At least in Europe it seems that there is only one topic these days in the news: Greece and the country’s economic crisis. Greece has also been on my mind in recent weeks albeit for entirely different reasons. Despite loving Mediterranean anything, I had never been to Greece until I got invited by Marketing Greece to join their Blogtrotters 2015 “Young at Heart” campaign in Thessaloniki this June. It seemed like the country was in dire need of some good PR and I was in dire need of some sunshine and ocean so before long my oversized luggage – new scuba gear included – and I were boarding an Aegean Airlines plane.

There is something quite magical about arriving in a new city at night. Watching a city asleep shows you a different side than you would see during the day – fewer people, more lights, a different smell in the air. It’s a bit mysterious and I like it. When I arrive in Thessaloniki at midnight there is nothing sleepy about the city though and, in fact, there are no signs of a crisis either. Cafes and sidewalk restaurants are bursting with people and traffic through the center and along the promenade is in full swing.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150619_0062 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150620_0046

Watching the people, I get hungry, hungry to discover this night owl of a city and for a late night snack. To be honest, I have never spent a thought on Greek food before. While everybody is always raving about it or complaining about how many kilos they added after a Greek holiday, I am quite indifferent about it. Greek wine, however, is a whole different matter. After all, it was Udo Jürgens who serenaded the gods’ nectar with his song “Griechischer Wein” and made it famous amongst Germans like me who may have never before considered it a must-drink. So when I arrive at the Makedonia Palace, my home for the next few nights, I am delighted to find not only a sea-view waiting for me, but also a midnight feast including my first bottle of real Greek wine.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150618_0030

The next morning I fall in love with my second Greek drink: freddo cappuccino, an ice cold cappuccino with a milk that must surely be made out of a cloud for it is so foamy. On the buffet, I develop a second crush when I discover manouri cheese and when I return to refill my plate I actually snarl at the lady who spends way too much time next to my cheese tray. All in all, a successful first 12 hours for the Greek food, trying to win my heart.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150620_0055 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150620_0048

Next it is the city’s turn to woo me, an easy task as it is steeped in history, with a 6km long promenade and some of the friendliest people I have met. Thessaloniki is old, founded in 315 BC, and young at the same time with over a 100.000 students and youngsters and our group is here to discover both.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150620_0056 thessaloniki-greece-weather-midnight blue elephant - 01

We start at the contemporary Museum of Photography located at the Port of Thessaloniki and for a moment I feel like I am in Williamsburg: Exposed bricks, refurbished warehouses and modern art on the promenade dominate the scenery which is completed by some bearded, topless guys who look like hipsters from Portland. It gets even hipper during lunch at Kitchen Bar, stunningly located right by the waterfront and I can soak up my first view on the very blue ocean. That and copious amounts of miniature Greek salads, burgers, and spanakopita. At this point I should have listened to my mother when she told me that everything in Greece comes in full fat, bikini season is officially over before it has even begun.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150617_0018 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes thessaloniki-greece-weather-midnight blue elephant - 11

Thessaloniki is rich in history and remains of Romans, Ottomans and Byzantines can be found throughout, telling stories of its former importance as a trading port and melting point of people and cultures. While not easy on the eyes in a common sense I find the mix of graffitis, ancient ruins and churches as well as some ugly 60s buildings charming. Some dramatic clouds start to add even more character to the old walls and crumbling sidewalks and to walk off some calories we make our way to the White Tower, one of Thessaloniki’s historic landmarks. While there is nothing white about it, it is at least not covered in dried blood anymore as it used to be during its time as a prison and as an execution ground. Today not even the inside reminds of the gruesome past: it has become a modern, interactive museum telling the history and influence of the city. The visit is concluded with a magnificent view from the top that shows a 360° panorama over Thessaloniki, the ocean, and Mount Olympus. Back on the ground we pay a quick tribute to Alexander the Great on the promenade before we drive up to the castle, the Heptapyrgion. Nestled high above the charming neighborhood of the old town it usually offers an even better view, but today we are out of luck – the city is hiding in clouds of grey and we are hiding under umbrellas.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150617_0019 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150620_0050   thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annika thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150617_0022

It clears just in time for dinner in the trendy Ladadika district where everyone seems young and everything is hip & happening. We stop at a little piazza with restaurants and bars and at Kouziva we are treated like royalty: food and more wonderful wine appears. Just when I think I cannot eat any more, I have to ignore my mother’s words and tell myself that a little Greek salad surely always fits. After dinner, a Lindy Hop flash mob starts in front of the fountain which feels a little staged for my liking – does this happen every night in Thessaloniki? – but is nonetheless really good.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150617_0026 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150617_0027 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150617_0028

While I have trouble believing my grumbling stomach, I am hungry again the next morning and back to the manouri tray in no time. After all, today’s program sounds exhausting and I will need all the nourishment I can get before we are doing a food tour through the city. That includes, you may have guessed, learning by doing which, in this case, means eating. Food tours are usually one of my favorite activities in places that are known for their food and also on my own I like nothing better to soak up the smells and sights of foreign markets. Apparently I am not alone because our guide from Thessaloniki Walking Tours has a hard time keeping our group together while we get lost in stroll over Kapani and the old Modiano market. We visit different vendors and shops and get to taste everything. Of course that everything includes ouzo and though it is only 11 am we don’t refuse – when in Greece… Passengers eye our not so little group curiously and a few join for the sampling of halva and olives, an older gentlemen even returns for seconds not minding that his picture is being taken by our camera crew, catching him in the act.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150618_0037 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150618_0038 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150618_0034

In the afternoon, it is time for our Handpeak tour, a new organization that offers city tours of a different kind, offering a look into artisan workshops, NGOs, and local entrepreneur businesses. These range from art galleries to furniture shops, olive oil manufacturer meets silversmith to guitar builder. The wonderful part of these tours is that you not only learn about a craft or a business but about the people of Thessaloniki and how they think. One of them is Aliki Tsirliagkou who studied art in London, but returned to her hometown to open her own gallery. Thessaloniki is the Berlin of Greece for her: creative, young, and always evolving. How the crisis has affected her business, Nitra Gallery, someone asks her and she shrugs her shoulders matter-of-factly – she is still here, still fighting for Greece. And after all, Aliki adds with a smile, even bad PR is good PR.

thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150618_0033 thessaloniki-greece-travelettes-annikaziehen20150620_0052

Our final dinner has us heading to the ominous Via Karipi that even the taxi drivers seem not be able to find. Once we find it thanks to Google Maps I feel like I have walked onto a film set when we turn into the tiny alley. Cobblestones, lanterns, live music and old fashion wooden puppets watching from above. Following my recommendation our table eats an entire octopus, fried cheese sticks topped with cheese, grilled portobello mushrooms and a heavenly dip made out of tomatoes and yes, you guessed correctly, more cheese. All of us girls are a bit in love with the waiter who brings us this feast and who insists that we have desert on the house after dinner. I sheepishly ask about ouzo and he promptly declares that, of course, also the ouzo is on the house. My mother’s voice still in my head, wondering how I will look in my bikini tomorrow when I go to the beach in Halkidiki, I quickly down my glass. After all, that’s another day, another story and if I have learned one thing it is that you never pass up free ouzo and Greek cheese.

thessaloniki-greece-weather-midnight blue elephant - 06

I have gotten many questions regarding safety in Greece and how the crisis affects tourists. While I already visited mid-June I haven’t heard about any problems or safety issues from friends who live in Greece. If anything, the country needs visitors more than ever right now, so if you have thought about visiting Greece – now is the time. I would advise you to take all the cash you need, as ATMs aren’t really working and check with your accommodation before about credit card payments.

 

Disclaimer: I was invited by Marketing Greece as part of their Blogtrotters 2015 campaign and also hosted by Aegean Airlines and the Makedonia Palace Hotel – thank you for board & cheese!

All images by Annika Ziehen.