Greece (Northern)

Northern Greece is in many ways a world apart. Those who already know Athens and southern Greece could look at it as the Hellenic version of Scotland, very familiar yet different, a land of astonishing natural beauty.

Dana Facaros, author of Northern Greece: the Bradt Guide

Northern Greece is a destination of remarkable natural beauty, of waterfalls and lakes, its coasts rimmed with sand and pine-wooded islands. It has extraordinary mountains: Olympus, home of the gods; the Pindus, sculpted by breathtaking canyons, including the world’s deepest gorge; the spectacular pinnacles of Meteora topped by gravity-defying monasteries; and, just beyond the chic beach resorts of Chalkidikí, cloud-wreathed Mount Athos, rising 2,033m out of the sea, site of the world’s only monastic republic.

Ancient magic lingers here, where centaurs, Argonauts and Orpheus once trod. Traces of pagan Dionysian orgies linger in the winter festivals. Visit Dodona, the oldest and most peculiar of Greek oracles, or Samothráki with its underworld mysteries; or the Necromanteion on the Acheron – the river of hell – where the ancients conversed with the dead.

Visit Greece’s second city, Thessaloníki, with its World Heritage-listed Byzantine and Roman monuments, superb museums, restaurants and nightlife, which make for a fantastic year-round city break. Follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great or St Paul through a score of fascinating archaeological sites, from the gold-filled royal tombs of Vergína to Philippi.  Explore some of Greece’s most beautiful villages, on the Pelion peninsula, in the Zagorochória of Epirus and beyond. Or just go for the cuisine, a legacy of centuries in the multi-cultural Ottoman Empire, the perfect match for the superb local wines and tsípouro – the much-loved spirit of the north.

Food and drink in Northern Greece

Epicurus may have lent his name to gourmets, but in reality his philosophy advocated maximising simple pleasures: rather than continually seeking novelty, Epicurus suggests making bread and olives taste sublime by fasting for a couple of days. In that way Greeks have long been epicureans: centuries of occupation and poverty taught them to relish food more than cuisine. But what has changed in the 21st century is that cuisine has inescapably arrived.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner

In resort areas, hotels and restaurants offer familiar breakfasts, lunches and dinners at familiar western European hours. One recent incentive among hotels is to win the coveted ‘Greek breakfast’ label, meaning they feature homemade flaky pies, breads, cakes, yogurt and honey. Greeks themselves get by with something light, supplemented mid-morning with a cheese pie or other snack. You can eat lunch at noon, but if you want to do as the Greeks do in summer, get your sightseeing business done by 14.00, then indulge in a long lunch with wine, followed by a nap to avoid the afternoon heat. Get up at 18.00 for a swim and an ice cream, followed by the vólta, the evening stroll and a drink. Greeks rarely eat before 22.00 and meals can go on into the small hours. Children are welcome (they too nap in the afternoon).

An average taverna meal – if you don’t order a major fish – usually costs around €20–30 with carafes of house wine. Bread will come whether or not you’ve ordered it, with a small service charge added. Prices at sophisticated, blatantly touristy, places with views can be much higher. In many resorts, waiters are paid a cut of the profits (which is why some obnoxiously tout for custom); tipping is discretionary but appreciated. A law designed to catch tax evaders requires that you take a receipt (apóthixi) 150m from the door; the police make periodic checks.

Classic Greek dishes

Greek cooking methods tend to be simple, with strong Turkish and Italian influences. One criticism levelled at Greek food is that it’s served tepid. Once you get used to it, you realise that many dishes are actually tastier once they’re left to cool in their own juices, especially in the summer. Many dishes need no introduction (but always taste better in Greece) – taramasalata (taramá), moussaka, gýros, stuffed vine leaves, Greek salads with feta, Greek yogurt and baklava have achieved the universality of lasagne and chicken tikka. A classic meal begins with little plates (mezédes) shared around the table: olives, tzatziki (cucumbers and yogurt), prawns, tirosaláta (feta cheese dip), tirokafterí (a pungent cheese dip), salted fish, roasted peppers, cheese or spinach pies (spanakópita), a salad, or saganáki (fried cheese sprinkled with lemon).

Main courses could be a gorgeously fresh omelette, or an oven dish or stew (called ‘ready dishes’ as they’re already prepared) such as lamb kleftikó (slow cooked with wine and vegetables), stifádo (spiced beef stew with baby onions), kokinistó (beef cooked with tomatoes and a hint of cinnamon), lamb or veal youvétsi (baked with tomatoes and tear-drop pasta), or kréas stin stámna (lamb or beef baked in a clay dish). Meats grilled to order come under the heading tis óras (‘the on times’): pork chops (brizóles), lamb cutlets sold by the kilo (paidákia), kebabs (souvláki), minced steak (biftéki), meatballs (keftédes or sousoukákia), sausage (lukániko) or chicken (koutópoulo).

Seafood is fresh and delicious, but expensive, although you can usually find cheapies like whitebait (marídes), sardines (sardéle), cuttlefish (soupiá) and squid rings (kalamári). Baked or fried bakaliáros (fresh Mediterranean cod) is always a treat and shouldn’t break the bank. Some places serve fish soups – psarósoupa (with potatoes and carrots) or kakaviá (Greek bouillabaisse), which are meals in themselves with hunks of fresh bread and a bottle of wine. Prawns (garídes) are lightly fried or baked with garlic, tomatoes and feta (garídes saganáki), a popular dish from the 1960s as is spaghetti with spiny lobster (astakomakaronáda). Often each type of fish has its own price, priced by weight; you may be asked to pick out the one you want and the owner puts it on the scale in front of you. Greeks make lovely sweets, puddings, cakes and ice creams, but tend to eat them in the late afternoon after their siesta, although desserts are now common in restaurants as well.

Specialities of Northern Greece

Dining out is one of the joys of northern Greece, with its recipes brought over with refugees in 1923 from Asia Minor and the Black Sea; Th essaloníki has long been one of the food capitals of Greece, although it’s probably best known for its bougátsa, fl aky pies introduced aft er 1923. Th e handmade pastry is left to prove until doubled in size, then tossed in the air three to seven times until it becomes thin, filled with creamy custard or soft cheese (but you can also fi nd spinach or minced meat), then baked and sold in bougatsaría. Every town in the north has at least one.

You’ll find old Ottoman-era dishes such as hunkár begendí (stewed lamb with aubergine purée), Th racian kavourmás (lean beef or pork cooked slowly in broth and fat, with spices, then preserved in a jar or formed into a log, sliced and eaten as a mezé or with potatoes), Izmir-style meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce (soutzoukákia) and pastoúrma (Anatolian-style pastrami, made from beef, lamb or camel; Sary in Dráma is famous for it). You may even see mantza, a traditional Pomok dish of veal or pork combined with vegetables or pasta. Th e sweets of the north, many brought over by Anatolian pastry chefs – Xánthi’s karióka, Véria’s revaní, Komotiní’s soutzouk loukoum and Sérres’s akanés – are renowned.

Epirus is a land of cheeses and pies (egg pie, pastry pie, milk pie), feta cheese and anthótyro (fresh whey cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk) pie, pies fi lled with lamb and trahanás (a dried pebbly mixture of grain and yogurt or fermented milk, an ancient way of preserving milk, oft en made into soups). Métsovo’s smoked cheese is oft en used to make bougiourdí (cheese baked with tomatoes and peppers); also look out for batzossaganáki (fried local cheese). But wherever you go you’ll find surprises: Pelion’s chestnuts, little apples, and wild herbs; buffalo milk cheeses and meats from Lake Kerkíni; red saffron from Krókos, honey from Chalkidikí, cherries from Édessa, beans from Préspa, red and green peppers from Flórina, wild mushrooms from everywhere in the mountains, and even truffles (troúfes) around Meteora and Grevená. Every gýros counter has a shaker of boúkovo, ‘the chilli flakes of the Balkans’ similar to hot paprika, which is sprinkled on soups, stews, beans, roast or grilled meats.

Travel and visas in Northern Greece

Citizens of EU member states and holders of passports from some 50 nations do not need a visa for stays of up to 90 days. These include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland and the USA.

After the UK leaves the EU, documentation requirements for UK citizens may change. Check before travelling. All EU members can stay in Greece indefinitely. Most non-EU visitors (including those from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) can stay for a maximum of 90 days in Greece and other Schengenzone countries (most of the EU, but not the UK). Your passport may not be checked if arriving from another EU country, but you need to have it stamped to avoid problems leaving the country. If you want to stay longer, it is best to contact a Greek embassy before your trip.

Getting there and away

By air

International airports handy for northern Greece include Athens, Thessaloníki, Vólos, Skiáthos, Kavála and Préveza. Direct year-round flights to Athens International Airport ( leave from London, and, less frequently, Manchester (3½–4hrs). EasyJet ( is often cheapest. Other airlines that currently serve these routes are British Airways (w britishairways. com), Aegean (w and Olympic Air ( – compare dates and prices with w Athens is also accessible by air from most of the rest of the world (check w

Getting to and from Athens airport

For details on getting to central Athens, see page 363. By car Athens airport is 30km southeast of the city and has the usual range of car hire companies. From the airport, getting to northern Greece is simple: follow the toll road towards Athens, and turn off right on to the National Road (E75) towards Vólos (3½hrs), Thessaloníki (5hrs) or Ioánnina (4½hrs).

By train

The suburban (Proastiakós) trains run once an hour between 06.09 and 22.09 from the airport to Lárissis station in Athens. For suburban and mainline train information and to purchase tickets online, visit; alternatively, call 14511 for information. The Intercity train to Thessaloníki takes 4 hours, with fares from €45 one way; tickets on the slower overnight train start at €25.

By bus

The X93 bus ( from just outside the airport building runs to KTEL Stathmós Kifissoú, the Athens bus terminal, in about 1 hour. Buses are frequent and run through the night (although late at night you’re better off waiting at the airport rather than in the bus terminal). There are frequent buses from Athens to all the main cities in northern Greece, all run under the auspices of KTEL, the national bus company, but locally managed by each municipal region. The main ticket hall has different ticket desks organised by destination. Once you have your ticket, be sure to ask for the number of the bay from which your bus will depart. Athens to Alexandroúpolis is the longest single bus ride you might take (just over 10hrs; from €53, with toilet & coffee stops every few hours).

By taxi

Airport taxis to the city centre cost a flat rate of €38 from 05.00 until midnight, and €54 from midnight until 05.00.

By train

From the UK, take the Eurostar ( across the Channel and connect with a fast train; if you’re lucky, a journey from London St Pancras to Ancona or Venice can take as little as 14 hours but average at 21 hours, changing in Paris (Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon). See for options – although it’s almost impossible to find a train cheaper than a flight, especially after adding on the ferry crossings to Greece (see below). Or you can go overland via Paris (change to the Gare de l’Est), to Thessaloníki, calling at Munich, Belgrade and Sofia, which will take at least 55 hours on the rails with suggested overnight stops in Munich and Sofia.

By car

If you are planning to be in Greece for any length of time, it may make sense to bring your car over from the UK. You are allowed to keep it in the country for six months (keep hold of your ferry ticket as proof). Although this is rarely checked, if you are caught out (for instance if you have an accident or are caught speeding) your car will be immediately impounded and the fine to release it can be more than the car is worth. The quickest route is by way of Calais, through France and Switzerland, then on to Italy, where you catch a ferry (see below), though this entails quite heavy road tolls in France and Italy (Calais to Ancona €39), and also the Swiss road tax (CHF40).

If you sail from Venice – a magical place to sail out of or into as the ferry seems to go through the old city – then the drive can be done in 13 hours. The sea crossing takes just over a day, meaning you could do the whole trip over a long two days (sleeping on the ferry to Igoumenítsa). If you stop overnight on the way to or from Italy at a campsite or budget hotel, and travel deck class on the ferry, it will cost around €500 per couple one way. If you are going to be in Greece for a month or more this can compare favourably with the cost of a flight and car hire (and you can carry a lot more stuff). If your visit is going to be an extended one, to avoid difficulties when you leave, you can also ask to have your car stamped in your passport on arrival. If you leave Greece without your car, you must have it withdrawn from circulation by a customs authority.

By sea

Ferries to Ferries to Greece from Italy nearly always run overnight. The main port for northern Greece is Igoumenítsa, which can be reached from Venice (25–29hrs, from €440 return with a car), Ancona (16hrs, from €430 return), Bari (10hrs, from €230 return) and Brindisi (7.5–10hrs, from €216 return).

There are various forms of accommodation on board: the cheapest, ‘deck’ class, does not mean you are confined outside. You are allowed in the communal areas, and in the low season will often find a spot to stretch out and sleep. In high season you may have to sleep out on the deck, although there are usually plenty of sheltered areas (a sleeping mat or pop-up tent is an advantage).

When to visit Northern Greece

Any time is a good time to see some part of northern Greece. Winter offers a lively city scene in Thessaloníki, a chance to play in the snow in the many ski resorts, or see archaeological sites in lonely splendour (a loneliness punctuated only by a few Japanese tour buses, the only consistent winter travellers to Greece). Spring is a time for wildflowers, pleasant temperatures and for participating in Greek Easter, the biggest holiday on the calendar. May and June are generally calm and warm (beach hotels stay open from Easter or May into September or October) and great for hiking or touring by car. July and August are the most popular months for sun lovers and people with children – the busiest, hottest and priciest time. The coasts are cooled by winds, but inland it can be stifling. The weather generally stays fine into mid-October, with the bonus of brilliant colour in the mountain forests. The wet season begins at the end of October when it can rain ‘tables and chairs’, as the Greeks say.


Northern Greece has a Mediterranean climate near the coasts and a continental climate at higher altitudes, especially on Olympus and in the Rhodope and Pindus mountains, where heavy snow is common in winter. Occasionally, in winter, Macedonia is buffeted by the mighty Vardaris wind, that descends down the Vardar valley from North Macedonia, then meets the high mountains of Greece, where it picks up steam and swoops down to Thessaloníki. Although there are occasional thunder showers, spring is lovely everywhere, especially in the months of May and June. Summers can be very hot, especially on the plain of Thessaly where 40°C is not uncommon, but the Aegean coasts and islands are cooled by the meltémi wind from the north, which can occasionally wreak havoc with ferry schedules. The rainiest season is in autumn, especially after mid-October, but it’s also when the mountain woodlands burst into colour.

What to see and do in Northern Greece


Birthplace of Aristotle and northern Greece’s favourite playground, Chalkidikí (‘Chalcidice’ in many history books, or ‘Halkidikí’ to keep holiday-makers from saying ‘chalk’) resembles a giant bear paw, with a history and spirit as distinctive as its geography. Along the three dangling claws, pines back sandy beaches lapped by a turquoise sea, planted with more Blue Flags per square metre than any part of Greece – 71 at the current count. This is your best chance in northern Greece to drop a serious chunk of change at a luxury hotel or gourmet restaurant (nearly all within the resorts) but there are also more affordable hotels, apartments, studios galore – often booked by package holiday firms – campsites and humble tavernas.

The closer to Thessaloníki and its airport, the busier the shore. The westernmost peninsula, Kassándra, is the summer resort for half of Thessaloníki. The middle peninsula, Sithonía, still has wild patches; while the eastern peninsula, Akté, is the way station to another world: Mount Athos, the last theocracy in the West, which after decades of decline is currently enjoying a boom, thanks in large part to Russian and other Eastern European Orthodox faithful, many of whom combine a family beach holiday with a visit, by dad, to Mount Athos. If Chalkidikí’s ‘claws’ get most of the attention, the inland is something of a bestkept secret, with farmland, mountains, gold mines, dense pine woods, and olive groves that produce a whopping percentage of Greece’s table olives, and literally tonnes of honey, the best made from wild thyme flowers. 

© dinosmichai, Shutterstock

Mount Olympus National Park

Olympus (Όλυμπος) originally meant ‘mountain’, and scattered around the Mediterranean some 20 other mountains bear the same name. But this, the highest peak on the Balkan peninsula at 2,918m, its summits wreathed in cloud, its precipices echoing with thunder, was always the Olympus, the abode of Zeus and his argumentative clan. In Homer, the palaces of the gods lay in the mountain’s ‘mysterious folds’.

At the tallest of its 52 peaks, in ancient times known as the Pantheon (now more prosaically called Mýtikas, ‘nose’), where the sun always shone and the air was too thin for mortals to breathe, the deities would gather to hear Zeus arbitrate on his Throne, the sheer armchair (and greatest climbing challenge on the mountain) today better known as Stefáni (2,902m). Olympus was one of the last famous European mountains to be climbed (in 1913) – not because of Zeus’s thunderbolts, but because of the armatoloí (irregular militia) and kidnapping klephts who haunted it until Macedonia became part of Greece in 1912.

In 1938, high Olympus and its deeply wooded eastern slopes were designated Greece’s first National Park; in 1981, UNESCO included it in the list of World Biosphere Reserves. It’s famous for its birds – some 156 species have been counted here, and some 1,700 Mediterranean and Central European plants have been found (25% of all the flora in Greece, including the rare Bosnian pine), and of the rare little plants above the tree line 23 species are unique to Olympus. The lions that attacked the camels in Xerxes’ army are gone, but Zeus’s golden eagles still float overhead, and wolves, jackals, wild cats and deer roam in the woodlands. Litóchoro (Λιτόχωρο) on the east slopes, the classic gateway to Olympus, is in a superb setting, just 5km up from the coast.

© Dana Facaros

Prespa National Park

Photographers love Préspa. To cross the pass above Flórina is to descend into ‘a giant and totally secluded cradle’ of magical remoteness and stillness. Austere mountains surround two limpid sheets of water: Great or Megáli Préspa, the largest lake in the Balkans, the liquid frontier between Greece, Albania and North Macedonia; and Míkro Préspa lake, all Greek but for 2% in Albania. Míkro Préspa is home to the world’s largest colony of Dalmatian pelicans – the world’s largest freshwater bird – with more than 1,400 pairs, as well as 260 other bird species and 1,500 different plants. Although separated by a narrow spit of land, the lakes have
diverse fish populations.

While wildlife flourishes in blissful ignorance of borders, the humans here have led complicated lives. At the end of the 9th century ad, Préspa belonged to the Western Bulgarian Empire. When it was dissolved in ad971, the son of the last emperor, Tsar Samuel, took refuge here, reorganised and made Préspa his base to seize much of Greece, until Emperor Basil II reconquered all the lost Byzantine territory (1018) and put an end to Préspa’s day in the sun. During the Frankish and Turkish periods, the utter remoteness of the place attracted monks and hermits. 

Life was never easy for the rest of the population, and after the Civil War it lost nine out of ten inhabitants into Eastern Bloc countries or to Australia, to the extent that the government offered free empty houses and land to Vlachs just to have warm bodies holding down the frontier.

Although the three governments on the borders weren’t exactly chums, it came as a happy surprise when their leaders met in October 2000 to designate Préspa an international park (a Balkan first) to preserve its fragile environment – the result of a decade of hard work by Geórgios Kastadorákis and Myrsíni Malakoú, founders in 1990 of the award-winning Society for the Protection of Préspa.

Today the SPP is aiming to strike a delicate balance between the needs of humans and nature: encouraging sustainable organic farming, sound fishing practices, modest tourism (converting traditional buildings into guesthouses) and a revival of cattle rearing – Préspa’s unique breed of dwarf cows are needed to eat the reeds, to prevent them from taking over the lakes, while leaving sufficient cover for the pelicans to nest. So far it all seems to be working: bird numbers are on the increase, and new jobs
promoting environmental tourism are bringing young people into the area. In June 2018, Préspa made international news when prime ministers Aléxis Tsípras and Zoran Zaev signed the Préspa Agreement in North Macedonia’s name. Part of the deal, much to the delight of many locals, will (someday) be the reopening
of the border post north of Ag Germanós, closed more than 50 years ago by Greece’s military dictatorship.

The Sporades

The Sporádes, the ‘scattered’ islands off the Pelion’s Aegean shore, are as lovely as the peninsula itself, but because they are poor in antiquities or names that anyone remembers from school history, they were among the last Greek islands to be ‘discovered’. Then an airport was built on Skiáthos: word spread, holiday photos were passed around showing beaches and villages that fit many people’s image of a holiday paradise, and the rest is history. Three islands float temptingly a short hop off the coast: Babylonian Skiáthos, closest to the Pelion, with the most beautiful beaches; dignified Skópelos, which has kept much of its Greek character; and Alónissos, gateway to Greece’s first national marine park.

Skiathos Sporades Greece by photography, Shutterstock
© photography, Shutterstock


One of the most popular destinations in the country, racy, cosmopolitan Skiáthos (Σκιάθος) is not for the shy teetotaller or anyone looking for a slice of ‘authentic’ Greece. An isolated peasant community in the early 1970s, Skiáthos catapulted faster than any other island into big-money tourism, so fast that corruption and violence were long a factor in local life. Away from the main road, it is as stunning as ever, rimmed with 62 gorgeous beaches. Add to this a host of lively bars and restaurants and you have the ingredients for a heady cocktail that attracts a fun-seeking crowd.


Where rambunctious Skiáthos has given its all to tourism, Skópelos (Σκόπελος), with its more modest pebbly beaches, remained aloof during the 1960s and 70s, the decades of slapdash cash-in-quick building. Yet, not only has the island kept its integrity and serenity – the lure for a new wave of upmarket tourists, along with its star turn in the 2008 film Mamma Mia! – but it’s also exceptionally beautiful, with dramatic scenery, dense pine forests, plum orchards and two truly pretty towns, Skópelos and Glóssa. It is a lovely island for long walks, especially outside of the heatstroke months of July and August.

Alonissios Sporades Greece by Alonissos Tom Gowanlock_Shutterstock© Tom Gowanlock, Shutterstock


Long, skinny Alónissos (Αλóννισος) is queen of her own little archipelago, but she’s a late bloomer when it comes to tourism. Few islands have suffered so many setbacks: in 1953 disease killed her old grapefruit orchards and vineyards; in 1965, a devastating earthquake hit her only town, Chóra, and politicians tried to force everyone to move to the port, Patitíri. Despite the troubles Alónissos rebuilt itself, and it remains a slice of friendly, laidback ‘Old Greece’ that is increasingly popular with nature tourists. In 1992, after the urging of environmental groups across Europe, Greece’s first National Marine Park was set up in and around Alónissos and its archipelago to protect the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, resulting in some of the cleanest seas in the Aegean, home to some 300 species of fish and coral; dolphins and whales are often spotted. The park, the largest marine park in Europe, covering some 2,260km2, is accessible except for the exclusion zone around Pipéri island, but no camping or fires are allowed.

About 90% of Alónissos is accessible only on foot, crossed by trails offering stunning views and glimpses of the rare Eleonora’s falcon and Audouin’s gull. Holiday-makers and yacht flotillas have arrived, but not overwhelmingly so. Right now the island is very popular with Italians; others come for courses and seminars at the island’s International Academy of Classical Homeopath.

© S-F, Shutterstock


Sheltered at the top of the Thermaic Gulf, Thessaloníki (or Salonica), with a population of over a million in the metropolitan area, is the second city of Greece. But you’ll rarely hear Greeks indulge in the banter that often characterises the relations of first and second cities, like Barcelona and Madrid, or Rome and Milan; in fact, many Athenians readily admit that Thessaloníki is a much nicer place to live, where life unwinds at a less hectic pace (its motto is χαλαρά (chalará) or taking it easy).

Many of the 150,000 university students who come here to study never leave, adding to its vibrant cultural life, its great bar and restaurant and festival scene, and sizzling nightlife. Thessaloníki boomed in the Middle Ages while Athens snoozed, and its most compelling monuments are Byzantine: 22 churches still stand, several of which – the Rotonda, Ósios David, Ag Dimítrios, the Panagía Acheiropoiétos, Ag Apostóli and Ag Sofía – are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The upper city, the main Muslim district in Ottoman times, is cocooned in towering late Roman walls, while the lower city stands on tiers like a choir singing to the sea. Thessaloníki has always been cosmopolitan: it’s the only European city to boast an urban population for an uninterrupted 2,500 years, one that has known great joy and great darkness, too.


Thessaloníki is one of the few Greek cities to know its birthday – 315bc, when King Cassander founded a new city named after his wife (see box, page 54). To populate his foundation, Cassander used carrots and sticks to relocate the inhabitants of 26 older towns in the area, the largest of which, Therme, gave its name to the Thermaïkós Kólpos, the Thermaic Gulf.

Thessaloníki only really blossomed after the Romans conquered Macedon in 146bc, and blazed the Via Egnatía – the extension of the Via Appia and first Roman road outside of Italy, from Albania to Byzantium – and developed Thessaloníki into a commercial and military port. Cicero was exiled here in 58bc, and in ad42, after the Battle of Philippi, the city was declared a free city by the victors, Antony and Octavian.

St Paul came in AD50, and later addressed two epistles to the church he founded. In the late 3rd century ad, as the vortex of the empire moved away from Rome, Emperor Galerius made Thessaloníki his capital. Although the city was disappointed when Constantine rejected it in favour of the puny town of Byzantium for his ‘new Rome’, Constantinople, he did finance a new artificial port as compensation. Theodosius I the Great (ad379–395) often made Thessaloníki his base and built its mighty walls; in ad380, when he thought he was dying, he converted to Christianity and issued the Edict of Thessaloníki, supressing paganism and banning the Olympics.

By Justinian’s time, Th essaloníki was the symvassilévousa (co-reigning city) of the Byzantine Empire, much visited for its trade fair and the relics of its patron saint, Dimítrios. It remained a Greek outpost even aft er the Avars and Slavs occupied the rest of Macedonia; in the 9th century ad it became the cultural centre for the entire Balkan region aft er two Th essalonian brothers, Methodius and Cyril, converted the Slavs to Christianity and created an alphabet for their language. Its prosperity attracted unwelcome visitors, too: among them the Saracens, who captured and sold off 22,000 inhabitants as slaves in ad904. Aft er the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city briefl y became the capital of the Latin kingdom of Thessaloníki before returning to the Greeks.

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