Housed in buildings that are destinations in their own right, in charming residential neighborhoods visitors might otherwise overlook, Thessaloniki’s smaller museums offer a more intimate cultural experience than the bigger names on the sightseeing map.
They also have exhibitions to suit every interest, from avant-garde installations, to collections of rare Byzantine icons, to explorations of the city’s history and urban development. And better yet, admission to all is free.
The neighborhood to the east of the White Tower was once called “Exoches”. This is where in the 19th century, Thessaloniki’s elite – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – built garden-surrounded mansions outside of Thessaloniki’s old city walls along the coast. As Thessaloniki expanded following WWII, most of these made way for apartment buildings as the once-leafy district was swallowed up by the urban sprawl. But a fabulous few remain, some playing an active role in the cultural life of the city. Here are two to visit:
The MIET Cultural Center of the National Bank of Greece
A 20-minute walk east of the White Tower (or a few short minutes by bus) brings you to the eclectic, Gothic-inflected Villa Kapandji by Pierro Arrigoni. (There are actually two Villas Kapandji – both by Arrigoni – belonging to the Kapandji brothers, members of a prominent family who made their fortune, in part, in manufacturing fezzes. The MIET Cultural Center is housed in the Villa Ahmet Kapandji).
The villa has played a significant role in different phases of Greece’s history. The Greek-Serbian alliance was signed here in 1913. It was also briefly the home of the eminent Greek leader Eleftherios Venizelos, and then provided housing to refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920’s. It also served as a military bakery, and a school for boys, before gradually falling into a state of disrepair. It was restored, beautifully, in the 1980’s, and opened to the public as the National Bank Cultural Centre of Northern Greece in 1989. In 1997 it was subsumed into the Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece (MIET).
Novel exhibitions exploring a broad variety of subjects are staged for runs of several weeks. Highlights of the past included an exhibition of the photographs of Robert McCabe – “Greece: The Years of Innocence (1954 – 1965) ”, and “The Neighborhood of the Exoches: 1885-1912” – an exhibition rich in historical photographs about the history of the villa’s neighborhood itself.
The current show “The Dusk Of Our Old City, Thessaloniki 1870 – 1917” is a further exploration of the changing cityscape. Lectures and tours accompany exhibitions, and the cultural center also hosts occasional concerts and theatrical performances.
The Municipal Art Gallery of Thessaloniki
MIET Cultural Center of the National Bank of Greece
Vasilissis Olgas 108
Tel.: (+30) 2310295 170
Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 18:00
A few more blocks west up Vasilissis Olgas brings us to another fabulous Belle Epoque mansion – also by Pierro Arrigoni. The villa (1910-12) is one of Thessaloniki’s most emphatically Art Nouveau buildings; the round windows will have you thinking of Brussels. Industrialist Dino Fernandez Diaz named his mansion “Casa Bianca” not for its color, but for his wife, Blanche Meyer. They had three children. (One of them – Aline – is beloved for her starring role in one of Thessaloniki’s most storied romances.)
As with the MIET Cultural Center, you’ll enjoy the building itself, inside and out. The ground floor hosts a series of insightful, exciting thematic exhibitions, often bringing together contemporary artists exploring central themes. Recent exhibits have included personal stories in the history of the Casa Bianca itself, and the role of wine in our lives. Events and performances are sometimes held in the exhibition space.
The Gallery also has a permanent exhibit of interest – the work of Nikolaos Gyzis, a significant artist of the late 19th century. Born in Tinos, Gyzis became part of the Munich School, an important movement in Greece, owing partially to the affinity between Greece and Bavaria (Otto, the first king of the modern Greek state who reigned in the mid-19th century was a Bavarian prince). The allegorical scenes, paintings, and portraits – richly rendered and often in bold chiaroscuro, are deeply evocative, and are right at home in the setting of the villa. The exhibition also includes sculpture and sketches.
On the villa’s upper story, you’ll find works on paper by Greek artists from the gallery’s permanent collection. The Municipal Art Gallery has another two buildings, both among the city’s most interesting landmarks. Both were once mosques: one dating to the early Ottoman era, and the other to the period’s final years.
Yeni Tzami (“New Mosque”)
Casa Bianca (Municipal Art Gallery of Thessaloniki)
Vasilissis Olgas 180
Tel. (+30) 2313 318 538
NOTE: the Gallery’s hours are temporarily reduced due to technical problems. Currently, they are Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 – 14:00. It’s a good idea to call in advance of your visit.
Many of Thessaloniki’s loveliest late 19th century buildings, including this one, are the work of Vitaliano Poselli. The Yeni Tzami (aka Geni Tzami) is thought by some to be his most interesting of all – the eclecticism so popular in the era is a rich synthesis of styles relevant to the identity of the building’s patrons, the Ma’Min, otherwise known as the Donmeh (Judeo-Spanish-speaking Muslim converts).
Influential in commerce (the Kapanji brothers, for example, were Ma’Min) and intellectual circles, their mosque combines disparate elements – classicism, an Islamic horseshoe arch, and – in a nod to their mysterious origins – a balcony shielded by a wall perforated with stars of David. (The Ma’Min were followers of a mystic who converted from Judaism to Islam in the 16th century.)
The Yeni Tzami now hosts temporary exhibitions and cultural events such as concerts and poetry readings, and performances, under the auspices of the Municipal Art Gallery.
Archaeologikou Mousiou 30 (between Vasilissis Olgas and Delfon)
Tel. (+30) 2310 857 978
Open: Tuesday – Friday, 10:00 – 18:00, Saturday11:00 – 15:00
Although just up from the major landmark that is the church of Aghios Dimitrios, you’d never find it if you weren’t looking. And that is part of the thrill – coming upon an abandoned looking 15th century mosque surrounded by a circle of apartment buildings from the 1960s (Thessaloniki is full of surprises like this).
Although large, it’s not much from the outside; gently crumbling, its purpose is only gleaned from the dusty but characteristically Islamic ornamental vaulting above a tattered wooden door. The unpromising exterior also adds to the thrill upon entering – to call it “breathtaking” is no understatement – you really may gasp aloud when you look up at the richly painted domes, with their arabesques, tromp l’oeil tapestried corners, and tiny faux windows above the arches, ‘opening’ onto wooded landscapes.
The Alaja Imaret, also under the auspices of the Municipal Art gallery, hosts exhibitions and events that often make specific use of the historical and aesthetic context.
Kassandrou 91-93 (between Sofokleous and Agiou Nikolao)
Tel. (+30) 2310 278 587
Open: Tuesday – Sunday, 11:00 – 18:00