Around Greece on a Vespa

Scooting up Mt. Olympus

July 8, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Wednesday, July 6: Panteleimonas Beach. After visiting the provincial museum of Dion, we climbed Mt. Olympus today (with the Vespa) as far as the road would take us. We stopped at the old monastery of St. Dimitrius which was nestled in folds of the mountain pass.

At the end of the access road, before the foot trails, we had a snack of feta-stuffed red peppers and a beer. We’ll try this at home.

We headed south to the small city of Katerini, which was quite a charming little place, so we stopped for lunch and coffee.

The tourist office in Litochoro had given us fancy color brochures of the region’s sites and B spotted a photograph of a sandy beach so we explored a couple of areas south of Katerini, deciding to spend a couple of days near the beach, one last chance to swim in the Aegean. We stopped in Panteleimonas, which features a castle on the hill above the beach that B had seen in the photos, and I inquired about a room at the one upscale hotel in this beachside community of mostly camping sites and related super markets and shops catering to vacationing Greeks and tour groups from Poland and the Czech Republic.

Two women at reception greeted me; I decided to ask whether they spoke English “parakalo, milate agglica?” and asked for a simple room (they advertised suites, rooms, and bungalows, along with a swimming pool). I explained that we are traveling around Greece for two months and that we need to keep our expenses down and that we’d like a simple room. They said that they only had suites available, no rooms. I asked for the price of the suite and was told 70 euros (I figure that they were trying to offer me a reduced price but it was still more that we had hoped). I thanked them and told them that it was too expensive for us, that we’d stay for two days, and she asked what could I spend; I told her 50, they paused to think it over and said alright. I told them that I needed to double-check with B, who in turn said “that’s terrific!” We went inside and asked to see the room. We were escorted to the top (third) floor via elevator and ushered into a suite that was twice as large as my Cambridge studio apartment, was surrounded by windows with a view of Mt. Olympus, contained living room and dining room furniture, refrigerator and numerous closets. I walked into the bathroom and almost fell over when I spotted not only a modern shower and his and hers washbasins, but a jacuzzi!!!

[50; 19; 88]

Laundry day and then a climb to the castle

Thursday, July 7: Panteleimonas Beach. Our hotel suite:

When we set out at the end of May, we decided that if we could find a way to launder our clothes every two weeks, we each could manage to carry all that we needed for two months in a small backpack. We’d been able to drop off our laundry after two weeks on the road on the coast of the Mani in the Peloponnese. Again, after four weeks, we were in Athens and able to locate a laundromat with the help of our hotel desk clerk.

I’d suspected all along that the camping and R/V sites we’ve seen in the beach towns would have laundry facilities. We’re now in a major beach and camping resort so I asked the clerk at our fancy hotel but neither she nor her colleagues knew the answer.

Last night, after dinner, we were strolling by the last campground entrance before our hotel. I walked up to the camping reception area, and sure enough, they had a commercial washer which was available to use and when would I like to use it?

This morning, I carried over most of our clothing, gave the campground three euros for a token (I had to buy a small box of Tide at the mini market across the street) and once again, we had a fresh start for what will be our final two weeks on the road.

We enjoyed the beach and view of the castle on the hill:

The Greek version of four-cheese pizza features Greek feta (won’t find that in Italy!) and, surprisingly, roquefort, gouda, and parmesan (the last two of Greek origin). As far as we could tell (and we know roquefort), the roquefort was the real deal!

[50; 27; 17]

Goodbye to the Aegean coast

Friday, July 8: Panteleimonas Beach. We climbed the castle and took photos of our beach with Mt. Olympus in the background,

said goodbye to our fancy hotel; our suite is on the top floor at the right with the surround windows looking out on Mt. Olympus:

B enjoyed the cherry spoon sweets before retiring.

[50; 21; 16]

Long haul to Kalambaka

Saturday, July 9: Kalambaka. Halfway between Panteleimonas and Kalambaka, B spotted a sign for an IKEA store. B is such a sucker for big retailers but IKEA is one of his favorite haunts. After consulting the iPad map application, we drove about 8km and spotted the store.

B in the IKEA store:

It was lunchtime and IKEA is a reliable place to order Swedish meatballs:

and gravlax:

B had a delightful phone call with Frances to wish her a Happy Birthday. All’s well in Philly, with Fred and Sam about to depart for a two-week trek along Hadrian’s Wall in southern Scotland.

We drove about 180km to our next destination, Kalambaka, which is the main base for tourists visiting the Meteora monasteries, perched high on top of rock formations. We were exhausted from the drive in what must have been 104F degrees through the fertile plain surrounded by mountains, so we were happy to find the old family “Estiatorio Gersou” restaurant serving excellent traditional dishes from yiayia’s kitchen. Delicious lamb with eggplant:

[35; 19; 38]

Sky-high monasteries

Sunday, July 10: Kalambaka. We spent the morning visiting monasteries perched on the tops of rock formations left as a result of river erosion.

They’re most impressive and after climbing the hundreds of steps up to each in the dry heat we understood why the 16th century frescoes which are the main draw are still in terrific condition. A big surprise for me was that the churches were about as large as your living room. Unfortunately, the frescoes were often unlit and too dark to really appreciate. But the ones which were visible were fascinating; lots of Italian influence. (Sorry: no photos permitted!)

We succeeded in finding some nice souvenirs: one monastery was offering a six-inch stamp apparently for bread (a wafer, probably), nicely carved in reverse.

And from the expected extensive array of trinket sellers we were able to find some handmade goat bells for the Vespa.

When we returned to town it was lunchtime so we returned to the Gerzou Family Restaurant (since 1925). The family had been in Istanbul and was forced to return to Greece during the 1923 population exchange. Yiayia, the daughter of the founder, had been cooking for the restaurant for 50 years and we had a long conversation with her son, our waiter, who told us that his wife had been learning the dishes for some years now. We had one of their specialties, cumin-flavored meatballs, typical of Istanbul Greek cooking:

As a complementary dessert (pretty standard protocol) we were served some amazing candied carrots with yoghurt and melon (how do they do that?):

A fancy sweet shop next to the restaurant had some marvelous cherry pastries:

savored at bedtime:

I have to nominate Kalambaka as the most friendly town we’ve been in yet: only three inquiries to find a superior room at 35 euros; a marvelous family restaurant without any “bread” cover charges; good bakeries and cafes for breakfast; just a pleasure all around!

[3719km; 35; 19; 77 (stamp: 20; bells: 10)]

Arrival in Metsovo

Monday, July 11: Metsovo. This morning we made a final round of the road around the Meteora monasteries and captured this image:

before driving on to Metsovo, a village cascading down a mountainside, known for its cheeses and crafts. We found a hotel renovated last year which offered us a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains.

The room was nicely decorated and included a fireplace built into an interior wall of stone.

The bathroom shower was tiled and open; very modern.

We were walking to have dinner at a restaurant recommended in our guide book at about 9:30pm when our friends Niki and George called from Cambridge, so we had a chance to double check with them about what we should do in Metsovo.

We didn’t find the entrails, George, but we had a nice meal of lamb chops, a vegetable pita,

and four Metsovo cheeses (Metsovela, smoked Metsovone, feta, chevre) baked with tomato and pepper.

The restaurant seating was one floor above the street, a nice perch to enjoy our dinner.

Unfortunately, Niki, I did not see one donkey in the town during our stay. I did see quite a few of those four-wheel “dune buggy” vehicles used for transport. I forgot to ask whether the donkeys had been retired!

Wonderful house museum in Metsovo

Tuesday, July 12: Metsovo. We visited the Averoff Museum which was furnished with old weavings made by the village women and girls in the 17th century. Here is an example of a room furnished as it would have been during the cold mountain winter, where the entire family slept together for warmth on two beds, one for the adults, and one for the children.

We enjoyed seeing this antique server for Greek “spoon fruit” — with a spoon for each guest, who in turn took one spoonful of the cherries or figs, for example, along with a small glass of cherry liqueur.

We didn’t find many crafts, for which this town is known, except for a couple of woodworkers.

We did enjoy the opportunity to try the famed Katogi red wine, made from vines brought here from Bordeaux.

Our hotel said that they offered an “American breakfast.” It turns out that we could have an omelette made to order, with feta and fresh tomatoes.

400-year-old villages in a national forest

Wednesday, July 13: Zagoria Region. We drove west from Metsovo, getting very close to our original point of arrival on the 30th of May. It’s hard to believe that this journey around Greece could be coming to an end soon!

We took the scenic road between Metsovo and Ioannina and made a detour to visit the village of Krapsi, where our friend Niki’s ancestors lived. After 16 kilometers of difficult road for anything but a truck or a donkey, we arrived in the afternoon to find no sign of life (it was the beginning of siesta time), and took a few photographs to show Niki that we’d made it. The stone buildings were pristine, the gates to St. Nicholas church were closed, but here is the town hall.

After visiting Krapsi and 16 kilometers back down the mountain, we returned to the main road. By the end of the day, we descended the mountains into the city of Ioannina, which borders a lake. We drove to the north to the national forest and the region known as Zagoria, with 46 ancient villages which were settled during the Ottoman era in the 17th century. We drove to one of the southern-most tiny villages and I climbed the stone paths to the town center to inquire about a room. After making it to the town square where I found three people, they pointed to a place where I might find a place to stay. I thanked them and walked up a steep slope of rough stones only to decide to turn around and tell B that it didn’t make sense to drag our bags up and down the many steep stone streets for a one-night stay. We hopped back on the Vespa and drove 6km back to a hotel we’d seen along the access road, another family-run hotel and restaurant.

A fitting end to our Greek adventure

Thursday, July 14: Overnight ferry to Ancona, Italy. After 7 weeks on the road, we were ready to catch the next ferry from Greece to Italy. So, after a breakfast at our hotel (B was astonished at the size of the eggs served to us)

we made a push to drive from the national forest area north of Ioannina to the port of Igoumenitsa, where we’d arrived in Greece on the 30th of May. We had no idea where we’d find a place for lunch, but took the 120km scenic road instead of the highway. First, we stopped for essentials for the 15-hour ferry trip to Ancona:

We were about halfway to our destination and after searching in vain for a decent place to have a meal, we finally landed in a village where the street was dotted with grill houses near a stream and a stone bridge.

Imagine our surprise and delight to see that one of the restaurants had the kokoretsi (entrails, which our friend George insisted that B try) on a skewer on the grill.

Our trip was complete! Onward we went to the ferry in Igoumenitsa for the 8pm departure.