I first travelled to Greece in 1975 just after the Colonels were ousted and tourism was in its infancy. We travelled by train from London to Venice and from there sailed the Adriatic and on through the Corinth Canal to Piraeus where I had my first taste of Greece. Bustling, chaotic, noisy, hot, clear azure blue skies and the Greeks shouting, gesticulating – a world away from London. After a few days in Athens we returned to Piraeus and caught the ferry bound for the Cyclades, our destination Mykonos.
Accompanied by intrepid tourists, but mostly in the company of locals loaded with baskets full of food, barrels of olive oil and live chickens, we set sail. The women, invariably dressed in black or their local regional costumes, sat on deck with their packages keeping an eye on their children, chatting, laughing, shrieking, sharing their food with everyone, including us. The men sat inside the smoke-filled ‘lounge’ played tavli (backgammon) and cards, shouting, fist-banging the table and ferociously arguing like life itself depended on the outcome. Around midnight, after a nine-hour choppy crossing with stops at several islands en-route, the tinkling lights of Mykonos harbour came into view. Due to the rough seas the harbour couldn’t accommodate the large ferry so local fishermen, lights bobbing on their caiques in the blackness of the night, came to disembark the passengers. Utter chaos followed as luggage was thrown into the little boats (some ending up in the sea) as passengers had to lower themselves down the steps of the ship and jump into the moving boats. Shaking and wet we arrived onto the jetty to be greeted by local women shouting ‘domatia, domatia’ who after finalizing the price pulled bewildered tourists behind them into the labyrinth of the town’s streets to rent a room in their homes. A welcome bed, and, if you were very lucky, a cold shower. The next day following a breakfast of yoghurt and honey, we travelled by local bus to the other side of the island to catch a small caique to one of many beautiful, deserted, beaches.
Fourty-odd years on, Mykonos is hardly recognizable from my first visit and, thankfully, travel around the country and to and from the islands is now much easier! However, my first impressions remain vivid and there’s a part of me that still yearns to find that ‘real’ Greece again, so this year we decided to try an area we hadn’t visited before, Thessaloniki and the Pelion Peninsula. Here we found an unspoilt, refreshingly traditional, Greece, with a truly warm welcome.
Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city was a delight. Bustling, friendly, modern, but very Greek. We stayed at the Electra Palace Hotel, the grand dame of the city’s hotels located on the main Aristotelous Square overlooking the sea. In a balconied room overlooking the square I spent the first hour soaking up the atmosphere people-watching. The hotel, its 5-star rating well deserved, offers good old-fashioned service, modern rooms and has a wonderful roof terrace complete with bar, a small pool and restaurant. The breakfast was excellent with a large buffet of local delicacies as well as the usual hot dishes and attentive table service. The hotel also has a small spa complex with pool, sauna, steam room and treatments. To relieve aches and pains from the travelling we had a couple of treatments – a massage for him and body scrub for me – both excellent and reasonably priced.
There is much to do and see in Thessaloniki which is easy to get around as it is mostly flat and the central area reasonably compact. With only a short time we opted for the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tour and stopped off at a few famous landmarks – the White Tower, Aghia Sophia – but would have needed several days to see all the sights. The old market area is vibrant, a great place to amble, with some of the best tavernas to be found nearby. The food we ate in Thessaloniki is the best I have ever eaten in Greece, with a huge range of dishes offering excellent value.