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Two People, Fourteen Months, One huge world!

Greece Part Two - Northern Greece

GREECE | Wednesday, 18 November 2015 | Views [833] | Comments [1]

Give us a chance to tour around northern Greece with an expert in Byzantine architecture and we'll take it! My cousin Gabriel is currently studying for a doctorate at Durham University and to say that he is obsessed with Byzantine Churches would probably receive his full approval.

Gabriel joined us after we had spent a couple of nights in Thessaloniki and we spent the next ten days happily gadding about northern Greece in a hire car from one ancient site to another. Thessaloniki itself is no slouch when it comes to ancient ruins but it is also an active port and has a very lively nightlife. One cool little tip is to walk up to the "sailing" ships which can be seen taking little trips around the harbour. Far from being expensive they are actually free with a minimum 3 euro purchase from the bar - not that great an imposition for a half hour cruise.

Off on another journey! 

Off on another journey

Our first stop was at the Greek ruins of Dion which nestled at the foot of the mighty and much revered Mt. Olympus. As we walked around the huge site we came across one building which was still semi submerged beneath the waters from the Dion spring. To see the (replica) statues standing in their found positions in the wild environment was very cool, especially as we were also to spot a couple of otters playing in the reeds. There is a museum on the site also which contains the high value antiquities which had been discovered. We have seen many a museum of ancient gear before but what set this one apart was in the basement where a wonderful hands on class room had been set up which will doubtless inspire the next generation to continue the search to find and understand the nation's heritage. By now we had definitely hit low season in Europe and we were literally the only visitors in town so had the choice of the accommodation and had to take the decision as to which taverna owners to disappoint. As a result we ended up with a lovely two bed apartment right next to the ancient city and enjoyed a spit roast lamb with the locals for dinner.

We spent a couple of nights in Kastoria which sits on a large promontory into a beautiful lake. The autumn colours were starting to manifest which added great beauty to our walk around the headland which was in turn punctuated by a visit to the limestone caves which had been discovered by a couple of enterprising lads just a decade or so before. Inside is a dazzling display of stalagmites and stalagtites illuminated in the time honoured fashion. Of particular note are the mini lakes which double the impact.

Dragon's Cave, Kastoria 


As we completed the circuit of the peninsular we were passed by a sweaty running man who appeared as Greek as any man ever has. He stopped and turned back to us to check that we were ok and whether we needed directions speaking in a very thick Greek accent. As the conversation proceeded it emerged that we were from NZ. This caused an immediate and sudden change in demeanor and accent "No f***king way! I'm a Kiwi too!". It turns out that he had married a Kiwi and lived in Wellington for a long period. His wife has medical issues which mean that she cannot live in a cold place so they now spend much of their life in Bali with the remainder split between Wellington and Kastoria. He gave me advice not to retire any time soon as "doing nothing rapidly becomes the hardest job".

One morning Tamara and I set out to "conquer the peak" and, as we wound our way through the ancient and empty streets we were surprised to see a small group of people round the corner ahead. A small group became bigger and eventually turned into a long straggly line which we were amazed to see was headed up by our very own pied piper Gabriel who was engaged in deep converation with their tour leader as they hopped from church to church. Gabriel later commented that "apparently it is easier to join a Serbian Orthodox pilgrimage than to leave it!" Once again we were the only guests in the hotel which greatly enhanced our bargaining power. Even having wrung a good price from the owner though he came through with a breakfast stunning for its quality, variety and quantity. Fair play to that gentleman he was a great host!

Pied Piper 

Pied piper

From Kastoria we headed north. Far north. Right to the border with Macedonia (refered to in Greece as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia FYROM). As far as they were concerned we were already in Macedonia thank you very much! In this location there are two lakes which used to be one until the silting from the river managed to divide them into two. Rather creatively they have in turn been named Greater Prespa Lake and Little Prespa Lake. Here we were to find complete peace as we walked around the clifftops and found ourselves sitting in the late evening sunshine overlooking Greater Prespa Lake. To our left was Albania, to our right FYROM and behind and beneath us Greece. The junction of the borders occurs out in the lake and is marked with a buoy. Later we walked a little further around to a hermitage whose tranquility inspired a swim. Skinny dipping is an odd but liberating thing and it was a delight to float around in such calm, clear, warm water surrounded by such beautiful mountains. We arrived in our destination of Agios Germanos and were initially a little underwhelmed as it seemed that we had in fact just arrived in a remote farming village. OK, it had an ancient little Byzantine church and a more recent, larger version only a thousand or so years old but, what else was there?

Crossing The Border To Macedonia 

Crossing the border

The answer to that was to be found the next day as Gabriel and I climbed the 2500m pass to reach the border with Macedonia. I was exhausted after a while and the last 500m was a real trial but make it we did and joined the flow of immigrants crossing from Greece to Macedonia in rather an original way. We made sure we had our passports with us just in case. With all the effort required to cross the border we are definitely claiming this as a new country however fleeting the visit. Perhaps it would have been less challenging to swim across the border!

We wound our way through the mountains to the city of waters, Edessa. I really liked the guide book descriptions of this town but was unprepared for the way that the river has completely influenced the town to its core. This was no natural river winding on its merry way; instead it has been subjugated completely to the will of man with tremendous results. First it is gathered into a rocky channel which flows beneath an ancient stone arched bridge. Later this main channel splits into a plethora of other channels which are directed to drive fountains and to form mini cascades. The main channel accelerates towards the cliff edge where it is supplemented by water stored by cutting the flow at night. Finally the river hurtles over the escarpment and thunders down to form a raging river below. Although this is great to watch from the terraces above the real fun is to go down the steps and battle against the spray to stand at the foot of the falls. Here the wind generated by the falling water threatens to knock you off of your feet and you are instantly drenched from head to toe. Great fun but make sure the camera is well wrapped in a plastic bag before attempting this!

Stone Bridge At Edessa 

Edessa Bridge

After all this travelling we needed a holiday and so we bypassed Thessaloniki and continued to the lovely Karidi beach on the central peninsular of Halkidiki. Our approach to accommodation throughout our time in Greece has been to turn up and then select our pick of the bunch for not a lot of money seeing as there was nobody else there. Imagine our shock then to arrive at Karidi beach to find it full of Bulgarians happily enjoying this wonderful environment. The first few places we came to all had the same result - full to the brim. We were beginning to lower our standards considerably in the hope that we would at least have a place to lay our head that night when the owner of a considerably shabby, but full apartment block pointed us towards her brother who also had some apartments. To our great delight these apartments were in very good condition and backed onto a delightful beach right next to a quiet taverna which serves great sea food.

During this trip Tamara and I have realised that we are away for too long to regard the journey as being on holiday. Instead we have had an epiphany that "we live here" no matter where we happen to be. In this case, as Gabriel and I looked back on the apartment and the beach from the swimming platform we had swum out to this seemed more pertinent than ever. If we were truly young and modern we would append each of our glorious photos with #welivehere.

Karidi Beach 


Our stay in Karidi Beach was to achieve two goals. One was to relax at the end of a long road trip and the other was to visit the world famous monasteries of the Mount Athos peninsular. This peninsular is like no other in that it is self governing. Sorry ladies no females are allowed in this particular "country" and if a man were to wish to visit he would have to obtain permission prior from Thessaloniki (before you all get too upset, when was the last time a man was invited to visit a convent?!). These travel arrangements didn't really work for us but thankfully an alternative is in place whereby we can embark onto a boat for the short voyage from one peninsular to another.

Fotunately we had beautiful weather for the trip and we were soon gliding up the coastline under the watchful gaze of Mt. Athos. The monasteries which have been built here have over time grown to become less like large villages and more like half-empty towns, equipped with all necessities of life and a few non-essentials. For instance the monks have become very proficient producers of alcohol both for their needs and for sale in the many tourist shops in the surrounding areas. In the past these monasteries were a happy combination of people wanting to spend the rest of their lives in communion with God but with no cash to make the dream come true AND people with plenty of cash but no desire to shut themselves away and yet still keen to find favour with God. This tradition continues today with the funding of missionaries.

No Females Allowed! 

Boat Voyage To Mount Athos

One of these monasteries was funded from Russia and is well endowed with onion domes and the second biggest bell in the world which was founded in St. Petersberg (in the same foundry that the biggest bell was made). All of the monasteries were listed for us on the basis of the size of their libraries containing up to 30,000 ancient books or manuscripts and the religious icons which have been entrusted to their care - the bones or hair of a saint for instance. This is very similar to the museum of Islamic iconry which we visited in the Topkapi Palace which contained the beard hair of Mohammed (believable as, by the time of Mohammed the power of iconry was well established and great care was taken to preserve and distribute such items throughout the Islamic world), sword of David (looking suspiciously like all the other swords of Mohammed's period), Abraham's cooking pot (really?). Some people order their life and faith based on such iconry. Nowadays the initial funding source may have run a little dry but the monks are generally self sufficient with additional cash flow coming from the alcohol sales and the timber trade and there are still many thousands of monks living on the peninsular.

Our time with Gabriel was excellent and it was so good to spend some quality time connecting with him and sharing some of his and our passions. All good things come to an end on this earth and so it was that Gabriel boarded a plane to England and we took a couple more nights in Thessaloniki before flying on to the next phase of our trip in Crete.

'Til next time!

Tags: byzantine, churches, northern greece




I love otters they are so cute and friendly and I was also impressed with the beautiful color of Karidi Beach.

  Frances Feb 24, 2016 10:10 AM



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