Renowned for its stunning Mediterranean islands and pristine whitewashed towns, Greece, unbeknownst to most people, is actually 80% picturesque mountainous terrain, much of it fertile farmland peppered with traditional villages. Some particularly entrancing and typically hilly areas can easily be visited a quick trip from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city.
Boasting rich biodiversity and rare fauna in the surrounding area, the Kerkini wetlands are just 75km from Thessaloniki Airport. The locus of several important migratory bird routes, the nature reserve of which it is the heart is considered Greece’s premier bird-watching site and one of the only places to observe the breeding of the endangered Dalmatian pelican. A traditional wooden boat tour with local fishermen is a great way to witness the diverse wildlife of the area. For birders, the best times to visit are spring and autumn, during the bird migrations.
Lake Kerkini is also a magnet for lovers of fresh seafood. One of the best places to go is a little restaurant on the Kerkini village square called Barba Charisis, run by its 75-year-old owner and his wife, who only speak Greek but welcome all to their tables. You will relish the excellent food, the choice of which you have no control; you eat what the owner serves you! Barba Charisis is open only on weekends .
The restaurant is located directly across from the Mansion of Kerkini, a family-owned accommodation fully restored to its 1918 glory. Ask the owner about the various environmental excursions around the area, such as trekking, horseback riding, mountain biking or perhaps even a visit to a buffalo farm. Yes, that’s right, a buffalo farm! Legend has it that these Asian buffaloes have been in the area since ancient times, when they were used in the army of the 5th-century BC Persian King Xerxes during a campaign in Greece. You can visit the buffalo farm and other hidden charms only known by locals on an exciting Off-road 4×4 Tour.
Kerkini in spring is also a great place to witness the tradition of Anastenaria, a traditional Greek custom of walking or dancing barefoot on flaming coals. The ceremony starts on the 20th of May, with a frantic dance to the music of drums and hymns. On the second day, an animal is sacrificed and the meat offered to the village families. In the evening the dance starts again, together with eating and drinking. Firewalking is the evening finale , when some participants, in a faith-induced ecstasy, dance on the fire holding an icon or a Bible.
Legend has it that Naousa is the birthplace of the god Dionysus. Even today Naousa is a city of wine and vineyards, with 14 wineries in the surrounding region. Whether you visit the small and traditional family Dalamara Winery or try some of the extensive collection of old vintages at Boutari Winery, the ‘black’ wine of Naousa is an excellent complement to red meats, spicy dishes and the delicious meatballs of Naoussa, called boubaria.
Naousa is just one hour from Thessaloniki. Take the Egnatia Odos road to 20km beyond Veria. Only 2km from the town centre is a local fruit farm owned by Dimitris and Rena, where you can stay at their Esperides Hotel & Spa. Here you can help pick fruit and then prepare (and eat!) the local cuisine, while of course also indulging in the local wine.