Greece: the cradle of philosophy, democracy, and the Olympics. Greece: a country driven by relaxation. Greece: where mountains are inseparable from seemingly infinite coastlines. Greece: proprietor of the healthiest and quite possibly the tastiest menu on the planet. After a three-month, top-to-bottom tour of this Mediterranean jewel, I can't help but shake my fist at my past self for not visiting sooner.
The land of the white and blue is immensely satisfying. The people are welcoming, the broad spectrum of destinations always offers something fresh, and speaking of fresh, the olives! My goodness – whenever I say or even think the word Greece, my mouth will forever salivate for the salty bounce of green olives or the seductive squish of kamalas (not to mention the yogurt, cheese, honey, fresh fruit, artisanal bread, table wine…you name it). Greece is a more prominent place than outsiders may expect, and there are many more sides for this author to explore, but for now, I'll share some love for Thassos, Thessaloniki, Athens, and Legrena.
Thassos (spelled interchangeably with one or two S's), but not to be confused with the ferry town of Thasos (spelled only with one S), is one of three major islands of the Thracian Sea. This body of water in Northeastern Greece is the Northern extension of the Aegean Sea, which connects with the Mediterranean Sea. Thassos is a mountainous island (which avid hikers will be delighted to discover). Ipsarion is the dominant peak, and surrounding it is a mix of small, traditional towns (often slightly inland, and elevated above the coast), and seaside tourist basecamps that support the predominantly Eastern and Northern European visitors. A tight, winding ring road connects the modest rock.
The beaches are a big hit in Thassos. In Skala Potamias, where I stayed for two weeks, the restaurants that line the Malecon all stake out their own little section of sand. Umbrellas and chairs need to be rented (about ten euros/day), and the expectation is that people order a little something from the establishment. Most sunbathing vacationers don't have to have their arm twisted to sip on a few drinks. Come dinnertime, the Thracian's abundant supply of fish can be voraciously indulged.
I can appreciate why these classic slices of paradise are the main focus for most tourists, but I think one would be remiss not to allow a few days of inland exploration. There are well-marked hiking trails through the mountains that offer spectacular panoramic views and a refreshing breeze above the treeline. Alternatively, there are gravel roads that hit many of the same viewpoints (including the summit of Ipsarion) for those wanting to keep their precious getaway in lower gear. These same back roads also connect to quaint villages, with Roman ruins, waterfalls, and other pleasant highlights in and around the settlements.
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Greece's second-largest city surprised me. Unlike many historical European cities, the Old Town is a non-commercialized residential zone. Graffiti has engulfed each of its cobblestone streets – a slightly unsettling site at first, but quite endearing once you realize there are no boogeymen here – only amiable neighbors and cute tavernas around every turn. I'm sure there are entrenched socioeconomic reasons why the Old Town doesn't have a Starbucks (just to give you a universal reference point). Still, I imagine the terrain is due to the lack of development. For you see, Thessaloniki sits on one giant hillside. The waterfront is where the crowds amass, but each block North gets progressively steeper and, therefore less trodden (or driven – for even taxis have a hard time with the steep, slick, and slim streets in those parts). And the Old Town is only halfway up. Higher still sprawls the fortress, zoo, and network of logging roads/hiking trails that continue to relentlessly tax the legs until finally you turn around, sweat-soaked and exhausted, and find yourself thousands of feet above sea level enjoying a million-dollar view.
Another charm of this quirky city is the palpable lack of fussiness. The traffic laws, health codes, and social coercion that have become somewhat stifling in the West are nowhere to be found in Thessaloniki (or Greece in general, for that matter). People ride scooters without helmets, street cats are welcomed by restaurant owners (they even jump on unused tables), and each family-run cafe, taverna, or hostel is authentically unpretentious. Instead of political signage, there are plants in old olive oil drums, cheeky tote bags with puns on them, or absolutely nothing – just charmingly blank walls. Many establishments are just basic kitchens, wooden tables with disposable paper tablecloths, and some foliage.
If Thessaloniki threw a curveball, Athens pitched the expected fastball right down the middle. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but those flying into the capital and cultural bedrock of the nation should be ready to embrace a frenetic atmosphere. The streets are incorrigibly crowded and hot — even late into the fall. But this is the price of admission for such a timeless experience. My girlfriend and I allocated one weekend to see as much as possible (we certainly got our steps in). The Acropolis really is a must-see. There's simply no other possible assessment. The Parthenon, the Erechtheion (or Temple of Athena Polias), and the Theater of Dionysus are powerful monuments — all the more for occupying a centralized mound that overlooks the rest of the modern metropolis (creating a contrast as startling as Rome).
Everytime we told fellow Greeks the name of the town that was to cap off our trip, we were met with perplexed expressions. No one knows where Lagrena is, or why a couple of world travelers would want to go there instead of say Crete, or Rhodes. The answer is two-fold. For starters, an open-minded scan of the Airbnb map produced an intriguing and affordable apartment. Secondly, the only major experience that remained untapped for us was a long immersion in an undiscovered village. Well, it doesn't get much more undiscovered than Lagrena, especially in the off-season.
This cozy little coastal town sits South of Athens, at the southernmost point of Greece's mainland. The beaches are perfectly imperfect, and only draw Athenians on sunny weekends (and even then, there are a half-dozen locations to choose from, which effectively disperses the modest crowds).
For Irina and I, the October sun was freeing. The diminished UV index allowed unprotected sunbathing, but the water was still pleasant enough for long swims. Each weekend (and during some quick mid-week work breaks), we would pick a different beach to switch up the aesthetic. The one adjacent to the dirt parking lot was well-suited for families and the elderly. A wet slog (at high tide) or rocky traverse (during low tide) unveils the sporty beach, which is to say, the one with a volleyball net (i.e., the sole piece of infrastructure on any of Lagrena's beaches). Another short hike over a manageable bluff exposes the nude beach (although if there was a crowd, the birthday suits seemed to migrate one beach further along still (more challenging to walk to, but accessed via a semi-secret path connected to a residential road). The discoveries persist, but I won't spill all the beans (I promised our hosts that I wouldn't "Lonely Planet" their sleepy town).
A few miles East of Lagrena, the temple of Poseidon stands proudly on a hilltop overlooking his watery domain. The place of worship may be a shell of its former glory, but standing beside the quintessential white columns of the Ancient Greek monument and gazing across the sparkling sea is an experience on par with the fan-favorites of Athens. In fact, busloads of tourists regularly come from the capital just to spend an hour in the presence of the seafaring god.
Traveling around Greece creates a trip devoid of wrong answers. Is there a hyper-tourist place that interests you? Good! It's popular for a reason. It’s either stunning, irreplaceably historic, or both. Is there an off-the-beaten-path spot that has caught your eye? Go there! Supermarkets and beach bars are overrated. Soak up the subtle pleasures instead. Unsure of whether to visit the mainland, the paradisiacal islands, resort towns, or cities? Try to check all the boxes, or commit to one path for now and look forward to a return journey. Greece isn’t going anywhere. And it will happily greet you just the same upon each adventure.