A five-hour drive north from Athens is the city of Thessaloniki. We purposefully set out on a Sunday morning, for our first trip (we visited 10 times!) there this past summer, when traffic is typically minimal and coupled with the lock-down restrictions for citizens, who are not permitted to go from one province to another, the road was practically empty. With two pit stops along the way, we arrived in the late afternoon.
Zaf often boasts that, although born in a neighboring small village, he attended 2nd and 3rd grade in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city. With over 1 million people living here today, Zaf takes great pride in this city’s historical importance as the crossroads of many cultures, religions, and industries.
Built by the ancient Greeks, this city goes back to 315BC, it was named after the half-sister of Alexander the Great and means Victory of the Thessalians; it was to honor the victory over the Phocians, led by Philip II of Macedon. It would be well worth it to spend some time here, especially if you love history. Numerous sections of walls and arches are scattered throughout the city as remembrances of the big wall that once surrounded the city in ancient times as fortification against invading armies. Additionally, interspersed by glorious cathedrals and tiny churches dating back hundreds of years, modern buildings host offices and shops; wide open plazas are surrounded by restaurants and cafes, as it the glorious shoreline and the crowning glory, the White Tower…which was part of the ancient wall and served as a watchtower. You can visit the tower and climb the winding steps to the very top…the view will dazzle you!
Take the time and make the effort to drive up the sloping streets to the upper areas of this city – or you can take a tour bus. The view of the bay is spectacular as are the winding streets and architecture of the older homes and buildings. This city has numerous squares – large and small scattered about in all neighborhoods. The biggest and most known is Aristotelous Square…shops and cafes abound…the best place to be seen and to meet up with family and friends. One area that we love is called Panorama, with beautiful stately homes, buildings, churches, and restaurants overseeing the entire city and the sea beyond. Another favorite area is the Ladadika district. Originally it was a prominent center of olive oil presses, which is how it got its name: ladi is the word for olive oil. Then it transitioned into a red-light district and then, by the 1980’s it gentrified into a bustling dining area, with restaurants, kafeneeos, clubs, etc. The winding, narrow, cobblestone streets charm and delight you as you walk around amid the preserved 19th century buildings. We have never visited Thessaloniki without stopping there for a long, lingering, lunch.
Thessalonik is a mixture of the old and new and it all works together to create a sophisticated atmosphere of the present without forgetting its remarkable past. Greeks affectionately call it Saloniki, but to the outside world it is known as Salonika.
We drove there one day, just 20 minutes from where we are staying. An amazing number of cars and trucks zoom in and out of lanes, zigzagging to get in front of you so they can move faster. An interesting thing to see in this city is the parking spots – there are none! Double parking abounds – the lanes, although wide enough, get smaller and smaller. Nobody seems to mind though; it is a way of life here. We chose to park in a garage after we drove around for about fifteen minutes, looking for a space, all to no avail. On subsequent trips into the city, when the lock-down was removed, we discovered a ferry service taking us from near our hotel to the port of Salonika; being such a walkable city, we opted to eliminate the drive and its traffic/parking issue and simply sail into town.
The first couple of times when we visited there, during the lock-down, we were astounded to see so many cars and trucks on the road and once inside the city, the number of people out and about was incredible. Not all stores were open of course; restaurants were closed, but many had a window/door open for take-away. Endless number of people were standing outside or sitting on benches sipping coffee and munching away. Masks were worn but we wondered: “This is what lock-down looks like here?”
The hotel staff faithfully prepared our “daily” exit papers before we left the lobby. Not once were we asked to present them. The desk clerk told us that she, as a citizen, could not leave the area due to the lockdown; I asked her “since no one is checking paperwork, how would anyone know if it was you or us, the tourists?” She was surprised to hear that Salonika was packed with people walking around or sitting by the sea enjoying the sunshine and the view.
Another of our favorite places is the old marketplace. Some souvenir shops and stores were closed, but the produce, meat, seafood, dry goods, and grocery stalls were all open and they were a sight to see! Vendors stand out in front and shout out the prices of the day – emphasizing the amazing discounts they are offering which beat out the competition! Hurry in! Prices are only good for today! The smells and sounds invoke the ancient “agora” dating back thousands of years.
We found a fabulous hotel, just outside Zaf’s childhood village, Kerasia. We could not find it easily though. As the area has changed with new buildings and other structures, and with old landmarks shut down we drove around a little bit. Then with bad directions from a woman who insisted that the hotel was through some narrow roads and then off to the right by the beach, we got lost. A kind man called the hotel for us (we didn’t have our Greek phone set up yet) and got the correct directions. Hotel is absolutely beautiful, but nowhere near the beach!
The next day, we toured all the villages in the area and found Zaf’s memories…some places still exist, others have disappeared forever. No matter. Wherever you go in these areas you have a view of the magnificent Thermaic Gulf of Salonika. Peeking through the clouds early in the morning you see only the mountains, but when they float away, the entire city comes into view with its full impact of how big it is and how lovely it sits, nestling into the hills, with its white buildings and blue sea as a neighbor.
The highlight of our stay here was finding Zaf’s lifelong friend Lambro. He and his wife, Maria, greeted us with much exclaim and many hugs (yes, indeed!) We sat on their veranda, and they reminisced about their childhood together, remembering how, as boys of 8 and 9, they played soccer together on a dirt road that today is the main street running through the village where the shops and restaurants are. He was excited to discover that through social media on his phone he could talk to us more often, but it is sad to say, that he passed away just a few months after our trip there…RIP Lambro.
We made Saloniki our mainstay. We returned to this hotel/area ten times during our six months stay. They took excellent care of us; they kept the same large and comfortable room ready for us; they had a great laundry service; gorgeous pool, delectable food, and an amazing staff! It was our home away from home.
If we had to pick a place to live in Greece, Saloniki would be it! We know that this would be a great place to Retire well, Helene 😊
Photos of Thessaloniki from our hotel balcony From the Personal Collection of Helene and Zaf.
For more information about Greece, visit: www.greektravel.com
I’ve loved building my businesses from home because of how it allowed me to travel all over Greece. To learn more about my “Have a Home-Based Retirement Business” program, check it out below!