Against All Odds: Thessaloniki in the Making

Thessaloniki maintains a delicate balance between the harsh reality of the ongoing pandemic and its ambitious plans for a brighter future.


I looked on as Asterios Sousouras, owner of the acclaimed seafood restaurant Trizoni at Kriopigi in Halkidiki, tasted the thick rockfish soup with undivided attention the day before the official opening of Trizoni Sea Treasures in the Ladadika district of Thessaloniki. His anxiety was understandable; for years, he’d been preparing his opening in the city, but between the financial crisis and the pandemic, it never seemed to be the right time for taking the next step and building on the reputation of his summer restaurant. Even now, it was not the best time. On the day the new restaurant opened, in mid-November, Thessaloniki was recording 8,000 COVID-19 cases each week and its hospitals were at breaking point.  

Nevertheless, something almost metaphysical is happening this year in the capital of Macedonia, as if there is some invisible force which, against all adversity, is propelling the city into the future, just as Asterios was impelled to take the most important business decision of his life. The truth is that Thessaloniki has grown weary of the never-ending “Coming Soon,” that is, the situation in which a promised future never materializes. The most characteristic example being the Metro, which since 2004 has been plagued with delays, and even today nobody knows exactly when it will start running. According to the latest information from the contractor, the project will be delivered in December 2023.

Despite this, 2021 is a year in which the private and public sectors have found a common pace of development. The former embarked on a return to investment, particularly in tourism, real estate, and technology. The keenly awaited inauguration of the offices of Pfizer’s digital innovation hub has generated optimism, since according to estimates from the Foundation for Economic & Industrial Research (IOBE), once fully operational, this investment will add at least €650 million to the city’s GDP and create around 1,100 jobs in northern Greece. Thessaloniki Municipality, the main public sector body in the region, has succeeded not only in restarting projects that had stalled for years, such as the regeneration of Aristotelous Square and the main street that crosses it, which aspires to change the face of the city, but also in successfully completing international tenders on time. One example is the redevelopment of the International Exhibition Center, which is expected to be ready for use in 2026, and also includes the creation of a metropolitan park. 

“After years of inertia and time lags in the main areas of infrastructure and redevelopment, Thessaloniki has entered a phase in which it is laying claim to, securing funding for, and vigorously planning its future. The goal of our long-term planning is for the city to have fully regained its historical dynamic by 2030, making optimum use of all its advantages,” says Konstantinos Zervas, the mayor of Thessaloniki. Over our morning coffee, with traffic-congested Tsimiski Street in the background, Zervas adds that important interventions have been planned for 2022. These include the bidding competition for studies on the widening of the promenade deck along the Old Waterfront; the invitation to tender for the Dioikitiriou Square project, which has remained in limbo since 1992; and the competition, with a budget of €2 million, for the maintenance of the New Waterfront, or Nea Paralia, where the picture today is one of abandonment, with neglected gardens and empty fountains.

RETURN OF EVENTS

Despite a decrease in January-October visitor arrivals by approximately 2 million compared to 2019, as well as a 45% drop in hotel occupancy in the first eight months of 2021, Thessaloniki showed remarkable resilience from September onwards. This was mainly due to the physical return of major events that were sorely missed in the previous year. The 85th Thessaloniki International Fair attracted not only the country’s political elite, but also dozens of startups that had the opportunity to introduce themselves at pavilions dedicated to robotics and digital technology respectively. Although total attendance was down compared to previous years, limited to under 90,000 visitors, the reopening of the Fair set a positive tone. 

The Fair was followed in October by Beyond 4.0, the country’s first exhibition of cutting-edge technology and innovation, with “The Future of Artificial Intelligence” as its main theme. In its debut edition, Beyond 4.0 hosted 180 exhibitors, 30% of which were startups, attracting participants from 10 countries, and with high attendance at its separate events, effectively laying the foundations for the city’s development into an innovation hub in southeast Europe. “Thessaloniki has the potential to be the digital hub of the wider region and help the Greek ecosystem develop further and become even more outward-looking. It is our hope in a few years to see at Beyond 4.0 figures who are shaping the future, such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who have attended the web summit in Barcelona,” explains Michalis Stangos, founder of Industry Disruptors – Game Changers, one of the co-organizers.

Events continued in early November with the 62nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival returning to theaters after two years. With a total of 68,000 viewers and 193 screenings, it once again highlighted the city as a vibrant cradle of culture. The end of the festival coincided with the completion of the three-day tourism trade fair Philoxenia-Hotel, a platform for the promotion of destinations all over Greece. This year’s highlights included the presentation of two major projects that will strengthen the city’s tourism identity and are expected in 2022: the renovation of the Modiano Market and the historic restaurant Olympos-Naoussa.

A CRUCIAL SECTOR

The Modiano Market, the covered central food market of Thessaloniki, which was built after the great fire of 1917 and opened in 1930, has remained closed since 2019. The Fais Group, which purchased the landmark in July 2017 for €1.9 million, aims to transform the listed building into a venue for social gatherings, culture and entertainment. The new version will feature a quality multicultural market, which in addition to greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers, will also house pop-up events, gastronomy festivals and musical performances. 

“As a city whose economic life relies heavily on catering, Thessaloniki was hit particularly hard by the successive lockdowns of the past 18 months. But it is this sector, catering, that is playing a leading role in the city’s comeback. The complete overhaul of the Modiano Market and its transformation into a multi-functional space of diverse flavors and experiences similar to the San Miguel Market in Madrid, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in Greece, will give fresh impetus to the city’s gastronomy scene and attract new investments,” notes Angelos Vassos, managing editor of Citymag Thessaloniki, putting the final touches to the second issue of Taste, a magazine dedicated to gastronomy.

Although the pandemic has slammed the catering sector, “with 10% of food and drink establishments having closed permanently,” according to Ioannis Filokostas, president of Thessaloniki’s association of restaurant owners, new investments have not been put on hold. The Olympos-Naoussa, for example, the epicenter of cosmopolitan life in Thessaloniki until 1994, when it closed, and the favorite dining venue of statesmen Konstantinos Karamanlis and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is planning to once again welcome diners in spring 2022. It will be housed on the ground floor of the ON Residence Hotel, which will also offer 60 luxury rooms, a modern fitness gym, a specially designed area for business meetings, and the Tiger Loop cocktail bar. “We are expecting visitors who prefer to stay in the center and discover it on foot, and who also appreciate quality cuisine,” says Ismini Tornivouka, vice president of Operations at Tor Hotel Group, which is participating in the €20 million investment along with Grivalia Hospitality.  

The gastronomic mosaic of Thessaloniki, which this year became the first Greek city to join UNESCO’s Network of Creative Cities of Gastronomy, is set to be completed by two more important arrivals, expected by the end of 2021 or early 2022. The Iberico – the latest project of the Sotiroudis brothers, owners of Marea and Glykaniso – is eagerly awaited by meat lovers, while Moldee, on Proxenou Koromila Street, the joint project of chefs Vasilis Mouratidis, Sofoklis Maragoudakis and Gaetan Biesuz, will offer a menu of creative cuisine with the flavors of Greece and the Mediterranean.

THE DESIGN district

While Thessaloniki may live and breathe gastronomy, which explains why new eateries are constantly popping up, such as those in the increasingly popular neighborhood near the Church of the Holy Apostles (the new café-bar The Little Cup is a must), the city also has a long history in design. Beetroot, an award-winning design firm with an international clientele, moved in September from Kalamaria to the listed inn of Ismail Pasha at the intersection of Syngrou, Paikou and Valaoritou streets. It is a two-story building dating to 1905, with elements of eclecticism, which the firm has renovated and plans to turn into the central hub of the design district.

Directly opposite, on Paikou Street, the team will be opening a restaurant, while on the ground floor of the building there will be a small retail store selling Greek food products and a café-gift shop with their own creations. There are even facilities for hosting groups of design students who, as they work, will be able to consult Beetroot’s personnel. “By the next decade, we hope to have laid the foundations for an ecosystem of people and spaces that generate aesthetics and culture, educate… and attract visitors from all over the world,” says Vangelis Liakos, co-founder of Beetroot. “This is the design district we are dreaming of.”


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