It's strange. Some places just have it. Sometimes it's obvious why - Rio's beauty is sheer unsubtle splendour; New York has the immensity of buzz and buildings - but sometimes it's far less so. Arriving in Thessaloniki, it's fair to say that we were expecting little. Greece's second biggest city, it was merely a convenient break in the journey from Meteora to Istanbul. If anything like the capital, it would be a dump, just on a quarter of the scale. Worse, it didn't even have any world famous landmarks by means of compensation. Two nights in the city and we'd be happy to leave.
So why, upon arriving at our hostel, were we already thinking "This seems alright." There was nothing particularly auspicious about the exhausting walk from the train station. Overcast in an uncanny impersonation of the classic gloom of midwinter Scotland, the grey air was in harmony with the grey train station, the grey surrounding buildings, and the rubble within the fenced-off building site that forced us along a narrow pavement next to a very busy main road. Thessaloniki is in the process of building a metro, but I can't say I could see any work going on, not on any of the days we were there.
The rest of the walk went through narrow pavements often crammed with parked cars, across busy roads, past drab and shabby buildings, and all of it getting increasingly steep and uphill. By the time we arrived at our hostel, in a very run-down area in the upper city, I was a sweating wreck. We'd seen nothing of note, nothing obviously charming, nothing to excite the tourist brochures, but yet... we kind of liked it. We had no idea why. There was just a feeling.
That feeling proved itself over the next three days. We still only stayed two nights in Thessaloniki, leaving for an overnight bus late on the third day, but by the time we'd gone Thessaloniki had gone from a stopover to a highlight. Two days weren't enough. In different circumstances, we might have stayed a week.
What does the city have then? Well, sure, it's got some landmarks and some old stuff scattered around, such as the 15th Century Ottoman "White Tower."
Very nice. It's also got a bunch of Roman ruins, spread liberally. These range from old palaces to triumphant archways to agoras, and appear throughout Thessaloniki in the most casual of ways. Oh look, there's the agora, taking up an entire block. There's an ancient palace in the middle of a busy pedestrianised shopping street. There's a 2000-year-old temple, behind the dodgy guys selling trainers on the street.
But the monuments and ruins aren't what make Thessaloniki great. Sure, they contribute, they fill it with history, they give a welcome break from lots of otherwise very ordinary buildings, they give the city an extra dimension and depth, but they aren't what you visit Thessaloniki for. Or rather, they aren't what make you want to stay. Instead, it's that mysterious ingredient that some places have and some places don't: it is simply fun to walk around. It's fun to be in. Greece might be well and truly broken by its economic crisis, but whereas Athens slumps in the corner, moping and depressed, Thessaloniki is sitting back in the sun, drinking a beer, whistling a merry tune.
No doubt our hostel helped. We'd opted for dorms in a shabby part of town, and I can't pretend any part of our stay ventured into luxury territory, but the whole place seemed to have a magical twinkle about it that encouraged people to be friendly. So often, hostels are filled with unsmiling youngsters gazing into their iPhones, travelling the world in the most perplexingly anti-social way, but in this one everybody struck up instant conversation. Perhaps the staff, who were unfailingly lovely, encouraged this environment. Perhaps their cheap booze helped too - a Euro for a huge glass of wine, just 50 cents more for a 500ml beer, On our first night, Danielle and I got speaking to a mixed group of five guys from America and New Zealand, and within an hour we had gathered another American guy, an English guy, a Mexican guy, two French-Canadian girls, and a French girl. Drinks were flowing very liberally. We all ended up going into downtown Thessaloniki in a very muddled hunt for a good bar or club (we found several but always seemed to move on). The streets were packed, bars rammed, the sounds of revelry pouring both from slickly-lit chic clubs and brightly-lit fast food joints, the citizens of Greece's number two city shrugging off their crisis in an end-of-days orgiastic ritual of drinking and dancing. Or perhaps students of any country will pack the bars no matter what the situation.
Being hungover in a dorm is a grim fate however, as we had reconfirmed the next morning. As light poured through the essentially non-existent curtains, I could see bodies in beds, alive only in a technical sense. A thick, dead air permeated the room - possibly because all present but Danielle were male. By 11am, one moved - a chap from Singapore that hadn't been out the previous night. He quietly packed his stuff and disappeared. I was next up, fixing myself up with coffee in the small ramshackle garden, dotted with plastic seats and homemade wooden furniture. It was a bright, chilly morning, pleasant in the sun. At noon, I checked on Danielle - out. At 1pm - life, but in its barest forms. Fixing her up with a coke and commiserating with her situation, like a mortally wounded soldier she insisted I go on without her. Go into the city, see the sights, leave her behind. Sounds good, I said, and did exactly that.
Thessaloniki is a port city, an ancient one, spreading from the hills down to the shore. These days it's quite a spread. On our final morning, we went on an excellent walking tour done by the brother of one of the hostel staff, and he brought the city to life. In the early 20th Century a huge fire ripped through Thessaloniki, pretty much destroying it entirely. Only two areas survived, one being where our hostel was on the upper part, literally so - it sprawls around a steep hill. This part is filled with tight streets, quaint and often crumbling buildings, and the most irregular street plan you'll ever meet. It's a maze, one filled with stray cats and dogs and community life. There are stories everywhere - en route we bumped into an elderly lady - she might easily have been 90 - who for decades had been the custodian of a tiny Orthodox church nearby, which inside had a virtually intact Byzantine mosaic featuring one of only two (apparently) images of Christ without a beard. For centuries the church had been a mosque, but the mosaic had been miraculously saved by the custodian way back then throwing an animal skin over it. The lady herself was Greek, but had been turfed out of her native Turkey in her early life following a reshuffling of Greek and Turkish citizens following the Greco-Turkish war. As this war occurred between 1919 to 1922, the woman must have been well over 90, even if still a baby when this resettlement took place.
Running through the upper town is a 4th Century Byzantine city wall, falling to pieces but still packing a punch, and this leads to a more developed series of fortifications which overlook the entire city.
The city's history is immense, and it is tragic that the fire in the 20th Century wiped out many traces of it in the lower city. Some of the city, notably around the central square, was rebuilt in an attractive manner, reminiscent of Parisian boulevards and buildings, but mostly Thessaloniki is a bunch of crap 60s-style concrete boxes with peeling paint. More tragic was the devastating impact of World War 2. For centuries, Thessaloniki was predominantly Jewish, ever since the late 15th Century when Spanish persecution had forced the Jews from Spain to a Thessaloniki emptied of its native population following Ottoman takeover. The Ottoman Empire was pretty tolerant religiously, so had no problem allowing a whole bunch of skilled Jewish people in. The city became a massive melting pot of people and religion, with little trouble or tension. But in World War 2, almost overnight, around 80,000 Jews were rounded up and sent away - to Auschwitz. Only 1500 returned. Together with the fire a few decades before, the Thessaloniki we see today is very, very different from the one we would have seen a century ago.
But nothing about modern Thessaloniki makes you wonder what might have been. Modern Thessaloniki is not a sad city lamenting its past, it is a lively place buzzing with bars and crowded streets. 10% of the population are students. Much is pedestrianised, albeit with men on scooters forcing their way through. It was Sunday as I strolled, enjoying the sunshine and the feel of being in the midst of a fully living city, no matter that my low-level hangover made me feel a little less than alive. I didn't really do anything, except walk along some streets, eat a slice of pizza, and do the essential Thessaloniki experience of visiting the White Tower, but I enjoyed it. Just a pity my wife wasn't able to enjoy it with me - when I returned to the hostel, Danielle was still slumped in bed, emitting the occasional groan, in a truly destitute state. She eventually rose at around 7pm and avoided drinking wine for the next two nights, which I believe may be a record.
On our final day in Thessaloniki we did the aforementioned walking tour of the city, then watched Liverpool play Manchester City in an outdoor bar with an Englishman and two Germans. The overnight bus to Istanbul followed. We saw little of the actual sights of the city, but neither did we need to. Thessaloniki is bigger than its sights, it is a place of character, and despite its immense history, is a place alive with the future, however uncertain that may be. But the city I saw, and I hope in some small way understood in just my few days, is a city that looks at the future and says, "So, what next?" rather than "Oh, what now..." I hope the future treats it as well as its optimism deserves.