Greece, part one – Vikos and Meteora

Greece, part one – Vikos and Meteora

We were really looking forward to Greece for some time, and were eager to get to it, but we knew we had to time it right for the season. In the summer, it is just too hot there, so it wouldn’t have been that enjoyable to ride. This was the reason we took our time in the Balkans and in the mountains, which had plenty of stuff to offer, no complaining there. But finally the day has come, and on a nice, sunny Friday afternoon in the middle of September, the border was getting within reach.

Getting to know Greece

Even before stepping through it, we got a taste of the riches it will offer us, as we passed some apple trees on a side rode where no one lived, with so much fruit hanging on them that you could feed a whole family off of it. Granted, there was an obstacle on the way in the form of some fallen branches, but that is part of the fun. Suffice to say, we barely bought any fruit while in the countryside (I talk about this in the end of another post, here).

The northern and central part of Greece is pretty much abandoned, with a few small towns and villages spotting the whole area. To illustrate my point, imagine that you are riding on a highway type main road, and around 6 cars pass you the whole day. If we thought the traffic is low in the Balkans, we had no words to describe this experience. In spite of this, the road conditions were superb, so we had just the perfect setting for some nice bike ride. The typical Mediterranean landscape greeted us everywhere, with lots of succulent plants on the lower areas and thick, wild forests in the mountains, but there were plenty of walnut and fig trees along the roadside too, so we stopped frequently to pick them.

Kastoria, our first city after a few days of cycling. There a church on the peninsula, but we didn't feel like climbing

Since Greece is mostly famous for its islands and coastal region, we were not sure where to go while cycling through the mountains in the north, but Goce, our warmshowers host in Macedonia gave us a few tips. Our first destination was Vikos and the surrounding villages, which is a canyon featured in the Guinness Book records, having only a kilometer between its two sides, while there was a whopping 900 meter drop on each. Although I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon yet, but I would compare it to that, only it has lush, green vegetation alongside the stunning and breathtaking views. 

It is also worth mentioning, that there are a tons of mountain springs around, and the most famous mineral water all over Greece is coming from here, with the same name as the valley. Although I would advise to come here in person, if you want to have a taste. 😉

The area around Vikos

The whole area is called Zagorohoria, and it’s not just Vikos you can see there, but lots of authentic cute little stone villages and old stone bridges, and mountains that look like they were formed by giants. You can’t help but feel humbled and grateful to see such beauty, even if it means an immense amount of (steep) climbing. Tour guides usually tell you how to get there from Ioannina, which is the biggest city in the region around 30km south of there, but that is for people arriving with public transport of planes/cars.

The view after leaving Konitsa
One of the bigger, more intact stone bridges near Konitsa

Because we were coming from Macedonia, we had to cycle around 200km and climb 3000m just to reach Konitsa, the closest town from the north which already had signss of Mediterranean architecture. There we bought enough food for a few days as it is common that up in the mountain villages you will only find small, expensive shops and restaurants, which was true in this case too. Even there, the food prices were not so great, and in the first few weeks we were struggling to find cheap stuff, as produce in supermarkets seemed to be double the amount of Macedonian prices. Still, we managed to keep our budget low, sometimes topping calories with affordable chicken gyros, which seems to be the lowest price for fast food, being a national thing and all. And luckily like we hoped, prices dropped a bit in the more densely populated and southern areas (and especially in Athens, but more on that later).

The switchback road to Papingo, as seen from the road towards Vikos. We first slept at the bottom of that, but didn't dare to go up

From there, we explored the valley from both ends, first going to Vikos and then through Aristi climbing up to Oxia view, above Monodendri (one of the famous stone villages). We found camping to be pretty easy, and although wild camping is not legal in Greece, if you are not stupid about it (camping next to a hotel for instance), people don’t care. In fact, Greek people are super friendly and nice, and we always found plenty of space in the form of meadows or resting spots to put up the tent. At Oxia, it is even marked on the map; you can hardly miss it (look for a big meadow).

There is a strange microclimate there, because the deep valley drags away the heat at night, so it can go below freezing temperatures, even in summer. We experienced a really thick fog all throughout the morning, making the experience a bit mystical. If you arrive with a car or a camper, you can easily camp at the end of the road to explore the viewpoint, and another interesting thing to see is the stone forest along the road leading up to the end. Don’t be afraid to cycle, it is not so bad, and certainly not impossibly steep (ok, up to Mondendri, it can be tough, but that just makes you stronger. 🙂 )

At the entrance
Inside the stone forest
The valley from Vikos
Sitting at the edge at Oxia..

Meteora and the famous monasteries

After having fun at the edge of the rock, we headed down to Ioannina and spent a day resting at the lake on the other side of it. Our next stop was Meteora, a unique rock formation on which 6 monasteries were built, showing the ingenuity and well, the stubbornness and stupidness of human nature. The city from where you can reach it is called Kalambaka, and it was only a few days of cycling away from where we were, however as most of the time, we want to discover a lot of things, so we had a little side adventure on the way. Northwest of Ioannina lies and artificial lake called Aoou, and before that, a nice little old town with a waterfall, Tristeno. Granted, there is a lot of climbing involved, but it is through a quiet road in the forest, and the views are more than worth the effort. So don’t miss it, if you’re in the area.

Cute ducks at our camping site in Ioannina
A beautiful old village
Our first Greek waterfalll
At Aoou

As suspected, Meteora was pretty touristy, with plenty of tour guides and buses around town, lots of cheesy souvenir shops, etc. In order to find a spot to camp, we had to go over to a smaller town in the north called Kastraki, closer to the monasteries. Even there, it was just a small little meadow with beehives where it was feasible to put the tent up, but at least we got something. We climbed up to the rocks in the morning and to our surprise, it was not really steep, but we still got a tons of applaud, cheering and amazement from tourists walking or driving on the road, which was a bit funny. The tourist buses merged on the top, making the sight less pleasant. This shows again the drawbacks of tourism and how nothing is sacred anymore. Apart from money reasons, I really don’t understand why they allow motorized vehicles; it is such an easy walk up there from the bottom. I realize there can be disabled people, and of course they could use a car, but none of the people I saw were even obese, most of them looked healthy and fit.

The monasteries looked amazing, especially if you think about the amount work involved to build them where they are. We read online that they used massive ropes to transport building materials up; they put their faith in the rope not being torn and let God decide, so they used it until someone got unlucky. Religion is always so logical.. The natural pillars are really nothing like we’ve ever seen before, and it is curious how they formed here, in the middle of a mountainous, forestry place, in a small, localized area. Apparently they are made of sandstone, and tectonic movements around 60 million years ago caused these plateaus and vertical lines, with the ensuing weather erosion thrown in.

Plans for Peloponnese

But no matter how beautiful they are, we had to move on, especially since the temperature dropped 20 degrees in a day, so we thought it best to get down from the mountains to the plains for a while. It was time for us to head to Peloponnese, although we were not quite sure where to go or what to see there. We had our first warmshowers host since Macedonia near Trikala, and as he worked in a yoghurt making family factory, we had our first taste of authentic Greek yoghurt, which was as good as expected. We haven’t bought it after we got our new stove and went back to eating porridge in the morning, but from this point on, we just couldn’t resist from time to time. Even if you buy the cheapest option possible (without additives or fruit or aroma of course), you won’t get disappointed. This is mostly true for olives too, and you can get a good quality for about 3-4 eur/kg in season, but after all, we are in Greece, so this is not surprising that much.  

Finally, we set out towards Patras, where we intended to go over the bridge and discover the famous peninsula. This was in late September, and we were closely watching the weather forecast, because we heard a huge cyclone was coming our way. Flash flooding and stormy wind is not a lot of fun in a tent, hence we decided to steer clear of the mountains for a while and continued towards Lamia, in the hope we can find shelter in the form of an abandoned building or something like that. The storm was approaching, and we haven’t had much time left..