Thessaloniki: Part 2 – for lovers of the arts, history and culture
Travel out from the city to Vergina to visit the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Another ‘must see’, this is an amazing museum above the actual burial chambers. What a fantastic collection of artefacts in gold and other precious metals, all displayed to perfection. Our guide was exceptionally informative and enthusiastic about these exciting finds by Professor Manolis Andronikos in 1977, including the breathtaking wreathes of gold oak leaves. They are currently building a new museum to house other finds from the area, including new tomb excavations taking place now. I think that very few people in UK have ever heard of these finds, even if they have studied Ancient Greece, or aware of the historical importance of the region. Absolutely worth a visit.
Not far from this site is the Moni Timiou Prodromou Monastery, set high up on the steep sides of honeycombed cliffs and a myriad of caves used by monks for rest and contemplation. It is one of the few remaining monasteries in this area, overlooking the Aliakmonas River, as so many have been destroyed over the centuries. Walls of the central church are covered in murals depicting biblical and historical scenes, though recently painted there are many other earlier examples of artworks on the site. We were warmly welcomed with a cup of rich, black coffee and a traditional sweet of crystallized green fig with honey – difficult to get into with a fork but worth the struggle!
Still in this region of northern Greece is the historically important city of Veria. The starting point for a tour must be the mosaic-covered memorial to the visit of the Apostle St Paul who preached from the steps in the square to the first Christians in the region. As with other cities in Greece, there is evidence of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman occupation in fascinating remnants of art and architectural features if you are prepared to look for them. Our guide was bubbly and very informative. It is a fascinating town on the river, with narrow twisting streets in the Christian Quarter, to escape persecutors more easily, and a strong Jewish Quarter with a beautiful synagogue now, sadly, rarely used. This once housed the sacred scroll in a gilt-lined cabinet but now, sadly, lost as it was taken during WWII.
We were joined for lunch by the Deputy Mayor, Marketing manager and colleagues who are keen to encourage visitors to stay one or two nights to visit nearby sights rather than just pass through the city. Certainly, there is plenty here to enjoy, including the Elia restaurant with several different eating areas depending on whether you want lunch, dinner, coffee or to just relax and enjoy the live music. It has splendid views across the area to Thessaloniki in the distance and the places we visited today. The large spread of different Greek dishes was excellent, particularly moussaka with a rich, creamy sauce and fine strips of courgette in a light tempura-style batter. Wine, of course, and a tempting choice of cold yoghurt-type desserts topped with fruit or chocolate sauce.
Leaving the city of Thessaloniki behind, travel through the countryside alongside fields of sunflowers, past their showy bright-yellow best now, just waiting, with dried brown heads bowed, for harvesting. A highlight of our visit and another ‘must see’ is the Gerovassiliou Domain winery. What a spectacular setting, with new buildings housing ultra-modern winemaking equipment, landscaped gardens, and exceptional artworks indoors and out by internationally known Greek artists. Not only do they produce smaller quantities of high quality wines, using only their own grapes, but these wines consistently win recognition and awards, ranking 6th in the world for some of their red wines. Yet we would never instantly think of Greek wine as the quality one to buy.
Having tasted 5 of them, including a sweeter dessert wine I would not normally enjoy, I can confirm that they really are remarkable. Not only can you enjoy a tour of the winery and sample a range of their wines, they also have one of the biggest collections of corkscrews in the world – you would not believe there could be so many ways to open a bottle of wine!
This tour can also be arranged if you stay at the Golden Star Hotel, Perea, next to the beach of Agia Triada. Across the bay from Thessaloniki, it is more like a beach holiday resort yet within easy reach of the city via boat or public transport. This 4* hotel is newly refurbished, beautifully decorated with a restful atmosphere. They offer exceptional rates for half-board accommodation during the winter months, ideal for silver travellers who often prefer to stay between November and March when the temperatures are lovely and warm.
Just sit and relax on the extended verandah with an iced cappuccino – favourite of the locals – but then enjoy a leisurely gourmet lunch prepared by a true master chef. I love the courgette patties (bit like a bhaji structure) and the calamari was exquisite in the lightest batter imaginable and the grilled octopus – well, I would never dream of ordering it at home but this was a delicious chunky piece of grilled seafood. They can also arrange wine tastings with food at the hotel so it is certainly a good option for part of a holiday stay if not all of it.
As I am an art historian, Evi arranged a special visit to the State Museum of Contemporary Art which houses the Costakis Collection – the biggest collection of Russian Avant-Garde works in the world from early 20th century. They have a significant archive of works that are accessible for closer study and are visited by scholars from all over the world. The Director of the Museum kindly gave us a tour of the current exhibition, and was keen to encourage visitors from the UK to see collections here and at other museums around the city. 2015 is the Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art – see the website for more details.
Once outside the city of Thessaloniki, there is so much more to see that captures the essence of ancient Greece. The whole region is steeped in history of religious and cultural battles, from the ancient tombs with their incredible art works to the monasteries and synagogues that have witnessed so many conflicts. If you add the fantastic foods and wines of the region to sample, there is every reason to spend many days exploring the area, seeing the sights, and meeting the friendly people.
- Read Thessaloniki: Part 1 – a buzzing, lively city worth a visit
- Read Thessaloniki: Part 3 – a gastronomic delight