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Meeting the locals of Central Macedonia

The inhabitants of the Greek region of Central Macedonia are fiercely proud of their homeland — for good reason. Its mountainous landscapes are dotted with lakes, vineyards and ancient ruins where Alexander the Great’s legacy looms large.

By Chris Leadbeater
photographs by Francesco Lastrucci
Published 16 Apr 2019, 08:00 BST
A monastery found on top of Mount Athos
One of the 20 monasteries found on Mount Athos.
Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Shortly before 10am, Vergina is waking up to another glorious spring morning in the foothills of Mount Pieriahe; the clang of goat bells echoing across the slopes interrupted now by the grumble of mopeds. At the top of the avenue leading to the Royal Tombs of Aigai, a cafe owner throws open his shutters and eyes a tourist bus heading for the car park.

It’s taken me barely an hour to reach the town from Central Macedonia’s capital, Thessaloniki, sprawling across the seafront. Driving south west from the city, the coast gradually becomes less built-up, the warehouses and shipping containers giving way to quiet beaches and rolling tides. The short journey has thrown up a grand swathe of the Greek region, and the coming week reveals more: rustic uplands where vineyards whisper on slopes, not least near Naoussa, where the Vermio Mountains lift their heads; wild places where all footprints seem to fade, like Lake Kerkini National Park, in the north; sublime stretches of shoreline, especially where the southerly Halkidiki Peninsula dips its hand into the Aegean. But here, today, I’m already seduced. I dawdle over coffee dregs, feel the sun warming my arms, and wonder, not for the first time: do I really need to go underground?

Under a series of grassy mounds in Vergina lies the grave of Philip II, the charismatic ruler who was the catalyst for the rapid growth of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, and its first capital, Aigai. The Royal Tombs of Aigai were one of the key historical discoveries of the 20th century.

Wars — triumphant campaigns, in particular — defined the life of Philip II. When he came to the throne in 359 BC, Ancient Macedonia was an unassuming kingdom on the periphery of the Greek political landscape. In the 23 tumultuous years before his assassination, he expanded his territory, defeating Athens and Thebes. But better still for his legacy, he gave the world a son who became even more famous. By the time his heir Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, aged just 32, Macedonia had pushed east into Anatolia (Turkey) and Persia (Iran), north into the Balkans and as far south as Egypt.

Philip’s tomb was undisturbed when it was unearthed in 1977, and the treasures found wthin are now on display at the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, in Vergina. They include a gold crown, the copper vessels used to wash his body before cremation and his shield, adorned with the image of the mythological warrior Achilles. The mausoleum itself is also preserved in all its nobility — there’s a sturdy facade held aloft by two columns, and a mural above still showing scenes from its royal resident’s life. Surprised at how close I’m allowed to stand to these priceless artefacts — almost within touching distance — I linger by the sealed entrance to the burial chamber, and wonder what Philip would make of the modern political argument that traces its tensions all the way back to his sandal-clad feet.

Looking down the cliff from Osiou Grigoriou Monastery on the southwest side of the Mount Athos Peninsula.
Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Past masters

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the celebrated Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, once wrote. But people in this northeasterly portion of the Greek mainland are well aware of their history, and deeply protective of it. Indeed, it wasn’t until January this year that the Greek parliament finally ratified the Prespa Agreement — an accord that promises to end a 28-year diplomatic feud with the neighbouring country, the Republic of North Macedonia (formerly the Republic of Macedonia).

The cause of the spat? The use of that M-word. Ever since the small Balkan state of Macedonia broke away from collapsing Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece has bridled at its use of a name that, it argues, is its intellectual property. The situation has been so tetchy that from 2006 to 2018 there were no flights between Athens and the Macedonian capital, Skopje. The rapprochement has seen the former Yugoslav republic rechristened as North Macedonia. But what may seem a reasonable solution between governments has not been embraced at street level — there were demonstrations in Athens when the compromise was announced.

But the core of Philip and Alexander’s realm largely correlates with the modern Greek region of Central Macedonia. Pella, the city where both men were born, is also on 21st-century Greek soil, 30 miles north west of Thessaloniki. It’s a little scuffed now, but it salutes its heritage with pride. A statue of Alexander rears on horseback in the main square. He’s also in the foyer of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki: a marble bust, carved between 325 BC and 300 BC. His eyes point the way into the galleries, where there are marvels galore — mosaics from the town’s gorgeous House of Dionysos, the god in question riding a leopard; a gold myrtle wreath; a terracotta figurine of Aphrodite, hair flowing down her back.

“Pella was a small town before the Macedonians chose it to be their capital [in the fifth century BC],” says Dr Elisabet Tsigarida, the director of the Archaeological Museum of Pella. “It was on the main route from west to east, the one that would become the Roman Via Egnatia [from what is now Drach, in Albania, to Istanbul]; it was a clever decision.” As we approach the bottom of town, the onetime size and importance of the ancient site is still visible in its enormous agora (main square).

“A vibrant city presents itself here in Thessaloniki — one that has weathered the recent Greek economic crises to peer forward with optimism ”

by Chris Leadbeater
National Geographic Traveller (UK)

A few hours later, I’m getting to know the city that replaced Pella as the Central Macedonian capital. Life in Thessaloniki is very much lived outside. I make my way from the pedestrianised drag, Aristotelous, to the main city square, on the waterfront, where market stalls are gathered below the elegant curve of the Electra Palace Thessaloniki hotel. Half a mile south east along the coast, history reasserts itself. Built in 1535, the White Tower of Thessaloniki, with its imposing outline, has become the city’s emblem. The statue behind is Alexander, again in the saddle.

It’s difficult to avoid the past in Thessaloniki. Rome intrudes regularly, its relics strewn along Gounari Street: the giant Palace of Galerius, built by aforementioned emperor in the fourth century AD; the triumphal arch constructed for the same ruler; the Rotunda, a pre-Christian temple converted into a church in the fifth century; the big agora due west of it. But a vibrant city presents itself too — one that has weathered the recent Greek economic crises to peer forward with optimism.

This spirit shines through in its food scene. One block north of the White Tower, Mia Feta makes a selling point of Greece’s crumbliest cheese — half deli, half restaurant, customers either pop in to buy dinner on their way home, or hang around for glasses of wine. Further up the same street, in a defunct cinema, Ergon Agora serves a plate of meatballs whose spiciness dances on my tongue long after I’ve swallowed them. Stou Mitsou, meanwhile, is a dowdy cafe hidden away in the labyrinthine Kapani Market, yet its dishes have real gourmet flair. Standouts include squid with sun-dried tomatoes and lemon zest; and fava bean mash with spring onions.

From the market, I trip down into Ladadika, which was, up until the mid-1990s, a port-side warehouse district before being reborn as the city’s nightlife zone. I head into Lena’s Bistro, where the barman makes me a mojito that appears to empty the rum bottle. The alcohol rush envelops me nearly as swiftly as the cigarette-smoke swirl that still seems to pervade Greek bars.

Chapel near Porto Paradiso on the Sithonia Peninsul.
Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Life in the borderlands

Leaving the city, I head north for 60 miles along the A25 highway, until Thessaloniki has vanished so wholly I question whether I’ve swapped continents. There’s something of Northern California about the more distant reaches of Central Macedonia — the fir forests, the rocky bluffs around which roads twist, and lakes lapping at lush green shores. By the time I stop in Kerkini, the village edging up to the lake of the same name, I’m entranced.

But I soon find out the lake isn’t quite the age-old natural feature I’d imagined it to be. Environmentalist Michail Davis tells me it’s a reservoir, created in 1932. It’s since changed the face of the nearby Sérres plain; what was an area of marshland (so swampy there were around 10,000 malaria-related deaths here from 1922-28) is now a birdwatcher’s paradise, home to a vast population of waterbirds, from flamingos to cormorants and pelicans. “Greece has some 420 species of bird, and 312 of them are here,” Michail smiles.

When I head out onto the water in a boat with Vasilis Arabatzis, a guide who offers lake tours from nearby Hotel Oikoperiigitis, I can see Michail wasn’t exaggerating. A patch of pink reveals itself to be a flock of flamingos — perhaps 50 in total. As I watch, four huge Dalmatian pelicans thunder across the middle distance like B52s in formation. “This is like a gas station on the eastern migration route through Europe,” Vasilis laughs. “From here, they go north to Scandinavia, south to the Nile and down into Africa. It’s a bird highway, and here is their best meal-stop below the Balkans.”

The Kerkini Mountains rise above us as we talk, a political and geographical boundary, marking the border with both Bulgaria and North Macedonia. By the time I’ve driven six miles up to the hamlet of Ano Poroia, I’m all but in North Macedonia, which lurks north west of the ridge. Not that the road goes there. I pause where it runs out, to eat at Pestrofes, a restaurant specialising in trout, then return down the slope for cake and coffee at Tintza’s Cafe, where a stream babbles outside. Its gentle sound is a reminder that rivers here go south; that their waters will make their way, eventually, to the Aegean. And so should I.

“As I watch, four huge Dalmatian pelicans thunder across the middle distance like B52s in formation”

by Chris Leadbeater
National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Halkidiki is perhaps the most romantic region of Central Macedonia, dipping not one but three fingers into the sea: the Kassandra Peninsula is perhaps the most-visited, dotted with beach hotels; the Sinthonia Peninsula is the most untouched, flanked by forests, the road climbing and tumbling where it must; and Mount Athos is the most fabled peninsula, the spiritual heart of the Greek Orthodox faith, where monasteries offer quiet isolation from the machinations of the 21st century, and access is denied to men without a permit (and to women entirely).

There’s a fourth version of Halkidiki too, one that swells inland. I find myself in Arnea — a town, 45 miles south east of Thessaloniki, that has also pushed back at modern life. Not in the sense of excluding it, but in embracing what it already has.

A policy of restoration has seen old houses primped, protected and brightly painted, forming a rainbow in stone and wood. Even what’s new is effectively old. The church of St Stefanos was constructed in 1812, but destroyed by fire in September 2005. A faithful replica was built in time for Christmas the following year, the locals having worked (and fundraised) tirelessly to return the town’s focal point to existence. Its icons and polished surfaces positively gleam.

Sitting in Aristotle Cafe, on the central square, owner Theodosis Karastergios is content with his lot — a local who went to Britain to study, but is glad to have returned home to set up this business. “I feel lucky to live here,” he says. “Thessaloniki is close, the sea is close, we have a great climate. I could have stayed away, been in London. But I wanted to be in Arnea, to help it.” His exuberance — and that of his fellow citizens — has helped to turn the town into an unlikely travel hotspot. A short walk from Theodosis’ cafe I find Honey Georgaka, a store capitalising on the endeavours of the local bees, and Chasapakia, which serves smoky portions of grilled chicken and lamb. Tourist numbers here swell every May and June, when Kouzina, Arnea’s annual food festival, clicks into gear.

My last stop is the pretty seaside town of Olympiada, just 20 miles east. As I’m strolling across the adjacent archaeological site of Ancient Stagira, I meet Philip II again. He smashed this ancient settlement to pieces in 349 BC in an act of conquest, only to rebuild it six years later in thanks to its celebrated inhabitant, Aristotle — who by now he had appointed as his son’s tutor. I wander on as waves crash below the Temple of Demeter — part of Philip’s reconstruction — and the aroma of pine needles haunts the air. In this moment, I’m certain that Greece has never looked more Macedonian — nor Macedonia more Greek. 

Monks at Osiou Grigoriou Monastery.
Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci


Getting there & around
Thessaloniki Airport is served by British Airways from Gatwick; Jet2 from Birmingham, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Leeds-Bradford, Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle; EasyJet from Gatwick, Manchester and Luton; Ryanair from Stansted and Manchester; and Wizz Air from Luton.

Average flight time: 3h15m.

Public transport beyond Thessaloniki is limited. To visit Lake Kerkini or Halkidiki, it’s best to hire a car.  

When to go
Northern Greece has pleasant summers, averaging around 30C. The shoulder months of April, May, September and October hover around the mid-20Cs.

Where to stay
The Modernist.
Electra Palace Thessaloniki.
Oikia Alexandrou Traditional Inn.
Hotel Oikoperiigitis.

More info

How to do it
British Airways Holidays has seven nights at five-star The Met Hotel in Thessaloniki, with car hire, from £904 per person.
Nature Trek has an eight-day bird-watching tour to Lake Kerkini in spring from £1,495 per person, and five days in autumn from £1,095 per person. Includes flights.

See more pictures in our photo gallery:

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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