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Trip report (long): Greek Macedonia, some insights into London's airports and the discovery of perhaps the worst airline in the developed world.

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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:28 PM
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Trip report (long): Greek Macedonia, some insights into London's airports and the discovery of perhaps the worst airline in the developed world.

Background. A late decision to stay on for a few days after an industry conference in Thessalonica, and by Mrs O to join me, led to a badly under-researched four day jaunt round the Greek province of Macedonia. The province is a revelation. If you’ve not been there, go now before it changes.

We didn’t get round to going to a proper bookshop, so made do with a Rough Guide grabbed locally. This site rarely mentions the area, which is why this trip report is unusually long. The National Tourist Organisation of Greece stand at the conference provided us with lots of maps (of varying reliability), and no real advice. It also had (of which the stand operator was unaware) an excellent free guide (“Macedonia”, by the NTOG and the EBTA Cultural Foundation) which was a brilliant contrast to all the vacuous puffery of its other guides.

We were totally bowled over by what we found. That’s why this report is lengthy.

General observations.
We travelled in late June. It was, for a fair-skinned Celt, scorchingly hot. Apart from the standard chain conference hotel in Thessalonica, nowhere else we stayed in Macedonia seemed to have adequate air-conditioning. It’s probably better visited in spring or autumn.

The roads are generally excellent, even in the back of beyond (though some mountain roads can be pretty hair-raising). But they’re being added to a lot (your tax pounds, guilders, kronor and deutschmarks at work). So the correlation between what’s on the maps and what’s actually built is weak. And while signing on the major motorways is excellent, it’s very variable indeed off the major roads. There are a couple of threads on this board that say you can drive rounds Greece without reading Greek. I think that’d be impossible in Macedonia – and I can’t remember anywhere else it’s possible either. On any journey off the standard motorways, we frequently met signs in Greek only. And often, for navigating, it helped to have some basic knowledge of the language as well.

Archaeology has boomed in the area in the last two decades. So has museum provision. So all guides are perpetually out of date. What they say’s in museums sometimes isn’t, and new things are being uncovered. We were constantly stumbling over unannounced treats. The local tourist offices are rarely particularly helpful – but museum staff often are.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:29 PM
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Day 1-3. London’s airports and Greek conferences
Mrs O and I needed to start off from central London for me to catch a 0930 from Gatwick, and then finish the holiday by getting to the Cotswolds. That meant driving to Gatwick on a summer Sunday. From Bayswater Rd, 44 minutes to the Gatwick slip road, leaving around 0630. Then over half an hour from the slip road to South Terminal, a problem caused by the simple weight of car traffic. The congestion also affected access to the rental return place. Getting through London is a doddle – but Gatwick South simply isn’t designed to cope with summer weekend car volumes. Mrs O dropped me so she could get a later flight from Gatwick North, where she found none of the problems cursing the South Terminal.

On the return, the spectacular ineptness of Olympic Airways (of which more later) got me to Heathrow ten hours after I was supposed to be at Gatwick – by coincidence, just as Mrs O was passing Heathrow. It took her half an hour to get to T2 from the M25, because of roadworks at the end of the M4 spur. BAA is clearly trying hard to discourage car access throughout its estate.

The conference was stunningly organised. The downside of this is that its high housekeeping quality was partly the result of subsidies from various Greek local and national governments. So an AWFUL lot of Greek politicians got to stand up a witter about – well I’m not sure what. If you have an organisation thinking of conferencing in north Greece it’s a great place – but prepare yourself for more tedium than usual.

Greeks also seem to love practising their favourite hobby – chainsmoking, And at every conference venue, that encourages the non-Greek smokers to start puffing in places where they wouldn’t in many other countries these days. There’s no point getting hot and bothered about this: see it as a local quirk, or go somewhere else. Oddly, my clothes didn’t stink after exposure to all this cancerous smoke the way they do if one person lights up in a pub.

All of which said, Thessalonica is a terrific place for a conference. You can walk round a lot of it, its history is fantastic, it feels like a real city, the food’s excellent, the wine is marvellous and the temperature’s bearable.

Hertz has an extraordinarily time-consuming method of allocation cars and checking their return at Thessalonica airport, the return facility is abysmally signposted, and the sign for the turnoff for the airport from the city’s main avenue is hidden in summer by a hugely leafy tree. Hertz operates that dishonest “there’s no petrol station near the airport, so you need to buy a full tank of petrol from us for twice what it’d cost if you filled up at a garage” scam at Thessalonica. Just say no, and fill up at the dozens of garages lining the road to the airport before you return it. And allow extra time for the detours the lamentable signage will impose on you.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:30 PM
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Day 4. Out of the conference cocoon.
On to Mount Olympus. Plan was to look at the Byzantine Museum, pick up the car and be on the road by mid morning.

But having over-indulged at the (late-ending) final dinner, we went off to the Museum a lot later than planned. And were then delayed by the need to buy replacements for the sunglasses I’d left at Gatwick. The only specialist shop we could find sold those ridiculous brands like Dior and Versace and seemed to have nothing below €150 a pair , and laughed (rather offensively, I thought) when I put my upper limit at €20. Eventually we found a hardware shop with a perfectly serviceable pair at €7, which strikes me as about the most anyone would want to pay.

The Museum took us a lot longer than we’d expected. Though relatively small by British Museum or Met standards, we just didn’t want to leave. Wonderful mosaics, early painted marble, building reconstructions, well-labelled (in generally good English) and beautifully displayed. And air-conditioned. So it was past 1430 before we got to the airport, and 1500 before we were out. Starving.

40 miles south on the Athens motorway, just before Mount Olympus, there’s a stretch of seaside resorts: the first (Methoni) is two minutes off the motorway. Fish restaurants line a normal workaday Greek beach. We were so hungry by now, we just went into the first and had an unmemorable kilo of sea bream (£12.50 a kilo in Waitrose this morning), with a few bits and bobs (including the most tasteless tomatoes I’ve ever eaten) for €55. Our fault for being in hurry, but it was still the lingering seaside lunch we’d been looking forward to. On to Mount Olympus.

The views as you drive into Mount Olympus are glorious: the views from it, over a flat seashore, aren’t as nice as I get from my study window (though there’s lots of great, but technically demanding, walking available on the mountain). So we turned round after a boit of near-vertical driving and headed for Dion – the sacred site of the Macedonians in the time of Philip and Alexander, at the foot of Mount Olympus.

The museum’s terrific (and open till 1930), but hardly anything’s labelled in any language, only some attendants speak enough English (or any other Western language) to explain, and my Greek’s just not up to it any more. Fortunately the lady near the 1st century BC water organ could explain it – something that’d puzzled us both since coming across one in a Lindsey Davis novel (the thought that Marcus Didius Falco might have a better grasp of early technology than us has irritated us for a long time) .And the mosaics just beat anything near our house into a cocked hat.

There is a hotel in Dion, but it seemed not to be open. We thought (so bad is my Greek getting these days) the lady next door was telling us there was another one two streets up and 100 m along. There wasn’t, and it was only later I twigged she was probably telling us the owners were two streets up etc and would open up.

So off we go to the next town, Litochoron, from Dion (with me looking out for an opportunity to make a joke about the Belmonts, and loudly singing “The Wanderer” all the way). Can’t find the hotel the guide says is best, so make do with the Xenios Dias, which the guide implies is in a noisy square.

Noisy only with the mutterings of the old geezers underneath gossiping over their ouzos, and a bunch of twittering birds. With a breathtaking view from the room balcony up to Olympus, and almost-working a/c, it’s the perfect €50 a night place you dream about.

We go off in search of a taverna. Simply can’t find one, so dismally wander over to the slightly touristy-looking place next to the hotel, called En Olympo.

Which was just stunning. An extraordinary range of traditional Greek soups, stews and cheeses I’d never even heard of before, including goat and rabbit. A rice and porcini soup that owes nothing to Ambrosia, even though we’re on Olympus. And a wine list that runs into the hundreds (we just bought the cheapest red. Easily up to the standards of Australian stuff twice the price) . Though let down by its incomprehensible website (www.gastrdromio.gr), it’d have knocked me out if I’d found it in central Athens. In the middle of nowhere – unbelievable
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:30 PM
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Day 5. The world’s greatest classical sites?
After an excellent breakfast, we go back to Dion to look at the archaeological site.

Now I’ve probably got bored and baked at more indistinguishable loads of old ruins than practically anyone on this board. And I’ve never seen anything like Dion.

Most of it’s covered in trees, with pleasant paths and lots of water leading between the bits and pieces. The butterflies are almost as spectacular as the wild flowers. You could meander round here forever. To be honest, the (seemingly endless) ruins themselves are distinctly second division: there really is a limit to how interested anyone can get at your eight millionth Roman baths. There’s a nice Roman theatre, and a fascinating pair of earlyish Christian basilicas. But the real point of the Dion site is that it’s just about the only place near the Med where you can stroll through classical ruins in comfort and enjoy the wildlife at the same time.

A swift glass of nectar in the café at the foot of Mount Olympus (seriously: nectar’s the official EU term for a certain level of dilution in fruit drinks.) . A classic €4 plate of moussaka at one of the OK tavernas near the museum and it’s off to Vergina.

Where we finally learn the benefits of a classical education. The cross-country signage is seriously garbage. We navigate by complicated deductions from Greek-only road signs, and eventually get to the main funeral mound of Macedonia’s major royals. Which is probably the most enjoyable classical remain anywhere.

It’s indoors and air-conditioned. You can see the spectacular graves – the size of a decent-sized millionaire’s mansion – erected for the Macedonian royal family, including Philip II, Alexander’s dad. In between the graves the extraordinary stuff buried with them – not just the spectacular gold that’s in all the snaps, but unbelievable carvings, wall paintings, ivory statuettes and everything else you’d want to be morphed for accompanying the dead royal into the afterlife. Even, probably, one of Philip’s self-immolating Asian mistresses.

Simply wonderful. So much so, we make the mistake of tramping off to the ruins of the nearby palace. Which is just another set of unlabelled old rocks in a site that doesn’t have a guidebook. And bloody hot.

So off to the Aigai hotel, at Aigai. Nice rural view, out of town, no attached restaurant. Room a/c just about works. Only eatery nearby is the unsigned Orektika Staik in Platani, 2 km away. Slightly ambitious menu, but the snails and trout are tasteless. But the wine’s great and cheap again, and the whole thing comes to about €20 for the two of us.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:31 PM
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Day 6: Prespa
The Aigai is a new hotel, built by someone in love with glass. The public rooms – where breakfast is served, and the only part of the hotel where their (free) wireless internet connection works – gets more heat gain than most British greenhouses. And there’s no public room a/c. We download the email and get out before melting.

Five years or so ago, a friend of mine stumbled over the not-quite nearby Prespa lakes, up on the border with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia. He thought they were stunning (mind you he is from Texas, so any big expanse of water probably impresses him). So off we trot, to discover that this 80 or so miles isn’t all EU-funded motorway, but high quality,serious mountain twistiness.

Prespa is quite pretty. We have a great-value lunch by the shore (fassolada, gigantes, loads of lake fish and the associated rabbit food for about €20). There are hides to watch the birds and varieties birdsong I’d never heard – but the birdies are too sensible to emerge from the reeds in the middle of the day in temperatures like these. There’s a wonderful 11c church of St Germanus (the Constantinople one, who fought against the iconoclasts. Not the bloke Paris St Germain is named after) at Ayios Germanos. Appropriately for an anti-iconoclast, the inside is absolutely covered in paintings, most of them seriously smoke blackened since they introduced cheap candles, and the restorers are working on them. You can see little squares where they’re trialling different ways of getting the smoke off. The colours seem to have been preserved by the smoke: they’re stunningly brilliant in most of the trial squares. The church is a bit bigger than our dining room, and the restorers are doing their stuff right in front of you. Glorious. The village has another, much later, church of St Athanasius with a wonderfully vulgar set of saints, looking rather like the ne’er do wells you’d see in most boozers – not at all like the rather elevated chaps and chapesses Greek Orthodox churches usually feature. And the paintings, like most other wall paintings round here, outdo the humble medieval wall paintings near our house as spectacularly as the mosaics do.

Is Prespa worth a 150 mile round trip on tortuous mountain roads though? Probably not. But it’s a mostly pretty drive, and we go on to Edessa. Where three amazing discoveries await us.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:32 PM
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Day 6.2. Is this the worst 4* hotel in the world?

After the polytunnel experiences at Aigai, we want to find somewhere where the a/c works. At Edessa, “The Xenia’s comfortable rooms and deluxe facilities make it good value” says the Rough Guide about the town’s only 4-star joint. “That means good a/c” says Mrs O. I rehearse my previous experiences with Xenias. “That was 20 years ago” she says. Look how everything else has improved.”

It takes about an hour to find the place, by which time we’ve lost the will to go anywhere else. From outside it looks like an unmaintained 1960’s motel. Inside, it’s a cross between Costa del Chav package holiday place and an Iron Curtain hangover. Surly reception, moronmusic everywhere. We get the luxury suite (€75). On the first floor (for Americans: that means the one up the stairs. There’s no lift or porter).

“Suite” means an ordinary room, with a kind of conservatory (sunroom) running its length to get extra sun. Tastefully ceilinged with nailed-on plywood. Blinds don’t work, but fortunately the a/c is no less inadequate when the window’s open than when it’s closed. Through the window, a truly impressive view down onto the plain below

“Luxury” means the room’s festooned with the kind of knick-knacks even your aunty won’t keep anymore. And polyester flowers.

The hotel’s slogan ( “Where nature calling”) is on the in-room menu. Which also includes dishes from an older and more innocent age of menu English, like “grandnan’s balls”)

Clearly, whoever assigned the star rating to the hotel suffers from the same grade inflation as whoever gives all those stars to Greek brandies. To get to the pool, we go through the long, gloomy corridor “decorated” with photos of Maria Callas era celebrities (or local criminals) chain-smoking in the hotel bar. And then have to run away from the moronmusic round the pool.

We go out to eat, unseduced by the hotel taverna’s offer of “white grease”. Edessa is not rich in restaurants: we find one.

Paeti looks at first as if its most distinguishing feature is its extraordinarily numerate address: 18 Oktobriou 1912, 20. Inside, it’s the neighbourhood restaurant you’d kill your mother to have round your corner. Yummy deep-fried courgettes with tzatziki. Preposterously huge portions of roast pork, with those irresistable soft-roast potatoes the Greeks conjure up whenever roast meat is served. Loukanika (sausage) casserole. Red wine from the barrel at €8 a litre. Fellow-diners include families, the odd courting couple, groups of girls out on the razzle. All smoking like chimneys when they’re not on their mobile phones – and still my clothes don’t stink. A torrential downpour means by the time we get back to the Xenia, the room’s cooled down to about oven temperature, so it’s the ingeniously uncomfortable mattresses that keep us awake, rather than the heat.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:32 PM
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Day 7: Is Thessalonika the New Barcelona?
Edessa, like most Greek towns, is full of horrible concrete boxes. It’s often hard to imagine the people who invented the Parthenon can live in such ugly places. But Edessa has a unique feature: running channels of water everywhere, lined with mature trees. Almost everywhere you go, there are shady linear parks – probably a greater density of green per inhabitant than I’ve seen in any town, except perhaps Letchworth. And a profusion of flowers that makes Cotswold gardens in June look like deserts. Although there’s not much to see in Edessa, it’s just about the most liveable town in Greece. So we spend an hour or two just looking at all this green – and (at any rate to modern English eyes) the extraordinary prodigality with water.

Off to Thessalonica via Pella, the ancient town round the Macedonian royal palace. The site’s OK, with a few excellent mosaics but not a lot else. The museum’s a lot better. The guide books try to imply you can only see the town, and not the palace. But if you drive up to Nea Pella, the modern town, the palace is signed in Greek. Follow the signs till you come to the top of the hill, where there’s a conveniently knocked-down gate. There’s not a lot to see, but at least you get the satisfaction of doing something someone doesn’t want you to.

And on to Thessalonica again, marvelling at the lushness of the Macedonian plain: mostly smallholdings, with ever-changing acres of orchard, vineyard and other leafy greenery. None of the single-crop monotony of Tuscany or Burgundy: none of the barley-baron miles of wheat you get in East Anglia. And archaeological sites cropping up every few yards. Rarely signed in time fdor you to be able to stop without being shunted by the 40 tonner riding on your backside, and even when you can stop you can’t work out how to get in. But, properly researched, there’s a profusion of sites almost rivalling southern Turkey waiting to be revisited when it’s cooler.

After dumping the hired car (a surprisingly time-consuming process) we go first to the Archaeological Museum. All the guidebooks are wrong about this: it’s currently devoted entirely to Macedonian grave goods including tons and tons of gold. Astonishingly pleasant to walk round: not a hint of museum exhaustion and practically everything on display’s a marvel. They’re extending it a lot (your tax pounds, kronor etc) to include more and more about the region’s earlier history (every time they build a new road another ton of stuff gets dug up), and the extension’s due 2007.

All over town there are ads for the “Treasury of the Protaton” exhibition at the Agioritiki Estia (Mount Athos Centre), Egnatia 109. This is a temporary show of a tiny proportion of the treasures in one Mount Athos church, but in a building where there’s almost always some kind of Mount Athos exhibition these days. For women, or for those of us blokes too feckless to arrange our Mount Athos permits beforehand, it’s the closest you’re likely to get to the Mount Athos experience – including listening to their chants. Mrs O, who’s always been a bit stand-offish about my enthusiasm for plainsong, has decided she’s glad women aren’t allowed onto Athos, since that means she won’t me dragging her onto the mountain. But she’s glad she went to the exhibition – and we can’t find a guidebook that mentions the exhibitions’ frequency.

Meandering round the town to check out restaurants, we dismiss a group of them round Navarino Square as a bit Lonely Planet-y. But they surround a huge new excavation of the Palace of Galerius (the Roman emperor whose triumphal arch is the most visible thing on Egnatia), which occupied about 1.5 million sq ft of prime Thessalonica space in the late 3rd century. Again, unmentioned in the guides, but charming young men hand out little brochures about the excavations, and although we’re all kept out, you can begin to see the mosaics they’re uncovering.

We eventually eat – in my view spectacularly – at Aristotelous, a splendid ouzeri in a courtyard. (Odos Aristoteleous, 8. Go through the door coverd in insurance company signs into the courtyard beyond) Prices back up to €50-ish for 2. But even better red wine, and wonderful mezedes like pickled aubergine, chickpea puree, purslane salad and tarama patties.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:35 PM
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Day 8. How Olympic Airways took me from the sublime to the disgraceful

Is Olympic the worst airline in the developed world?

The day started mediocrely enough. Get to the airport for my 0730 flight to London to find it’s been cancelled. Unsurprised (the conference had been full of horror stories about Olympic’s arbitrary cancellations), I get rerouted via Athens with a 6 hour stopover. Get to Athens, take the tube into town, revisit a few bits of the Acropolis I’ve not seen for 15 years and see a number of new bits they’ve restored, dug out or (in the case of the Parthenon friezes) discovered new things to whine about. Grab a stunningly comforting lunch of pastitsio and horta at a real Lonely Planet eatery (probably had the same meal, from the same waiter, 35 years ago) and get the tube back, stopping only to investigate Acropolis tube station, which has to have THE best displays of any metro station in the world – including the Louvre.

Back at the airport an hour or so before departure, thinking that as screwed up flights go, one that gives you an unscheduled morning on the Acropolis really is about as good as it gets.

How naïve can you get?

The gate room is a zoo. 300 people, all with new horror stories about Olympic cancellations from everywhere, how they waited 2-3 hours to get rerouted, and how non-existent flights were being signalled to London as having left . The airline staff at the desk were clearly trained by Aeroflot before it went all effete and consumerist. An hour after the plane’s due to leave, there’s still no sign of it. The staff get even more bored.

Eventually, two hours after the departure’s due a plane operated by an airline called Luzair (I swear it’s pronounced ‘Loser’) arrives. The slatterns at the desk announce “Free seating” (aka free fighting.) The scrum to get on board makes Easyjet and Ryanair’s boarding systems look like some demonstration of excessive consumer cosseting. It takes 90 minutes to board us and then find and unload the luggage of the 20 people who, whether they got bored, died or decided to walk to London, didn’t get on the plane.

The safety announcement is made by a Portuguese chief stewardess who’s clearly Stephen Hawkins with a female voicebox. The inflight magazine is called Africa Today, and features sycophantic profiles of African dictators in English and Portuguese. This is clearly the airline of choice for flying mercenaries to countries about to change regime involuntarily.

The flight itself, though, for those surviving the terminal experience, is terrific. The stewards dish out more excellent Greek red wine lavishly. My fellow-passengers converse more jollily (mostly about what they’d do to the CEO of Olympic if they ever caught him in a dark alley) than I’ve ever seen passengers converse. They cheer when we draw back from the gate: cheer loudly when the plane takes off (though get a bit muted when the air conditioning starts dripping). They cheer louder still when we arrive at Heathrow (till some wag shouts “Wait till you’ve seen your bags”) And loudest of all when the texts all come through that England’s scraped a win against Ecuador.

It really was the most enjoyable flight I can ever remember. But I really will never allow myself to be booked onto an Olympic flight again.

Just about everything about Greece is millions of times better than 20 years ago. Olympic seems determined to compensate for all that single-handedly.

But Macedonia almost makes up for all that.
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Jun 26th, 2006, 10:58 PM
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Don't stop NOW...
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Jun 26th, 2006, 11:17 PM
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Great report!
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Jun 27th, 2006, 12:18 AM
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Very glad to see this unique and funny report.
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Jun 27th, 2006, 12:25 AM
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This report rocks! I love the comments about polyester flowers and g"grandnan's balls"

Keep it coming!
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Jun 27th, 2006, 01:51 AM
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"Where nature calling...." Fantastic! I once puzzled over a sign in a very posh hotel in Ankara "Savour the steam of Sheraton" - I think they meant atmosphere, but I know what you meant about heat..
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Jun 27th, 2006, 06:21 AM
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UreO
This is great. I have been looking for info on Thessaloniki on this board for months with no joy. We are going early Sept, staying in the city for 2/3 days then heading off to Halkidiki for another 2/3. Thing is, we won't have a car. Buses look manageable. Any comments on Halkidiki and beaches? Not Costa del Chav please.
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Jun 27th, 2006, 07:24 AM
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Terrific report! I just emailed it to myself for future reference.
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Jun 27th, 2006, 07:30 AM
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I am sitting at a client sight laughing out loud at your Olympic story. TOO FUNNY

And I want to go to Macedonia. It sounds GREAT, but I speak NO Greek and read NO Greek. It sounds like you would not recommend it under those conditons on a self drive???

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Jun 27th, 2006, 07:54 AM
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One of the most entertaining reports I have ever read, and wish I could book a flight to Macedonia today- but not Olympic Air.

Any Tourist Info website for the area?
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Jun 27th, 2006, 08:32 AM
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You have me cackling with laughter....this report is brightening up a very dreary day. Thanks very much!
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Jun 27th, 2006, 08:39 AM
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Oh my goodness, what a sotry about Olympic! I do think this tops even the horror stories about Aitalia!
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Jun 27th, 2006, 09:07 AM
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Love it!

Funny, informative, delightful, and now I want to go to Macedonia!

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