Updated: Nov 22, 2022
One-way ticket to Greece with nothing at all booked beyond the first week, so not really sure how this trip will pan out.
Never been to Greece before and strangely didn't really know what to expect. I was also curious how noticeable the oft-reported economic malaise would be, but I'll have to reserve much judgement since I don't really know how it was during 'better times'.
Arrival in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city (pop. 1 million) and apparently under-rated in terms of attractions and history. It's in Greek Macedonia, which has some cultural distinctions from southern Greece and the islands. Not sure why I chose this city first, think I didn't feel like heading straight into the vastly more touristy Athens.
I landed just before midnight, a time of day I typically try to avoid as it's a ripe opportunity for a solo traveler to fall prey to airport scams. For this reason I pre-booked a taxi, the first time I've ever seen my name on a card at the arrivals hall! It was a very speedy, reckless drive to the 'apartment' that appeared to be in a surprisingly far-from-centre suburb. I had instructions to get into the complex and find the key myself in reception since it after their hours. All went to plan, the room while basic was enough to help me get over a nasty cold I'd picked up just before coming. Alone in a new city with a bad cold is not that pleasant.
Thessaloniki is a pretty vibrant place and has serious history. It's on the sea with a really nice harbour and promenade that's slightly blighted by the unending traffic snarl on the boulevard. It's also hilly, from my apartment it was a long descent / climb.
The city is scattered with early Christian and Byzantine churches, walls, baths and monasteries, all of such significance that 15 of them together comprise a UNESCO listing. Most of the city centre was destroyed by fire in 1917 and was rebuilt with a more modern 'European' layout. It has a nice market, where I somehow promised a Monash educated Melbourne mechanical-engineer-turned market stall holder that I'd visit 'his' Addiction niteclub in Mykonos.... hmm. There were some depressing scenes in the nearby antique market; grown men sitting with face in hands selling what were obviously their last possessions, worthless stuff like their smartphone covers, broken old watch, a used hat... :(
The suburb I was staying in also had some issues and can best be described as having 'character housing', some abandoned with the sole occupant being angry, stray dogs not likely to invite me in for Souvlaki.
After 4 days, it was an early taxi ride to the train station (also seen better days - platform signs hand written on paper). A 5hr train trip (one change) would take me the mountain town of Kalambaka, famous for the site of Meteora, one of Greece's most impressive attractions. The first train in the journey was definitely a rattler and the area just south of Thessaloniki was not the most scenic, rubbish dumping obviously a serious problem. The second train (an express originating in Athens) was super comfortable and modern!
I hadn't noticed a single foreign tourist in Thessaloniki (although I'm sure they were there) but I did in Meteora; still the numbers low and incomparably lower than summer when the place is known to overflow. There's a good reason they come here. The UNESCO listed monasteries of Meteora; six (used to be 24) ancient monasteries located on enormous, natural mountainous pillars of stone. These very isolated spots were chosen to give the monks a level of isolation. Until recently, supplies to some of the monasteries required a basket on a rope pulley and access for people was only via rope ladders. There is also evidence of human activity in the caves in this area going back 50,000 years.
The monasteries date back to the 14th century although hermit monks were living in the fissures and caves, at up to 550m altitude above the plain, back in the 9th century. It's hard to describe the unbelievable location of the monasteries, hopefully some photos will help. I hired an e-bike, against the advice of the rental agency due to black-ice on the roads, and made my way up to the six monasteries, about 22km riding in total. Epic views, and yes I found the ice, impossible to ride on.
I only went inside the Monastery of Great Meteoron, the largest. The church inside had more frescos covering the walls and ceilings than I've ever seen in a church, and that's saying something having been through Italy!
Late afternoon winter sun in winter with hazy conditions in the mountains provided for some pretty amazing scenery.
The final destination in Greece was Athens and by this stage I had to booked an onward journey to Bulgaria as I had decided against the Greek islands in winter (much is closed and the weather was not looking good).
The train ride (one change) to Athens was firstly on a very rundown train. I was sitting in the front and the driver door kept flapping open giving me a good driver-perspective of the journey. He was also using the horn like an Indian taxi driver. The second train was pure class! Allocated seats, catering, quiet, modern, even a cleaning lady on board!
My Airbnb in Athens turned out to be in a great location, authentic Athens, and so clean.... so clean I was scared to use anything. Really really nice, and cheap! There was some graffiti nearby saying "Airbnb Tourists %$! off - Refugees Welcome" but oh well.
My first day was mainly spent in the popular Monastiraki district, which has huge spread out markets of various types (antique, general, clothing, souvenirs, mechanical). There was a lot going on here, great for street photography, but also some confronting stuff (can see the European immigration crisis playing out here). On the way there and back I traversed the Anafiotika area, which is a tiny historical suburb that was used by construction workers helping build King Othon's Palace in the 1800s. Very unique area.
The Parthenon, one of the most significant buildings in western civilisation, sitting atop the Acropolis (hill) together with a range of other Ancient Greek structures. It's safe to say it's impressive, 2,500 years old and built with remarkable precision. The views across Athens from the Acropolis are also nice, the city seems to be slowly crawling up the surrounding and quite distant hills.
I also took a trip to the port town of Piraeus for a walk along the seaside. It was around 9c and windy but still there were elderly women bopping in the ocean having a chat, respect. Also witnessed some amazing sun rays bursting through the clouds.
General observations on Greece
Graffiti - wow this place is really covered, everything from public transport to nearly every city building. Never seen so much graffiti in a country before, surely spray paint is one of the country's largest imports. A lot of it seems to be political messaging, which I kind of support...
Language - I like to pride myself on picking up local language and my ability to read signs etc but Greek I cannot make sense of. The hieroglyphic-like alphabet and seemingly long translations for short sentences like "have a nice day" (na echete mia kali mera) had me stumped. Yes is nai. Of course, English is widely spoken and the Greek's are friendly.
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