I could easily have spent longer in Thessaloniki. It seemed to have the right mix of those things important for a good quality of life. Much of the downtown area is close to the sea, arranged in a grid-like fashion with the main streets running parallel to the waterfront. As you move inland, the streets get steeper, and their layout less structured. There is no shortage of good exercise walking through the windy maze of narrow streets and steps as they make there way towards the upper slopes of the acropolis. The city’s thriving food scene (remember Rick Stein’s Long Weekends) has plenty of good places to eat and markets with quality fresh fruit and vegetables at good prices. There is a large and well renowned university (named after Aristotle), and a strong Erasmus program that combine to support a vibrant international youth culture. In 2014, Thessaloniki was named European Youth Capital and in the same year the Financial Times declared it the best mid-sized European city for the future of human capital and lifestyle.
The city’s architecture is a harmonious mix of old and new. There are no particularly grand monuments drawing hoards of tourist crowds like Istanbul, London or Paris. The old architecturally significant buildings are quite low-key in comparison, but still interesting and appealing. The apartments and office buildings that make up modern Thessaloniki have been built more or less to the same height, around 8 stories high and all in a similar style with balconies lining each floor.
In downtown Thessaloniki you don’t see a country on its knees with economic hardship. There are loads of people about. The cafes, bars and restaurants are full and flowing with the energy of prosperity. At least that’s how it seems. Some Greek friends told us that there may be lots of people about having a good time, but they are not spending much money.
During our stay we volunteered for two days in a warehouse on the north-western edge of the city. From the downtown area, it took us over an hour to get there, but it gave us a glimpse of some of the more visible aspects of the economic crisis. We saw lots of abandoned houses, apartment blocks, factories and partially completed construction projects. We passed large swathes of rusty rolling stock sitting forever idle on disused railway track, abandoned machinery and industrial equipment. We drove along poorly maintained roads on a poorly maintained bus that almost rattled and shook to pieces. Grass beside the road and between blocks of flats was long and dry and mostly weeds.
During our week in Thessaloniki, we barely experienced anything of the depth or essence of the city but something about the place told us it was there, waiting to be experienced more fully, but perhaps at another time and over a longer stay.