Our big fat Greek history

By Marcus Freed, June 20, 2008

Majestic Northern Greece has plenty to offer Jewish visitors

Northern Greece, unlike the tiny islands with their romantic pebble beaches and picturesque white walled houses, has a rugged beauty, all sweeping panoramas and historic sites.

The region has not, however, always been good for the Jews. Alexander the Great, who was born in Pella, was not so great for us, and his empire was eventually responsible for the invasion of Ancient Judea that prompted the Maccabean revolt. His successor, Antiochus IV, insisted that a statue of Zeus was placed in the Temple in Jerusalem, which helped prompt the Jewish revolt that directly led to the Maccabean war. On the other hand, as result of these events we celebrate Chanucah, so perhaps we should thank them for the latkes.

I like Greeks. They make great friends, loyal colleagues and fabulous hosts. They have given us the Olympic Games, Homeric Poetry and easyJet. All in all, an impressive nation, and after holidays to Athens and the Peloponnese, I couldn’t wait to go back to see them again. 

The fortifications surrounding Salonika, the Greek city which once had a Jewish majority

Litochoro, which means City of the Gods, is named after its location at the foot of Mount Olympus. It is a friendly village that is the recommended base for any trip up the mountain, although I might have stayed longer if I’d really realised it would take two whole days to climb the great mountain. 

The starting point for a really enjoyable uphill hike is a beautiful spot called Prionia. Colourful beech and fir trees line the path and there is an overnight stop available in the Zolotas refuge, with camping available for the battle-sturdy. There is a bit of a scramble required to reach the peak at Mytikas — the highest point in Greece and well worth the effort for the incredible vista of blue skies and endless forest.  

If you prefer a more gentle walk or have less time, there are some highly satisfying routes in the foothills. The Prionia-Litochoro path takes you through a spectacular forest, along the Enipeas gorge and across seven bridges that traverse the Enipeas stream.

Other highlights include the deserted St Dionysius monastery and the plateau of the Muses. If you do head up there, take a warm sweater or fleece — it gets exceptionally chilly near the peak, even in the height of summer.

The perfect end to a serious bit of hiking would, of course, be a trip to a spa — which is why I had chosen to stay at a hotel called the Dion Palace Beauty and Spa Centre.

Their recently installed luxury spa includes sky-lit hydrotherapy pools, treatment rooms adorned with mosaics and a wide range of beauty treatments and day packages. I would love to tell you how I experienced the men’s cleansing therapy, the Qi-Zen Chinese massage or the questionably named Eros treatment, but I can’t. When I explained to the manager that I would like to sample some treatments in order to write the review, she sweetly declined the opportunity, explaining that “we don’t give away anything for free, to anyone”. So, for the first time in eight years of reviewing spas, all I can honestly say is that it looked nice.

If Zeus was looking down from his mythical home atop Mt Olympus, maybe a gentle thunderbolt to the office of the manager would not go amiss — customer service wasn’t their strong point, but that didn’t interrupt a good holiday.

The hotel itself looks fabulous. The grounds are beautifully designed with a four-section swimming pool that includes two waterfalls, bars and exclusive decks for reclining in the sun. There are huge areas for sports such as water polo, football or cycling and an almost-exclusive beach, with greyish sand that was a little more Southend than South Beach.

Then there are those “private pools” heavily featured in the brochure: while they are private, in the sense that nobody else can swim in your bit, which is accessed from your apartment, they are all actually one long pool, with concrete mechitsahs separating each section. Exclusive perhaps, but certainly not private in the normal sense of the word. 

Some luxurious couches near the main pools are a great place to retire after dinner and enjoy the starlit sky, with charmingly lit walkways leading to the rooms. In principal this is romantic and soothing but for some reason the hotel management has chosen to have high powered sprinklers jetting across the pathways from 10.30pm every night, so the main route back to bed involves taking a fully-clothed shower.

A bonus, however, is that the hotel is just an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki — aka Salonika — home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.

One of the city’s most famous Jewish residents was the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, who converted to Islam when threatened with death. His Jewish followers, who also converted, built a mosque in the city that is intricately covered with Stars of David. It is not everyday that you see a house of Islamic prayer that looks like an advert for the London Beth Din.  

Remarkably, in 1912 Salonika had a Jewish majority — 80,000 of its 150,000 residents kept the faith. Mustafa Ataturk, the 20th-century statesman, received an unexpected crash course in Jewish observance one Saturday when he wanted to leave the city port for a military offensive. As no Jewish dockers were available to assist him on Shabbat, he had to wait until Sunday.  

The Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki has a good display on the city’s Jewish history, with English-language tours available. The 20th century history is heartbreaking as you learn how the 50,000-strong community of 1938 was decimated to 2,000 in the Holocaust.

Greece has no shortage of historical sites related to ancient Gods, but there is a huge shortage of Jewish singles. The current community numbers 1,000 and while Jewish identity may be strong, intermarriage is rife because there just aren’t enough people to go around. It makes the London dating scene look like Club 18-30. Perhaps the Greek community should organise a holiday to Hendon — they’ll be inspired by the number of available Jewish singles, albeit unimpressed with the historic sightseeing.

Last updated: 3:14pm, September 10 2008