Many will be aware that Greece has received considerable international praise for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. Outside of the major cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, the population is sparse, and Greek politicians have been credited with ceding policy to scientists from early on in the crisis, the upshot of which has been to keep infection numbers admirably low.
This has enabled Greece to maintain its open doors to tourists, crucial to the Greek economy – 20% of which depends on tourism. Masks are required in inside spaces such as museums and hotel lobbies, but otherwise Greece feels like a pandemic-free zone.
All hotels reported here adhere to the Greek government’s safety first health and cleanliness policy, and some hotels have instituted their own policies and checks providing extremely high levels of client reassurance (see Sani hotels below).
This therefore seemed like the ideal time for an in-depth Greek mainland exploration, focusing on major archaeological sites, areas of natural beauty, Jewish history and some of the mainland’s more luxurious hotel and resort offerings. We arrived in Athens and travelled all the way North to Thessoloniki, and then the Haldiki Provence, stopping at stunning sites along the way.
I am pleased to report on my findings here and invite you to reach out to us with any Greece questions or travel inquiries.
The highlight of Athens is of course a visit to the Acropolis, the elevated home of the ancient Parthenon. Despite its 2,500 years, one can still fully comprehend why this was one of the Wonders of the ancient world. The Parthenon is breathtaking in its grandeur, position and intricacy. With the help of our talented guide, we further imagined the Athenian Temple in its days of glory with the towering statue of the goddess. Other important remains to tour at the Acropolis include the Temple to the goddess Nike, the Propylaea and the Erechtheion. Starting in Athens this stunning site is an excellent way to introduce kids and adults alike to some of the key Ancient Greek gods, and of course the right guide is priceless when it comes to transforming ancient stones into the backdrop for timeless myths and legends.
Additionally, the Acropolis is an excellent viewpoint from which to understand the origins of Athenian democracy – viewing the coastline from which Athenian men defended their city state, thereby earning the right to participate in the City’s decision-making processes.
Delphi & Mount Parnassos
A couple of hours North of Athens lies the village of Arachova – a ski resort by winter, and year round base for exploring Delphi and Mount Parnassos. One cannot overstate the importance of Delphi in the ancient world – indeed Delphi was considered to be the centre, or navel, of the world. This was the site where the great Oracle, or Pythia, prophesied and advised Greeks, noble and common, from all over the Hellenic world. The Oracle had direct communication with Apollo, and was consulted by those in positions of power prior to making major decisions such as going to war. She sat alone on a tripod placed over a gash in the earth from which intoxicating vapours seeped, in a trance-like state her spirit would be inhabited by Apollo and she would prophesy. Today’s visit to Delphi brings this remarkable history alive – the tour of Delphi is impressive due to the remarkable effect of the remains of Apollo’s Temple against the stunning natural backdrop of the Parnassos mountains. The Delphi UNESCO site also houses an impressive archaeological museum which contains the earliest known notation of a melody, the famous Charioteer of Delphi, the Sphinx of Naxos and various golden treasures discovered at the site.
Using Arachovia as a base, a gentle (or less gentle as you prefer) hike around the mythically significant Mount Parnassos is also recommended. Mount Parnassos was sacred to Apollo, worshipped nearby at Delphi, and was also home to the half-goat half-man god Pan, protector of shepherds and goat-herders. The herding tradition is still very much alive in this area which is known throughout Greece for its excellent Feta and other cheeses. The area’s outstanding natural beauty and biodiversity led to it being created in 1938 as one of Greece’s first national parks. We enjoyed a four hour hike and delicious traditional picnic with a wonderful guide who taught us about the local myths, flora and fauna, as well as cultural norms and modern lifestyle in smaller Greek villages. This was a wonderful balance to archaeological sites, and very much enjoyed by the whole family.
Meteora is quite simply incredible. Huge rock formations rise from the ground into the skies, creating a sci-fi movie effect and defining the skyline. This is an outstanding area for hiking and climbing and offers a huge array of options, from easy-going family friendly to highly technical and challenging. What makes Meteora multidimensional are the isolated monasteries built atop several of these natural towers, which can still be visited today. The earliest monasteries were established almost a thousand years ago, but even those built a mere five centuries ago leave one amazed at the engineering achievement. The intention was to create communities of hermits – isolated from the rest of the world, men committed to prayer and contemplation, who set out to live in the harshest of environments thereby attesting to their daily sacrifices to the creator. Such monasteries were intentionally hard to reach, often only accessible by extremely long ladders and baskets (a visitor would sit in the basket and be pulled up by the monks!), but thankfully today land bridges have been erected to provide access. The monasteries are well worth a guided visit for an insight into this alternative lifestyle, both past and present, and to view some of the beautiful and graphically painted Orthodox churches which they house.
Thessaloniki is a medium-sized port city, the second largest city in Greece. It is one of those places which seems to be inherently blessed with good vibes – people spill into the streets eating ice cream, drinking coffee, sipping Arak, eating meals, at all hours. It has a wonderful traditional market where you could spend hours absorbed in the local foods, or even just sampling the hundreds of varieties of olives.
Thessoloniki also has an extremely long, rich and important Jewish history. When David Ben Gurion visited Thessaloniki in 1910 he was surprised to find a city more Jewish than any he had seen – Shabbat was the day of rest and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) was the language of the street. Thessoloniki was home to a Jewish community since Hellenic times and it is documented that Paul the Apostle preached to the community here over three consecutive Shabbats before fleeing from the Roman authorities. In 1430 the city came under Ottoman rule and Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition (1492) were welcomed in their tens of thousands: as long as Jewish subjects paid their taxes on time and in full they were welcome. By the sixteenth century the city was in its golden age – prospering commercially thanks to its location between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, as well as intellectually. When the city became Greek in 1912, the Jewish community gave a mixed reception due to its rivalry with Greek merchants, and although never proven, it was suspected that the devastating fire of 1917 which destroyed much of the Jewish quarter and left large swathes of its population homeless, was an act of arson. The Jewish community began a slow decline with many emigrating to France and to the United States, and was finally decimated by the Nazi invasion of 1941.
In 1943, 96% of the Jewish population, amounting to 46,000 individuals, were sent to Auschwitz for extermination. Fewer than 1500 survived. Measured by percentage, more of Thessoloniki’s Jews were massacred than anywhere else in Europe.
Today a Jewish-focused tour of Thessaloniki with an expert guide takes in the excellent Jewish museum and the synagogue, as well as many of the beautiful villas and buildings once owned by members of the community. The Jewish history of the city is finally being recognised and marked, and work has began on a major Holocaust monument and museum which is being funded by Diane Von Furstenberg – herself a Greek Jew – amongst others.
The Halkidiki Province consists of three peninsulas, each with splendid Aegean coastlines, crystal clear waters, protected forests, and plenty of authentic Greek life – small villages, olive groves and cotton fields. This is a wonderful area in which to relax after a busy mainland trip, and the Province is well set up for such a purpose with outstanding family and couples resorts.
The best of these is the Sani resort – with unparalleled facilities, truly outstanding service and providing quality in all aspects. The resort contains five hotels, a functioning marina, and over 20 restaurants. As such it sounds scarily huge, almost like a theme park, but the reality is quite different. In actuality it’s far more like staying in a village, and none of the individual hotels feel overwhelmingly large.
Arrival at Sani is warm and well organised. If you are not able to produce a negative 72 hour coronavirus test result, they will perform a complimentary pin prick test for you with results available within ten minutes. This means all guests within the resort have tested negative, and masks are not required of guests, though staff wear them at all times.
We stayed at Porto Sani hotel which is our favourite for families – this is where the kids club is based, and there is a high level of tolerance for kiddie volume throughout. The most notable aspect which differentiates the resort is the service – without exception every staff member oozed welcome and warmth, making us feel they were genuinely happy to host us and that nothing was too much trouble. Accommodation is in well designed suites, pastel colours and French doors (leading onto private gardens or balconies) allow for plenty of light. The food is really pretty good throughout, with special menus for toddlers, kids, and those with food allergies – staff bend over backwards, always with a smile, to provide for special requests. Although the hotel has three restaurants, on the Porto Sani full board programme guests may eat elsewhere in the resort, so there’s no feeling of monotony. The resort facilities include a Rafa Nadal tennis club, a football academy, a huge adventure playground with omegas, high-wires etc and several private beaches, all of which are immaculately kept. In addition the resort includes a protected nature site comprising forest, beach and wetland where complimentary bird watching and walking tours are offered. In my mind, this sets the resort apart – you have the chance to escape into a different and healing world for a long walk or run or tour, and then return to all your creature comforts.
For those without children, or with older children, and seeking a quieter spot, my top recommendation is the sophisticated Sani Asterias. All of the Sani hotels boast beautifully landscaped gardens, but none more so than Sani Asterias. Suites are generously sized and finished to an impressively high standard – indeed the ambience is of a well appointed second home rather than an impersonal hotel room. Once again the atmosphere in this hotel is tranquil and serene – so however wonderful it is, it’s probably not for little ones!
Where to Stay
• Athens: We stayed at the Electra Metropolis, a modern, fully renovated five star hotel with a boutique feel. The hotel is excellently located, and boasts an attractive roof with restaurant, bar and pool. Breakfast is served here with wonderful views over the Acropolis.
• Arachova: As a base for visiting Delphi and Mount Parnassos we stayed at the Elafivolia Suites. Accommodation is extremely spacious, comfortable and offers uplifting views over the surrounding green countryside. A generous breakfast is served inside your suite, and a charming pool makes this an attractive property for families as well as couples.
• Meteora: Surprisingly, options at Meteora are rather limited. The best hotel in the area is Divani, but as it doesn’t cater for families we stayed at the simple but adequate Doupliani House.
• Thessaloniki: We stayed at the Electra Palace, part of the same group as the Electra Metropolis in Athens. The hotel is excellently located, modern, sleek, and again offers a wonderful roof with pool and restaurant with views to the sea.
• Halkidiki: As above, Sani resorts is top pick, particularly Porto Sani for families with younger children and Sani Asterias for a more sophisticated vibe.
Where to Eat
Greece is packed with wonderful eateries, here are some top recommendations:
• Athens: excellent fresh fish and traditional Greek cuisine at Barbounaki.
• Arachova: Kaplanis Tavern is a wonderful family-run affair: you couldn’t ask for more welcoming staff, better views or tastier local home style meals.
• Thessaloniki: Seven Seas is an excellent fish and seafood restaurant. We also very much enjoyed Faidimos for a Mediterranean meal with charming staff and a relaxed atmosphere.
Please ask about specific recommendations for gluten-free eating in Greece – Pomegranate specialises in gluten-free and allergy sensitive travel and can assist with these requirements.
Greece has done an impressive job of containing the pandemic and is very much open to tourists! Whether you are considering Greece as a sole destination, or to combine Greece with Israel, we would be delighted to assist. Please contact us at [email protected]
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