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Last updated : Nov 2009
Mani, Monemvassia and Thrace
Mani, Monemvassia and Thrace  - TravelPuppy.com
Mani

Located on the southernmost point of mainland Greece, the Mani peninsular is known for its rocky mountains and barren landscapes, and medieval villages made up of churches and towers. Githio, a tranquil holiday resort with excellent facilities, makes a good base for exploring the area. Of particular note are the semi-abandoned village of Vathia with its numerous stone towers, and the amazing Caves of Dirou, an extensive network with underground channels and huge caverns, which can be visited by boat.

Monemvassia

Built into a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, almost on the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese, stands the stunning medieval fortified town of Monemvassia. Made up of cobbled alleys and old stone houses, the town is crowned by a hilltop Citadel and the Byzantine church of St Sophia, both of which offer superb views of the town and gulf below.

The fertile plain of Thessaly is surrounded by high mountains: the Pindus Range to the west, Olimpus (Olimbos) to the north, Ossa, Pelion (Pilio) and Othris to the east, and Trimfrestos to the south. The River Pinios, flowing from the western slopes of the Pindus, cuts Thessaly in two and passes through the Valley of Tempi to meet the sea.

The region’s capital, Larissa, is a significant industrial centre and traffic node (road and rail), with good shopping and nightlife and plentiful cafes. The main port, Volos, located on Pagasiticos Bay, is largely modern, due to repeated destruction by earthquakes. However, there is a pleasant seafront with restaurants and cafes, and frequent ferry services for the Sporades. Close by, on the slopes of Mount Pelion, stand the beautiful villages of Makrinitsa and Vizitsa, noted for their traditional architecture, and the winter sports centre of Hania.

Mount Olympus, home of Zeus and the immortal gods and land of the Centaurs, is Greece’s highest mountain, standing 2917m.Walking tours head off from the village of Litohoro, where one finds hostels, hotels and taverns.

To the west, above the Pinios Valley and the town of Kalambaka, just as the Pindus Range begins to form, stand the amazing cliff-top monasteries of the Meteora. Perched upon bizarre vertical rock formations of up to 300m (984ft) high, a total of 24 monasteries, some with stunning Byzantine frescoes, were founded here during the 15th-century. Several are open to the public (accessed by a series of steep steps carved into the rocks), particularly Megalo Meteoro and Varlaam Monastery.

Lying between the Ionic Sea and Thessaly, in the northwest corner of the Greek peninsula, Epirus is the most mountainous region. Due to its isolation, locals here have retained many of their traditions: dances, costumes and handicrafts.

The main settlement, Ioannina, overlooking Ioannina Lake, reached its peak during the 18th century under the Ottomans when it was an important administrative centre and home to the notorious Ali Pascia, Istanbul’s local representative at that time. The town has conserved a marked eastern atmosphere, thanks to a bazaar and numerous mosques, notably Aslan Pacha Mosque, which now houses the Museum of Popular Art.

North of town lies the magnificient Perama Cave, filled with stalactites, stalagmites and running waters. Further north still, one enters the mountainous area of Zagoria, well-known for its dense pine forests, wildlife (wolves and bears) and picturesque stone villages. Here, contained within the Vikos-Aoos National Park lies the spectacular Vikos Gorge, a canyon formed by the River Aoos, popular with hikers.

South of Ioannina lies the archaeological remains of Dodoni, particularly the well-conserved theatre dating back to the third century BC, where open-air performances are held during summer. On the coast, built around a bay, the beautiful town of Parga is backed by pine woods, olive groves and orchards. Here one finds a 16th-century Venetian fortress, whitewashed houses, hotels and an exceptional sandy beach.

Bordering onto Albania, Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of) and Bulgaria, Macedonia stands slightly apart from the rest of the country; its climate and scenery have more in common with the adjoining Balkans, the mountains being bitterly cold in winter. Though not much known by foreign tourists, this is still a particularly beautiful part of Greece, rich in historical monuments and archaeological sites. The region’s capital, Thessaloniki, is the second-largest city. A modern industrial port, partly protected by impressive city walls, it is home to the outstanding Archaeological Museum, housing the ‘Treasures of Ancient Macedonia’. On the seafront, the impressive 16th-century White Tower, built by the Ottomans as part of the city’s defence system, houses an excellent Byzantine Art Collection. Churches of note include the 4th-century Rotonda (also known as St George’s), Agios Dimitrios with its 7th-century mosaics, and the 8th-century Agia Sofia, converted into a mosque during Ottoman rule. The main ancient sites are the Arch of Galerius built in AD 297, and the relics of the Roman Agora.

Southeast of Thessaloniki are the three mountainous peninsulas of Halkidiki: Sithonia, Kassandra and Agio Oros (Mount Athos). Kassandra and Sithonia shelter Northern Greece’s most excellent beaches and are both popular holiday resorts. However, Mount Athos, with its well-known monasteries, is undoubtedly the region’s highlight. The first religious community, Megistis Lavras, was founded here in AD 963. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the amount of monasteries multiplied, until there were about 30,000 monks living in the area. Today, about 1500 monks remain (predominantly Greeks, but also some Bulgarians, Russians and Serbs), housed in 20 monasteries. Women (and female animals) are turned down entry, but men can gain a special permit by proving religious or scholarly interests. For additional information, contact: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Directorate of Churches, Zalokosta 2, Athens (tel: (210) 368 1000/2000/2311/3000/4000), or the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, Directorate of Political Affairs, Plateia Diikitiriou, 541 23 Thessaloniki (tel: (2023) 103 7900).

East along the coast, Kavala is a modern, commercial seaside port with beaches, hotels, museums, restaurants and tavernas. The old town retains many traditional features, particularly the aqueduct and Byzantine fortress. There are some nice sand beaches, and facilities for fishing, water-skiing and sailing. From here one can reach the island of Thassos, another popular summer retreat with beaches, hotels, and some interesting ancient ruins. Filippoi, north of Kavala, is one of Macedonia’s most extensive archaeological sites. Named after the father of Alexander the Great, this is where Caesar’s murderers, Brutus and Cassius, were defeated by Octavius in 42 BC, and is believed to be the site of St Paul’s first recorded preaching in Greece.

West of Thessaloniki, at Vergina (Aigai), findings from the monumental 4th-century BC ‘royal tombs’ are displayed in a beautiful museum, housed underground, within one of the former burial mounds.

Further west still, overlooking Kastoria Lake, lies the attractive town of Kastoria, home to some exquisite frescoed Byzantine churches and an important fur coat industry. From Kastoria, driving north to the border with Albania and Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of), are the Prespa Lakes (Limnes Prespes) enclosed within the Prespa Lakes National Park.

Thrace

Going east from Macedonia, the villages and towns become more oriental in style. Xanthi is a beautiful small town clinging to the hilly sides of the Remma Valley. Avdira is southwest of Xanthi. Close by Lagos, built on the narrow strip of land in the lagoon, is rich in wildfowl. One of the finest northern beaches is 8km (5 miles) east of Fanari. The main road dips down to the coast before going inland again to Komotini, further east, and then follows the coast via Nea Hili to Alexandroupolis, which has an archaeological museum of local finds. North from here is Soufli, well-known for its silks. East from here lies the River Evros, marking the boundary with Turkey.

Lying south of Athens and to the east of the Peloponnese, these islands are easily accessible, with regular ferry and hydrofoil services running from the port of Piraeus. Aegina, Poros, Hydra, Salamis and Spetses are the most popular islands, with Hydra as the indisputable highlight.