Although under siege, there is still much to enjoy in one of the greatest cities of the Byzantine Empire. Food may be in short supply, but the locals will welcome you into their homes with open arms…
When to go
October is the crowning glory of Thessalonica, when the ancient festival of patron soldier-saint Demetrius attracts pilgrims, merchants and scoundrels the world over. If you want to avoid the crowds, January, with its famous Indian summers, is a good option. January nights are particularly beautiful. Greek proverbs tell it best: “the moon in January is like a pearl” or “the moon in January is like the sun of day”. You get the idea.
What to take with you
Letters of introduction from the strong and the good go down well with dignitaries. Produce one and they will treat you as their own. If you have access to holy relics bring them as gifts to the city; they are sure to be appreciated. Bring a small empty bottle to collect some of the precious holy myrrh of St Demetrius: many soldiers wear them as pendants in battle.
Costs and money
The Roman solidus is not in existence anymore in Byzantium. Instead you will be using the stavraton, a silver coin of the Palaiologans bearing the cross (stavros). Thessalonica is still under siege by Murad II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The city was handed to the Venetian governors Sancto Venier and Niccolò Georgi by Despot Andronikos Palaiologos on 14 September this year for protection and defence. This means that you may also come across the Venetian ducat or, more likely, the tornesello, the colonial coin of their Greek lands.
As it is wartime, shortages are more of an issue than costs. Be prepared to do without too many luxuries however wealthy you may be.
Sights and activities
For travellers, Thessalonica’s major attractions are its churches. The basilicas of St Demetrius, the Acheiropoieitos and the domed St Sophia are regarded as the city’s three ‘main’ churches; Byzantines refer to them as cathedrals.
Also magnificent are the Monastery Vlatadon towards the acropolis; Panagia Chalkeon (of the Coppersmiths); the Church of St David and the small 14th-century church of St Nikolaos Orphanos, which contains hauntingly beautiful frescoes by masters of the Ochrid School. If you really fall in love with the place and want to stay, one of the monasteries might take you as a novice.
Stop off by the Venetian Standard of St Mark at the Old Roman Market for some street food while taking in the sights. You may wish to continue to the triumphant Arch of Galerius opposite the Roman Rotunda, now the Church of St George.
Dangers and annoyances
Since 1422, the Ottomans have created a naval blockade, meaning foodstuffs are in short supply. Depopulation, too, is visible and many inhabitants fear that Thessalonica may fall. In June 1422 the loveliest neighbourhood, Kalamaria (‘beautiful side of town’), was taken by one of Murad’s generals, Bürak Bey.
Sleeping and accommodation
Considering the extent of Greek hospitality, you need not pay for lodgings: the locals will take you in, honouring Xenios Zeus, protector of travellers. However, you may not find many people at home at night. They attend vigils in the city’s main churches, where all-night prayers for salvation are said to the Virgin and St Demetrius.
Eating and drinking
Byzantines follow Galen’s theory that the body is made up of four ‘humours’ (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) in constructing their diet, an idea not dissimilar to the Indian Ayurveda system of medicine. In addition, they pursue seasonal sourcing through a dietary calendar. These elements, when combined with long-established trade links, make Byzantine food not only healthy, but also fresh and exotic.
Saffron, cloves and nutmeg all feature among Byzantine spices; mastic is delivered from nearby Chios. Green pickled olives, honeyed vinegar, cheese kept in seawater and fresh peaches are sold in the city’s markets. Hot soup is regarded as being beneficial for the bowels, but for culinary enjoyment, dishes of fish or game are favoured. Cupfuls of water or wine usually accompany meals. Twelve different types of spiced wine are known to Byzantine producers.
The city’s Hippodrome was once incredibly popular but was closed after the Roman Emperor Theodosius massacred 7,000 people there in 390 to punish the city for revolting against his troops. Some people say the number was closer to 15,000.
The city plan is straightforward, with the Roman Via Egnatia running through it. Byzantines call it Leophoros (Avenue). Land and sea walls have been recently renovated: just as well, considering the ongoing siege. Seaward, the imposing Tower of Blood is so called for the 12th-century Normans who threw prisoners from it.
Eugenia Russell is the author of Literature and Culture in Late Byzantine Thessalonica (Bloomsbury, 2013) and St Demetrius of Thessalonica (Peter Lang, 2010)