Tim likes to travel. Follow his adventures as he explores the world.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Thessaloniki, Greece: The Balkans by Bus Road Trip Christmas 2016 pt. 2

This is a six-part blog. Here are the links:



Leaving the "lion country" behind and heading to Greece
Leaving the "lion country" behind and heading to Greece



Day 4: The countryside is nice and we see lots of snow on the ground, frozen lakes, and mountains everywhere (they cover 30% of Bulgaria).  There is border control between Bulgaria and Greece. I thought the EU was open between countries. They ask me to get off the bus to talk to the police and show more ID. The police are nice, but they want to see my Spanish documentation and then try to recruit me to play basketball in Piraeus, Greece.  

Weather is amazing in Greece compared to Bulgaria. Walk to Nancy's (our host) house and meet her friend Maria. They have a tray of Christmas sweets, waiting for us. Along with the sweets, we are offered homemade tsipouro (chee-poo-roh), similar to rakia, and nothing like ouzo.  Go to supermarket to get breakfast for tomorrow. We come back and Nancy and Maria make us dinner and teach us the most famous word in Greek, malakas. We chat for hours about politics, movies, culture, and of course what to see tomorrow.

Thoughts: According to my phone we walked 12km first day, 24km second day, 26km third day, and 4.5km the fourth day (today - most of it was spent on a bus). The Greeks park anyway they want - even worse than the Spanish. Halara means "slow down and relax" and is the motto for the people in Thessaloniki, as they are very relaxed.

Arda Tur is a good bus company, totally recommend... and hope I get some royalties later
Arda Tur is a good bus company, totally recommend... and hope I get some royalties later

Christmas sweets awaiting us
Christmas sweets awaiting us

Me, Ainhoa, Bella (dog), and Maria. (Nancy is taking the photo)
Me, Ainhoa, Bella (dog), and Maria. (Nancy is taking the photo)

 Day 5: Wake up and Ainhoa chops the veggies so I can make omelets. After eating we head out. There's no walking tour today, so we go at it on our own. Walk down to the port and see Aristotelous Square, then to the White Tower of Thessaloniki and Alexander's Garden. Then head to Hagia Sophia Cathedral, the Arch of Galerius and Rotunda, and the Church of the Acheiropoietos (closed unfortunately), three of fifteen UNESCO monuments in the city. 

Then we make the long journey uphill to the "castle". After lots of inclined walking, Ainhoa counts the 131 stairs we have to climb to get to the next incline, that finally takes us to the top. The castle is actually just Trigono Tower and the wall of Thessaloniki (UNESCO), but it has nice views. Then we continue uphill some more to the Eptapyrgio Fortress (Yedikule) which is also UNESCO, and it closed 2 minutes before we arrive. After walking the grounds, we go downhill to Osios David but it's closed as well. Everything is closed!

Next to Alatza Imaret Mosque, which has no decorations or carpet, because it is no longer in use, but strangely it has a security guard (who is smoking inside) and free toilets. Then, to the Church of St. Demetrius (UNESCO), one of the most famous churches here, dedicated to the city's patron saint, Demetrius. It is the nicest that we've seen so far here in Greece. 


Walk pass the Roman Forum (also closed) and then down to Dikastirion Square where we see the Church of Panagia Chalkeon (UNESCO, and closed) and the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos, a very well liked prime minister from the early 20th century. 

We call Nancy and let her know we are heading back to the house. We walk down Aristotelous Street and then turn off to walk through a bazaar. We stumble upon a nice building that turns out to be the Monastery of St. Theodora. 

At home, Nancy treats us to souvlaki and retsina malamatina (Greek wine). Earlier we saw old men in the park playing tabli, and we ask Nancy what the game is and not only does she explain it, but also she has the game and shows us how to play. Ainhoa's beginner's luck is stronger than mine, as she beats me - twice.

Later, we go out to Ladadika, an area with several bars and restaurants, to check out the nightlife. In Caramelo we listen to live Greek music, but they are just doing sound checks and no one is there, so we don't stay long. Next, to La Habanita and dance salsa and bachata. Maria is a professional, despite her modesty. Next, to The Old Fisherman for an event called "Souled Out", live soul and funk music. The band is really good. Before heading home we stop at Munchies to eat an early morning snack.

Thoughts Like in Bulgaria, Greece has lots of stray dogs and cats. The differences between big churches from Bulgaria and those in Thessaloniki, in Greece they have: carpet instead of rugs, pews and chairs, more elaborate chandeliers, less elaborate altars. Asked a teenager where the tourism office was and his ringtone was French Montana's song "Ain't worried bout nothin". Just another instance where the US is exporting culture without explaining the meaning. This is why so many Europeans say "n*gga" to me without thinking twice. 


I'm like an omelette-making machine
I'm like an omelette-making machine

Catching a star along the port
Catching a star along the port 



Animals going to an ark to see Mary and Jesus? Someone confused some stories here
Animals going to an ark to see Mary and Jesus? Someone confused some stories here

Making a spectacle at the White Tower
Making a spectacle at the White Tower

The great general... and Alex behind him
The great general... and Alex behind him

We know how far to walk, how long it will take, AND how many calories we'll burn
We know how far to walk, how long it will take, AND how many calories we'll burn

Which one is Hagia Sophia? Trick question! Turkey (above) and Greece (below)
Which one is Hagia Sophia? Trick question! Turkey (above) and Greece (below)


Sweet panoramic shot inside the Rotunda
Sweet panoramic shot inside the Rotunda

Touching the top of Mt. Olympus
Touching the top of Mt. Olympus



I'm assuming the bigger the candle, the stronger your prayer is.  For 15€ I imagine you'd being praying for the entire planet
I'm assuming the bigger the candle, the stronger your prayer is.
For 15€ I imagine you'd being praying for the entire planet.

Perfect symmetry on the steps of St. Demetrius
Perfect symmetry on the steps of St. Demetrius

Two souvlakis and a retsina for dinner
Two souvlakis and a retsina for dinner

Sailing through Ladadika
Sailing through Ladadika

Day 6: Today we are going to Meteora, a complex of six monasteries built atop a rock formation. We wake up early to walk to the train station for the train to Kalambaka. For breakfast, we eat trigona, a typical Greek pastry in the shape of a triangle, and another pastry recommended by the baker. They are both super sweet. 

Arrive in Kalambaka an hour late because our train was late, and head to the center, but get lost in one of the smallest town in Greece, before finding the information center. Only one monastery is open now and only for 2 hours. We try to rent a motorcycle but the place is closed and I find out my sim card works here but only to call back to Spain. 

Go for a coffee so we can go to the toilet. The staff are very friendly and try to help us call a taxi, but we decide to go by foot to Meteora. Walking up we meet Jade, from Singapore, who walks to the top with us. She is energetic and friendly and shares her travel experiences and a bit of Singapore culture with us. Footpath to go top is well-made and the views are breathtaking, but walking up is tough. 

Once we reach the bottom of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Ainhoa counts 102 steps to the front door... and it's closed (but we knew that already). It only took us 32 minutes to get here. Of course, the trip isn't wasted, as it is en route to the Monastery of St. Stephen, which we know is open. It is snowing very lightly, which is kind of beautiful. 

23 minutes later, we arrive and go in the Monastery of St. Stephen. We walk around the museum, the church, the garden, and the gift shop. Everything inside the church is painted, not one wall or ceiling blank. This is the first time we've see actual candles in the chandeliers. 

As we are leaving the monastery, we do some handstands and even convince Jade to try. While Jade is setting up, a stray dog comes over to play and we try to shoo him away, but he thinks we are consenting to play and then won't leave us alone. As we walk back down the hill, he follows us and is aggressively jumping on us and playfully biting us. He is so bothersome that we flag down a car to take us to the bottom. We're picked up by a nice guy with his two kids, and takes us to the train station in Kalambaka, and I try to give him some money but he refuses and wishes us on our way (I hope I didn't offend him). 

We walk to the bus station to buy our tickets back to Thessaloniki, then, with Jade we go to a restaurant called Archontariki and the waitress/owner is very friendly. We eat some delicious moussaka, Greek meatballs, and gemista (stuffed green peppers and tomatoes), and wash it down with retsina tyrnavos. Afterwards we have some Greek pastries. Say goodbye to Jade and board bus back to Thessaloniki. The bus back is three hours instead of the four it took us to get to Kalambaka. Walk to the house from bus station and call it a night.

Thoughts:  We totally could have walked to all of the monasteries if we had arrived four or five hours earlier. Guess we gotta go back. The stray animals here are quite fat, they must be eating good. Greeks smoke as much or more than the Bulgarians, but more indoors, despite no smoking signs. 

Greek desserts are way too sweet; like the first bite is good, but anymore and you can feel your insulin spiking. Greek people seem to be approachable and friendly. Nancy is like a mom, trying to make sure you've eaten and making sure if you want to do stuff that you can get there. She's a great hostess.


Ainhoa dropped something, so I'm helping her to get a closer look
Ainhoa dropped something, so I'm helping her to get a closer look

Off the beaten path you get the best photos
Off the beaten path you get the best photos

Holy Trinity directly behind us and two other monasteries off in the distance
Holy Trinity directly behind us and two other monasteries off in the distance

We got one at St Stephen before the dog came over to bother us
We got one at St Stephen before the dog came over to bother us

A well-earned meal after such an adventurous day
A well-earned meal after such an adventurous day


Day 7: Maria surprises us with tsoureki from the Terkelis pastry shop, which sells the green boxes we saw that everyone had at Dikastirion Square a few days ago. Nancy goes out and brings back bougatsa (a stuffed pastry), one with meat, one with cheese, and one with cream, that we have with a piece of tsoureki. Maria makes us Greek coffee and a Greek latte (usually drank during the summer but we wanted to try it) which we have, while listening to trastornado Greek music, including a song from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. After finishing the coffee, there is an old wives tale that you can see shapes in the coffee and predict your future, then you put your finger in the cup and make a wish. Then, they teach us how to dance Hasapico, as we yell out "opa", a typical greek word for celebrations. It sounds just like the Basque "aupa" which means "hello", among other things. 

We go back to Ladadika to have lunch at a tavern called Tserki (also means: the metal hoop that kids used to play with using a stick and running along side it). Order a bunch of dishes to share. We try Tuba Libre (retsina with cola). We eat Greek salad, tzatziki, potatoes, tiganita (fried squash), bougiourdi (melted cheese feta, tomato and spicy pepper), kefalotiri sti sxaras (cheese grilled), trahanokeftedes (fried couscous balls), seftaia (Cyprus meatball), and tigania (grilled chicken dish). Nancy explains that Greek tradition is to order way too much food and then not finish it all, but then still order dessert. A sweet tomato cheesecake dessert is on the house, so we have to eat it. 


Walk Ainhoa to her bus back to Sofia, and after she leaves, we head to currency exchange, and then to the house. Stop at a bakery on the way and the man working there gives me two free pastries, one being kurabiedes (powdered cookie that everyone knows you've been eating), and the other is the trigona we had for breakfast yesterday. We go home to have a coffee and I try pumpkin, walnut, black cherry and cherry glika tu kutaliu (candied fruit in syrup that you eat with a spoon)


They send me off with a sweets-laden care package that includes melomakaronapastelikarioka, and tarta. Basically diabetes. Maria walks with me to the Crazy Holidays bus (recommended by Nancy), and good thing because the location I know is closed. Maria calls for directions to their other office. We thought the bus was at 19h30 and I would have missed it, but thankfully it's at 20h30. We can't find the other office either, so we stop in a restaurant and a guy tells us it is across the street. We go there but it's also closed. Finally, after two more phone calls, we are able to locate it around the back of the building. I have 30 minutes before the bus leaves so Maria and I walk around the local neighborhood. A small van is waiting for me when I get back, and I'm thinking that a 10 hour ride in this is going to be awful, but it is just to transport us to the Crazy Holidays hub to catch the real bus. 


At the hub everyone is really friendly and trying to speak to me because I'm American, but none of them speak English, and my Albanian doesn't exist. Bus arrives on time but leaves 30 minutes late. So glad the girls recommended I take the leftover food from lunch. I'm the only non-Albanian on the bus. At the Albanian border on Greek side everyone has to get off for passport control and this lady tries to cut me in line, so I let her, but the agent saw I was in line first and made her wait for me. Then he and a few guys in the booth are watching an NBA game and ask me "but, why" I am going to Albania. Not the first Greeks to ask me that question. In between Greek and Albanian customs, a few guys board the bus selling sim cards,  drinks, and snacks. On the Albanian side, the police come on the bus and take your passport and then the bus company returns them. I try to get some sleep for the next four hours.


Thoughts: We pronounced the Greek alphabet wrong in the US (not a big surprise); zeta is pronounced "zee-tah" not "zay-tah" like we say. They say "FYROM", not "Macedonia" in Greece - political sensitivities. Doing construction on the metro in Thessaloniki for 10 years and have made no progress.


I ate more sweets with Nancy than ever in my life. Seems Greek border patrol loves basketball. Bus has no Wi-Fi and no bathroom no free snacks, one small cup of water. Bus driver smoking the whole trip on the bus. No one speaks English, though they were all nice enough. Don't recommend.



Santa is a Greek woman with sweets
Santa is a Greek woman with sweets

Breakfast of Spartacus
Breakfast of Spartacus 

Maria reading our coffee
Maria reading our coffee




So much food... so tasty... so full... dessert?
So much food... so tasty... so full... dessert?

Delicious Greek cuisine
Delicious Greek cuisine

Can you tell who ate the kurabiedes?
Can you tell who ate the kurabiedes?

Traveling between countries requires different currencies  (the Euro, Serbian dinar, Albanian lek, Bulgarian lev, and Macedonian/FYROM denar)
Traveling between countries requires different currencies
(the Euro, Serbian dinar, Albanian lek, Bulgarian lev, and Macedonian/FYROM denar)

Continue the journey with me to Albania



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Location: Thessaloniki, Greece

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