DAY 1 – ARRIVAL IN IOANNINA
Arrive at the airport for your flight to Thessaloniki. Upon arrival, we transfer by coach to Ioannina and one of our carefully chosen four-star superior hotels, where we stay for three nights with breakfast and dinner. The hotel will vary according to the date of departure. Please note that swimming pools will be open during the summer months, weather permitting.
DAY 2 – IOANNINA & VIKOS GORGE
This morning we enjoy a sightseeing tour of Ioannina, the historic capital of Epirus and one of northern Greece’s most atmospheric cities. Set against the Pindos Mountains, the city is located on the shores of Lake Ioannina. Christian, Jewish and Islamic influences are evident throughout, all reflected in the diverse architecture. Perhaps the most impressive building is the imposing castle, originally built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian and rebuilt in the early 19th century by Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha. Standing high on a peninsula, the castle is surrounded by the enchanting stone houses and cobbled streets so typical of this region.
This afternoon we travel north to the Zagora region in the heart of the Pindos Mountains, a vast collection of snow-capped peaks, plateaus, valleys and gorges considered to be the ‘spine of Greece’. These rugged mountains are home to an abundance of flora and fauna, and offer some of the most dramatic scenery in Europe. The dense forests are a habitat for brown bears, wolves and jackals, while the skies are patrolled by soaring birds of prey, including golden eagles. Until quite recently, the ancient humpbacked bridges that criss-cross the valley floor played a vital role in linking local communities. As we drive through the traditional villages, we get a real sense of time standing still and a feel for a lifestyle quite different to other regions of Greece.
Plunging to a maximum of 2,950 feet, the yawning Vikos Gorge is one of the deepest canyons in the world, easily capable of accommodating the full height of The Shard in London twice over. Home to 110 species of birds and many rare butterflies, this is a true natural monument. We visit the village of Mondendri for superb views of the gorge, bridges and river below. Of note is the 18th-century Kokkori Bridge, whose stone arch seems to leap improbably over the azure Voidomatis river. Our journey continues to the village of Vikos for the most stunning views of the gorge. You’ll have time to take in the glorious vistas and perhaps sample one of the savoury filo pastry pies for which Zagora is famous before we return to our hotel.
DAY 3 – METEORA & METSOVO
Today we visit the aptly named Meteora – meaning ‘suspended in the air’ – a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most remarkable sights of mainland Greece. It gained prominence when it was used as a location in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. We get our first breathtaking view many miles before reaching our destination. Natural sandstone pinnacles pierce the sky from the valley floor, while 14th-century monasteries perch precariously – or perhaps miraculously – on top. Meteora was the perfect location for monks seeking isolation; here they could pray and escape the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Today, roads provide convenient access to the site and only a short walk takes visitors to some of the more accessible monasteries. The sense of calm and serenity is palpable, and the way of life for these monks has not changed for centuries. Over 20 monasteries once existed but now only six remain, and we include visits to two of these today. Gentlemen are required to remove their hats, and ladies should wear a long skirt or borrow one of the wraps provided.
After an unforgettable visit, our journey continues to Metsovo. Perched high in the Pindos Mountains at the crossroads of the Greek regions of Epirus, Thessaly and Western Macedonia, this mountain town is known as the ‘aristocrat’. Steep pitched roofs and wooden buildings stretch out across the slopes, and grand mansions nestle between beech and fir trees. For centuries, sheep have grazed on the mountain slopes round Metsovo and the town is famous for its colourful woven textiles, as well as delicious smoked cheese. There’s time to enjoy the delights of alpine Metsovo before we return to Ioannina.
DAY 4 – VERGINA, PELLA & THESSALONIKI
This morning we depart Ioannina and travel east to Thessaloniki. Greece is scattered with rich archaeological sites and the treasures we visit today will not disappoint. At Vergina, we step back to a time when the Macedonian empire stretched from Italy to India, and discover Aigai, the ancient capital where Macedonian kings are buried. The surrounding fields are a sprawling necropolis with tombs ranging from the simple to the lavish. Of the latter, a number were excavated in the 1970s, including the tomb of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. The museum houses an extraordinary collection of exquisite jewellery, weapons and everyday utensils unearthed from the tomb, with Philip’s golden oak-leaf crown forming the centrepiece.
This afternoon we continue to Pella, which was capital of Macedonia under the rule of Philip II and Alexander. It’s a sleepy town today but during the heyday of the Kingdom of Macedonia, ships from all over the Mediterranean came here to trade. We visit its world-class museum and, with the help of our local guide, this once-thriving ancient metropolis will be brought back to life.
Later we continue to Thessaloniki and one of our carefully chosen four-star superior hotels, where we stay for four nights with breakfast. The hotel will vary according to the date of departure. Where hotels have an outdoor swimming pool, these are open during the summer months, weather permitting.
DAY 5: THESSALONIKI
his morning, we enjoy a city tour of Thessaloniki. Although this is Greece’s second-largest city, the centre, with its lovely gardens and enchanting squares, is remarkably compact and easy to navigate. As we travel by coach and on foot, our local guide will help us get under the many layers of history. Thessaloniki was founded in 315 BC so Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman influences are all visible throughout the city. We visit the magnificent Byzantine church of Agios Dimitrios, which honours Thessaloniki’s patron saint, a Roman soldier killed on this site in AD 306 by Emperor Galerius, infamous persecutor of Christians. The Ottomans converted the church to a mosque and plastered over the original frescoes, which were only revealed again in the early 19th century.
We journey back to Roman times with a visit to the magnificent Arch of Galerius, a symbol of the emperor’s power with carved panels celebrating a victory over the Persians. We’ll also see the 4th-century Rotunda of Galerius, which the emperor had built as his future mausoleum, although he ended up being buried in today’s Serbia. Our city tour continues with a visit to the White Tower, an Ottoman fortress and the symbol of Thessaloniki. Built in the 15th century on the site of an earlier Byzantine fortification, it has been used to protect the harbour and also served as a garrison and a prison.
The rest of the day is at leisure, giving you ample time to explore the city at your own pace. Why not take your pick of the city’s many fine museums? A good place to start is the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, home to an impressive collection that provides a comprehensive overview of the city’s history, from prehistoric times to late antiquity.
DAY 6 – FREE DAY IN THESSALONIKI
The entire day is yours to enjoy the delights of Thessaloniki. Explore the Modiano covered market, the focal point of the city’s shopping district. There has been a market on this site since ancient times. Fishmongers display the morning’s catch fresh from the boat, and stalls groan under the weight of the seasonal fruit and vegetables grown in the fertile countryside close to the city. Herb-scented honey, salty feta cheese and the finest olives are just some of the delicacies you’ll find. Mingle with locals as they go about their day or relax with a refreshing drink at one of the busy tavernas.
For superb views of Thessaloniki from the water, take a boat trip into the Thermaic Gulf or perhaps climb up to the Byzantine walls for panoramic views of the city at sunset. The picturesque waterfront area, which is particularly lively during the evening, is the perfect spot for a stroll or a drink. With a superb location in the fertile north and influences from so many cultures, Thessaloniki is Greece’s gastronomic capital. You can enjoy some of the finest cooking in the many tavernas, ouzerias and cafés. Sample the red mullet, grilled sardines or crispy courgette fritters. Don’t leave without trying trigona panoramatos, golden filo triangles filled with creamy custard – perfect with a cup of strong Greek coffee.
DAY 7 – ATHOS & HALKIDIKI
This morning we head east to Halkidiki, whose three jutting peninsulas, when viewed from above, resemble the trident of Poseidon. Home to rugged red mountains and golden coves lapped by turquoise waters, this dramatic landscape is a complete contrast to anything we’ve seen so far on our tour.
We will discover the easternmost peninsula, Mount Athos, an Orthodox monastic state and a UNESCO-listed site also known as Holy Mountain. Founded in the 11th century, this spiritual centre today comprises 20 monasteries inhabited by up to 2,000 monks who still use the Julian calendar. Astonishingly, only male visitors are allowed to set foot on the peninsula, as the monks feel the presence of females slows their path towards spiritual enlightenment. Even female animals are banned, and cheese and eggs have to be shipped in, although the monks do turn a blind eye to the female cats who help keep the mice in check. Among Mount Athos’ most famous visitors are Prince Charles and Prince Philip.
To admire the magnificent monasteries, we take a boat from the charming fisherman’s village of Ouranoupolis and cruise along the coast. Our journey takes us past lovely beaches for close-up views of the monasteries that seem to grow organically out of the rocky landscape, giving us the opportunity to enjoy the unique architecture and unspoilt nature. Dolphins sometimes follow the boats and, if we’re lucky, we might spot these amazing creatures.
There is time for lunch at your leisure before we return to Thessaloniki later this afternoon. The rest of the day is free for you to do as you wish and perhaps sample more of the culinary delights of the city.
DAY 8 – RETURN FLIGHT
Transfer to Athens International airport for your return flight home.