Last week I had my final summer adventure before starting back to work and the usual chaos of daily life. Living abroad, I try to take advantage of the close proximity to locations and travel as much as possible when I do get time off. The holiday was Kurban Bayran (in Turkish or known as Eid in Arabic), one of the most important religious holidays where families gather together and celebrate, which also means nearly everything shuts down for a few days. This time my roommate and I were heading to the Greek Islands, specifically one island, Crete- we had the time off, getting to the island was not as simple.
Crete is farther away than any other Greek island and there aren’t direct flights there from Turkey. Nearly all flights were in and out of Athens and finding that perfect flight which connected on the right day at the right price was just not happening. In order to get to Crete, the only affordable option was the totally comfortable and convenient 10 hour bus ride… Yes… 10 hours… on a bus…
The trip route was as follows: Istanbul to Thessaloniki by bus, then flying to the big island from there.
I will be completely honest here, I had absolutely no expectations for Thessaloniki. It’s very easy to get there from Turkey as the border is only about 4 hours away from Istanbul, but I didn’t do any ‘travel homework’ at all and just assumed that we would sleep there before flying to Crete. I marked it in my mind as a ‘wasted travel day’ and was just gonna grit my teeth until it was over. So… here’s the thing… I travel A LOT. I would love to say that I’m an expert and a well-seasoned vacationer, but it’s moments like these that just make me humble and feel completely connected to the poor guy from An Idiot Abroad.
I completely wrongfully pre-judged Thessaloniki. What started out being a necessary stop-over turned into a great experience and exploration of a city that I absolutely want to go back to and keep discovering.
The city is big and sprawling, sitting right on the sea and decorated with a beautiful seaside promenade. It’s clean and the sidewalks are well maintained with easy walking paths. While I wouldn’t use words like ‘beautiful or picturesque’ to describe the city, I would definitely call it ‘vibrant, lively, and compelling’. It’s very reminiscent of Athens and yet, more real than Athens, being that there weren’t many tourists other than us around and it had a very small town and local vibe although it was quite a big modern city.
We only had a half day in Thessaloniki and then a few hours at night on our return journey so we didn’t do any museums (although we did stroll past the childhood home belonging to 1st Turkish President Atatürk as we couldn’t be there and not go). There wasn’t time for anything other than walking and EATING. I have always been a firm believer that if you want to get to know a place, you have to get to know its food.
The first morning, for breakfast, we walked into a random bakery out of desperation for anything to eat and were greeted with a yogurt buffet! Next to the shelves of bread and pastries was a counter with yogurt (normal yogurt not frozen), where you could fill it up with all sort of fruits and nuts and sugary toppings. It was 3 Euro total for a yogurt and a double cappuccino.
This filled us up for several hours while we walked around and took pictures, sat down for a frappe (my new obsession…coffee milkshakes…YES, Thank You!), and mapped out how to get to the airport. While researching what bus line to take, we quickly browsed restaurant suggestions and decided to try to find the 1st place on the list.
Success! On so many levels! Restaurant=found. Hunger=ended. One of the most amazing meals of my life=consumed.
The place was Bazagiazi Restaurant, sandwiched in between two giant buildings and at the end of the general covered market area. It’s described online as a typical ‘Ouzerie’, restaurants serving ouzo-Greek anise flavored alcohol- and meze. The style of food is very much like a Turkish ‘Meyhane’ restaurant, which serves rakı-Turkish anise flavored alcohol- and meze and fish. In Turkey, this style of food is usually referred to as Aegean Style and is famous in places like Izmir and Ayvalık. It’s also one of my favorite styles of food!
There are many similarities between Greek and Turkish food as the two cultures have a strong history that intertwines. There are many famous rivalries and arguments about food specifically as to who created what or who does what better. I won’t get into the politics of the food, but I will say that I felt comfortable ordering off the menu of this restaurant because lots of it was familiar to me and either way, the restaurant was hands down amazing.
We ordered a half liter of white wine, grape leaves (dolmadakia in Greek, yaprak sarma in Turkish), tzatziki (cucumber heaven), grilled eggplant and stuffed squid. The grape leaves were fuller and fatter than I’ve had before, and they didn’t have too many spices. I don’t mean that they were bland, just fresh and without really anything besides some lemon juice on top. Everything was light and fresh, not too oily- the natural flavors of the vegetables were the stars…simple.
The stuffed squid was cry worthy. It was grilled and the skin underneath was pretty charred and crispy-then it was stuffed with feta cheese, parsley, chopped tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice. I have honestly never eaten anything like that before. Again, the flavors and ingredients were so simple…but it really had depth due to differences in texture and the creamy feta mixing with the acid from the lemon.
We left feeling totally stuffed and heading on our way to the airport. Walking to catch the bus, we passed a bakery near the main square chock full of people! Huge crowds were lined up outside and everybody who went in was coming out with beautiful turquoise colored cardboard boxes filled with goodies. The boxes looked like the ones from Tiffany’s, only instead of diamonds, filled with cake… quite possibly a twisted dream come true of mine. We went inside to check it out. It had these gorgeous braided breads (you see them at Easter usually) covered in melted chocolate. I remember saying ‘Wow these must be good, everybody is buying them”, to which my roommate said ‘Yeah too bad we are full”.
That bakery might haunt me until the end of my life.
We made it to the airport, got on the plane, sat down (still full from the stuffed squid), and proceeded to watch every other passenger get on the plane with those turquoise boxes! I am not exaggerating, every person had boxes from that mystery bakery. Every passenger was bringing one of those breads to family in Crete. I never learned the name of that bakery and I never tasted a single baked good…but I would be willing to bet it was the best bread in Thessaloniki…and I missed it!
We managed to have an amazing week in Crete before flying back to Thessaloniki and spending a few hours there before the bus home the next morning. We went back to Bazagiazi, where the waitress remembered us from the week before, and ate one last meal. We ordered grape leaves again, a Greek salad, oven baked feta (try this! Stick your feta in the oven…you will not regret it!), and fried zucchini chips. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Greece before returning home and starting work.
As I mentioned above, I want to go back to Thessaloniki as there is much more to be explored. I want to walk around the streets, actually go inside the museums, and find that bakery!