Back in June, I went to Athens. I was going to Greece for a conference, and decided that it obviously made a lot of sense to take a couple of weeks holiday in addition. Unfortunately, the cost of flights to and from Glasgow has sky-rocketed over the past few years, and despite exploring a variety of different options, the trip initially seemed prohibitively expensive. Until, that is, we realised that we could fly home via Thessaloniki – which provided a great excuse for some exploration.
In case you aren’t familiar, Thessaloniki is Greece’s second largest city, and is located in the north of the country. Despite visiting the land of olive oil and feta cheese many times, I had shamefully never ventured out this way. To be honest, I love Athens so much that my priority has always been to spend as much time there as possible, and I never felt a huge pull to travel elsewhere.
Given that we were finally making the trip, it was decided that it made sense to dedicate a good chunk of time to Thessaloniki, and we found a reasonably priced apartment right in the heart of things. As fate would have it, this turned out to be one of the best AirBnBs I have ever stayed in, complete with a spacious balcony, stocked-fridge, and all of the other niceties you might expect. The only real unusual feature of note was that the shower was located in the bedroom. But that could be overlooked.
Once we got over the trauma of having to deal with Greek airlines who told us our flights were over-booked (when they clearly weren’t), and the indignity of the boiling hot bus from the airport to the centre of town, the city itself was a pleasant surprise. It had many similarities to Athens, including the omni-presence of political graffiti, but it also felt quite different in a way that was difficult to put my finger on. The pace of life seemed far more relaxed than the capital, and the architecture was much ‘grander’ in places – more akin to something you would expect from Barcelona or the south of France. Interestingly enough, it reminded me a lot of Belgrade in Serbia – a place I really enjoyed visiting, until I was kidnapped by a fake taxi driver (true story).
Our home for the week was located a few streets away from the water-front, which is very much not a beach-and-swimming type of place, but a proper sea-port. It was pleasant enough to walk along, with old buildings and some modern art sculptures, but it also felt a tad under-utilised. Coming from Glasgow, where we’ve done precisely hee-haw to develop the Clydeside, this is something I am particularly sensitive to.
There was obviously lots of old stuff to be found, and even though Athens boasts a far more impressive collection of ancient buildings and piles of rubble, it was pretty cool to just stumble upon ancient artefacts as we explored the city, and see the juxtaposition of these with the modern constructions.
Any time any Greek person heard that we were going to be travelling to Thessaloniki, they all said the same thing: “The food is excellent“. Given how much we appreciated eating our way around Athens, this set expectations high. I won’t bore you with endless pictures of food, but rest assured – it was pretty great. Interestingly enough, my favourites turned out to be the smaller, less fancy restaurants; the kind where the menu was written on a blackboard in Greek. Once we had won over the characteristically non-plussed staff with my shaky linguistic capabilities, we were treated to some really delicious offerings, and there was much more variety than we were used to finding in other tavernas.
The wine was pretty good too. My (Greek) cousin telling me that the reason French wine is so good, is because they import Greek grapes to make it. Classic.
One of the highlights for me was a tiny bakery called Bantis. They specialise in a traditional pastry called bougatsa, which is effectively this flakey pie thing with different fillings. Now I am no stranger to a bougatsa or two, but this stuff was at a different level. The mince option in particular was incredible. Couple it with an ice cold creamy frappe and you are in the realm of elysian delights.
This dog wanted a piece of my meaty bougatsa.
Bantis was a fair trek away from where we were staying – nestled in a bit more of a residential area, up a steady incline. This was not exactly brilliant to do in the heat, but it did give us an excuse to see parts of the city that we wouldn’t have otherwise, including walking alongside the (presumably ancient) city walls. There’s something particularly satisfying about seeing how a place organically grows and develops around such a barrier – a real physical marker of the past.
We actually made the journey to Bantis twice, because it turned out that they have a ‘special menu’ which is only available on Sundays. This is where they experiment with non-traditional fillings for the bougatsa, including mouth-watering combinations such as red wine and fig. Getting there on time meant having to wake up early after a night of drinking which was a real burden, let me tell you… but it was worth it.
Bougatsa wasn’t the only mouth-watering pastry around mind you. Thessaloniki is apparently known for its trigona – which are these filo pastries. I’ll let you figure out the linguistic link between tri, triangle, and trigona. We almost didn’t end up buying any as we had stuffed our faces for two weeks solid and could barely face another bite, but decided that had to be done, in the name of culture. These delicacies are found at special bakeries that literally only make the three-pointed wonders, and I wish I had bought more than one. It was a creamy, flakey, sweet sensation. My mouth is genuinely watering as I write this out.
Alongside the more regular shops, there were also a number of markets to wander around. These included the traditional, open-air kind which had everything from antiques and religious icons to fish and vegetables. These are always some of my favourite places to take pictures.
As well as this, were also more modern reimaginings of the classic agora: the kind of trendy places filled with independent traders who were selling fancy chocolates, craft beers, and spirits. There was even a space where a collection of chefs were meticulously putting together free gourmet sliders. Which I obviously had to try.
I bought this unusual kumquat cream liquer, which was apparently a specialty from one of the Greek islands. I am something of a connisseur of interesting booze (or perhaps just an alcoholic), but this was so awful that after the first taste I promptly smashed the entire bottle on the floor in disgust. Oh well. It looked cool while it lasted though.
We kept seeing this dog popping up everywhere. It was clearly well looked after by the locals in terms of what it got to eat… and it even waited at the traffic lights to cross the road.
While Thessaloniki doesn’t really have any particularly great beaches to speak of, it is only an hour and a half away from Halkidiki, a region which we were told multiple times is ‘paradise’. We toyed with the idea of getting a bus, but that sounded far too complicated and burdensome for a holiday. In the end, we splashed out on a day-trip, where some genuinely insane (but very friendly) Greek lady drove us to see some of the spots.
We elected to go to Diaporos Island, which has the most incredible clear blue water. There is a particular part that is nestled behind the island called the blue lagoon, where the water is deep but also crystal clear turqoise. The only way to get there was by boat, so I stumped up the cash to hire one. I could see Grace’s trepidation as I handed over my credit card to some guy on the beach. Are they just going to let me drive this thing away? Is this going to be a scam? Why does Stephen have that manic look on his face?
She was right to be concerned.
I was clearly born to be a sea-captain. As a native from a land-locked, high-altitude American state, Grace will never understand the call of the water to those of us who reside at sea level. I am one with the ocean.
It is obviously pointless to try photograph a place like this, so you will just have to take my word for it that it was amazing. We found the blue lagoon and dropped anchor (see, I’m a captain), before floating around for a while. It made me wish we weren’t constrained by time, and could spend the whole day out there with a book, some beer and meaty bougatsa. Alas…
In stark contrast to the peaceful waters of Halkidiki is Ladadika. We spent the first few nights in Thessaloniki wondering where all of the people were at night. Not to say that the city was quiet, but more so that there didn’t seem to be an obvious central place filled with lots of bars and restaurants like we might have expected. It wasn’t until we ventured down what looked like a backstreet that we discovered a whole new world of excitement and intrigue. This used to be where the brothels and other nefarious businesses could be found, and today it has streets lined with rock clubs and places to eat.
We ventured down this way a few times, though never ended up pulling an all-nighter. The curse of travel is that you want to fit everything in, and by the end of the day you are often too exhausted to do anything else – which means you can miss out on a whole different side of a city. A week isn’t enough to sink into a place.
Thessaloniki wasn’t quite what I expected. In many ways, it was a lot better. I am almost tempted to compare it to Glasgow, in the sense that there was a resonance with people that we met and the attitude towards life. However, the more I travel the world the more I find bits of my home town in increasingly disparate and surprising ways. I am sure that somebody far more eloquent (or perhaps foolish) than I could come up with some lofty sociological commentary about how people are the same across the globe or something – but in reality maybe it just means that my own experience is so limited that I have no adequate frame of reference for new experiences.
Despite having journeyed far and wide, including to some pretty far-flung destinations, I’ve never lived outside of Glasgow before, and that is an itch that I fear may becoming difficult to ignore. Trips like this only exacerbate it.
I have nothing left to say. For now, enjoy the remainder of the mediocre photographs I got from a city that I would like to spend more time in.