Evening drinks with Marie-Helene and a yummy lunch with Daphne were both really satisfying exchanges. The joy of meeting others in my own, rather niche profession and being able to talk shop, knowing they speak the same language (Shiatsu I mean! I spoke French with one and English with the other) was delightful.
Beautiful doorways abound.
I thought it was a church, but it turned out to be a night club! Thessaloniki, Greece
There was WiFi at the Studio Arabas hostel where I stayed for 2 nights, on Satchouri. I booked through Hostelworld. It is steeply uphill and I didn’t have time to explore the Old Town that it is in because I was meeting people in the part nearer the sea where most of the monuments are – that’s a good trek down and climb back up so be warned.
I left early to walk the hour to the bus station and caught the morning sunlight, Thessaloniki
The hostel was clean, but not in a squeaky clean sort of way. I got some advice from the lovely Charlotte while I was there. Although you can’t do this at her place…
… It is always worth booking a hostel by phone or in person because you often get money off or a free breakfast. They save money on the fees they have to pay to the third party, the booking website.
The book fair was on that day, Thessaloniki, Greece
I was on my way to a meeting but needed a cup of tea. It was going to be an hour’s walk. Until, that is, I spied Vermilion.
Just my sort of place. Creative and friendly, good WiFi and recycled jewellery.
I was early and they were cleaning and preparing for the day, Vermilion, Thessaloníki, Greece
Nearby are other nice places – a bakery, cheese shop and more.
Recycled jewellery made by the owner
Local people resting in the shade
I was fascinated to glimpse women sewing and men and women sharing a drink in the shade.
A group of men in the distance, taken with the zoom. They went back and forth through a door in the wall behind – I was so curious!
In Greece many people draw a cross on themselves when they see a church. A woman on the train did it as we whizzed past one. Later I saw a man walking a dog, doing the same thing .
The priest was just emerging as I crept around the lovely church near my hostel
There are Classical Greek columns everywhere in Thessaloniki.
Ionic columns add finesse to the Cathedral, Thessaloniki, Greece
This ancient monument was built in 305 AD following the final victory of Emperor Galerius against the Persians.
Carvings from the arch
I liked the apartment blocks cheek by jowl with the ancient stone
Everywhere there was marble – walls, floors, and columns of course!
Travelling around Greece is straightforward. On this, my second solo trip, I flew to Athens overnight with Air Baltic (on time, efficient) from Edinburgh; walked and took the metro in the capital; and then went to Thessaloniki, Komotini in the north, and the village of Proskinites by bus to see my friends’ new born baby. There I either walked or was driven in the jeep. I returned to Thessaloníki the same way, and then flew to Paris with Transavia for 39 euros.
Travel around Athens
Crossing the road: Wherever you are, beware the motorised scooters – either being driven wildly with one or more people on them, or abandoned in the middle of pavements.
Like everywhere else in Europe, look left before crossing the road!
The Athens Metro
Metros are clean, cool in temperature, crowded at rush hour as anywhere in Europe, efficient, regular and all stations are announced in English as well as Greek. Ticket machines are quite easy to use and you can choose to view the screen in English. Tickets cost 2.70 euros for 2 tickets and go down in price if you buy more. You can use one anywhere within 90 minutes, which I didn’t realise and so wasted a second one on a bus connection. Make sure you register your ticket on the machine both in and out of the metro, and in (but not out) on the buses.
Trains, buses and travel out of Athens
I took the Athens to Thessaloniki train, even though there is a lot of bad press to be found on the internet about trains in Greece. The service was clean and smooth (“better than the UK, like Italy” said my neighbour!) You can book online via the OSE website.
For the rest of Greece, the bus is better, but finding information and booking by website is hard work if you don’t read Greek. The main page of the main Greek bus company website (ktelmacedonia.gr) comes up in English on my phone, but the list of places does not and anyway, even looking up the Greek spelling for the places didn’t mean that they appeared on the list although they do have buses which go there! On my laptop, the website was impossible for me to operate. If you are stuck, you could try asking a friendly waitress as they usually speak great English and can often be really helpful making calls for you.
I have discovered this since writing the above : Bus tickets pagebus website KTEL Macedonia – new e tickets available. I am leaving both sets of information so that you have 2 options. Please leave a comment if you find the best way and that will help others. Thank you.
You can also buy ferry tickets, and transport or store luggage through KTEL Macedonia (as above).
The police boarded the Komotini – Thessaloniki bus, looked at random people’s passports, and took 3 men off this morning who had no papers.
Which bus station?
It is therefore best to book at the bus station (KTEL has 2 bus stations in Athens: Kifissos and Liossion. Note that when it asks you which one you want to leave from, it also includes ‘Pireus, Athens’ which is actually half an hour away by car so you don’t want that unless you happen to be staying near there). Alternatively you can ring up: I got a very nice man on the phone who spoke manageable English and he took my name and gave me the information and advice I needed. ( When I got there a few days later and went to buy the ticket, he introduced himself to me saying it was he who I had spoken to – what service!) There is a 25 per cent discount in advance which is hard if you are making spontaneous decisions.
There is no bla bla car (online car sharing in France, Spain etc) here in Greece. There are regular tolls along the motorways – between 3-13 euros depending on the distance. See below for other people’s blogs about travelling in Greece.
Bus Athens to Thessaloniki 39 euros one way, 59 euros return (note that the English translation says ‘refund’ instead of ‘return’!
23 euros bus Komotini to Thessaloniki (6 hours)
2 euros X1 bus Thessaloniki (dome) Macedonia bus station to airport. Every half hour. Buy ticket from kiosk by bus stop.Very crowded. 40 – 60 minutes.
For a few days I was lucky enough to stay at the Philippos Hotel, and I recommend it for the breakfast (a buffet – all you can eat, including olives, feta and fresh tomatoes, sumptious cakes and pastries – look out for the one with pine nuts and craberries – yum!), the huge balcony with table chairs and sun lounger, cleanliness, olive oil soaps and other toiletries, and friendly staff (and that means friendliness from reception, kitchen, cleaning ,and repairing people – all with cheery ‘kalimera‘s’ / good morning).
I stayed in Psyri which is described as ‘full of character’. The part that is closest to the Monastiraki and Plaka parts of the city is lively in the evenings with lights hanging across the streets and bars constantly full. However, it is full of the saddest cats I have ever seen.
The other half of Psyri quarter, to the north on the way to Omonia, is full of friendly people, but dirty and noisy with a lot of men shifting large boxes and dealing in who knows what. The diminutive man in the corner shop opposite had communicative English and told me he has been working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week without a single day off in years, because he is saving to go back to Bangladesh and start a shop there.
There is a good bakery, a Pilates Studio which offers Shiatsu (42 Zone), and a brass bed shop – all on or near Sarri where my air bnb was.
Although I had some considerable trouble getting into my apartment, the sign below for Athens Walkers (Their website (which is currently down) states that it is ‘a small cooperative that operates all year long. We want to establish human relationships and build authentic friendships’) was outside the door so I guessed I was in the right place!
It turned out, after I had been there for 5 days, that there was roof garden on the 6th floor of my block, with fantastic views.
Graffiti Street Art
What unites both sides of this neighbourhood is the street art – a veritable hoarde of fascinating images and skill. It looks like there are some vibrant clubs and bars in the back streets, but I was warned not to be out on my own in this area at night and was, anyway, busy elsewhere most evenings. There were other tourists who had strayed here, otherwise it was local people. I did walk home alone though and had no trouble – I simply did not meet anyone’s eye and kept on going straight, with an air of purpose!
There was a place called Heart of Athens (maybe a nightclub?) nearby, which might have explained the subject matter of these graffiti artists. I don’t know about you, but once I have started to see a theme, I find it everywhere!
Monastiraki, Plaka, Omonia areas of Athens, Greece
Monastiraki is south of Psyri, a bustling square with a metro station, beautiful church and a million people at all times of the day and night as far as I could tell. Plaka is slightly south east, a pretty hub full of restaurants (mostly for tourists I think) and some welcome green plants. It is beside the Roman Forum (a prime spot for sunset photos) and not far from the Acropolis itself. Omonia is a very large roundabout full of traffic, high rise flats with a shopping centre where you can find the Greek version of Boots The Chemist if you need it (Hondos Centre), and a metro station.
Often when I travel I buy my food cheaply from supermarkets and prepare it for myself in the hostel – not so here. I sampled all manner of delicacies and was treated to traditional food from all parts of the country. I also learned about a long-standing Greek Orthodox funeral food custom.
Street food is good! I had a vege open pie from Feyrouz on Kapori in Athens, and at Falafellas on Ailiou I had falafels in pitta with aubergine (egg plant), yogurt, tomatoes and the option of spices for 3.80 euros for a medium, normal lunch size. Small outlets sell coffee and sandwiches with a wide array of fillings, such as the corner of Eyripidou and Eolou. At this place a take-away iced, decaff cappuccino is 1.20 euros and you get a bottle of cold water thrown in.
Fresh Fruit Juice
Likewise, juice shops are everywhere in the Greek capital and most refreshing in the heat. Nova Gea, 6 Vyronos, had a novel way of serving where you placed your jam jar under the tap at the base of the counter and waited for it to pour in.
For meals with friends, try Avocado (vegetarian) where there are books to read.
There are so many places where you can eat under the stars in Athens. I loved Seychelles for an array of delicacies including flava bean puree, sardines wrapped in vine leaves, a cooked green veg salad (pvlita) and carob rusks; and Katsourmpos for Cretan food where I sampled chips cooked in goat’s butter with eggs on top, and Greek salad with bread soaked in the wonderful dressing.
The best meal was one prepared by my hosts (Italian and Greek) of barbounia (red mullet fish), Greek cooked vegetables with a sauce made of mustard, spices and olive oil), and salads (Greek and Greens), all washed down by tsipouro (an un-aged brandy) which they had bought from a monastery on Paros – lethal at lunch time.
The café at the Acropolis Museum (outside which proudly flutters The Flag of Europe) was cool to cold with air conditioning and has an amazing view of Mount Lycabettus and the…. Acropolis – watch out you don’t get stuck in the Ladies loos!
Supermarkets and Food Shopping
There are not many large supermarkets in the neighbourhoods mentioned above, however google for any Sklavenitis (8 minutes from Psyri) or AB Vasilopoulos (9 minutes from Psyri) which are the major chains in Greece. Cheese and fish counters are of particular note, but you won’t find biscuits or oat cakes (a Scottish delicacy)! The range of cakes, pastries and biscuits that you will find in the bakeries, however, is vast and there are sugar free options as well as artisan bread.
You can buy a dazzling array of fruit and veg from wayside shops and stalls in Aristofanous; there is a Central Municipal Market off Athinas (the name of the road); and there are fascinating individual shops selling cheese, olives, flowers, hardware and useful things to put on an altar on Evripidou.
Unlike Estonia and Norway, where the alcohol is sold in separate stores (not beer), here you can get it in the supermarkets, but it was much more expensive than I thought it would be – about the same as the UK. On the other hand, in the small villages near where I have stayed a couple of times in the north, you can get a bottle of retsina for 1.25 euros.
On my beach day I was taken for a late lunch at Theodore and Helen’s (Leof. Legrenon, Lavreotiki 195 00 Te; +30 2292 051936) – where the platter of salads including the sea greens (which were the best) and the mussels were sumptuous.
Sample menus with prices and deep fried strips of courgette (zucchini) in the restaurant outside Athens near Kape Beach
Stalls and shops line the streets around the Acropolis selling clothes, trinkets, leather goods and jewellery. Some shop keepers call or tempt you in, others sit outside smoking and looking very hot. If you pass by every day as I did, you start to see the displays changing, and without meaning to, you stop and browse. I had to rein myself in from buying anything that would take my rucksack over weight, even though I wanted to get mementoes for my daughters and family.
Coliva – Greek Orthodox Funeral Food
I was in Athens to lead a workshop for Shiatsu practitioners who are working with the dying or those suffering loss. On the second day, Panayiota who was organising the event, brought in a cake made by her sister.
This beautiful creation is called Coliva and it is for Greek Orthodox mourners to eat after the interment. The server mixes it up and then you can see that it is like a loose melee of mixed nuts including almonds, pomegranate, raisins (golden and black), white sugar and sometimes also coriander and parsley – lively colours and a variety of textures and tastes. It tasted really good and fortifying. Portions are put into individual, brown paper bags and handed to each person, and eating it together symbolises the sharing of the pain of living without the deceased.
Initially this dish was prepared to appease the gods of Hades, the underworld, so that they would give up the body after death, allowing it to go to a better place. Nowadays, it is to fortify the grieving.
Here is some advice from a local friend who was so kind as to send me suggestions:
If you are hungry you can stop at the oldest pastry shop Ariston (Voulis 10, Athina 105 62, Greece) which is parallel to Ermou Street. Ermou Street is the biggest shopping street.
For coffee or a cold drink you can visit A for Athens, it has a great top floor café open to everyone and you can see the Parthenon. And if you are hungry you can go at Savvas across the road (Ermou 91, Athina 105 55, Greece).
For drinks, here is a hidden bar at The Art Foundation Taf (Address: Normanou 5, Athina 105 55, Greece)
Another couple of places for nice traditional sweets are Krinos and Sermpetiko Nancys Sweet Home (Pl. Iroon 1, Athina 105 54, Greece)
Finally, I found this recommendation: Vasilopoulos deli in Klafthmonos square is where you can find a bit of everything, some of the best products from around the globe. 10 minutes walk from Psyri.
Photographs of some of the wonderful sights in Athens which I saw on my trip
There are many beautiful Greek Orthodox churches everywhere
Other nice places and things I passed by and snapped
Overall it is very built up with only a few green areas, although you will come across gorgeous flowers every now and then. Try and cut through the area around the Acropolis and you will get a little mountain feeling – parched but traffic free and mosaic full. Thanks to the lovely Maria for showing me the way.
Athens is surrounded by the Imittos mountains – it was the first thing I noticed when I got off the plane at 5.30am. The centre of Athens, on the other hand, is dominated by the Acropolis – a citadel (or upper city) on a hill. Showing clear blue skies through the arches of its most famous ruin, the Parthenon, and baked the colour of pale sand which stunningly reflects the setting sun, it is proud and impressive in its old age. Planned by Pericles with advice from Pheidias, and described as “a unique monument of thought and the arts” by UNESCO, it is the world heritage site to end all WHSs.
At its foot are more ancient remains; more tourists than you can imagine even if you know Marbella well; a suprisingly tempting selection of leather belts, ceramic blue and white ‘evil eyes’, and the sort of blousy, floaty clothes that are so attractive when it’s over 33 degrees, but which you are unlikely to wear when you get home unless you go to Shiatsu classes.
Why I was here
I was here to lead a workshop, How we Cope with Loss with Shiatsu, at the peaceful Zen Center (link below), wonderfully organised by Panayiota Polychroni-Giannino. I had an amazing itinerary – danced at the Pride celebrations, attended ‘Norma’ (opera by Bellini) at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, and had some delicious and companionly meals with new friends.
Opera at the Odeon
Norma was performed in the atmospheric ruins of the Odeon, and after initial rain we were graced with a cool breeze, an attractive sunset and then an almost full moon. Directed and with costumes, set and projections by the challenging La Fura dels Baus from Barcelona, the opera was sung and played by the Athens National Opera. Part of the Athens and Epidaurus Summer Festival, it used both the theme of the opera itself – the almost-infanticide by a heart-broken mother whose lover has dumped her and gone off with the virgin priestess – and at the same time raised our awarness of the damage we are doing to our planet by making set and costumes from recycled waste / plastic.
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre
Later I was taken to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, which, according to my laptop’s translation is a “remodeling of the Kallithea area and the phallic front, giving life to a place that has been devastated for many years.” It is an open area of 210 acres housing the new National Library of Greece and the new Opera House plus gardens and other performance areas and a water feature with cafes etc. A very pleasant place to visit (slightly out of town) when the temperatures cool, just a tad, in the evenings.
Open Air Cinema
I loved the open air cinema, Cine Paris, on a rooftop in the centre. I recommend that you book as it is very crowded, although there are 2 films per evening. It did of course have marvellous views of …
Economical and Political Situation
According to the Financial Times, Greece outperfomed all the major European economies in the 1960s, but “In 1981 Greece joined the European Union, and that coincided with the start of its fall.” In 1990, in advance of joining the Euro single currency in 2001, things started to slowly improve, only to see another even more serious crisis in the run up to the approval of the adjustment programme in 2015. To all intents and purposes, it is still in economic crisis now and parts of Athens reflect this – pavements need repairing, buildings are falling down. There was a transport strike when I was there, so there were no metros, trams or buses for the main part of the day. I only hope the workers win their case.
Then there is the refugee crisis (our term, not theirs), which has seen countless people dispossessed, arriving here with no money or home, often with traumatic stories to tell and therefore depleted ability to integrate. They are to be found washed up on Lesvos disshevelled and desperate; wandering along railway lines in the middle of nowhere with nothing in their pockets (no ID papers means they are more difficult to send back), and in Athens begging or lining the streets, some working like beavers selling water melons the size of dragon’s eggs from the backs of lorries, and others standing around aimlessly or taking drugs in a corner. There are elections coming up soon (7.7.19) as a result of the defeat of Alexis Tsipras (prime minister) in the European Elections, and everyone expects the Right Wing party to get in now, although those I discussed this with told me there was little difference between the Right and the Left. I saw a truck with refugees lying down and sitting in the back of it and a loud speaker making announcements – presumably campaigning for votes.
I also visited the Kyclos project, a grass-roots day centre project where young people from Afganistan and elsewhere are making a community and others are having Greek lessons to help them find work and become part of their new community. Run by the indomitable Katerina, it has an amazing record for keeping the users attending and engaged, finding them work, training them so they have transferable skills and offering a vital lifeline to keep them off the streets and away from potential trouble. Like all such projects, it is in dire need of funds for more staff right now. You can donate here. (http://www.kyclos.org/page-story.html)
I took the metro (red line 2) to Daphne from both Acropolis and Omonia (direction Elliniko to get there and Anthoupoli to get back) to give Shiatsu.
On my final day I was kindly driven to Kape Beach where all the tourists from the streets at the foot of the Acropolis had gone to swim and sunbathe (or so it seemed!). The highlight was swimming with my goggles on in the silky Aegean Sea and watching the fish below and all around me. There were white ones with black stripes, shoals of what seemed to be tiny, black ones which glinted silver when the sun shone on them at the right angle, and flat ones which I initially thought must be leaves until they wriggled side to side raising the sand and revealing themselves. Thanks to Elena for a great day out.
These fascinating photographs were shared with me by Nikos Savvidis, who is restoring the frescoes in the monasteries of Mount Athos, Greece.
Mount Athos is a mountain (6670 feet / 2033m) and peninsula just north of Thessaloniki in Greece. It is the eastern most of the three Chalcidice fingers pointing towards Turkey across the Aegean Sea.
Mount Athos or Agion Oros, as it is locally known, is the oldest surviving monastic community in the world. It dates back more than a thousand years, to Byzantine times. It is a unique monastic republic, which, although part of Greece, is governed by its own local administration. Quote from ouranoupoli.com.
The monks spend most of their time in silent prayer, especially between 2 – 6am when all is quiet. Otherwise they are busy maintaining the building, (link to Guardian photo essay), fishing, caring for livestock, growing and making wine, and preparing food. You can order some of their produce online.
In this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are 2000 monks living in 20 monasteries, 13 skytes, and 700 individual cells, hermitage and other buildings.
Skite or skyte is the state of being concealed. These are therefore private places of contemplation.
Nikos makes his colours using the original method, from the earth.
Robert Byron (author of The Station: Athos – Treasures and Men (Traveller’s)) called these frescoes the finest in the world.
Despite being known as ‘the garden of the mother of God’, no women are allowed in there – the Virgin Mary is the sole female representative.
Fascinating fact: Edward Lear was one of the many famous (male, of course) visitors to Mount Athos where he painted the Stavronikita Monastery according to Nicholas Shakespeare (link below). To cement the Russian connection (many of the rennovations are funded by them), Vladimir Putin visited in 2006 and 2016.
‘Aside from the limited supervision of the civil governor and police force provided by the Greek government, Athos functions autonomously and symbolizes a transnational faith community. ‘ Taken from https://sacredland.org/mount-athos-greece/
The Macedonian School had its centre in Thessaloniki and flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. Its hallmarks are realism in the depiction of the figures, not only in their external features but also in the rendering of their inner world, particularly their pathos.Macedonian heritage
There are several versions of the formation of the Mount doing the rounds of the internet. They usually concern Athos (one of the Gigantes according to Wikipedia) and a rock dropped on or thrown by Poseidon (the Greek god of the sea) .
This is the coast of Greece found between the cities of Thessaloniki and Alexandroupolis, in the East Macedonia and Thrace region.
In late November it is stark and beautiful. The geology is second to none and it boasts secluded beaches and miles of land for walking.
I was driven there by my wonderful host, a fount of local and fascinating information, Anastasia. She knows the location well and I was lucky to be taken to the best places. Monumental cliffs. East Macedonia and Thrace, Northern Greece. The island of Samothraki is visible along the length of this coastline. A 2.5 hour ferry trip away from Alexandrouplis, there are men-only monasteries and a fantastic walking route. Further down the coast towards Thessaloniki is the island of Thassos which is made of white marble, the same that was used to build the White House in Washington DC. Samosthraki almost lost in the mists, with fishing boats. East Macedonia and Thrace, Northern Greece.
All along this stretch glorious colours can be found: pink, blue, white, bronze, yellow, cream and golden. They simply gleam when the waves wash over or the rain drenches them.
There are rock stacks with grassy tufts growing out of them and, where they are surrounded by sea there are birds perched.
Unfortunately there was a recent tragic tale of an English woman, apparently familiar with the area, who was walking alone and got attacked by wild animals. This has made me wary of solo walking the Via Egnatia which passes this way. (The hiking trail begins in Dures, Albania (Dyrrachium in Roman times) and ends in Istanbul (Constantinople) Turkey – a full 1000 kms, 695 miles).
In twos or groups, the trails would be well worth following. You are advised never to run from such a creature, but to stoop to pick up a stone as if to throw because they understand this gesture and will usually leave.
According to the locals, this is the land of the Cyclops from Homer’s tales of Odysseus. There are two caves nearby purporting to be the place where he was captured by the single eyed giant Polyphemus. There is also a River Ulysses (Odysseus’ Roman name).
There is a newly excavated Roman amphitheatre with white columns which are the same as those on the beach nearby.
Each farmer has his own trees marked with name. Once they are producing enough they can sell them to the oil producers.
Much of the higher land consists of slabs of rock rich in oxydated iron and there are quartz crystals under ledges.
There is a wealth of local flora, even at this time of year – wild thyme and lavender, rosemary with purple flowers.
It is all about the animals here in Proskynites, a small village located in northern Greece, in the Thrace region.
A few days later the same mother, a tabby/white mix with a wonky eye, joined us at the house having made the journey herself (it took me 25 minutes to walk but maybe she knew a short cut!)
The land of Thrace also lies in Bulgaria to the north and Turkey to the east. The goddess of the same name was daughter of Oceanus and Parthenope, and sister of Europa. There is always a story.
Proskynites boasts 2 cafés where you can sit all day drinking tsipouro (a sort of grapa distinct from ouzo by omission of star anise) if you fancy; an equal number of churches; an extremely well kitted out supermarket selling almost everything and with a spotless meat area out back; a community centre; and a bus stop where you can get a lift to Komotini which is the nearest big town (about half an hours ride at 2.30 euros).
Everywhere I spy saints – icons sitting with their back to the till in the supermarket or stuck up above the steering wheel of the bus.
Here was some afternoon sunshine during my first 2 days and look!
Our days are mapped out with twice regular visits to the field ( 10 minutes away by jeep) to feed, water and look after the horses, one of whom has a sneezy cough.
Anyone who loves horses enough to do this is bound for heaven in my opinion, particularly with winds wailing from the Russian plains, temperatures of 4 degrees or torrential rain, the rest of us mere mortals would stay at home.
Not much further on is an abandoned village. The authorities offered them compensation in the form of land if they would vacate because it was too expensive to run electricity there. So the tale is told.
The tracks all look the same unless you learn to identify the different hills surrounding them.
They took absolutely no notice of me and only came back when they were effectively seen off.
This part of Greece is so close to the border that you can almost see across to Turkey, a non-EU country.
Causing it to fly off in chunky lumps when we once more gain the road.
Wrapped in foil and baked in the oven on top of the wood burner, they were delicious for breakfast.