Κaterini: Plains and Mount Olympus. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)
There is one place in Greece that towers over all the others, and is admired by people all over the world for it natural and historic importance. Mount Olympus is the tallest mountain in Greece and it is located where the regions of Thessalia and Macedonia meet in the northern half of the country. At just under 3000 meters high the mountain is pretty close to the coastline and therefore has plenty of towns surrounding it. Mount Olympus was home to the most famous mythical civilization in Greek history – it is where the twelve Olympian Gods lived. King Zeus and his family of powerful Gods lived on the peak of the mountain, obscured by clouds and snow and difficult to reach by mortals. This mountain peak was the setting for the great myths and stories that shaped Greece.
At the base of Mount Olympus is the city of Katerini. The city is less than ten kilometers from the seaside, accompanied by a handful of coastal towns. Situated in the low lying Pieria plain that separates the mountains and the sea, Katerini serves as a capital for the region. Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is located just an hour’s drive north. So, while it is in close proximity to the major hubs and culturally significant sites, Katerini is still a small town at its heart. Neighbors recognize and greet each other around their quiet communities. The detached houses that characterize the suburbs of Katerini in contrast with the apartment buildings in the center of town make the city a mix of urban and suburban. Although not a large city, there is a lengthy walking district in the center of town with many shops and restaurants throughout the alleyways. Modern and traditional establishments mingle and offer everything from home-made bougatsa to trendy cocktails. There is a spacious municipal park that is lush with trees and fountains and even has a theater for culture and events.
Katerini’s culture has been shaped by its ever-changing citizenry. Before the Greek Revolution and War of independence in 1821 the city was under Ottoman rule and thus had a large Muslim population. It was finally established as a part of the Greek state in the early 1900’s and as a result of this, saw a population exchange where the Muslim families left and Greek refugees from Thrace and Asia Minor entered. The return of people of Greek descent helped the city grow and also introduced new cultures to the area. A faithful group of Evangelical Christians, converts from Orthodoxy, who traveled from Pontos and Asia Minor settled in Katerini and established a church. Located in the outer suburbs of the city, the church is the only one of this denomination in this region. On a large plot of land, the church and its accompanying school building are surrounded by a residential neighborhood that reminds you of a small town you would see in the States. Tall mature trees fill the church courtyard to the brim, continuing down the street and breathing life in to the whole neighborhood. The architecture and design both inside and outside of the church is tasteful and clean. No frills, just faith.
Evangelical Greeks found a safe haven and a home in Katerini after their escape from the dangers and threats of the Ottomans. The residents were welcoming and people integrated smoothly into society. According to historians, Katerini became a hub for the Evangelical faith in Greece and it inspired Evangelical people from all over the country to come to the city and meet their community. These families were able to secure farmland to generate income and support themselves. There are still many farms surrounding Katerini for as far as the eye can see, until the low plains ascend to the Mount Olympus mountain range or flow out to sea. It is easy to see why these asylum-seeking families chose to stay in the region, as they had both financial and spiritual abundance. This was mostly made possible through philanthropic groups that were established to help these people, like the Evangelistic Refugee Group Committee. But the Orthodox community was essential in this relationship as well, and both faiths worked together in harmony. The Evangelical and Orthodox communities of Katerini continued to support each other; they attended important ceremonies of their counterparts and exchanged land and property. The Evangelicals of Katerini are still the largest group in the country who practice this faith and their community continues to grow. This community is very active and supports each other in the form of Sunday school lessons, support for married couples, serving as an orphanage, operating a retirement home, and hosting an annual summer camp at the nearby beach.
Keeping up with current needs, the Church established the Social Grocery, which provides food, clothing, and other essentials to hundreds of kids throughout the area. This led to the creation of another notable endeavor by the Evangelical church, the establishment of the non-profit PERICHORESIS that aims to provide housing for refugee families who have recently come to Greece. They were able to help over a thousand families find a place to call home.
Perhaps it is this spirit of love and selflessness that makes Katerini such a joy to visit.
From the silhouette of Olympus in the distance to the long flat beaches in the other direction, there is no shortage of places to explore. Connecting Katerini to its beach town is a main highway that forms a straight line towards the sea. The town, simply called Paralia Katerini, is most popular in the summer and attracts many tourists from Balkan countries. Many hotels and nightlife attractions fill the beachside towns in order to accommodate the crowds of summer tourists.
Traveling either north or south of Katerini and its seaside residences, the landscape becomes quiet with farmlands and flat fields. This city is not one of the most frequented or widely-advertised in Greece, and that is why it was able to retain its wholesomeness. Although there are crowds in the summer, the people who live in Katerini permanently are a small population of under 100,000. The city is set along a major highway connecting different parts of Greece and leading to Thessaloniki. If you have the chance to take the exit towards Katerini, a close-knit and welcoming community will be there to greet you. From its history of welcoming refugees from all backgrounds and establishing philanthropic initiatives, to the easy access to mountains and sea, Katerini has many interesting particulars. It is often these hidden-in-plain-site cities of Greece that have the most to offer.
PHILADELPHIA – The Federation of Hellenic Societies of Philadelphia and Greater Delaware Valley announced that the Evzones, the Presidential Guard of Greece will be participating in the Philadelphia Greek Independence Day Parade on March 20.
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