The name of Greece conjures up images of whitewashed houses with blue shutters, picturesque islands or the glorious Acropolis in Athens. But the mainland of Greece has so many treasures worth exploring that a single holiday of one or two weeks isn’t simply enough. This time, let us focus on the northern and central regions of Greece, which are every bit as fantastic as the South with numerous islands and beaches tempting to leave everything behind and stay there forever.
To start with, you are advised to explore the east-central Greece or the region Thessaly. Thessaly stretches between the Pindos Mountains and the Aegean Sea and has all natural wonders typical of the Greek landscape; dramatic mountainscapes, ravishing coastlines and of course islands. Having an envious location, the region may be a convenient gateway to the other parts of Greece, like Epirus on the west or Macedonia to the north, which are also jam packed full of culture and history. Travelling to or inside Thessaly is quite convenient, because all the cities in the region are connected with a railway. Intercity buses are also an option, in case you don’t want to fly (Volos airport is the only operating one in the region).
Thessaly – In the Heavens Above
The Thessalian Plain, which used to be a cradle of Neolithic civilization, is now dotted with numerous archeological areas and Byzantine churches, but the crown jewel of the region is of course Meteora, the most impressive monastery complex in the world! Yes, you heard right – in the world, because there is hardly another symbiosis of a man-made and natural wonder of this kind.
Meteora has an unrivalled reputation due to its location. The monastery on top of gigantic rock pinnacles seems straight out of a fantasy novel at first glance. The nearer you get, the more realistic it becomes, but the shocking sense of wonderment never leaves you. One of the world’s most spectacular sacred sites offers a panoramic view of the Pindos Mountain range and the green valley of Thessaly. Rock carved steps are the only access to Meteora, so be ready to feel a little bit exhausted when you get to the top. Being a religious person to appreciate this beauty is not a must, of course, because the courtyard, monks’ cells and chapels aside, there is a lot to admire, including fantastic frescoes from Byzantine times. The entry to the main monastery or The Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron is only three euros, which is quite good, especially for backpackers who usually take Meteora hiking tours.
Those who are interested in buying something valuable can visit Ekfrasi shop in the nearby town of Kalambaka. Here you can find traditional Greek sandals and other leather goods with good prices. This kind of purchase may be quite a downright bargain, because most of the times you buy some souvenirs, which are simply useless. Meteora is also a heaven for rock climbers, who crave a new frontier in their hobby, because the smooth rocks provide an adrenaline-charged challenge to even the most experienced climbers.
The north of Thessaly is famous for being the residence of the mythological family of the Greek gods. Yes, you are absolutely right, we are speaking about the Mount Olympus! You’ll hardly see any gods there, but the mountain and the surrounding Olympus National Park are well worth visiting. This area will impress photography buffs, nature lovers and adventure seekers alike. Here you can get around by donkey or on foot. Those who want to test their endurance should reach the mountain peaks or just hike through the spectacular Enipeas Gorge, which highlights the Olympus National Park.
The nearby quaint town of Litochoro can be the added bonus of diversity. Being only a few kilometres away from the sea, this town has a perfect location and thus is a famous tourist destination in the region. Want to satisfy your cultural cravings? Then visit the religious monuments, pilgrimage places, and the Ecclesiastical Byzantine Museum.
This mountainous region in the north west of the country has a reputation of a gloomy and inhospitable land, since most of the foreigners are used to the sun-kissed islands and the southern beaches of the country. But once you visit this area, you’ll realize how unjustified the prejudice is. After all, not all the people are exceptional lovers of the sun and sea. We mean it’s of course great to soak up all the delights the beaches have, but sometimes you may want something different and this is the time when you begin to think about the rugged mountain ranges with more rainfall and a wide range of flora and fauna. Nature lovers are advised to take hikes and explore the area at their own pace, but they should keep in mind that due to the alpine climate there may be bears and wolves in the area. Those who don’t want to risk, can take a guide to be on the safe side. The surrounding villages will provide an ideal shelter on your way and this is where you’ll experience hospitality in a Greek way. To understand the importance of hospitality in the Greek culture, it’s enough to say that Zeus, the father of the mythological family of the gods was the protector of those who were far from home and was the god of hospitality.
Six archeological sites, among which the spiritual place of Dodoni is set apart, are the tangible reminders of the dramatic history of Greece. What regards the bridges in the region, they can be described as spectacular feats of human ingenuity, which faced numerous challenges, like the earthquakes and are still steady. Epirus is also an ideal spot for adrenaline fueled sports, like kayaking or water rafting through the ravishing rivers, canyoning and mountain biking. Photography enthusiasts will appreciate many photo options against the backdrop of dusky mountains and breathtaking gorges. The mist-enshrouded Dragon Lakes are also famous destinations in the region. Ecology nerds will love the unique ecosystem in and around the lakes, which used to be an efficient source of myths and legends for the Greeks during the ancient times.
Macedonia As It Is
The homeland of Alexander the Great welcomes you to admire its sheer beauty and to pay tribute to the 4000 years of history, which influenced the Ancient world in a very irrevocable way. This is the land from where the Hellenistic culture was spread over mighty empires and the myriad of nations all the way up to India, which was considered to be “the end of the known world” at that time. Furthermore, there have been found many tangible evidences of Neolithical civilization, so history buffs will find lots of impressive stuff to be busy with. Vergina, which was once called Aigai, when it was the first capital of Macedonia is the must-see of the region, because this is where the Royal Tomb of King Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great was excavated. A museum is built on top of the tomb, which contains a remarkable collection of weapons and jewellery made of steel gold and silver. Just keep in mind that taking photos is forbidden, but postcards and catalogues with detailed descriptions and photos can be found at nearby shops. If you intend to visit Thessaloniki before coming to this archeological site, you are advised to have a look at the artifacts from this tomb at the Archeological Museum of the city to have a more thorough understanding of what you will see here.
If you wish to wallow in the historical atmosphere of Macedonia, you should definitely visit the religious center of Dinon, marvel the extraordinary mosaics in Pella, the glorious capital of Macedonia and the archeological site of Philippi, with remarkable ruins of a Roman colony from the 1st century BC.
Once you are in Macedonia, take the advantage to visit some of the picturesque cities of the region, among which Kastoria is a must. The surrounding mountains, lake Orestiada, Byzantine churches and old suburbs of Doltsó and Apozári grace the city alongside its fur trade tradition. Summer is of course the best time to visit Castoria, and not only for walks around the lake and boat rides, but also for cultural events. Yet, there is an exciting spectacle for those who manage to visit this city in winter: the New Year’s Eve celebrations combined with some pagan traditions like Dionyssian days, when people dress up in scary masks to keep up the spirit of this ancient custom.
Edessa is the hidden treasure of Macedonia. It has never been considered “touristy” in the typical sense of the word, but it’s worth investing some time to marvel the picturesque waterfalls and numerous streams immersed in greenery. Lai-Lia Ski center in Seres is a hub for winter sports, so break the tradition of having a holiday in Greece by the sea only. Greece is nice whenever you come here! An interesting tradition of walking on the fire is preserved here and many people from nearby villages celebrate the holiday of Anasternari, the main components of which are the barefoot villagers walking on hot charcoal. Don’t panic! They somehow avoid from burning themselves.
What regards Kavala, it’s an important port and boasts many historic buildings which reflect the glory of its dramatic past. The city is also famous for tobacco making tradition, which has made an indelible mark on the economy and history of Kavala. Everything that may interest you about tobacco making in this region can be seen and learnt at Τhe Tobacco Museum. The Old City is particularly interesting in terms of history and culture. The Turkish dominion resulted in the construction of many “Muslim-influenced” buildings, like the imposing Imaret and Hussein Bey Mosque. Anyway, if you are not a culture buff, just walk along the cobblestoned streets, ports, fringed with palm trees and taste amazing seafood at many fish taverns scattered around the city.
Thrace – The Homeland of Bravehearts
While Orpheus seems way too unreal to mention him every time while speaking about Thrace, legendary Spartacus, the brave slave who rose against the whole Roman Empire is enough to immortalize this land. The pristine nature of this region contributes to the development of ecotourism and outdoor recreation. So if you have an adventurous heart and a desire to explore, welcome! Here you can spot both Greek and Byzantine monuments and archeological sites, which are the witnesses of the rich history of this land. But the real treasure of Thrace is Vistonida Lake and Dadia Forest. This lush forest will enchant you with its spellbinding vistas and secret trails. Bird watching enthusiasts will enjoy the opportunity to spot some endangered species of birds, which are under protection alongside some rare plants, reptiles and amphibians. The nearby Ecotourism center will provide a lodge and catering.
The dreamlike environment of Vistonida Lake will put a spell on you. The nearby wetlands, which are a part of the National Park of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, are among the most beautiful ones in the country. This is where Hercules did one of his Twelve Labours, fighting and capturing the man-eating horses of the local king. But legends aside, this lake is of incomparable beauty and one of the must-sees of Thrace. The bird population of 260 species enriches the biodiversity of the surrounding area, which is also home to some unique species of fish and amphibian.
And finally for those who are in Greece for exceptional fun and mouth-watering food (believe us there are many tourists of this kind), read our advice below, based on personal experiences.
Go Crazy at a Greek Wedding
If you are lucky enough to have a friend among the locals, who is invited to a wedding, you have big chances to be a part of that fun. You may ask how? First of all, you should keep in mind that the Greeks have the habit of inviting so many guests, that sometimes the neighbour’s third cousin is likely to be there as well. So you won’t make a great difference for the ceremony holders. Furthermore, the couple may be extremely happy for a foreign guest like you, who is going to take the impressions of their wedding all the way up to his home country.
So what to expect when you are a guest at a Greek wedding party? The preparations are the first step of the big day and depending on your sex, you’ll be the part of either the groom’s or the bride’s “staff”. The females take part in the interesting ceremony of making the bed for the newlyweds and throwing money and rice on it to guarantee prosperity. And then comes the odd tradition of rolling a baby across the bed, which is a must to ensure fertility. What regards the groom’s attendants, they have the honour of helping him to get ready, while shaving the groom is the exceptional role of his best man. The real fun begins after the religious ceremony, when all the guests begin celebrating with mostly urban folk music and ouzo-soaked dances.
Actually, the Greek weddings, especially the ones, which take place in provincial towns, are a little bit messy and it will be hard for a non-Greek to understand what is exactly going on. But that’s not a big deal! After all, when there is the music, dances, drinks and of course a huge assortment of yummy food, who cares? Be ready for the elderly people to ask you about your marital status and if you are 25+ and are single, they will definitely torture you with odd questions. And this is when you realize how much better it is not to speak the language! Another point that will make you happy for not knowing the language is the fact that all the intimate information about the attendees is the property of everyone, because a huge wave of gossip is in the air. “Look how flirty Costas seems with the girl in a purple gown! Is he cheating on his wife?” or “Have you noticed Maria wearing a push-up bra? Her boobs were not that nice, believe me!” This is how you realize that you’ll definitely never meet so many Marias anywhere else! And you’ll have the impression that every second man you meet is Nikos, Giorgos or Costas! Anyway, that won’t make your day less memorable. The warm-hearted Greeks will make you feel like you have been familiar for ages. The only problem you may have is the limited space of your stomach. But we are sure you’ll find the way to fit in the last piece of the dessert. And now the epic moment! Go burn the calories trying to imitate the traditional dances, some of which being exactly for the happy and drunk ones!
You Lucky Greek People!
When you look through the menus in the taverns and watch how passionately the locals eat, it’s hard to imagine there are still any well-built people. But believe it or not, there are…and oh Lord! How handsome most of them may be. My lovely ladies, this is the good news for you! Spotting half-Gods is among the famous outdoor activities in Greece! And the surprising part of all this is the fact that the handsome and gorgeous ones aren’t the property of show business and model agencies, like in most countries. Seriously, have you ever visited city markets or some fast food cafes in Greece? If yes, you have probably been astonished since most of the men here seem to be the sons of Zeus himself! Joke aside, the locals are the greatest treasure of the country and the only thing that may upset you is the language barrier. If somehow you manage to have a talk with some of the locals, keep in mind that this is not England. So don’t keep on discussing the weather all the time. Anyway, it’s nice all year round. Yes, even in winter, when there is no snow in most cities, but the cold, humid wind blows from the sea, bringing the most unpleasant feelings anyone can have with wet hair under the air conditioner. The weather in Greece is always nice! Cause this is Greece and everything about this country should be great! Even the humid wind in winter! This is how the locals think of their homeland, and no one can persuade them to think the opposite way. And to tell you the truth, there is hardly any need to do so, because even a short time in Greece is enough for you to think the same way.
What the locals like to speak about most of the time is the history of Greece and its influence on the global civilization. This time I cannot say anything but comparing this phenomenon with the situation in Germany, when most of the natives don’t like to discuss World War 2 and some other parts of their history and this is not the nicest way to start a conversation with a German. What regards the Greeks, they are obsessed with their culture and they do love telling the foreigners about the great times their nation had in the ancient ages. But this is not done in a way you feel somewhat guilty not to have a past like this or for not having that tremendous influence on other nations, like the Greeks did. So feel free to start a conversation of that kind. You’ll be on the right way!
The Smell that Drives You Mad!
Greece is a real heaven for food fetishists and we don’t exaggerate it in the least! Especially the Europeans will be contented with the prices of many dishes in restaurants, because if you consider what you get for example with minimum 10 euros, it’s really worth it. Of course, there may be some tourist traps, like in any country under the radar in terms of tourist attraction popularity, but as usual we advise skipping them by dining out far from flashy touristy places, choosing for example family owned restaurants, where the locals visit mostly.
Starting with starters! This is how the Greeks do. Among the most delicious appetizers or as the locals say “mezethes” there is the fried cheese, which can leave everything of that kind behind. This salty indulgence is called saganaki and is made of different kinds of cheeses, but the most delicious one is believed to be yellow cheese. Dakos is another cheese appetizer, which is also called the Greek Bruschetta. By the way, what comes to cheese, it’s really amazing in Greece and even the simple Feta with oregano and olive oil is a delicacy.
The Greek dips, like Tzatziki and Taramosalata take the sauces to the next level and what is really surprising, the ingredients are not that many and the technique of making the sauce isn’t that elaborate as in the French cuisine for example, but that doesn’t make them less delicious.
The portions of main courses and salads in Greece may be a bit huge for one person, so make sure you always come with a company to share all that yummy stuff. Gyros is the iconic street food and a main course in many taverns as well. This skewered meat dish is served with sauces, tomatoes, onions and all this on a pita bread saturated with meat juices. Mousakka or the Greek interpretation of Lasagna is popular in every corner of the country. No matter which city you visit, in every tavern you’re likely to find this great dish with minced meat, vegetables and that crazy mix of cheeses on top, flavoured with the famous Bechamel sauce.
If this doesn’t sound perfect enough, there is also a huge assortment of seafood dishes, salads and appetizer on offer in every restaurant that will get your food pulse racing without any doubt. The sun and sea aside, isn’t this a strong reason to visit Greece? It is!
Photo via visitmeteora travel