Northern Greece: Unknown Joy
Little-known Northern Greece is the True Greece
Normally when people travel throughout Greece, they aim for the well-known sites such as Kerkira (Corfu), Thira (Santorini), Crete, the multitude of other islands (of which there are over 3,000 to choose from (though more than half are uninhabited), and of course, mighty Athens. Yet strangely enough, people rarely venture away from these well-known hot spots, into lesser-known, more intriguing places, particularly on the mainland. For a taste of the unknown yet truly exciting, when traveling Greece give hearty consideration to the northern mainland.
As Greece is such an antique land, the ideas and customs of each region have become highly evolved and ingrained, giving each region its own special flavor. So while an outsider might think of all things Greek coming down to the likes of Alexis Zorba, the hero of Nikos Kazantzakis’ famed “Zorba the Greek,” the truth is that all Greeks do not necessarily identify with Zorba, or even necessarily participate in his famous dance (which is a relatively new phenomenon anyway). This is, to reiterate, as each region is as clearly distinct as France is from Belgium, or in some cases, as Italy is from Ethiopia. For this, Greece is all the more interesting then, as each region has its own identity to share with the lucky traveler who happens by.
So, to try a new flavor of adventure ice cream, head north. The history of Greece, like many nations, has shown a great variety in both the histories and attitudes between the north and the south. In the Golden age of Greece and thereafter, northern Greece was often left in the shadow of the south, which produced places such as Sparta and Athens. However, nearly 400 years Before the Common Era (B.C.), a king named Phillipus II came into power and united the north, only to, in turn, reign in the power of the illustrious south of Greece, under his direction. This caused much anxiety and resentment from the south, especially under the drawn-out military campaign of Phillip’s son, Alexander. A similar north-south issue arose in World War I when the two regions could not decide whether to join the war at all, or join the English side (though the King of Greece favored Germany) The rest, as it is said, is history. However, the south and north have never really come completely to terms with each other. So it goes.
The second city of Greece, found in the north, is Thessaloniki, oft known as Salonika to many Europeans. Philip’s son-in-law, Cassander of Macedon founded this beautiful town in approximately 315 BCE after a battle with the Thessalians, and the name of the city boasts just this, meaning “Victory over the Thessalians.” It claims a modest population of just over a million people in the greater metropolitan area and is nestled right against the Thermaic Gulf leaving her weather, even in the winter, relatively comfortable. Like other cities, Thessaloniki is rather metropolitan in spirit, with plenty of places to visit, and even has one of the finest universities in Greece, and also its largest, Aristotle University. The town’s symbol is the Lefkos Pyrgos, The White Tower.
This tower has a history dating back to 16th century Ottoman Empire, when it was originally known as the red tower for its formerly bloody history. The social scene in this modest city is pleasant, as with most places in Greece, as cafes are ubiquitous for the coffee-loving Greeks. In addition to all of its other sites, Thessaloniki makes an excellent soft landing into northern Greece.
When speaking of coffee in Greek culture, few towns come quicker to mind that Ptolemaida. This town is found in the periphery of Western Macedonia, about 2 hour’s driving distance west of Thessaloniki. There, one can discuss life with one’s friends, drinking a Greek Coffee (known as Turkish Coffee to most people) or a “Nes” –a Nescafe instant coffee that tastes better than any instant coffee imaginable. Also absolutely outstanding for the cafes of Ptolemaida specifically, are the hot chocolate drinks, comparable only to the hot chocolates of Paris. There are many flavors, such as hazelnut, caramel, and even coconut. Try one of these and you will never forget Ptolemaida.
Ptolemaida is also known for its sweets shops. Here one can find chocolate of a quality that will raise the eyebrows of even Belgians and the Swiss. If you enter such a shop with thoughts of only purchasing a modest amount, you might just surprise yourself at what you walk away with, for “'Tolie” chocolate is simply divine. The town itself is a fun place to visit for at least a few weeks. The heart of the town is the town square or plateia, where social and political happenings occur, as well as social gatherings during times like Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
While Ptolemaida is not considered outstanding by many of the Greeks in the region, it does make the perfect hub to launch short trips from as around Ptolemaida are many exciting places to visit during the day, such as Florina, Pella, Vergina, Kozani (the capital of the prefecture of the same name), the very lovely Kastoria (nestled within the cleft of a U-shaped lake), and the amazingly charming and beautiful Nimphaeo, a stone village high atop a mountain, voted the second most beautiful village in all of Europe. For more information on these towns, see my upcoming hubs on each of these towns, as well as a more detailed tour of Ptolemaida and Thessaloniki. Happy travels!