Thessaloniki: Greece’s new hot spot for Turks

Thessaloniki: Greece’s new hot spot for Turks

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Thessaloniki: Greece’s new hot spot for Turks

Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki has plenty to offer from its rich history and the majority of must-sees are all within walking distance. The house where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born, which was reopened last August after restoration, is one of the main attraction sites for the Turkish visitors.

With the rise in the last decade of a middle class in search of tourist destinations abroad yet frustrated by European Union visa regulations (the all too familiar Schengen visa), many Turkish tourists are increasingly seeking visa-free travel. Government efforts to abolish visa requirements with certain countries were emphatically appreciated as it has boosted tourism with countries like Russia, Lebanon (before the Syrian war) and Croatia (before it became an EU member). If we look at the last example, Turkish tourists’ arrivals to Croatia dropped 20 percent after the nation entered the EU last summer, despite Zagreb’s efforts to ease the process of visa attainment for Turkish nationals.

Once quiet a torturous process due to strains in relations, Greece now welcomes Turks thanks to the rapprochement between the two capitals, having become one of the most preferred countries among Turks who apply for the Schengen visa (since the Greeks have proven quiet generous in their visa approvals). When you add to that the geographical proximity, it would only be natural for Greece to become a major travel destination for jet-setting Turks; after Athens and the islands, Thessaloniki has become increasingly popular. Turkish Airlines has a direct flight to Thessaloniki each day and it only takes an hour and 20 minutes from İstanbul.

Greece’s second largest city has of course a special place in the minds and hearts of Turks since it is the birth place of Atatürk, the Republic’s founder. The house where he was born, which was reopened last August after restoration, is one of the main attraction sites for the Turkish visitors. Many come out disappointed however, as the building, which is located on the premises of the Turkish consulate-general, does not have much inside to see. Bar some historical facts written on the walls, and a mummy of Atatürk, the house is empty.

Apart from this disappointment, the city has plenty to offer from its rich history and the majority of must-sees are all within walking distance.

Founded around 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon, who named it after his wife Thessalonike, a half-sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki’s Roman past can be best traced at the ancient forum, the Roman agora, situated right in the middle of the city.

The Triumphal Arch of Galerius as well as the Rotunda, an early 4th century building later converted into a Christian church, are some other archeological sites that one should visit in the city. You can’t miss the arch since is it is situated on Egnatia road, one of the city’s main arteries, packed with traffic.

Byzantine art

Thessaloniki, with its host of Byzantine monuments is considered an open-air museum of Byzantine art. The churches, dating as far back as the 5th or 6th centuries, are striking with their almost intact structurally. While the city remained part of the Ottoman Empire for more than four centuries, a strong Jewish community was established, and, among the legacy left behind by Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, it seems the Orthodox sites have received the lion's share in the city's restoration efforts, mostly funded by the European Union.

The churches of Acheiropoietos (5th century) a three-aisled, timber-roofed basilica, Hagia Sophia (7th century), and the Panaghia (Virgin) Chalkeon (1028) are but some of the churches that should not be missed.

The city’s main Ottoman buildings include the White Tower, which was built in the 15th century is also the hallmark of the city. You can’t miss it since a walk in the seaside is also a must when in Thessaloniki. With numerous coffee shops and restaurants on the waterfront, for Turks it is reminiscent İzmir’s seaside area, with İzmir once home to thousands of Greeks, who had to leave after Turkey’s war of liberation at the end of World War One. The tower is not white at all. Replacing an old Byzantine for, it was reconstructed by the Ottomans and later became a notorious prison and scene of mass executions during the period of Ottoman rule. It was whitewashed after Greece gained control of the city in 1912, and thus comes the name.

The Mosques of the Hamza Bey Cami (15th century), the Aladja Imaret Cami are among the other Ottoman constructions to visit. The Yahudi (Jewish) hamam is also worth a visit, yet you can only see it from the outside, as the interior is still awaiting restoration.

A visit to the city’s Jewish museum is unfortunately a saddening experience as it portrays a dark page of the city’s history. Following expulsion from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, some Jewish groups were sent to Thessaloniki by Ottoman rulers to contribute to the revival of the city. Jews experienced a golden age in the 16th century, becoming a great asset for the development of the city.
In the course of the following centuries, the small Jewish cemetery of the city was enlarged to accommodate the increased numbers of the deceased. By 1940 there were more than 500,000 tombs, all of which were destroyed during the Nazi occupation of the city, according to the information provided by the museum. In 1941, Thessaloniki had a community of some 49,000 Jews. By the end of 1945, only a handful of Jews remained; 96.5 percent of the city’s Jewish community was exterminated in the death camps of Poland.

Wining and dining

As is the case with most of the other cities in Greece, Thessaloniki provides a variety of choices when it comes to wining and dining. The Seven Seas restaurant is known to be the best sea food restaurant in town and it has earned its reputation indeed by way of the fine quality of service, food and beverage it has to offer.

Those who would like to take the advice of the Thessaloniki Mayor and have a rather authentic experience should sample one of the smaller restaurants at the Modiano market in the city center. It is similar to the Çiçek Pasajı but much less touristic. The food is delicious and the ambience with the live “buzuki” music is simply delightful. It would be ideal for a late lunch rather than an evening dinner affair.

Those prefering to go to Thessaloniki by car should definitely go to Vergina, 75 km from Thessaloniki. The discovery there of the ancient city of Aigai and its cemetery makes it a must-see. Of particular note are the tombs of the royal dynasty, most notably King Philip II. An underground building constructed in 1993 encloses and protects the royal tombs, maintaining the stable temperature and humidity necessary to preserve the wall paintings. It should be of particular interest for Turks to see such a successful example of conservation of historical artefacts at the very place that they were discovered.

In the first internet version of the article, it was mistakenly argued that the Jewish legacy of the city caught the necessary attention and share for the restoration projects. In fact, the city’s Ottoman and Jewish architectural structures still await as equal attention as the one attributed to the city’s Christian past. We apologize for the mistake.