The Mountainous HinterlandsJuly 18-23
Those of you that have been following us since the beginning of our trip back in May have probably noticed that we try to get off the tourist path whenever possible. Sure, we like to see the usual big monuments and famous beaches and the major attractions like everybody else. But as long-term travelers, we also believe it's important to get a genuine sense of how a country feels and how its people live in areas that have not been tainted by the effects of mass tourism. In Greece, we found an authentic, untained paradise in the far northern regions of the country.
We decided after our amazing experience in Kokoni with Jen's distant relatives, it was time to explore Greece away from the foreign crowds. We headed north and visited the beautiful mountainous areas of the Zagorahoria and the Vikos Gorge, the Prespa Lakes on the Macedonian/Albanian border, and the cosmopolitan city of Thessaloniki on the Thermaic Gulf. It was a genuine glimpse of Greek life away from the tourist dollar, and it was a very rewarding experience. Following is an account of our travels through three major regions in the north: the town of Ioannina and the Zagorahoria region, the Prespa Lakes area, and Thessaloniki, Greece's "second city."
Thriving Mountain Town full of Nice FolksIoannina (pop. 90,000) is the capital and largest town in the province of Epiros, Northern Greece. To the north of Epiros lies Albania, to the west the Ionian Sea. Built along the shores of a beautiful mountain lake, it has a nice waterfront area full of unique restaurants, pubs and cafes.
We had a five-hour bus ride to Ioannina direct from Kokoni, arriving late in the afternoon. At first glance, the place seemed to be an unattractive town with aging modern concrete buildings. But after spending just a few hours on its streets, we began to understand the appeal of the place. This reminded us of one of Jen & Mike's Golden Rules of Travel: never judge a place from the seat of a vehicle moving through a major thoroughfare. You've got to get down into the streets on foot, and discover the place like a local would. Below the concrete buildings, a lively, large town comes to life. Locals hang out conversing in the large number of hip cafes along the back streets and the waterfront teems with people socializing and restaurant and pub-hopping in the evening. There are innumerable shops selling incredible local foods as well as the region's specialty: fine fillagree silver jewelry.
Despite an incredible number of natural and manmade sights in the area, there are virtually no foreign tourists here (we think we saw two of 'em near the town center once, but we can't be sure). This adds tremendously to the place's appeal. Also, the people in Ioannina, as they are throughout the north, are very nice. They would go out of their way to help us whenever we had a question. It was a nice change from the tourist-hardened south.
Sadly, we had only one night here. Since we only had a total of five days to spend in the north before moving on to Turkey, we had to move on to our next destination quickly.
THE ZAGORAHORIA & VIKOS GORGE
Outstanding Old Stone Villages and Greek Natural Wonder
...and one of its quaint streets
In Ioannina, we rented a car for three days so we could get around more quickly and have better access to the region, which is not well served by public transport. We drove from Ioannina north into the mountainous area full of quaint, traditional villages. This region is known as the Zagorahoria. All of the buildings in the Zagorahoria are fashioned from the light gray slate which is abundant in the surrounding area -- walls, chimneys, even roofs are made of slate! This makes the buildings blend in nicely with their mountainous surroundings. Our favorites were the twin villages of Mikro Papingo and Megalo Papingo, set on a hillside with spectacular views of the nearby Vikos Gorge.
Mikro Papingo Village
Speaking of the Gorge...
A major geological feature of the area, the Vikos Gorge is a spectacular natural wonder. The giant canyon stretches many kilometers in length and (by our estimate), is at least a kilometer (3000 feet) deep in some places. It's really difficult to explain the scale of the place...just take a look at the picture and imagine a vertical drop of about 3000 feet from the place where Mike's standing. We ate a picnic lunch on one of the rocky ledges at the lip of the gorge. It was a long way down from the ledge!
The Stunning Vikos Gorge
After visiting the gorge, were tired from a long day of sightseeing. We drove about 25 kilometers north to the pleasant town of Konitsa. Built down the slope of a gap between two large mountains, the town has amazing views of the valley below and, not far in the distance, the mountains of neighboring Albania. The next day we took the long four-hour drive north to the Prespa Lakes area, on the Greek borders with Albania and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
THE PRESPA LAKES
Secluded Beauty on the Albanian BorderWe really weren't expecting the kinds of mountains we saw in Northern Greece. As we headed out of Ioannina on our way to the Prespa Lakes region, what we thought would be a drive of only two or three hours turned out to be closer to five hours, through very twisty, windy mountain roads. The terribly dangerous Greek drivers on the road made it that much more of a challenge. Greek drivers seem to have a big problem with having anybody on the road in front of them...they will attempt to pass you at every opportunity. Even if that means overtaking your car at high speed on a blind mountain turn. Very dangerous. After nearly five hours and some frazzled nerves, we finally arrived in the Prespa Lakes area.
The region is located in the far northern part of Greece. In fact, it's only a few kilometers over the border to neighboring Albania. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is also nearby, just on the other side of Lake Megali Prespa. As we drove along the highway to the lake turnoff, we noticed there were groups of Greek military personnel and police posted at every road that led from the Albanian border area. They must have been watching for refugees and/or illegal immigrants. Poor Greece, it has a tough time being attached to such impoverished and troubled neighbors!
Prespa consists of two lakes: Megali Prespa and Mikri Prespa. Megali Prespa is the big one. In fact, it's the largest lake in all of the Balkans. We stayed at a small village called Psarades on Megali Prespa. Nobody (and we do mean nobody) speaks English up here. The only tourists to the area are Greeks who come here in small numbers in the summertime. The area is absolutely beautiful and completely peaceful -- very few vehicles except for a few pickup trucks in town and some small fishing boats moored at the town dock.
Out on Lake Megali Prespa
The morning before we departed, we hired a fisherman to take us out on the lake in his small boat. It was a surreal experience being on the lake; we seemed to be the only people out on the huge body of water. The cool morning air was filled with mist which hung over the lake and cast a very mystical aura over the place. Just a couple of kilometers across the water, we could see villages on the Albanian and Macedonian borders. The fisherman took us to three areas on the water's edge accessible only by boat. Two of them were rock paintings from the 13th and 15th centuries AD, and the third was one of the most amazing sites we had seen yet on our trip: a hidden hermitage, built by monks in the 15th century. We were dropped off on a rocky beach below some steep cliffs on the waterfront, where we climbed a wooden stairway some 40 meters (120 feet) to a shallow cave. There, at the top of the cave, a splendidly-preserved 15th century stone church stood alone and uninhabited. We were the only people there. Once again proving that monks find the best real estate...
The hidden cave church on the shores of Megali Prespa
That short one hour trip out on Megali Prespa ranks as one of our favorite experiences of our trip so far. It was so unique to visit such a serene place in complete privacy.
Visiting Greece's Second City on our way to TurkeyAfter a very tiring three days of driving through the mountainous north, we knew we needed a place to rest up before moving on to our next country, Turkey. So, after dropping our rental car off in the mountain town of Florina, we took a bus to the bustling city of Thessaloniki, Greece's "second city." With a population of 750,000 and none of Athens' problems (no pollution or bad taxi drivers here), Thessaloniki is a pleasant place to stay. Very hip and cosmopolitan, Thessaloniki is full of chic shops and chic people. The city also has an amazing history. It acted as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire for some time before the capital was moved east to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).
We stayed at a place near the waterfront in the center of the city. We really didn't see much of Thessaloniki. We were so tired from running so quickly through the north that we used our time here to rest up before we moved on to Turkey. We wish we had more to say about this pretty, relaxed city, but we don't. All we can say is next time we come to Greece, we'll spend more time here.
After two nights in Thessaloniki, we hopped on a bus headed to our final Greek town: Alexandroupolis, which lies about 20km away from the Turkish border. After a single night in town, we took a bus to the Turkish border, where we began an all-new journey in an all-new country!
Back to Greece pg 5 On to Impressions of Greece
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