A family holiday in northern Greece: From Zeus to Zagori

Unlike Athens or the islands, northern Greece is an area that is not well known to travelers outside of Europe. Buor families with kids of any age, it offers an abundance of activities.

Meteora at sunset  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Meteora at sunset
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Deciding where and how to travel as a family, within a reasonable budget, is a challenge that all families face when planning a trip.

Unlike Athens or the islands, northern Greece is an area that is not well known to travelers outside of Europe. For families with kids of any age, it offers an abundance of activities appealing to all – hiking, extreme sports, Instagram-worthy destinations, excellent food, quaint towns, friendly locals, and great shopping in Thessaloniki. All at reasonable prices! With travel now open between Israel and Greece, no mandatory quarantine upon arrival, and minimal PCR testing requirements, fall is the perfect time to visit this wonderful region.

A car rental in this part of Greece is imperative due to the lack of public transportation between towns but driving is a breeze with GPS to guide your way. Accommodations are best booked in advance due to the scarcity of lodging, especially in smaller towns. Outside of the large cities, there are few chain hotels and lodging is found in family-run hotels that are affordable and usually include a delicious breakfast. Food is reasonably priced, quantities are generous, and it was easy to satisfy the desires of our family – which included my wife who maintains a gluten-free diet.

ARRIVING IN Thessaloniki in the late evening, we picked up our car and drove to Litochoro, a charming town near Mount Olympus and an excellent base from which to explore the region. According to Greek mythology, Mount Olympus was the home to Zeus and the Greek gods. The Mount Olympus visitor’s center provides an excellent introduction to the national park, its history and connection to Greek mythology, as well as information on trekking in the region.

 VIEW FROM White Tower, Thessaloniki. (credit: Courtesy) VIEW FROM White Tower, Thessaloniki. (credit: Courtesy)

After breakfast at the hotel, we picked up supplies for a picnic lunch from a local supermarket and took a half-hour taxi ride to Prioniaon Mount Olympus, the start of a beautiful 10-km. hiking trail through the Enipeas Gorge. Better to hike down the gorge from the top, this trek is part of the international “E4” trail and is spectacular. Cascading waterfalls, picturesque bridges, the Holy Cave of Saint Dionysios, the old Monastery of Saint Dionysios (destroyed by the Ottoman Turks, rebuilt, and destroyed again in by the Germans during World War II), and countless picturesque swimming spots if the weather agrees, make this walk a must for visiting trekkers. In fact, the 4 to 5-hour hike turned into seven due to the number of stops we made, although it is worth mentioning that the last section was rather difficult due to several steep slopes. We were well rewarded at the end with a delicious dinner in a Greek restaurant “family style.”

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, Meteora is one of those world-renowned tourist spots that is a must-see for all visitors to Greece. There were 24 monasteries built on top of towering rock formations, some dating back to the 14th century apparently to escape from persecution by the occupying Turks. It’s a spectacular site as one wonders how in the world these were constructed on the colossal towering rock columns! The views of (and from!) these monasteries are incredible. Of the original 24 monasteries, only six are left to visit, four occupied by men and two by women. Each can be visited but the hours vary and are closed on different days. Check out www.visitmeteora.travel/monasteries-visiting-hours-and-days/for the days and hours that each are open. We visited in the afternoon and stayed to watch the amazing sunset but, from where to watch? Easy... just look for the many cars parked on the side of the road and follow the crowd.

 WITH THE family, Meteora. (credit: Courtesy) WITH THE family, Meteora. (credit: Courtesy)

RATHER THAN overnight in Meteora, we drove to Metsovo, a quaint town 45 minutes away and had another wonderful meal at a local restaurant with a fireplace next to us that kept us warm in the chilly evening.

The next day, we drove above the clouds through scenic winding mountain roads, rarely reaching speeds above 30 kph, stopping to visit several of the Stone Bridges of Zagori. These engineering feats were built in the 18th century to connect the Zagori villages and many are still standing, a testament to the builder’s expertise. Located in the small town of Kipoi, the Lazaridis and the three arched Kalogeriko bridges are particularly impressive and easily reached by either a walk from the village or park your car on the side of the road. Kipoi makes an excellent break for lunch as finding an open restaurant in this area, especially if you’re traveling midweek off-season, may prove a challenge.

From there we drove to Monodendri, a larger Zagori town and an excellent base to visit the Vikos Gorge, considered the deepest canyon in the world in proportion to its width. Twenty km. long with walls that range from 120-490 m., its narrowest part is only a few meters wide. The gorge can be walked in a day trek starting from Monodendri and ending in the village of Papingo or Vikos. We chose to simply view this stunning gorge from the abandoned Monastery of Saint Paraskevi, an easy 10-minute walk downhill past several cafés. The monastery now houses a souvenir shop selling religious items including hand-painted wood icons and offers magnificent views of the gorge.

Continuing on to Oxia, there is an excellent viewing platform of the gorge and a not-to-be-missed stop at the “stone forest” where there are stone columns perfect for climbing and getting out your energy after the drive or – as we did – using the area as a backdrop for a picnic. After a full day of touring, we stayed the night at Aristi, another well-established Zagori village with several restaurants and hotels, popular on the tourist circuit. For dinner, we left our daughters to eat at the on-site restaurant and we hiked uphill to Salvia, a wonderful romantic restaurant where we had a memorable dinner.

WE BOOKED a white-water rafting trip for the next day on the Arachthos River and were up early to meet the shuttle bus in Ioannina, an hour drive. The long winding drive to the start of the rafting went along amazing mountain scenery and countless hairpin turns. Even though the level of the water in the river was low, the rafting was great fun, the views were striking, and our guide – Michal – was outstanding! This was the perfect family activity that suits all ages and one that I strongly recommend when visiting the area. There are a host of other “extreme” sports in the area including canyoning and kayaking. After rafting, we visited the city of Ioannina exploring the narrow streets, shops and restaurants until evening.

The last day was spent exploring the picturesque town of Mikro Papigko (also spelled Mikro Papigo), a 45-minute drive from Aristi. On the way we stopped at Papingo Bridge, on the Voidomatis River, a popular scenic picnic and swimming site as well as the start of rafting trips. Mikro Papigko is home to less than 100 residents during the high season and much less off-season. As we explored the village, every corner provided another beautiful backdrop for Instagram posts and a host of unoccupied ruins were for sale awaiting new owners interested in a major renovation project. On the return, we stopped at the Papingo Rock Pools, a short walk from the car park and another wonderful place for a dip in the pools or to take that ideal family picture.

 PAPINGO BRIDGE.  (credit: Courtesy) PAPINGO BRIDGE. (credit: Courtesy)

Back in the car and off to Thessaloniki, a four-hour drive, our final destination for the last two days. Controlled over 2,000 years by the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans before becoming a formal part of Greece in 1913, the city has a fascinating and dizzying history of occupation, destruction and rebuilding. The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 destroyed two thirds of the city including the homes and businesses of 70,000 residents. During World War II, Greece suffered greatly during the German occupation and 94% of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki perished in German concentration camps.
The best way to explore the different parts of Thessaloniki is on foot as it’s a walkable city with a nice seaside promenade lined with restaurants. Ancient archaeological sites are interspersed with churches, mosques, as well as modern architecture. While the family was out shopping, I visited the White Tower on the seaside which has an excellent and interesting explanation of the history of the city and the many changes over time. I also visited the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle which described the Greek efforts to gain independence from the late 18th century. To end our visit to northern Greece, we booked the whole family for a two-hour session at a local hammam which included a traditional massage, well worth the € 45 price for each of us!

READERS SHOULD note that the corona situation may have resulted in hotels, restaurants, or businesses that are no longer open or have limited availability. It is best to confirm your accommodation and plans in Greece before departure. Corona testing and quarantine requirements are constantly changing worldwide; please verify before traveling.

Greeks will surely welcome you to their country especially after such a long closure to tourism. Enjoy!

The writer is an oleh from the US who is a freelance travel journalist living in Ra’anana and enjoys sharing his travel adventures both on and off his motorcycle. Feel free to peruse his blog and past work at mototrippinginisrael.com.