I grew up surrounded by Greeks.
Nick Giannopolous, Ada Nicodemou and Alex Dimitriades were on the television. Helen Kapalos and Mary Kostakidis were there too, reading the news. I’d read books by Christos Tsiolkas and go to a George Calombaris restaurant on a special occasion. When I’d be working at Parliament House, I’d see speeches by John Pandazopoloulos, Jenny Mikakos and Nick Kotsiras. Every weekend I’d watch players like David Zaharakis, Anthony Koutoufides and Ang Christou in the AFL, a league headed by Andrew Demetriou. When it wasn’t footy season, I’d see Mark Philippoussis running around a tennis court.
Closer to home, there were dozens of kids with Greek backgrounds at school. Which was kind of strange, it being a Catholic school and all. But it was the western suburbs of Melbourne, the most multicultural region of one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The biggest Greek city outside of Greece, actually.
For some reason, I always associated Greek Australians with Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-biggest city. This is totally wrong, actually – Greeks emigrated from everywhere, particularly the Peloponnese and modern-day Turkey – but that’s what I figured. It had to do with two things; Melbourne’s sister city partnership with Thessaloniki, and my friend Maria’s defiant response whenever anyone questioned the supposed contradiction of her Greek heritage and fair hair; ‘we’re from the north, all right?’
So I was pretty excited to visit Thessaloniki for the first time last summer. I really didn’t expect anything, but that was okay. I just wanted to see a normal Greek city without all the tourists, as cliched as that sounds. I wanted to see where all those Greek Australians I grew up with came from, despite my logic being completely warped.
Something I really didn’t expect of Thessaloniki was it having such a rich and varied history. I mean, it’s pretty hard to go up against Athens, especially when the city wasn’t even founded until the Ancient Greeks were well and truly on the downward spiral. The city was actually named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Thessolanike. I love that the two main Greek cities are named after women; it gives them a bit of a warm fuzzy feel.
But the truth is, Athens was often in Thessaloniki’s shadow, particularly in the Byzantine period. Yes, I know you may be nodding off right now, thinking she’s going to get all history nerdy on me now, but I swear this is interesting. Thessaloniki’s not too far away from Istanbul (it’s closer to the Turkish border than it is to Athens) and for about a thousand years, these two were the most powerful cities in what was left of the Roman Empire, if not all of Europe.
That means you’re treated to something in Thessaloniki that becomes quite commonplace in Athens; ruins that just pop up behind street corners. And the ones in Thessaloniki are brilliant because you’re just not expecting them. (Well I wasn’t, anyway.) Right out the front of our hotel were ruins; part of the walls that used to encircle the city. Just a few blocks away, right in the middle of residential high-rises, is the old Forum, complete with amphitheatre. There technically is also a hippodrome, used for chariot racing in the city’s heyday, but it’s buried underneath the main pedestrian shopping street and apparently can only be seen in residents’ nearby basements.
Then there are the big hitters; the Rotunda of Galerius (the Byzantine Emperor who ruled from the city), his palace and gigantic triumphal arch. They’re all more than fifteen hundred years old and in varying conditions; wars and natural disasters have taken their toll. But unlike most cities, where you can often do a 360 and see solely modern buildings, there’s always something to remind you of the past in Thessaloniki, whether it be a tiny brick church, a lonely pillar or perhaps even a synagogue.
Does it therefore feel Greek? Not entirely. Sure, the people speak Greek and there’s Orthodox churches everywhere, but the history feels European. More regional. And that’s because the city has only been Greek for a hundred years; it joined the country in 1913. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century Greeks made up only about ten per cent of the city. More than half were Jewish, a quarter were Muslim and the rest identified with elsewhere in the Balkans. Half a century later almost the entire city was Greek; population swaps with Turkey and the Holocaust changed everything.
Maybe that’s why I hardly thought about the Greek debt crisis when in Thessaloniki. Of course there were a few closed-down shops and a bit of graffiti, but it was nothing like what you see today in Athens. Instead, people seemed happy. Carefree, even. It was almost as if they’d seen enough in the twentieth century – a fire in 1917 destroyed most of the city centre – to regard this current crisis as just part of life.
If you want to see the people of Thessaloniki in their element, just head down to the waterfront area, around the famous White Tower, just before the sun goes down. I learnt how to people-watch from my Nan, and I wish she could have seen Thessaloniki of an evening. She’d be in her element.
There would be thousands there each night, propped up on park benches, lying on the grass or walking hand in hand along the water, avoiding the spray from nearby boats. Everybody was represented from newborns to the little old ladies dressed in black, and they’d chat. They’d talk and talk and talk until they got hungry, and then they’d head off for dinner, usually at around nine o’clock. There’s even a word for this pastime; the volta.
I love the alfresco socialising; it’s one of the first things that endeared me to Mediterranean Europe. Their weather is too good, their apartments too small and their backyards non-existent, so public spaces are utilised by everybody. When was the last time you saw four middle-aged women sitting in a row on a single park bench, yacking about their days? In Thessaloniki it happens every day.
It also helps that because all of these people eventually get quite hungry and thirsty, there’s heaps of bars and restaurants around. Due to the lack of tourists there’s hardly any spruikers, and the quality is good. I mean, really, really good. Plus, the frappe was invented in Thessaloniki; a cold coffee beverage that is sold for around a euro all over the country. It’s what I basically survived on during my first travels around Greece; €3,50 for a frappe and gyros wasn’t a bad deal in my backpacker book.
The bars and restaurants would always be packed, full of beautiful people who looked as if they’d never even been informed that their country was currently embroiled in yet another crisis. The bars along the water looked way too swanky for me, so I always stuck to the little bar quarter in Valaoritou.
In Valaoritou, fairy lights are strung up in the tiny lanes and people drink on the street; the alternative music thumps but not at a level which would drown out conversations. I checked out quite a few of the tiny, hole-in-the-wall type of places, my favourite being Kryfto Bar. It’s the only place I’ve heard We Speak No Americano and Hey Jude on the same playlist. It was basically what Kreuzberg is to Berlin, just without all the hipsters and tourists. Right now, if someone asked me where I’d like to have a gin and tonic, in any nightlife district in the world, I’d pick that little area of Thessaloniki. Over Budva, over Belgrade. It was my type of party place.
A lot of people fly between Istanbul and Athens. The route hasn’t been discovered by the budget carriers, and can be pretty expensive. But it’s worth going overland, and swinging by Thessaloniki for a day or two. No, there’s no ruins from Ancient Greece, nor are there sparkling beaches. You probably won’t enter any of the museums, either. But that doesn’t really matter.
But it’s worth seeing Thessaloniki, if only to see and take part in the volta. You have to look incredibly hard to see it in Athens, or even the islands. Hey, you might get lucky there and see a few old ladies chatting away on a park bench. But you ain’t seen no volta yet until you’ve seen the volta in Thessaloniki. My Nan would definitely approve.
The image of the Forum is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of Lonsdale Street is courtesy of Steel Wool on Flickr.