My Athens to Pindus 4-Wheel Drive trek through Central Greece was to be the journey of a lifetime. As a child I had dreamed of faraway places, exploring dense jungles like Allan Quatermain or Indiana Jones, crossing rivers and mountains. The reality was in logistics; but as a keen off road driver I had an opportunity to travel over rugged terrain through one of Europe’s most stunning countries.
I’d be driving across the Pindus mountain range, nicknamed the “Spine of Greece” by Europeans who’ve experienced its rugged and pristine beauty. Ranging 230 kms long by 70 kms wide, the Pindus stretches northwest to southeast through the central mainland, home to bears, wild cats and lynx.
Our Tripology Adventure trek started on a spring Sunday afternoon. We had professional guides, Yoav, Izhar and Nico, a rally cross champion, had completed this trek many times. One always scouted the roads each day before we left, checking for large rocks. The in-car communication through walkie talkie radios.
After introductions and briefing us on safety procedures, we were under way. The vehicles for this rugged trip were new Jeep Patriots. With 2.4 liter engines, 4 wheel drive, CVT transmission and 4 cylinders, they had more than enough power to handle rivers and climb any mountains. The guides drove a Land Rover Discovery with a winch on the front. Little did we know that within 48 hours it would come in very handy.
We set off early morning after breakfast. Flying through the heavy traffic, the cars and busses soon disappeared in our rear view mirrors. Mile after mile we drove out of the city with only a short break at a service station; the cross-country fun began as we suddenly veered off road onto a rough dirt track.
The track meant we immediately switched our vehicles into 4x4 mode. At first I thought, “This doesn’t seem too bad”, as we drove rapidly along the dusty country roads. But, as the terrain changed dramatically, so did my thoughts. Crawling precariously along the edge of a cliff, I prayed that there were no rocks to bump us off the track. The guides carried on talking as if we were on a Sunday picnic; the rest of us mopped the sweat from our brows.
We gingerly followed the lead vehicle up and down the steep rugged hills. Driving through dense forest we suddenly stopped in a small clearing at the top of a hill, near a small stone building. On closer inspection it turned out to be a church. Its simple interior accommodating only a cross and a few chairs - a simple place of prayer for hikers who reached the summit. Outside the church we parked in line. Yoav and Nico put out a blanket while Izhar fired up the gas stove.
Our simple picnic of grilled sardines, tuna, salad, bread and juice was enough to feed an army. Sat around on plastic stools we enjoyed each other’s company, and, after numerous photos of the valleys hundreds of meters below us, we set off well fed down the other side of the precarious mountain.
Out of nowhere a wide tarmac road opened up, giving us respite from the narrow dirt tracks we had been following. The meadows smelled fresh as we breathed the clean country air as Yoav pointed across the valley to our destination. Squinting in the afternoon sunshine we made out some distant buildings. Delphi, the cradle of western civilization.
This archaic city is a staggering testament to human ability. Thousands of hours spent carrying rocks, one at a time, through valleys to build a structure on the side of a cliff out in the middle of nowhere. The intricate sculptures carved from marble, the buildings built from rocks cut to size with nothing holding them together, and the stunning designs, were all advanced for its time.
The attached museum of 2,270 square metres, built in 1903, houses priceless pieces thousands of years old: Sculptures of Athena, Socrates, Zeus, plus battle helmets, spears, swords, drinking vessels and coins. Our guide spoke about the site’s history, telling us when and why it was founded, and by whom. They told us of its collapse and then its restoration over the centuries.
At the top of the hill the ancient stadium and the running track nestled amongst the pine and olive trees. It was easy to imagine athletes stretching before a big race. Their daily exercise, and weekly competitions, would eventually become the global phenomenon that we know as the Olympics—It all started here! The archaeological dig continues today as they unearth more and more pieces around the central temples.
In the late afternoon, with the sun setting, long heavenly rays of light streamed across the valley and through the stone columns. I paused for a second to take in this historic panorama—one of the wonders of the world, and truly the spiritual home of the Greeks.
Our second evening was at the Amalia hotel, inset over a shining blue lake with a breathtaking view. It was a local stroll to the local Taverna, To Patrikomas. The restaurant balcony offered a superb view across the rocky gorges of the Pindus. The small alpine village reminded me of Switzerland; colorful meadows, winding roads and small artisan shops.
Our basic, hearty dinner of delicious lamb chops had been cooked on sizzling open grills. The local red wine grown on the slopes below. Here, we learned the Greek custom of never-ending plates of food. The excited dinner talk was of the sheer cliffs and the wondrous achievement that was Delphi.
The next morning, speeding through the forest in the early light, the heavy dew sat on the trees and bushes as we charged by. Every few hundred yards we passed small structures on the side of the road, like small birdhouses on stilts. Each the same size with a cross inside. Yoav explained “These personal family monuments are for drivers that lose control of the wheel and die on these roads” On hearing that our pace slowed somewhat.
Today was big rock day. As we climbed a narrow ridge a large rock loomed ahead of us, blocking our route. We worried because there wasn’t much room between it and the sheer drop on the other side. But, the two lead vehicles went round it without a problem. Driving the third vehicle I stayed close to the rock hoping that I wouldn’t run off the edge of the perilous cliff. Too close. The rock caught underneath the fender, halting the jeep.
Everyone cheered my clumsy driving efforts, sympathizing and giving me the “it could happen to anyone” speech. Soon the winch on the guides’ Discovery had pulled the rock out of the way in an instant. With the group’s laughter still ringing in my ears my excuses went unheard as we climbed the steep stony path.
Continuing along the winding mountainous roads in the dry dusty heat, relief finally arrived at sea level in the small fishing village of Aspra Spitia on the Bay of Corinth. Hungrily devouring fresh fish and octopus next to the clear blue harbor waters, we relaxed under the canopy enjoying the magnificent view, understanding why millions of tourists flock to Greece each year.
The colorful scenery, littered with bright purple jacaranda trees, changed from trees to rocks to lakes as we plowed through cavernous gorges. Over the in-car radio Yoav brightened the long hours of driving with stories of ancient Greece, his knowledge of their battles and legends kept us entertained as we scaled the rocky hillsides.
That night we sheltered in a tiny mountain village, our residence, the Hotel Elatou. Basic accommodation at 3000 metres, we enjoyed clean sheets and fresh air, dogs lying lazily in the yard, and cold beer. A chance to relax from the concentration of the intense driving.
Leaving early the next morning we sneaked through the fog-shrouded trees. As the elevation decreased we passed into the lake region of Everytania, but what we saw next surprised all of us. Three scarecrows placed by the side of the road. The guides explained how they are placed there to stop cows continuing along the track. It seems cows are almost blind and can’t tell the stick figures from humans, so they don’t pass.
Our convoy rumbled downhill towards Kremasta Lake and dam. At 2,000 metres, this huge lagoon is Greece’s largest artificial body of fresh water. Its clear green waters teem with darting fish. The morning coffee stop was in the village of Arahova, part of a mountain parish well known for its jams and preservatives. One of many small villages in the middle of the mountains, they became home for Greeks fleeing from the cities to escape persecution by the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.
By early evening, our arrival at the magnificent Hotel Montana in Karpenissi caused a stir. Set on the side of a stunning alpine valley, looking over the Pindus mountain range, the Swiss chalet style hotel boasted views of snow capped peaks and sunlight bouncing off the steep ridges. With a hot tub in each room, and stunning views from the balcony, we enjoyed five star luxury that night.
The nine-day Tripology adventure included several luxury hotels with lunch and dinner, as well as giving us unique Greek gifts to bring home. Specialties like honey, olive oil, tapenade and chocolates. Each food experience was always fun with lunch anything from picnics to dining in small local family style restaurants, and evenings out in various fine dining establishments.
Every day was a Greek feast with fresh foods from the sea, lakes, and mountains: barbecued and roasted goat, grilled lamb chops (Paidakia), chicken, Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) burgers (Biftekia), kebabs (souvlaki), Moussaka (meat lasagna), fresh fish (Lavraki), Octopus and squid. All cooked various ways and always served with a Feta salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.
Red and white wines were served with most meals, with the local favorite, Retsina, a white with flavors of resin. Ouzo, another beloved Greek aperitif smells and tastes of anis, and when mixed with cold water, it turns white. Raki, a hard liquor, is not for the faint hearted—this distilled grape juice quickly warms your heart, just like the Greek people!
Several times we ate in special places: one was an open-air restaurant called Nomismo, which means “tasty” in Greek.Invited into the kitchen, we watched the chefs cook over country ovens. Using open brick barbecues where the food is placed on a tray on top of the coals, the food is then covered by a metal lid wound down from the top of the open chimney.
We became endeared to the continual friendly culture of the mountain Greeks. Set alone amongst nature, these people from a lost era made us welcome at every stop with smiling faces and generous portions of food. Living in the country had made them creative using every natural resource available. Mobile phones and TV aerials reminded us we were in the 21st century.
Enjoying the maneuverability of the Jeeps our adventure continued through a stream following a gorge near the village of Sarkini, stopping amongst a grove of cedar trees. With water flowing over the rocks and pebbles on the streambed, we sat on a sandy beach and took a welcome break from the driving. By this time our guides had noticed that the intensity of navigating narrow paths had taken its toll on our nerves.
The scenery changed dramatically in an instant. We slowed while riding cautiously along uneven roads. Driving past a derelict car destroyed in a mudslide, we came to a rock overhang which concealed a broken barrier from the recent floods in the region. The guides explained “Three weeks before the whole area had been under water”
Our afternoon destination featured the magnificent Proussos monastery. Built by local monks in the 13th century after finding a Virgin Mary icon, this biblical edifice clings to the side of a gorge. The ancient artifact is believed to endow health giving qualities to pilgrims, and we were lucky to see it. Normally tourists are not allowed inside, but we had special permission from the head of the monastery.
Our 4-wheel drive Jeeps continued to impress us with their durability. They handled the varying terrain admirably, moving through streams, over rocky paths, and highways and slippery grass routes with ease. The V8 engines easily coped with the constant grinding stress of the uneven tracks.
Agrafa, our next stop, had virtually been destroyed by recent floods pouring through the valley. Turning over cars, the mudslides and rock movements proved how devastating nature’s forces can be. Our cameras worked overtime documenting the scenes.
Continuing through valleys and up almost vertical inclines, my hair often stood on end. I fluctuated between being scared one minute, and excited the next. Driving at over 2000 metres along a cliff edge with no barrier between me and oblivion scared me! I hadn’t been prepared for many things, especially the animals.
Rounding a sharp bend a group of goats stood in front of us. They would have to get run over or retreat, and they weren’t about to do either! The next thing cloven hoofs danced above us on the vertical slope causing sizeable rocks to rain down on our Jeep.
Rooted in the driver’s seat I sweated as I cautiously navigated this jagged logging road, the rocks and these native beasts. Simply stopping to let the goats pass though allowed my anxiety to recede at the same time.
Unsurpassed views of the whole trip came just as we rode the crest of the mountain. Our convoy stopped in unison, while we stared, mouths agape, at the natural vista. With snow-capped mountaintops surrounding us, we had reached the very summit of the Pindus range.
At 3400 metres above sea level, we rolled around in frozen snow and pristine grass, the electric air cleaner than I had ever breathed it seemed. Our cameras clicked madly as we captured the jaw dropping panorama.
Roaring down the slope we almost took out four sheep that were, in turn, avoiding beekeepers tending multi colored hives at the side of the road. Jumping out to get yet more photos, the keepers told us about their thriving industry thanks to the colorful flora in the meadows attracting the wild bees.
The guides often gave us time to stretch our legs from the driving. Walking down one such hill in silence past endless grape vines and olive groves, it became easy to forget we were on a tough driving expedition.
That evening, with the sun setting, we entered the celebrated city of Kalampaka, famous for the Meteora monasteries. We stayed for two nights at the Famissi Eden hotel, a four star residence in the shadows of the weirdly shaped granite rock structures that make this area unique.
Arising at dawn we made our way to the largest of the six remaining monasteries in the early morning sunshine. The tiny alleyways leading to the entrance hid its 14th century décor, the frescos hand painted in intricate detail. Luckily at this hour there were few tourists, but after an hour moving through this ancient structure the hordes descended, crushingly familiar to anyone who has been to the Vatican or the Louvre.
In one room, next to wine barrels, sat rows of human skulls on shelves. These are the skulls of the monastery’s most pious monks. This tribute is openly displayed and commemorates the most revered who lived here over the centuries.
Views across the granite plinths showed how difficult it must have been to painstakingly move each stone one by one to the top to complete these giant buildings. We imagined the lonely monks laboring in silence to build this remarkable religious centre several centuries ago.
Each monastery, it is said, disappears into the mist when the fog descends, and then reappears through the clouds, making them look as though they are floating in the sky. Views from the top must have given the residents the impression of being in heaven looking down on mortals. Today only six monasteries of the original twenty four remain, two run by nuns and four by monks.
With Meteora in our rear view mirror we sped past groves of olive trees and farms, passing the precarious mountains that we had climbed earlier that week. We had two more stops before the capital. First, lunch in Kamena Vourla, a weekend seaside retreat for those in the city. Fresh squid, mussels and octopus by the bay while boys jumped from the pier into the clear waters.
The second was iconic. On arrival it just seemed to be a large statue of a Greek soldier with a spear on the side of the road. Reading the signs, I realised we stood at the site of the momentous Battle of Thermopylae. The monument depicting Leonidas at Sparta, where the legendary 300 fought the Persian Army in 480BC.
Back in Athens it was back to reality. Ironically, the day before we were in a place where a battle was fought hand to hand in the fifth century BC. Today, 2500 years later and not that many miles away, we rode the latest technology on an underground metro system.
That last night in the Psyri area of Athens, in the shadow of the Acropolis, we consumed our final meal of the trip. The festivities were traditional Greek style. Bouncing off the floor and dancing on the tables, even the waiters and waitresses joined in. Lots more photographs, more laughing and more dancing. The evening ended too quickly.
Then it was over, nine of the most memorable days of my life. Scary in part, but definitely memorable—an unbelievable experience that should be on any adventurer’s bucket list.
If you’d like to go on the trip you can either book it through Firefly Journeys in the USA, or direct with Tripology at http://www.tripologyadventures.com/GR-AP04/26/15
If you want to see some of the dishes consumed on the trip, go to the following where my friend Katherine Belarmino of the US blog, Travel the World, has described many of the culinary specialties of Greece. Read her article at:http://www.katherinebelarmino.com/2015/06/33-traditional-greek-foods.html#.VhFiXmtG9RA
Things to do in Athens: http://www.katherinebelarmino.com/2015/07/one-day-in-athens-greece.html#.VhKfj2tG9R
Video of the trip by Romeo and Katherine Belarmino: https://youtu.be/cxHkOcHt1O4