Friday, April 18, 2008

God's Country


There is a part of Greece that few Americans venture to. It has some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, according to the guidebook, and a rustic charm that exists only in small villages, away from the tour buses and cruise ship vacationers, and with not a gift shop in sight. It is an area where few speak English but with local people so warm and friendly that it draws you to stay a while. The region of Zagoria in central Greece, is located just 30km east of the Albanian border and contains the Vikos National Park. The Vikos Gorge cuts through limestone cliffs, rising vertically 2,000 ft. Nestled in the valleys and along the way up the mountain roads are many small villages, with stone buildings and bright orange clay or gray slate roofs. Skinny cattle and groups of sheep can be seen meandering their way along the quiet roads, led by shepherds, some of whom spend summer high in the mountains and winters in town. We found the village of Aristi, just 30 min. north of Ioannina. The town had a sleepy feel to it; the local taverna owner told us that next Wed., before the Orthodox Easter would bring 10 days of tourists and all their hotel rooms were fully booked for then. Feb. through now is their slow season but autumn, with its vivid colors, is the most beautiful time in this area. Winter brings rock climbers, summer the rafters. She was curious as to how we had found our way up here as, “most Americans”, she told us, “go to Mykonos and Santorini but don’t come this far north”. We had suspected that but also thought it a shame, as this is some of the most beautiful country in the world. Having seen some of the most spectacular mountain ranges of the Alps, Sierras, Pyrenees, and Himalayas, we found this area to be among the most beautiful in the world.

How did we find this place, you ask? Coming out of Ioannina earlier in the day and heading north, we had made a short stop in Asfaka for coffee. We had been driving for over 2 hours on switchbacks that wound up and down the mountain, sharing the road with trucks and wild Greek drivers who had no fear of passing a caravan of cars on a two lane road. Their custom is to drive a bit on the shoulder, leaving a midroad section for passing, but pray that no one is passing from the opposite direction. We were headed for the national park, which in the guidebook looked inviting, but we were were clueless as to where to find hiking trails and whether there was any lodging in the mountain area. No one at the roadside café spoke English, but the owner of the 2 room hotel sitting out in front knew more English words than anyone else and was delegated to the job of answering my questions. I’m sure we were an amusing scene-me deep in conversational English, he in Greek, though neither of us understood each other; we might as well have kept our mouths shut! Pantomine, drawing numbers in the air, one word at a time, by intonation, we somehow had a conversation. We learned that Vikos gorge was up the road, you can pay for lodging, people go up to hike, and that we should come back and stay at his hotel! A smile, a nod, a few laughs, and pats on the back, and we had made a connection.

An hour later, in Aristi, we were checking out a small hotel owned by an elderly Greek couple, but who were no where to be found. A very helpful and quite handsome young Greek construction worker with a beautiful smile told us to go in and take a look at the room. He also couldn’t find the owners, but as we were waiting, he gestured that the couple was coming down the path, returning from their evening walk. It was 40E, a good price. Aphrodite and her husband, a typical Greek couple straight out of the movies, very cheerily greeted us. The rooms had not yet been prepped for the tourist season and they busily turned on heat, hot water and electricity. I helped Aphrodite make up the bed and we unloaded our luggage before driving to Vikos along a narrow and very scenic 3 km road to the head of the Vikos Gorge hike. Vikos is an even smaller town of less than 10 shepherding families. The path runs behind their homes and we saw sheep and chickens in the back yards. The view down the gorge and across the valley was really God’s country-layers of mountain chains fading into the distance, craggy limestone rising up to the clouds, and the bright green of spring grass as a background for the blooming purple plum trees put us in touch with the heavens.

It was an end to an interesting day. Early in the morning we had entered the town of Meteora in search of video tapes and batteries. First things first, we found a tiny local bakery where an elderly woman was gently placing dozens of loaves of bread at a time onto a baking sheet, with many dozens of freshly baked loaves standing in baskets by the door. We went back 3 times in a period of 15 min. for more fresh bread, breadsticks, and muffins. Oh, so yummy-fresh from the oven, the bread was crusty on the outside and soft as velvet inside! On the street, we saw groups of young girls swinging baskets decorated with flowers, frequenting the shops for sweets, Easter eggs, and treats. It is the week before Easter and this Greek tradition finds children singing their Easter song for treats, not unlike trick or treating. Meteora has a cluster of limestone rocky protrusions, approximately 1,500 ft. high, upon which ancient monks had built their monasteries. With no roads leading to the peaks, they had used ropes and pulleys to haul their supplies and building materials up. Seeing the buildings constructed into the rocky protuberances made us realize what a great feat this was. The neighboring area has clusters of villages nestled in the mountains and hills. Our drive throughout the day took us through this mountainous region winding along mountain passes, and finally ending up in Aristi. It was truly a backroads experience and one that is seen by few American tourists!

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