An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

Greece and Turkey: Economic woes forgotten

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Charlotte with a seafood vendor at Thessaloniki's Modiano Market. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez
Charlotte with a seafood vendor at Thessaloniki's Modiano Market. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez

There's definitely a huge novelty factor in crossing a border on foot. It wasn't as cool as you'd think though - I had visions of putting one foot in Macedonia and the other in Greece and jumping back and forth. Unfortunately there was no line - just one hundred metres of no man's land between the passport control booths.

Our Macedonian taxi driver had refused to take us over the border so we found ourselves lining up with cars - getting bemused looks from their occupants. We'd read that this part of the trip would be difficult. There were no taxis waiting on the Greek side - not surprising, we were in the middle of nowhere.

The customs official told us to walk to a nearby village (did he not see the multiple packs we were carrying??!!) and find a taxi there. It was terrible advice because there were no people in the village at first glance, hardly any cars on the road - there were a few cows though - and a cafe and convenience store we saw were closed, never to be opened again from the looks of things. I thought I was going to see tumble weed blow across the road.

We walked into a slightly creepy little place. Deserted. Stuffed wild cats and birds on the walls.

"Hello? Hello?" Nope, nobody there.

Just as we were turning to leave, a little old lady followed by an even smaller, older lady emerged. They were very sweet and smiley and summoned someone I assumed was the first woman's husband. We didn't speak each other's language but easily got our point across.

He jumped in his car, went off somewhere for around ten minutes and came back with a taxi following him to take us to Florina.

While we were waiting, I discovered my new favourite thing. Greek coffee. Brewed in a tiny copper saucepan, it smells as if it'll blow your head off with the first sip. It's rich but velvety, like a very dark chocolate. Delish! Even Mauricio, a sworn coffee-hater - had some.

We managed to get on a bus pretty much straight away in Florina and headed for Thessaloniki - the second largest city in Greece.

Who's heard of it? Come on be honest. I hadn't. It's not the capital, it's not the islands and it's kind of out of the way. So I had no idea what to expect.

That may have been a factor in how much I loved it. No expectations.

There are so many things that made it special. In the trendy area of Ladadika and the promenade along the waterfront we found countless classy, slightly quirky establishments similar to those you see on Ponsonby Road. Beautiful young people lounged in the sun sipping their drinks of choice. There was no sign of the economic woes making headlines across the world.

I asked the (very cute) barman what he made of it all - he just smiled and said "we just relax and drink coffee and try not to worry about it". Super cool. Although I suspect most of the the country doesn't share his sentiment.

For the rest of the afternoon we enjoyed getting lost wandering the streets. We stumbled upon a food market. After living in London for five years and visiting a lot of Europe, I've seen my fair share of markets. But the Modiano Market would have to be my favourite.

There's the usual crazy variety of seafood, entrails and pigs heads spread out at butchers' stands and colourful displays of fruits. But being there feels like you have been invited to the social event of the century. Everybody seems to know everybody. Men laugh and pat each other on the back in between calling out the day's offerings and discounts. Women gather in groups and cluck away. We came out feeling exhilarated.

The cafe culture in Thessaloniki rivals that of New Zealand, giving it a very laid back attitude. It's also a university city, so chain-smoking students crowded sun-drenched squares.

Stealing myself from my people watching, I realised we were approaching some ancient ruins - right in the middle of where all the people were. There are still people working on the site, excavating it.

It was a reminder that despite all the distractions, we were in a country rich in history. We sat outside one of the city's ubiquitous souvlaki joints. I noticed we were across the road from a church built in 912. For a Kiwi, whose country is so young, it was quite extraordinary. Looking at the boys next to me, twirling their dreadlocks and focusing hard on their lunch I wondered if they realised how lucky they were.

The night we arrived we had stopped a woman to ask for directions. Sheila, it turned out, was from Nigeria. She was a larger-than-life hairdresser, clearly on the look out for new friends.

After telling us she'd done a course in Greek cooking, she invited us to dinner the following night. As with many decisions that end up being the wrong one, you look back and wish you'd just said no. We said yes.

The next evening we found ourselves sitting on Sheila's bedroom/lounge floor being presented with strange concoctions - mostly deep fried - somewhat resembling Greek food, not too sure what it was.

I'll tell you something I do know, Sheila is a big fan of booze. She started slurring after an hour, repeated story after story, every so often running off into the kitchen and running back in saying "oh I'm so happy you are here". Ah yes, same.

She only asked us about ourselves once and kept on thinking we were from Switzerland, after I corrected her twice I gave up.

What made it more awkward was the presence of her strange Greek boyfriend. More weasel than man, Ivans sat on the mattress quietly staring at us most of the night. Very, very unusual night.

The upside is that it has given us fresh conversation fodder that'll last for days. After three weeks being in the company of one person 24/7 you do tend to run out of things to say.

Which is also why it was great meeting up with two friends from London when we reached Istanbul in Turkey. So much has been written about the city but no words can really capture how fantastic it is. Just go and see for yourself.

Sultanahmet is the touristy area but probably the best place to stay because it's close to the big sites. The Blue Mosque was incredible but I preferred the Haghia Sophia, a magnificent building completed in 537. It was the largest church in the world for a thousand years before being converted into a mosque.

Despite this, the many paintings depicting Christian beliefs were never destroyed. It is a nice example of religious tolerance.

The most important thing is to make sure you venture out of Sultanahmet. Pop over to the Asian side (Kadikoy) for lunch and explore the market. Go out at night in Asmali Mescit.

A trip to Istanbul should be on everybody's bucket list. I can't really say much more than that.

After the great time we've had in Turkey's biggest city, I'm excited about what's to come.

Our next adventure is a 15-hour overnight train ride into the heart of the country. As we venture further in Asia, it'll be the first of many.

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