Dionysos Orma Restaurant, Loxandra Restaurant, The View Cafe Food-Bar (Tzibaepi Taverna) and the Courtyard Cafe at Hotel Hagiati: four restaurants in the Edessa/Pella Region that serve classic Greek cuisine … or is it just Greek?
The name itself, the Silk Road, conjures romantic images of camel laden caravans, vast desserts and colorful markets where merchants speaking dozens of languages hawked the wealth of the world. That was fairly close to the truth.
Although camels are not commonly used, the business connections made over 2,000 years ago remain. The Silk Road was a commercial system of trade routes from the Orient to the Eastern Mediterranean, not one trek. Dozens of ancillary routes spun off a major artery into the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula and Eastern Europe.
“Location, location, location…”
Goods from lumber to saffron streamed through Thrace and Macedonia in mutual trade with Asia for both internal consumption and distribution to other markets. The region’s borders were a natural gateway for the Balkans. The Agora (marketplace) of Pella in Central Macedonia built by Alexander the Great (c.300s B.C.E.) was the largest in the ancient world. The port city of Thessaloniki was founded in this era to take advantage of Silk Road trade.
When the Romans built the Via Egnatia after they expanded their empire (c. 100s B.C.E.) it linked the Adriatic Sea with Thessaloniki and continued to what is today Istanbul. The modern highway (A2) that covers the same route nearly parallels the Roman road. The Silk Road has simply morphed in form.
It would be unrealistic to imagine that millenniums old contacts among diverse cultures and geographies could not have major impacts on food. Reality has been that Alexander himself brought Pella Region cherries from Asia. Zucchini, potatoes and tomatoes have nothing to do with the Silk Road but are New World vegetables not available in Europe until the 16th century.
It’s common for the menus to proudly print that all products used in restaurants are sourced local. More than two millenniums later the principal occupations of Central Macedonia are still in agriculture – peaches, cherries, cotton, tobacco, wine, grains and animal products. Four restaurants in less than 36 hours provided more than enough to sample the Silk Road ingredients of Central Macedonian regional cuisine.
Giant beans slow pan cooked with tomato and herbs.
Fried Zucchini with taziki sauce. The zucchini, like all squash, originates in the Americas. However, the varieties of squash typically called “zucchini” were developed in northern Italy in the second half of the 19th century generations after the introduction of cucurbits from the Americas in the early 16th century.
Vine leaves over veal with lemon, feta cheese and dill. Sun dried vine leaves have an intense flavor and when hydrated are free of the salty brine of bottled leaves.
Kavourma: a casserole with traditional salami made of beef, ham and pork, potatoes, peppers and herbs served warm. Kavourma has many variations as a fried or sautéed meat dish in Silk Road cuisines.
Tsobleki: In its simplest form, this is a dish of usually red meat in tomato sauce slow cooked in its clay pot, a “tsobleki.” Dionysos Orma’s is a traditional Edessa recipe using veal and adding potatoes, courgettes, eggplant, red roasted peppers, mushrooms, tomato sauce and feta cheese.
Pumpkin spoon sweet (in a spiral) stays crunchy because it’s under ripe before cooking.
Kormos: A popular and simple comfort food dessert – layers of biscuits and chocolate garnished with coconut.
A premium Retsina (yes there are premium vintages of this ancient wine!) Resin, especially from Apleppo, has been used since ancient days to seal oxygen out of porous clay amphorae to extend the wine’s life. Wines from Thrace and Macedonia were distributed through the Silk Road,
By the 3rd century, barrel making was common throughout the Roman Empire. The exception was the eastern regions, which became the Byzantine Empire, where resin was used to seal the barrels or directly flavor the white wine. A new generation of Greeks are now discovering a new generation of retsina.
Tsipouro has been the poster child of thriftiness for centuries. This simple distillation of the must – left overs after grapes have been pressed for wine – has been popular with Greek monks and moonshiners ever since. Now it has entered the premium spirits realm – aged tsipouros are available. The brandy-like aromas vary depending on type of barrel used and previous use of the barrel. The Katsaros Family tsipouro has been in smoky scotch whisky oak barrels for five years.
Moussaka is an eggplant or potato-based dish common throughout the Middle East, the Hellenic world and the Balkans with many local and regional variations. The Greek version includes layers of meat and eggplant topped with a Béchamel sauce – Loxandra’s had a particularly thick, creamy béchamel topping. The eggplant is a child of the Silk Road. First cultivated in northern India, it’s widely used.
Taziki sauce – classic cold Greek yogurt and cucumber accompaniment to Dolma and other dishes.
Fried cheese and raspberry jam
Salad with pomegranate seeds: The pomegranate originated Persia and northern India and has been cultivated since ancient times throughout the Mediterranean region. It’s probably as important in Greek mythology as it is tasty in its many Greek uses.
Eggplant cooked with tomatoes and herb. Of course, the tomato, so commonly used in Greek cuisine, is classic New World and did not enter Greek cooking until the 17th century but that does not stop this from being a beloved preparation.
Zucchini stuffed with meat topped with delicate avaglomono sauce. Variations on this lemon egg sauce have been around forever.
Dolma with rice. Dolma is a family of stuffed dishes common in Mediterranean cuisine and surrounding regions including the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
Roast sheep with lettuce. The Silk Road encouraged “head to tail” consumption.
Wine: Lunch was accompanied by a fruity but dry Pella region red by Ligas Winery, similar to a Beaujolais.
Shopksa salads are common to a southern Balkan/Northern Greek table. The mild sheep milk cheese, most likely grated sirene, was perked up by a napping of balsamic vinegar. Of course, every dish with tomatoes is post 16th century since it is an American fruit.
The local freshwater trout is as Greek as they get. The Edessa/Pella region has an abundant supply of fresh water streams from the surrounding mountains. Simple, with slabs of grilled potatoes.
Delectable dishes of roasted eggplant with olive oil and fried cheese are popular small plates.
Roasted local mushrooms from the Black Forest. Greece’s forests, especially in the north, have 150 edible mushroom varieties.
Aegean Sea fried fresh anchovies. Despite the lush mountains and valleys of Central Macedonia the abundance of the Aegean is never far away. These are like savoring french fries.
Grilled Potatoes. The potato was brought to Europe from South America in the 16th century and has never lost its popularity.
Savory beef in tomato sauce – slow cooking…relaxed dining.
The Hotel Hagiati in the historic medieval Verosi district has an intimate courtyard cafe open to the public well into the evening.Breakfast, complimentary for guests, is available as well. Both the interior lobby and the courtyard comprise the cafe.
Besides local breads, jams from local fruits and classic phyllo pies there are regional specialties. The Hagiati’s Trahana Soup is ancient (open link for a recipe) a product of the Silk Road and still common throughout the region.
Centuries after its creation as a convenience food to take on Silk Road caravans and keep at home as a staple, Trahana is still being made. The origins of this sourdough or regular breadcrumb-like food is part of the Silk Road’s history.
Kostas Martavaltzoglou is GM and 3rd generation of family owned Agrozimi, makers of traditional Greek grain products since 1969. Trahana is one of their products.
Culinary history is human history and too rich to quibble over words as “authentic.” All recipes are regional – even to a village or a family. For Central Macedonia and the Edessa/Pella Region it was all about location on the fabled Silk Road.
When you go: Edessa is an easy 55 miles (90 k.) west of Thessaloniki. It’s possible to drive, take a train or travel by intercity couch bus. Pella Archaeological Site and Giannitsa are within 25 miles (40 k.) from Thessaloniki. Both are on the (Silk) route between Thessaloniki and Edessa.
Absorb the architectural soul of Macedonia at the Hotel Hagiati.
Occupying a historic stone merchant’s house a short stroll from Waterfalls Park, the Hotel Hagiati’s interior is a blend of Balkan and Near East textiles and decorations. It’s not an artificial blend. This traditional Macedonian style is due to being at the crossroads of the world.
Cozy rooms feature wood-paneled ceilings and natural stonewalls, plus minibars, free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Room service is available and the enclosed garden courtyard of the former stables is a cafe until late in the evening.
Driving the smooth, flat roads of the Loggos Valley past the ancient cities of Pella and Giannitsa, through lush farmland it was easy to see why this became the heart of an empire. Ahead, visible for miles, was the Rock of Edessa. Looming 1,000 feet above the plains, the current city of Edessa was perched like an eagle’s nest.
The city proper wasn’t always on top of the rock. The top held the acropolis. According to legend a descendent of Hercules, Karanos, founder of the Argead Dynasty, (Alexander the Great’s family) built Edessa as Macedonia’s first capital. Two thousand years later (it’s only “time”) the waterfall was named after him – the tallest in Greece.
The city was at the base on the valley floor close to the agricultural commerce of this affluent region. If a mantra of business has been “location, location, location,” Edessa was blessed. It was a western distribution center for the fabled Silk Route linking Asia and the Mediterranean World since at least the 5th century B.C.E.
Both earthquakes and wars during the long history of Edessa meant that few buildings remain intact prior to the 14th century. The Varosi district, where the Hotel Hagiati is located, is the most historic area keeping its character and medieval Macedonian ambiance.
Verosi was created on the site of the city’s ancient citadel after the fall of Edessa to the Ottoman Empire in 1389. This was followed by the catastrophic topography altering 1395 earthquake – it created the waterfalls – which by the mid-19th century had turned the neighborhood into a major water powered industrial center. Significant World War II damage and the demise of the mills led to the Municipality of Edessa in the 1990s to focus on a concerted effort to preserve Verosi.
Meticulous but expensive restoration continues. Restoration must preserve and repair the exterior using identical materials and methods (The Hotel Verosi, the Hagiati’s compatriot around the corner, has a Plexiglas floored lobby covering ancient city walls).
The Hotel Hagiatiis a product of this effort, and its location could not be more central to both Waterfalls Park and a historic walk through Verosi.
Virtually next to the Hotel Hagiati is the centerpiece of Edessa, Waterfalls Park and the Open Air Water Museum. Started in the 1940s as the multilevel entrance to the tallest waterfall in Greece, Karonos Falls, the Municipality completed the restoration of surviving mills into museums in early 2000. The museums highlight the industrial and agricultural history of the region as well as the significance of water and the ecosystem.
In the opposite direction from the Hotel Hagiati a stroll will bring you past the14th century Byzantine Church of the Koimisis – its historic frescoes are undergoing restoration. The many canals and streams snaking through big old trees set a dreamy scene. Lined with small cafes, the water softens even the modern city.
The world’s oldest convenience food?
Breakfast is complimentary at the Hagiati and among a menu of choices are local jams – especially the region’s famous cherry – and their fresh peaches to ancient dishes such as Trahana Soup. In its most basic form Trahana Soup is the traditional farmer’s breakfast porridge. Yet not just in Greece.
Some culinary historians consider trahana to be the world’s oldest convenience food. Trahana is made with semolina, wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat. Milk, buttermilk, or yogurt is mixed in to form a thick dough.
Trahana comes in two types: sweet and sour. Sweet is made with whole milk, typically goat’s milk, and sour trahana is made with yogurt or buttermilk.
Regional variations can have additions such as vegetables, sesame seeds or red peppers. The mix is then broken into chunks, dried, and then broken up again into pea size pieces. It sounds simple but the process if done by hand is lengthy so it was made in large quantities, carried in pouches on caravans and was a staple in households.
Whatever its origins, trahana in various forms is still found, commercially produced, almost everywhere from the Balkans to the Middle East. (In the Edessa/Pella Region it is made and distributed by Agrozimi, makers of Greek traditional products since 1969). It’s a nearly instant thickening agent – like Ramen noodles – added to soups, stews or as a food topping. Another proof that Eastern Mediterranean/Mid Eastern cuisine knows no boundaries.
1 cup spicy trahana (not spicy can be substituted)
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cinnamon stick
½ bunch parsley
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 cup red (or white) wine
salt to taste
Melt the butter in a deep skillet.
Saute bay leaf, pepper, parsley, cinnamon stick, onion and tomatoes for 1 minute
Add the trahana and continue to saute 1 to 2 minutes more.
Arrange the chicken quarters on top of the sauteed mixture.
Add the wine and ½ cup water.
Cover and simmer on med low heat for 1 hour. Check halfway and add more water if necessary.
After a hearty breakfast, it is an easy stroll to take in the city and use as a base to explore the legendary history of the Edessa/Pella Region. The Hotel Hagiati offers the ambiance to experience Edessa’s present within its past.
When you go: Edessa is an easy 55 miles (90 k.) west of Thessaloniki. It’s possible to drive, take a train or travel by intercity couch bus. Pella Archaeological Site and Giannitsa are within 25 miles (40 k.) from Thessaloniki. Both are on the (Silk) route between Thessaloniki and Edessa.
Epirus is a rugged, heavily forested and mountainous region largely made up of the Pindus Mountains. Considered the “spine of Greece,” the Pindus Mountains separate Epirus from Macedonia and Thessaly to the east.
Even though the clothing, architecture and food may have a Balkan feel, today generally older men and women gather on benches around Metsovo’s church of Agia Paraskevi to observe life on the Central Square and speak the ancient Aromanian dialect.
Livestock grazing on the green Pindus mountain slopes and crafts are still a part of life in Metsovo. To that foundation, tourism has had a significant impact over the past half century. Winter skiing, summer hiking, vineyards, unique foods, charming hotels and restaurants with a view add to the allure of this northwestern Greek enclave.
Naxos is the most fertile island of the Cyclades. It has a large aquifer under the island in a region where water is usually inadequate. Mount Zeus at 1,004 meters (3,294 feet) tends to trap the clouds increasing rainfall. Agriculture is an important economic sector making Naxos the most self-sufficient island in the Cyclades.
This abundance is obvious in Naxos restaurants, artisan food shops and food markets. Besides produce Naxos is famous throughout Greece for its cheese, meats, fish and seafood. Simply walking along the wide, beautiful, long, crescent, pedestrian friendly waterfront of Chora (Naxos Town) is a gastronomic delight. Some of the best cafes and tavernas in Naxos are sandwiched between shops offering Naxos crafts and food products – it’s the center of nighttime social life in town.
Marathia Restaurant on Tinos Island aptly proves the superlatives you have heard on the creativity of Greek cuisine and the uncompromising beauty of Cyclades Island beach locations.
Considering how many restaurants in Greece I have reviewed, Marathia is one of the more traditional yet modern you can visit. Chef/owner Marinos Souranis opened Marathia Restaurant in 2002 in the renovated nine-room boutique hotel his parents constructed on Tinos Island 40 years before. He and his staff use ageless techniques crafting a menu firmly based on local products and traditional recipes.
Yet the hook for the curious diner is in the knowledge that subtle personal touches (cinnamon added to homemade petroma cheese) and the imaginative presentations (marinated sardines served in sardine cans) set Marathia apart. That is a high compliment considering the exemplary level of Tinos gastronomy.
Both restaurant and hotel are open year round. The nine one and two bedroom apartments with kitchens are integrated within a design that’s traditional Greek village villa with 21st century amenities. The hotel includes the airy taverna style indoor dining room with many attractive antiques, tools especially, serving as sculptures against the white stucco walls.
Across the street is the seasonal dining pavilion, Partokali Beach Bar, which itself languidly spreads down stunning Aghios Fokas Beach – the longest sand beach on the island. Besides the dining area, Marathia provides shaded lounge chairs for total enjoyment of this Blue Flag beach. All of this is within a ten minute drive from the center of Chora.
Brunch at Marathia in general follows hotel patterns in so far as a buffet includes a variety of their cheeses, marinated fish, local sausages, yogurt, fruits and savory dishes. What from a distance could be mistaken for pastry layered with cream topped with strawberries was a baked savory pastry layered with cheese, herbs and topped with cherry tomatoes.
Chef Marinos wanted me to sample Marathia’s specialties from the a la carte menu. They are all meze, small plates that together with bread, salad and cheese frequently define a Greek meal. All were traditional centuries old preparations of local ingredients when preservation drove recipes. The dishes using riki, sardines, grazos and fish row are all uncooked salt cured.
Lakerta appears throughout the Aegean and Adriatic coasts. It uses riki, cousin to bonito fish. The fish is soaked in two separate salt-water solutions each for 24 hours. This cleans the fish. It’s then cut into steaks, salted and weighted down for 3 to 4 days turning daily. The lakerta may then be thinly sliced and eaten or stored in olive oil.
The lakerta is tender with mild saltiness as if fresh from the sea. Serve thinly sliced drizzled with olive oil and lemon.
Deboned grazros (cousin to sardines) sit in salt water for 90 minutes and in apple cider vinegar for 5 to 7 minutes. After the vinegar soak they’re placed in jars and covered with sunflower oil – important because sunflower oil imparts no flavor unlike olive and most other oils. The grazros can keep for three months.
Botargo – or avgotaraho – is a delicacy of cephalus or gray mullet fish row. The whole row sack is cured in sea salt for a few weeks, sundried and then encased in beeswax for preservation as it has been for over a thousand years. Traditionally served thinly sliced with some lemon juice and/or zest and white pepper either solo or with crusty bread and butter – the beeswax is removed before eating.
The botargo has a lightly chewy texture due to the process; yet its unique flavor is intense. Although like wine, flavors can very depending on the life-style and age of the cephalus, I detected hints of mango and sea urchin tongue. Allow the botargo to linger in your mouth to maximize the subtly sweet umami experience.
In preparing smoked white grouper the fish is covered in a mixture of sea salt, white pepper and sugar for 16 days before being smoked for two days. The moist, delicate silky fish is served thinly sliced with a garnish of pickled grapes as counterpoint.
Marinated vegetables, including artichokes, are steamed in water with some vinegar, lemon juice and a little olive oil until just tender. Then they are drained and marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. The textural contrast of the piquant vegetables pairs well with rich cheeses and delicate fish.
All cheeses, except one, are made in-house from unpasteurized milk and are so labeled on the menu due to health restrictions for certain conditions such as pregnancy. The exception is graviera, which is locally made with pasteurized milk. It’s the second most popular and versatile Greek cheese after feta and similar to gruyère. A firm but creamy cheese with generally mild on the sweeter side taste notes, it’s often sliced and added to cheese trays, grated over pasta and fried as saganaki.
I was surprised to see dozens of kariki aging. Only one person on the island makes it commercially, chef Aggeliki Vidou, but in small batches that cannot satisfy demand. Marinos makes his own kariki – the very rare (in the 21st century) “pumpkin cheese” of Tinos.
The name comes from the small gourd, a karika. Traditionally it was used to collect milk. Now metal milk containers are called kariki. It starts with petia a simple base cheese, that’s packed in the karika – the actual gourd. The gourd is sealed with a flour/water paste and aged for 2 to 3 months. The interaction with the gourd imparts both color and deep flavors with hints of caramel, mild gorganzola and dried figs.
His malathouni, also from the base petia (cone), is made with goat’s milk. On average malathouni is aged for about one month. At Marathia it’s aged six months intensifying the natural tang of the goat’s milk yet maintaining a creamy texture.
Petroma’s base cheese is freshly strained petia. The round of cheese is then weighted until most of the additional whey drains. At Marathia they add a bit of sea salt and cinnamon to the petia before straining.
The wood burning oven near the entrance to the hotel is for bread baking. Olive wood only is used for its high and uniform burning temperature. Breads are made from whole-wheat flour and the yeast from a starter dough. The breads have a touch of sourdough texture and aroma that compliments rich butter and cheeses.
Tinos Island’s own T-Oinos Winery 2013 Clos Stegasta Assyrtiko accompanied the main courses. It has a classic nose of dry summer grasses and vanilla. The tongue picked up fresh citrus zest, which lingered. The throat sensed a pleasant finish of dry grapefruit zest. Assyrtiko ought to be a Greek national treasure.
With the cheese course, local Domaine de Kalathas’ Winery 10+12 late harvest 100% Tinos Island potamisi grape produces a fresh semi-dry white wine. It’s not aged and has subtle tones of honey and white currents with floral notes. Despite being semi-dry in the mouth it has a surprising dry smooth finish.
Tinos Island is a gastronomic destination of great physical beauty. Yet you could eat a convenience store hotdog on a Greek island beach and remember the beauty of the experience. At Marathia let’s just say the experience is raised far above sea level.
It was difficult to get lost especially armed with the well-written and informative guide “Halkidiki Inside Your Dreams” by the Halkidiki Tourism Organization.
Yet even if one did take a wrong turn on the modern well-maintained roads that hug the coastline of the Halkidiki peninsulas of Greece you would be apt to discover a small Orthodox church on the side of the road, a centuries old Byzantine tower, an archeological site from antiquity in a field, another secluded beach and everywhere the sweeping vistas of farmland and blue water.
At the photogenic seaside village of Loutra, close by Nefeli Villas & Suites, lunch at Capitan Taverna combined excellent traditional Greek cuisine with a classic atmosphere. Costas Vamvakas has maintained both its popularity and quality since 1977. An old grape arbor heavy with fruit covered the flower bedecked dining porch. Olive trees anchored the corners and a fountain burbled softly.
Just a few miles from Loutra was the Spa at Agia Paraskevi. Known for its hot sulfur springs, southern Kassandra has long been sought by people suffering bone and muscle disorders. With a commanding view of the sea, the modern spa facilities include pools, saunas, steam baths and hydro massage.
Positioned on the west coast of Kassandra, Nefeli Villas & Suites offers spacious one to four bedroom villas in a village setting. Halkidiki’s three peninsulas – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos – have long been sun-kissed family oriented summer playgrounds. Easy access to dozens of public beaches, classic white washed villages climbing hillsides and the incomparable clear water of the Aegean attract tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Ermia Hotels and Resorts, a family owned real estate and hospitality company headquartered in Thessaloniki, develops resorts and manages villa rentals. Its portfolio includes the Premier Luxury Mountain Resort in Bansko, Bulgaria, Amaryllis Paros Beach Hotel on Paros Island and Sani Woods on Kassandra in Halkidiki. In Halkidiki as well they manage the Nefeli Villas & Suites, the Bellevue Villas and the unique Hastia Villa.
Giorgos Tsalikis and the staff of Nefeli Villas & Suites run a double operation. The units in this Ermia built complex are privately owned with the option to offer the unit for seasonal rental. It’s a resort and condo. The reception office maintains a compact shop with a nice selection of local Greek foods from cheese and wine to thyme honey and mastic liquor – especially convenient as gifts.
The four-bedroom, two-floor townhouse I enjoyed during my stay was more than spacious for the normal maximum of eight people. Premium furnishings and kitchen appliances, Wi-Fi, outdoor barbecue, washing machine, pool and beach towels are all provided. Breakfast is available at Aelia Beach Bar & Restaurant.
The compact beach and tree shaded grass lawn provides comfortable lounge chairs with service from the Aelia bar and restaurant and protected swimming in the clear Aegean.
As a chef I’m impressed when a fine dining restaurant accents the food with simplicity. Greek yogurt topped with a few almonds in a simple and attractive dedicated glass container with a serene Aegean sea view provided by nature defines chic at Aelia Beach Bar & Restaurant.
While a wedding reception was in the final stages of preparation, I was served an imaginative dinner starting with a salty white taramas mousse attractively arranged on crispy phyllo crackers. Meaty pleurotus mushrooms were marinated in vinaigrette of aged Kalamata vinegar and fresh herbs. Grilled on wood charcoal, the large mushrooms would please a vegetarian as a meat substitute.
Tender, savory lamb chops were bathed in a classic rosemary wine sauce. A rich but light chocolate soufflé rounded dinner. Thank you Maria Ntai for the warm Greek hospitality at Aelia Beach Bar & Restaurant.
At Sani Woods Anna Xafoudi, manages eleven architecturally stunning suites, apartments and a large villa. Set within a carefully landscaped yet natural arboretum the two buildings sit on a hillside that gently slopes down to the pool. Bicycles and a continental breakfast are included.
A mini “supermart” is a five-minute drive at the entrance to the large Sani Resort complex, which has popular restaurants and a marina. Fokaies village is 6 km away and has larger stores. Yet If quiet is what you crave, Sani Woods is your refuge.
Closer to the popular summer resort town of Pefkoahori the Bellevue Villas sit on a promontory with a panoramic view of the Aegean and Sithonia peninsula. The large, sleek ultra modern multi level villas each have their own private pool.
Nearby Hestia Villa is a large, unique late 20th century stand alone beach house. It has a 20th century mid-century modern look but it is of more recent construction. A long green front lawn spreads down to Hestia’s own entrance onto the beach.
For vacation nightlife, the fishing town of Pefkoahori has become Kassandra’s most popular tourist destination. On the east coast of the peninsula it’s a mere 20-minute drive from Nefeli Villas & Suites and Sani Woods – closer Bellevue and Hastia villas. During the summer season this family oriented resort town is a marriage of sun, sea and Coney Island.
A lengthy beachfront pedestrian walkway becomes a carnival of street food and vendors selling everything one expects from sunglasses to helium balloons. A small amusement park will delight children. Shopaholics will be pleased with the number and diversity of stores. Bar and restaurant hoppers will be sated with dozens of attractive beach venues and music opportunities.
Ermia Hotels and Resorts villas offer the ideal luxury accommodations for an extended beach vacation. From enviable locations, premium furnishings, fine cuisine and unique architecture Ermia is simply offering Greek hospitality. As a bonus explore Kassandra, a storied finger of fabled Halkidiki.
When you go:
In general the summer season runs from May through mid-October. Pefkoahori is an easy and picturesque 50-mile drive on modern highways from Thessaloniki Airport “Makedonia.” The gateway city of Thessaloniki is served by direct flights from a number of European cities. Numerous flights from Athens are available and affordable for the short 35-minute journey.
From artisan cheeses and wood oven baked breads, handmade ecclesiastical beeswax candles, weaving on a century old loom, bathing at another secluded beach to leisurely sipping tsipouro while enjoying meze on the waterfront, Lispi is for seekers of tradition and tranquility.
Lipsi is an island lover’s dream and a journey back to tradition.
please read my July article for the Hellenic News of America
The sun glints off white sand and aqua water as I walk down the stairs to Alikes Beach. One of five major beaches on Ammouliani Island, Alikes Beach is so beautiful it’s as if a giant pool boy to the gods cleans the crystal clear Aegean Sea rock free for feet to walk on a soft sand floor and swim in pristine water.
I can assume that the god’s may have favored Ammouliani Island and wanted it for them. Its wide crescent white sand beaches are fringed with lush vegetation, wild flowers and craggy wind and wave formed rock outcroppings. The topography is gentle yet with hills of enough elevation to provide beautiful views of mist shrouded sacred Mt. Athos. Mysterious of all, rarely did a human live on Ammouliani Island for thousands of years.
For most of the past millennium Ammouliani was the property of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos. It was used for fishing and farmland to provide for the monastery – one of 20 vast Greek Orthodox complexes on Mt. Athos. Only a few men ever lived there until 1925.
The disastrous aftermath of the First World War and upheaval caused by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to an unprecedented repatriation of ethnic groups between Greece and former Ottoman lands. Vatopedi Monastery ownership of Ammouliani Island ended in 1925 with the establishment of villages for Greek refugees.
Five hundred full time residents live on this tranquil island with great beach bars, small hotels, daily fresh seafood and relaxing restaurants. Summer tourism swells the population many times, but enough business remains open year round to attract winter visitors.
Less than two square miles in area and an easy 65 mile car or coach bus drive from Thessaloniki, Ammouliani is the only inhabited island of Central Macedonia and the Halkidiki peninsulas. It is located in the Gulf of Mount Athos two miles off the coast of Athos peninsula. In summer ferry service for the 10 minute ride from Tripiti on the mainland is regular and often. In winter the schedule is less frequent and subject to weather.
One permanent resident with a year round business is Sissy Neofitidou of Kastalia Hotel. Sissy is a calm driving force for tourism on the island. She was also my guide during my stay.
Kastalia Hotel, one of several properties owned by Sissy and her family, is typical of the comfortable accommodations found on the island. The well-appointed rooms have kitchens making them convenient apartments for extended island stays. Breakfast in the attractive split-level lobby is bountiful.
Located in Amoliani town, the ferry port, Kastalia Hotel is conveniently situated for hiking and biking. Alikis Beach is a mere ten minute stroll from the hotel. Amoliani town is a charming Greek island village of classic white stucco and blue shuttered houses, shops, the center for bike rentals and boat excursions as well as waterfront restaurants and relaxing bars.
Since many of Ammouliani Island’s first residents were Greek refugees from islands and towns on the former Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Aegean coast, they brought with them hybrid Near East Hellenic traditions and dress. The large stone paved old town square and its ecclesiastical buildings were constructed in the 19th century when the island was owned by the Vatopedi Monastery. Its Byzantine icons from Asia Minor venerated in the Church of Panagia are particularly prized.
The Folklore Museum, housed in a 1907 stone former monastery building in the old town square, is a living museum. The crafts and recipes of the past are practiced by members of the Cultural Association of Ammouliani and passed on to the next generation. Mrs. Marigo Vasiliou is an expert baker of amigdalota a traditional almond pastry formed into flower shapes, baked and served at weddings, christenings and name days. She demonstrated her skill on a Jamie Oliver TV show.
There is nothing complicated with the recipe for amigdalota cookies: finely ground almonds, sugar, eggs and almond extract. Sounds like marzipan but not as sweet. The skill required to form the delicate dough into intricate baked flowers takes years of training.
Mrs. Vasiliou demonstrated her art at the Hotel Erotokritos, owned by her daughter. The Erotokritos sits high on an island hill with panoramic views of the Aegean Sea and Mt. Athos. I was treated to what I can only describe as a Greek version of High Tea – a late afternoon treat of coffee and homemade desserts.
A buffet of classic Greek dishes and fresh Aegean seafood is available at any number of island tavernas. With an island as small as Ammouliani many are on the waterfront. At Taverna Tzanis you choose your fish from a market display of dozens of choices. A succulent grilled sargos fish with fresh lime juice was refreshing.
Taverna Glaros, another fine choice, continues the Greek love of having a number of small plates to share among guests. Cheese stuffed zucchini blossoms, fried fish balls, stuffed grape leaves, a variety of salads, raw anchovies marinated in vinegar and oil and wild sea greens gathered from the craggy rocks along the shore are just a few selections from island menus.
For a relaxing nighttime venue Dimitrias Boskos has created Aelia Summer Cocktail Bar on the Amoliani town waterfront. The American generated cocktail revolution has been slow to catch on in Europe, but Greeks have rapidly developed expertise in this art. Besides the quality cocktails and attractive modern multi-level seating on the waterfront, this being Greece, a meze (tapas sized small plate) is served with drinks.
Ammouliani Island is justifiably known for its beaches. They all have seasonal beach bars that make the experience more enjoyable. On Alikis Beach, the island’s most famous, Savana and Canteen «O Spiros» serve tasty burgers and Greek classics both on their covered terraces and under their beach umbrellas.
Mainos, the grandfather of current family owner Kostas Voutsac, founded Savana Beach Bar & Grill in 1967. Mainos started selling orange juice and candy from baskets by walking the streets of the island. Sissy remembers as a child waiting for him on his daily circuit.
In 1967 he secured a lease on a prime location at a major entrance to Alikis beach and within a 20-minute walk from town. He opened a taverna. Taking advantage of the beach for umbrellas and the rocky hillside for panoramic views of Alikis Beach, Mainos’ children renovated Savana into the beach bar in 1995. Its unique design takes full advantage of lush vegetation, rocks, wood and multi level seating made possible by the hillside.
Sissy, Mainos and Marigo are metaphors for Ammouliani Island. They work hard to create two square miles dedicated to effortless relaxation. The gods must have favored Ammouliani Island – its aura is timeless.
It’s not like the gay community has had to hide in a Puerto Vallarta ghetto. It has been welcome ever since Puerto Vallarta attracted Hollywood artists in the 60s and 70s. So the 6th annual Puerto Vallarta Pride festival is as much pride in this city as in being gay.
Being the gay friendliest city in the Western Hemisphere has advantages. Few care. There’s little stereotyping in this family friendly vacation destination.
There is a center of gay life in the city. The historic zones of El Centro and Emiliano Zapata (aka the Romantic Zone,) and they have many of Puerto Vallarta’s best restaurants, shopping, bars and nightlife but for all tastes. The general acceptance may best be summed up by the participation of the city’s policeman and mayor in the Pride 2018 parade.
If LGBT life does not have to hide it’s because Puerto Vallarta is a paradise, as its tourism logo proclaims. Yet despite civil unions nationwide and same-sex marriage approved in Mexico City, the country has one the highest homophobic hate crime rates on Earth. It’s comforting having the police part of the Puerto Vallarta Pride 2018 parade.
Invited by EnRoute Communications along with a small group of travel writers, we had a personal view of not just what makes Pride work but Puerto Vallarta tourism thrive. In 2017 over 24,000 participated in the weeklong festival. Simple math proves the economic impact of the “pink” peso.
Highlights of Pride 2018
The Pride 2018 Parade sauntered down the Malecon on a typically beautiful Puerto Vallarta evening with the sun slowly setting into the Bay of Banderas. Floats from dozens of gay-owned businesses, local organizations and participants just having fun where watched by all on the city’s waterfront.
The Fiesta en la Calle street party took over the heart of Emiliano Zapata – Boystown – stretching down Calle Cardenas. The nighttime party was a blur of sound, music and bodies as the bars and businesses of Boystown spilled into the street. With laser lights and sweet abandon the city celebrated a freedom not available to all.
Mantamar Beach Resort and Club is one of many gay friendly/owned luxury hotels in Puerto Vallarta. Located at the end of wide white sand South Beach (south side of Playa de los Muertos), Mantamar hosted two major events during Pride, the Big Top Party at Sky Top Bar and the White Party. Popular gay DJs in the international circuit kept energy flowing both high up on the Sky Top Bar and on the beach for the culminating White Party (white clothing…)
Puerto Vallarta, as a municipality, turned 100 years old in 2018 appropriately during Pride Week. Celebrations continue year long including a series called 100 Tables to Celebrate 100 Years. These events invite local businesses to display their products in a festive atmosphere.
Parque Lazaro Cardenas, recently decorated with extensive mosaics by the artists of Tile Park PV, was the site for gay businesses to show their stuff. From restaurants offering sushi to the best leather halter, the power of the “pink” peso was evident. Celebrity underwear designer Andrew Christian, who owns condos nearby, presided over a live display of his latest creations.
Sapphire Beach Club, also on South Beach, offers fresh, inviting food especially at breakfast. The open-air restaurant easily captures the cool Bay of Banderas breeze. The absence of canned music means the waves provide relaxing ambient sound to compliment refreshing cocktails.
Madregal is a new addition to Puerto Vallarta’s enviable culinary stable. Oscar Moran, who owns Oscar’s on the Rio Cuale, has created an Oxacan influenced menu. This southern Mexico state is known for unique preparations of a wide range of produce, meats and cheese. I did not see chapulines (grasshoppers) on the menu?
No Puerto Vallarta restaurant can ignore the abundant sea life in the Bay of Banderas. For Chef Fernando Sánchez Aceves fish and seafood intermesh creating the imaginative fusion of cuisines for which Puerto Vallarta’s known.
A creamy gazpacho with shrimp and citrusy seafood ceviche were refreshing on a warm late May evening. Pickled vegetables with vinegar and chili, lentil salad, guacamole and a salad with Oxacan cheese displayed the diverse abundance and ingenuity in Mexican vegetable cookery.
Madregal has an extensive mezcalito list – cocktails made with smoky mezcal, a distillation of the agave plant and aged in wood barrels. Smoke, quite literally, has become a popular cocktail ingredient. Madregal infuses a glass with smoke from a burning fresh rosemary sprig and rims the glass with smoked salt before pouring the cocktail giving the drink a smoky boost.
Garlands del Rio is a boutique luxury bed and breakfast on the Rio Cuale in Emiliano Zapata. Seventeen individually designed rooms surround a courtyard with pool that captures the river’s cooling breeze. The Rio Cuale forks around a narrow islet, Isla Cuale, before emptying into the Bay of Banderas. Isla Cuale is a mini jungle paradise in the middle of Puerto Vallarta – combination park, restaurants and crafts market.
Garlands is fully equipped 21st century hotel with WIFI in all rooms and Flat Screen TVs. The atmosphere though is that of being a house guest in a mansion townhouse. Breakfast is served and you can enjoy a poolside drink.
Garlands del Rio hosted the journalists of Pride 2018 at a riverside reception and dinner. A chilled shrimp and vegetable plate along with local wine followed guacamole and margaritas on a humid evening. A tropical setting, on a tropical evening with tropical food in the Romantic Zone does fit the logo Puerto Vallarta – Welcome to Paradise.
Vallarta Adventures explores the unique biosphere of the Bay of Banderas from it’s fleet of luxury yachts. On a trip hosting the Pride 2018 journalist, we leisurely floated along the coast of Puerto Vallarta, sipping marguerites, to the protected bird sanctuary of Los Arcos. The wave carved steep rock islets south of Puerto Vallarta are a scuba divers dream.
Many tour boats stop at Los Arcos but it never seems crowded. Vallarta Adventures is well equipped with all gear necessary for a safe scuba experience. Fishing is available in other locations during the cruise.
The beautiful, warm clear water of the Bay invites swimming, paddle boarding or just floating. Yet lunch did interfere. A sumptuous and artistic “bento box” (form follows function on a gently swaying sailing yacht) of salads made perfect sense in all respects.
Vallarta Adventures provided an experience of Puerto Vallarta that could only be had from accepting the naturalness of the sea. Pride 2018 provided an experience of Puerto Vallarta that could only be had from accepting the naturalness of human life. Economic stats prove that per capita an international gay tourist spends US$1,700 on an average trip compared to $760 per hetero tourist – the power of the pink peso. It’s nice to have it all in one place.
Disclaimer: The author was a guest of Pride 2018 including the businesses and events mentioned. Arrangements were facilitated by EnRoute Communications, New York City