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THESSALONIKI | ATHENS
Our 50th wedding
anniversary, a time to
rekindle the loving feelings of our journey together. And
what better way then to visit an old friend, one we have
known since the mid 1970s. A friend who offered warm
hospitality, glorious surroundings, food fresh from the
land and sea, and a laid back lifestyle that encouraged
easy relaxed return visits.
That friend is Greece. From the
rocky Mani on the southern tip of Peloponnese north to
Delphi, Larrisa, Trikala, Kalambaka and the awesome peaks
of Meteora onward to Kastoria in the north west, east to
Edessa, Naoussa, Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, south to Volos
and Athens - we have breathed in the best of times in
this the cradle of democracy.
We decided to divide our time
between Thessaloniki and Athens. We flew Air Canada
nonstop Toronto to Athens, return, and Olympic Airways
Athens - Thessaloniki- Athens. This was the first time we
flew Olympic. The staff on the ground and in the air were
young, bright and cheerful. The seats were wide with
ample leg room. In the 50 minute flight, they managed to
serve a good snack and beverages.
The Athens airport is very
efficient with helpful, friendly staff. With four hours
between flights, we had ample time for a relaxed
traditional Greek meal in the food court. Then we checked
out the Metro station across the way and bought our
tickets for the rides to and from the city center (the
fare is E8.00, E4.00 for seniors, 65+) when we returned
Good old bus #78 still runs from
the Thessaloniki airport to the city center. The tickets
kiosk is outside the arrivals area. The fare is E.80, E.40
for seniors. The trip takes between 30 and 45 minutes
depending on traffic.
The last time we made this trip was
in 1999. What changes awaited us? What impact were the
current economic conditions having on the lifestyle of
the people? As we passed familiar landmarks leading into
the center, witnessed the hustle and bustle on the
streets and engaged in conversation with our fellow
passengers, we felt like we had never left.
We got off at the "Aristotelous"
stop on Tsimiski, the lovely tree canopied main shopping
street, a five minute walk from The Hotel Luxembourg in the heart of the business, social and
retail life of the city. The famous Aristotelous Square
and the seafront scene are only 100 meters away.
The Luxembourg is family owned and
operated. The staff is an extention of the caring family.
It's a homey environment where guests feel appreciated
and comfortable and look forward to returning.
The building, which dates back to
1924, was renovated in 1999 when it reopened as a 3 star
facility. The rooms (singles, doubles and jr.suites) are
good sized and adequately furnished for short or long
term stays. The bathrooms have curtained stall showers
and have the basic needs. The television had a few
English channels available and the air conditioning was
welcome. There is complimentary wireless throughout and a
business center on the lower level with computers and a
The breakfast room (with an all day
bar) and lobby are a bit eclectic in design and generate
an old time warm welcome. The traditional breakfast
buffet is served from 7am to 10am. The highlight for us
was the "real Greek yogurt" (where the spoon
stands tall). Of course the spanakopita and tiropita were
a welcome treat as was the fresh off the tree nectarines
and plums. For egg lovers there was a choice of hard
boiled and scrambled. The usual meats, cheeses, breads
and rolls rounded out the offerings. The staff was happy
to prepare your choice of coffee and to try to fulfill
any special requests.
Thessaloniki, with a population of
over a million, is Greece's second largest city, a major
port city, and the capital of northern Greece. Founded in
315 b.c. it is known for its archaeological monuments
from ancient Greek, Byzantine and Roman times. The
largest University in Greece resides here and with its
rich cultural life, Thessaloniki is the leading
conference destination in Greece.
We hit the streets. Heading north
on Komninon street we found the Flower market in colorful
bloom. Nearby the vendors in the covered halls of the
Modiano Market were in full vocal force hawking their
offerings of fresh fish, seafood, meats, cheeses and
produce. Let the negotiations begin.
The narrow streets around the
market are wall to wall shops selling clothing, household
items, and foods. The crowds were a mix of locals looking
for bargains and tourists buying souvenirs and
photographing the action.
It was the beginning of lunch time
and the traditional tavernas within and just outside the
halls were beginning to fill up. The aroma of freshly
grilled fish plucked from the nearby stalls was
captivating, but we had other plans thanks to Karin, who
we became acquainted with at our hotel.
We joined her at her favorite lunch
spot (which became ours) "Hot Pot" on Komninon
near the corner of Tsimiski. You can't miss the bold
colorful sign. This was our kind of place. Traditional
home cooking at very reasonable prices. You can choose
from the delectable hot table offerings (the way to go)
which change daily, or order from the menu. Today we
shared grilled salmon with roast potatoes, okra, a small
serving of horiatiki salad and a bottle of retsina. It
was difficult passing on the roast chicken and gigantes (baked
lima beans). Another time heavenly meatballs in tomato
sauce with mashed potatoes made our day. There is
comfortable seating inside and out on this one of the
prettiest streets in the city. Varto, the owner, is
always there working hard to take care of his customers.
Aristotelous St. is a wide
pedestrian boulevard that runs from Egnatias (the new
metro is being built below) across Tsimiski into
Aristotelous Square, the hub of social and political life.
This route is a microcosm of the
multicultural and cosmopolitan environment of the city:
working folks having a bite on the run, nibbling on gyros
or pastry, seniors sitting on benches in animated
conversation, business men and women popping into
restaurants for a relaxed lunch, homeless people on the
sidewalks with their hands out appealing to the affluent
shoppers passing by with bags from the shops along
Tsimiski. It's a panorama of everyday life in the city
Aristotelous Square rests on the Thermaikos
Gulf. Magnificent apartment and office buildings enclose
the two sides, the ground floors of which are home to
numerous cafes and restaurants, each with large
attractive patios. It's a maze of tables, chairs and
sofas protected by awnings and umbrellas.
Standing in the middle of the
square (day or night), where political and social events
are held, it is amazing to observe the sea of people who
spend hours drinking coffee and smoking.
The waterfront boulevard, Nikis Av.,
runs between Aristotelous and the famous symbol of
Thessaloniki, the White Tower (a fortification from the
15th century), which operates as a Museum of the History
The attractive apartment buildings
overlooking the sea are home to more cafes and
restaurants - during the day, full, in the evening,
packed. This stretch attracts a younger crowd with
blaring, beating music.
The promenade along the water is a
popular walking, biking and photo opportunity destination.
Just be prepared to play dodge with the bikes, baby
carriages and sudden moves of the photographers.
The picturesque Proxenou Koromila,
just north of Nikis, with its designer shops intermingled
with attractive cafes and restaurants makes for a pretty
stroll to window shop and people watch.
We had a wonderful reunion with our
old friends Sotiris, Elenis and their sons Nikos and
Stavros. Elenis prepared an array of delicious mezes (appetizers)
and Sotiris poured the ouzo. We lingered and talked, as
usual Nikos was our translator. Elenis disappeared into
the kitchen and reappeared with platters of roast chicken
and potatoes. Of course it did not stop there, desserts
are a must.
Our conversation was dominated by
the economic crisis and we got an up-close and personal
perspective of reality. No jobs, pension cuts, higher
taxes, lost homes and the list goes on. Everybody is
hurting. There are no easy answers. We left our friends
with a feeling of sadness.[Back to Top]
On the bright side. The Greek
people love life. Lively conversation in a convivial
setting beats sitting home and brooding. Somehow they
manage to scrape together enough Euros for coffee and
smokes (a habit we wish they could break) to keep cafes
alive and well.
Judging from the spirit on the
streets, the casual visitor would never know the deep
dispair. Warm smiles and greetings were the norm, no
grouches here. Easy, friendly conversation and a
willingness to help and please was as we remembered. It
was great to be back and doing our share to help the
Across from the Port is the area of
Ladadika, the old oil market. The decaying 19th century
brick warehouses and surroundings have been attractively
refurbished. Thriving restaurants, cafes and clubs line
the narrow pedestrian ways. A youthful energy and
vibrance fills the air.
Choosing a restaurant in Ladadika
is a formidable task. The tried and true methods of
checking the menu, following the nose, looking for crowds,
eyeing the plates is of no help in making the ultimate
decision because most of them fulfill the usual criteria.
Go with your gut. We chose Tiganies & Skares (Fried
& Grilled) located in a small square in the center of
the action. Together with our friend Nikos we enjoyed a
meal of mezes (tomato and cucumber salad, spicy feta,
meatballs grilled and with tomato sauce, sliced baked
potatoes and lamb chops). It is a must to have a dense,
crusty bread (dark and white) with mezes. Fried &
Grilled met the challenge. A very good Greek beer was a
perfect mate. All excellent, good value.
Around the corner at Fasianou 3 (back
entrance on Katouni) is the famous fish and chips spot
Mpakaliarakia tou Aristou, look for the large blue oval
sign with the cook in the middle. If you prefer this dish
closer to the sea there is another Mpakaliarakia tou
Aristou across the street at the port (look for same sign).
The fish is dried cod from Norwegian waters. A large
portion is served with fried sliced potatoes and
skordalia (mashed potato and garlic dip). Along with a
salad it was a shareable meal. It's easy to see why it's
been going strong since 1940.
The Jewish people have a long
history in Thessaloniki and there is no better place to
discover this than at the Jewish Museum
at 13 Agiou Mina Street. It is housed in the only
building not destroyed by the great fire of 1917 which
wiped out the entire Jewish neighborhood.
Not long after the expulsion of Jews from
Spain in 1492 some 20,000 asylum seekers of Sephardic
origin settled in Thessaloniki. In 1941 49,000 Jews
resided here. In 1942 the Jewish Cemetery with more than
500,000 tombs was destroyed (the University of
Thessaloniki is located on the site). 96.5% of the Jewish
population was exterminated in the death camps of Poland.
Today 1000 Jews reside here.
There are three Synagogues. "Yad
Lezicaron" is located near the Flower Market in the
"Bouria" prayer center, Caal de la Plaza, 24
Vas Ihakleiou. It was opened in 1984, dedicated to the
memory of the Holocoust victims and to serve the
community working in the nearby markets. The handsome
Synagogue of Monasteriotes is at 35 Syngrou.
Unfortunately both were closed when we arrived. The
Modiano Synagogue is in the Old Peoples Home for the
residents' needs. [Back to Top]
While we were visiting the
Monasteriotes Synagogue we spotted a cute taverna at the
corner of Syngrou and Fillipou, a lovely green
neighborhood. Oreksis was a delightful find. The pleasant
staff led us to the hot table to peruse the offerings of
the day (you can order from the menu, but this is the way
to go in this kind of place). It is usually possible to
get half orders and have a great variety. We indulged in
small fried fish and calamari, rice with mussels, stuffed
grape leaves and tomato and cucumber salad. A delicious
toasted bread put it over the top. I had Greek beer,
which Linda passed on. The waiter was having none of that
and brought her a complimentary glass of white wine. We
sat on the patio, shaded by trees, enjoying a cool breeze
with a splendid home cooked meal. Find your way here.
The Cultural Line Bus, #50, starts and ends
at the White Tower. It departs on the hour, 08:00 to 21:00,
June to September, and 09:00 to 16:00, October to May.
The fare is E2.00, E1.00 for seniors. The route covers
many of the historical monuments, with 15 stops along the
50 to 60 minute route. You can get off and on at will. It's
a great way to visit Ano Poli, the "upper town"
from which the views are spectacular. Get off at the
ancient walls, trot around, take photos, enjoy a bite to
eat, get back on and continue the journey.
We got off the bus before the end
of the line to take a different route back. On Egnatia,
in the middle of modern Thessaloniki, is the glorious
Roman Triumph Arch of Galerius dating back to the 4th
century AD. The reliefs depicting many scenes and forms
have survived nicely. Nearby is the Rotunda, Church of
Saint George. It was part of a large complex built by
Galerius Caesar in 300 AD. Built as a temple for Zeus,
then converted to a Christian Church which became a
Turkish Mosque and finally reverted to Christianity.
Sitting in an airy square
surrounded by apartment buildings is the Byzantine Agia
Sophia, not named after a Saint, but, the Wisdom of God.
The domed Basilica was built in the 7th century. It has
an impressive sanctuary and beautiful mosaics and
I had been wanting to stop into a
pharmacy to check the price of Viagra. We spotted
Farmaciotis Apostolos on Pavlou Mela 48. The two
personable young people, sister and brother, who own the
shop, went out of their way to take care of us. Once we
estabished that the price was acceptable, the next issue
was quantity. Because drugs have become expensive and in
short supply, they had to contact their supplier and
other pharamacies to fill the order. We learned the hard
truth that because of the problems of availability and
price many folks, mainly seniors, are going without the
drugs they need.[Back to Top]
The restaurant Nea Folis is on a
small street one block north of Kassansdrou just off
Agias Sophias. It's worth the uphill walk. There is a
menu, but look at the chalkboard for the daily specials.
It's all in Greek but the staff will happily translate.
We started with the fresh beet salad from the menu.
Garden fresh, sweet, warm beets and their greens, caper
shoots and thick yogurt were, as my 101 year old mother
would say, scrumptious. The portion was so large we
realized we should have shared just one main. Oh well,
bring on Linda's fried pork and mushrooms and my grilled
octopus with sweet peppers. What a feast, quite full,
quite happy. Call again.
On our way back to the center we
passed Agios Demetrios, an architectural gem. It was
built in the 5th century and destroyed by an earthquake.
Rebuilt in the 7th century, it was destroyed by fire, and
finally rebuilt in 1917. The crypt houses a museum
displaying sculptural decorations throughout its history.
The Roman Agora on Filippou across
from Archeas Agoras Square was built between 2AD and 5AD.
It functioned as the administrative center of the city.
The large central square housed the conservatory. The
museum has many artifacts excavated from this important
Along Olympou at #78 we found an
interesting taverna, "Patsazioiko". The plates
of the day are displayed right in the front window, just
amble inside, make your choices, decide where to sit (today
we chose the sidewalk patio), and the friendly staff will
do the rest. Real basic stuff, roast chicken, meatballs
in tomato sauce, gigantes (roast giant lima beans), roast
potatoes, salad, bread and beer. They were so pleased we
were happy they insisted on us having a house dessert, a
traditional milk and rice pudding topped with burnt sugar
and nutmeg. Yum. As we like it, good food at fair prices.
Live like the locals.
A few good eating tips:
Ble, a beautifully designed updated
bakery on Agias Sophias just north of Tsimiski has
wonderful breads, pastries, sandwiches, and ice cream to
eat there or take away.
Albeta is a pretty good knockoff of
Ble at the corner of Dragoumi and Mitropoleous. Chocolate,
chocolate ice cream was a standout.
D. Menexopoulos Bros "The Nut
Shop" 49 Katouni is the place for wholesale nuts. We
always leave enough room in our luggage to shlepp home a
few bags full.
There are pie shops all over the
place. Our favorite is "Filo into the Fire" on
Mitropoleous 24, just west of Aristotelous Square. Sophia
is a sweetheart whose tiropita and spanakopita are always
fresh. The place is immaculate.
We leave Thessaloniki with fond
thoughts and our hopes that Europe will sort out the
economic mess so that life will be kinder and the future
THESSALONIKI | ATHENS
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