Walking along the promenade on a stormy evening in Thessaloniki it was the girl with the bright red hair that caught my eye. Sitting with her friend the two teenagers were laughing and chatting together as they rested by an ancient monument celebrating Alexander the Great.
I felt it summed up the area perfectly: a mix of old and new, past and present, ancient Greece meets modern day. A place with a youthful vibe steeped in thousands of years of history.
Located in Macedonia, 540km north of Athens, Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece and home to more than one million people. Founded in 315 B.C by Cassander of Macedonia it was named after his wife, Thessaloniki, the sister of Alexander the Great.
I spent five days there as part of this year’s Blogtrotters Greece tour, exploring both the newer and older parts of the city, checking out a selection of the local restaurants and mixing with some of the locals.
I found it an intriguing place with its lively bars, restaurants and pretty cobbled backstreets all set against a backdrop of ancient historical buildings, monuments and relics.
Modern apartments have built up around Roman ruins as if someone dropped a jigsaw puzzle and mixed up the pieces.
The modern restaurants opposite the ancient Turkish bathhouses, and the office blocks that rise up in the background, all exist in sharp contrast to one other.
There are cosy coffee shops, outdoor markets, boutiques and shopping malls, all a short walk from each other. You’ll find churches next to apartment blocks and small family run businesses just a street away from larger international brands.
There are fish markets and flower markets with one smelling substantially more pleasant than the other.
Overlooking it all is The White Tower, the most famous landmark of Thessaloniki, built during the Ottoman era falling the fall of the Byzanitines.
It’s a former prison with a grisly past, now a museum telling Thessaloniki’s history over five floors and offering stunning views over the city (that would probably look better on a sunnier day).
To the visitor the different pieces of Thessaloniki shouldn’t fit together, but oddly they do.
A clue as to why it works lies in its history and its people. Greeks, Ottomans, Jews and Armenians lived together for 500 years, which has resulted in a city rich in different tastes, languages, traditions, beliefs and cultural values growing and existing together.
The city itself has built up in layers over several centuries with influences from King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, the Romans, Byzantines and the Ottomans, merged with western ideas and eastern traditions. The result is something unique.
What keeps the city alive and gives it its vibrant and welcoming feel is its young people. It has a strong student community thanks to the presence of Aristotle University and the University of Macedonia.
Areas of the city, such as the port, have also been developed in recent years to appeal more to the younger generations.
Old warehouses have been converted into bars and restaurants, which have increasingly grown in popularity, like the Kitchen Bar overlooking the water’s edge – all changes that helped Thessaloniki become the European Youth Capital, 2014.
Old and new, past and present. The girl with the red hair and her friend were sitting metres from the waterfront, relaxing away from the lively buzz of the city. It is an area where young and old alike hang out. Couples sit together looking out into the water. One elderly man sat there fishing, alone with his thoughts.
An old city with a young heart, more characterful than beautiful, Thessaloniki is like a treasure trove waiting to the explored, with something to offer everyone and many hidden gems along the way.