Kostis Zafirakis – THE CULINARY GUIDE
Kostis Zafirakis has taken hundreds of visitors on culinary tours of Thessaloniki; his favorite walk starts in his own childhood neighborhood, the area of the Church of the Holy Apostles and of Olympou Street. “It’s a long road, not a major avenue, linking two very special monuments: the church and the Rotunda,” he says. “It’s also associated with dozens of fascinating stories and personalities, from Roman and Byzantine emperors to the urban planner Ernest Hébrard, the poets Yiannis Ritsos and Manolis Anagnostakis and people like us who are helping to shape its current character. Olympou is more than a street; it’s a chapter in a historical drama.”
History, however, isn’t the star: Zafirakis’ tours are all about delicious flavors. “If you’ve never tasted local delicacies like pastourma (air-dried cured red meat), parcharotyri (a smoked aged cheese), Macedonian pies or tsipouro (a pomace brandy),” he says, “you’re missing out. My tour participants head back to their hotels intoxicated by the aromas and flavors, with smiles from ear to ear. I remember a man from Hawaii who just couldn’t get enough of our Pontic food; an impromptu party with a group of Germans when one guy was celebrating his birthday and we stuck candles in a galaktoboureko (a syrupy custard-filled pastry); and an American bunch, with whom we ended up singing the classic love song ‘Frangosyriani’ while eating San Michali cheese from Syros. Every walk is like a street performance; that’s how I see it.”
HIGHLIGHTS: The Kapani and Athonos food markets and their environs, and a tour of “bygone” Thessaloniki that takes in the legendary Bank of Thessaloniki and Edessis Street, with its beautiful buildings.
George Mantzouranedes – THE Urban legends GUIDE
“Are you ready for a spooky ride?” asks George Mantzouranedes as we walk up a steep hill to Ano Poli on a “Mystery Walks” tour. There are two of these popular tours, one taking in the area east of the city walls, and the other the old quarter of Ano Poli. Each of these city sections, he tells us, has its own stories, its own atmosphere and its own distinct setting.
Mantzouranedes and fellow guide Vasiliki Kartsikali spice up their tours with tidbits of information that capture the imagination of even the skeptically inclined. “The history, folk culture, interaction, narrative and elements of drama, in combination with the characters of the participants, make each tour different, a singular event, so that many want to come again,” he says. Thessaloniki may be better known for its Roman and Byzantine history or its multicultural social mosaic, but it also has an element of the mysterious that is quite intriguing. The urban legend of women in black, for example, said to appear in different parts of the city holding candles just before every major event or disaster, is one of the stories that particularly fascinates visitors. “Maybe this is because they connect different threads of the city’s history,” says Mantzouranedes.
There are also “audience participation” moments that are no less impressive. “I remember an American blogger I took on a private tour being shocked by a palm reader describing an item of jewelry this American had lost during a trip to Peru! How much spookier can it get than that?”
HIGHLIGHTS: Ippodromiou Square and the Gardens of the Pasha. The square is considered cursed because of its bloody past; it was the site of a great massacre in the 4th century, and suffered dozens of fatalities in the 1978 earthquake, while the gardens present an incredible combination of atmosphere, architecture and mystery.
Evi Karkiti – THE CULTURAL WALKS GUIDE
Evi Karkiti, founder of Thessaloniki Walking Tours, often receives touching feedback from her tour participants. One local man, for example, thanked her for helping him “really see” the street he’d lived on for 20 years of his life. A German visitor said that he’d never seen anything so alive as when they walked around the port area. She quotes a third, because his words were particularly poignant: “You made my day so much more beautiful and rewarding.”
Karkiti believes Thessaloniki is the tour guide’s ideal city, thanks to its many layers of history and all the human stories that are interwoven among them. “These small stories allow you to delve deeper and see the bigger picture more clearly; they create a bond between people from disparate backgrounds, which is so much more powerful than mere communication, by making them feel they have a shared experience,” she says.
“This is what we were aiming for from the start. We didn’t want to just describe a monument or visit a spot with a lot of history. We wanted to root out the human stories behind these things, to explore the city’s streets, neighborhoods and public squares, to redefine all these things that we walk past every day without noticing, even things hidden from view. This is the idea around which we’ve been building our company for the past five years.”
An accomplished journalist, Karkiti recently created the Literature Walk, a “tour that is constantly being enriched with my own research and with revelations from poets, writers, critics and other personalities who have played a key role in the city’s cultural life for many years.”
HIGHLIGHTS: Casa Bianca, a splendid example of eclectic architecture in the area once known as “Exoches” (lit. “countryside”), holds a great many stories of its erstwhile residents, not all of them happy. You can almost hear their voices on the tour. The building is also home to the Municipal Gallery, an important showcase for the city’s history.
Constantinos Sfikas – THE VIP GUIDE
Constantinos Sfikas quit his bank job a few years ago so he could study at Thessaloniki’s School of Tourist Guides, where he went on to teach after graduating. “It was the most important decision I’ve ever made,” he confesses as we walk along Mitropoleos Street in the autumnal chill. “I knew this career would suit me to a tee. It is, after all, one of the oldest jobs in the world; at ancient Delphi, the ‘exigites’ would act as spiritual guides for the sanctuary’s visitors. With this job, I’ve found my calling.”
Sfikas and a group of his former students have so far put together 26 themed tours around the six districts that make up the municipality of Thessaloniki. The initiative has been a success, with participants – both locals and visitors – learning to pay closer attention to the city and to value it more, which is what the endeavor is all about. “I’ll never forget one local resident who said that in 40 years she hadn’t appreciated her own city as much as she did on our tour of Palaiologian-era Byzantine churches in the Ano Poli district. What could be more gratifying than that?”
Sfikas also works with the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, taking many of its special guests on city tours. “I remember Jim Jarmusch expressing surprise when I showed him around the castles: ‘Well, I didn’t expect that,’ he said. Also, I won’t forget Oliver Stone standing in front of the statue of Alexander the Great, saying: ‘I feel more complete as an artist here; like a Macedonian.’” The list of film greats he has accompanied on tours is impressive and includes Wim Wenders, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Werner Herzog, and John Sayles. “I enjoy every tour I give, but showing around people you idolized as a teen is something you remember forever,” says Sfikas.
HIGHLIGHTS: The panoramic views of the city from high up on the Trigonio Tower, as well as the palimpsest of history revealed by the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Jewish monuments. The Bit Bazaar flea market, with its antique shops and cool restaurants, and, of course, the city’s coastal promenade, which always makes an impression.
Alexandros Myroforidis – THE CRIME GUIDE
Alexandros Myroforidis has spent more than a decade in the field of interactive and live games, exploring alternative ways to promote Thessaloniki’s rich historical heritage. He created his “Crime Tours” in 2013, focusing on the city’s violent past.
“Thessaloniki, unfortunately, holds something of a record in politically motivated crimes, in addition to countless acts of violence motivated by passion or greed. From its liberation from Ottoman rule to World War II, and through the Greek Civil War to more recent events, the material is infinite,” he says.
Each walk is not just a tour, but also an investigation into every aspect of the crimes in question. “I’m surprised by the incredible level of interest that’s been shown by residents of Thessaloniki, but perhaps I shouldn’t be: the theme of crime is undisputedly a part of modern pop culture. Visitors are interested because the tour’s different and original, and locals like it because they get so much information concentrated in one tour,” says Myroforidis.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Crypt of the Macedonian Struggle, located in the bowels of the Metropolitan Church, near the museum dedicated to the same subject. There’s a feeling of stepping into history as you enter this space, used by the resistance to store weapons and ammunition right under the noses of the Ottoman rulers. Another highlight is the State Conservatory building, formerly home to a branch of the Ottoman Bank; the branch was put out of commission after dynamite placed in a tunnel beneath it was detonated in what was the most audacious resistance attack carried out in early-20th century Thessaloniki.
Tasos Papadopoulos – THE tomb GUIDE
Tasos Papadopoulos is a true fan of rebetiko music and has put together, among other tours, one dedicated to its rich history in Thessaloniki. “This tour was born out of my love for this specific genre; an urban jewel representing the popular spirit,” he says. “This is an almost mystical form of music that spoke to the hearts of refugees, blue-collar workers, and the down-and-out. So many rebetiko songs have been written about Thessaloniki.”
Poet Ilias Petropoulos once said: “Show me the food a people eat and how they bury their dead and I’ll show you who they are.” Papadopoulos appears to share this sentiment, since he’s added tours of the city’s cemeteries to his itineraries. “A cemetery tour may sound macabre, but it‘ s not. We walk around the gravesites and other inconspicuous resting places, and tell stories about the different people buried there: scholars, writers, architects, politicians and regular folk who have so many interesting and meaningful things to teach us,” he says. “Isn’t this, after all, the aim of anyone who wants to keep the memories of a place alive?”
HIGHLIGHTS: TS-14, the transvestite bar that is part of the tour “From Bara to Vardaris.” Owner Kristy Alexiou is an amazing storyteller who’s happy to answer questions from tour participants over a glass of wine. “The conversation is always different and always interesting,” says Papadopoulos. “Those on the tour never fail to be impressed by the forthcoming and sweet nature of so many trans folk, who have often experienced terrible things.”