Traveling around mainland Greece was a big change from our time spent in the Greek isles. I must say, I found it quite refreshing to finally be in a real Greek city, surrounded by Greeks, not foreign tourists.
I’m pretty sure we were the only foreigners on the bus from Athens to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city – quite a contrast compared with the previous few days, which we had spent first in Santorini and then in Mykonos, two islands completely given over to tourism and catering to holidaymakers.
Thessaloniki is very much a modern metropolis with plenty of less-than-inspiring concrete apartment blocks. Centuries ago, however, it was the second most important city in the Byzantine empire after Constantinople, and vestiges of its ancient Roman and Byzantine past still dominate the city’s skyline.
Indeed, the White Tower and the remains of the Palace of Emperor Galerius are two of the largest and most prominent buildings in the city. I found this mixture of ancient and modern fascinating.
At the bus station in Athens, while waiting for our bus to Thessaloniki, I decided to try a snack food that I had seen many times in Greece and was rather curious about. It’s called koulouria, and it’s sort of like a large, soft pretzel, except that it’s covered in sesame seeds rather than salt and has a simple round shape. Also, it’s not as soft as a soft pretzel.
It doesn’t really have that much flavour, but it somehow grew on me with every bite, and by the time I finished it I decided that it was definitely worth adding to my breakfast/snack repertoire. If you ever need a quick pick-me-up in Greece, they are sold on just about every street corner at little stands called “koulourades”. While you will also find filled varieties containing everything from tahini or halva (vegan!) to ham and cheese (umm, not vegan), the traditional, plain ones should be vegan. I did come across some recipes on the Internet that call for honey though.
We spent most of the day on the bus, which made a half-hour lunch stop at a gas station and attached restaurant on the side of the highway. I had stocked up on snacks and was prepared to make do with those, but that turned out not to be necessary. The restaurant had ready-made sandwiches and pies to take away but also included a cafeteria-style section with a few pre-made hot dishes. Among these was fasolakia, the green beans in tomato sauce that I had tried at Taverna To Steki, our favourite restaurant in Chania. I chose this along with a simple salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.
Did it rate among my best meals in Greece? Of course not. It came from a cafeteria at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. But even so, it was still pretty good, and I was immensely grateful to have such healthy options available to me in such a situation. I have taken many similar bus journeys in the U.S., where I counted myself lucky if I had the luxury of choosing between McDonald’s and Burger King.
That night in Thessaloniki we encountered our first restaurant in Greece that did not have an English menu, or an English sign for that matter – a place called Nea Folia. Now don’t let this scare you; I’m sure there are plenty of restaurants in the city that DO have English menus, but we liked the look of this place and decided to stay and muddle our way through, as we were enjoying the experience of being immersed in real Greek culture. In the end it was no problem, as the server was quite helpful and basically translated the whole menu for us, explaining which items were nistisimo and which ones could be easily adapted.
There was one meze dish I had not seen before: melitzanokeftedes. These are somewhat similar to the tomato balls that had become a staple in our diet, except that they are made with eggplant rather than tomatoes.
Actually, I didn’t think the eggplant flavour was particularly dominant. I could definitely see chunks of eggplant in the fritters, along with bits of onion and parsley, but more than anything I just tasted the fried dough. I don’t mean that in a bad way though; they reminded me of, hushpuppies, the cornbread balls often served in seafood restaurants in the U.S. In addition to the melitzanokeftedes, I also had grilled mushrooms, which were incredibly flavourful and delicious.
Pretty much every day we spent in Greece was filled with culinary delights, but our second day in Thessaloniki was one of the best. At lunchtime we headed out in search of a restaurant listed in Lonely Planet that sounded appealing, but when we found it we were disappointed to see that it was closed. So, we wandered aimlessly for a little while until we stumbled on this gem, one of our best finds on the whole trip.
It’s called Tsipouromperdemata To Rakomelo, but again, there’s no English sign here, so just look for a picture of a rooster. It’s a tiny little family-run tavern with pictures of rembetika musicians covering the walls, and there is room for just five tables in the whole restaurant. The couple who runs the place have limited English but unlimited warmth, hospitality and willingness to help. They went through the menu with us, explaining which dishes were both nistisimo and free of seafood, and it turned out there were quite a few.
In the end, they offered to make me a special nistisimo meze platter, to which I readily agreed. What I got was a plate stacked to high heaven with as many delicious vegan morsels as you could possibly imagine.
Fried zucchini, eggplant and peppers, two different kinds of salad, dolmadhes, and the crowning glory – zucchini balls! Though I had already tasted melitzanokeftedes (eggplant fritters) and tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters), this particular version of keftedes had thus far eluded me. Every time I had seen it on a menu it had turned out to contain eggs or cheese, or both. But this time I finally tasted them, and let me tell you, they were worth the wait. They were way better than the doughy melitzanokeftdes from the night before, and even better than the tomatokeftedes we had ordered so many times in the Greek islands. These were sooo soft and creamy on the inside. Oh, and do you want to guess how much this feast cost? A whopping four euros!! It was by far the cheapest restaurant meal of our trip.
Nick ordered the “eggplant Constantinople”, mostly out of curiosity and because he has a particular love for that city. Despite the fancy name, it looked and tasted just like the usual melitzanosalata that we first tried in Santorini, which was not at all a bad thing.
Just a couple doors down from the restaurant is I Dorkada bakery. When we stopped in they had three nistisimo offerings: kataifi, baklava and fogera (these likely contain honey though). We sampled the baklava (left) and the kataifi (right), both sticky sweet.
I guess we were feeling a little nostalgic for the Greek isles after all, because for dinner we headed to a Cretan restaurant called Myrsini. The service here was superb; two different waitresses came over and carefully translated all the daily specials for us. I could tell that the one who eventually took our order really wanted to make sure that we had a good experience there, so she helped us tweek our order until we got it just right. We ended up with a mixed plate of fried dumplings, half made with herbs (for me) and the other half with cheese (for Nick).
They were described as dumplings on the menu, but as you can see in the photo they were more like little pies. In any case, they were yummy, but the waitress was right to advise us to share the mixed plate, as one plate each would have been too much. As my main I had a dish of cauliflower and potatoes in tomato sauce, cooked in typical Greek fashion.
This was one of the daily specials, but there were also plenty of vegan options on the regular menu. At the end of our meal the waitress brought out complimentary dessert – a sure sign that we were in an authentic Cretan restaurant. What’s more, she assured me that the dessert was indeed nistisimo, though I think it probably had honey in it.
I later learned that these ribbons of fried pastry are called kserotigana and are a specialty of Chania traditionally served at weddings.
The next day at lunch time we decided to head back to Tsipouromperdemata To Rakomelo for another four euro meze platter, but when we got there we saw that it was closed (it was a Sunday afternoon). We then opted for our second choice, Nea Folia, but it was closed too. At this point, we were running out of time before we had to catch our bus to Ioannina, and I was starting to stress out a bit. After passing row upon row of closed shops with their shutters pulled tight, we came across this place.
It was a strange hybrid mix of a convenience store/coffee bar/bakery/fast-food joint, but the bakery section did have not one, but two, nistisimo options. The first was the standard spanakopita, which came in this funky spiral shape.
The second was a potato roll.
I had both, which made for a filling, if not quite gourmet, meal. It wasn’t how I had hoped to end my culinary tour of Thessaloniki, but things don’t always go according to plan, especially when travelling. And, in one of those serendipitous moments when the universe sends you a message just when you need to hear it the most, this sign was hanging on the wall in the dining area:
Wise words indeed.