My big fat Greek vacation

The mountains of the Greek mainland offer an astounding variety of landscapes and hidden treasures.

By JONATHAN BECK
February 11, 2012 22:04
Greece

Greece 390. (photo credit: OFIR ADANI)

 
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Scorching sunlight, a glass-floored boat, gleaming white sands and a glass of ouzo: that’s the usual image that comes to mind when thinking about Greece. And tourism to the country has indeed focused disproportionately on those things, in Crete, Rhode, Naxos, Mykonos and many other islands. But there is another Greece, the mainland, and its hidden treasures were toured, until recently, almost exclusively by Greek citizens.

Certainly, the trip from Athens northward is less inviting at first glance, especially for travelers of the “beached whale” variety; those might as well stick to the islands, whether the Greek ones or Spain’s Canaries. Every vacation in mountainous terrain is for the more adventurous by definition.

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A trip into the Greek mainland is best done by car. Buses can navigate some of the roads but on the steep mountain curves larger vehicles have difficulty maneuvering. A four-wheel- drive jeep would actually be best to rent , not a car (see right box).

The journey to the mountains is fairly quick nowadays, courtesy of highways built with EU financing.

A pit stop at the Thermopylae memorial, about 200 km. north of the capital, may be somewhat disappointing for history-minded travelers (or fans of the ridiculously juvenile epic 300), as the monument is a 20th-century edifice, erected to help forge the Greeks’ emerging national identity.

But it is well advised to freshen up, as we now get off the highway and enter a wild land. Soon after Thermopylae the road starts climbing windingly into the region called Evritania – locally known as the “Switzerland of Greece.”

And indeed it is. While the range soars to a height of only around 2,000 meters (Lilliputian by alpine standards), the landscape is forceful and overwhelming. In this still deeply religious country, many of the villages were established around monasteries and the sites of hermit caves. In these parts, roadside altars with small icons, sometimes modeled as miniature churches, appear on the side of the road with astonishing regularity.

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Villages are relatively few and far apart. The locals’ level of hospitality is surprising, considering that it doesn’t seem like they get to see too many tourists, or indeed, too many people. It should be noted that Greeks in this area barely speak English. In the countryside, almost anywhere in the world, people tend to be nicer; add to that the warm Mediterranean mentality of the Greeks, even in snowy Evritania, and the language barrier becomes a charm rather than a handicap.

Speaking with some locals I understood where the phrase “it’s all Greek to me” comes from. Even the few polyglots speak with such heavy accents that everything they say sounds like Greek anyway.

Our group’s tour guides, Yizhar Gamlieli and Haim Mor Yosef, were fortunately proficient in the language and have enough connections among the areas’ residents, and so communication with the villagers was conveniently done for us.

It must be said that it’s highly advisable for all but the most adventurous tourists to travel this part of Greece with a guide, and not only because of language difficulties. Gamlieli’s company, Tripology (www.tripology.co.il), also offers guided tours in English. If you choose to go without a guide, consult your maps carefully, because some of the mountain roads are challenging and during the winter months, ice compounds the difficulty.

In each of the villages here one can find one or two restaurants, a few guest houses and the inevitable church.

It is probably hard to go wrong when choosing where to dine: Greek cuisine is delicious but simple, and quite repetitive. The meat eaten is usually lamb, and feta cheese is an overpowering ingredient. There are countless varieties of a food found all over the Balkans: some sort of baked or deep fried phyllo dough filled with cheese.

Near the region’s capital, Karpenisi, one can climb to a ski resort. The site is open throughout the winter and offers courses for beginners and semi-advanced skiers.

Leaving Evritania northward one reaches Agrafa – a region taking its name from the fact that the Ottomans never succeeded in charting it (agrafa is Greek for “unwritten”). The convoluted topography of the land there allowed the locals to enjoy autonomy through 400 years of Ottoman occupation.

No one visiting Agrafa should forgo a meal at the restaurant situated literally on the river Agrafiotis – in the valley under the village of Agrafa, which gives its name to the whole region.

Apart from being a charming spot – the restaurant is a converted flour mill – the food is delicious and the menu of fish (grown in a pool on the premises) offers a welcome respite from the lamb menu of Evritania.

Thakis, the owner, received assistance from the Tourism Ministry in converting the mill to a restaurant.

Continuing up north, the landscape changes from snowy peaks and cypress-lined crags to lower, brownish hills and less than 100 km. further north one reaches Meteora.

The site is situated in a vast plain where a prehistoric river once flowed. The plain is dotted by huge, grey, rock-like formations (in fact, each rock is comprised of billions of pebbles cemented together by natural forces) which rise up into the sky in all manner of phallic and finger-like shapes.

The river and the rain, wind and snow have joined forces in this region to from what can geologically only be described as a tour de force of nature.

The formations in Meteora are remotely reminiscent of Uluru in Australia: Out of a relatively flat plain they burst out of the ground at extreme angles, almost like walled structures. But even more dramatic are the man-made structures on these formations: monasteries, dating back to the 14th century, built atop the rocky projections. The Greek word meteora means “suspended in the air,” and the monasteries are literally reaching for the heavens.

The rocks were initially populated by hermits, since they contain hundreds of naturally formed crevices and caves. The first communal monastery, the great Meteoron, was begun in 1356. The monks were perfectly safe there: the only means of reaching the monastery was via a wooden ladder.

More than 20 such structures were built. Today the monasteries are accessible through steps hewn into the rock, and bridges, but as late as the 17th century their inhabitants relied on a system of baskets and ropes to lift food and water from the villages below.

The buildings were badly hit during World War II, when the Nazis bombed them, believing the monks were hiding insurgents, and only six structures remain today. Four of these house monks and two are inhabited by nuns. The Meteora monasteries were recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

It is a truly magnificent site: The lengths to which monks went in pursuit of their ascetic lifestyle (according to legend the ropes of the ladders were replaced “only when the Lord let them break”) are awe-inspiring. No visitor to the northern part of the Greek mainland should miss it.

Heading northward from Meteora one can visit the Albanian border to the north-west, or head east, again via an EU-financed highway, to Thessaloniki.

The city, on the shores of the Aegean Sea, had in the past such a flourishing Jewish community that its port did not conduct business on Shabbat. It is still a highly populated town, Greece’s second-largest.

There are conflicting reports of how the Greeks of Thessaloniki acted during the Second World War. In the city’s Jewish museum one can see pictures of Salonikans cheering as the Jews are led away; Greek Jews who live in the city insist that all expressions of joy at the expulsion of the city’s community, which by the turn of the 20th century numbered more than 70,000 (more than half the city’s total population), were spontaneous bursts of anti- Semitism not encouraged by the local government. Other Holocaust historians are less forgiving of the government’s role during the Holocaust.

Apart from its Jewish past, Thessaloniki is not a very attractive city. Major Greek cities expanded in a quick process of urbanization and as a result are less architecturally inviting than other European metropolises.

From here, one can either fly directly home, take a domestic flight to Athens, or drive to the capital on the highway. While more expensive, a domestic flight is recommended, as the drive through the mountains is taxing.

The variety of landscape on the Greek mainland is astounding; while the views are very different to Israel’s, there is some similarity in that the topography changes abruptly, as if nature was trying to give travelers a summary of possible types of land within distances of only a few kilometers.

It is truly puzzling why the people of the mountains catered mostly to domestic tourists until just recently, considering the massive role of tourism in the country’s economy. The Greek countryside is not as ingratiating to the traveler as the islands, to be sure. But for those willing to go (drive) the extra mile, its hidden treasures may come as quite a pleasant surprise.

The writer was a guest of Tripology.co.il.

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