By all means, when you come to Greece, go to Athens. The Acropolis and its state-of-the-art museum is a must-see. Walk the old Plaka area, visit the quaint and quirky shops and indulge in the excellent cuisine. That should take a day… or two at the most, then get out of the city and breathe! Unfortunately, Athens is one of the most polluted, dirty cities in Europe and even the Greeks will tell you apologetically, that Athens is not a city to linger in too long. Instead, head north into the heart of Greece. There are little villages still steeped in traditional ways and hospitality, stunning landscapes of mountains and valleys and sea, and the interesting and vibrant city of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, with an expansive seafront promenade and everything a city has to offer.
Like any city, Thessaloniki has its industrial, seedy side, but the old city is a representation of a place where the old meets the new with surprising success. It is a city trying to come of age with a splendid mix of Greek tradition and European style after a stormy history of foreign occupation, war and tragedy. As recent as the last 100 years, Thessaloniki was plummeted into an era of World Wars, German occupation, Jewish ethnic cleansing, a massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey and the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 which destroyed much of the city and left a quarter of the population homeless and unemployed. And while the city hasn’t been immune to the effects of the present financial crisis, Thessaloniki is a testimony to the resilience of the Greek culture.
On our recent visit there, we found some of the most stunning Greek Orthodox churches, old Roman ruins, traditional Macedonian architecture, Ottoman monuments and a street market (Modiano Market) dating back to the early 1900’s and still cranking out goods and fresh produce. The landmark monument of Thessaloniki is the White Tower and it is a perfect first stop on the city’s tour as it houses an excellent museum with fascinating information and exhibits depicting the colorful history of Thessaloniki. There is an area once famous for its tailor and seamstress businesses and today there are still remnants of these fine establishments. The old Jewish quarter with its narrow, cobbled streets and modest living quarters is a quiet testimony to an age gone by.
But turn the corner and you’ll find artsy cosmopolitan stores and multinational cafes buzzing with the day’s activity, brightly lit and surprisingly trendy. A perfect example of Greek tradition with a European flair is the cafe, MIA FETA – a feta-tasting bar complete with a plethora of olive oil dips and pairing wines. Brilliant!
Not far from the central Aristotelous Square is a very popular deli/bakery called simply, BLÉ. The mouthwatering display of breads and sweets takes confectionary art to a whole new level. We happened upon this haven of tasty temptation after an awesome lunch at an Italian restaurant with a french name, TRE MARIE, very popular with the locals for good reason. After much deliberation (“No, we couldn’t possibly…No, we really shouldn’t….; Yes, we MUST. We’re HERE after all!…”) we decided to split (wisely) the perfect chocolate soufflé – warm and slightly crispy on the outside with a gooey flow of dark chocolate lava on the inside. I wanted to take a photo but neither one of us wanted to stop indulging long enough to snap a picture.
Our B&B (COLORS CENTRAL) was located in the funky and hip urban area of Thessaloniki called Ladadika. This area was electric with late night energy (thank goodness for the “Sleep Bug” app) and there is always something to do, see, eat, experience here. On our arrival, we ate in typical Greek fashion at 11pm and the place was just warming up. We discovered that probably the only time this area sleeps is on Sunday mornings.
We finished off our trip by renting a car and heading further south towards the city of Katerini and Mt. Olympus. The clouds hung low in the sky and as we worked our way up the Mt. Olympus road we entered into a dense heavy fog and it became increasingly difficult to see even the road in front of us. We stopped to turn around but went through the same gyrations as before (“No, we couldn’t possibly…No, we really shouldn’t continue on…Yes, we MUST. We’re HERE after all!) So, forging on ahead, we turned a few more blind corners and suddenly burst through the top of the cloud and into clear skies.
Our determination was rewarded with a great hot meal at the trailhead taverna followed by a nice hike up onto the slopes of Mt. Olympus – wonderfully reminiscent of our home state of Colorado.
As we headed down to sea level to find our B&B for the night, we grossly underestimated the distance to Elatochori, and navigating new terrain in the dark was “exciting.” What a welcome we had, though, when we finally spotted the ALSEIDES BOUTIQUE HOTEL in Elatochori, a popular winter destination especially for skiers. We entered the old stone lodge and our spirits were instantly lifted by the warm welcome of the hostess and the hot fire in the great room’s massive fireplace. Her mother fixed us a “snack” (Greek style snack = big dinner) and after lingering in the main room we finally retired to our own beautiful room, made up a fire in our fireplace and fell asleep to the sound of NOTHING except the crackling of simmering logs.
The next day, after a more than generous breakfast, we headed out to do some exploring on foot. The village of Elatochori is very near a ski area and the terrain is hilly with numerous trails through the woods that make for a great hike. We meandered along the riverbed for a while, over little wooden bridges, up to a waterfall and eventually back to the village. We could understand why people are attracted to this area for a winter getaway but couldn’t help but wonder how beautiful it must be during the summer months. Perhaps a return trip for us???