Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Road trip to Thessaloniki

Before we hit the road I organized an orientation dinner for my friends who bearly knew each other. The truth is, it didn't look promising: Arslan arrived inconsiderably an hour late starving us to death as Zeynep was listing her objections:
1) We are not to drive faster than 120km/hr,
2) we are not to depart before 6 am,
3) Not sure about couch-surfing.
Deniz was rightfully irritated that the only contribution made to the plan was deconstructing it. I was in a discrete state of panic for I started to fear that I had miscalculated the harmony of this group.

Deniz+ Arslan+ Zeynep+ me = catastrophe

It was a lucky thing that no one back out and we were on the road to Thessaloniki by 5 am Friday morning. We wanted to leave at 4, Zeynep wanted to leave at 6. No winners nor losers this time.


5 am
Deniz picked Zeynep up.

5.30 am
I opened the back door only to find Zeynep ready to doze out: "I will sleep. You take the shot gun. Deniz promised to not drive faster than 120km/hr. Keep an eye on him." As Zeynep was sleeping like an angel in the back seat, she had no idea of the demons inside Deniz behind the wheel.

6 am
Arslan was, of course, late and we were told to kill time getting coffees. That pretty much means instant coffee at a gas station at that time of the day.

9 am
Stopped at a gas station for a cup of nasty tea and to practice my driving. Our car was manual and as far as I was concerned there were only 2 gears in a car: forward and backward. I had a Canadian driving license which is accepted in Europe. We hoped that if I could drive through the border, we would not need to purchase the 250 TL international driving license.

Zeynep and Arslan remained outside the car (!) Deniz put on a straight face and told me to turn on the ignition. He ordered:
"1st gear. Release the clutch as you push the gas." Apparently that is easier said than done. It looked like a rap video with the front of the car rising and dropping. I rapped for 5 mins in the car. My stick shift skills were still scarce but we decided it was enough in the case desperation.

10 am
Arrived at the Turkish border. As recommended by previous travelers, I got out of the car to deal with the male officer. Smooth sailing. No mention of an international driving license.

Arrived at the Greek border. As recommended by previous travelers, I got out of the car to deal with the male officer. As much as I tried to seduce the officer with our home -baked muffins and pogacas, he didn't accept my Canadian driving license nor Arslan's (expired) American. We reversed back to the Turkish border (like Temel) to get the international driving license.


12 am
We took a break at Kavala, a charming little city on the Northern coast of the Mediterranean. The city was under the Ottoman rule between 1387 and 1912, and Ottoman presence still dominates today. A massive Ottoman AQUEDUCT captures your immediate attention as you enter the city. Its massiveness and beauty reign all visitor's impressions of this town.

We started our tour at the CASTLE. The castle itself wasn't extraordinary but the walk up to the castle through the OLD TOWN was quite nice. Old Ottoman houses, some renovated, some deserted create a romantic promenade.

We continued to the HOUSE of the MEHMET ALI PASHA, the founder of a dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952. We couldn't see inside but looking at it from outside pleased our eyes. If you walk passed it towards the end of the street, there is a nice cafe with a terrace overlooking the city. It is nice place to finish up the day.

For food and accommodation I recommend IMARET:
"An imaret is one of the few names used to identify the Ottoman soup kitchens built throughout the Ottoman Empire from the 14th into the 19th century. These public kitchens were often part of a larger complex known as a Waqf, which could include hospices, mosques, caravanserais and colleges. The imaret's gave out food that was free of charge to specific types of people and fortunate individuals." Wikipedia

The old Imaret is now a five start hotel run by Relais & Châteaux.

We were pleasantly surprised to be served in Turkish where we had lunch. I guess it is safe to assume that some elders speak Turkish here. It can be explained by the still recent Ottoman control of the region and the numerous Turkish villages in the area. All the way along the highway we had passed villages with mosques and churches. The Turks and other Muslims of Western Thrace were exempted from the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.


We drove off to Thessaloniki from here. Instead of preferring the speedy highway, we decided to follow the COASTAL ROAD. Relying on common sense we guessed that if we followed the sea line, it would lead us down to Thessaloniki. We ended up on a dead-end street next to a gorgeous beach. It wasn't what we planned but we spotted a CAMPING area half an hour away form Kavala for our coming weekend getaways.

We had a Greek host that we found though COUCHSURFING.COM. "The CouchSurfing Project is a free, Internet-based, international hospitality service, and it is currently the largest hospitality exchange network... Members use the website to coordinate contacts and home accommodation (or "surf" others' "couches") with other network members around the world." Wikipedia.
However, we had forgotten that it was the Easter weekend and our generous host Aris had to plans to go out of town like most Greeks.

Other similar websites are:
Hospitality Club, Servas

We checked out 4 hotels and finally settled for TOURIST HOTEL. This historic building now serves as a budget hotel. It is conveniently located at the heart of the city, right next to Aristotelous Square where all the night life and shopping is. All rooms are clean and spacious. Furthermore, the hotel is much more tastefully decorated than you expect from a 65 Euros/night (per room!) kind of hotel. To our delight, the open buffet breakfast ran from 7 to 11. The staff is very friendly and helpful. To sum it up, this hotel is really traveler-minded.

A slightly more expensive alternative is the Luxembourg Hotel, but upon visiting we agreed that it is not 20 Euros better.

Your guide might recommend Vergina, but it is far, ugly and more expensive.

If you can pay more LE PALACE is really the best option.

We had dinner at a cute little tavern (with no music) called PONTE NEGRO. The food is not mind-blowing but the staff is quite amiable. They have outside seating on a charming street with no traffic. We chose this place because they have no English menu, thus not touristic at all. Indeed, there is only one person who speaks crumbles of an English: Nico Athonisiades. He was very neighborly with us. So neighborly that he gave us a free bottle of Ouzo to take away with us. Nico is the man! I am not able to give the exact coordinates but I have their number: 2310 523 571

We continued the night in a bar that I am not able to recall :( Nico is to blame. However, you can check out Aris's recommendations: " Go clubbing to HOTEL or VOGUE, both in Fix area. Alternatively, try BARBARELLA in the center, right behind the Assos Odeon shopping mall, for some wonderful live Greek music. You might not be able to find a table to sit, but it is a must even if you have to stand."



10.40 am
We had agreed to meet a the breakfast lounge 10 mins ago. In the adjacent bed Deniz lied wasted from the previous night and although they were two floors above, I was sure Zeynep and Arslan were doing the same. Zeynep usually required a marching band around and on her bed to get up and Arslan was found guilty of late arrival twice, so I felt lighthearted about snoozing my alarm for a third time.

I had develop empathy for the homeless in the railway stations over the night. Deniz snored like rattling trains. I dragged myself out of bed and washed my face avoiding the reflection of 2 nights of sleep deprivation in the mirror.

10.55 am
Picked up the last piece of raison swirl from the already swept clean open buffet. How I looked with envy at the half eaten bagels on the abondoned plates...
Deniz was playing Marco, the model agent form Milan in his dreams. I would be doing the the same if it wasn't for the Easter service at church at 12. Zeynep and Arslan were still missing but then they arrived just in time for the last slice of feta on which Arslan made the first move. Keen eyes and fast hands.

11.20 am
We gathered in the lobby to go save ourselves seats at the ceremony only to find out that the service was at 12 am, not 12 pm.
Change of plans.

12 pm
We headed to the emblematic WHITE TOWER which have become the embodiment of the multi-cultural history of the city. The EU funds turned it into a 6 floor museum. The main themes of the exposition are the Byzantine period, Ottoman domination and the Jewish community.
As much as we envied the wonderful work done converting this tower to a Thessaloniki history line, we noticed some disappointing and unprofessional anti-Turkish remarks such as: "Under the Turkish rule, Greeks were the slaves, Jews were the guests". Museum are supposed to be like no man's land. They are not supposed to have sides.

4 pm
He headed to KOKINOS SKANTZOHIROS (Red Hedgehog in Greek) located on Pavlu Mela St. Aris told us to find his waiter friends here and recommended the meat dishes. As soon as we took a fork of the eggplant pie and the signature salad we knew that we did right thing by coming here. For the main course, three of us opted for the Turkish dish "Hunkar Begendi" and Zeynep got mixed Gyros. Gyros wasn't up to our expectations but the Hunkar Begendi is a must-try here. I have already decided what I will order next time I am here: palatianoi meatballs. We were again treated with free desert and mastic liquor called Mastica.
It has a very charming interior as well as outside seating under blossoming trees. 2310 281 599 for reservations.

We stuffed ourselves so much, we skipped dinner but otherwise we intended on giving a shot to AHINOS, right across the fish market on Ermou str. Aris described it as the place to have "delicious fish the modern way"

6 pm
Ataturk's house PEMBE KOSK (Pink Kiosk) was our next stop. It is not open on the weekends, so we couldn't see inside but I am not sure you can see much now that it is used as the Turkish Consulate General. There is a Turkish kahvehane across from it.

From here we headed home for a nap. The hotel had left Easter eggs and bread in our rooms for us.

12 am
Ceremony in Agios Dimitrios (seen in the above picture). My Easter egg beat the shit out of 7 warrior eggs. :)
Some Greeks showed up at church dressed rather for the after-church plans than for the service. Mini skirts, walking sticks, headscarves, stilettos and my Converses lit each other's candles passing the fire to the entire mass. Coming from a culture where the dress code is super strict for going to the mosque, I admired the modernized religious spirit.

12.30 am
As the mass dissolved into the streets, we followed a group of girls on the street (with their permission of course ) and ended up in a hip bar called KISSFISH where they played international pop. After playing the goody good shoes at church, Deniz was thirsty for some action. My friend Ivo's Greek friends joined us here and we partied till 5.30. The waiter offered us 3 rounds of 8 shots on the house. ;)
Greeks were very generous with us this entire trip.

6 am
French crepes before bed. Mr. Goody-Empty-Hands at least had a full stomach.

13 pm
Back on the road to Turkey.


Aristeidis said...

Awesome review! Wow, I feel awe everytime I experience a "foreigner's" point of view over the place where I spend my everyday life and the things I no longer pay attention to.

First of all, congrats on the choice of a historically correct map of Macedonia ;-). Second, did you know that Kavala is my hometown and that I spend half my week here and the other in Thessaloniki? (BTW, I have noticed tons of other "coincidences", such as that my last name means "Sultan" in Greek, that I also use a Mac etc etc). If I knew you were to make a stop in Kavala, I would have made extra suggestions for that as well. Rumor has it that the aqueduct was built as high in order to prevent pirates from cutting water supply to the castle when the city was being invaded, but not sure of the reliability of the rumor. I'm glad you liked the city and you should definitely come back to further explore it.

BTW, I dined at Kokkinos Skantzohiros the other day and Iordanis told me what a great group of people you were.

Looking forward to more details and hopefully I have pressed the right buttons although everything is in Turkish.

Aristeidis said...

Hmm, one thing you should bear in mind is that the kind of history Greeks learn is much different to the history that Turks learn. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

duygusar said...

Himm, it seems like I couldn't explain myself clearly. My complaint is not about how the two governments teach history differently. I am pretty sure that Turks weren't all hands clean. I am just pointing out that museums should not be used as platform for ideology wars. Politics should remain in the political organs, public space should be neutral.