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.
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).
to the mountains is fairly quick nowadays, courtesy of highways built with EU
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The writer was a guest of Tripology.co.il.