July 4, 2018.
Episode 4: It’s all Greek to me.
Carol, Alicia, Ross and I finally made it to Athens, two and a half days after being stuck on the Croatian coast near Dubrovnik airport. We enjoyed ourselves though, as we experienced a slice of local Croatian life that we would not have otherwise seen. This included a lovely local restaurant by the water, where we had delicious octopus salad and squid ink black risotto, served by a cheeky and endearing elderly waiter.
Our allocated time for Athens had been eaten up by the flight debacle, but we wanted to make the most of it. Getting through customs, etc. was surprisingly quick, then we caught a cab into town. Remember that maniac taxi driver that Ross and I had in Zagreb? Well, he was a mere apprentice compared to the cabbie that got us into Athens city. Oh my god. He raced along the curving freeway at 140km/hr in 80km zones, one hand loosely draped across the steering wheel and chatting. It was terrifying. I was in the front seat, holding on for grim death. I later learned that neither Ross nor Alicia had functional seat belts in
Despite arriving in Athens at 9pm, we all had the stamina to dump our bags at the hotel and go straight out for a look around on that same night. I had hastily re-jigged Ross’ and my itinerary so that we could have one and a half days in Athens at the very end of our trip, but Carol and Alicia were flying to Santorini the very next morning, then directly back to London five days later. So, we snatched a view of the Parthenon and some other temples that night and even had time for a Greek dinner in the Plaka area at midnight! Very early the next day, we bid farewell to Carol and Alicia. We had an excellent week with them, they were so easy to travel with and it enriched our trip experience during that period. (Thanks heaps, girls. Let’s do it again sometime – if only for the blueberry lavender Mojitos).
Ross and I caught a train five hours North, to Meteora, renowned for the incredible medieval monasteries perched on massive pillars of rock. We picked up a hire car for two days and drove past the bustling town of Kalambaka,
opting instead to stay in the charming little village of Kastraski. The guesthouse was wonderful and it had killer views of the rocky peaks right outside our back balcony (as I posted on Facebook).
Its hard to put into words how fantastic this area is. You’ll just need to check out the pictures below. Meteora would be beautiful enough just with the massive rocky pedestals. But when you add the breath-taking monasteries built on top of the rocks, it is just mind-blowing. There are six or seven still intact, and we drove between them – one of the most spectacular drives I’ve ever done. As expected, they required walking up many steps to get inside, and sometimes through dark passages. It was wonderful. We went inside the two main monasteries, the Grand Meteoron and Valaarm. Lots of great stuff inside, wonderful artefacts, including gold and sliver- embossed medieval books, priests’ lavish outfits and their paraphernalia, and beautifully ornate baptisteries. How the hell they built these structures high up on sheer rock in the 14th
and 15 th
centuries, I don’t know.
In the Meterora area, there are tavernas everywhere, serving up excellent Greek food. We both love Greek
food, so it was gastronomic heaven for us. Culinary highlights included stuffed tomatoes, grilled peppers (extremely yummy), great mousaka, saganaki, fried aubergines and that Greek semolina cake thingy. One lovely outdoor eatery was on a mountain top, called Eagle’s Nest. Family run, the parents took the orders, the grandparents did the cooking and the kids served us. It was all very tasty. However, some aspects of their menu got lost in translation. See opposite, and click to enlarge (aubergines).
On our last night in the area, we ate at a place in town recommended by our guesthouse, and it was indeed very good. (Ask me about eggplant saganaki sometime!) The waiter at this particular restaurant was very friendly and engaging.
“Where are you guys from?” he asked.
“Well, the largest Greek city outside Greece”, I replied. “Melbourne, Australia.”
He nodded knowingly and we chatted for a while, as he had a cousin there.
I said to Ross later as we were leaving the taverna:
“That waiter was very nice. What did he say his name was again?
“Don’t be stupid. It wasn’t. What was it?”
“Very funny. No,
“Nana Mouskouri -”
Deciding to play him at his own game, I said:
“No, no…Now I remember it. His name was Apoptosis.”
Ross put his wine glass to his mouth, then paused and frowned.
“No! No, I’m sure I’ve heard you use that word before. It’s some sort of biological term, isn’t it? It means dead cells, or something similar. Stop making a parody of the poor guy’s name!!”
After two days in the area, we were due to catch the 5.30pm train back to Athens. With some time to kill after returning the rental car, we stored our luggage and wandered around Kalambaka town. Suddenly I thought I heard that clicking of bills that cranes and storks do when they greet each other.
Surely not? … Here, in central Greece? I looked up…Yes! There, in a prime position at the very top of a lovely Byzantine Church, was a large white stork nest. Five birds were present; the parents and three young ones. Of course! These were the famous white storks that spend the Northern summer nesting on buildings across Europe. They then migrate to Africa later in the year.
Indeed, I have seen them in the lakes and rivers of East Africa. I was thrilled. Just didn’t expect them down here in Greece. Together with the two tortoises we saw on the side of the road and a glimpse of a leaping mustelid (weasel, ermine or stoat), I was pleasantly surprised at seeing some European wildlife!!
Next stop was the Ionian island of Zakynthos, a one-hour flight from Athens. The main aim here was to see the legendary Navagio (Shipwreck) beach. Probably the most incredible beach vista in Europe and contender for the best in the world. The East side of the island is over-developed, full of resorts, over-priced restaurants and drunk Britons on quad bikes. Instead, we opted for an Airbnb in a small village on the West side, 10 minutes drive from famous Navagio beach. It was an excellent and rewarding experience. We had a whole villa to ourselves for three nights for a total of $290 Aussie dollars. The hosts were wonderfully friendly, and the mother had made us a lemon cake for our arrival. In the local village, people spoke little English, chickens wandered the streets and old men sat drinking coffee by the
sidewalk. We ate nice local food. (Although we bought a round loaf of home-made bread that sounded good, but it weighed as much as a brick and we discovered it required a chainsaw to slice). As an added bonus at our villa, a pair of fork-tailed swallows were nesting under the eave of our patio.
So, Navagio beach can only be accessed by boat, or viewed from the precipitous cliffs above. It features a white sand beach and the rusted hulk of a shipwreck. The beach is flanked by huge white cliffs, and lapped by magical azure water. We first drove to the hill top view. Now, you get OK views of the beach below from the official viewing platform, but many people walk beyond this, along the headland, for even better views. We did the same. Peering over the edge is extremely vertiginous - and frankly, scary - but the view is beyond fantastic. (Yeah, yeah, I know, Mum, you would have had an absolute fit!). We then got a short boat trip that took us to the actual beach itself…Well, the pictures below speak for themselves! Another highlight of Zakynthos island was lovely Porto Limnionas, again with
exquisite azure waters, where I had a great swim on a hot day.
Here’s a little snippet that Tim Doran, in particular, might enjoy. You know how I said that Ross will often waltz into fancy hotels to use the loo in the lobby as if he was staying there? Well, on Navagio beach, our boat dropped us off for one hour, then went and moored offshore. Well, of course, Ross then decided he needed to go to the bathroom. But there was nothing on Navagio but the white sand beach, and tourists everywhere. There were a few small boats actually onshore, including a lovely tall ship decked out as a “pirate ship”. It was huge and ornate and clearly catered to well-healed folk, who were coming on and off the ship’s gangplank. I went off taking some photos, then came back to see Ross emerging from said luxury tall ship, resplendent in his panama hat, shorts and sandals.
“Did you actually go onto that ship and use their loo?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied. “No one noticed and as I left, I asked the deckhand to send a full bottle of rum to my quarters.
Rum because, well, it is a pirate ship.”
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