Notes from an author: Victoria Hislop on Thessaloniki

Immortalised in artwork or commemorated by humble statues, there are traces of fascinating history to be found in the streets of Greece’s second city — if you keep your eyes peeled.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020,
By Victoria Hislop
Umbrellas sculpture in Thessaloniki
"There were a number of things that caught my attention... I saw modern installation of several dozen metal umbrellas that soared high into the sky, as if acknowledging the dampness of the evening."
Photograph by Getty

For more than three decades, I’d travelled around in Greece, mostly to Athens, the Aegean islands (predominantly to Crete, where I have a house) and the Peloponnese. It was an author tour that took me, slightly unenthusiastically I admit, to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.

It was a winter day when I arrived and, as the plane made its final descent, I looked out the window and saw acres of flat, agricultural land: organised, divided and full of crops, very unlike the rugged, infertile landscapes further south. It was intriguingly different from the Greek landscapes I was familiar with. 

When the taxi reached the city centre, the streets were damp and night was falling. But I went out to explore, following the long, paved esplanade that traces the curve of the seafront to stretch legs and fill lungs with fresh air. The sun was setting and, far away across the Saronic Gulf, Mount Olympus was visible through a mist. It was both beautiful and melancholy.

There were a number of things that caught my attention on that walk. First of all, I saw a modern installation of several dozen metal umbrellas that soared high into the sky, as if acknowledging the dampness of the evening. Created by the sculptor George Zongolopoulos, the arrangement seemed to explode like a firework above my head, dispelling the sense of gloom that I’d felt so far. Another few hundred metres along was a statue of Alexander the Great on his horse, Bucephalus, in full gallop, and then the White Tower, the city’s most famous landmark. Around me, people strolled, jogged and cycled close by, enjoying the ambience and the air and the sights.

As I continued towards the port, passing a long row of lively cafes and bars overflowing with people and music, my attention was suddenly drawn by something I could so easily have passed by. Between the sea and Plateia Eleftherias (Freedom Square), and almost unnoticeable in the half-light — even more so because it was slate coloured — was what appeared to be a small, inverted tree. As I approached, I realised that it was a sculpture, and the shape was formed of a series of slim, interwoven bodies, many of them upside down, that appeared to be at once both struggling and dancing. A plaque beneath recorded that in 1943 almost the entire Jewish population of the city (around 60,000) was deported by the Nazis to concentration camps in Poland. I was shocked, as much by the graffiti on the monument as by what it recorded — and even by the irony of its location (by Freedom Square?). I had always been conscious that the Jewish population of Greece was small but this was the first time I understood the reason for it. A visit to the city’s Jewish museum gave me an even greater understanding of their once-important role in the city, as well as their tragic fate. It seemed to me that given its significance, this fact of history was little mentioned or known. And why too was the monument so understated? My interest was stirred, as was my desire to write about it — eventually fulfilled in my novel The Thread.

Another walk on the following day — as Thessaloniki really is a city best discovered on foot — I realised that the city tells many stories through its buildings, monuments and ruins; the Holocaust monument was only the first of many unexpected sights that fired my imagination. A minaret, along with other Ottoman monuments, indicated that there had once been a sizeable Muslim population, as well as a Jewish one. A little research led me to the fact in the space of only two decades, this other hugely significant section of the population had also been forced from the city: Greece’s Muslims were banished to Turkey following the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, followed by the Jews in the 1940s, leaving only Orthodox Christians.

Despite these cruel chapters of history, which have left so many traces, I was soon charmed by the chaotic mixture of architecture: of magnificent neoclassical, art deco and brutalist 1960s buildings. But perhaps most alluring of all is the old Upper Town, with its narrow, cobbled streets and gabled Turkish-style houses. When I returned home, I began to read more about the Greek city. Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts (a definitive history of the city) gave me detailed explanation of the cataclysmic events that shaped Thessaloniki, including the arrival and departure of its different ethnic groups.

This brief trip was the first of many more, during which I wandered, sat in cafes and observed everything around me. It was the memorial to the Jews, however, that lit the spark of interest for me. For me, that monument — in its discreetness and obscurity — opened up a whole city and a whole chapter of my own life. 

Victoria’s tip: A really hidden-away local place to eat — and even less noticeable than any monument — is Nea Folia, located on Aristomenous, for generous portions of classic Greek fare.

Victoria Hislop is the author of Those Who Are Loved, published by Headline. RRP: £20.

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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