Thessaloniki is the second biggest city in Greece. It was also the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire and hosts a huge number of monuments with great history, including 16 Unesco World Heritage Sites, mainly from the Paleochristian and Byzantine period. In this post I will take you through a magnificent walk through the small streets of Thessaloniki’s old town to introduce you to the five most hidden world heritage sites of the city. All the monuments mentioned, except the City Walls, are Christian Orthodox temples that were built during the 5th-13th century and despite the city’s troublesome history survived until today. Surprisingly, these sites are not treated as historical monuments but are integrated in the city’s daily life and today are fully operational as churches. The old town is maybe the most beautiful part of the city and I would highly recommend going around it on foot. You will see many locals accessing it by car but you definitely don’t want to try it, unless you want to get stuck in some vicious tiny street and try out the temperament of the other local and quite skillful drivers. Follow the brown signs that will guide you through all the sites of interest (image above) and you won’t get lost, although a map is always useful. Alternatively, there are a number of buses going around which I mention throughout the post.
1. Church of the Saviour: Hidden below the ground level
This tiny Christian Church was built in 1350. It was among the few churches that were not converted to a Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, as it was located within a Christian district. Its dome hosts a mosaic depicting the Ascension of Jesus, and Holly Mary with the Twelve Apostles surrounded by embodiments of the sun, the moon and the wind, which is dated back to 1350-1370. Today the Church of the Saviour lies below the ground level, at the junction of the Streets Egnatia and Paleon Patron Germanou. The interior part can be visited during the mass, early in the morning or between 5h-7h pm. Buses: 2, 8, 10, 11, 14, 17, 31, 37, 45, bus stop: Iasonidou.
2. Agios Nikolaos Orfanos: Simplicity
Climb further north and you will enter the gorgeous old town, which you will recognize by the tiny tiled streets and the short houses. At Irodotou Street you will encounter a small church that doesn’t look like the rest as it lacks any kind of round dome. Built during the 14th century, it is known for its well preserved mosaics which are kept at the interior. There’s still some debate about its name (Orfanos-En: orphan) which came either from the surname of the founder or because A. Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) was believed to be the patron saint of widows and orphans. Open to the public every day 9 am-3 pm except Monday. If you happen to be there during Easter do not miss the procession of the bier of Christ on Good Friday. Bus: 22, bus stop: Agios Nikolas Orfanos.
3. Latomou Monastery (Osios David): A humble treasure
If you start hiking northwest you will reach one of my favorite spots in Town. After following the brown signs reading Osios David, you will encounter a grey sign reading “Moni Latomou-Osios David” and you just need to climb the small stairs and take a good look at the typical scenery before you turn left to enter the Church’s front yard. You will face asmall yard with flowers, chairs and tables and you will thing there must be some mistake, but you are in the right place. This is what remained of the Latomou Monastery which was build during the 5th century and was initially devoted to Christ, as a request to protect the workers of the mines that existed in the area (Gr: Latomio, En: Mine). The old curator will greet you in her own language: she doesn’t speak English but will do her best to help you with a mixture of French, English and German. Do pay attention to what she says as she gives important information that you will have to decode. She will show you a unique mosaic that depicts the vision of Prophet Iezekil, with Christ in his adolescence sitting on a rainbow. This is the only mosaic in the world that depicts young Christ beardless. The mosaic had been covered by monks with plaster several times in order to save it from destruction, mainly during the period when religious authorities banned depictions of sacred subjects and during the Ottoman occupation. She will also show you the initial entrance of the church which was built by Ottomans in order to convert it to a Mosque. Before you depart, leave some cash to the old lady-she will be more than happy with 2 euros- and take a moment at the west corner of the yard to enjoy the view of the city. Recommended visiting hours: 9 am-12 pm, Bus: 22, bus stop: Osios David.
The mosaic inside Osios David. Source: www.monastiria.gr
4. Agia Ekaterini: The Church of Saint Catherine
Descend towards Olympiados Street and follow it until you reach Raktivan Street. Turn right and watch out for Agias Ekaterinis Street on your left, and follow it until its very end. You will encounter the most hidden Church in town, despite its big size. It was built in 1320-1330 and was used as a Mosque during the 15th Century. In its interior, one can find precious mosaics dating back to the 14th century which had been covered by Muslims but were brought to the surface by renovating activities during the 1940s. Take your time around the yard as well, to enjoy the surroundings which represent the typical old town of Thessaloniki! Visiting hours: 9 am-15 pm. Bus: 22, bus stop: Raktivan.
5. The City Walls
Turn back to Raktivan St. and start hiking down until you see the bus stop on your right. Hop on bus 23 and let it take you to the very top of the hill. You will start seeing the city walls but hold on until the bus enters the Walls and get off at the bus stop: Agioi Anargiroi. Head back to the big entrance on the walls and turn left. You will find a small park and a Tower which is called Pyrgos Trigoniou (En: Trigoniou Tower). This
Tower is a part of the fortress called Eptapyrgio (En: The Seven Towers) which was built in the 15th Century to enhance the city walls which were initially constructed when the city was founded (315 BC) and have been extended and repaired several times through the long history of Thessaloniki. This is the place to rest your eyes and enjoy the view. If you are lucky enough to get a clear sky you will not only see the entire city, but you will also get an astonishing view to mountain Olympus, the mountain of Ancient Greek Gods, which might not be designated as a World Heritage Site but it is definitely the best way to finish this walk through the city’s history.
General recommendations: During the summer be equipped with plenty of water and sunscreen and avoid walking around between 1 pm and 4 pm. You’ll get roasted under the sun! Avoid taking photos in the interior of the Churches. As already mentioned they are still a part of everyday life and mean a lot to local people.