On Wednesday I arrived with friends, landing in Thessaloniki, after an overnight flight from Houston to Frankfurt (delayed by thunderstorms in Houston). Once I stepped off the plane, I felt immediately at home and relaxed.
Even though I’ve never been to the north of Greece before, the landscape looks so familiar – Thessaloniki is on the water, yet within a few miles, you’re in the mountains. The scenery is very mixed, with some agricultural development and small towns.
There are eight of us here for a wedding, for the niece of a friend of mine. She’s marrying a young man from the town of Naoussa, in the area of Ematha, not to be confused with the Naoussa on the island of Paros. This is a small mountainous town of about 20,000 people. Nikos and Sara met us at the airport and we rode to Naoussa on a spacious bus, with lots of room to spread out. Some fell asleep. Some of us sat up and talked. I enjoyed the ride, looking out at the countryside, green and flowering. Nikos said it had rained a lot recently, and the lush green growth certainly was evidence of that.
The bus couldn’t negotiate the small street to our hotel, though, so someone loaded the heavy bags in a car and drove those to the hotel. We walked with our small bags, and as we walked, at least one person stopped Nikos to say hello. It is his hometown, after all, and he lives in the San Francisco area now.
We settled into our rooms in a lovely small hotel, The Palia Poli (. My room overlooks the patio. I turned on the air conditioning and unpacked, discovering along the way that I had somehow not packed my new camera. One of many small problems that, I am sure, I will deal with. I have a camera on my iPhone, so that will do for now.
After drinks, we walked to a tavern by the city park, sat and had a great evening. Nikos’s parents and sister joined us, and we ate lots of mezedes. By the time we walked back to the hotel, we were full and ready for bed.
I slept Thursday away, I must confess. I was exhausted after weeks of dealing with business, and I guess my body just decided it needed the rest.
After I awoke, though, I found a local guidebook and read about the area. Naoussa has an interesting history, and I look forward to seeing more of it. I’ve been so indulgent about laziness today, and sitting here writing this is making me sharpen and really wake up.
The internet password didn’t seem to work for me, so I just began typing a word document and asked later about the problem when I went downstairs. I got the message that “the server has timed out” or something like that. Oh well. There is an internet café that Carolyn and I saw last night when we wandered down to find our diet Cokes for this morning. (Later I discovered that because my room is a corner room and because the walls are such thick stone, I can get reception for the internet by sitting on the loveseat near the window. Problem solved.)
We all took taxis up to Agios Nicholaos Park, about 2 kilometers from town. What a change – in such a brief time we were up in a mountainous area, walking under enormous plane trees, and headed to the Arapitsa River, which runs through the park. The river was clear, inviting, and icy cold – it’s fed by springs and by snow melt. Even now in June the icy water was a shock.
There was plenty of time for walking and taking in the scenery. Birds chirped around us, the sound of the water rippling over stones in the river soothed us, and we wandered around. First we stopped at the small church in the park, and then continued on. I stopped and went back to write; others kept walking a bit more.
Such a refreshing and peaceful area was just perfect – so much so that we decided to come back on Friday night for dinner and eat on the veranda of the hotel at the entrance to the park.
Then it was time to go back to our rooms, change, and take off for the rehearsal dinner. This was held at a local vineyard, Damaras Winery. The family have owned it for six generations now, and are friends of the groom’s family. We were treated to a tour of the winery and the distillery, listening as the young vintner whose great-grandfather started this place explained to us that now the wine was organic and that they used no additives other than a little bit of sulfite. Everything else – from manure to leftovers – went into a compost heap that in turn went to the vineyards, where chickens help to distribute it.
The setting outside, where the tables rested, overlooked the vineyards but also offered a view of the mountains and of the town. That unbelievable light which is peculiar to Greece once more performed its magic on everyone, newcomers and seasoned travelers alike. The sunset colors melted into evening as we took our places at the simple but elegant tables.
We ate as the Greeks eat, with many plates of lots of things, with wine and water. And tsipouro, another product of this family business. Powerful, even more so than ouzo, it is to be sipped slowly, not slammed back like a shot of tequila.
Eggplants in several different recipes, taramasalata, Florina peppers, bread, feta cheese, tiny fried fish, fried eggplant known locally as “blind fish,” a local type of fried cheese called boutsa”– and just when we all thought it was over, plates of grilled seafood and then a heaping plate of pasta (one for each of us) left us speechless. And incredibly full. A true feast. Cool breezes, clear skies, and music in the background. The voices of Greek and English speakers mingled as non-speakers (of Greek) managed to communicate with non-speakers (of English). Laughter rang out often, denoting the kefi (good feelings, rather embracing all) so important to Greeks.
Then it was time for taxis back to our hotel, where we all sank into our beds, fully sated and feeling happy. Of course, the young bridal party contingent didn’t make it back home until several hours later, as we older ones found out this morning at breakfast.
Today, Friday, began with a leisurely breakfast on the patio. Cheese pies, croissants and bread, butter and jam, fresh peaches from the owner’s father’s trees, eggs and sausages, fresh yogurt and honey, freshly squeezed orange juice, cheese and cold cuts – again, facing a Greek table is like facing a mini-cafeteria. We just kept passing around food, grazing, and drinking water and juice. Coffee and tea (a mountain herbal tea) also were available.
By 10:30 or so, we were off in three cars, headed toward Vergina. The discovery of royal tombs there in the 1970s has led to a new, beautifully organized museum situated under the tumulus of the tombs themselves. There we saw the finds from the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great.
I expected to see the bronze tools and implements of war, but not quite such magnificent examples of greaves and helmets and so on. Silverwork surprised me: the delicate, masterful decorative creations of cups and plates, serving dishes of all kinds – so beautiful even now that I wouldn’t hesitate to use them.
We could see the remnants of the couches and chairs that were placed in the tomb – even the still-sharply colored designs of the cloth that the royal bones were wrapped in. Delicate fronds of gold leaves and flowers were braided and wound into diadems and crowns.
Everywhere the signs offered us clear explanations both in Greek and English. I was most taken with the small replica of Philip II’s tomb – complete with miniature shields and greaves and cups and saucers, placed as they were when the tomb was first discovered. This was a work of art in itself, I think.
And at the beginning (or the end, as I managed it), was a film about the tombs and the site, in Greek with English subtitles. Dedicated to the Greek archaeologist who discovered and excavated the site and who has since died, the film included photography of the site and of the tombs and its contents as well as information about Philip II and his death at the Theatre of Vergina, near the tomb itself.
After a short break for cold water and time to hit the museum store, we were back in the cars headed away from Vergina and toward Naoussa. We took a left rather than a right at one point and headed upwards again, past the river, into the Pierian mountains to the monastery of Timios Prodromos. A simple monastery, it offers its visitors a glimpse into the workings of a monastery whose exact beginnings are, as its guidebook says, “lost in time.” Evidence of monks living in caves goes back many centuries, and history recounts a number of saints who visited the area. All the local monasteries were burned by the Pasha about 1822 after the Naoussa revolution in the 19th century (the occupation of Greeks by the Turks ended only with the War of Independence, 1821-1828).
Pots of flowers and herbs bordered the steps and looked useful as well as decorative. A young priest was working as we entered the doorway into a kind of open area. At first I thought he was watering plants or planting, but I later found out his task was quite different – he was carefully washing the bones of earlier monks. His head bowed reverently as he worked slowly and with great attention, he obviously saw his work as sacred. Again, I had an insight into the life inside such a place.
One small chapel held our interest simply because it was inside the hollowed area of an enormous petrified tree. Surely, I thought at first, this was not true. However, as I looked carefully around me, I could clearly see that this was, indeed, wood. Hollows and twists and bands of striated wood curled overhead. Such an amazing use of nature, a practical use of what one has at hand.
The modern church is not much larger, but it is decorated from floor to ceiling – indeed all the ceiling itself it decorated – with scenes from Biblical stories as well as pictures of various saints. Here is the story of the monastery, of Orthodoxy, of Christianity – played out in paint. A simple row of chairs lined the back wall.
As we entered that small church, one of the many cats followed us in, obviously at home.
After our stop there, it was back to the hotel here in Naoussa. Once back, we hit the local supermarket and ate a simple picnic lunch in the patio. Cheeses, olives, crackers/toast, tzatziki, lettuce and tomatoes – a perfect light lunch.
I came back to my room about 5. It’s almost 7 now. In a few minutes, we will meet downstairs on the patio to head back to the park and the hotel by the river. It’s almost time to eat again.
Maybe I’d better get ready.
We just returned from dinner – early Americans that we are, we managed to eat early tonight. After all, tomorrow morning some of us are planning a little shopping and some wandering around town. Personally, I plan to sit and observe from cafes. And get some rest in the afternoon. Tomorrow night is the big night – the wedding we’ve all come here to celebrate.