In Which I Realize Something I Already Knew

The woman behind the counter handed me the piece of cream pie in a flaky phyllo crust (for lack of a better description) as we spoke. She asked where I was from and I indicated New York. “What are you doing in Larisa?!” she was almost indignant that I should have come here.

“I wanted to see what was here,” I indicated. That was truly enough for me, although it was also a practical stop. The train ride from Thessaloniki to Athens was long and I didn’t want to pass so many hours on a single day rolling around in a train car. Larisa was the place to take my break.

The merchant paused, then, and her eyes danced over a glistening oblong mass of honey gold joy in the display case. She quickly picked up a small triangle and handed it to me. “You must try this. You cannot get it anywhere else in Greece. The owner has been making this for 40 years – it is called helvas farsone. It is made with butter and caramelized sugar and almonds. Nobody else makes helvas like this.”

There was pride of place in her voice and in those statements, a pride of place that comes from somebody who knows they have something unique in the world.

The helvas was truly incredible, like a very thickly unctuous gelatinized slice of a sunrise, the butter shone through strongly, mated to the oranges and browns of a deep delicious caramel, if colors have taste.

Pride of place: this is the answer to her question, but I didn’t fully realize it until I met her. My stop for the night in Larisa may have been practical, but this is why I was happy to take the time: because a smallish city in Central Greece has pride of place, and by going there I might get lucky enough to find something like helvas farsone. And you’re never going to find that if you don’t stop someplace unexpected.

In a sense I’ve gone for the unexpected with all of this trip. The expected course for me would have been to go to Santorini or stay in Athens. Instead I came to the north, where the guidebooks don’t say much. But they do mention Thessaloniki being divided into an upper and lower town, so this morning I went into the upper town, Ano Poli, where the streets are ancient and turn at odd angles, opening up to long views across the bay.

And when I stopped to take this photo, a little old Greek woman stopped to say, “It’s beautiful isn’t it,” before continuing on her way. A little more of that pride of place.

Hidden high in these streets is the Church of Ossios David. This church truly is miniscule, scarcely bigger than the houses around it. I’ve been in many churches with bigger side chapels. Here there was just a single row of seats. From the outside it is about as humble and unassuming as a church can be.

As I entered and took in the sight, the lone keeper of the church and I offered each other the briefest, respectful, greetings. And then I had to sit down.

Have I mentioned that I love Byzantine mosaics? The intricacy, detail, color, and three dimensional approach to tile placement are all awe-inspiring. Well, the mosaic here was magnificent. The church and mosaic both date to the 5th century. Like many here, this church served for a time as a mosque during the Turkish Occupation, but once again is a church. In 1920, the forgotten mosaic was rediscovered, depicting Christ with the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk.

Higher up yet I found the Vlatadon Monastery, where its own ancient church sits in a secluded garden and an aviary full of peacocks overlooks the city below.

The monks have one of the best views of the city below.

I occupied my morning in this way, exploring the byways and sights of Ano Poli, slowly working my way back to the lower town and my hostel. Eventually my last minutes in Thessaloniki had been consumed and I went to the train station for my trip to Larisa.

I arrived in Larisa late in the afternoon, where I dropped off my bag and walked down the quiet streets into the center of town. Most of this town feels very residential, and not oriented toward tourists.

Deep in the center I found the display where the ancient ruins lay. A sign describes the neighboring rubble as having been a basilica, although these ruins bear no description..

Nearby is the old theater. I wasn’t allowed to enter it right now, but it seems to be undergoing restoration. This makes me happy to think that, some evening soon, people will again sit in these seats.

I also saw the current Church of St. Achilles, but decided not to visit while the liturgy was taking place.

Long after sunset I found dinner somewhere outside of the core of town, where the restaurants are less trendy and the music quieter. I was met at somewhat dated restaurant by an older Greek gentleman whose English was only slightly better than my nonexistent Greek. And yet I managed to order this roast lamb and potatoes: a simple dish that, when done right, is exquisite. This was definitely done right.

And when I told him “nostimo” (delicious), the old man’s face beamed with pride. And we understood each other.

After dinner, I found my way back to my room and bed. In truth, there wasn’t a great deal to do in Larisa, but there was enough. It was a perfect stop for a night, a meal, and dessert.

One thought on “In Which I Realize Something I Already Knew

  1. you said: “if colors have taste”

    you’re in good company, from Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want”

    …’We decided that we would have a soda
    My favorite flavor, cherry red’…

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