By Don and Linda Freedman

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50th wedding anniversary, a time to rekindle the loving feelings of our journey together. And what better way then to visit an old friend, one we have known since the mid 1970s. A friend who offered warm hospitality, glorious surroundings, food fresh from the land and sea, and a laid back lifestyle that encouraged easy relaxed return visits.

That friend is Greece. From the rocky Mani on the southern tip of Peloponnese north to Delphi, Larrisa, Trikala, Kalambaka and the awesome peaks of Meteora onward to Kastoria in the north west, east to Edessa, Naoussa, Thessaloniki, Halkidiki, south to Volos and Athens - we have breathed in the best of times in this the cradle of democracy.

We decided to divide our time between Thessaloniki and Athens. We flew Air Canada nonstop Toronto to Athens, return, and Olympic Airways Athens - Thessaloniki- Athens. This was the first time we flew Olympic. The staff on the ground and in the air were young, bright and cheerful. The seats were wide with ample leg room. In the 50 minute flight, they managed to serve a good snack and beverages.

The Athens airport is very efficient with helpful, friendly staff. With four hours between flights, we had ample time for a relaxed traditional Greek meal in the food court. Then we checked out the Metro station across the way and bought our tickets for the rides to and from the city center (the fare is E8.00, E4.00 for seniors, 65+) when we returned from Thessaloniki.

Good old bus #78 still runs from the Thessaloniki airport to the city center. The tickets kiosk is outside the arrivals area. The fare is E.80, E.40 for seniors. The trip takes between 30 and 45 minutes depending on traffic.

The last time we made this trip was in 1999. What changes awaited us? What impact were the current economic conditions having on the lifestyle of the people? As we passed familiar landmarks leading into the center, witnessed the hustle and bustle on the streets and engaged in conversation with our fellow passengers, we felt like we had never left.

We got off at the "Aristotelous" stop on Tsimiski, the lovely tree canopied main shopping street, a five minute walk from The Hotel Luxembourg in the heart of the business, social and retail life of the city. The famous Aristotelous Square and the seafront scene are only 100 meters away.

The Luxembourg is family owned and operated. The staff is an extention of the caring family. It's a homey environment where guests feel appreciated and comfortable and look forward to returning.

The building, which dates back to 1924, was renovated in 1999 when it reopened as a 3 star facility. The rooms (singles, doubles and jr.suites) are good sized and adequately furnished for short or long term stays. The bathrooms have curtained stall showers and have the basic needs. The television had a few English channels available and the air conditioning was welcome. There is complimentary wireless throughout and a business center on the lower level with computers and a printer.

The breakfast room (with an all day bar) and lobby are a bit eclectic in design and generate an old time warm welcome. The traditional breakfast buffet is served from 7am to 10am. The highlight for us was the "real Greek yogurt" (where the spoon stands tall). Of course the spanakopita and tiropita were a welcome treat as was the fresh off the tree nectarines and plums. For egg lovers there was a choice of hard boiled and scrambled. The usual meats, cheeses, breads and rolls rounded out the offerings. The staff was happy to prepare your choice of coffee and to try to fulfill any special requests.

Thessaloniki, with a population of over a million, is Greece's second largest city, a major port city, and the capital of northern Greece. Founded in 315 b.c. it is known for its archaeological monuments from ancient Greek, Byzantine and Roman times. The largest University in Greece resides here and with its rich cultural life, Thessaloniki is the leading conference destination in Greece.

We hit the streets. Heading north on Komninon street we found the Flower market in colorful bloom. Nearby the vendors in the covered halls of the Modiano Market were in full vocal force hawking their offerings of fresh fish, seafood, meats, cheeses and produce. Let the negotiations begin.

The narrow streets around the market are wall to wall shops selling clothing, household items, and foods. The crowds were a mix of locals looking for bargains and tourists buying souvenirs and photographing the action.

It was the beginning of lunch time and the traditional tavernas within and just outside the halls were beginning to fill up. The aroma of freshly grilled fish plucked from the nearby stalls was captivating, but we had other plans thanks to Karin, who we became acquainted with at our hotel.

We joined her at her favorite lunch spot (which became ours) "Hot Pot" on Komninon near the corner of Tsimiski. You can't miss the bold colorful sign. This was our kind of place. Traditional home cooking at very reasonable prices. You can choose from the delectable hot table offerings (the way to go) which change daily, or order from the menu. Today we shared grilled salmon with roast potatoes, okra, a small serving of horiatiki salad and a bottle of retsina. It was difficult passing on the roast chicken and gigantes (baked lima beans). Another time heavenly meatballs in tomato sauce with mashed potatoes made our day. There is comfortable seating inside and out on this one of the prettiest streets in the city. Varto, the owner, is always there working hard to take care of his customers.

Aristotelous St. is a wide pedestrian boulevard that runs from Egnatias (the new metro is being built below) across Tsimiski into Aristotelous Square, the hub of social and political life.

This route is a microcosm of the multicultural and cosmopolitan environment of the city: working folks having a bite on the run, nibbling on gyros or pastry, seniors sitting on benches in animated conversation, business men and women popping into restaurants for a relaxed lunch, homeless people on the sidewalks with their hands out appealing to the affluent shoppers passing by with bags from the shops along Tsimiski. It's a panorama of everyday life in the city center.

Aristotelous Square rests on the Thermaikos Gulf. Magnificent apartment and office buildings enclose the two sides, the ground floors of which are home to numerous cafes and restaurants, each with large attractive patios. It's a maze of tables, chairs and sofas protected by awnings and umbrellas.

Standing in the middle of the square (day or night), where political and social events are held, it is amazing to observe the sea of people who spend hours drinking coffee and smoking.

The waterfront boulevard, Nikis Av., runs between Aristotelous and the famous symbol of Thessaloniki, the White Tower (a fortification from the 15th century), which operates as a Museum of the History of Thessaloniki.

The attractive apartment buildings overlooking the sea are home to more cafes and restaurants - during the day, full, in the evening, packed. This stretch attracts a younger crowd with blaring, beating music.

The promenade along the water is a popular walking, biking and photo opportunity destination. Just be prepared to play dodge with the bikes, baby carriages and sudden moves of the photographers.

The picturesque Proxenou Koromila, just north of Nikis, with its designer shops intermingled with attractive cafes and restaurants makes for a pretty stroll to window shop and people watch.

We had a wonderful reunion with our old friends Sotiris, Elenis and their sons Nikos and Stavros. Elenis prepared an array of delicious mezes (appetizers) and Sotiris poured the ouzo. We lingered and talked, as usual Nikos was our translator. Elenis disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with platters of roast chicken and potatoes. Of course it did not stop there, desserts are a must.

Our conversation was dominated by the economic crisis and we got an up-close and personal perspective of reality. No jobs, pension cuts, higher taxes, lost homes and the list goes on. Everybody is hurting. There are no easy answers. We left our friends with a feeling of sadness.[Back to Top]

On the bright side. The Greek people love life. Lively conversation in a convivial setting beats sitting home and brooding. Somehow they manage to scrape together enough Euros for coffee and smokes (a habit we wish they could break) to keep cafes alive and well.

Judging from the spirit on the streets, the casual visitor would never know the deep dispair. Warm smiles and greetings were the norm, no grouches here. Easy, friendly conversation and a willingness to help and please was as we remembered. It was great to be back and doing our share to help the ravished economy.

Across from the Port is the area of Ladadika, the old oil market. The decaying 19th century brick warehouses and surroundings have been attractively refurbished. Thriving restaurants, cafes and clubs line the narrow pedestrian ways. A youthful energy and vibrance fills the air.

Choosing a restaurant in Ladadika is a formidable task. The tried and true methods of checking the menu, following the nose, looking for crowds, eyeing the plates is of no help in making the ultimate decision because most of them fulfill the usual criteria. Go with your gut. We chose Tiganies & Skares (Fried & Grilled) located in a small square in the center of the action. Together with our friend Nikos we enjoyed a meal of mezes (tomato and cucumber salad, spicy feta, meatballs grilled and with tomato sauce, sliced baked potatoes and lamb chops). It is a must to have a dense, crusty bread (dark and white) with mezes. Fried & Grilled met the challenge. A very good Greek beer was a perfect mate. All excellent, good value.

Around the corner at Fasianou 3 (back entrance on Katouni) is the famous fish and chips spot Mpakaliarakia tou Aristou, look for the large blue oval sign with the cook in the middle. If you prefer this dish closer to the sea there is another Mpakaliarakia tou Aristou across the street at the port (look for same sign). The fish is dried cod from Norwegian waters. A large portion is served with fried sliced potatoes and skordalia (mashed potato and garlic dip). Along with a salad it was a shareable meal. It's easy to see why it's been going strong since 1940.

The Jewish people have a long history in Thessaloniki and there is no better place to discover this than at the Jewish Museum at 13 Agiou Mina Street. It is housed in the only building not destroyed by the great fire of 1917 which wiped out the entire Jewish neighborhood.

Not long after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 some 20,000 asylum seekers of Sephardic origin settled in Thessaloniki. In 1941 49,000 Jews resided here. In 1942 the Jewish Cemetery with more than 500,000 tombs was destroyed (the University of Thessaloniki is located on the site). 96.5% of the Jewish population was exterminated in the death camps of Poland. Today 1000 Jews reside here.

There are three Synagogues. "Yad Lezicaron" is located near the Flower Market in the "Bouria" prayer center, Caal de la Plaza, 24 Vas Ihakleiou. It was opened in 1984, dedicated to the memory of the Holocoust victims and to serve the community working in the nearby markets. The handsome Synagogue of Monasteriotes is at 35 Syngrou. Unfortunately both were closed when we arrived. The Modiano Synagogue is in the Old Peoples Home for the residents' needs. [Back to Top]

While we were visiting the Monasteriotes Synagogue we spotted a cute taverna at the corner of Syngrou and Fillipou, a lovely green neighborhood. Oreksis was a delightful find. The pleasant staff led us to the hot table to peruse the offerings of the day (you can order from the menu, but this is the way to go in this kind of place). It is usually possible to get half orders and have a great variety. We indulged in small fried fish and calamari, rice with mussels, stuffed grape leaves and tomato and cucumber salad. A delicious toasted bread put it over the top. I had Greek beer, which Linda passed on. The waiter was having none of that and brought her a complimentary glass of white wine. We sat on the patio, shaded by trees, enjoying a cool breeze with a splendid home cooked meal. Find your way here.

The Cultural Line Bus, #50, starts and ends at the White Tower. It departs on the hour, 08:00 to 21:00, June to September, and 09:00 to 16:00, October to May. The fare is E2.00, E1.00 for seniors. The route covers many of the historical monuments, with 15 stops along the 50 to 60 minute route. You can get off and on at will. It's a great way to visit Ano Poli, the "upper town" from which the views are spectacular. Get off at the ancient walls, trot around, take photos, enjoy a bite to eat, get back on and continue the journey.

We got off the bus before the end of the line to take a different route back. On Egnatia, in the middle of modern Thessaloniki, is the glorious Roman Triumph Arch of Galerius dating back to the 4th century AD. The reliefs depicting many scenes and forms have survived nicely. Nearby is the Rotunda, Church of Saint George. It was part of a large complex built by Galerius Caesar in 300 AD. Built as a temple for Zeus, then converted to a Christian Church which became a Turkish Mosque and finally reverted to Christianity.

Sitting in an airy square surrounded by apartment buildings is the Byzantine Agia Sophia, not named after a Saint, but, the Wisdom of God. The domed Basilica was built in the 7th century. It has an impressive sanctuary and beautiful mosaics and frescoes.

I had been wanting to stop into a pharmacy to check the price of Viagra. We spotted Farmaciotis Apostolos on Pavlou Mela 48. The two personable young people, sister and brother, who own the shop, went out of their way to take care of us. Once we estabished that the price was acceptable, the next issue was quantity. Because drugs have become expensive and in short supply, they had to contact their supplier and other pharamacies to fill the order. We learned the hard truth that because of the problems of availability and price many folks, mainly seniors, are going without the drugs they need.[Back to Top]

The restaurant Nea Folis is on a small street one block north of Kassansdrou just off Agias Sophias. It's worth the uphill walk. There is a menu, but look at the chalkboard for the daily specials. It's all in Greek but the staff will happily translate. We started with the fresh beet salad from the menu. Garden fresh, sweet, warm beets and their greens, caper shoots and thick yogurt were, as my 101 year old mother would say, scrumptious. The portion was so large we realized we should have shared just one main. Oh well, bring on Linda's fried pork and mushrooms and my grilled octopus with sweet peppers. What a feast, quite full, quite happy. Call again.

On our way back to the center we passed Agios Demetrios, an architectural gem. It was built in the 5th century and destroyed by an earthquake. Rebuilt in the 7th century, it was destroyed by fire, and finally rebuilt in 1917. The crypt houses a museum displaying sculptural decorations throughout its history.

The Roman Agora on Filippou across from Archeas Agoras Square was built between 2AD and 5AD. It functioned as the administrative center of the city. The large central square housed the conservatory. The museum has many artifacts excavated from this important site.

Along Olympou at #78 we found an interesting taverna, "Patsazioiko". The plates of the day are displayed right in the front window, just amble inside, make your choices, decide where to sit (today we chose the sidewalk patio), and the friendly staff will do the rest. Real basic stuff, roast chicken, meatballs in tomato sauce, gigantes (roast giant lima beans), roast potatoes, salad, bread and beer. They were so pleased we were happy they insisted on us having a house dessert, a traditional milk and rice pudding topped with burnt sugar and nutmeg. Yum. As we like it, good food at fair prices. Live like the locals.

A few good eating tips:

Ble, a beautifully designed updated bakery on Agias Sophias just north of Tsimiski has wonderful breads, pastries, sandwiches, and ice cream to eat there or take away.

Albeta is a pretty good knockoff of Ble at the corner of Dragoumi and Mitropoleous. Chocolate, chocolate ice cream was a standout.

D. Menexopoulos Bros "The Nut Shop" 49 Katouni is the place for wholesale nuts. We always leave enough room in our luggage to shlepp home a few bags full.

There are pie shops all over the place. Our favorite is "Filo into the Fire" on Mitropoleous 24, just west of Aristotelous Square. Sophia is a sweetheart whose tiropita and spanakopita are always fresh. The place is immaculate.

We leave Thessaloniki with fond thoughts and our hopes that Europe will sort out the economic mess so that life will be kinder and the future brighter.
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