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Greece conjures images of cobalt seas, gold sands, white-washed houses, necropolises and cruise ships. Thessaloniki, about 500 km. (310 miles) north of Athens has none of these.
Aesthetics is of little concern to the locals or to the city planners. Thanks to the great fire of 1917, the city is a sprawling metropolis of low-rise apartment buildings, spreading from the harbor which is bordered by the Aegean Sea, to the ancient city walls in the upper town.
A Visit to Thessaloniki, Greece
To the uninitiated, Thessaloniki is a maze. Nowhere has austerity-hit so hard: politically fuelled graffiti is everywhere; youth unemployment is sky-high, and corruption renders the local government impotent.
The inhabitants have turned their city into something special: A haven of creativity that refuses to accept the hand it has been dealt.
Clean, Basic Rooms at the Little Big House Hostel
The Little Big House Hostel resides in the upper town, about a 15-minute walk from the harbor front. Its pastel-colored facade houses a roof bar that is open to travelers and locals alike.
Anitha, the receptionist, speaks just about every European language and is happy to share her knowledge of the city with everyone. The rooms are clean and basic, offering both dorms and private accommodation.
Anitha recommended the Upper Town walking tour, hosted by a passionate local historian, George, and convening at the Church of Prophet Elijah, one of the few remaining UNESCO sites in Thessaloniki.
George does what all great storytellers do: illuminates the present with the past. From the acceptance of Spanish Jewish refugees during the inquisition, through to the current refugee crisis, George clarifies what you’ve probably already worked out: Thessaloniki is a renegade, its inhabitants ever-shifting while retaining the same spirit–you could take a flat here and live out the rest of your days without the locals blinking.
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Also, George plays the bouzouki–an instrument surviving the Turkish exodus from Greece–like a pro. The instrument itself has survived persecution; seen as the sound of criminals, street kids and brawlers, its possession was illegal up until the middle of last century.
The tour finishes at the upper walls, but George is happy to answer any questions–the tour is free, so tips are always welcome.
It’s easy to while the night (and day) away on The Little Big House veranda; the drinks are cheap, the wine good. If you get hungry, it happens that one of the best locals restaurants in the city is on your doorstep.
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Igglis is an old-school Greek taverna: fresh ingredients, no pretense, lots of flavors and plenty of vegetarian options. Again, if you want to spend the rest of the night here, no one will object.
Thessaloniki Bars Offer Plenty of Nightlife
But Thessaloniki is a party town, and most of the action is toward the bay–where it gets busy late and stays open till early morning.
Bars tend to have a musical theme: rock, jazz, RnB, etc. The door policy is lenient, and you will find that locals–while willing to engage–respect the fundamental right of having a drink uninterrupted.
Regardless of the night, bars and restaurants are packed, so be prepared to queue for a drink. Unlike the rest of Europe, you will still find people smoking indoors.
Many of the city’s tavernas offer live folk music. Starting late, and running into the small hours, wine and food come as standard–dancing is optional.
Located in the Old Egyptian Market, Palati is one of the best examples. Plenty of money has been spent on the venue, and it regularly draws large crowds; the staff goes out of its way to make visitors feel welcome–due to popularity, it’s best to reserve a table.
Thessaloniki acts as a convenient hub for those looking to climb Mount Olympus. Transport to Litochoro–the town from which most tours depart – is easily reached. Thessaloniki central bus station runs regular services–taking roughly an hour. The scenery changes quickly, becoming more sparse and rugged with elevation.
At 50 euros a night, Afroditi Arhontiko is at the upper-end of Litochoro’s hotels (there are plenty of budget options) but boasts views of both the mountains and the square–which itself could be transported from a spaghetti western: stone belfry, fountain and church.
The hospitality here seems to be hereditary, born from generations of tough mountain-dwelling people. The owner of the Aphroditi welcomes guests with two bottles of local wine and a platter of fresh food–the square-facing balcony making for a good place to enjoy them.
The Mount Olympus climb generally takes two days and starts with a pickup on the Litochoro square. After a short car ride, you reach the start of the trail. I booked through Much Better Adventures, a reliable and economical option. Before starting any climb, it is essential to ensure you are physically capable and have the correct equipment.
While not being especially technical, Olympus still requires robustness and good-quality boots and clothing. People have died there; make an honest self-assessment before you commit.
Spilios Agapitos refuge the first night
That said, the first day–while offering stunning alpine views–isn’t arduous. Ascending through the woodland, to the edge of the treeline, you will spend the first night at the Spilios Agapitos refuge–by far the most comfortable mountain refuge I’ve come across.
Generous portions of hot food are available, and the local brandy goes well with Greek coffee. The common room is large, and climbers are free to mingle, eat and drink together.
Sadly, severe storms hit Greece that evening. We set off the next morning, but as the weather grew worse, our guide informed us we had to return to the refuge. However disappointing it may be, this is par-for-the-course in mountaineering; the guides know the terrain, and it’s best to chalk it up to bad luck and make the most of a night in Litochoro or Thessaloniki.
Bear in mind that a successful summit will require scrambling, which is far more physically demanding than the first day.
So, a solitary bus journey back to Thessaloniki. A proper shower, Greek coffee and flatbread. Summer has passed and the nights are drawing in, but tonight the breeze from the bay is warm, and Aristotelous Square hums with music and movement.
If you Go
Hostel: Little Big House
Author Bio: Samuel Hughes is an offshore engineer and freelance writer with a passion for travel, food and history. In the future, he hopes to find time to contribute to NGOs, and assist with disaster response.