Mamma Mia and Zorba the Greek count among those classic Hollywood films that have conjured an image of a Grecian vacation focused on isle-hopping through the Aegean or Ionian Seas.
As it happens, though, you don’t have to get on a plane to Crete, Rhodes or Corfu to enjoy expansive, exotic beaches and luxury hotels. There’s also a lot to see on the peninsula of mythological fame beyond the amazing ruins at the Acropolis in Athens.
Head a little further north and you can visit the fabled mountainous abode of ancient Greek gods, including the “boss” of them all, Zeus. Better yet, you can skip the long drive from Greece’s capital and fly north to Thessaloniki, for some easy ground transportation to reach the gorgeous environs of Mount Olympus.
From Israel, it’s a hop skip and a jump of a two-hour charter flight to Thessaloniki, a city on the Aegean’s northern banks bedecked by lovely ancient walls recalling Jerusalem. An hour’s drive from Thessaloniki takes you to Katerini and a gorgeous yet moderately priced resort area ringed by the mythological Olympus mountain range on one side and the inviting blue Aegean on the other.
Traveling from Israel, Tel Aviv-based Eshet Tours offers packages that combine a charter flight with Tus Airways to a relaxing pool-and-seaside vacation with scenic day trips and hikes to some breathtaking “hidden” waterfalls tucked among the foothills of Zeus’ fabled home of Mt. Olympus.
The most amazing sites in the area are a bit of a distance away, but easily reachable by your tour bus from Katerini: the fabled “hanging” monasteries at Meteora are about a two hour drive to the south; and a trip of about 90 minutes north of Katerini takes you to Vergina, the site of the burial crypt of Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II. To choose a good tour bus, you may see their inventory first.
Meteora, a series of amazing sandstone rock formations that look like stilts reaching to the sky, is a UNESCO heritage site.
Greek Orthodox monks seeking shelter from persecution built these secluded abodes and houses of worship between the 12th and 14th centuries. About half a dozen of the majestic stone castle-like structures remain, including two convents, at the site that abuts the Greek town of Kalambaka. Others were destroyed by Nazi air raids in World War II. Today there are roads to reach a few of the monasteries, but the few remaining monks and nuns at the site often take a cable car. The views are jaw-dropping and have provided scene-setters for Hollywood and such TV series as Game of Thrones.
One of the monasteries we visited with Eshet Tours in the spring is 14th-century- built Vartaam, the name of a founding monk. Close to a dozen monks still live at the site that soars some 500 meters above sea level. Nearby, the Agia Stefanos convent houses a group of nuns who make wine and candles at the site.
NORTH OF Katerini, and not far from Thessaloniki, lies Vergina, a picturesque town in Greece’s Macedonia, home to an archeological park where King Philip’s remains and some gorgeous gold jewels were discovered in the 1970s.
In addition to his intact burial tomb decorated by a hunting scene fresco, there are urns on display containing the remains believed to be of the king and one of his wives.
Some tragic Jewish history inevitably impacted the northern region of Greece as well. Thessaloniki was home to a thriving Sephardic Jewish community until the Holocaust, when tens of thousands were deported to their deaths. Only a lonely placard affixed to a station house at what is now a freight railway, commemorates their cruel demise. The city’s Jewish population has dwindled to about a thousand.
About an hour away from Thessaloniki sits the town of Veria. Dating to ancient Greek and Roman times, Veria’s Barbouta quarter housed a significant Jewish community up until the Holocaust.
A quaint stone building from the 1850s houses what has been touted as one of Europe’s oldest synagogues. Like many European synagogues, it isn’t always open to visitors. We are told that the Nazis locked hundreds of Jewish men, women and children inside for several days without food or water. Many died there and the rest were sent by train to death camps in Poland.
Only two Jewish residents are believed to be left in the riverside town. A former Jewish cemetery is now a basketball court; some of its headstones have been visibly discarded in a grassy perimeter above it.
The writer was a guest of Eshet Tours, which offers packages ranging from $500 to $700 per person for a three- to four-night stay at a beachside Katerini resort. The pre-July-August pricing includes the two-hour charter flight from Tel Aviv and shuttle ride from Thessaloniki. You would need an additional package tour or rental car to explore the area, all of which the company can organize for you, complete with a Hebrew- or English-speaking guide.