We were prepared, and fully expecting, a long drawn out border crossing, since we were now passing back into the EU. It wasn’t quite smooth sailing, but at 20-minutes, it was more than an hour quicker than entering Albania. The police entered our van, asked about our travels, and if we had any drugs – the question caught me off guard. We were now in Greece, country number 30!
This was one of those change of countries that were like night and day. The roads after the border were wide, smooth, and free of garbage. Even the drivers were more courteous. We were now also in a new alphabet, which was a fun new game, trying to mix Greek I knew from studying Engineering, with the Cyrillic from Russia, and of course, our English alphabet. It wasn’t necessary to read their alphabet, as most of the signs were bilingual.
I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I was surprised at how mountainous it was here, admiring the giant rocky peaks far in the distance. We were also a little surprised about the heat, with temperatures nearing 30 degrees. It wasn’t a surprise, it’s what the weather forecast predicted, however, I’d forgotten just how warm 30˚C can be.
We were out of fresh food, so stopped for lunch from a small bakery. It was heaven, with so many baked Greek treats, as well as all sorts of filo pastries, and amazing breads with olives. It was also nice to be back in a country that uses Euros. It’s not hard to do currency conversions, but it’s still much more convenient to have something familiar. The food was incredible, and sitting in the warmth of the sun, staring at the blue skies and distant mountains, I had a feeling that we were going to enjoy Greece.
We’d wanted to visit Meteora this afternoon, but I’d realised that we’d be too late to make it there before the monasteries close for the evening. Fortunately, there was a pretty amazing national park right around the corner that we could visit.
Vikos National Park
Before coming to Greece, I asked a Greek ex-colleague of mine for some hidden gems, things that might not be on the usual tourist path. He suggested this national park. I read a little about it, and found that there is some fantastic hiking, and beautiful old villages hidden deep in valleys. The area that I really wanted to visit was deep in the national park, with roads that looked indistinguishable from walking trails on Google Maps. A popular option is a single hike, with return buses to complete the loop, but it seemed quite awkward for us with our own vehicle, requiring multiple buses and a possible overnight stay.
There were some other sights that were closer to the edge of the national park, and looking at the map, the road seemed prominent enough – if a mess of twists and turns. Leaving the main highway, we suddenly had to violently climb up a steep mountain road. It was a little loose in places, and there were a few places with perilous edges, but the views were phenomenal, and continued to improve the further we climbed.
We could already feel the temperature difference compared the valley below. It was still hot, especially in the sun, but there was the hint of coolness in the breezes. The trees were also in the early stages of their autumnal shift, with beautiful orange, red and yellow hues, mixed with the still luscious green trees, and under vivid blue skies. It felt weird seeing this autumn shift when temperatures were still so high, as we’re both used to it being cold and somewhat miserable by the time the leaves change colour.
Our first stop was to the beautiful, beautiful old stone Kokkori Bridge. This valley is littered with these old bridges, all of which were said to have been privately funded by wealthy families in the area, way back in the 18th century. It was mesmerising, elegant, and truly enchanting. It reminded us a little of the Rakotzbrucke in Germany, with the slender stone arch. However, this bridge was far more structurally sound, and it was open to foot traffic.
It wasn’t just the bridge, but the entire area was stunning, with the towering canyon walls, the spots of orange, red and yellow trees, and the impossibly clear sky. The beginning of a popular hike up the Vikos Gorge begins from here, but as with the other hikes, it was a little long for us to complete as a return day hike.
After walking around the bridge, and doing our best to see it from all angles, we continued driving. I should say, we continued driving for 200m, before stopping again for more amazing views. We stopped just below a trail that led to a lookout giving spectacular views of the canyon (though not the bridge) below. The landscape felt ancient, reminding me of the kinds of canyons and gorges we’d see in the North-West of Australia.
It was only a few hundred more meters until we came across Plakidas Bridge. It wasn’t in such a dramatic location, but the bridge itself was much larger, with an exceptionally beautiful triple arch, almost hidden in the undergrowth.
The road ahead of us was going to be long and torturous. We now faced over 30km of near constant corners, climbing up and down small hills, and passing through tiny villages. Along the way we passed by more beautiful stone bridges, however, they were not as beautiful as the two we’d stopped to visit earlier, so continued driving. The road ducked in and out of dense forest, almost emulating night time, only to burst into wide open vistas that forced us to stop to drink it all in. Amazingly, we didn’t encounter a single other car! It was driving heaven, or at least would be in a sports car/bike.
The constant cornering was making Risa feel a little motion sick, so we both felt a sense of relief when we eventually made it to the motorway. It was frustrating, but the tolls here are based on height, not length or weight. This meant, since we were over 2.7m, that we were forced to pay as much as a bus, which was more than 4x that of a car. Thankfully, it was only €6, but there wasn’t a way of us knowing until we arrived at the pay station. Once again, we were at their mercy.
The motorway soon ended, and we were back onto mountainous roads as we continued the final 50km to Meteora. The road was exceptionally busy, with long trails of cars behind trucks, all eager and anxious to escape to the open spaces ahead. This gave us more than a few frights when we found cars in our lane while cresting a blind hairpin corner.
We caught the tail of a beautiful sunset in the valley below Meteora. We could see the rocky cliffs of the area, bathed in beautiful warm glow of the dying light of day.
There was still a tiny amount of light left in the sky by the time we’d arrived. We could see some people at a lookout just above town, but our attempts to get there in Gunter were nearly disastrous – the roads were steep, slippery, and very, very narrow. We settled for what we had, rather than gamble and risk damaging our van.
I love Greek food, and was eagerly anticipating our arrival to Greece. We checked our guide book, and searched online, and found what appeared to be the best eating option in town. Taverna Paradisos was empty when we arrived, and over the course of the evening, another three couples came and joined us. Now that it’s mid October, it’s hard to tell if it’s because it’s a quiet time of year, or because it’s not popular. When the restaurant is so large, it exacerbates the feeling of emptiness.
The food that we received didn’t meet my expectations. I can’t tell if my expectations were unreasonably high, or if it was just quite average – I think it was the former.
We found a few free parking spots up in the mountains, so after dinner, we started on our drive up the pitch black mountain roads that wound their way up towards the monasteries. It must have been past their bed times, as there didn’t appear to be many lights on. The wind was starting to pick up, which wasn’t helped by us parking near a cliff edge.
The wind was still strong, cold and consistent when I woke in the morning. Thanks to the sun rising a little later in the morning down here, I was able to catch some of the early morning sun as it lit up the rocky landscape around us. It was completely dark when we’d arrived, so had no idea of the views to which we’d wake. Slowly, more and more buses and other tourists started to pull in to our little campsite, so it was past time to get the day started.
It was only €3 to enter any of the monasteries, however, there were more than 5 monasteries that could be visited, each with a separate entry fee, so we chose to be selective. We started with a visit to the most interesting sounding of the monasteries. The Holy Trinity monastery wasn’t too far from where we’d camped, but with all the spectacular views that we encountered around each and every corner, it took us a surprisingly long amount of time to arrive.
It was honestly a little ridiculous, with these sheer rocks sticking out of the ground like teeth. Perched perilously on top were small stone monasteries. There were two ways to access these naturally fortified positions. One was via a cable car that spanned the gap to the main part of the mountain; the other was via a stairway of 160 steps tunnelled into the side of the rock. The setting was extraordinary, but the interior was much less thrilling. They are all working monasteries, and common sense should have told me that monasteries would be austere buildings. Had I of listened to common sense earlier, my expectations would have been appropriately set for a building mostly lacking in adornments or decorations. It’s not to say that it was nothing but white walls and stone floors, there were some tiny, but pretty chapels inside the building – though they forbade photography. Most of the building was off limits to tourists, which again shouldn’t be surprising as it’s a working monastery. I did wonder what our entrance fee was for – thankfully it was only €3 each.
There were fantastic views from the rear of the monastery, looking out at the epic rock formations below. It’s a little crazy to think that people decided to build monasteries in such difficult locations – or is that part of the appeal, if you’re looking for a location to build a monastery? Thoughts of Montserrat in Spain popped into our heads.
We continued on the circuit, stopping to view more of the monasteries as we went. The Holy Trinity monastery was said to be the most beautiful of the monasteries, and we hadn’t really been amazed by what we’d seen – at least not compared to the views of them perched on the small fingers of rock. So, we decided to skip entering the other monasteries, and instead satisfied ourselves with the amazing views from the outside.
Monastery of Saint Stephen was our next pass by. It was much, much more popular than the Holy Trinity, with buses lining the access road, and stalls selling all sorts of souvenirs and terrible food. It didn’t appear to be as dramatic of a location, either, so after a few minutes we were back in Gunter and on our way to the other side of Meteora.
The Monastery of Varlaam and the Great Meteor were on adjacent protruding stones. Reasonably close as the crow flies, but a little further for those of us with legs. They were both much larger than the Holy Trinity, though their location didn’t appear as impressive. The rocks that they were on were larger, and they didn’t seem as prominent.
We walked around for a while, taking in both the views of these monasteries, and the others in the distance in the region. It’s a beautiful region with just the rock formations, but with these monasteries clinging to these small lumps of rock, it makes it something truly unique.
I’d read that it was quite a popular place for rock climbing. We got lucky and saw a few groups making ascents. I still am amazed at the stamina, and the courage it must take to climb something like this. I enjoy rock climbing, but could never imagine getting to the stage of tackling something like this.
It was well after lunch time by the time we’d agreed to leave Meteora for the Ionian Coast. We had a quick look at the food trucks by the monasteries, but kept our wallets closed. We hoped to find something a bit better in town, back below the mountains, but it too seemed to be focused on tourism. Down here, away from the strong winds, the temperatures were searing. Display boards in town said it was 30˚C, and the hot air that was coming in our windows certainly felt at least that warm.
We’d nearly given up hope for a cheap/tasty lunch, but as we were passing through the main town, Kalabaka, we stumbled on a few take-away places selling gyros. Even better, we found a park right in front of one, as though fate brought us here. Oh, but it gets better still. The food was incredible, AND the gyros were only €1.70 each. It felt like we were stealing at that price. So we bought a third to share.
I now needed to try to stay awake on the long drive ahead of us, back along the same winding roads to the motorway, stuck in long queues behind the trucks and tractors. We had a few more distant views of the rocky pinnacles, though the monasteries were all hidden from views.