Writing this post, my last about my trip to Greece, I’m sitting in an air-conditioned apartment in New York City; while the past few days have been wonderful, my legs are more than a tad sore and I’m two shades short of exhausted. There’s a part of me that longs for home (oh, to cook again instead of eating out!), even as I feel a twinge of dread at the end of my vacation. My jet lag has been fairly intense–the heat definitely hasn’t helped my body adjust to the time change!–and don’t even get me started on the mosquito bites (aka welts) that mark my arms and legs. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that exactly one week ago, I was still in Thessaloniki, having sweet bougatsa–a flaky, buttery phyllo stuffed with custard and topped with cinnamon and sugar (keep in mind that there is also a savory version with feta, which the Greek and I have made in the past) and juicy nectarines for breakfast…and all without a care in the world. Needless to say, this life already seems like a lovely memory. It was nice while it lasted, though.
There were trips to a fantastic outdoor movie theater, where you could watch new releases with the sea breeze ruffling the hem of your skirt. And, if you left the heights of Panorama, monuments awaited you in the city proper as you shopped and had lunch. An ideal place for viewing the symbol of Thessaloniki, the White Tower, is Cafe Dore, which serves a variety of Greek and Turkish food, as well as beer.
There were also day trips to the beach–to Halkidiki, a peninsula close to the city known for having “three legs”: Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos. On a fairly overcast day (at least by Greek standards), we went to the second leg to swim; the beach was fairly rocky, but beautiful. Sadly, this was the place of my final swim.
One day we also got in the car and drove to Vergina, home to the royal tomb of King Philip II (Alexander the Great’s father). The museum was incredibly impressive and, as the Greek told me, is the equivalent of the Parthenon for northern Greece in terms of its cultural and historical importance. This museum is the town of Vergina’s claim to fame and brings many tour buses through it each year. Due to the town’s popularity with tourists, several restaurants compete for business in the town square.
Thanks to a recommendation from the Greek’s mother, we had no problem choosing well. As with each meal we ate out, there was always a huge salad full of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, generously covered in both slivers of onions and olive oil and lemon. While I despise raw onion in a salad–it’s the one remnant of my picky 5-year-old self–I could live with it, not to mention happily eat around it, if a slab of feta were also present. And, luckily, it often was.
There were also keftedes, Greek meatballs, souvlaki and, as my oh so favorite kerasma, which I’m sorely missing back in the land of unnecessarily expensive dessert, a plate of amber-colored nectarines (Vergina is known for its nectarines and peaches) that were as sweet as any I had tasted this summer. There’s something to be said for simplicity and nothing showcases this better than a plate of ripe and succulent fruit after a rich meal.
And then it was back to the city proper for the final countdown. One of our final evenings in the city, I took my camera and just snapped away. I wanted to remember the way Hagia Sofia looked at dusk.
The downtown itself also appealed to me. It contains some of the loveliest buildings in the city and with the flowers, trees and statues surrounding them, it’s hard not to feel that you’ve stumbled upon something quite special.
With these buildings in the background, the Greek and I, along with two American friends who visited before heading to a science conference in Munich, sat at a restaurant/dessert shop and split a slice of karydopita, walnut cake, with some mastic ice cream on the side. The walnut cake was superb–both nutty and syrupy sweet–but the ice cream was a bit of a shock. While I don’t object to innovative ice cream–says the girl who has eaten shiso leaf ice milk–I’m not sure I would put tree resin at the top of my ice cream flavor list. It was interesting and it complemented the walnut cake, but, on its own, it was a bit much, definitely more alarming to the palate than retsina, pine resin wine.
The flavors of the city aside, there is much that can be said for the colors. The Orthodox churches are the epitome of opulence and bright reds and golds often interrupt their pristine whiteness; graffiti is also a part of the landscape. Some of it is politically motivated, while, at other times, it’s whimsical and creative: fluttering birds on garden walls, vases and cloaked men with turbans.
And inside some of these buildings, particularly the Rotunda, are stunning early Christian mosaics. The whole of Greece’s history practically seeps through this building’s walls: it was first a Roman mausoleum, then a Christian church, then a mosque and now a museum that is undergoing endless renovation.
Food, monuments, sunshine, historical lessons and enough rapid fire Greek to make my head spin, the trip was a wonderful success all around. Even if you’re a careful documenter of all the things that you saw and did, there’s only so much you can share on a blog. Pretty pictures of food and places are only half the story; it’s the things that you sometimes can’t or don’t convey that will stick with you: the smell of a sea breeze so fresh that it tingles in your nostrils, a garlic sauce so wonderfully potent that you can’t imagine eating the crunch codfish without shamelessly slathering it on, the earthy scent of oregano lingering in every nook and cranny where green things grow…
These are the things that will remain, along with my dream of more bougatsa for breakfast.