So Greece has offered us plenty of eye-leaking beauty from the minute we left the ferry from Igoumenitsa on 11 April 2017 and in a very short time, a love affair blossomed with this incredible land. Around every corner some new delight greeted our curious eyes. And then there was Crete, which is a serious contender for one of our best memories of the last 15 months. So you would be forgiven for thinking that surely things couldn’t jump up the scale of impressiveness – although you’d be wrong.
The Pindos Mountains
Northern Greece is so far removed from the Holiday Brochure images of iconic azure seas, golden beach coves and white washed houses strewn with bougainvillea. Yet its understated existence on the Greek agenda gives it even more reason to visit.
Holy Trinity Monastery
First there is Meteora, where the ancient Monasteries float in the air with the presence of spirituality. Then as you head deeper into the mountains you enter a land only trodden by traditional goat herders and bears trying to pillage the local’s bee hives.
Aoos Spring Reservoir, Metsovo
The Aoos Spring reservoir is one of the most peaceful places we’ve ever stayed and to watch the mountains change their colour with the movement of the sun, is a beauty to behold. Alas no bears and no wolves, although a few suspicious bone remnants and carcasses suggest their presence at one time or another. Such is the privilege of calling this place home. (39.834456 21.065472)
With more time, there is no doubting that we would love to have ventured further into the Pindos heartland, with, if I’m honest the tiniest desire to search out the elusive bear. Alas Bulgaria was calling. So in our journey east, we decided to miss the Halkidiki peninsulas and stay in the mountains, as this always feelings like a nurturing home for us. The drive from Metsovo to Kastoria is not breathtaking compared to others, although it is quick on the new motorway (€6 toll) and within 90 minutes you drive into the most welcoming of sights. Picking up a young backpacking couple made the last 45 minutes so much more interesting, as Portuguese Rico and his French partner Rosanne shared their hitchhiking stories. Travel is so much richer when you share experiences together.
Kastoria’s mirrored lake
A mirrored lake greeted us, which took my breath away. It was definitely a sight to rival New Zealand’s lakes. Fringed by the most charming town, Kastoria reflecting back its splendorous image to the skies above. This attractive town is known across south-eastern Europe for its fur trade, which is centuries old and has brought a certain wealth to the area. This is evidenced by the magnificent 17-19th century mansions that proudly stand along the water’s edge, holding secrets of the furriers from a golden era of prosperity. The ‘kastori’, Greek for beaver, which gives its name to the town, were hunted to extinction by the 1900s and now only a few beaver farms exist, with a majority of trade now being sourced with scraps from Canada and Scandinavia. Interestingly, there seem to be more Fur and Leather shops in Kastoria than tavernas and that’s saying something for Greece.
Sadly the key historical fact that is often pushed aside by conversations of fur, is Kastoria’s Byzantine history. There are around 50 chapels that are in various states of repair and yet they still stake their claim amongst the community, often times nestled in between homes. The frescos and architecture are completely different to anything we’ve seen around the rest of Greece.
The local pelicans
Beyond the fur and history, Kastoria is also famed for her lake, that supports not only a flock of some 100 pelicans, 200 swans and many more cormorants and geese. This place is teeming with wildlife, so if like me you love your photography or bird watching, then this place has your name written all over it.
Grebes teach their young to feed on the lake snakes, green frogs croak their songs in a perverse melody and reed warblers compete with each other for musical supremacy. Then after dark the fireflies dance around you, lighting up the bushes like a Christmas tree adding a magical energy to the darkness’ realm. The dawn chorus here is like nothing I’ve heard before; it is choral heaven and a beautiful alarm clock. If you’re very lucky you may even catch the Oxford and Cambridge Blues taking a practice run out on the lake with their oars in tow or is that row! This is big rowing country and they were preparing for a competition of some sort the weekend we left.
Kastoria’s jewel is her peninsular that invades the lake’s tranquility, protruding out to the watery wildness. It offers mythology, ancient history and awe-inspiring underground geology. There is a one-way track around the peninsular, which is a perfect 10km round trip on foot or bicycle, giving you a different vista of the neighbouring mountains. At its neck, Kastoria has crept stealthily up over the rise and her influence on both north and south faces of the lake is clearly evident. Either side, lines of traditional fishing tenders line up against the shore, accompanied by a small flock of eagerly awaiting pelicans looking for a cheap meal.
Don’t miss Dragon’s Cave, which is the third longest in Greece, the longest of which is in Seres, just east towards the Bulgarian border. Albeit it a small peninsular, as you enter the underground world, you will be amazed by what is hidden beneath its rock; a whole new world, only recently discovered. For €6pp you get a 20 minute tour through this underground wonderland, with calcium formations I’ve never seen before and emerald green pools that are fed by the lake outside of its darkened doors. A worthwhile trip to add to your visit.
And just around the corner about 5 minutes drive, you will arrive at your home for the night. The monastery with its incredible Byzantine frescos still very much in tact, will offer you two or three permitted camper spots, as long as you remain 100m from the site. Underneath the shade of the trees you have beautiful views, a musical chorus day and night and an uninterrupted stay, where the locals are more intrigued by your presence, than bothered. There’s water and toilets too, so anchor up and explore this stunning town. (40.510208 21.29158)
A shaggy dog story?
As you regretfully leave the Kastoria’s shores, your route east will take you through fertile plains that keep the agricultural industry alive. Not in an obscene sense. Just land pocketed with squares of maize, barley and red poppies that rival France’s Provence, under the watchful eye of the rolling hills. And then you climb and wind up to the heavens, taking in the distant vista of Kastoria’s realm. The string of lakes in this area are well worth exploring and whilst some are prettier than others, they offer that synergistic perfection of water and mountains.
Lake Vegoritida and her town Agios Pandelimonas are, it’s sad to say, a poor relation after the joys of Kastoria, although sweet in her own right. You will be puzzled by the street lights submerged in the water and the permanent fisherman on a pontoon with no bridge to the mainland. What an interesting little place. Sadly our memories here will be somewhat coloured by a human’s cruelty towards their dog, who they trapped, in full summer heat behind a barrier with a football net. So in her vain attempts to escape she had tangled herself and was minutes from death. We managed to save her, although she was already emancipated and uncared for, so with water, food and some love we hope she found a way to survive beyond our little sojourn. It was all we could do as none of the locals cared. This has been the only blot on Greece’s copybook; they really have very little care for their animals and it is heartbreaking, although part of their culture.
That aside another lovely wild spot just outside the town, offered a lovely view from one of three terraced parking areas and although plagued by flies and mosquitoes, the spot is quite charming, yet lacking the charisma of our previous bedfellow.
And so our journey towards Thessaloniki and the Bulgarian border sets its course and new adventures await us, although what a devine surprise this mountain area of Greece’s Macedonia region, has been. We will return to uncover more of your treasure. Kx
Our Guide to Visiting Mesmerising Meteora
When you come to Meteora, northern Greece, be prepared for an experience and not just a visit. This is a very special and spiritual place that needs time, space and respect. Mother Nature and Spirituality fuse together in a symbiotic relationship to create a truly magical adventure. Whether you walk, cycle or photograph, this place will talk to you.
Check out our 13 point Guide that is shaped by our four days here. We hope it will help you make the most of this wonderland that will feed your eyes and nurture your soul. Click on the link below to download your FREE PDF Guide.
A Guide to Meteora
Also we’ve added a Dave the Drone video to give you a bird’s eye view. Enjoy. Kx
As I sit here in the wake of a humid-air-clearing thunderstorm that is reverberating around this natural acoustic arena, I’m thinking about how best to share our Greek, Meteora experiences.
After having a month on Greece’s most southerly island, Crete where we were completely enthralled by her coastline, we decided it was time for mountains onectar back on the mainland. Don’t get me wrong there are mountains everywhere on Crete and you are always travelling in their shadow, although you tend to pass through rather than stay and rest awhile. My love battle between coast and mountains still rages, each one giving me gifts from opposing energy. And so we were ready to get our much needed mountain fix.
So heading off the Anek Lines ferry in Pireaus we headed north, through the Athen’s rush hour towards the famous Meteora in Thessaly, northern Greece. So many people recommended coming here and we did wonder whether to leave it until our next trip. Although grasping life’s eternally fragile nettle, we decided we would do it now. Tomorrow after all is never guaranteed.
So I mention my mountain fix for good reason. As we headed out of Athens to a non-descript landscape and then more coast, there was no sign of mountains. And then out of Lamia we had some inclines and a mountain range in the distance. Ah, at last. Yet to my utter frustration after 45 mins of twists and turns, we ended up on Greece’s agricultural plain. Now for anyone who who has driven across Central Valley in California, then you’ll have a pretty clear image of what we experienced. The teasing image of the Pindos mountains to our left kept us hopeful of our curvaceous friends’ welcome. Except we kept turning right. Would our expectations fail us?
And then on the horizon, our awaiting prize showed itself. Pinnacles of sandstone boulders rising up from the earth like a Phoenix, revealing what everyone had been talking about. Meteora – the magical land of ancient Monasteries built atop fingers of rock as if suspended in the sky in their pursuit of God’s acceptance. Now this is what we’d hoped for.
If you’ve seen the film Avatar, then you’ll have a good impression of what Meteora is like. A region of sandstone megaliths that are 60 million years old, crafted into uniquely shaped fingers by earthquakes, rain and winds, upon which monks built their houses of faith back in the 13th Century. Their lofty position would make an eagle’s nest feel inferior and they give the impression of floating in the sky, casting an air of subtle yet regal dominance across the land.
There used to be 24 monasteries in times gone by, with churches and hermits’ caves built into the rock to allow for the preservation of their holy sanctuary and asylums for persecuted Greeks. Now there are only 6 left that, let me tell you, command your reverence, whether you are religious or not. Many visitors come in pilgrimage, whilst for others it’s donning the latest pose, with the backdrop of the Monasteries as their digital portfolio for family slide shows on their return from holiday. For some, like me, there is a sense of entering into a land that time forgot. Driving through the small village of Kastraki, you enter through invisible gates to a haven of spirituality that balances religion with natural history to create a mesmerising experience. The sunlight shines on these sanctuaries with the artistry of a stage show, with different times of day showing off each Monastery to their fullest potential.
Metamorphosis Monastery, 13th Century
Whilst no longer highly active Monasteries, a small number of monks and nuns still call these heavenly safe-havens, home. Now they tend to be more museums of ancient, religious tales that reveal a tortured time for the Greeks under Ottoman and Turkish rule.
Visiting this place needs more than just a coach trip, in my opinion as spending time here allows you to soak up the reverent vibrations that make this place so special. The acoustics here are incredible and if you can train your ear as you climb the often steep staircases to reach the Monasteries, you will be enthralled by the orchestra of sounds that bounce across the rock faces. Breathing in the magnificence of the human and natural architectural will sooth your spirit and leave you wanting to visit again to really see and feel the place and not just photograph it.
To get the most from your trip here, I would recommend the following 13 pointers in this Guide to experiencing Meteora. Click the blue link for your free downloadable PDF Guide. A Guide to Meteora
Also here is a link to Dave as he does a truly magnificent fly-past of this wonderland. Here’s the link. We think you’ll love his birds eye view.
So there we have it. A little slice of magic in the northern foothills of Greece. A gateway to another world where religion and nature fuse together in perfect symbiosis without much interference from the outside world, save the curious travel eager to appreciate its treasure. Do come, it’s very special.
As we sit here on the cusp of our ferry back to Greece mainland, I’m feeling very reflective about our month on this real Treasure Island. I have a fancy that it will stay in our hearts and memories, evoking every sense as we recall it.
I’m finding it strangley hard to encapsulate all that we have experienced here, such has been the diversity of the miles we’ve covered and the sights our eyes have been privileged to witness. How do I put all this in words? I don’t normally struggle!
Crete has not been just another country ticked off in our passion for exploring new lands. It somehow feels more significant than that. Not sure I can put my finger on exactly what that means just yet, although something has been birthed here.
Frangokasteli – 1371
Amidst a land that is claimed solely by history and nature and not, as we might think – tourism, I feel a huge sense of pride to have found so much essence on this fair isle. Don’t get me wrong, we are part of a huge number of people who visit here, many who come for a very much shorter space of time than us and who are very happy to simply have the sun and sand.
Yet if you are willing, Crete invites you to look beyond the crowds, coach tours and the touristy northern coast and search deep into its soul. As there you will find an intriguing trilogy between Mother Nature, modern and ancient history and mythology; who blend together to create a Cretan adventure that will leave its mark on your heart.
Zeus’ Birthplace – Psychro Cave
Neither of us are great historians, although I defy you to be left untouched by the mythogical legends of Zeus, the Minotaur and Poseidon as their stories create the very fabric of Greek culture. And then there’s the ancient history that have left this amazing legacy for us to explore; the Minoans, who are said to be the earliest of European civilisation, a truth which is being increasingly unveiled by findings at ancient sites like Knossos. And let’s not forget that we’re talking up to 2000BC. This is almost beyond comprehension and yet demands a deep respect as you tread in ancient footprints. More recent history has also left indelible scars on this land and the current generation as WW2 invasions, massacres and German occupation influences their memories. Yet the Cretans are, like Greeks across the water, the most warm, engaging and generous of people. In the older generation you can see history etched into the lines on their faces and, as they walk by, they seem to carry the world on their shoulders like Atlas in mythology. What must their treasured island feel like with this throng of visitors passing by their simple homes, let alone a 7.5 metre motorhome? Strange times indeed and we are grateful for their sharing and community spirit.
Crete is a complex partnership of mountains, that form the island’s backbone, and the forces of the sea and wind who together, continue to shape its landscape. No matter where on Crete you travel, you always pass in a mountain’s shadow, which is strangley comforting. And then in a whisper, you are drawn to the sparkling aqua and azure seas, as if in some futile competition. As you approach the sea’s domain, it’s almost as if the mountains have slid gracefully in surrender, creating secret coves and stunning beaches to amaze and enthral. The south offers most of these secret treasures, many only accessible on foot. And so it is a haven for naturists who bare all without fear of intrusion. Lagoons, long strands of sand, dunes and bays of curvaceous beauty, all with the backdrop of the magestic mountains, covered in a greenery that will surprise and delight you.
Crocodile Rocks, Agia Pavlos
Yet look a little deeper and you will uncover a different Crete, one carved millions of years ago. Whichever compass point you look, Crete gives you a different geology lesson; uniquely shaped rock formations that tell you a tale, if you unsdertand its language. From the crocodile rocks in Agios Pavlos in the south, to the pink sands at Elafonisi and the 50 gorges that clearly make their mark on Crete’s canvas. The volcanic and tectonic legacy is evident everywhere, each one telling a unique tale from its past.
Irini Gorge, Agia Irini
The gorges themselves are incredibly special and as you enter the bosom of their souls, they take you into their protection and transport you to a whole new world. We walked four of the lesser known gorges as we didn’t want to share the experience with thousands of others eager to conquer the feat that is the Samaria Gorge. Plus you simply can’t do them all and to add insult to injury, I was supporting an Achilles’ tendon strain – only in Greece eh. So Pefki and Butterfly Gorge in the east and Imbross and Irini in the south west were our four nemeses. Each one giving us unique challenges. Pefki with its 300ft ascent, Butterfly with her rock climbing endeavours, Imbross, the uphill hIke through an old river bed with narrow cliffs teaming with the sound of insects and the equisit 8km Irini gorge that snakes through the mountains with dexterity and grace to the orchestral melody of your own personal aviary. Their architecture is astonishing and as long as you can take your eyes off where you’re walking for two minutes, you can appreciate Mother Nature’s artwork that rises above your head.
Cretan Church – great architecture
Now speaking of architecture, I have to be honest that all Crete’s design efforts goes into the landscape and not the buildings. Whilst it is undeniable that the churches and mountain-top chapels are devine, literally, I didn’t really think much to the Cretan villages. Krista to the east was lovely, the old town of Chania charming and the harbour towns quaint. Although on the whole they really did disappoint me. I guess I have been spoilt by Santorini and Mykonos, so they have a lot to live up to. I do love how the deep purple and pink bougainvillea drape seductively across telephone wires and concrete balconies, in a vain attempt to shield their plainness, although only with a modicum of success. That said their delightful homes turned tavernas in EVERY village you pass just shows the Greek’s entrepreneurial spirit. Partnered with the stalls on the roadside that offer the weary traveller a tempting gastronomic tease with their local honey, raki (fire water!!) and olive oil goods, they are just too good to bypass. You want organic this is the place to come.
Goat milking for cheese making at our door!
I can’t miss the chance to share the vision of the pink and white oleanders that border the main roads, creating a corridor of colour that make an otherwise boring piece of tarmac quite picturesque. The delicate red poppies wave in the breeze, the yellow broom brings the mountainside to life and the wild sage and thyme fills the air as you pass by. And then there’s the goats that cling to the gorge edges defying gravity and yet are still able to yield the most wholesome milk for a sensational cheese. I shall never again be able to eat this without accompanying it with a delicate dribble of organic honey – just a marriage made in heaven.
So what did we learn from our Cretan experiences? First and foremost, Crete is big. Underestimate it at your peril. A month is just not long enough to do it anywhere near enough justice. We did well with our five centred ‘homes’ although there is so much we had to miss.
Secondly, Crete is stunningly diverse. Whether you like hiking, snorkelling, photography, botany, beaches, buzzy towns, history or mountains – you will not be disappointed.
Wild camp at Sfinari, west Crete
Finally Crete offers 15 campsites; some of which can only be loosely described this way. They are often small, basic although always welcoming and often with stunning swimming pools. If their signs say ACSI, it is unlikely to end up in a discount as most times their inspection has either run out and it’s an old sign or it’s just an inspection sign, which don’t offer discounts. That said we paid between €17-26 per night with electric. Wild camping is doable although not as profusely as on mainland Greece, yet we managed to find some stunning spots that were made in heaven or somewhere close. That said we found that if we centred ourselves in one place, then either use our bikes or hire a car, we covered more ground. You can get a car for about €25-35 per day, depending on the length of hire and it’s great to nip to places more quickly than with a 3.5T motorhome. The roads are very doable, on the whole and although sometimes twisty and wiggly, travelling around the island wasn’t difficult. Just sometimes more efficient with a car.
So what would my closing reflections of Crete be? Come! Simple as that really. I know it’s the furthest south you can get in Europe, although please come. Either fly and hire a motorhome from:
www.campergreece.com; www.motorhomes.gr or www.spicycampers.com
…or make the overland journey sailing from Piraeus to Hirakleon or Chania with Anek Lines. The €400 return journey was, in my view an absolute investment and the best way I could imagine to spend that money. Crete will take hold of you by the heart, pull on your strings and offer you an experience, not a holiday. Its richness, colour and diversity will make it so memorable that photos will not be required. You will relive your Cretan Odyssey through your dreams. Although here’s a few to whet your appetite.
With love and and admiration for Crete, Mrs Moneypenny.
So here’s the thing. When you’re travelling Europe and it’s hot, we tend to head towards the coast to cool off and drink in the amazing views that inevitably the sea gifts. As romantic and lovely as it sounds though, that strategy brings with it some challenges, namely salt and sand. Sand I guess we can live with – get the hoover out and bosh, it’s gone. The salt is a bit more tricky, as it’s a silent enemy that plays mischievously with your van and implements. For a few days or so, that’s no major issue, although over a prolonged period, it could be more troublesome, as we found out this week.
After visiting some of the most amazing coastline on the Peloponnese, followed by a stay on the island of Crete, which is famous for its northerly winds, we started to experience some difficulties with our fly screen. Albeit an intermittent problem, a problem none the less. Now on a day to day basis that doesn’t sound too much of a challenge, except when someone turns up the thermostat and starts to melt you. Open windows and vents just don’t satisfy the insatiable need for heat relief – you got to get that door open. ‘So just open the door’, I hear you scream! Well you could be right, although then there’s that delicate balance between airflow and mosquitos! We value our sleep far too much to risk having the door open without that little netted barrier.
So what’s a girl to do? Well you call in the services of your very own DIY Superhero, aka Myles. I had a fancy that our sticky screen was due to the onslaught of salt, brought in on the afternoon Greek winds. Over five weeks that salt had accumulated and built up on the flyscreen fibres and just clogged it up. Well that was my theory anyway. And given that Myles loves fixing things, what better a challenge than to get him to solve our little predicament – and quickly.
After a bit of research that brought up no immediate solutions, Myles took off said door and saw no evidence for our sticky issue and so he turned to his old faithful! WD40 – the cure-all juice. No traveller should be without it. So with a bit of a spray in the mechanisms and a bit of a dab on the horizontal guide strings – hey presto it works a treat. I think we probably need a bit of warm soapy water to just finish off the job and make it a smooth operation, although so far, so good.
So if you’re ever having problems with your screen, check that there’s no sand in the bottom track and then work the material with either some warm water, or in our case WD40 and see if that makes its movement smoother. Be mindful if you’re camping a lot by the coast that salt will have an impact on your entire vehicle and not just the fly screen. Whilst salt may not be your particular issue, it’s worth checking it out before the costly journey to your dealer. It’s been an interesting lesson for us.
Quick update on 10 June, whilst the WD40 certainly helped, it was still causing us some problems. So out came the soapy, warm water and hey presto. Problem is now well and truly resolved. Keep it Simple!