If you asked me before we left which part of the trip I was most excited for, I probably told you: Greece. Sure enough, the country of epic poems and heroic legends has not disappointed. In every direction there is an ancient ruin, a turquoise sea, or a snow capped mountain.
Exploring the ancient theatre at the base of the Acropolis (because it’s free and none of the other ruins are!)
View of the Aegean from the peak of a mountain in Athens where the muses lived or something
It seems like every highway is sea-to-sky and thanks to our little Helena, we can drive them all.
A feisty Nissan Micra, who’s overbearing GPS and gutsy first gear has brought us through the mountains of Delphi, to the rocky pillars of Meteora, and to the shores of the Aegean.
We’ve had a lot of fun taking buses, trains, metros, planes, and ferries over the past seven weeks, but there is something irresistibly thrilling about regaining the freedom to depart from the typical tourist track. In fact, no more than four hours after signing the rental car paper work this is where we were:
Ten kilometres down a dirt road, looking for a cave-shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan. With only two short sentences in my lonely planet book and a GPS coordinate as our guides, we parked the car in a field and started hiking up a steep set of switch backs. Jakob’s complaints were endless.
“Classic Meghan, ‘Oh I read about this thing, now we have to drive to the middle of nowhere to see if we can find it’.”
Welcome to being married to a Horlings.
“Onwards and Upwards”
Halfway up the steep incline we realized we probably should have taken our passports and wallets with us…this wasn’t exactly the little roadside pitstop we thought it would be. Another 200m straight up and we were peering over the side of the cliff, hoping that the lonely dirt biker coming down the backroad wasn’t there to break into Helena and take off with our travel documents and potato chips. What were we going to do from up here anyway? Send Pan after him?
Eventually our upward ascent brought us to this:
A pretty cool cave…until I saw the bats hanging from the walls inside and then I wanted none of it.
Taking a few deep breaths I put my historical logic to work: if people have really been coming here for thousands of years to worship the hoofed god of nature, then these bats are probably pretty well behaved. In we go!
Once inside I wanted to explore every corner and look for signs of the ancient writing mentioned in my guide book. Jakob stood frozen about 10 metres from the cave opening.
“Well this is as far as I go,” he hastily snapped a few GoPro shots and moved back towards the exit.
My suggestion that we explore the dark passageway in the back of the cave was quickly declined.
Me trying to show how big the cave is, if you can even see me
The mysterious abyss at the back of the cave
Back out in the fresh mountain air we took a few minutes to take in our surroundings. The snowcapped mountains appeared to run straight into the desert below, as if Pan couldn’t decide if he liked summer or winter better, so decided to do both at the same time.
The remaining daylight hours were spent navigating windy Greek backroads to Petroto, a tiny village boasting a church, a corner store, and the cheapest Airbnb in all of central Greece!
We had the entire house to our selves, but we didn’t touch most of it…in fact most of it appeared untouched since at least the 1950s. That first night in Petroto was spent in fear that the propane fire place was going to explode with each bang of warping metal. There was also at least one paranoid check for intruders when the wind and window shutters decided to take a midnight tango. Finally, in the morning we were woken by what must have been a military grade loud speaker declaring what we assumed was a hostage or bomb threat situation.
The second night we wore ear plugs and just hoped that the impending furnace explosion wouldn’t be too hot and that the thieves wouldn’t be too loud on their way out with our few belongings. Oh also we took our chances and glanced out the window when we heard the loud speaker…turns out that’s how the local veggie seller gets his produce to his customers. When we listened closer we realized that the aggressive bark was actually an informative song: “Potate, tomate…” Now don’t we look silly peering timidly through the shutters at a truck bed full of cucumbers.
Home sweet home
Our nightmares were also terribly misplaced, because Petroto turned out to be a town nearly as charming as Avonlea or Stars Hollow. On our last day in the village, our Airbnb host, Dimi met us just as we were leaving and offered to take us for coffee. How could we decline such a generous invite to bypass the standard tourist experiences and get to know a real local? We eagerly agreed and a few minutes later we were following Dimi into a large cafe filled with mismatched wooden tables and a handful of Greek men enjoying a Sunday morning smoke. Dimi called out to each patron by name, and before long a little receiving line appeared at our table. We shook each large leathery hand, and smiled to convey our gratitude, all the while regretting our failure to learn more Greek. It didn’t take long before each of us around the table held a coffee in one hand and a smart phone in the other. We took turns typing words into google translate.
It didn’t take much to find out that Dimi’s son also has a graduate degree in history!
Sensing the halting conversation, our server returned to the table. “I work at a hotel in the nearby city, but I come home on weekends to help at my family’s business,” she explained in confident English. Having introduced herself, she began to quiz us: “How old are you?” “Are you together?” “Do you work or are you students.”
She didn’t hold back her own personal details either. “You have watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”
“Ya I love that movie!” I responded, eager to make a connection with a local my age.
“Yes, that is my life. That is how life really is in Greece, and that is how my life is. I am 32 and my mom is always yelling at me: ‘get married!’ and my boyfriend is always yelling at me ‘get married!’ and I will always work in my family’s cafe. Just like the movie.”
“Really?” I laughed, unable to believe that she was willing to claim the popular stereotype of her culture.
“Yes,” she insisted, “I am just like that girl in the movie.”
We chatted a bit more and soon the conversation turned from movies to the complexities of politics and the economy.
“Greece is not the problem,” she explained, “Greeks have lots of money, it’s just that Germany is taking it. Everyone around Greece attacks us. They want our money. They are jealous because Greece is in the best location, it’s not so cold, we have the islands, we have the tourism. We are not the problem, they are the problem.”
I was fascinated to hear her perspective on the financial crisis. The last few days we had seen countless boarded up shops in Athens and row upon row of incomplete construction projects in the country side. I wanted to ask the other men sitting around the table what they thought of the situation, but our server, having satisfied her curiosity, had returned to the counter and I was unsure how to discuss an economic recession using largely hand signals and google translate, instead we discussed our previous day’s adventure.
Like every other tourist who forsakes the islands for the Greek interior, our main goal was to visit Meteora. The men at the table nodded. I am sure 500 year old monasteries perched on massive stone pillars aren’t as exciting if you’ve lived in their shadow for most of your life. For me they were the pinnacle of my trip planning, and I enjoyed every minute of exploring their ancient halls and pathways:
Getting serious about seclusion from the world #monklife
How amazing is this view?
This is what a happy church historian and her husband look like
Check out these two cuties #TooCuteToMonk
The men at the table were more interested in what we did after our visit to the touristy holy sites. Using a combination of google maps, charades, and collaborative story telling, Jakob and I explained that from one of Meteora’s view points we had spotted a dirt road snaking up the opposite side of the valley at an impossible angle. We checked our GPS, and sure enough, it was a real road, with what seemed to be a village(?) at the top. So with some hesitation we left the tourist crowd, crossed a river near this medievalish bridge:
dodged some road side chickens and some sun bathing farm dogs, and made our way up the windiest road I have ever seen in my life.
In most ways I think my husband is pretty different than my Dad, but seeing the look of thrill and determination on his face as he geared down and coaxed our little car up that mountain, I realized they may not be so different after all.
I quickly slipped into my mom’s role:
“Are you sure it’s not going to over heat?….What is that smell, is that burning? Do I smell burning?”
After twenty-five switch backs, we hit a stretch of road better suited for a 4×4 than a Nissan Micra and we unanimously decided that we had better give Helena the rest of the day off before she declared a strike (she is Greek after all).
The view was decent, despite the clouds rolling in:
But much greater was the thrill of driving up a road that even the Sunday morning coffee crowd in Petroto would never drive. After recounting our story, Dimi shook his head in dismay.
“Why? I give you map? I show you to go mountains like Switzerland!”
I don’t know what to tell you Dimi. There’s no accounting for the crazy things two small town kids will do after six weeks of living in cities and depending upon public transit.
We tried to explain, but all I could say was,
“We come from the mountains, this feels like home.”