Here we go again on a new journey all the way down to a country in the southeastern part of Europe with thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas – Greece! This time, the three of us planned to spend our early summer in Thessaloniki. Early June is usually cloudy and rainy in Constanta, so we thought to spend a week in Greece and explore the Northern part which used to be called Macedonia.

Day 1 – Sofia, Bulgaria

The departing point was Bucharest, Romania and we all agreed to make a stop in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The road was quite nice and we were so lucky to have such a warm day until we got there. We passed a few people on the road that were selling seasonal fruits and vegetables but once the corner of my right eye spotted cherries my body just couldn’t resist and I pulled over to buy a kilo. πŸ˜‹

Until we got there Lavinia was so anxious about traveling abroad without insurance and booked 2 basic packages from Generali (basic because I am cheap and not once I have used them in all my travels). Keep reading – you will see a bit later why I should’ve listened and get the Premium package for €5 more.

Half an hour later and we got to the Bulgarian border – I was starting to feel tired for I had my first dose of Biotech 3 days before the departure date and was lucky to have all side effects (chills, fever, fatigue which all ended up to a continuous state of sleep deprivation). The cherries weren’t helping either for they contain a significant amount of melatonin.

We already set our expectations about a possible long queue at the border but in just half and hour we passed the border and that was just great. It was so funny when the border police office asked Andrei where are we going, he simply responded “To Bulgaria” like it wasn’t obvious enough we were passing the border. πŸ˜† 🀣 Fatigue kicking in and we were all bursting into tears over a short-moment of intense laugh.

Yee – we got in – the weather is nice, we were all happy, eager to explore and chill and most importantly, filled with cherries. Until we got to Sofia the roads were pretty awful. No wonder the speed limit is set to 90 kmh – pass that limit and you’ll get there without wheels. πŸ™ƒ

We have done a few stops at some local gas stops to get some water/sweets and coincidently or not – they all had one unisex toilet that looked exactly the same. All of them. Fast forward and we got to Sofia – the capital of Bulgaria situated at the foot of Vitosha mountain. The city’s landmarks reflect more than 2,000 years of history, including Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Soviet occupation.

We all got hungry and Andrei recommended a good place to eat in the central area where I got to taste the best quesadilla ever. Maybe I was too hungry I am evaluating based on that, but if you are ever in Sofia for a day, please try the quesadilla at Happy – you will be happy.

I was happy enough after a long day of driving and ready to crash in the AirBnB and wake up tomorrow for another day.

Day 2 – Thessaloniki, Greece

10 hours of great sleep and I am almost back on track with my sleeping habit and feel pumped and enthusiastic for what this day has to offer.

We strolled on the main commercial street (Vitosha Bulevard) which is abundant in posh stores, restaurants and bars and we stopped at Vitosha Street Bar & Dinner to enjoy an artistic breakfast.

After this extraordinary breakfast we had to decide if we should spend some time in the capital or drive to Thessaloniki. More strolling after we decided to drive to Greece and spend another night in the capital on our way back home.

The scenery was amazing and the road started to get better. On the road, we passed through miles and miles of sunflower fields and beautiful mountains. We saw countless little villages with off-white houses, with red tiles on rooftops and vegetable gardens covered with vines. The highways passing the Balkans are well maintained and the nature is blending in perfectly. We took so many pictures on the road and waiting every single time to get a cinematic view when getting out of the tunnels, but that didn’t really work out. πŸ˜‚πŸ˜…

Before getting to the Greek border, we were unlucky to be pulled over by the local police for not paying the road tax.🀬 I tried to explain to the police officers with the receipt proof I had paid it but it looks like they have a gap in the system. The road tax for “weekend” is defined as a 2-day pass starting on Fridays 12pm until Sundays 12am. We passed the border at 11:46am on Friday and paid for weekend pass ticket at the ticket machine by card and for some reason it allowed me to buy it even tough the time wasn’t right.

The officers were kind enough to lay down the penalty fee from €150 to just €35 for actually having the ticket. They told me they weren’t able to do anything because the camera caught my plate numbers on the road and they went with the cheapest solution. Next time you’re traveling to Bulgaria make sure you read all the signs!

Greek border queue at arrivals

The Greek border was insanely huge..we had to wait for about 2 hours to get in. Andrei was the only one with the complete Biotech scheme, so we had to be tested again at the border to get in the country.

I quite enjoyed the roads and the system there. Comparing to other countries, the system is created in such a clever way that you pay only on the road you are traveling on. Some routes are free, but for the most important ones you would end up paying €0.2 up to €2 per tax point (and you can pay by card as well).

We were craving for some good old fashion burger, so I have parked the car in some weird spot (everyone is doing the same there) and strolled to find a good outdoor pub to chill.

Burger in Thessaloniki

The AirBnB we booked for 5 days in Thessaloniki it was cosy and close to the city center. I made sure to make a full tank in Bulgaria. The cost for gasoline in Greece (for the time of writing) is around €1.7 per liter (which is insane) when in Bulgaria is around €1.2 per liter (that’s at least 40% increase) for just 100kms distance from the border. No wonder they struggle with the economy when the prices are so high and the locals are forced to embrace it…

We spent the afternoon chilling and strolling alongside Leof Nikis promenade and enjoyed the Thermaic Gulf breeze and waves.

Thessaloniki is easy to fall in love with – it has beauty, chaos, history and culture, a remarkable cuisine and wonderful vast sea views. This is Greece’s second city which like the rest of the country has suffered the hit of the economic crisis, but the streets remain full of life and vibrancy.

Day 3 – Kassandra Peninsula

A vibrant city starts with a vibrant brekkie. And where else to get your breakfast if not at Kitchen Bar? Haha, this sounds like an ad, but I kid you now, if you are coming in Thessaloniki, I personally recommend trying this restaurant. The food is amazing, the prices are great, the staff is super welcoming and the restaurant design is super posh and iconic.

Kitchen Bar healthy breakfast

We all decided to spend the rest of our very first day chilling at the beach in Chalkidiki area. Chalkidiki consists of a large peninsula in the northwestern Aegean Sea, resembling a hand with three ‘fingers’ (though in Greek these peninsulas are often referred to as ‘legs’). From west to east, these are Kassandra, Sithonia, and Mount Athos, a special polity within Greece known for its monasteries. These “fingers” are separated by two gulfs, the Toronean Gulf and the Singitic Gulf.

The closest “finger” from Thessaloniki was Kassandra Peninsula and agreed to go for Epanomi, a city situated 25km away from Thessaloniki.

There was an imposing shipwreck also known as the “shipwreck of Epanomi”, sank in the winter of 1970 during the dictatorship. It was carrying out soil in order to “pinch” a unique habitat of natural beauty, where hundreds of species of fauna grow as well as about 2,500 flowers and plants. All of this was ready to be sacrificed in order to create arable land. Residents of the area say that Agios Antonios (St. Antonios) saved the habitat. Without anyone knowing the reason, the ship was abandoned by the company that had undertook the project, it rusted and sank and this happened on the day of the feast of Agios Antonios. The ship has been in the same place ever since. 

Fast forward to the afternoon, we came back to Thessaloniki starving and stopped to get a quick Greek-style bite at one of the famous gyros-shops in the city center – absolutely delicious and cheap (€4). I struggled for 10-15 minutes to find a good free place to park and I ended up getting one at hotel for €2/h. For the first time in my life I felt great that the valet actually took the keys and parked the car for me like I was living in some posh villas in a posh neighborhood haha. Bear in mind the actual parking prices in the city center are not cheap (about €4/h) – try to loop around first to get a cheap spot or try to find a place to pay around €2/h (the cheapest I found was €1/h but it was way outside the city centre).

Strolled to explore other areas in Thessaloniki in the West side, chilled with some ice-creams and boated in the evening on some drinks and explored the Thermaic Gulf.

Day 4 – Ouranopoli, Greece

It’s Monday morning, the weather it’s super nice although they announced rain for the past 2 days but it didn’t rain yet, we are ready to see the top sights of Thessaloniki and the Byzantine walls. But before that, I needed a haircut because I couldn’t be bothered getting one in Bucharest and wanted to try a new experience by actually getting one in Greece πŸ™‚ I paid a good bargain and was pleased enough with a fresh haircut.

Iconic Sights from the Acropolis Walls in Thessaloniki

From the shore I tried to challenge myself and get to Acropolis Walls without using Waze but 10 mins in the traffic and so so many one-way roads and complicated crossroads, I decided to let Waze do what it’s doing best – find the shortest path to the Byzantine walls. πŸ˜‚ I could’ve saved 10 mins from actually doing that from the beginning, but where’s the fun in that? 🧐

We then descended back to the living and got lost in Modiano market, the largest historic enclosed market of the city. There was a new vegetarian restaurant opening that morning and I got so excited to queue up and even got a free spinach rice when at the counter saying that everything is free in the first day! Damn lucky! πŸ€‘

We strolled the streets with our bellies full, but even if you think you are full, there is still some room for ice-cream. At each corner you will find an ice-cream shop or frozen sweats shop whispering to your ear to come and taste’em. πŸ˜‹

Dinner was served at the same great place – Kitchen Bar.

Dinner at Kitchen Bar

Day 5 – Uranopolis & Nea Roda

Tuesday already and they announced again rain all day – but that won’t stop up from going to Mount Athos. Last night we did some research and planned to get a boat from Ouranopoli to Mount Athos. The trip costs €20 but if you book it online you might get 10-15% discount. We needed some energy to go for a 2h ride from Thessaloniki and had a light breakfast at Kitchen Bar (can’t get enough of it).

The trip was super exciting – amazing beautiful landscapes on both sides the sea and the mountains were blending in gracefully. A good part of the road passed through the mountain and there are lots of serpentines that you will need to be careful (especially when it’s raining). There was a moment when the car slightly slipped into a curve, so try to be very careful when actually shifting gears and accelerate.

Once we reached the Ouranopoli port, we found out the trip at 2pm was cancelled due to rainy weather and lack of tourists in the area and there was only one departure daily leaving the docks at 10am. If you ever plan to get a boat trip, call the company beforehand and ask for daily departures.

We spent the afternoon visiting the beach and the Byzantine tower and got our feet wet into the water. Got some lovely pasta and lamb at a Greek restaurant in the area where a super nice Romanian waiter introduced to us, we exchanged some experiences and had a really good time. It’s super nice to see how cultures in general tend to be so close when abroad – I think people actually need to have something in common – being abroad and meeting new people speaking your mother language gets you and the other person closer instantly in an invisible way.

It really wasn’t that bad we missed the cruise because we planned to stay in Nea Roda (a village 5 kms away from Ouranopoli) for the night and check out the area. There were lots of AirBnBs available 10 meters to the beach for just about €40 – €50. Lucky for us, when we got there, the flat we booked for €40 had some issues with the toilet and the manager upgraded our room for free – and that included a sea view. 🌊

Byzantine Tower in Ouranopoli, Greece

Got super tired once I got in the room and had to take a quick nap for about an hour. The evening was just amazing there – the weather wasn’t too warm, the improvised dock was just lovely and there was a hill which we decided to walk to explore the views from the top. All the way we walked there was a specific smell we debated and couldn’t figure it out were was coming from. Tried getting a whiff from different plants on the road, but in the end I think it was a mix of all plants that actually generated that amazing scent.

At the top of the hill we were fascinated of what we actually found. There was an entire abandoned neighborhood which had about 30 villas, about 70-80% of them being completed. They all looked consistent and the design was traditional Greek with tiles surrounding the houses in different styles. We asked around and found out the project commenced in 2002 and the construction stopped with the economic crisis in 2008. Some of the villas where sold, but the majority of them are now owned by the bank. The only way the project can be reinstated now would be for someone to buy the whole project from the bank. As far as I heard, the bank wasn’t looking to sell the villas individually. πŸ€·β€β™‚οΈ

Found half tail-less snake on the road and that really should have been a sign for us to stay away. 100m after and a pack of stray dogs were starting to come for us and we had to slowly move backwards without leaving any trace of fear. 😱

We got a light dinner at a local restaurant and found my favourite wine (Kindzmarauli) from my last trip in Georgia at a small store nearby. I was rarely looking for it at home, but every single time I found a provider, it was always out of stock.

Before getting in and open up the wine, I needed some ibuprofen from a pharmacy to ease some of my headaches and it was such a pleasant surprise the pharmacist was actually speaking Romanian to us and guess what? She was Greek and studied Pharmacy in Cluj, Romania and learned Romanian in just 9 months 40 years ago. Since then she moved back to Greece, opened up the local pharmacy and only spoken Romanian with the tourists during summer time. I could detect some accent in her tone but I was’t able to make a difference between a native Romanian speaker living abroad and speaking a different language for so many years and her (a Greek who learned and spoke Romanian for a short period of time and then practice it during summers).

Day 6 – Mount Athos Cruise

It was so good we’ve remember to set an alarm to wake us. Otherwise, we would’ve missed the Athos cruise again haha. I managed to wake up at sunrise (not sure how) and the view from the balcony was just amazing. Lavinia couldn’t checkout the room without re-making the towel swans, but that morning we were ready for the cruise.

The cruise around Athos takes approximately three and a half hours. Boats get very crowded, so try and arrive thirty minutes before departure. You have a better view of the monasteries if you are sitting on the upper deck or at the front of the boat.

Mount Athos is the largest monastic community in Europe and the oldest in the world. The second largest is Meteora, which sits a couple of hundred miles away from here in Kalambaka. There are 20 monasteries, and more than 2000 monks based in Mount Athos. A monastic community has existed here since the 9th century and the monks that reside here today still live a very traditional life. They follow practices just like previous generations of Monks would have done several centuries ago. 

Day 7 – Pella & Edessa Waterfalls

Our last day in Greece just came and I honestly wasn’t looking forward to it. But those things happen and I learned over time to be a bit distant to a new place so I won’t get too affected when I would have to leave.

Went to do our PCR tests and got some breakfast to-go to get the most of the last day. For the last day, we planned to go visit Pella and Edessa.

Our first stop, Pella is an ancient city located in Central Macedonia, Greece, best known as the historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon and birthplace of Alexander the Great. On site of the ancient city, we visited the Archaeological Museum of Pella and spent the whole morning there.

At lunch time, we arrived to Edessa and delved into the beautiful natural park. The falls are a natural phenomenon that arose after a strong earthquake that struck the surrounding area in the 14th century. Since then, many changes have taken place in their morphology due to earthquakes of smaller scale.

The waterfalls were magnificent. It was really stunning to watch the water falling so fast. However, about the cave behind the waterfall, I don’t think it is worth the visit. It is very small and should be free. Although the ticket costs only €1 it is still expensive compared to what you see.

On our way back home, there were miles of fruit trees (apricots, cherries, olives and many more) that were literally falling to the ground because they had so many fruits which weren’t harvested. I took the liberty to pullover and got some cherries in the wine bag I got in backseat and we all enjoyed the wonderful cherries. I never tasted such great juicy cherries as I have done in Edessa.

P.S. I took the cherries that were falling after the fence – so you can’t call that stealing, right?

Fast forward to the evening and we are back to the top of the Byzantine Walls once again for the last time in our trip to sink into the beautiful sunset. The different neighborhoods are little worlds unto themselves, and when you climb up to the Byzantine walls and take in the whole of Thessaloniki at sunset, you see what a sprawling, organic city it is. Old and new cohabit wonderfully: the Arch of Galerius, an intricate 4th-century monument, overlooks the busy shopping drag of Egnatia, while Thessaloniki’s most famous sight, the White Tower, anchors a waterfront packed with cocktail bars. The revamped waterfront area breathes life and is great for walking and cycling. By night, the city reverberates with music and nightlife.

Iconic sunset on top of the Byzantine walls

For the last dinner in Greece we chose to eat in a local pop’s restaurant owned by a beautiful elderly couple who managed to keep the books of the small restaurant business and at the same time, prepare this wonderful mouth-watering plates.

Day 8 – Sofia, Bulgaria

Time flies fast when you are having a good time. Early this morning we packed our bags and went for a last walk to the nearest outlet mall to get something for breakfast and also get something for the road.

We were all surprised when the door bell rang the AirBnB host came bearing gifts for the road. This was the sweetest gesture any AirBnB host would do for me. When my flats will be ready for rental, I will do that same to return the favor.

2 hours later and we are queueing up. Ah, not again 😩

Long queue at the Greek-Bulgarian border

A few more hours and we are back to Sofia craving for some hot slow food. We all got excited with the long list of traditional appetizers so we spread them out in a tapas-way and tasted from each other. πŸ˜‹ The cold yogurt soup was delightful, the traditional ratatouille and the aubergine with cheese in tomato were nice as well and the three types of cheese were basically the same πŸ˜‚