Often overlooked by tourists, the Northern Greece prefecture of Macedonia is a place of breathtaking scenery, significant historical archaeological sites and the stamping ground of Hellenic hero Alexander the Great, whose conquests changed the course of history.
Thessaloniki founded in 315 BC is Greece’s second largest city and is the ideal place to base yourself in northern Greece. It’s a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with exciting nightlife, great shopping and diverse attractions.
Numerous ruins and monuments are scattered around the city with the most imposing monument being the 16th-century Venetian circular White Tower, built in the time of Ottoman Empire as part of the city’s defences.
The ancient city of Pella lies 40km from Thessaloniki and was the birthplace of Alexander the Great in 365BC.
At the age of 20 Alexander left Pella never to return (death 333BC at age 32) and went on to conquer much of what was then the civilized world including what are now, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
With the conquests of Alexander the Great new opportunities opened up in the Eastern Mediterranean and settlements were either founded or influenced by Greek culture from Egypt and Syria all the way to India and the foothills of the Himalayas.
The profound result of his feats was the spread of the Hellenic culture which opened up a super highway for people in his empire to trade, share customs, philosophies, art, and literature. His exploits paved the way for the Roman Empire and Christianity.
In Pella today, you can view the palace ruins where the great Greek philosopher Aristotle educated Alexander. Also, worth seeing is the on-site archaeology museum with its impressive display of pottery, jewellery and outstanding mosaics from Alexander’s time.
About 20km from Pella is Vergina once capital of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon.
It is here in 336BC that Alexander’s father Phillip was assassinated, and Alexander anointed King. The excavated ruins of the Kings’ palace and the theatre where Phillip was murdered can be viewed, as can his skeletal remains, which were discovered here in one of the wonderful royal tombs and are on display in the museum.
Just 100 km from Thessaloniki beside the Aegean Sea is the mythical home of the gods, Mt Olympus.
This majestic Mountain is often shrouded in mist and clouds which was one reason the ancient Greeks believed that it was the divine home of their 12 gods; Zeus being the king of the gods.
At the foot of Mt Olympus, amongst springs and lush vegetation, sits the ancient city of Dion.
During Alexander’s reign Dion was the sanctuary to the Gods. Alexander would make his final sacrifices here to the God Zeus prior to setting off to conquer the world.
Dion is an outstanding archaeological site. Excavations have revealed a magnificently laid out 5th century BC fortified city with streets, shops, temples, cemeteries and a large theatre.
70km from Thessaloniki are the three peninsulas of Chalkidiki.
Spectacular scenery abounds with heavily forested mountains merging with 500 km of the most beautiful and finest sandy beaches in Greece. Numerous tourist resorts to suit all budgets are situated along the coast, as are many charming and traditional seaside villages.
Kavala, one of Greece’s most attractive cities is 160km from Thessaloniki.
It rises like an amphitheatre from a picturesque harbor up to a medieval fortress. Apart from the wonderful views from the waterfront, there’s plenty to see in and around Kavala. It is two cities in one, with the west side home to the contemporary and the east home to the traditional.
About 15km from Kavala is the ancient site of Philippi, worth visiting for two significant historical reasons. It was here in 42BC that the famous Roman Empire battle took place between the combined armies of Mark Antony and Octavius on one side and the armies of Brutas and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins on the other.
With defeat inevitable, the assassins Brutas and Cassius committed suicide here rather than surrender.
It was in Philippi that Saint Paul, in 49AD, preached the Gospel to the Europeans for the very first time. The Pagan Europeans didn’t warm to him instantly, so he was flogged and imprisoned for his troubles. But he managed to perform the first European Christian baptism here on a woman named Lydia.
Philippi is home to many impressive ruins including an ancient theatre built in 300BC, a well-preserved Roman City Forum, 5th century basilicas and the prison of St Paul.
Many Greeks consider Kastoria, 220km from Thessaloniki to be one of its most picturesque towns.
Kastoria is set idyllically on a hilly wooded peninsula stretching into a lake that’s totally enclosed by mountains. Breathtaking views of the town and lake can be found by venturing up to the villages that are perched high on the surrounding mountains.
There’s much to explore in Kastoria. View the ruins of the city walls built in 535, visit 50 Byzantine churches dating back from the 9th century or relax in one of the outdoor cafes by the lake and focus on an image on a nearby mountain that appears to be the profile of Alexander the Great.
Surely an act of the Gods!
All text, content and images are copyright Steven Sklifas.