Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Thessaloniki, Greece

Greece has been one of my dream destinations for a very long time. It's not the islands that fascinate me (though I was always jealous of classmates' holidays to faraway places with names like Skiathos and Corfu), but the historical sites which are more concentrated on the mainland. I would daydream about climbing for hours over chalky monuments under blazing blue skies, unable to comprehend how humans could have ever erected columns that tall.

My real-life introduction to Greece was Thessaloniki (or θεσσαλονικη or Salonica). And yes, I did fall in love with the country.

Even though most of our stay was chilly, windy and grey, Thessaloniki welcomed D. and I upon arrival with its sun - and palm trees. There were even trees bearing oranges lining the streets!

When you're on the Aegean Sea but it's chilly and windy
The Byzantine-era White Tower and main promenade
Ancient Agora of Thessaloniki
I noticed deeply how very few things felt overtly capitalistic. Yes, Greece has its own franchises, as well as stores that can be found in many other European countries, but I never sensed the need to buy, buy, buy.  I saw nobody begging on the street, which is a frequent occurrence in Berlin. The various facets of political and economic turmoil that Greece has seen in recent years wasn't concealed, though. There was a lot of anti-fascist graffiti, encouragingly.

After exploring Thessaloniki for a day, we rented a car and drove to the Kassandra peninsula - the westernmost claw on the hand of Haldiki:

After driving through mostly nothing, we ended up down some random track and the view was quite lovely. It was t o t a l l y s i l e n t.

We continued down the coastal road, with the GPS freaking out a little. It was a rather uncanny experience to drive through villages that in the right season would be heaving with tourists, but hotels and holiday apartments were all boarded up. Cats were the only ones wandering the streets. Not even bars and cafés were open.

Finally, we made it to a spot on the western coast of the peninsula.

It was getting dark, but on the way back, on the eastern side, we still got some of the gorgeous blue we'd been chasing.

The second day, we drove out west - first destination, Vergina. There is a big archaeological site here, the most notable of which is the Royal Tombs of Aigai (including the burial cluster of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great). This museum, located under a burial mound, was simply incredible. It was deliberately all dark down there, with minimal lighting for a spooky atmosphere. There were original painted gravestones, jewellery, cooking pots, weapons, some of which were still in excellent condition - symbols of decadence accompanying the king to the afterlife.
Aside from the artefacts, there were steps you had to descend to the door of the tomb. Just wow: complete silence, aloneness, and behind the glass this astonishing structure made of marble, dating from fucking 336 BC. I can't explain why, but it was one of the most perfect moments of my life.

Exiting the museum, back into daylight

A couple of hours away from Vergina was another special site - Mount Olympus. It was getting dark quickly and it took a while to get untangled from the villages and onto the main road again. But sure enough, we began our ascent.

In the foothills
View over the town of Litochoro
In no time at all, it went from this... this (by the way, there was no railing here, just trees)
We didn't reach the very top - it was already freezing and dark, plus the mountain is nearly 3,000m tall - but we reached a pretty respectable height. There was a little chalet there. Driving down really scary, but overall I was really glad that we did it. I was pretty worried I was going to die but took solace in the fact the gods would be there to catch me.

As for the food in Thessaloniki? Well, it's not like there was an abundance of vegetarian restaurants, but there was one mostly-vegan place called Roots with a full menu in English. I had lentil mousse and tomatoes on rusks - a regional starter - then the curious "Mexican-style penne" as a main, which consisted of soya cream and tofu chunks with pasta. Dennis had a vegetarian gyros. A Greek girl sitting nearby nervously asked us whether we regularly ate vegan food, because she'd been dragged there by her vegan friend and she still felt she needed meat!

There was one place that was 100% vegan - Falafel House. There was no English menu and staff had limited English, but we got big falafel wraps. They weren't remarkable compared to the ones I am used to in Berlin, though.

My food highlight was at Basilico Pizza. I'd read online that it offered vegan cheese on request. And that's what I got: a huge, vegan-cheesy pizza with a perfect crust.

We also stopped by Boccone Pizza, which had the motto "Pizza is eternal". We split a pizza - one half margherita for Dennis, one half vegetables for me. It's always nice to come across places that already offer pizzas without cheese on the menu, rather than giving you a weird look when you ask for one.

In conclusion, I sustained myself on salad and chips, which are okay to avoid starvation, but they are not exactly nutritious. The short amount of time we spent in Thessaloniki, plus being out and about, didn't really justify grocery shopping - otherwise, I'm sure it wouldn't been a problem to make decent vegan dishes at the apartment we stayed in.

All in all, I can't wait to go back to Greece!