As a baby, I drove my parents to distraction because I never slept a wink. I should have been born in Thessalonika. The city never stops. Traffic is busy right through the night. The pavements are so full of laughter and chatter, I felt safer wandering round on my own in the small hours than I have ever done anywhere else.
Thessalonikans start work early and go to bed late, they enjoy their food and like each other's company, and you get the impression that the city has been happily on the go ever since the Romans lived here.
Thessalonika has certainly been busy destroying itself. A natural harbour, set between pine-clad hills and the bright blue Aegean Sea, it has turned urban sprawl into an art form. Thessalonikans know it. It's the Cultural Capital of Europe 1997, so an enormous programme of artistic events has been devised and an elaborate brochure printed. It was this brochure, full of soul-searching and protestations about the city's worthiness to be a "cultural capital" - not to mention a hopeful reference to "the softening of the aesthetic horror with the passage of time" - that alerted me to the fact that I was probably not going to the most beautiful of places.
A quick dip in a guide book informed me that Greece's "modern-looking" second city, 200 miles north of Athens, is colder and wetter than the capital, and has considerable urban problems but enjoys a thriving intellectual, commercial and industrial life. It seemed to be the Greek equivalent of my home town, Manchester.
I did not set out with high expectations - but I have never left anywhere so reluctantly. Perhaps because Thessalonika's charms are not served up readily along well-trodden tourist routes, you can enjoy a continual sense of discovering its secrets for yourself. The five-lane highway may ruin the walk beside the sea, but the working port, with its cranes and ocean- going ships, was fascinating. What Thessalonika lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in activity.
Such selfish considerations soon feel trivial beside the human problems the city evidently faces. Large numbers of refugees have crowded in from nearby trouble spots. A signpost on the main shopping street, pointing right to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, highlights Thessalonika's critical geographical position. And signposts to Panorama (a posh suburb, presumably enjoying a good view) and Drama (a nearby town) serve as amusing reminders of our own cultural interchange.
Ramparts running along the top of the hill above the city are lit up at night to resemble a golden crown, perched atop a wise old head. This crown, indeed, encloses the oldest part of the city, with its jumble of terracotta roofs, that can be reached by a steep climb out of the concrete jungle, up winding unmade streets accompanied by shy stray dogs and lithe, watchful cats. You don't need a map, as you can see, high above you, where you're heading.
The higgledy-piggledy houses, in varying states of dereliction, are mainly lived in. Their crumbling stucco fronts, painted garish combinations of reds, lilacs and dusty blues, are attractive but not twee. The beauty here is fleeting, and private. A wiry ginger cat pats open a broken shutter to reveal an empty room, where shutters hanging off the windows on the far side are reflected back in a mirror. It would have made a wonderful photograph, but though I had a camera in my pocket, and only the cat would have known, I'd have felt impudent taking a picture.
Wandering back down into the city centre was a form of lucky dip. Walls of a Roman palace were hemmed about by cafes. The forum is half excavated, just above the bus station. Canaries sang from the balconies, as I witnessed two car crashes. A small, vociferous political demonstration marched past the end of the street, but, before I could catch up, my attention was caught by a bank of television sets in a shop window all transmitting the march, and making it look considerably more impressive than the straggling affair I'd just seen.
I wandered into Byzantine churches, aware that I was trailing behind centuries of pilgrims. Our Lady of the Coppersmiths seemed to be rejoicing in its beautiful, geometric brickiness. I'm not religious, but could not resist the temptation to light a candle in the grandiose Agia Sophia. I can still smell the wax on my hands. The sense of so much turbulence and life, past and present, was dizzying.
Everyone I met kept telling me to go to Thessalonika's Archaeological Museum, so off I went. Seeing objects found beneath the streets I'd just been walking in was exhilarating. What fun to walk into a room full of classical sculptures and see faces I'd been encountering all day. A life- size head of the Emperor Septimius Severus, 2nd century AD, was so like the receptionist at my hotel that I felt like asking His Imperial Highness for my room key.
I popped into an exhibition of Sir Anthony Caro's sculptures, inspired by the Trojan War. Great chunks of hewn wood, fired stoneware and welded scraps of iron recreated the thrill, colour, terror and intensity of reading Roger Lancelyn Green's retelling of Homer as a sleepless child. The smell of battle seemed to linger in the room. I walked back into the city centre reeling and, glancing down towards the sea, felt grateful now for the disfiguring five-lane highway that kept Odysseus's warships firmly out in the bay. Thessalonika is a magical place. Not unlike Manchester, reallyn
Charlotte Cory's latest novel, 'The Guest', is published by Faber & Faber, price pounds 7.99.
Getting away to Greece
Flights: British Airways (0345 222111) and Olympic Airways (0171- 409 3400) fly between London Heathrow and Thessalonika. BA flights are daily, but stop en route at Stuttgart. Olympic flies non-stop four times a week, and this month has a fare of pounds 175 return including tax.
Amathus Holidays (0171-636 9873) is selling three-night breaks in Thessalonika. The price, including flights from Heathrow and three nights' accommodation at the Macedonia Palace, is around pounds 500.
Seeking a Greek week? National Tourism Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London W1R 0DJ (0171-734 5997). For details of cultural events, call Organisation for the Cultural Capital of Europe, 105 Vasilissis Olgas Avenue, Thessalonika (00 30 31 86 78 60). For books on Greece: Hellenic Bookservice, 91 Fortess Road, London NW5 1AG (0171-267 9499; fax 0171- 267 9498).
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