Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10


Unplanned stop in Thessaloniki kicks off Greek island hop

We arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece, at 7 am, and had expensive cafés au lait ($5) while waiting for the travel agencies along the port to open. We thought we’d hop a cruise to some Greek Islands the next day.

At 8:50, one travel agent opened her doors to us. Early bird Christina Jeirani of Overseas Travel greeted us with a sleepy smile and began to process our desires, travel wise. We had decided to loosen the purse strings and try our first cruise.

After years of avoiding cruises, we resolved that sleeping on a ship and cruising around the islands would be just what we needed after the walk into Macedonia from Albania, and all those buses, trains and ferries. We wanted to have a few days without worrying about where we were going to sleep and eat.

Christina found a seven-day island hop with Easy Cruise that included Bodrum, Turkey, as well as several Greek islands, for 500 euro (about $800) with half board. Later we discovered we had probably over paid a bit because this was no luxury cruise. But that’s a story for the next issue.

We actually breathed a sigh of relief at the price, thinking it would be much higher. Not so easy! Cruises don’t leave from Thessaloniki! We would have to get to Athens and depart from Piraeus (the port).

Christina booked us a hotel in Thessaloniki, the Mandrino, for 65 euro. After checking in, we took a bus three or four stops to the railway station, where we were informed that the only seats available to Athens were on the express leaving the next day at 7 pm – for 48 euro each! Okay, we said, rather hefty, but what choice did we have? We then went back to the tourist office and asked Christina to get us a hotel in Piraeus, which she did – for another 89 euro. But better safe than sorry in Athens at 11:30 pm, right? This is the downside of last-minute plans, but we wouldn’t trade such freedom for the world – of bookings.

We then asked Christina for an interesting restaurant, since we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. She, after a giggling session with her friends, sent us to Ouzo Medathron. Everyone knows it, she said, because the food is exquisite. And it was! It’s in a fun courtyard full of hungry, happy Greeks, downing every imaginable variety of mussels; sardines, not the canned variety; anchovies, the real thing; all sorts of meats and truly marvelous Greek salad. It was all topped off with ice cream and strawberry or chocolate syrup on a bed of baklava strings sprinkled with honey and espresso, for – nothing! “Well,” Irwin says, “The dessert and coffee are complimentary!” What a joyful experience – especially when we got spritzed with the mist that was ingeniously connected to a fan, for a little relief from the stifling heat.

The next morning we waited for the Jewish museum to open and when it did we spent an hour and a half marvelling at the growth of the wonderful community of up to 70,000 Jews who first settled in Thessaloniki as Roman slaves, augmented later by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other points across Europe. It was a thriving, vibrant community with over 20 newspapers in Spanish and Ladino, full of scholarship, schools, over 30 synagogues, hospitals, seniors’ homes, libraries, orphanages – until the Nazis brutally and systematically devastated the community, transporting all but a few Jews to Auschwitz after destroying the cemetery and humiliating and tormenting the men. We saw the deportation order telling the people there would be food waiting for themand to pack all their jewellery and valuables. The museum has a small library and bookstore with several publications about the community.

Thessaloniki, as we discovered during our unplanned 24-hour stay, has a charm all its own. It was our introduction to a bustling Greek city, which was full of friendly shoppers. We discovered cheaper and nicer hotels on the same street as the Mandrino, and we’ll stay in one of them next time. No reservations seem to be necessary in this city – just the way we like it.

That evening, after packing burekas and tomatoes purchased from a nearby grocery, we got on the train for Athens. The next afternoon we would board our “Easy Cruise” and begin an adventure like none we had ever known, starting with the Greek island of Kalymnos.

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