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Thessaly is to Greece what the Great Plains are to America. Large, flat and fertile, the region contains a mosaic of farmers’ fields that serves as the breadbasket of Greece. Yet its capital, Larissa, is far from the sleepy agrarian outpost you might expect. In fact, quite the opposite. Larissa welcomes you with pedestrianised streets, cafes and bars, restaurants and ouzeries, shops, attractions and historical monuments. Just outside town, you’ll join a long line of visitors gawping at the beauty of the Vale of Tempi, the narrow pass between two mountains, Ossa and Olympus. And on the hillside above, you’ll encounter a mix of tradition, authenticity and brilliant local ingenuity in the village of Ambelakia.
What’s the story behind the name of the city on the banks of the Pinios River? Legend says that its name is derived from the nymph Larissa who drowned in the river while playing with her ball. Actually, Larissa means ‘citadel’ in the language of the first inhabitants, the pre-hellenic Pelasgians who made it their capital when they came to dominate Thessaly.
Sights and attractions worth seeing in Larissa include the acropolis on the hill of Agios Achillios, the great 15th-century covered market, the two ancient theatres from the 3rd century BC and the 2nd century AD respectively, the monument-museum to Hippocrates opposite the Alkazar and much more.
Like visitors from across the centuries, you too will be awed by the incredible sight of the Vale of Tempi. Like them, you’ll feel obliged to stop and take a closer look. Vertical grey rocks hem in the lush and narrow valley the Pinios River uses to escape to the sea. Enter the natural cave of the church of Agia Paraskevi (1910) to sip some of the holy water gushing from the rocks. The site has been sacred since the goddess Aphrodite was worshipped here. At the pier below a restaurant, a small boat waits to take you on a ride down the Pinios to Rapsani bridge.
With red-tiled roofs over stone houses that clutch the mountainside over Tempi, Ambelakia will make you feel that you’ve arrived at the source of all tradition. You’ll see it in the village’s beautiful square, where plane trees shade tavernas. You’ll feel it as you walk through the neighbourhoods of Agia Paraskevi and Agios Athanasios, among the Macedonian-style houses and next to the historic churches of Agios Georgios and Agios Athanasios. You’ll admire it from the impressive Svarts mansion, one of the most interesting buildings in all Macedonia. Aand you’ll experience it in the attractive hotels and guesthouses.
Whatever you may have thought about the era’s grand houses is surpassed by the imposing three-storey residence of Georgios Mavros (Schwartz). The foundations were laid in 1787 and the building was finished in 1798. In other words, it took eight years of construction and three years of painting and decorating to complete. It’s a mix of the local and Baroque styles with influences from Morocco and Asia Minor, quite unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the region.
In the village of Tempi, you’ll find Hasan Baba’s opium den, which included a mosque with a minaret, hostel and kitchen. It was the headquarters for an order of Dervishes led by Hasan, who was revered as a holy man and healer.
Located above Ambelakia, the castle offers panoramic views of the whole of Tempi. Legend has it that the beautiful Queen Oraia jumped into the chasm created by the vertical rocks of the Orias Pit to escape the Turks. A pomegranate tree sprung up at the point at which she fell and, each year, produced three hollow pomegranates. The truth is that the so-called Castle of Oria – one of the most beautiful sights in the area – is a ruined castle built on near-vertical rocks, 270m above the narrowest point of the Vale of Tempi. The watchtower is of strategic significance as nothing escapes your attention from here.