I recall saying to myself, back in 2017, that one day I’ll have to come back to Greece, to discover its northern part, along with the city of Thessaloniki and at least one more scenic island. That promise came after spending a joyful week in the capital Athens and in Mykonos, one of the trendiest islands in the Mediterranean Sea. So four years later, I managed to tick Northern Greece off my travel bucket list. And since the Ionian islands were not far and I really wanted to visit another isle, I added to the itinerary the only one that’s directly accessible by car: Lefkada.
Northern Greece is almost synonym with Macedonia, the largest and second most populous region of the country. Much of its territory is mountainous, with the highest altitude reached on Mount Olympus (2,917 m), known in Greek mythology as the home of the gods. But mountains aren’t everything, as Macedonia also has a lot of seaside towns and villages, with golden beaches and crystal clear waters. And its main urban center, Thessaloniki, a vibrant port at the Aegean Sea, is widely considered the cultural capital of Greece, hosting architectural marvels created by the Byzantine, Ottoman and Sephardic Jewish civilizations.
Before continuing my story, I want to mention a few things about Macedonia’s most famous son: Alexander the Great, king of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, in the 4th century BC. A natural born leader and a skilled military strategist, he was able to create one of the greatest empires in history, that spanned from Greece all the way to India. At its peaks, the empire was home to nearly half of the world’s population. Nowadays, statues of him can be found all over Greece, as tributes to his outstanding contribution to spreading the Greek culture far beyond its borders.
Enough facts for now, let’s get back to the trip. The pandemic has pretty much changed the way I travel. It’s no secret that I prefer flying and renting a car over driving all the way to the destination, mostly to avoid tiredness and long hours spent on the road. However, this trip was planned with only one week in advance, and since flights are not as frequent as before and I wanted to take full advantage of an entire week and the weekend before, I decided to take my car. The total length was just over 2,500 kilometers (route: Bucharest → Sofia → Thessaloniki → Meteora → Parga → Lefkada → Ioannina → Kastoria → Thessaloniki → Sofia → Bucharest), and overall it was less tiring than expected.
I am a big fan of the Mediterranean cuisine, and the Greek one makes no exception. Its base three ingredients are wheat, olive oil and wine. In addition to these, vegetables and meat are used quite often in recipes, along with many herbs and spices. In particular, the Greek Macedonian cuisine borrows several elements from the Balkan and Ottoman cuisines. My favorite dishes include pies (spinach, peppers, cheese), gyros and souvlaki (either pork or chicken, usually served with fries), seafood, fish, grilled cheese and Greek salad.
For dessert, I recommend trying bougatsa (a custard pie with phyllo), loukoumi and frozen yogurt (I’d choose it over ice cream). By the way, did you know that the frappé coffee was invented in Thessaloniki, in 1957? Neither did I, and it’s very refreshing in a hot sunny day.
Here’s a list of the places I checked out along the trip, where you can experience the local cuisine:
- Giok Balik (Eth. Aminis 34, Thessaloniki) – gyros and souvlaki
- Choureál (Paleon Patron Germanou 9, Thessaloniki) – mouth-watering desserts
- Valenio (Iktinou 6, Thessaloniki) – specialty coffee
- George’s Souvlaki To Pontiako (Anexartisias & Vasila 1, Parga) – gyros and souvlaki
- Chillbox (Anexartisias & Vasila 1, Parga) – frozen yogurt
- T’Aloni (Epar.Od. Lefkas – Vasilikis, Chortata) – Ionian cuisine, with a view
- Taverna Oasis (Epar.Od. Akrotiríou Lefkátas, Athani) – seafood, with an amazing view
- The Barrel (Paralía Nydríou, Nidri) – fish dishes, next to the sea
- Metsovitiki Folia (Averof 101, Ioannina) – gyros and souvlaki
Eight days, seven nights and seven different locations. I know it sounds extreme for a trip that’s meant to be relaxing, however I got used to this type of traveling. And it’s the only way, if you want to see as much as possible. Prices weren’t too high for this period of the year, ranging between €45 and €75.
- 1st night: Onoma Hotel (Monastiriou 24, Thessaloniki) – one of the best hotels I’ve ever been to. Onoma was pretty hi-tech, with smart and comfy rooms. The breakfast buffet was excellent, and the place featured a stylish sky bar at the 8th floor, from which you could enjoy an almost perfect 360 degrees panorama of the city.
- 2nd night: Hotel Meteora Kastraki (2nd km. Kalambaka – Ioannina, Kastraki) – the location and pool area were definitely the strong points of the hotel, offering a stunning perspective of the Meteora giant rock formations.
- 3rd night: Villa Verleti (Epar.Od. Perdikas – Pargas, Parga) – a small family business, that exceeded my expectations. The room and bathroom were newly refurbished, and despite being 10 mins far from the beach, the large terrace had a pleasant sea view.
- 4th night: T’Aloni (Epar.Od. Lefkas – Vasilikis, Chortata) – a small guest house, more popular for its restaurant than for its rooms. Nothing impressing; still, it had a terrace overlooking the mountains.
- 5th night: Salt & Blue Rooms (Epar.Od. Lefkas – Vasilikis, Póndi) – the panoramic view from the top floor rooms, over the bay and Vasiliki beach, was beautiful. Aside from that and the spacious room, nothing else worth mentioning.
- 6th night: Dimitra Studios (Megalo Avlaki, Nydri) – quite similar to the above. First row from the sea, but without a beach in front – just a harbor and many boats. The room was a bit outdated, and the closest beach was around 10 mins away on foot.
- 7th night: Enastron Hotel (4th Km Kastoria Aposkepo, Kastoria) – a great discovery with a thrilling location, overlooking the hills, the lake and the city of Kastoria. The room, bathroom and balcony were very spacious, while the breakfast buffet was various and tasty.
Guide to Thessaloniki
Thessaloniki is the capital of Macedonia and the second largest city in Greece. It’s your typical Mediterranean city, with white apartment buildings, large cosmopolitan boulevards, small streets perpendicular to the sea and a long promenade of almost 5 km, stretching along the shore. It has no beaches, though, so if you wish to go for a swim, you’ll have to travel to the south.
I had planned a day for Thessaloniki, which is limited, to say the least. The best way to discover the city is on foot, thus I did not try local transportation. Here’s what I recommend doing:
→ Take a walk along the Seaside Promenade and listen to the relaxing sound of the waves. I suggest to start at Aristotelous Square, a buzzing place, with imposing mansions and cafes, and head towards south east. The perfect time to do this is in the last hour before sunset.
→ The promenade will take you to the White Tower, a former Ottoman tower and prison, that’s now a major symbol of the city. Inside, there’s a museum on the history of the city and an observation deck. Too bad that it had already closed when I was in the area.
→ Walk a few hundred meters more down the promenade and you’ll spot an impressive 6 meters high monument, representing Alexander the Great riding his horse, Bucephalus.
→ Time to change directions and move to the city center: the Rotunda is Thessaloniki’s oldest building, dating from the Roman times (306 AD). Built on the orders of the emperor Galerius, this former church / mosque has a magnificent dome, that resembles the one of the Pantheon in Rome. It was closed when I reached it, so hopefully there will be a next time.
→ Right next to the Rotunda, Galerius ordered the construction of a triumphal arch, to celebrate his victory over the Persians. It is called – you probably guessed it – the Arch of Galerius. Despite the fact that only three of the original eight pillars survived the times, the relief sculptures are still as striking as in day one.
→ The Roman Forum, located north of the Aristotelous Square, was accidentally discovered during archaeological excavations in the 1960s. The site impresses with its size and urban planning, astounding for the 1st century AD, when it was built. What can you see here? A small amphitheater, several standing columns, the remains of two stories porticoes and the Roman baths.
→ Ano Poli, Thessaloniki’s Upper Town, is a mix of stone-paved alleys, old churches, small squares and traditional Greek and Ottoman houses. It’s a pleasant option for a Sunday stroll.
→ Thessaloniki has its own Acropolis, but it’s not comparable to the one in Athens. By definition, an acropolis is a central, defensively oriented district in ancient Greek cities, positioned on the highest ground. Top landmarks of the Acropolis include the Heptapyrgion (a Byzantine era fortress), the Byzantine Walls (which protected the city during the Middle Ages) and the Trigonion Tower, from where you can enjoy a memorable panoramic view over the lower city and the bay area.
→ Last, but not least, if you want to do some shopping, head to Tsimiski Street, hosting many large department stores, with both local and international brands. And not far you’ll find Modiano Market, the largest indoor market of Thessaloniki, a great place if you’re in search for local products.
From Thessaloniki to Lefkada
The drive from Thessaloniki to Lefkada takes around 4 hours and a half – that if you don’t have other plans, like I did. It would have been a pity not to make a detour and visit Kalabaka, famous for the six Meteora Monasteries, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back in the 16th century, there were 24 monasteries in total, but with time passing most of them became a ruin or simply disappeared. The six remaining are built on natural pillars and hill-like rounded rocks, and can be accessed by staircases and pathways carved into the rock.
I highly recommend going at sunset to one of the few panoramic spots and soak in the atmosphere. The view – with the rock formations, the monasteries and the valley beneath – is surreal. It’s one of those magic moments, impossible to forget.
The second stop was in the seaside town of Parga, one of the most charming and picturesque places you can find in continental Greece. Situated in a dreamy natural environment, it features a beautiful bay with small islands and many two-story mansions with colorful facades. On top of a hill, overlooking the bay, lie the ruins of the Venetian Castle, a historic landmark free of charge.
The best beach in Parga is, in my opinion, Piso Krioneri. Despite the fact that it does not have sand, only pebbles, it’s a small secluded beach, with rocky shores and turquoise waters. The area is also perfect for snorkeling, thanks to the rocks and sea life.
My third and final stop (made on the way back) was Kastoria, a town located on the western shore of Lake Orestiada, in a valley surrounded by limestone mountains. I chose this town for a night stay mainly because it has old neighborhoods, narrow streets, grand mansions and Byzantine churches. Was it worth the detour, in the end? Well, there were only 100 extra kilometers, so I’d say that it was.
Guide to Lefkada
Found on the western side of Greece, the Ionian islands are famous for their gorgeous beaches and luxuriant vegetation. Kerkyra, Kefalonia, Zakynthos and Lefkada are the most popular, but there are also few other smaller islands, like Paxi and Ithaca, perfect for relaxation.
As mentioned at the beginning, Lefkada is the only island that can be reached directly by car, via a causeway and a floating bridge. It’s definitely a popular destination for Romanians, since half of the cars I’ve seen on the roads or in the parking lots there had Romanian plates. And I am not exaggerating.
I am not going to bore you this time with historical facts or landmark information, because I came to Lefkada with one sole purpose in mind: enjoy its beaches. So instead I will try to classify and divide them into the following categories:
→ On the west coast there are spectacular beaches, with white small pebbles or sand and crystal clear waters. Most of these are pretty long, with large cliffs and are relatively easily accessible by car or by scooter. From north to south, here are the three beaches I visited: Kathisma, Egremni and Porto Katsiki. All these are very well-known, with probably millions of social media photos and videos. It’s worth mentioning that all are free of charge.
→ On the south coast there are smaller beaches with clear water too, but the access roads are pretty bad, to say the least. Agiofili is one of the largest, but to get there you’ll have to follow a gravel road with a lot of potholes for a few kilometers and pay a €7 fee, because you need to pass through a private area to get to the beach. That’s crazy, if you ask me, so I skipped it. Ammoussa and Afteli are two similar pebbles beaches, pretty packed with tourists. It’s hard to find a spot, if you arrive later than 10-11 am.
→ On the east coast there are long beaches, with both pebbles and sand, but not as spectacular as the ones mentioned above. I only visited the beach in Nydri, which was surprisingly quiet for such a town. The water here was not translucent at all, though.
Greece has been again extremely welcoming, starting with the people and continuing with the beaches, the chill atmosphere and the delicious food. I am happy that I finally managed to experience much of what Northern Greece has to offer. Now, I am just hoping that I’ll come back soon, for other marvelous islands.
Ta léme sýntoma, Hellas!
Author: Marian Bulacu
Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.