Meteora and Thessaloniki 5 days itinerary

This is a long overdue post but here is a recap of our Greece holiday over the late May bank holiday weekend.
 
“If we only have 1 euro left in our pocket, we rather go out and spend it with friends than stay at home and feel sorry for ourselves”. This was the motto of one guy we met during our five day stay. And this was seemingly apparent as we walked around the streets of Thessaloniki and Kalambaka. Restaurants and bars were filled to the brim every day and night. Shops were closed for 3 out of 5 days we were there. It makes you wonder, how do the locals make money?
 
Day 1 – Flying from London to Thessaloniki
 

We arrived at Thessaloniki late in the evening and crashed at Hotel Atlantis. It was a small and basic room but it was 15 minutes walk from the train station where we would take the train to Kalambaka early the next morning. We were surprised that a number of cafes and restaurants were still open at 11pm. We couldn’t resist and bought a ‘pastry with cheese’. It was disappointing that the pastry was literally 200 grams of feta cheese wrapped in several layers of filo pastry.

 
Tip: All the websites we looked at say to take bus 78 from Thessaloniki airport to town. Bus 78 didn’t exist! Take bus X1 during daytime and N1 during nighttime.
 
Day 2 – Travelling from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka
 
Our impressions of filo pastry were redeemed when we bought a leek filo pastry pie for breakfast from the train station.
 

 
The train journey takes about 3 hours but there was no direct train from Thessaloniki to Kalambaka. We had to change at Paleofornos station which felt like a deserted station in the middle of nowhere. The train guard doubles up as a mechanic as we saw him running across the track with some tools to connect the train carts. All signs were in Greek and the departure boards were not working. As we talked to a local later, we learned that train stations were running out of cash, perhaps that’s why they don’t bother turning on the departure boards to save money. Luckily, most locals were very friendly and proactively asked us if we needed help when we looked slightly lost or were simply consulting a map.
 
Paleofornos train station where we interchanged for a train to Kalambaka.
We arrived at Monastiri Guest House where our room had an amazing view of Meteora. The owner was very friendly and even gave us a ride into town even though it was only 10 minutes’ walk away. We didn’t utilise the outdoor swimming pool but it looked very relaxing.
 
Lunch was at Meteora Restaurant where we had an excellent spinach, strawberry and sesame seed salad. It was so tasty that we later tried to recreate it at home.
 
We joined a sunset tour in the afternoon where we checked out St Stephen’s Monastery.
 
Dinner was at Yamas Taverna where we had typical Greek food such as calamari, stuffed peppers and chicken souvlaki.
 
Day 3 – Hiking in Meteora (means ‘floating in air’)
 

This was the one thing we absolutely wanted to do prior to visiting Meteora and it was definitely the highlight of this trip. As the weather forecast predicted rain, we were very lucky that it was actually sunny on the morning of the hike. The hike lasted for around 4.5 hours on gentle terrain. Apparently every rock has its own name based on their shape or physical characteristics. The Great Meteoron Monastery was very impressive especially when we learned that it took 100 years to build and 7 years just to bring the materials up to the mountain. We saw many caves; the story goes that hermits who lived in caves had to rely on locals for help as their muscles atrophied over time.

In the afternoon, we took a bus back to Thessaloniki which lasted approximately 2.5 hours. Dinner was at Frutti di Mare where we had the most delicious shrimp wrapped and fried in potatoes. Portions were generous and they gave us some very strong liquor after our meal free of charge.

Thessaloniki accommodation: Grey Studios. Great place with a simple Scandi decor. The owners seem to be interior designers.

 

Day 4 – Walking around Thessaloniki city

Woke up at 11am! We had breakfast at Estrella, a cafe with dishes like 64 degrees eggs and vibes that make you think you could be in Shoreditch, London.

There was not many ‘must see’ sights in Thessaloniki so we simply walked around town, ate ice cream, and walked along the seafront where we watched the sunset. For dinner, we tried Crete food for the first time at a restaurant called Charoupi. The taste was similar to Mediterranean style. Portions were large and we had the dessert on the house again. In general, we find that desserts are always complementary and service charge is not included in the bill.

It was quite relaxing to walk along the promenade in Thessaloniki and watch the sunset.
We walked up to Ano Poli, Thessaloniki’s old town. Great views!

Day 5 – Thessaloniki

This day happened to be Whit Monday, a public holiday so nearly all shops were closed. Our favourite discovery of the day was a tahini cannoli from Ergon, a cafe/deli/shop. We loved it so much that we brought some back for the office. It was only a few months later that we discovered, to our delight, that there is actually an Ergon in London!

Shortly after we took this photo, somebody dropped the remaining half of this baklava on the ground before the other had a chance to try it!
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Day trip from London to Whitstable

For the first May Bank holiday weekend, we had a staycation instead and went to Whitstable, a small seaside town about 1.5 hours train from London Victoria. Our first impression was that this is a very ‘white’ town with few international tourists. As you walk down the main street, there are loads of bars, charity shops and some independent shops. As it was around the time of the Royal wedding, there were all sorts of Harry and Meghan bunting and memorabilia.

This pub had some live music, making for a lively atmosphere.

It was a sunny day so we spent it walking by the seaside, where many families and kids played on the rock ‘beach’ while seagulls flew about.

We walked back and forth and back and forth until we decided The Forge was the seafood shack worthy of our stomach space and money. Naturally there was a queue – we queued for about 15 minutes and ordered half a dozen oysters and then sat at their outdoor tables to enjoy them.

Then we had coffee at Blueprint Coffee, a cute artisan cafe that sources their coffee beans from Ozone Roastery in London. It came with London prices but we loved it nonetheless, especially the banana bread which had a nice caramelised crunch to it.

Dinner was at Birdies restaurant, a French bistro with red checkered table cloths where we had a delicious lobster bisque and some tasty seafood. Definitely make a reservation as we saw guests being turned away.

All in all, Whitstable is a nice day out from London once you’ve exhausted the other towns like Oxford, Cambridge and Bath. We will be back though, as we spotted some pretty and one-of-a-kind furniture by independent artists.

Sardinia: Part 2 – Pula

The next part of our Sardinian journey began with a nervous start.  In an unfamiliar car rented from downtown Cagliari, we joined the busy flow of traffic out of the capital and stalled several times. Drivers shouted in Italian (who could blame them?). Cars zoomed past. After several times of stalling and getting out of the way of many of some who were in much more of a hurry, we  escaped the chaos and complete the more tranquil 40km stretch to the town of Pula. Sharon insists that next time we will get an automatic.

Pula was a small town and had a feeling that people worried less and had a more carefree attitude to life. Residents watched football on a large TV placed in the town centre, ate home-made gelato well into the night and lazed on the beach, filling in crosswords for hours on end.

Our accommodation ‘Cosy Sunflowers’ was spacious and cosy. Our host had plenty of heart and hospitality; he even provided a local mobile phone with data allowance to use. We think we were staying in his house as we could see many shirts and he regularly walked back to the direction of his Aunt’s when he visited us. We were too shy to ask just in case he was!

The things we enjoyed in Pula most were:

After spending a windy day at one stretch of the Chia beach, we discovered the Campana beach which was more sheltered from the wind.

1. Chia Beach
We enjoyed bringing our beach gear to this glorious beach. We loved this beach so much that we went there two days in a row. There are a few beaches in this area but they are largely next to each other along the same stretch of coast. The warm sun dried our bodies as we swam in the ocean, enjoyed our dried fruit and bananas (for digestion), sunbathed and napped among the fine sand all throughout the day. We were aware that the beach could get quite windy at times, so we would highly recommend taking a beach umbrella. If you’re unfamiliar with setting up a beach umbrella like us amateurs, eventually some friendly Italian will help you out.

2. Hanging around the town centre
We loved the gelaterias serving olive oil based ice cream and browsing the stylish shoes on offer (wish we could have bought a pair). It was enjoyable to have dinner in the square and listen to the sounds of people enjoying their evenings.

3. Home cooked meal by our hosts’ aunt

Our host provided a home cooked meal for us to have at home. It was a splendid arrangement of fish, pasta and a limited amount of vegetables (potatoes) The portions were huge (as you might expect from Italian hospitality) and our host’s aunt took huge pleasure from us devouring her food.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the south of Sardinia and left with many fond memories to treasure. The most memorable moment of all was that after the best day at the beach, Jason decided to propose when Sharon was nearly asleep. “Let me get my glasses so I can read this card.” Come again?

Chia beach and Pula will always hold a special place in our hearts because it is the place where we got engaged. Next time, a visit to the North?

Breakfast tasted extra sweet the next morning!

Sardinia: Part 1 – Cagliari

We flew into Sardinia via Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. The city itself was not too big; many sights are within walking distance other than the Poetto beach and Park of Molentargius. In our view, the sights itself were not as impressive as ones you may find in other major Italian cities but we checked them out anyway given that we spent 3 nights in the capital. In hindsight, probably 2 days in Cagliari would have been sufficient.

The highlight of Cagliari was definitely the food which we found to be different from other parts of Italy. Here are a few which we highly recommend:

Clockwise from top: fregola with mussels and clams; Durke which sells the tastiest amaretti biscuits; one of the many seafood dishes in Martinelli’s; squid ink pasta at Sa Picchetara.

  1. Ristorante Martinelli’s – We came here for our first evening. Good thing we booked as we could tell many people were being turned away on the night! On the recommendation of the waitress, we ordered the seafood platter under the Appetisers section of the menu. The seafood included salmon, tuna, swordfish, prawns, octopus, squid and much more. Who knew that the texture of fresh octopus actually tasted closer to fish? We were absolutely blown away by the taste, humongous portion and affordable price (our bill for two came to approximately £40).
  2. Sa Picchetara – This restaurant was slightly further out from the centre but we walked there nonetheless. Here, we had some tasty pasta with fresh tomato and prawns, as well as spaghetti de nero seppia (squid ink) with claims and bottarga. It was the first time that we tried bottarga – salted and cured fish roe, usually from grey mullet or bluefin tuna. I had no idea what the bottarga we ate came from but I prayed that I wasn’t contributing to the extinction of bluefin tuna! Bottarga may sound unappetising but we enjoyed it and even brought back some for cooking at home.
  3. Amaretti biscuits – These biscuits made of almond and sugar are typical Sardinian treats you could find in many cafes but our absolute favourite was from a tiny family-run shop called Durke on Via Napoli 66, which were so fresh and chewy. We only wish we brought back more!
  4. Fregola with mussels and clams – This is a traditional pasta dish you will find in many restaurants in the city but we first tried this in Kasteddu for lunch. Fregola is a pasta shaped like tiny balls and they tend to tuck into the crevices of the mussel and clam shells. We liked that the pasta was cooked in a light stock-based sauce with fresh seafood so you don’t feel too heavy after the meal. In fact, we found that most pasta dishes in this city weren’t loaded with cheese which is quite nice for a change.
  5. Toyo Sushi – At first instance, it seems strange to have Japanese food in Sardinia but the seafood was so fresh which makes very tasty sushi and sashimi.

Clockwise from top left: Antico Caffee has been around since 1855, a great place to take a coffee and patisserie; the main street next to the wharf is bustling all the time with market stalls; snapped this photo while we were cycling along the promenade; Bastione di Saint Remy where we watched a sunset.

Other than the food, we joined a cycle tour with New Way Sardinia which took us out to the places we couldn’t see on foot. We lucked out because it ended up to be a private tour! We were keen to see the Park of Molentargius because it was apparently a breeding ground for flamingos. The best time to see the flamingos is during spring when as much as 20,000 flamingos could be seen in the park’s grounds. Unfortunately, on the day we went in early/mid September, we could only see a few flamingos, and one flamingo in particular was quite close but rather grey than pink. Our guide told us that grey means that the flamingo is young. Following the park, we cycled onto Poetto beach which was the closest beach to the city. It was rather windy on the day so we didn’t swim but we could imagine it would be very busy during summer.

Back in the city one evening, we watched the sunset at the top of Bastione di Saint Remy, a perfect end to the day!

Loire Valley by Public Transport

Cycling in the Loire Valley was one of those things that we’ve always wanted to do and on this year’s bank holiday weekend, we nearly did it. If it wasn’t for the 33°C heatwave.

Tours

Tours was an excellent base as the train station is well served by trains to many cities in the Loire Valley. It was also one of the busier towns with more things happening. We stumbled upon a few delicious places including QG Restaurant Artisanal (this was our favourite), Dagobert (for alfresco dining side by side Parisian style), Bar Les Trois Ecritories (for its salmon tartare and escargots), and Smaak (for an excellent salad after you get tired of eating all the meat).

The Les Halles market at Place Gaston-Pailhou is a feast for the eyes. Great place to purchase fresh seafood, meat, cheese, bread and fruits if you are in a Airbnb accommodation. We bought some delicious cheese and saucisson there to bring back home.

Not too many of those hip cafes you would normally find in London except Le Petit Atelier – we really missed our daily coffee whilst in France! However, there were loads of bakeries around (Honoré Le Boulanger on Rue Nationale did not disappoint!) and we had our fair share of pain au chocolat every day.

Honore Le Boulanger

Visiting Amboise and Chenonceau

Picnic by the Loire

Visit Amboise on Sunday because it hosts the regional market where you will find everything from cheese, bread, meat, fruits to clothing and shoes. We bought some fresh tomatoes, bread, goat cheese and took a picnic by the Loire. Ah, bliss. We then walked around Amboise’s centre which is made of two main streets.

Normally you could get a bus from Amboise to Chenonceau during the summer months but the bus does not run on Sundays. We went to the Amboise tourist office and asked them to order a taxi for us – thankfully most staff in tourist office and attraction sites spoke English. The taxi ride cost us £37 and about 20 mins to get to Château de Chenonceau. It was worth the ride; otherwise, we would’ve had to train back to Tours and take another train back to Chenonceau.

Château de Chenonceau is indeed as beautiful as the postcards. It has some interesting history having once served as safe passage for refugees and a hospital during WW1. The exhibition also shows the influences we may not have recognised from the various wives, mistresses and aristocrats had on its architectural transformation to date.

Visiting Blois and Chambord

Exploring Chateau de Chambord

The other chateau on our list was Château de Chambord. Our original plan was to train from Tours to Blois, then rent a bike and cycle to Chambord. As we were on the verge of a heatstroke, we took the Navette 41 shuttle bus for 6 euros return. Note the bus schedule is infrequent with only two bus on the day that we were there. Check this website for the bus schedule. Technically we could’ve taken the same bus to visit Cheverny that same afternoon but we headed back to Blois instead. Other than the Royal Château de Blois, the town was unfortunately rather underwhelming. The main street was full of old and dusty shops which were mostly closed or shut down. One even appeared to have a signed that said it was closed as of 2004.

If we had more time, we would have…

  • Spent longer in the Loire Valley – we didn’t realise the grounds of the castles were so large that you could spend half a day visiting just one castle.
  • Tried some kayaking along the Loire river starting from Amboise with the option of camping among one of the many secret islands. Check Loire Aventure for details.
  • Took the Eurostar instead of a flight because it would mean we could’ve carried a few bottles of nice Vouvray wine!