The Great fire of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki Short Stories

The Great fire of Thessaloniki (1917)

By The Honest Explorers

The Catastrophe

On the 18th of August 1917 a small fire started in Olimpiados 3 street. In the next 32 hours, 32% of the city would be destroyed. 

The Origin of the Fire

Many theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the fire. Some argue that it was a number of French soldiers who got drunk one day and in their delusion accidently started a small fire which ended up burning Thessaloniki to the ground.

You see, more than 100,000 soldiers – British and French – were camping in Thessaloniki during WWI. Rumor has it that it was due to the water used by the military camps of the Allies that Thessaloniki lucked the water pressure needed to put the fire out.

Note that the city did not have an established fire department at the time and the it was heavily depended on the efforts of the British soldiers and the local volunteers to extinguish the fire.

The French on the other hand got a bad name during this tragedy and according to local witnesses the French soldiers looted the fortunes of the locals in need instead of assisting them.

Another interesting (conspiracy) theory is that a number of Greek Jew-haters started the fire in order to destroy the livelihood of the local Jews – their houses and businesses.

Thessaloniki was liberated from the Greek army in 1912 and the Greek of the city had finally gotten the upper head in the city since the late 15th century. Up until then, the city was predominantly populated by Jews and controlled by the Ottoman. In a time of rising nationalism all around Europe, it’s not a surprise that this theory has many supporters. After all, out of 72,000 people who lost their houses and businesses to the fire, 50,000 were from the Jewish community.  

A third theory, however, became some sort of legend on the city. According to this theory a housewife (let’s call her Maria) was frying aubergine (eggplants) and while at it she got distracted and forgot about her cooking.

Thessaloniki, if you must know, has long had a reputation for gossip. News were travelling around the city with the speed of light. Whenever I speak of this story, I imagine Maria in a balcony chatting with the neighbors, gossiping, eager to share and learn the “news” of the day.

To this end, however, we need to take a moment to clarify the officially accepted version of the story and clear Maria’s name. It turns out that a flame landed on a stack of hay, the local did not respond fast enough and due to a heavy wind the fire was spread widely. Within the first 12 hours the fire was heading to the seaside but the wind changed direction and the fire start spreading North reaching, eventually, all the way up to the Church of St. Dimitrios completely destroying the church. 

 

The story of Maria is represented in one of the nicest murals in Thessaloniki. Here we can see a young woman in the middle, the front views of buildings and an explosion. A brilliant way, in my opinion, to capture one of the most well-known legends in the city.  

The Aftermath

By the order of the prime minister – Eleutherios Venizelos – no actions of re-construction were to take place until a detailed plan for the re-make of the city was approved. This colossal plan to re-design Thessaloniki was given to Ernest Hébrard. The latter was the person the city needed: an archaeologist, architect, and urban planner. A Frenchman who arrived in Thessaloniki as a member of the academic personnel that joined the French campaign.

Ernest Hébrard designed Thessaloniki with large squares and wide streets, a network of monumental axis to unite the places of archaeological and historical interest moving away from the narrow streets paths and path that made no sense during the Ottoman era and gave Thessaloniki a much-needed orientation. Although, the grand plan of Ernest Hébrard was never fully utilized due to high expenses, it is he to who modern day Thessalonikian own the openness of the living space they enjoy with primary example the heart of the city center – Aristotle square.

 

Fun fact: Aristotle square resembles the shape of Absolut vodka bottle. 

 

Absolut-thes

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The Bewitched Gate of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki Short Stories

‘Las Incantadas’

By The Honest Explorers

The Bewitched Gate of Thessaloniki

Have you ever heard the story of the stolen Elwin marbles – The Caryatids – of the Athenian acropolis? Well, this is the story of the stolen jewel from Thessaloniki. Located right below the ruins of the modern day Roman Agora in Thessaloniki you will find a small playground. However, on the same spot, all the way until 1864, one would be able to admire the charm of the Encantadas.

The Name

As per usual, many historical places in Thessaloniki, including the name of the city itself, are known by many names. That is the case due to the multicultural character of the city: the many traditions followed, the many flavors and aromas, the many religions worshipped and the many languages spoken.

 

Hence, the Sephardic Jews called the gate Las Incantadas in Ladino, the Greek called it Idols, the Turk called it Suret-maleh (angel figures) and the foreign visitors Enchanted. 

The Gate

The gate itself dates back to the 2nd century A.C.E and it was the most recognizable landmark in the city before it was stolen and the White Tower became the new face of Thessaloniki.

 

On the top of the gate, the visitors and locals were able to lay eyes on the 8 Caryatids that decorated the gate:

 

The Gate was originally one of the entrances to the Roman Forum (Agora). However, things got a bit messy during the Ottoman times. In the pictures below you see that the gate became part of the yard of a Jewish merchant, Liatsis Adritis, in Rogos (Jewish) district.

At the balcony we see the wife and children of Liatsis Adritis, by the steps his mother, and in the middle are positioned Liatsis Adritis himself with the ambassador of Britain Petros Paradeisos along with a servant boy. At the corner stand the artist of the painting – James Stuard, an architect named Revett and the translator/diplomatic assistant of the ambassador.

Fun fact: the middle window in the background of the pictures belongs to the house of the family of, the former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Myth

According to the legend, Alexander the great invited the king of Thrace and his wife to Thessaloniki. The Queen fall in love this Alexander and the two became intimate. When the king of Thrace was informed of this misdoing he got extremely jealous and hatred grew within him. In his anger, the king of Thrace ordered his wizard (Yes, he had a wizard… It is a legend guys…, Okay?) put a spell in the corridor so that whoever walks there at night will be transform into stone. 

Alexander, was informed of the conspiracy and he never left his room that night. The Queen, however, was eager to see Alexander and she sneaked into the corridors at night. Behind her, the king and his guards were spying on her. At the end, it was he, the Queen and the guards who fall victim of the spell. They were transformed into stone and became the famous Incantadas. 

Clearly the legend is a bit off. First of all, Thessaloniki did not exist as a city at the time of Alexander the Great. The city was founded by Cassander in 315 B.C.E. – Alexander died in 323. This is a common mistake shared by many articles I found online. This legend refers to a king named Alexander but not Alexander the Great.

The fate of the Gate

In 1864, so-called archaeologist Emmanuel Miller by the order of Napoleon III, took permission by the Ottoman authorities to dissemble the gate, loaded it in a cargo ship named ‘La Muette’ and transferred it to France. Today the Caryatides of Thessaloniki adorn the Louvre museum in Paris.  

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Time for meze – the Food Markets of Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki Short Stories

Time for Meze . . . 

By The Honest Explorer

The Street Markets
of Thessaloniki

It was about time to speak about FOOOOD! If you, too, are a food lover then I have good news for you. Thessaloniki is the gastronomical capital of Greece and in this post we will find out why, how to enjoy the city’s delicacies to the fullest and where – which parts of the city – you will increase your chances of shopping the real local products.  

There is a famous quote attributed to Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” But what do we mean by saying food exactly? Is it the cereals; the nuts; the vegetables; the legumes? Would you include the herbs; the fruits; the spices? What about the chilled meat products; fish and cold cuts (charcuterie)?

Nature has given us a plethora of goods and we have been anything but sort of imagination in using these gifts to feed; heal and entertain ourselves with all sorts of flavors. To this end, the Greek fauna and flora are truly privileged: Sun, water and a very fertile land. Greece is located in the temperate zone of the planet with four distinct seasons and mild weather conditions that help the local fauna and flora thrive. If we had to summarize it in one sentence, Greece is the country of the onion and garlic, the country of olive oil and wine.

Now, following this long introduction to Greece, let’s shift our attention to Thessaloniki and let’s find out how this city stands on top of the gastronomical tradition of the country.

Thessaloniki has been a cross road of people, cultures, goods and civilization, even, for over two millennia. The second most important city of the Byzantine and Ottoman empire and the co-capital of modern day Greece. From the 15th century onwards, Thessaloniki was the home of the main three monotheistic religions with Muslim, Christian and Jews co-existing harmoniously. All these cultures and people gave to this city an unparalleled multicultural identity with a unique mix of flavor and aromas. With this pre-existing wealthy of flavor plus the addition of modern fusions of flavor and the increasing presence of international cuisines will make probably have you thinking that it is impossible to fully explore the gastronomy of the city within a day or two.

There is a simple one-word answer to your desire to taste all that there is to taste: Meze! The equivalent of Spanish tapas for former Ottoman Empire’s territory (the Balkans, middle east, Greece and North Africa) will allow to you taste lots of food in a single go.

Although, this isn’t an exact rule or something and the truth is that you will find good meze all around the city, for reason of timesaving your best change is to visit the food market of the city and make the most out of your time.

Sooo…? Are you ready to get a first glimpse into the markets of Thessaloniki? 

1. Athonos Market

Thessaloniki has two main street markets – one across the other – by each side of Aristotle square. Athonos is the fancy market. Not so much in terms of construction but mostly regarding the products sell in it: the fancy spices and herbs, the quality fruits and veggies as well as the delicatessens. Thessaloniki is a heaven for the food-lovers and if you spend a little bit more you will taste exquisite products that reflect the long and the multicultural identity of the city. 

2. Kapani Market

The Kapani Market or previously known as Un-Kapan, meaning “flour market”. You will find Kapani being a tiny bit under-cared by the local authorities. It is a little bit smelly, hygiene standards are not exactly sparkling but the Kapani has a character. If you take a few minutes to walk in the small streets, you will find the local shopkeepers shouting out, advertising their goods. A vivid atmosphere and a great spot to get a meze. What is the meze? Well, in short, the meze is something like the Ottoman version of Spanish tapas and, in my opinion, the fastest, cheapest and most inclusive way to discover the flavors of the gastronomical capital of Greece. 

3. The Modiano Market

The Modiano family were Sephardic Jews who migrated to Thessaloniki from Italy. Saul Modiano, was a famous banker and his youngest son Eli a well-known engineer in the early 20th century. Nowadays, the market is closed. Rumor has it that a French investment group will re-build the market and give this jewel back to the city. For the time being, however, the market is closed. An interesting fact about the building is that it used to be a synagogue. During the Great fire of Thessaloniki in 1917, about half of the 35 synagogues of the city were destroyed. Following the destruction of the synagogue, Eli Modiano redesigned the building to become a central food market. Towards the former Modiano market, you will find one of two remaining synagogues in the city – the “memory synagogue”, Yad Lezikaron. 

4. The Flower Market

Although, this isn’t a food market, the flower market is one of the cutest little squares in Thessaloniki to relax after a long walk, grab a drink or a snack. There used to be seven flower shops in close proximity yet to day only five of them remain. In the center of the square you will find Yahudi Hamam, or otherwise known as the Jewish bath or Pazar Hamam due to the fact that it was located near the central market. Today, some of the best delis in the city are around the triangle among Kapani, Modiano and Flower market. 

5. The Ladadika

Again, although the ladadika isn’t really a market, the upper Ladadika is one of the prettiest neighborhoods in the city center with lots and lots of options for food and drinks. 

The word Ladadika, comes from the word Ladi, which means oil in Greek and, of course, when we speak about oil in Greece we refer to the one oil we love – Olive Oil! Olive oil was packages in the neighborhood and it was transferred to the port nearby. Here, you will find a typical 19th century architecture in Thessaloniki. Most of the building were destroyed during WWII but remade in 1990s due to the efforts of Melina Mercury.

Fun fact: During WWI, the Ladadika were the beginning of one of the largest red light districts in Europe! Later on, it housed many restaurants and bars and became more of a family district. 

Today, the Ladadika is, perhaps, the most touristic part of the city. However, you will find out that Thessaloniki, despite attracting an increasing number of visitors over the past few years, it is still a fairly virgin destination in terms of over-tourism. Thus, I encourage you to spend some time in Ladadika and explore its nightlife while you mix with the locals. 

6. Stoa Malakopi & Upper Ladadika

Finally, we need to take a moment to talk about the center of the city’s nightlife. Over the past years, the municipal government has been engaged in a beatification project with environmental considerations. Fans were installed and fountains were created to improve the walker’s experience and provide the square with a vibrant vibe. Here, you will find a number of important historical buildings like the Catholic church, Malakopi gallery, the former Ottoman bank and the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. By night, the square transforms into the center for the night life of the city with its countless bars and restaurants in close proximity. 

Tip: Make sure to taste cocktails in Thessaloniki. Over the past few year the local bars have risen the quality and variety of cocktails tremendously  making a name for the city all-around Europe. 

 

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