Greece

PHALLIC TYRNAVOS

In Greece, the preparations for Lent get off to a colourful start. On the last Sunday before Lent everyone takes part in their local town carnival and the next day, Clean Monday, they go out into the countryside and fly kites.

In Tyrnavos, however, Lent starts differently. The inhabitants of this small Thessalian town do not fly kites, but huge penis-shaped balloons.

The balloons are not the only provocation. On the Sunday and on Clean Monday, Tyrnavos resounds to the Phallus Festival.

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ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

The entrance is a bit of a disappointment. When you are heading for the famous shrine of Hades, where people from throughout the ancient world flocked to talk to their dead, you expect something more dramatic. At any rate, Odysseus, Orpheus, Heracles and Theseus, who all entered the Kingdom of the Dead, did not pass through a common steel-barred door. The modest notice "The Nekromanteion of Hades" does not befit the dark glory of the site either.

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THE CALL OF THE SIRENS

The owner of one of the two taverns on the Aliki beach puts a second pitcher of retsina and a plate of yoghurt topped with Thassos honey on the table. Figs taken from the jam jar stick out from the yoghurt. "It's on the house!" he says and hurries off to clean the table that another jolly company has just left.

The paper table covers of the restaurant are of the recently trendy type – with a map of the island printed on them. From such a perspective Thassos looks small, traversable and familiar. Especially when you live in Bulgaria.

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10 REASONS TO VISIT ATHENS

If you've been to Athens at the height of the tourist season, you'll probably be hard-pressed to come up with even a single reason to visit the "cradle of democracy and Western civilisation." The rocky hills only intensify the August heat, the hordes of tourists make the narrow streets even more claustrophobic, and the bill you get at the overcrowded tavern is as big as your chances of slipping on the steps of the Propylaea, which have been shined smooth by centuries of visitors.

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10 REASONS TO VISIT EDESSA

Try recalling every stereotype you've known about mass tourism in Greece and then imagine what could be the opposite. Now open your eyes. What you see is Edessa.

Edessa resists any "hidden treasure" cliché. This town of 20,000, in the region of Macedonia, is among the last places untainted by mass tourism, a fact appreciated by travellers who look for authentic Greek landscape, atmosphere and calm.

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THESSALONIKI

Just as people can't hide love or a cough, cities can't hide their history. Thessaloniki is no exception. This part of the Thermaic Gulf was making history centuries before 315 BC, when the Macedonian King Cassander founded a city there. He christened the new settlement after his wife, Thessalonike, the daughter of Filip II of Macedonia, who was herself named after one of her father's victories.

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HIDDEN ISLAND

Rising out of the waves of the Aegean just two hours by ferry from Alexandroupoli, Samothrace is the answer to the most puzzling Greek paradox: where can you find an island with an idyllic landscape, dramatic mountains, a classical past, friendly locals and excellent beaches - and no tourists?

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FOR MEN'S EYES ONLY

A place like Mt Athos makes you realise what temptations life has in store. In the monastic republic, established on the easternmost finger of the Chalcidice Peninsula in 885 by a chrysobull, or edict, of Byzantine Emperor Basil I, almost everything carries the stamp of “temptation”. On the Holy Mountain, however, anything regarded as “temptation” is banned.

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THESSALONIKI BEYOND IKEA

It is a truly gorgeous day today - the sun is shining, birds are singing in gardens which are full of colourful bulbs and bushes, and the water of the Aegean is shimmering in the light.

Thessaloniki doesn't need much of an introduction: for more than a decade it has been a favourite shopping as well as holiday destination among Bulgarians and expats alike. Once the "ignored little sister" of Athens, Salonika is lively and young, with its own rhythm and spirit as well as cultural, economic and gastronomic life.

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KNOW THYSELF

Descending the mountain path on his way back from the Delphic oracle, Oedipus was so stunned that he barely noticed his surroundings. Sitting on her iron tripod placed over a fissure in the ground from which mind-expanding vapours were rising, Pythia, Apollo's priestess, had foretold a nightmarish future for him: when Oedipus “returned home”, he would slay his father and marry his mother. The oracle was known for her accurate predictions without which no peasant would start harvesting his crops and no king would wage a war.

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A WEEKEND IN SALONIKA

It is very important to always have a place close by where you can go and forget about everything. In the Apennine Peninsula this may be Rome, in Iberia there is always Barcelona, and in the Balkans it is Salonika.

Less than 200 miles south of Sofia, this is the city that an increasing number of Bulgarians and foreigners living in the area are using for their customary January getaway.

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FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

"When do you change the rope?" My question is left hanging in the air because the white-bearded monk to whom it is directed seems too busy with his primitive hoisting device. Accompanied by an incredible squeaking, he is pulling a huge rope basket out of a 300 metre deep abyss. Inside this ancestor of a lift there is another monk, humbly squatting. When the basket finally reaches the top and the man inside it has jumped skilfully onto the wooden platform, the white-bearded monk turns to us.

"The rope," I repeat my question, "When do you change it?"

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