For those who know only Athens and the islands, or have never been to Greece, I say “Yasny!” It sounds like a very Greek word (like Yamas, meaning “cheers” or “to your health”) but it is really an old American acronym: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” It is the most appropriate expression I could think of after our first trip to an area in Northern Greece too often overlooked or underplayed by travel agents – and travel writers, too. Having been to Athens and the islands a number of times, I found this Central Macedonian area a destination that is historically, culturally, scenically, gastronomically, and, if it is a real word, oenologically, a first-rate destination. It shouldn’t be missed.For first-time visitors, the principal highlights of Thessaloniki are the remnants of walls from Roman times, many beautiful churches, a synagogue and a few mosques, along with two world-class museums – of archaeology and Byzantine history – and a small museum of the Jewish community.
The center of this new find is the seaside city of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest. It is today a mini-metropolis of 750,000 people, 10 percent of them university students attending either the huge – 60,000 plus student body – Aristolio University of Thessaloniki, the University of Macedonian with 20,000 students, or several smaller private institutions. Considered by many the cultural capital of Greece, it is also known for its trade fairs, film festivals, and homecoming events for those in the Greek diaspora.
Situated close to the home of the gods, Mt. Olympus, its roots go back to ancient times and it has been inhabited for 3,000 years, with archaeological but also living evidence of layer upon layer of history from that of the original inhabitants to those of the classical Greek and Hellenistic period, and centuries of Roman, Christian and Ottoman rule.
It still bears the marks of all of them as well as the strong influences of Jews, who first settled here in the 2nd century BC, early Christians, those who lived in the lengthy Byzantine Era (it was a co-capital along with Konstantinoupolis or Constantinople), the 800-year reign of the Ottoman Turks, and that of the Sephardic Jews who began coming from Iberia in the late 15th century and remained the largest ethnic group from the early 16th century until the middle of World War II.
Fire devastated the city in 1917 and, with the defeat of the Greeks in the Greco-Turkish war and the almost simultaneous end of the Ottoman Empire by Ataturk’s nationalists, dramatic demographic changes took place. One part of the 1923 Peace Treaty of Lausanne that sought to normalize relations within and between the parties to the conflict, established new borders and also triggered a massive exchange of populations. Ethnic Greeks, mostly Orthodox, long resident in Turkey, were sent to Greece. Ethnic Turks, mostly Muslim, who had been in Greece for centuries, were sent to their ancestral home, sharply reducing the numbers of Turks in Thessaloniki.
Fascist rule, which failed under Italian invaders, was then successfully carried out by German Nazis in 1941 led to the round up, deportation, and extermination of nearly the entire Jewish community of close to 60,000 people.
While Thessaloniki was liberated by Greek partisans in 1944, those two events left a city that was once as pluralistic as Andalusia’s Cordoba, with a heavily dominant Orthodox statistical majority, which it still has. Recently there have been a number of attempts to revive the spirit of comity and to acknowledge the contributions of ancient Greeks and Romans, Muslims and Jews, as well as the Christians, to the culture and character of Central Macedonia.
For first-time visitors, the principal highlights of the city are the remnants of walls from Roman times, many beautiful churches, a synagogue and a few mosques, along with two world-class museums — of archaeology and Byzantine history – and a small museum of the Jewish community. There are also centers celebrating both folk and fine arts. Like many areas around the Mediterranean, there are several open markets with innumerable sidewalk stands, tavernas, cafés, and very upscale restaurants, all serving local fish and other seafood, varieties of meat, fruit, vegetables, cheese and any number of great wines and liquors.
In many eateries, but especially the tavernas (our favorite hangouts), traditional music played on bouzoukis and guitars together with human voices. Standard fare in the tavernas are retsina, souvlaki, moussaka, octopus, fishes of all sorts, tsoureki bread, salads with loads of feta cheese, baklava and other mouth-watering treats.
If you are yearning for a cup of coffee, there are numerous coffee houses that offer the traditional Greek or Turkish coffee but also have as many variations to be brewed as any Starbucks, which also happens to be in Thessaloniki!
Like many big cities, Thessaloniki has hotels of all sizes and levels of quality, including several huge ones on or near the seafront. However, for those who like a more boutique experience, one place really stands out, the five-star Excelsior just across the street from its sister property, the four-star City Hotel. Both are very close to Aristotilous Square, a crossroads for people from all over the world, next to the quay that fronts the entire downtown area.
The city of Thessaloniki is very close to Halkidiki, a region that deserves special attention not as an adjunct place for a quick side trip but for a minimal stay of several days to get the full flavor of its own history and culture and to enjoy the benefits of sand and sea, piney-woods in its highlands and great accommodations. And there are many places of historical and religious significance, too. In fact, there is everything to serve both body and soul.
Like Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, with its three fingered hand reaching southwestward into the sea, offers pleasures for the palate, storied sites and a most welcoming local population. To spend three, four or more days in Halkidiki you, too, will return home saying, “Yasny!”
The digits of the Halkidiki are known as Akanthos, Sithonia, and Kassadra. Akanthos is the most northern and eastern. It has its own storied past, beginning with the birthplaces of the philosopher Aristotle and his one-time student, the Macedonian leader, Alexander the Great. It is also known today, as it has been for a thousand years, for its critical role in the life of the Orthodox Church, not least the eight monasteries that are located on the most northern of the peninsula on the shore or on the slopes of the 2,000 high Mt. Athos
Boats take Greek and Russian Orthodox pilgrims daily to see the monasteries from 500 meters off-shore. While no women are allowed on the church property, it is possible for men to apply to visits. On the northwestern end of Athos, there are a number of charming villages to visit and to stay. I would recommend a long lunch of Greek specialties prepared by television cooking consultant, Loulou Sarris, in a taverna connected to the Germany Hotel that she operates with her brother, Dimitris. Our friends and I, numbering six in all, enjoyed an unbelievable 26 different plates of food – fish, salad, cheese, stuffed cabbages and zucchinis. We dined for over two hours and enjoyed every bite.
The other two peninsulas, Sinothia and Kassadra, are almost as rugged down their spines as Akanthos. Unlike the off-limits slops of Mt. Athos, their openness, much of it national parkland, offers great opportunities for hikers and mountain bikers and, for those who would like to be guided, the services of Stratos and his Hellas Jeep Safari. Stratos is not only a good driver, a big plus on the sandy, rutted and sometimes quite steep fire roads, but a great raconteur and grass-roots field biologist, able to discuss every bit of flora and fauna on the mountainsides and almost anything else in perfect English.
The greatest draw for tourists is the sea, seen at every turn in the road and accessible for swimming and diving and fishing and boating nearly everywhere in Halkidiki. As in the city, there are all sorts of accommodations to be had, including several very large resorts, one of which has not only to be seen but stayed in to be believed. It is called Sani and is a world of its own, accommodating and pampering up to 1,000 guests at a time. Many young people working in other places in Halkidiki told me they got their start as trainees at Sani and, once there, I could understand why, whether staying and rising through the ranks or moving on to other nearby hotels, they exude a special spirit of hospitality. While admiring what Sani does for its guests, but preferring upscale but low-key resorts, we were delighted to have the chance to spend the night at the Eagles Palace in Ouranoupolis, owned by the same caring, hands-on and third generation hotelier, Konstantinos Tornivourkas and his family.
Also to be mentioned are two other resorts, the Ekies All Senses Resort, and the Sea Beach Hotel and Spa, each offering treats — and treatments. A somewhat smaller but also high-quality resort is the Anthemas Sea Beech Hotel and Spa which is especially famous for its wonderful kitchen. For those wanting a slower paced, relaxed vacation, highest on our list is the cliffside Blue Bay Hotel very close to the little village of Athytos. Owned and operated by Olga Tsapanidou, the Blue Bay Hotel is a model of quiet elegance, service, and graciousness.
While most hotels have excellent restaurants, there are many stand-alone places that shouldn’t be missed, especially a local favorite called Marina. It is located next to a tiny, colorful harbor near the mainland end of Kassandra, in the fishing village of Nea Potidea. It doesn’t take the tourist bureau to assure you that no ever leaves that part of Greece hungry.
Finally, for wine lovers there is an abundance of varieties to choose from. For wine tasters it is possible to visit several of the top wineries, some like Tsantalis on the Kassandran peninsula, are more than 100 years old. Others, such as the Porto Carras Winery and Claudia Papayianni’s, both on Sithonia, are much newer. But all offer a wide range of familiar tasting reds, whites, rosés, and many varietals of their own.
In recent years, Thessaloniki and Halkidiki have become, like the Salonika of old, a cross-roads place of many peoples. Not surprisingly, the majority of outsiders are travelers and tourists, mostly from the UK and western Europeans but, increasingly, folks drive in from nearby Balkan countries, especially Bulgaria and Romania, or fly in from Turkeyand Russia.
Once Americans learn more about the place and its surrounds, I predict they will start swelling the ranks of sojourners to Central Macedonia – and then go back home, pouring a glass of wine, and telling their friends, “Yasny!”
If You Go
Halkidiki Tourist Organization: 33 G. Papandreou Street, 54646, Thessaloniki, Greece
While there are not yet direct flights from US cities to Thessaloniki, there are many easy connections via many European airports and then through Athens, or, of late, daily ones from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.