Greece: not just beaches
This short sentence has become our motto since starting our bespoke travel business. Gorgeous as the Aegean islands may be, there are so many other sides to a country as varied as Greece. So we headed for Thessaly, just a few hours north of Athens and suddenly everything changed. Snow capped mountains and traditional villages, vast swathes of farmland, rivers and lakes. And of course, Meteora; that special land which simply takes your breath away. It doesn’t matter how many photos you’ve seen; when you get there you still can’t believe the beauty before you.
Meteora, literally means ‘suspended in the air’, and when you visit this otherworldly place, you can see why that name was chosen. Of the six monasteries which remain here, the oldest and grandest is the Great Meteoro which dates back to the 14th century. The site has however been occupied for far longer than that; in one cave in Kalambaka, Theopetra, is the oldest known man-made structure in the world, a wall constructed 23,000 years ago. Meteora is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and visitors flock here to see the monasteries perched atop the stalagmite-like rocks.
We don’t tend to advocate staying right by big tourist attractions of this sort but Kastraki was a pleasant surprise. The little village at the base of Meteora has a number of simple bed and breakfast options, some cute tavernas and those awe inspiring views outside your bedroom window. You really can’t take in the size of what nature has created until you’re right up against it.
We then decided to explore the much talked about Lake Plastira. It has slowly but surely become popular with active Greek families in the last few years as it combines a number of outdoor activities, many accommodation and food options and unspoiled nature of the kind big city dwellers long for. Our drive from Meteora had a few hairpin turns but it was so worthwhile in the end. Pine forests, picturesque villages and images more reminiscent of Switzerland than Greece. The icing on the cake was the number of beautiful waterfalls created by the snowmelt all around us. Could this really be Greece?
We chose a gorgeous Lake resort as the base for our stay. This is exactly what we look for on our trips around Greece. Boutique accommodation options with great service and the warm welcome you would expect from more humble, family run hotels. The rooms were lovely, everything from the bed, to the linen, the fireplace and veranda were carefully thought out to maximise your comfort and the views of the lake. They had just taken delivery of some funky new electric bikes when we arrived which families will have a lot of fun using.
As ever our trip was further enhanced by the amazing people we met in the most unexpected places. We drove around the lake and headed towards the dam (Lake Plastira is man made) and saw a little sign off the side of the road. What we discovered was a beautiful little restaurant on a side of a gushing river. Evritos is family run trout farm, which has expanded into cooking and serving what they painstakingly rear. Mr Yiannis greeted us so warmly and we enjoyed the freshest trout and vegetables you could possibly imagine. When the bill came we literally couldn’t believe how reasonable it was.
Later that evening and as a film set moonlight shone on the still snowy mountain tops, we drove up to the village of Filakti. A cobbled street off the cute little village square led to Korkotaras taverna, which has an authentic and still fully operational 1950s jukebox. Mr Vasilis, the owner, was sitting at one of the tables having a drink with some friends. It didn’t take him long for him to starting regaling us with stories of the war and German occupation. The villages in the Agrafa area, of which Filakti is one, have always been known for resisting any invading force. Mr Vasilis’ heartbreaking stories of loss and rebuilding his life and home from the ashes of WWII gave us plenty of food of thought. The fact that the food his son served us was incredibly tasty as well was certainly a bonus.
Our long weekend in Thessaly drew to a close with us wanting to see much more of it and it wasn’t just the fresh air going to our heads. We will be back soon for more tsipouro inspired stories. Sometimes you really don’t need a beach to feel blessed to be alive.
This article was first published in the Australian newspaper Neos Kosmos’s travel supplement 6th June 2015. Reproduced with permission, all rights reserved.