In September, Lakeside News Senior Editor Pam Keene continued her international travels. On her latest Overseas Adventure Travels trip, she and her travel companions traveled to northern Greece, Albania and North Macedonia, through mountainous terrains, seaside towns, ancient ruins and modern cities to learn more about this little-known part of the planet. Here is his account of Northern Greece.
Unknown lands: Northern Greece and the Balkans reveal their rich past
When I told people I was going to northern Greece and the Balkans at the beginning of September, most responded: “You will love the Greek islands”, “I went to Athens and I loved the Parthenon” or “What are the Balkans? Rather than launch into a long explanation, I just smiled.
But here is the “real” trip: Northern Greece, Albania and North Macedonia, titled “Ancient Lands of Alexander the Great”. From Thessaloniki by the sea and the famous Mount Olympus to the holy place of Meteora and its monasteries perched on the cliffs to the Albanian capital and a village to visit a family farm, then towards the historic and ancient Lake of ‘Ohrid of North Macedonia and the thriving capital of the country. from Skopje, my 18-day adventure revealed more to me about this part of the world than I could have imagined.
Athens was just a memory from my previous trips as we didn’t get close to the Greek capital. However, we were treated the Greek way, with kindness, friendship and a passion for learning, by our astute trip leader Ilias Pantazis, a native of Athens who frequently travels to the United States. At 32, he’s been leading bands for over seven years and has more energy than the Energizer Bunny.
Traveling with Ilias as our seasoned trip leader, we didn’t miss a thing. On our walk along the shore in Thessaloniki, he showed us the first of many Holocaust memorials we will see over the next 18 days. He also shared personal stories about his family and how the Holocaust affected them, as well as how World War II factored into this amazing part of the world that we were about to enter. discover.
Thessaloniki, a major seaport on the Thermaikos Gulf on the Aegean Sea, offers views of Mount Olympus, in Greek mythology the abode of the gods, which we would visit in a few days.
During this time, the history of Thessaloniki was called. We met the hero of our adventure: a 20-foot statue of Alexander the Great mounted on his rearing horse, atop a 35-foot pedestal. Created in 1973 by Greek sculptor Vangelis Moustakas, the statue itself weighs between four and five tons. Nearby, the official symbol of the city, the White Tower built in the 15th century, houses a museum of armor and armaments.
Thessaloniki’s upper city is home to treasures of the ancient city, including several Orthodox (Byzantine) Christian churches, remnants of centuries of war between the Orthodox Byzantines and the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout our trip, we heard about the conflicts between the two cultures. The Ottoman Empire (i.e. the Turks) eventually defeated the Byzantines, paving the way for a 400-year reign of the Ottoman Empire.
A visit to a former mosque-turned-monastery, still in use, gave us insight into why monks created elaborate paintings and frescoes of biblical and religious scenes adorned in gold. Because most people could not read, these works of art told stories; the shiny gold added a spiritual, otherworldly sense to separate the mystical from the earthly.
No trip to this region would be complete without seeing Mount Olympus, the highest in the country. Among the richest in biodiversity in the world, it has nearly 1,700 species of flora, 32 species of mammals, more than 115 species of birds and 22 species of reptiles and amphibians. In 1938 it became a national park, the first in Greece, and today attracts thousands of visitors who hike, mountaineer and even ski on its peaks. Our group hiked along one of the wooded ravines.
Leaving Thessaloniki, we stopped at the Royal Tombs of Vergina, the final resting place of King Philip II. Discovered almost 40 years ago under an artificial hill, the 4th century BC tombs are remarkably well preserved; the site includes a museum of relics from the Macedonian era.
Perhaps the highlight of our time in northern Greece, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Meteora was otherworldly. It is the second most visited site in Greece, after the Acropolis of Athens.
The mystery continues to baffle visitors as to how monks built 26 monasteries atop numerous towering rock formations that resemble the surface of the moon. These elaborate shrines appear to rise fully from the tops of the rocks. Today, only six remain, still occupied and maintained by the monks or nuns who live there in modern times.
We visited two of these incredible structures, accessible by climbing trails and stairs. Both were filled with stunning, colorful murals depicting the life of Christ and other biblical stories, as well as dedicated worship spaces. Built as early as the 10th century, the stone structures were breathtaking. Each stone was hoisted up to 1,000 feet, carefully placed to connect to the massive beams that formed the walls and ceilings. Over the centuries, resident monks have preserved the interiors as they were when they were first built, just as colorful and just as sacred as they were hundreds of years ago.
It was difficult to leave this ethereal place, where the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” was filmed.
As we continued towards the Albanian border, we spent two nights in the Greek region of the Aristi village of Zagoria. To give us the chance to be close to the land, we hiked several kilometers along the Vikos Gorge, listed by Guinness as the deepest canyon in the world. The famous Vitsa Stairs took us to Kokkori Bridge, a stone arch bridge built in the 18th century.
An afternoon rafting trip on the Voidomatis River, which maintains a temperature of around 40 degrees, treated a small group of us to views of 600-year-old trees, cliffs, rock formations and a breathtaking collection of flora and fauna.
Our stay in northern Greece was coming to an end; Excitement began to build as we headed toward Albania and North Macedonia, two Balkan countries that were just beginning to welcome travelers. We arrived halfway through our adventure and the best was yet to come.
Photos: by Pamela A. Keene
Next month, in part two, discover how Albania and North Macedonia survived communist rule to become two of the new frontiers of tourism in the Balkans.