tel: +30 231 065 8680

Web: https://www.facebook.com/people/to-steki-tou-papagalou/100070131077892/

Places to stay

Makedonia Palace Hotel

Leof. Meg. Alexandrou 2, Thessaloniki 54640

Tel: +30 231 089 7197

Web: https://makedoniapalace.com

Email: info@makedoniapalace.gr

Hotel Nikopolis Thessaloniki 

Asklipiou 16-18, Thessaloniki 55535

Tel: +30 231 040 1000 

Web: https://www.hotel-nikopolis.com

Email:  info.nikopolis@hotel-nikopolis.com

Hotel Electra Palace Thessaloniki

Aristotelous 9, Thessaloniki 54624

Tel: +30 231 029 4040

Web: https://www.electrahotels.gr/hotels/electra-palace-thessaloniki/

Email: infoskg@electrahotels.gr

Other things to see

1. Go shopping in the Agora Modiano (Modiano Market) – see https://agoramodiano.com/en/

2. Visit the Halkidiki Peninsulas – see https://www.greeka.com/macedonia/halkidiki/

3. Visit the Jewish Museum – see http://www.jmth.gr

More information

Thessaloniki Tourist Information Center

Plateia Aristotelous, Thessaloniki, Greece

Tel: +30 231 022 9070

Web:

1. https://www.facebook.com/thessalonikitouristinformation/

2. https://thessaloniki.gr/myevents/en-ο-μάριος-φραγκούλης-με-την-συμφωνική/?lang=en

Email: tourism@thessaloniki.gr

Thessaloniki Tourism Organisation

154 Egnatia Avenue (Gate 1 TIF), Thessaloniki
Tel: +30 231 027 9282

Web: https://thessaloniki.travel

Email: welcome@thessaloniki.travel

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

One Response

  1. Very interesting. Really want to visit Thessaloniki. What was your route by road from London? Interested in the countries you passed through and stops? Thank you.

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