Walking in Greece #3 Meteora

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The monasteries in Meteora each sit on a rocky pinnacle

And so to Meteora, a wonderful land of sandstone pinnacles topped with monasteries … Travelling without the campervan was never going to be the same but we were determined to make the most of our now limited time in Greece and we were pleased we stayed and visited Meteora.  We were back on the road but in a car and the first difference we noticed was that we had to find a cafe for our morning coffee [and loo stops]!  Fortunately there are thousands of cafes in Greece.

Many people drive around Meteora but I think the only way to really see the area is on two feet and if you are able to walk around, spend a few days here and get out, exploring the many paths that wind through the trees below the rocky pinnacles and between the monasteries.  You will be rewarded with amazing views away from the many other tourists.  The free map from the tourist office shows most of these paths as dotted lines.  Be warned, the paths generally do not have signs to indicate where they go and can be difficult to find.

We were staying in the village of Kastraki and on our first evening walked through the village and up to the Adrachit, a tall and thin column of sandstone on a col among the spectacular sandstone rocks.  After taking in the views, we took the path towards Agion Pnevma and stopping to take photographs, I heard noises and tracked them down to a tortoise pottering through the grass.  We both watched it fascinated as it climbed a steep boulder, occasionally slipping on the slope but grimly determined to make its way.

The next day we walked to Kalampaka over the Marmaro rock, spotting goats trotting down a steep ridge.  In Kalampaka we followed the back streets finding the beautiful 11th century small Byzantine church at the top of the town.  At the furthest end of Kalampaka is the steep and well-made paved path that climbs up to Agia Trias [Holy Trinity].  After putting on our modest clothes we walked up the steep path cut out of the rock to reach this small monastery.  The tiny chapel was cool and peaceful and heavily decorated with scenes from the bible in brilliant colours.  Outside this peaceful monastery we sat enjoying the views over Kalampaka and the flat river valley beyond and had our picnic lunch.  We followed the road to a flat viewing rock to take in the eroded shapes of the sandstone pinnacles many with monasteries perched impossibly on top.  After some searching we eventually tracked down the path back down, about half-way between the parking for the viewing rock and a junction.  The path descended steeply through the bushes and grassland to a col where the left path returned to Kalampaka and we turned right for Kastraki.  We walked through thick deciduous woodland that was deliciously cool, with huge mossy boulders around us and plane and oak trees.  We reached the road at a hairpin bend and picked up the next path that hugged the bottom of the huge rock pinnacles, spotting some climbers high on a sheer face and many more tortoises by the path.

Having explored the eastern monasteries, we set off for those on the western side of Meteora the next day.  From our hotel we climbed over the impressive and steeply-rounded rocky mound of Doupiani, a barren landscape from a distance, close up it is covered in lichen, saxifrages and grasses that have managed to establish themselves.  This path led to a good bulldozed track which we followed for some time and then joined a pleasant parallel path through oak trees to Agios Demetrios hidden on the side of a pinnacle.  This is an abandoned monastery that has been restored and is in a romantic setting high on the cliff.  We walked up to the flat rock with the statue of Thymios Vlachavas (1760 – 1809) who fought for Greek independence and was executed by Ali Pasha.  From here we had a superb view over the countryside around Meteora; to one side I could see farms, green fields and rounded hills and to the other were weirdly-shaped sandstone pillars.  I would have visited Meteora for the rocks alone; the monasteries felt like a bonus.  We followed paths busy with tortoises and wild flowers that bought us out at Megalo Meteoro, the largest monastery.  We chose to visit Varlaam monastery and found a site that contrasted sharply with Agia Trias.  Varlaam had souvenir stalls outside, a gift shop and museum and is easier to access and therefore more popular with visitors.  The monastery terrace wouldn’t have been out of place in an Italian villa and had wide dramatic views.  Descending back to Kastraki, we managed to find the narrow path from the steps to Megalo Meteoro that took us on a route between two soaring pinnacles.  As we walked underneath Varlaam’s pinnacle we became aware of what sounded like large raindrops falling around us.  We realised the masons on Varlaam were working on the scaffolding above us and what we could hear was mortar falling around us.  We hurried on as a dollop of mortar landed on Mr BOTRA’s arm laughing about health and safety in Greece.

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Looking over the village of Kastraki

Walking in Greece #2 The fantastic Pelion Peninsular

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Terraced olive groves on the Pelion peninsular

After just a few weeks in Greece I have to confess I had more photographs of olive trees than anyone can ever really need … I can’t help myself.  I am attracted to the gnarled, twisted trunks, the small grey-green leaves of these trees that make a gentle rustling sound in the breeze and the tiny flowers that eventually become delicious olives.  These Greek olive trees have cultural connections too and each tree is rooted in myth and history.  One Greek myth tells us that the Goddess Athena, the daughter of Zeus, and Poseidon, Zeus’ brother, both coveted the city of Athens [then called Attica].  Yet, while Poseidon drove his trident in to the Acropolis producing a well of salt water, Athena made an olive tree grow next to the well.  Zeus ordered a tribunal to decide which of the two gods should be enshrined in the city and this court decided that the olive tree was the greatest gift and chose Athena. giving the city its name.

We drove through the ancient olive trees around Amfissa to the stuunning mountainous Pelion Peninsular [sometimes Pilion], on the east coast of northern mainland Greece.  Here we found fantastic walking on old cobbled donkey tracks or kalderimis.  These kalderimis were built to bring produce down from the mountains and today these and other paths and tracks take walkers from the rocky coves and beaches on the coast, through the olive groves and up to the mountain villages among the sweet chestnut and beech trees.  Each village of narrow winding streets has a square with a cafe.  In the centre of each square is a plane tree that was planted many decades ago and is now huge and gives generous and welcome shade to the customers in the cafe.

On our first day we walked to the village of Pinakates, following the steep path through the terraced olives.   As we climbed higher we brushed beside mint and thyme plants, releasing the sweet smells and our route was alive with butterflies.  There are springs on the Pelion and alongside the path were narrow  stone channels rushing with clear water.  We tried to play poo sticks at one bridge but the sticks hurtled away in a blur.  The path had a signpost from the coast road, was well marked with red dots and we met few other people walking.  We rested under some shady pine trees and stopped to look at the various chapels on the way.  The paved paths of Pinakates (at 640 metres) weave their way along terraces to the attractive main square, overlooked by the church and with a burbling fountain.  We had the best cheese and spinach pie we had tasted yet in the cafe here, the pastry was crisp and the filling fresh and it was coiled in the traditional pattern.

The next day we explored two mountain villages on a 11 kilometres circular route.  We expected more of the same but this hilly landscape constantly revealed new surprises and landscapes and the walking was never boring.  The ascent to Milies was easier as it is only about 440 metres above sea level and the village was bustling with people as the small tourist train had just arrived at the pretty station.  We continued along the ridge to Vizitsa from a path near the station and soon came to a cool, shady gorge with a waterfall that was a perfect spot to eat our lunch and enjoy a paddle.  We followed a narrow and overgrown path that gave us occasional views over the hills.  At a spring we climbed steps to the chic village of Vizitsa and found a square where two musicians were playing Greek music.  We descended a different way, climbing over a ridge from a tiny white chapel that had great views over the railway line and back to Vizitsa and Milies.  Our little used path then joined another of the narrow water channels as we descended the mountain.  On the hillside dotted with farmhouses we sat enjoying the view and dreamt about moving to a small house with a view of tree-clad mountains and blue sea.

Our time in the Pelion was short and we could have spent longer here but sometimes a campervan trip doesn’t go quite according to plan.  In the next installment I will tell you how our Greek odyssey became a bit of a tragedy and how we dealt with this.

You can download details of these and other walks here and here as well as other information about this fantastic area.

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A terrace with a view on the Pelion peninsular

Walking in Greece #1 at Delphi & Corinth

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The Acrocorinth has spectacular views

During our three weeks in Greece we saw so many beautiful places, visited plenty of ancient sites and enjoyed some great walking.  I thought I would concentrate on the walks in my blog posts, firstly a very memorable walk from Delphi and then a walk from Ancient Corinth that did include visiting the Acrocorinth.  My second post will tell you about our walks on the stunning Pilion peninsular on the Aegean Sea.

The old zigzag path from Delphi to the beautiful Livadi plateau climbs the hillside from near the Museum of Delphic Festivals at the top of the town and black and yellow markers indicate the E4 path.  The path firstly follows the ridge through flower-rich meadows above the site of the Delphi oracle and the Temple of Apollo [a fantastic site we had visited the day before] and there are good views on to the stadium.  The path soon joins the old stone zigzag route that takes a gentle meandering route up the crag.  This timeless path, that has been used for generations, is broad and cobbled and gave us continuing stunning views down to Delphi and the sea at Itea.  Stopping for a rest was always interesting as around us there was an abundance of flowers, including giant fennel on the lower slopes and lots of tassel hyacinths, hypericum and sage as we climbed higher and we were accompanied by hundreds of butterflies.  Each time the zigzags reached the most easterly point of the crag we had views down in the spectacular rocky gorge above Delphi.  At the top of the crag we entered a sheltered valley of cropped grass, juniper bushes, more flowers and sparse trees with paths branching off across the red earth.   This was such a tranquil and peaceful spot we spent some time here, identifying the flowers, watching the birds and practicing tai chi.  The valley opened out and we reached a wooden water trough, farm buildings and suddenly, after a morning of solitude, met other walkers.  We continued upwards to a grassy meadow on the ridge and had lunch with a view of the snowy massif of Mount Parnassus, cows quietly moving across the meadows in front of us.  We returned the same way.  The walks climbs about 700 metres and we had taken our time and so were out for six hours.  We both agreed it was a fantastic day!

From Ancient Corinth we set off to climb the obvious hill you can see from the town.  This craggy hill is topped by a fortress, the Acrocorinth.  We found the Fountain of Hadji Mustapha easily enough just outside Ancient Corinth.  When we arrived it was swarming with what we christened the Corinth walking group.  The group, like any walking group, were chatting, checking their rucksacks and filling water bottles and we couldn’t get anywhere near it.  Giving up on the fountain and avoiding the starving puppies we took the path behind the fountain.  There were no signs and we quickly misplaced the path and followed a steep route that merely cut off the corner and took us back to the road.  Rather than double-back we chose to walk most of the four kilometres to the Acrocorinth on the road.  On the way back down we realised we should have stayed lower and taken a more gentle path that traversed the hillside.  Fortunately, the road only goes to the fortress and was quiet and it was delightful with so many flowers along the verge and a fantastic view over the bay.  Arriving at the Acrocorinth we were pleased to see the entrance was free and also pleased we had come in the morning as it only opens until 15.00.  The castle was first used by the Greeks from the 4th century BC, in the 12th century first the Frankish took over and then the Ottomans and during their rule the Venetians took control briefly.  Each of these different rulers extended the castle walls outwards and today these walls extend over two kilometres and visitors enter through three defensive gates.  We walked up the steep hillside on marble paths in to the vast castle.  The castle was used as a refuge from pirates by the people of Corinth and they built houses, churches and mosques here so they could survive a siege.  The different occupiers have left a mixture of architectural styles and the buildings that remain are dotted around the hillside.  Getting around these buildings takes some effort as you climb up to the different buildings on what are often very rocky and steep paths bordered by colourful wild flowers.  I breathed in deeply, enjoying the sweet aroma of camomile, its scent released as we crushed the profusion of flowers on the paths.  The animals that now call the Acrocorinth home are hundreds of house martins.  They have found a perfect place to live here: castle walls with nooks and crannies for nests, an abundance of flowers that bring in insects for food and they constantly swoop acrobatically through the air above visitor’s heads.  Health and safety is less of a concern in Greece generally and visitors are expected to use their common sense, so when you reach the outer walls, if you have a head for heights, you can stand on the walls enjoying the terrific views all around, a precipitous drop below and no railings to protect you.     We had a picnic at the high tower looking over the patterns of olive groves below and then found the highest point where there had once been a temple to Aphrodite, followed by a Byzantine church, then a mosque and finally a Venetian belvedere.  The Acrocorinth was a hard to beat place; it had great views, fascinating history and it was free!   Walking back down the hill we met the Corinth walking group once again at the fountain returning from their own walk.

Greece was certainly proving to be excellent for walking.

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Walking on the Livadi Plateau