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3 Weeks in Northern Greece

This 3 weeks was an extension of the 2 weeks I spent in Albania. I wanted to see new areas and revisit one previous stay. So much of northern Greece is mountainous: green, forested, with vast views, and smaller cities and towns but decent roads and an area you can do by public transportation with careful planning and time, but a car is definitely easier.

From Sarandë, Albania, I took a 35 minute ferry to Corfu, arriving in Corfu Town.
My Albania report is here.

Corfu: 5 nights, Apollon Hotel in Paleokastritsa
After getting off the ferry, it was a 5 minute or so process for immigration and entering the EU. Then I walked about 10 minutes out of the harbor area to the Green Bus stop for a 40-50 minute Bus A9 ride to Paleokastritsa, the end of the line. Plenty of taxis were available and it would have cost €50-60, I think. But I opted to wait about an hour for the €2.30 bus. Which originated in town and was fairly jam-packed when it arrived to where I was waiting. But it stopped and let me in on the bottom step by the door - my first views of Corfu for 30 minutes: doors and feet! Ha!

I had a hard time deciding where to stay on Corfu, without a car. I opted for this hotel because it is ON a beautiful beach - no stairs, hills, or long walks. There were a few restaurants available and bus service. While I had options for things to do, it turned out to be so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave. There’s a little 45 minute boat tour that takes you around the nearby coastline and into some caves, which was so enjoyable I went 2 days in a row (and they didn’t charge me the 2nd time). Webcam of the beach here. I did one long day trip (arranged by the hotel) to Paxos and Antipaxos, with van pickup at and delivery back to the hotel.

Ioannina: 2 nights, Hotel Dioni
Heading to the mainland, it seemed like time for another travel adventure. This one was made up of bus Paleokastritsa to Corfu, 1.5 hr ferry Corfu to Igoumenitsa, then 1.5 hr bus to Ioannina, and taxi to hotel. I left about an hour between each leg and surprise, it all worked! I wasn’t sure whether the bus in Igoumenitsa would be running on a Sunday (the internet had conflicting opinions) but it did and was right on time. It took all day but wasn’t hard or the least bit uncomfortable.

This hotel was fine, had free parking, nice staff, and was about what I had expected. But the area seemed oddly deserted even though it was fairly central. I probably wouldn’t send someone here - it was serviceable but nondescript.

However, Ioannina itself was a delightful surprise! The waterfront along the lake, with boat rides and an island, is pretty and there was such a vibrant cafe scene that erupted around 8:00pm. Walk the same street at 7:45 and again at 8:30 and you wouldn’t believe it was the same place. There is a castle: basically it is the remaining walls of the castle but inside are homes, hotels, apartments, restaurants - a living castle. This is where I would opt to stay on a return trip.

Car Rental: In Ioannina, I rented a car for a week from Red Fox Car Rental, https://redfoxcarrental.gr/en, a strictly local small company. My initial plan called for picking a car up in Ioannina and dropping off in Thessaloniki and I went so far as to make a reservation through AutoUnion, which feels just like AutoEurope (which had no options for my trip). However the cost, with one way drop off fee, was going to be twice as much as the round trip local rental (plus $28 bus Ioannina to Thessaloniki instead of driving).

This was another delightful experience: I had a great new car, discussed local tourism issues and Greek life with the owner, and although it was business-like, it was a very relaxed rental.

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Perama Cave: set in the mountains just north of the lake and city, this was an interesting hour tour through the cave - about a kilometer of walking. While it doesn’t compare to the scope of caves like Carlsbad or Mammoth, what was interesting was the proximity of the formations. The path and stairs through sometimes walked a tight squeeze between stalactites and a real duck under stalagmites - and places where you almost needed to use them for handrails.Then it was a 2 hour drive on to Kastraki.

Kastraki: 5 nights, Boutique Guesthouse Plakias
My friend and I stayed here for 3 nights in 2021 to see Meteora; and I knew at that time I would be back. For me, this is a very peaceful, relaxing, and welcoming place. It’s not just me - when I wrote my online review, I read reviews from a number of other 2023 travelers and they all sounded just like me.

The guesthouse was re-done, renamed, and updated in 2022, so it is very nice; but it is not a luxury stay - it is a welcoming, homey stay. It is third generation family owned and the staff works there consistently over the years. The energy comes from the adjacent Taverna Gardenia (just a restaurant) serving plain but delicious Greek traditional food, owned by the same family. I ended up eating here every night - something different each time and it was all good.

While staying here, I spent:

  • most of 2 days visiting the monasteries, seeing 2 I had not previously seen;
  • a day driving further south to see the Arched Bridge of Portaikos River at Pyli; the Holy Church of Porta Panagia - a Greek Orthodox Church from the 13th century; and wandered through Trikala (the riverfront in particular);
  • and a 2 1/2 hr drive to the Polycentric Museum of Aigai and the Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aigai - both in the small, sleepy town of Vergina. This was fascinating. This area was the burial site for many Macedonian royalty; but like many other countries and sites, contents were found and taken over the years. However in 1977 2 tombs were discovered unopened and undisturbed. It was determined one tomb belonged to Prince Phillip II (Alexander the Great’s father) and one most likely Alexander’s son who died fairly young. All contents remained here in the museums. A museum was built over the tombs, leaving them in place, and you walk right up to the front entrance of each (but not inside).

There are other sites nearby Vergina that were not open the day I visited. This would actually be easier to visit from Thessaloniki, but my timing wasn’t going to allow that. The town of Vergina also appealed to me.

Monodendri: 2 nights, Matsavos Guesthouse
Monodendri is one of 46 Zagori villages in the Pindus Mountains surrounding Vikos Gorge (900m deep & 1,100m rim to rim). I probably needed an additional night here. I spent one day walking & seeing the gorge and area from different viewpoints. This would be a great place for hikers - you can hike down into the gorge and all around. I love old arched stone bridges and with an extra day, I would have driven around seeing many of them - they were built as connections between the small villages which for many years were mostly isolated from each other.

I chose Monodendri based on TA suggestions. It’s about a 1.5 hr drive from Ioannina and there’s a bus service at least once a week. There are a number of other villages you could stay in - but I was close to two great viewpoints that were easy walking. It is high up the mountain switchback road, but not many “on the edge” drop offs (which works far better for me!). It has beautiful white stone buildings, some old and some fairly new but built to match the old ones - some seeming to hang off the cliff. While there were tourists, I didn’t encounter any from the U.S. Matsavos Guesthouse has a touch of a hunting lodge look inside quite comfortable.

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After returning to Ioannina and turning in my car, I took the 3.5 hr KTEL $28 bus to Thessaloniki. There are several per day.

Thessaloniki: 3 nights, Park Hotel
Easy but good. I tend to stay in places not quite mainstream. But this was a hotel I could bring anyone to and they would be comfortable. It had nice rooms and a nice breakfast.
There is plenty to see for the original 5 days I had planned, but the 3 I had were good (and I had to work for much of one of them).

I visited the Holy Church of Saint Demetrius; Holy Church of Hagia Sophia; the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda; & the Archeological Museum. I had intended to also get to the Vlatadon Monastery, the Latamos Monastery, and the Palace of Galerius. The Rotunda has amazing mosaics in the domed ceiling and in the arches: colorful, sparkling, and imaginative. I spent about 2 hours in the Archeological Museum, which is around my museum attention span.

Memorable eats: Kitchen Bar right on the water with great food and great views; Palati for decent food and live music on a cool square; wine at Manoir for an unexpected visual treat of an artistic square - just by turning a corner off the main street.

Side Trip to Sofia: I had 2 unplanned nights and stole a night from Thessaloniki to join a fellow forum member for a couple of interesting day trips - all prompted by the Rose Festival, which I would miss if I keep my plan for Bulgaria for fall 2024. Totally worth it! I then returned to Thessaloniki and spent my final night (picking up my suitcase I had left while in Sofia) before catching a plane to the next part of this 7 week trip.

Bus Travel: I am a bus newbie, with my only previous experience being the Alsa busses in Andalusia. This trip I rode KTEL busses Igoumenitsa to Ioannina, Ioannina to Thessaloniki; then Tourist Service busses Thessaloniki to and from Sofia (€18/each way). All four trips were on excellent and comfortable busses (more spacious than Alsa). Three of the four had USB charging ports at each seat and the busses to and from Sofia also had WiFi. Each trip made a bathroom and coffee stop about halfway. Busses ran mostly on time and it was not hard to figure out the place each bus departed from.

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I was looking into Corfu for this fall before deciding on the Azores. Hmm, maybe next year? It seems like you had an enjoyable and relaxing time, a trip that would suit us.

Thanks for this report and all your information. I’m saving it for future reference.

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TexMom, what a wonderful & useful report!! I probably never will be able to take advantage of an extensive inland journey like this, but you enable SO many to venture out ! You seem like my kinda person... happy for company, but also enjoying solo discoveries. Glad you also added details of your KTEL bus experience -- many other citizens of our car-mad nation have never used public transit and thus have ignorant stereotypes ... I've enjoyed both short & long KTEL trips, with memorable moments thru the windows, and with interesting seat-mates ... I remember barely catching a KTEL bus in Athens, without breakfast, and being charitably fed chocolates all the way to Corinth by a black-dressed saint! We managed without language, discovering we were both "Ya-yas", happily comparing family photos. Seems you likewise used your car rental to socialize... Greece is a wonderful place for "little friendships".

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Wonderful reading this, TexasTravelmom, especially as I'm considering whether to incorporate northern Greece into my future travel plans. Ioannina sounds lovely on the lake!!

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Great reading this ! I’ve been to Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Pindus mountains and Meteora. Love northern Greece and hope to explore some more in the future.

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Enjoyed this! So what did you think of Thessaloniki? I have thought of going there.

And so fun you went back to same place in Kastriki. We stayed up higher at place with fabulous view but unlike the other places we stayed in Greece, it didn’t have the intimacy of interacting with same people every day. We saw your place walking around town.

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Carol, the trick to Corfu is picking the right place to be. But someone could easily go for a week or a bit more and stay in two places. In fact, I met a lady from Ireland who was doing just that. On the drive around the island for my day trip, I saw several locations I think I would enjoy just relaxing and being there. I need to hear more about your Azores stay.

janet, thank you! And even though I was willing to experiment with the busses, I think I went in with some of those stereotypes, as well. It was a very pleasant surprise. There is so much of Greece to see and I love that phrase “little friendships”! It is exactly what happens. At one station, a young woman asked me (with no English) to watch her bags for her as we waited and she went back inside (snacks and bathroom probably). When she came back, she brought me a bottle of water as a thank you.

CW, I could see you venturing to this area some time.:)

ajlmv, isn’t it beautiful? I had no idea, really.

Beth, …… Thessaloniki - I feel like I spent my time in only half and there’s another half still to be seen. It sprawls out in a horseshoe shape following the coast, so distances are further than you might think. I never even went to a beach but saw some pretty ones while on the bus to the airport (in the half of the city I didn’t get to). One night I was along the waterfront at just the right time and it was such a cool gathering of people out strolling or gathering in the park. It’s big but even though I am not as crazy about big places, I liked it. It is relaxed. Lots of places to eat, and I might be thinking a street was a little sad when I would catch a glimpse of color, take a block detour, and find an adorable square and side street. At first glimpse, I didn’t think I was going to like it - and then I did.

Tammy, I suspect you may end up there at some point. There’s a lot of nature to see and a lot of nice people. Very different from the Pelopponese. Next up for me is 10 days in Austria with a friend in July and then in the fall a month for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro with a week in Belgrade between them (also tossing in a repeat visit to Korćula in Croatia right before that).