A den of antiquity

Thessaloniki's ancient roots sprouted a modern capital of culture, says Frank Partridge

Thessaloniki's ancient roots sprouted a modern capital of culture, says Frank Partridge

Where?

Thessaloniki has been an important city for the best part of 2,500 years. To understand why, simply open a map encompassing what we now call Italy and Turkey to see how the ancient Macedonian capital lies roughly halfway between the two imperial capitals of Rome and Istanbul (formerly Constantinople).

With its natural harbour facing the Gulf of Thermaikos, and its strategic location on the Roman road that linked the Balkans with Asia Minor, Thessaloniki thrived in each of the Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine eras, and is enjoying a fourth golden age today, as a centre of commerce and transport, culture and learning. There have been setbacks along the way, such as the devastating fire of 1917 and the German bombing of 1940, but like London's Great Fire and its own wartime blitz, these painful jolts brought long-term benefits, enabling the planners to redesign the city more boldly than might otherwise have been the case. In Thessaloniki, the mingling of ancient and modern works well - but then, it's hard to offend the eye amid such a glorious setting.

Founded by the Macedonians around 315BC and named after Alexander the Great's sister, Thessaloniki lies in a natural bowl, protected by ancient ramparts on the high ground. Spilling down the hillside to its crescent-shaped waterfront is one of the most appealing promenades in Europe, with a youthful, musical café culture. Sixty kilometres across the Gulf, Mount Olympus - home of the Greek gods - completes the vista with a flourish.

There are glorious views over the Gulf towards the 2,918m (9,571ft) mountain from one of the finest hotels in town, the Electra Palace at 9 Aristotelous Square (00 30 2310 294 000; www.forthnet.gr/electrapalace hich has a ground-floor coffee shop and an English-style club bar where locals love to meet. Although it's a five-star establishment, with double rooms (including breakfast and taxes) at €220 (£157) a night, the airy, elegant seventh floor roof terrace bar and small swimming pool are open to non-residents for lunch and dinner. So is the spa in the basement. Out-of-season deals reduce room rates to a more affordable €128 (£91). Similar reductions are available at the Macedonia Palace Hotel at 2 Megalou Alexandrou Av (00 30 2310 897 197; www.grecotel.gr he most imposing building on the seafront, and another five-star establishment with an acclaimed French restaurant. A double room with a sea view and breakfast is officially priced at €230 (£164), but can be obtained for as little as €115 (£82) with some hard bargaining outside the peak periods. Breakfast is €18 (£12.80) extra. The Luxembourg at 6 Komninion St;(00 30 2310 244 718) is a good, mid-range hotel in the heart of the shopping district: double rooms, breakfast included, start at around €50 (£36) with breakfast another €9 (£6.40) per person.

Why?

For much of its history, Thessaloniki has come second: outranked at different stages of its life by Rome, Constantinople or Athens. Always the bridesmaid? Not a bit of it. This is a place with attitude: European Capital of Culture in 1997; capital of the northern Greek region of Macedonia boasting a better climate and much less pollution than Athens; more parks, squares and greenery than the modern capital; less poverty, crime and unemployment. It's also the unofficial number one for food, fashion and nightlife. Without having anything that quite matches the Acropolis, Thessaloniki has some pretty tasty antiquities - behind glass and out in the open - with excavations taking place alongside the city's commercial bustle.

Another attraction is Thessaloniki's easy access to so many places of interest. There are good beaches just south of the city and the three peninsulas of Halkidiki take between one and two hours to reach by road. The national park surrounding Mount Olympus is also accessible, as are the important archaeological sites of Pella - capital of ancient Macedonia in the fifth century - and Vergina, headquarters of Alexander the Great's father Philip, whose undisturbed tomb was discovered only three decades ago, 2,313 years after he was assassinated.

Thessaloniki's one drawback is its suffocating traffic. As its population soars toward 1.5 million it's become a victim of its own growth rate, with too many private cars and no effective alternative. The bus system is inexpensive - 50c (35p) for an average ride - but inadequate and although there's talk of an underground railway system, people smile if you ask when construction will begin. Luckily, most of Thessaloniki's best sites are within walking distance of the centre, or a single bus ride away, but urgent measures are needed to dissuade drivers from coming into town.

What?

The city centre is designed as a grid, with the modern shopping streets (Egnatia, Ermou, Tsimiski and Mitropoleos) running approximately east-west, and the ancient ones (Aristotelous, Agias Sofias and Gounari) running north-south. Gounari leads you seawards from Emperor Galerius's Rotonda building and Triumphal Arch, to his palace in Plateia Navarino.

To reach the half-excavated Roman forum, a few hundred metres to the west at Plateia Dikastirou, you pass an array of international designer clothes and shoe shops, and the wonderfully atmospheric and aromatic Modiano food market. The forum, lying on the site of the ancient Greek marketplace, was only discovered when foundations were being dug for a new courthouse in the 1960s.

The best of Thessaloniki's treasure houses is the low-rise Archaeological Museum at 6 Manoli Andronikou (00 30 2310 830 538), which has a permanent exhibition of gold jewellery, mainly recovered from burial sites throughout Macedonia. The precious metal was once so plentiful that the soldiers wore gold trim on their armour. Important finds from nearby archaeological sites date back to 540BC. The museum is remaining open throughout its current refurbishment programme - from 8.30am to 7pm every day except Monday, admission €4 (£2.80).

Thessaloniki's patron saint, Demetrius, was a Roman officer who converted to Christianity and was killed by order of the Emperor in AD303. On the site of his martyrdom (97 Agiou Dimitriou) has emerged the second largest church in Greece. It's changed much over the years - in the Middle Ages it became a mosque and it was badly damaged by the 1917 fire - but some eighth century mosaics have somehow been preserved and the underground crypt where Demetrius was martyred, has been beautifully restored. Entrance is free between 8am and 8pm.

A No 23 bus from Egnatia Street takes you up the hill to the city ramparts and drops you at the gate to Ana Poli, or Upper Town. There's a pleasant, ramshackle air to the place, but some of the steep, cramped streets boast the most expensive properties in town. The fortifications, which date back to the fourth century BC, saw a good deal of action and ran for eight kilometres when they stopped adding to them 1,800 years later.

Wow!

Like most of Thessaloniki's monuments, the Triumphal Arch belongs to the people. It may have been built (AD303) to celebrate a Roman Emperor's defeat of the Persians, but it's as much a part of the modern city as the shopping malls, providing shoppers with some respite and office workers a place to rendezvous. Today, the Emperor Galerius is forgotten: his arch is universally known as the "meeting place".

Five for food and drink

Tiffanys at 3 Iktino Street (00 30 2310 274 022) is very popular, because of its central location and inexpensive range of traditional Greek dishes, served at impressive speed.

Aristotle at 8 Aristotelous St (00 30 2310 230 762). It's easy to miss this leafy oasis of calm amid the rush of the city centre rush, tucked away behind wrought-iron gates and arranged around a hidden courtyard. Popular at lunch with professionals, who mix ouzo with plates of mezes.

Ta Nisia at 13 Proxenou Koromila (00 30 2310 224 477) translates as "The Islands" - the owner/chef comes from Skiathos. Simply furnished in bleached wood and using produce from all over Greece, Ta Nisia is said to attract kings, queens and presidents.

Kupia at 3 Plateia Morihovu (00 30 0210 553 239) stands head and shoulders above the many other restaurants in the refurbished Ladadika district - in quality, décor and price: a typical meal, with wine, will cost at least €20 (£14.20) a head. Many dishes are cooked, ancient-style, in terracotta pans. Specialities include grilled squid or wild boar with mashed chestnuts.

Taverna Ta Aderfia tis Pyxarias at 9 Plateia Navarino (00 30 2310 026 6432) has a ringside view of the Roman Emperor's palace excavations and is noted for its fine kebabs and reasonable prices.

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