It is very important to always have a place close by where you can go and forget about everything. In the Apennine Peninsula this may be Rome, in Iberia there is always Barcelona, and in the Balkans it is Salonika.
Less than 200 miles south of Sofia, this is the city that an increasing number of Bulgarians and foreigners living in the area are using for their customary January getaway.
After the endless succession of Christmas and New Year pre-holiday, high holiday and post-holiday celebrations you may even start longing for a full week at the office. There is, however, a better alternative: sit at the wheel and head south, where, along with the aroma of coffee and cheese filo pastry, the morning wind blows in a reminder that January and February are only 59 days long.
You will cheer up just seeing the relaxed local populace, not to mention feeling the sea breeze from the Aegean, the dash of the mercury 10 notches up and the aroma of marjoram and canella in the market, quaintly called Agora Modiano. All this plus the white-and-blue chequered tablecloths and the simple retsina glasses in the restaurants with which you may wash down sun-dried octopus are amongst the remnants of what latter-day historians have billed the Balkan Omelette.
Until only a few days ago it took about four and a half hours to drive from Sofia to Salonika. One of the best presents that the New Year brought to the Balkans is that it reduced this time by 45 minutes without even building a new road.
With the accession of Bulgaria to the EU, customs checks at the border are being abolished, which has reduced the number of cars queuing at the Kulata border checkpoint considerably. So, if you get up at 7am, you can reach Salonika in time for a late breakfast. Things normally get moving at around 11:30am. The elatively luxurious boutiques and jewellers along the Via Egnatia and Tsimiski Street will have just opened.
This is, however, the time when the Agora Modiano, where you can buy a gallon container of good quality olive oil or a large tin of salted anchovies, is already finishing its active business for the day. The octopus, squid, and beef tripe vendors are all now quietly smoking cigarettes, leaning against their stalls.
Salonika's greatest attraction, the Leof Nikis promenade, is basically a road linking the Customs House and the former jail. Nowadays, however, this is hardly the first thing that would come to mind, especially if you are only here for the weekend. Until about noon the pavement swarms with people having their morning jog, then it is occupied by older couples. Having lost their zeal for shopping, they spend their Saturday mornings basking in the sun at the outdoor cafes.
At the same time, their children make up for their laziness with regard to sport by indulging in some active shopping. The women of this city, considered to be the most elegantly dressed in Greece, traditionally spend this day of the week inspecting what new delights D & G, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, or Zara have to offer.
One of the peculiarities of Salonika is that it is immune to post-holiday fatigue. From the very first days of January, the markets are booming as if it were the pre-Christmas rush. Greek women race through the boutiques, touch, try on, twirl in front of the mirrors, buy, pack up, sort out, and carry their purchases in bags. Finally, completely exhausted, they go for lunch, happily showing off their shopping to their husbands, who have just been relieved of several hundred euros.
Their enthusiasm is probably the main reason why Salonika is amongst the best shopping spots in the Balkans. It has dozens of designer shops, several shopping malls, modern restaurants and cafes. With urban planning reminiscent of Stara Zagora (with a grid of straight streets, an after-effect of a sequence of earthquakes and fires that demolished several entire neighbourhoods), the city centre resembles a small American town.
Aside from popular culture, however, Salonika's Balkan past oozes from every crevice, inviting you to take an intriguing stroll through this variegated historical heirloom. A central Balkan seaport and a melting pot of nationalities and cultural traditions, under the Ottoman Empire Salonika was one of the most troubled spots on the peninsula.
Although Bulgarians, Turks and Greeks have waged several wars for Salonika in the past hundred years, most of them in the belief they had solid grounds for their territorial claims, at the beginning of the 20th Century the city belonged to the Jews. Of a total population at the time of 120,000 citizens, some 55,000-70,000, or more than 50 percent, were Jewish. The Jews outnumbered the next largest ethnic group, the Turks, at least twofold. Driven out of most European lands, the Jews had been settling in Salonika for nearly 20 centuries. In fact, they were the founders of the modern city. When 20,000 Sephardim, fleeing the Reconquista of the Spanish monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinando of Aragon, settled in the city, it was still in ruins from its conquest and takeover by the Ottoman Empire.
The Jewish community was accepted favourably by the Sublime Porte, and settled in what is now the city centre, between Via Egnatia and the sea, from Vardar Square to the intersection of Tsimiski and Mela streets. It continued to expand over the next 400 years. When the great fires of 1890 and 1917 devastated Salonika, they caused the destruction of the homes of about 54,000 Jews, as well as some 30 synagogues and 10 schools.
The first attempts at modern urban planning were made in the construction of the present day Baron Hirsch, Kalamaria, and Rezi Vardar quarters, built in the people's efforts to recover from the disaster.
The oldest synagogue that burnt down stood at the intersection of Kalapothaki and Dimosthenes streets, near the harbour. One of the two that survived is Yad Lezikaron, in Herakleios Street. The other, which was established by immigrants from Monastir and is called Monastirioton, is located in Syngrou Street.
During the Second World War, Salonika's entire Jewish community was interned in concentration camps, mostly with the assistance of the Bulgarian army, at the time an ally to Nazi Germany. Hardly any survived.
The mid-19th Century saw the beginnings of the Bulgarian national liberation movement, which eventually led to the foundation of modern Bulgaria. At that time, about 10,000 Bulgarians lived in Salonika. Their community was a fifth of the size of the Jewish one, two-fifths of the Turkish one, and two-thirds of the Greek one.
However, the city was one of the most important ideological centres of the uprising. For this reason, many people in Bulgaria still believe that Salonika belongs to them. They continue to call it by the adapted toponym Solun, instead of the Greek Thessaloniki, and they dream of its port access to the Mediterranean and of the Salonika customs house. The latter has even become an idiom in the modern Bulgarian language as a popular, almost mythical emblem of easy-come-easy-go wealth.
The customs house itself is at the west end of the waterfront promenade, and Bulgarians often risk arrest by going and taking pictures of it. They may be the main reason why this innocent photographic activity is forbidden by the Greek authorities.
The Bulgarian Boys' Gymnasium was situated in the centre of old Salonika. It was the first secondary school for Bulgarians in the region of Macedonia and Aegean Thrace.
Many Bulgarian intellectuals of the mid 20th Century studied there and then migrated to Bulgaria after Salonika was incorporated into Greece following the Balkan Wars of 1911-1912. One of them was Simeon Radev, who left picturesque descriptions of the relations between the ethnic groups in the city. Another was the Bulgarian symbolist poet Atanas Dalchev, whose work has been translated into at least 15 languages. His father, a lawyer and teacher at the gymnasium, had a house in the Ladadika area, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1914.
The hill north of the centre, known as Kastra, was a Turkish quarter in the 19th Century. Turks had settled there when the city was a provincial capital in the Ottoman Empire, but their community never exceeded a quarter of Salonika's population. However, their presence led to one of the most important processes in the Balkans, from the standpoint of modern Europe, the foundation of the secular Turkish state.
The Young Turk Revolution sprang from Salonika, or, to be more precise, from Kemal Ataturk's house in Odos Aghiou Dimitrou, which is now a museum and the property of the Turkish Consulate.
It is a textbook example of the architecture of that era, and stands at the foot of a maze of streets full of such houses, which zigzag up to the top of the hill and the city wall running along it.
Kastra is the only part of Salonika that has preserved its historical appearance. But only in terms of architecture; the Turks were repatriated under the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange agreement.
Following all of these dramatic events, the Greeks became the city's main residents. For nearly a century now, it has belonged to them. Not only do the magnificent Byzantine ruins and churches all over the centre break the monotony of the modern buildings, they give the Greeks a sense of confidence of living in a place that is historically their own.
As far as modern Greek culture in Salonika goes, its most pleasant facet is in its restaurants. They are almost everywhere, and most of them are quite good, and reasonably priced.
In Kastra you can find truly authentic Greek tavernas, with retsina on tap and an abundance of achtopodaki, kalamaraki, tarama, tsatsiki, and everything else you would expect to find in a Greek seaside town. Further down the road, towards the waterfront, the traditional places begin to thin out, interspersed with modern restaurants serving nouvelle cuisine and bakeries that give off an intoxicating aroma of freshly baked biscuits.
In the Plateia Aristotelous in the wintertime, you can still buy salep, a drink made from milk and orchids: another trace of the Ottoman Empire which was also once sold in the streets of Plovdiv and Sofia (though often fake - without the orchids!).
There is a dense concentration of traditional restaurants in Ladadika and the smaller streets between Venizelou Street and Agora Modiano. The list of pleasures that can be incorporated into a two-day Salonika therapy session is quite lengthy. And the effects are refreshing. After 48 hours, you can come back to Sofia feeling happy in the realization that diversity on this planet is something to be celebrated, and that it's no bad thing that Salonika went to the Greeks - after all, at least there's a place within 200 miles of Sofia where you can eat something other than rissoles with cumin or pork with sauerkraut.
The Toms Have Landed
An expeditionary force of British soldiers were sent out to the Aegean, landing in Salonika on 5 October 1915, as part of the Allied Movement against the Austrians and the Bulgarians who at that point held the Struma Heights.
The fact is few British soldiers had much of a clue about the Balkan area, the politicians hadn't much idea either, even the Balkan people were confused! Salonika was a mere name on a map to a British soldier and no one dreamt they'd ever see such a place.
As for the Balkan people, they had no idea about the British either, no clue as to the supposed might and power of this remote lot of islands in the Northern seas. The Brits of course, considered themselves very important, having an empire and all that. It must have been an interesting interaction.
According to a study by Belgian historian Raymond Detres, the Bulgarians and the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire fell out in the early 18th Century, when both communities began accusing the other of the same sins. The Bulgarians described the Greeks as mean, cunning and inclined to conspiracy and the Greeks in turn labelled the Bulgarians dishonest, good for nothing and stubborn. These views were the result of several malevolent publications during the Revival Period and persisted in the Balkans until almost the end of the 20th Century.
The Museum of Macedonian Struggle
For the Greek view of what really happened in the northern parts of the Greek mainland you must visit the Museum of Macedonian Struggle, on 23 Proxenou Koromila. You will see some pictures of some very vilelooking Bulgars.
Who Is the Jew?
Salonika was the centre of a peculiar Judeo-Muslim sect called Donmeh. These were Jews who had converted to Islam, but who practiced their Jewish rites in secret. Many of them were followers of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), a rabbi who declared himself to be the Messiah. In the picture: a Muslim cleric (right), a Jew (middle) and a member of the Ottoman middle classes in 1873.