Thessaly is to Greece what the Great Plains are to America. Large, flat and fertile, a mosaic of earth tons, Thessaly has always been a breadbasket and you might expect its capital to be sleepy but you’ll find it just the opposite. Larissa welcomes you with pedestrian streets, cafes and bars, restaurants and ouzeris, shops, attractions and historical monuments. Just outside town you’ll join a long line of visitors stunned by the beauty of the Vale of Tempi, the narrow pass between two mountains, Ossa and Olympus. On the hillside above you’ll encounter a mix of tradition, the authenticity of Thessaly and the native genius at Ambelakia.
What to do in Larissa
The nymph of the Pineios
What’s the story behind the name of the city on the banks of the Pineios River which has always been the epicentre of Thessaly? Legend says that the name derives 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. Your journey has just begun!
Larissa’s little treasures
Sights and attractions worth seeing in Larissa: the acropolis on Agios Achillios hill, 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.
Tempi, celebrated in poetry for thousands of years
Like visitors from across the centuries, you too will be awed by the incredible sight of the Vale of Tempi. And like them, you’ll feel obliged to stop and take a closer look. Vertical grey rocks hem in the lush and narrow valley the Pineios 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. This site in Thessaly has been sacred since the goddess Aphrodite was worshipped here. At the pier below the restaurant a small boat waits to take you on a ride down the Pineios to Rapsani bridge, for an unforgettable experience.
Ambelakia, where history meets tradition
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 tradition. You’ll see it in the 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 the historic church of Agios Georgios and Agios Athanasios. You’ll admire it from the impressive Svarts mansion, one of the most interesting buildings in all Macedonia and you’ll experience it in the attractive hostels and the luxurious local hotel.
Hidden gems of Larissa
The Svarts (Schwartz) mansion
Whatever you may have thought about the era’s grand houses is surpassed by the imposing three-storey house 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 decoration work to complete. It’s a mix of the local and Baroque styles with influences from Morocco and Asia Minor, quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Hasan Baba’s opium den
Visit the village of Tempi. Here 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.
The castle of Orias
Located above Ambelakia village, 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 can escape your attention from here.