As the plane coasted into Macedonia International Airport, I got my first view of Greece, with its mountainous coastline rolling out along the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean Sea. I was exhausted after a long series of flights, but it was only early afternoon on a beautiful late summer day, and I had just arrived in a country I had been dreaming of visiting for years.
So I hit the ground running, through the streets of Thessaloníki (Θεσσαλονίκη), fueled by a typical Greek frappé coffee, all the way to the seaside esplanade. Reaching the end of the happening promenade, I ascended the so-called White Tower, part of what remains of the wall that once surrounded the geometrically laid-out old town. Thessaloníki’s location has historically made it a vibrant cultural crossroads influenced by Greek, Turkish, and Slavic inhabitants. It was even home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Nowadays, however, Thessaloníki has a more homogenous Greek population – political events of the twentieth century resulted in the migration of most of the city’s Turks across the Turkish border, its Slavs across the northern border, and in the decimation of most of its Jewish population. Thessaloníki is still home to the largest university in the Balkan Peninsula, though, which is named after none other than Aristotle himself.
Less than a day after arriving, I was rested up and ready to move on to my real first destination. Public transportation always gives a fascinating look into the way people in other cultures interact, and the Thessaloníki bus station did not disappoint. I found the ticket window and took my place in front of it, third in line. Unsure if I had arrived early enough, I watched impatiently as the man at the front trying to buy his ticket was interrupted no less than five times by hurried travelers seeking last-minute tickets for the bus to Alexandroúpoli, which was clearly due to depart any second and for which nearly everyone seemed to be late. There were loud voices and chaos as people scrambled through the crowd to claim the ticket window. The frazzled agent was churning out tickets left and right, and by the time I managed to reach his window and buy my ticket to Vólos (Βόλος), the line behind me had grown considerably!
I made it onto the bus, and was then able to enjoy a pleasant three-hour ride down the coast of the Thermaïc Gulf, under the shadow of Mount Olympus (which my neighbor eagerly pointed out to me), through a narrow gorge, across the Plain of Thessaly, and down to the shore of the Pagasetic Gulf and the city of Vólos, where I was greeted by my friend Carmen.
In the morning, my host drove me through the city alongside a set of abandoned train tracks until we reached a tiny station in the village of Áno Lechónia. There, an antique locomotive awaited us, and at the sound of its whistle, we climbed aboard. Slowly, the engine pulled its small chain of open-air cars up through a series of tunnels onto the mountainsides of the Pelion Peninsula. As we curved along the narrow-gauge tracks, gaining altitude all the time, the Pagasetic Gulf opened up below us, glittering in the sunlight and lined with sloping olive orchards punctuated by slate-roofed houses. Vólos clustered along along the northern shore behind us, while the peninsula stretched southward ahead of us before curling around like a claw to encircle the gulf.
Our final destination on this precarious little train journey was the town of Miliés (Μηλιές) in the center of the peninsula on the slopes of Mount Pelion. While Mount Olympus is the home of the gods in Greek mythology, Mount Pelion is considered to be the home of centaurs, the half-horse, half-human creatures that inhabit magical forests from the Pelion to Hogwarts. Unfortunately, though the views from the train could be described as magical, I was unable to spot any magical creatures. When the railroad terminated at a turntable, we all disembarked and cheered with shouts of “Ópa!” as the engineer disconnected the engine and summoned all of his strength to push it around to face the other direction for the return journey.
We climbed the steps up into the mountainside village. Along the narrow flowery alleyways, an intricate system of channels and aqueducts directs water from higher up the mountain to all of the homes, fountains, gardens, and orchards of Miliés. At the top of the steps, a broad plaza commands a view of the whole village and the peninsula and sea beyond. The village church has stood at one end of the plaza for at least three centuries. Despite its small size and modest exterior, the church took thirty-three years to complete. As with all Greek Orthodox churches, this one has been carefully adorned inside with iconography depicting Biblical figures and stories. Upon entering, it is not hard to see why it took so long to finish – the intricacy and level of detail accorded to every inch of the interior certainly demanded incredible artistic talent.
The stuffy incense-filled interior of the church offered a few moments’ respite from the blazing sun, but we soon found ourselves back outside with plenty of time to spare before the return trip to Vólos. We found to our relief that servers from a nearby café wait on the tables lining the terrace under expansive shade trees, bringing out delectable desserts and flasks of much-appreciated Mythos beer for the Vólos day-trippers.
A bus took me inland over the Plain of Thessaly – the breadbasket of Greece. I arrived in the outskirts of Tríkala (Τρίκαλα) at the foot of the Pindos mountains. I wasn’t there to visit Tríkala, though it’s a lovely little city. In the morning, I set out with a guide on foot from the small town of Kalampáka (Καλαμπάκα) nestled in the foothills to visit a place called Metéora (Μετέωρα). The word “Metéora” means “in the heavens above,” and true to its name, this place is characterized by towering pillars of rock that jut up out of the plain and stand guard over the valley, rivaling the mountains in height. These sandstone remnants of an ancient lakebed display angled strata, giving the appearance of spiraling up into the sky, where they are crowned with the orange roofs of Orthodox monasteries.
For the entire day, we hiked up and down through the foothills, and at seemingly every turn, another monastery came into sight, looming high above on its pillar of stone, and sometimes built directly into the face of a cliff. The monks who built these monasteries lived at the end of the Middle Ages, in a land on the fringes of the expanding Islamic world, so these mystical pinnacles served as not only a means to feel closer to God, but also to get away from invaders from the east. Walking through the maze of courtyards, sanctuaries, and arched passageways that fill the top of each pillar, it was not hard to imagine myself in an elegant medieval castle with the added peril of being jettisoned a thousand feet to your death if you get on the ruler’s bad side. The creators of Game of Thrones felt the same, which is why Metéora feels eerily similar to the Eyrie.
The bells started to toll deafeningly from the Byzantine church down in the town below just as the sun began to set behind the Pindos mountain range. Suddenly, I found myself on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Greece, before a striped rocky pillar crowned with an architectural wonder that is simultaneously beautiful and baffling, and silhouetted against a sky of purple and pink. I didn’t know it was possible, but some places are actually more beautiful in person than on the curated cover of a guidebook!
The next day, a bus took me up and over the Pindos mountains. After several hours on winding mountain roads and another stretch through a series of impeccably modern highway tunnels, the bus emerged onto the sloping backdrop of the triangular Lake Pamvotis. This place is the hub of northwestern Greece and the capital of a remote region called Epirus tucked away in the mountains and stretching into the southern part of Albania. It is so remote, in fact, that Byzantine nobles made a habit of seeking refuge there when trouble arose in Constantinople. On the far side of the lake, I could see the city of Ioánnina (Ιωάννινα) itself, a university town where I was due to meet up with another friend, Nikoletta. Together with Nikoletta and her friends from the university, we took an evening stroll down the lakefront promenade past the old town before turning down a vibrantly-paved alleyway for dinner at a popular restaurant.
Throughout my brief visit, Nikoletta showed me around the energetic (read: college town) side of modern Ioánnina, and also the crumbling, historic side of despotic Ioánnina. Why despotic? Because, during the Middle Ages, the city was the capital of what is known as the “Despotate of Epirus,” an independent state that arose as the Byzantine Empire declined and whose leader was titled “despot.” Actually, the term is misleading – the term “despotate” in Greek means something like “empire,” and the rulers of Epirus in the Middle Ages were not cruel as we might think a despot to be. The real “despot” came several centuries later in the form of Ali Pasha, who governed the Epirus region under the Ottoman Empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ali Pasha ruled his domain from a fortified castle jutting out into the lake on a small peninsula. Aside from the sturdy fortifications themselves, the most impressive structure that still stands is the Fethiye Mosque. The mosque is a modestly sized square stone structure that elegantly overlooks the water with a single pointed minaret rising up behind it. Ali Pasha is buried beside the mosque in a simple but dignified grave – despite his harsh tactics, he was admired and given an honorable funeral by his people.
A short boat ride across Lake Pamvotis took us to the Island of Ioánnina, a tiny hill rising out of the water with a tiny traditional village on it and no less than seven Christian monasteries. The monasteries thrived during the Ottoman period, though the island’s population has since dropped significantly. When Ali Pasha tried to claim independence for Epirus from the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman army pursued him until he was forced to flee his castle and take refuge on the island. He was quickly found, however, and shot and beheaded. Inside the sitting room of a traditional Ottoman-style house in the village on the island, a shattered floorboard gives away the location where Ali Pasha’s reign ended. It also marked the end of this leg of my trip, and upon returning from the island, I made my way to King Pyrrhus airport just outside the city. Here, the remoteness of Epirus is strikingly apparent – a day with three flights is considered busy, and despite its “international” designation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a flight from IOA to anywhere other than Athens. So I flew to Athens.
You might have noticed that many of my travel stories involve stressful encounters with buses or bus stations, but that doesn’t stop me from using them – nothing makes you appreciate your destination more than when it’s an adventure just to get there!