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EXPLORING THESSALY, CENTRAL GREECE

We had the opportunity to have a house to ourselves in Larisa and see surrounding areas of Thessaly during the holidays.

Larisa grows on you – at first you think of it as a flat uninteresting city in the middle of the Thessalian plain but it’s actually a dynamic city. It’s a university city and has a lot of young people with a lively center of town.

Elias was born in Larisa and although he left as a tiny tot, he used to be sent there in summers as a little kid to an adoring grandmother and a slew of aunts and uncles that doted on him, the first born grandchild (and a boy) When we go to Larisa and walk around the center, Elias gets teary eyed. “Here’s where I used to play and ride my bike in this plateia,” “I used to go here to have souvlaki at my uncle Giannis’ restaurant…this is where my aunt Katina had her kommotirio (hair salon) here was the house, now it’s this ugly apartment building…”

Driving the 3 ½ hours from Athens, we always stop (as many do) in Kamena Vourla in the province of Fthiotida (as I learned when I was studying for the Greek citizenship test last fall)  , The town, in a beautiful setting of mountains and sea, has lost the allure it had years ago when it was quite a resort mostly for its thermal baths, which have fallen into a kind of disrepair.  But Kammena Vourla (this melodic sounding name meaning “Burnt bushes,”) is still a must stop for coffee near the sea, where customers order loukoumades (balls of dough fried with honey drizzled over with nuts)  If fresh, they’re quite sinful and delicious. Some of the fish tavernas, smelling of fried kalamarakia as you walk by, are right on the beach. With the sea always calm and practically touching the cafes and tavernas, you could even order and have a quick swim while you wait…

Kammena Vourla in summer

This year, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the sunshine was bright and warm with a soft breeze with what’s known as the alkyonides meres (halcyon days). “Halcyon” doesn’t refer to just a sense of place or nostalgia for golden days of the past, but for these actual blissful winter days. (In mythology, halcyon refers to a seabird that had the power to calm the rough ocean winter waves so she could nest.)

Nearby is Thermopylaes where King Leonidas led 300 Spartans into battle against the Persians and Gerald Butler made famous with his “This is Sparta!” in the film “300.”

The road skirting the sea gradually turns inward to what’s known as the Thessalian campos, or plain. The first evening in Larisa, I realized it must be a passage for bird migration. I heard a loud sound of honking, looked up to see thousands of birds like dark smudges against the sky under a pale crescent moon. The birds just kept filling the sky with what looked like black ink for nearly half an hour.

In the wintertime, the large pomegranate tree standing in in its little piece of earth in the back patio had lost most of its leaves and looked sadly neglected. In September we had collected many kilos of this sweet nourishing fruit.

One of the favorite walks of Lariseans is along the bridge over the Pineos River that takes you to Alcazar Park (not much of the river but mud these days)  Elias remembers as a child all the musical revues and singers there used to be at the Alcazar theatre (because his aunts and uncles used to go and sing the program the next day) but it’s closed now. In the summer it’s a cool oasis from the heat (Larisa has the dubious distinction of being one of the hottest (temperature wise) Greek towns in the summer. The park at this time of year is a wonderland village for kids and a boat lit up in dreamy blue silver colors

Larisa is a very old city. In the Iliad it is mentioned as “fertile Larisa,” and legend has it that Achilles was born here and Hippocrates died here. Excavation of an ancient theatre has been going on for years – it was built in the first half of the 3rd century BC. Several centuries later, in the 2nd c. AD, it was semi destroyed by an earthquake and a few centuries later, totally destroyed.

ancient theater of Larisa

The theater is on a street with a lot of bars and cafeterias (but then that describes nearly all of the downtown pedestrian area! Another record for Larisa — it has the highest percentage of bars, restaurants and tavernas per capita in the country). We notice the Bakalogato, where we ate outside in the summer, is completely full inside. Here’s how it was decorated.

Larisa suffered a great deal during the German occupation.  In the center of the city, the Jewish Martyrs Memorial reminds us not to forget the Nazi genocide of Larisa’s Jewish community. The Jewish population, which dates back to the 2nd century during Roman times, today is a small but vibrant community.

Moving away from the center, we were delighted to find the Municipal Art Gallery a short walk from the house. Also known as the Katsigras Museum, it was built in the 1990’s to accommodate a vast collection left by the physician and collector Katsigras who left a remarkable collection of 781 paintings, carvings and drawings of great Greek artists from the mid-19th to the mid 20th century, as well as the furniture in Heinrich Schliemann’s study. Besides the exhibits (not just Katsigras’ collection), the museum is active in lectures, workshops and extensive art library. But in addition to the above, as we discovered on our visit, looking down from the galleries to the main foyer we saw a group of people gathered around a couple all dressed up, and realized it was a civil wedding. Definitely a better background than the city hall!

One of the main reasons people pass through Thessaly is to visit Meteora, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument site and one of the most unique areas you’re ever likely to see. First we take the road west to the small city of Trikala.

Leaving Larisa to go west toward Trikala, we have blue skies but as we approach the mountains, we fall into a total grey world, in a deep fog even with lights on, we can’t see a thing. Then suddenly skies clear, blue again. The road is filled with huge unsightly solar panels that make you feel like you’re in a land of the giants.

Beyond Trikala, as you approach the town of Kalambaka, you start seeing these unbelievable monoliths off in the distance about 5 to 6 km away, grey craggy barren cliffs rising jaggedly into the air. like giant needles. The name “meteora” means “rocks in midair”– we get the name ‘meteor’ from that.

No one knows exactly their origin, but the most accepted theory is that the rocks were formed around 50 million years ago, give or take a million years, when much of this area was under the sea. That’s the scientific explanation, but Greek mythology talks of a battle between Titans and the Olympic gods (Mt. Olympus borders Thessaly and Macedonia). According to the story, Zeus used Hecatonchires (giants with 100 hands) to lift huge rocks and throw them against the Titans.

Whatever theory you believe, a lot of people have the same idea we do about visiting (it’s still vacation with days of brilliant sunshine) and the area is full of cars and a number of buses — many day trips from Athens and probably Thessaloniki.

It’s not just the amazing rocks, but it’s the monasteries that are perched precariously on top of these rocks.  This is the 2nd largest concentration of monasteries after Mount Athos.

The first monasteries were inhabited as early as the 9th century during Byzantine times, where hermits were seeking lives of solitude and introspection and feeling the higher up they were, the closer to God. As a safe refuge from increasing Ottoman raids, many more monasteries were built in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At its peak, Meteora was the destination for monks seeking a spartan life in a spiritual environment.

Before steps were built into the rock, how did you get up to the top — it’s ideal for birds or maybe monkeys, but how did humans manage?

Until the beginning of the 20th century, they used ropes and baskets.

According to the Greece Lonely Planet, when monks were asked by nervous visitors how often the ropes were changed, they replied, “‘when the Lord lets them break.”

In modern times, a box has replaced the basket. Inside this box we saw a monk being hauled up to the Agios Nikolaos monastery.

This was the one with the most steps to get to. It was a small monastery and not much to see inside. We admired the great view as we sat panting from the climb.

On top of Agios Nikolaos monastery

On the way up from the wooded area is a much needed fountain with potable water. This was the 3rd monastery we climbed up to with the most steps and we almost turned around from the fountain but there’s that not-wanting-to-give-up, prove-to-yourself-you-can-do-it feeling.

The main use for the boxes (see photo) is actually for supplies.

If you’re a woman visitor, you’re handed an old shapeless skirt from 100 years ago to put over your pants, or if you have a shawl or coat you can wrap that around your pants too. (Why a skirt is more respectful I’ll never understand).

In the Varlaam monastery, in the small museum we read that the 1st resident inhabited this 373 m rock in 1350, but two members of an old Byzantine family, Theophanes and Niktarios, really put it on the map so to speak in 1517.

These are what are known as Cenobotic monasteries, meaning that the monks share meals, hold no money and obey an abbott for everything. (as opposed to idorrythmic monasteries)

The monks were not totally uninterested in the world outside. in 1845, a document shows that they contributed “500 piasters” for teacher salaries in Trikala.

A 17th century book explains the novice monk arrives barefoot, bareheaded with white robes, showing renunciation of world, then is fitted with the black robes. He makes three vows to God: obedience, chastity and poverty.

You can see Varlaam in the background of the photo.

After descending Varlaam we give up our coveted parking space and drive to nearby Metamorfosi, Grand Meteoran, on the highest level.

We climbed up part of the way only to be told it was closing. It’s a real challenge to coordinate the openings and closings of the monasteries. Some have different summer and winter schedules. Some are open to 2, close and open later, some just to 3, some to 4. Some are closed on certain days — so unless you start early on a morning they’re all open, it’s hard to see all six of them (originally 24) on the same day. Actually, four of the existing monasteries are convents, for nuns.

The Agias Triadas monastery gained a little fame when it was featured in the James Bond film (with Roger Moore) For your Eyes Only. Here’s a brief scene:

We leave this unique place, awe inspiring even with the crowds of visitors. As you drive down, you pass the village of Kastriti, right under the rocks and then a group of rocks with holes like Emmental cheese that look like caves. It seems that people might have hidden or lived here, like in the caves of Matala on Crete.

Note manger scene to the left

After a picnic at the base of the rocks, we’re on our way to Pyli, 18 kilometers beyond Trikala, to see a couple of the stone bridges of the area.

Pyli, at the border of Thessaly and Epirus, lies at the entrance of the gorge to the Pindos mountains. This arched stone bridge, built in 1514 over the Portatis river, is known as Porta or the bridge of Saint Vissarion, who was the owner of a nearby monastery and responsible for a number of stone bridges in the area. One of the largest Greek stone bridges, until 1936 it was the only passage from the Thessalian campos to the mountains of Epirus.

From the river, you can see in the distance Pertouli, a ski center (sadly without much snow this year). Pertouli and the nearby village area of Elati with its forests of pine and spruce are called by people of the area as “Switzerland.” We were hoping to go but it was already about to get dark.

A bit further, we’re looking for signs that lead off the road to a magnificent bridge, built in 1516 known as the stone bridge and waterfall of Palio Karya, and also the work of Vessarion. The dam is a creation of modern times, creating the waterfall. The beauty of the landscape in this isolated spot takes your breath away.

We head back to Trikala just as the sun is setting, first getting mixed up in traffic going to the “Milos ton Ksotikon,” the Mill of the Elves, supposedly the biggest and most impressive Christmas theme park in Greece. We decide to pass that up to explore the center of the city.

What makes Trikala attractive are the ten bridges across the river Lithios (ominous name though, the River Lethe, meaning forgetfulness, one of the five rivers of Hades.) On either side of the bridges, busy shoppers throng pedestrian streets.

One of the earliest centers of Ascelpius, the healer, was here in Trikala, or in ancient times known as Trikki. He’s honored with a statue by the river.

Ordinarily we would have walked up to the Byzantine fortress, but our legs couldn’t take any uphill after the Agios Nikolaos monastery in Meteora.

Under the fortress we walked around the old town of Varousi, the traditional Ottoman quarter.  (While the Peloponnese, mainland Greece and Attica got their independence in 1821, Thessaly stayed under Ottoman rule until 1881.) A little way from the center is the 16th century Osman Shah or Kursum mosque, whose architect was the same one who did the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

Next to the mosque in the old Ottoman baths (and at one time prison) on the 2nd floor is the Tsitsanis Museum.Vassilis Tsitsanis, native son to Trikala, was one of the most well known musicians and prolific composers of “laiki” or popular music, with hundreds of well loved songs.

Tsitsanis’ father, who played mandolin, forbade his children to pick up the instrument as he didn’t want any of them to grow up to become musicians. When his father died young, Tsitsanis, age 12 at the time, indeed picked the instrument up, which had been made into a bouzouki, and pretty much never put it down. He played with all the greats.

Here is an excerpt of one of his most beloved songs, “Sinefiasmeni Kyriaki” (Cloudy Sunday) that he wrote in Thessaloniki in 1944 during the poverty, hunger and oppression of the German Occupation. Note the bouzouki playing in the 1963 recording.

Another trip, from Larisa to Karditsa (see map) another agricultural city of Thessaly, takes you on a road you on a road full of oversize tires, tractors and farming machinery.

It’s a small pleasant bicycle friendly city (the only place I’ve seen in Greece with so many bicycles) with the usual holiday theme park for kids near the main square and people out enjoying coffee in the sunshine.

As with the other cities in Thessaly, the downtown shopping area is all pedestrianized. One of the popular places to get a bite to eat is called Charlot, appropriately decorated on the wall of an apartment building behind it.

The area around Larisa, Thessaly generally, and the village of Tyrnavos in particular, is known for tsipouro, a drink like ouzo, a little stronger but very similar if you add anise to it, the way they drink it mostly in central and northern Greece.  We decided to visit Tyrnavos and buy some genuine tsipouro from there.

Tyrnavos was the first city in Greece to make ouzo in 1856 — now it’s Plomari on the island of Lesvos (Mytilini).

I had read that the tomb of Achilles was supposed to be along the way from Larisa to Tyrnavos, about 25 minutes, but didn’t see any sign for it. The road, taking us deep into the Thessalian campos, had mostly tractors not cars; a shepherd watching his sheep gave us a big wave, as if he wasn’t used to seeing many cars along the road. On one side, the grazing sheep, including some newborns unsteady on their feet, looked so very sweet and idyllic, until you saw the signs for “slaughterhouses” nearby and I thought of Pascha or Easter coming up soon..

On the other side, the land was full of grape vines, some silos and mills until we got to Tyrnavos. I was surprised at the very dry mountains, with just a few clumps of green shrubs. A sign as you enter reads “European Wine Growing Towns,” and I think there must be something of interest. Hardly. It was a small sleepy town with the usual yiayiades (grandmothers) in black skirts, stockings and black shoes outside their houses. The main street was a place for teenage boys to rev their motorcycles with a deafening roar. Dogs lay in doorways, scratching themselves and the central plateia was decorated with the usual manger with plastic figures and a fake wire tree. We bought the tsipouro and got out fast!

Ideally, tsipouro or ouzo should be drunk by the sea as we did last summer outside Volos at the Agria beach.

And speaking of Volos, we’ve gone west to Trikala and northwest to Meteora, so it’s time to go southeast to what was known as Iolkos in ancient times, where Jason & the Argonauts left from to find the golden fleece.

From Larisa to Volos, after you get past the ugly motorcycle and car parts, tractors and other farming machinery, then it becomes farming land, with silos, vineyards and with cotton plants to the side, all picked but a lot of wisps of stray cotton having fallen near the side of road.

We drive through Volos toward the port to get a little feel of the city, then turn up to Mt. Pelion – in mythology populated by centaurs, as in this statue in our first stop, Anakasias.

In Anakasias is the Theofilos Museum, up some stone alleys. You need strong legs to walk around this village. Theofilos Hatzimichail, born in the19th century, in Mytilini, in 1870, settled in Volos in 1897 where he painted houses and shops in his characteristic folk style. The landowner Giannis Kontos, owner of an 18th c. mansion in Anakasias invited Theofilos to stay at his house, where Theofilos painted the walls with his themes of folk life and history. 

Theofilos himself belonged to an older time. Because he usually dressed in a fustanella, the Greek kilt worn by the 1821`fighters, he was often mocked and laughed at during his lifetime. In the 1920’s he returned to Mytilini, where he painted for a plate of food, a cup of wine. Here he was discovered by an art critic, who brought him some recognition.

In 1961, the Louvre had a showing of his work, celebrating Theofilos as a genuine folk painter who had the quintessence of Greekness.

The museum proprietor shadows us from room to room. I would imagine very few visitors stop here so he’s alone most of the time with the cats outside. 

The most “characteristic” village is Makrynitsa, known as the balcony of the Aegean. After you pass Portaria, you follow the cars going up. Keeping cars away from the center has kept its beauty but when it’s full of visitors, which is most of the time, you have to park way down the hill and walk; otherwise there’s no way to approach. 

As you walk into the town, it’s full of traditional products for sale, such as apples and chestnuts from local orchards and trees,as well as glyka tou koutaliou, spoon sweets made from all sorts of products like chestnut, olives, orange, apple, pumpkin, fig, even eggplant.

We’re surprised to see a sign in the main square that tells us that Makrynitsa was founded in 1204. In the early centuries, life revolved around the monasteries. Over the centuries and during Ottoman rule, Makrynitsa flourished and became one of the most important Pelion villages, due to silkworm cultivation and leather products. The village led the revolution against the Ottomans in 1878, several years before Thessaly got its independence in 1881. During this time the village was at its peak but in the early 20th century many people left. the architecture was preserved and is unique to Pelion. Note the stone roofs.

Mansions have a decorated style that reminds me of Elizabethan houses.

The plane tree in the main square might be bare now of leaves but in the summer offers wonderful shade.

We drink our coffee in the plateia with tiropsomo (cheese bread), a local specialty.

Some people are drinking ouzo or tsipouro with mezedes, that are very much a characteristic of the area around Volos, and Thessaly in general. My favorite mezedopoleio as noted was from last summer outside Volos…ah summertime!

Two satisfied diners

Back to upcoming winter in Makrynitsa, where the houses are well stocked with wood.

Time to move on and drive up the mountain, where the weather changes dramatically with fog and mist. A few kilometers away is a ski center but alas, as of the end of December, except for some patches of snow here and there, there’s no snow and it wasn’t operating.

It’s after 4 pm and time to start heading back as it’ll get dark and you don’t want to be on the winding roads of Pelion then.  If you do keep going from Hania for around 30 kilometers, you get to the other side of the peninsula and then down to the shore. These are a couple of the beaches that await you, as shown through the lens of our son Theo, who took them last year on his visit.

We turn around though and head back west toward Volos, stopping to admire the colors and reflection on the water as the sun makes its descent.

You can’t miss a walk along the Volos promenade.

By the time we leave, it’s after dark, the traffic going through the city is at a standstill, but we can admire the lights above us, like a canopy of stars.

The alkyonides meres or halcyon days continued into January all over the country. Here’s the scene at a fish taverna in Marathon (Attica) on the 6th, the holiday of the Epiphany. Happy healthy creative new year to all!

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8 thoughts on “EXPLORING THESSALY, CENTRAL GREECE

  1. Georgia Marketos 22 Jan 2023 — 11:39

    A wonderful journey through the beautiful, unique spots of Central Greece. Thank you for another very informative article, Sherri.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Georgia! So much to be discovered in this area —

    Like

  3. Connie Burke 22 Jan 2023 — 18:26

    What a fantastic trip! All the places I have not visited, yet. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Connie, a place to see when you come back!

      Like

  4. Diane+Moshman 22 Jan 2023 — 23:21

    Wow. Such beautiful places to experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Diane…time for another visit!

      Like

  5. rmoshman@aol.com 23 Jan 2023 — 02:43

    Sherri,  This sounds like a nice trip to make on a winter day.  Only 2+1 cats.  Good food pictures.  I wonder what the qualifications/traditions are when a yiayiade takes the black skirt, stockings and black shoes approach to aging as opposed to coloring the hair and dressing hip and athletic? Now I must go back and read the Barcelona blog. Ann

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question…I guess it depends on area — village vs. big city, family traditions, etc. (There are plenty of hip grandmas)! Yes, check out Barcelona blog… (I think the cats love to be photographed)

      Like

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