Greece may not top of many people’s lists when thinking about a road trip, after all there are many more better known country routes, the Great Ocean Road and Route 66 among them. However do not dismiss it just yet, after a recent flying visit I found a great deal to recommend such a journey.
“The generosity and warmth of their welcome was overwhelming”
A great deal is made of the financial crisis and protests taking place in the country now and of course it is impossible to ignore the situation altogether. My own trip was almost postponed due to a general strike, rubbish was temporarily piling up in the streets of Athens and there were some protests on the evening I arrived. Sirens could be heard for most of the evening.
However not one person that I met seemed to dwell on the problems, many probably expected more questions about the situation, but it did not seem appropriate. Everybody was extremely friendly, very warm and genuinely pleased to meet me. The generosity and warmth of their welcome was overwhelming and I am actually pleased to have visited at this particular time.
The problems are certainly a good reason for concern for the people of Greece they will not however be my abiding memories of the country. Watching sunset and sunrise over the Acropolis from my balcony in the Hilton Athens was a memorable start to the journey which I was about to embark on. There would soon be many more to go with it.
“The huge pillars stand like sentinels”
First stop was Meteora which required nearly a five-hour drive but was worth every mile. This amazing place has long been on my list of must visit destinations and to finally get there was a mind-blowing experience. There is little than can prepare anybody for the sight which greets the eyes driving towards this region. The huge pillars stand like sentinels all around the area, the monasteries that cling precariously to the sides seem to defy gravity and it was necessary to catch my breath on more than one occasion.
Climbing to the top of a rock spire on a clear, warm day and visiting some of the more renowned monasteries in the company of local experts were a couple of the highlights of this trip. However the only slight challenge with a very hectic itinerary is that eventually it is time to leave, this moment arrived far too quickly.
The only small mercy was that the next stop was the lovely mountain community of the Pelion in Thessaly. Arrival at my stop for the evening Portaria was quite late due to a problem with the GPS system that came with the rental car. It insisted that the route to the village was up a very steep, loose gravel track, despite stopping regularly to check, it never offered an alternative. Eventually fearing damage to the car, retreating to find another steep, winding but tarmac road to the village instead, the satellite system however never accepted this even existed.
This left very little time to explore the area with only an hour or so left to make a quick tour of nearby Makrinitsa known as the balcony of the Pelion. The welcome I received in this region was particularly special and it was with great regret the visit was so short.
The trip down to Olympia was an all out dash of over six hours and ideally would have been split into a couple of days. Passing through many picturesque villages and other places of interest on a road lined with viewpoints just screaming out for a stop, it seemed almost criminal to pass them by.
“artefacts everybody should see at least once”
Fortunately Olympia proved more than worth the long drive. Visiting the archaeological ruins which included the Temples of Zeus and Hera, the Pelepion and the Stadium, which is the home of the first Olympic Games surely cannot fail to leave an indelible impression on any visitor. The nearby museum if anything is even more impressive. The statues in particular are simply stunning, the Nike of Paeonius, Hermes of Praxiteles and the extremely impressive remains of the pediments from the Temple of Zeus are artefacts everybody should see at least once.
Olympia has much more to offer however, visits to nearby Kaiafas Lake with its natural springs and the winery of the Mercouri Estate were all there was time for me to stop off at. Neither disappointed, both had a great deal to offer and left my appetite whetted for further visits. I especially enjoyed the wine provided for me to try, and it was with some regret that it was soon time to leave.
“Once again their warm generosity was quite humbling”
The next port of call on this whistle-stop tour was Nafplio in the Peloponnese. It was in the capital until slightly less than two hundred years ago. It is an extremely popular destination with the Greek people, an attractive port town it is easy to understand why. Hill top fortifications dominate the old town, filled with upscale coffee shops, seafood restaurants, chic boutiques and gift shops.
That evening provided a treat of an excellent meal in one of the seafront restaurants Arapakos Fish Tavern with even finer company. Tasos and Pericles owners of the fantastic Xenon Inn where I was staying and Katerina a journalist and local newscaster were gracious hosts. They were genuinely interested in my visit, asked pertinent questions without ever allowing their curiosity to detract from the pleasure of the evening. Once again their warm generosity was quite humbling.
The view from the harbour even on a fairly dull and overcast day is worth pondering over and not for the first time I found myself wishing there was more time to explore. Not being able to take a short trip to the Palamidi castle on the hilltop or the little island in the harbour which houses another fortification Bourtzi was particularly disappointing. This city deserves much more time devoted to visiting and it was now beginning to feel like the trip was just to leave me aching for more.
The remainder of this trip is here: The Great Big Greek Roadtrip – Part Two
I am very grateful to the Greek National Tourism Organisation for organising this trip and the agencies that made it possible by providing accommodation, transport and meals. All opinions expressed however remain my own.