North Greece

Metéora

 

With a name that means ‘In the heavens above’, one would expect such a place as Metéora to be pretty nice.

It is an area covered in towering sandstone pinnacles formed 60 million years ago, just after the demise of the dinosaurs, shaped by weathering and earthquakes.  So dramatic are the structures, it could be called the Greek Cappadocia, although lesser known.  Well actually, just because I hadn’t heard of it didn’t mean everybody else hadn’t.  In fact I hadn’t heard of Cappadocia either, so what do I know?

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Metéora – spectacular sandstone pinnacles formed 60 million years ago, shaped by weathering and earthquakes

On six of these awesome monoliths stand six Byzantine monasteries, each perched on the top like prehistoric bird nests.

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One of the Byzantine monasteries perched on the top like prehistoric bird nests

I’d arrived in Kalambaka, a small tourist village at the foot of the mighty mountains, in the dark, so I had no clue as to the spectacular scenery that awaited me in the morning.  This is because, as usual, I’d made a late start (midday) from my hotel in Vouliagmeni, a southern beach suburb of Athens.

As I headed north I took the back streets and avoided the toll roads for two reasons:

  1. To save money (tolls in Greece soon add up to be quite expensive)
  2. To ride more scenic roads instead of the usually not-so-scenic motorways

The major drawbacks of this are:

  1. It’s much slower if you want to get somewhere
  2. It’s much slower if you want to get somewhere

When I started out it was sunny (as it was forecast), but the roads weren’t that exciting – they just followed alongside the toll road; this is where drawback 1 came into play.

Soon after that it began pelting down with rain & got colder, which is where drawback 2 came into play.  I wasn’t expecting this dramatic weather change, so I had to stop and wrap up.

Eventually the roads became more scenic, and twisted up and down Greece’s central mountainous terrain, weaving through towns and villages.  It would have been much nicer if the sun was out, of course, and I almost gave up and jumped on the toll road at one cold, wet point.

Top Tip:  Never stop for a photo in a remote Greek lay-by (like I did), particularly in the dark (which I fortunately did not do); certain people use them as toilets without having the courtesy to bury their waste, and they therefore resemble open sewers.

One nice thing about Greek drivers is that they are well used to motorcyclists and are very courteous on the roads.  For example, they always move to the side of the road to let you over-take with ease, even when there’s oncoming traffic.

Kalambaka

In the end I rolled into a dark Kalambaka at 6pm and found a restaurant with wifi so I could:

  1. Warm up
  2. Eat
  3. Search the web for somewhere cheap to sleep

I had planned to camp rough somewhere, but I hate camping in the rain (who doesn’t?).

Luckily there were loads of cheap hotels for around 20 Euros due to it being off season and there being a large number of hotels trying to get your business.  I chose one with the best reviews, as usual, and checked into a hot shower and an early night.

WOW!

In the morning I was greeted with glorious sunshine, and a big surprise when I looked out of my bedroom window to see a towering sandstone rock face right in front of me.

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View from up my street in Kalambaka

I hopped on the Tiger to explore and enjoyed riding around the mystical, heavenly place all morning, admiring the views.

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I rode around all morning admiring the views

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Metéora – means “In the heavens above”

Then I made my way up to a few of the rock-top monasteries.

The largest monastery is the Great Meteoron (or Megalon) Monastery, so I thought I’d at least better visit that one.  The ride up alone was worth the effort.

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The winding road up to Megalon Monastery

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The view half-way up

The Megalon was built around 1340 after St. Athanasios Meteorites ascended the highest pinnacle in the area.  It was quite a climb, but luckily for St. Athanasios he was ‘carried up by an eagle’, and after admiring the view at the top, he named it Megalo Meteoro (or ‘Great Place’).

After my Greek diet of Souvlaki and Mythos Beer, I was too heavy to be carried up by an eagle, and so had to walk up a long flight of stairs, but the view was definitely worth it.

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The Great Meteoron Monastery built in 1340 after St. Athanasios Meteorites ascended the highest pinnacle ‘carried up by an eagle’

On the way up there were also great views of the c, the next-door neighbour.

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Monastery of Varlaam, seen from the climb up to Megalon

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Breathtaking view from the top of the Megalon

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Some old Byzantine frescoes inside Megalon

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Monastery quota attained

Igoumenitsa

After I’d attained my quota of pillar stacked monasteries, I headed off one again on my trusty Tiger.  I fancied heading up the Albanian coast (as I’d heard it was nice), and so made my way to the Greek west coast at Igoumenitsa.

As the weather was closing in, I decided to jump on the Egnatia Highway (toll road) which went all the way to the west coast; it was still very scenic (passing snow-capped peaks along the way) but much quicker of course, and only cost a couple of Euros.

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No wonder it’s cold! Snow on the mountains along the Egnatia Highway (North Greece)

Beach Camping

Having missed out on camping in Metéora, I was determined to camp near Igoumenitsa, and when I saw good weather forecast, I headed for the beach.

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Arriving at Igoumenitsa at sunset

Just north of Igoumenitsa, which is a lovely port town full of lively bars and restaurants, I found beautifully secluded Ormos Valtou National Park, from where you could see the Greek island of Corfu a few miles offshore.

Unfortunately, there was no ‘rough’ camping allowed in the National Park, but there was an organized campsite (barely still open) that let me throw up my tent next to the beach for a couple of Euros.

The spot was perfect, and just what I needed after the rainy weather inland.

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How’s this for a perfect camping spot? – Ormos Valtou National Park

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Lovely Jubley!

Ouzo and Greek Dancing

Next door to my tent was a traveling circus called ‘Zirkus Lollypop’, run out the back of a transit van by Swiss Gentleman Hansa and performer Innes.  Hansa had been here several times before, and kindly invited me out with them into nearby Igoumenitsa for a spot of Saturday Night Entertainment.

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Turns out I was camped next to Travelling Circus ‘Zirkus Lollypop’ – and a great night of Greek dancing and lots of Ouzo was had by all 🙂

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The camp-spot

And it was a great night out indeed, where I learnt I was (in fact) a great Greek dancer (well, that’s what this Greek guy said), and particularly apt at the knee-diving foot slapping (until my knee gave way).

In the morning I also remembered why I didn’t drink Ouzo anymore.

Anyway, the Zirkus Lollypop gang do a great job helping to rehabilitate kids (among other things), so take a look if you’d like to know more, or run away with them (as I was tempted):

http://www.lollypop-galaxys.ch/zirkus-lollypop.html

Also on the campsite were a couple of poorly stray dogs.  One was so skinny I was sure it didn’t have long left.  I gave them half of my dinner and a couple of tins of tuna I had.  Poor things.

Glorious Sunshine!

The next day was glorious (except for my hangover) and the sun shone as though it were a summer’s day – not bad for November.  I didn’t waste the opportunity to explore the National Park and relax on its gorgeous beaches.

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Ormos Valtou National Park – nothing but silence…

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A shell (I think)

It was so peaceful I could literally hear nothing except for the soft lapping of the sea upon the shore.

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Glorious day!

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It doesn’t get much calmer than this

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Exploring Ormos Valtou National Park

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I took the opportunity to top-up my tan

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Deserted…

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Ormos Valtou National Park

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Igoumenitsa across the bay

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Well, time to make a start towards Albania I suppose!

I just hoped the great weather would continue as I rode north into Albania.

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