GREECE: THESSALONIKI: A Den of Antiquity ; Thessaloniki's Ancient Roots Sprouted a Modern Capital of Culture, Says Frank Partridge
Partridge, Frank, The Independent (London, England)
Thessaloniki has been an important city for the best part of 2,500 years. To understand why, simply open a map encompassing what we now call Italy and Turkey to see how the ancient Macedonian capital lies roughly halfway between the two imperial capitals of Rome and Istanbul (formerly Constantinople).
With its natural harbour facing the Gulf of Thermaikos, and its strategic location on the Roman road that linked the Balkans with Asia Minor, Thessaloniki thrived in each of the Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine eras, and is enjoying a fourth golden age today, as a centre of commerce and transport, culture and learning. There have been setbacks along the way, such as the devastating fire of 1917 and the German bombing of 1940, but like London's Great Fire and its own wartime blitz, these painful jolts brought long-term benefits, enabling the planners to redesign the city more boldly than might otherwise have been the case. In Thessaloniki, the mingling of ancient and modern works well " but then, it's hard to offend the eye amid such a glorious setting.
Founded by the Macedonians around 315BC and named after Alexander the Great's sister, Thessaloniki lies in a natural bowl, protected by ancient ramparts on the high ground. Spilling down the hillside to its crescent- shaped waterfront is one of the most appealing promenades in Europe, with a youthful, musical caf culture. Sixty kilometres across the Gulf, Mount Olympus " home of the Greek gods " completes the vista with a flourish.
There are glorious views over the Gulf towards the 2,918m (9,571ft) mountain from one of the finest hotels in town, the Electra Palace at 9 Aristotelous Square (00 30 2310 294 000; www.forthnet.gr/electrapalace), which has a ground-floor coffee shop and an English-style club bar where locals love to meet. Although it's a five-star establishment, with double rooms (including breakfast and taxes) at EUR220 (pounds 157) a night, the airy, elegant seventh floor roof terrace bar and small swimming pool are open to non- residents for lunch and dinner. So is the spa in the basement. Out-of- season deals reduce room rates to a more affordable EUR128 (pounds 91). Similar reductions are available at the Macedonia Palace Hotel at 2 Megalou Alexandrou Av (00 30 2310 897 197; www.grecotel.gr), the most imposing building on the seafront, and another five-star establishment with an acclaimed French restaurant. A double room with a sea view and breakfast is officially priced at EUR230 (pounds 164), but can be obtained for as little as EUR115 (pounds 82) with some hard bargaining outside the peak periods. Breakfast is EUR18 (pounds 12.80) extra. The Luxembourg at 6 Komninion St;(00 30 2310 244 718) is a good, mid- range hotel in the heart of the shopping district: double rooms, breakfast included, start at around EUR88 (pounds 63). The Tourist Hotel at 21 Mitropoleos St (00 30 2310 270 501; www.touristhotel.gr) has large, air conditioned rooms at EUR70 (pounds 50) and the family- run Pella Hotel at 65 I. Dragoumi St (00 30 2310 555 550) is clean and friendly: doubles are EUR50 (pounds 36) with breakfast another EUR9 (pounds 6.40) per person.
For much of its history, Thessaloniki has come second: outranked at different stages of its life by Rome, Constantinople or Athens. Always the bridesmaid? Not a bit of it. This is a place with attitude: European Capital of Culture in 1997; capital of the northern Greek region of Macedonia boasting a better climate and much less pollution than Athens; more parks, squares and greenery than the modern capital; less poverty, crime and unemployment. It's also the unofficial number one for food, fashion and nightlife. Without having anything that quite matches the Acropolis, Thessaloniki has some pretty tasty antiquities " behind glass and out in the open " with excavations taking place alongside the city's commercial bustle. …