Quick quiz: what’s probably the oldest shopping street in Europe? Oxford Street? Nope. The Champs Elysees? Nah, guess again. Via Condotti? Oh, puh-lease.
Quick answer: Egnatia Odos in Thessaloniki. It’s been in continuous commercial use since the 1st century BC, when Gnaeus Egnatius, a far-seeing Roman official, ordered a highway for Rome’s cohorts to march over on the way to Caesar’s Middle East conquests.
Thus was built the Via Egnatia, which stretched for 600 kilometres across the craggy Balkan peninsula from the Adriatic Sea to Byzantium (later Constantinople and now Istanbul). Rome’s legions came and went, and the road fell into disrepair across most of its mountain route – except the few miles that passed through Thessaloniki, a bustling port second only to Byzantium in trading importance.
For the past 2,100 years the Egnatia Odos (to give it its Greek name) has been the city’s central business thoroughfare, the pedigree professional and shopping address for the whole of Southeast Europe.
You’re never far from history in Thessaloniki. Wherever you stand, relics of the brilliant panorama of ancient Greece and Rome, the splendour of the Byzantine Empire, the multicultural surge under the Ottoman Empire and the sun-drenched attractions of modern Greece, all hit you at once.
Ruined Roman arches stand cheek-by-jowl with quaint, 1,000-year-old semi-buried churches and office blocks of audacious architectural modernity. Most of the ornate 19th century office blocks and restored luxury hotels, squeezed up against one another in chaotic intimacy, with facades ranging from Moorish to Neoclassical and Art Deco, have been getting new coats of ochre and pink paint.
The Business Center
The business centre of Thessaloniki has a life and bustle that beats even that of the capital, Athens. The shop fronts of Egnatia Odos and its parallel, Tsimiski Street, rival anything to be seen in Paris or Milan – and are a good deal cheaper. Fast food outlets with piping hot cheese pies, succulent souvlakia, savouries and the famed trigona (a cone-like cream pastry made only in Thessaloniki) overflow at every corner.
Nikis Avenue, the seafront boulevard fronted by elegant flats, office blocks and bars, pulsates with evening life. The city’s considerable student population congregates in these bars. You can hear the booming music and carefree laughter far out to sea. For a quieter type of enjoyment, stroll on the seaside pavement that stretches about a mile from the smart outdoor cafes under the Moorish arches at Aristotelous Square to the Venetian White Tower. Watch the sea birds wheel over the moored boats and the tankers farther out. On a clear day you can see the snow-clad peaks of Mount Olympus gleaming distantly over the sea horizon.
One thing you cannot be in Thessaloniki is bored. The city is a diner’s paradise. An outdoor lunch or dinner in the summer in the Ladadika, the old olive oil trading quarter near the docks, is an experience almost calculated to instill a relaxation and unconcern with the rest of the world that’s hard to find elsewhere. Reinforcing this sense, at almost every street corner there’s a Byzantine church that’s many hundreds of years old but still maintains its ancient spiritual vigil, offering calm and solace among the candles and age-darkened icons.
If you’re a business type and want everything on the double quick, there’s a good fast eatery just off the west end of Egnatia Odos called the Nea Ilisia. This is no mere fast food joint. Its vats of succulent Levantine and Greek cuisine simmer invitingly under a transparent counter: stuffed tomatoes and peppers, river perch in basil and tomato sauce, Turkish sucuk (elongated spicy meat balls) in gravy, and of course the obligatory moussaka, to be washed down with fruity Macedonian wine or local beer. We call the Nea Ilisia a fast eatery because once you’re inside all you need to do is point at what you want, and within seconds it’s on the table. No trying to get the attention of snooty or overworked waiters. That’s part of the non-nonsense, matter-of-fact, yet polite approach of the Thessalonians.
Sitting at a table, either at a café near the White Tower or in the Ladadika, is a good way to appreciate why Thessaloniki is the jewel of the Balkans. Smart young executives in Italian-cut business suits and long-legged women in short cutting-edge skirts fill the pavements at lunch hour. The atmosphere might be reminiscent of, say, Tel Aviv. And that’s no accident, as Thessaloniki before World War II was home to a Jewish community of many thousands – indeed the city was commonly known as Madre de Israel, in the Jews’ own Spanish-type language. The Holocaust wiped out this culturally active and colourful element, though a certain Jewish cosmopolitanness remains in the sense of sheer business that pervades the city.
Archaeological Museum, Museum of Byzantine Culture, White Tower, Folklore Museum, Railway Museum, Macedonian Museum of contemporary art, Cinema Museum, Museum of Photography, Museum of plaster, casts, State Museum of contemporary art, War museum, Tellogleion foundation, Ataturk Museum, Museum of the Macedonian struggle, Thessaloniki history center, Natural history museum, Museum of ancient, byzantine and postbyzantine musical instruments, Art gallery of the society for the Macedonian studies.
Olympic Airlines and Aegean Airlines each operate several flights a day from Athens to Thessaloniki. There are also direct air links from many European cities.
For a slower and pleasanter travel experience, several Intercity trains run each day between Athens and Thessaloniki, including a clean and efficient sleeper service that leaves Athens about 2300 and arrives in Thessaloniki about 0540. The daytime journey takes about five hours, and includes some spectacular views of the Greek mountains including Mount Olympus. First class on Greek trains is very comfortable and reasonably priced, with lots of legroom and a table for your laptop.
Long-distance buses also ply the Athens-Thessaloniki route, taking about six hours each way and halting for refreshment at two points on the journey.
9 Blue Flag Beaches: Asprovalta, Galaxias, Milies, Nea Vrasna, Neoi Epivates, Richios, Serraiki, Stavros/Platania, Vrasna
Thessaloniki Hotel Association Tel. (+30) +30-2310 273993
Thessaloniki Tourism Organization Tel. (+30) +30 2310 279282
Thessaloniki Airport Authorities Tel. (+30) 2310 473212
Thessaloniki Port Authorities: Tel. (+30) 2310 531645
Thessaloniki Tourist Police Tel. (+30) 2310 554871
Thessaloniki Police Tel. (+30) 2310 388000
Thessaloniki Hospital Tel. (+30) 2310 993111
Thessaloniki Bus Service Tel. (+30) 2310 500111
Thessaloniki National Railway Tel. (+30) 2310 598120