Kastoria to Athens – Greece
Never have I felt so content upon entering a country. My first and last visit to Greece rates as one of my very best ever trips, and as I made my return, crossing the border from Northern Macedonia, I was thrilled to be surrounded by the empty, old, and peaceful Greek countryside that I love and remember. Kastoria is described as a city although it has only around 15,000 residents and when we rocked up around lunchtime it looked as though most of those were in hiding. As with all Greek country towns and villages they appear deserted throughout the afternoon until the sun begins to set, tummies begin to rumble, and thirsts need to be quenched. Like the parched plains of the Serengeti rebounding with life after a downpour, so to do the rural restaurants of Greece and here’s a fact that I completely made up but is likely to be true; there are more restaurants in Greece than elephants in Africa. I had my eyes set on only one dish for my first meal in Greece, A Greek salad. I couldn’t care less about the fresh fish presented to me in some empty, random restaurant that doubled up as a fishmonger, I only wanted the salad and I knew they wouldn’t disappoint me. They didn’t. Out came a huge bowl of sliced peppers, onions, cucumbers, the devil’s bollocks (olives, there’s always a price to pay), a generous slab of feta, and enough tomatoes to give me a medical scare for the next 24 hours. I vowed to eat a Greek salad every day I was to be in the country, a feat I failed within days, not because of want but because of practicalities. Greek menus are intimidating and if one dwells on making a choice the brain is likely to explode or at the very least a headache will take hold. There is simply so much choice and almost none of it can be dismissed, what’s more, you will never find an unhealthy dish and if a dish is sketchy it’s because it’s too much of a good thing, not because it’s processed. Top tip, look at the starters and pick the first that jumps out at you, then look at the mains and pick the first that grabs your attention, order, now, don’t delay. Delay creates doubt and anxiety which is unnecessary because whatever you have chosen will be epic and besides, you’re only delaying the wine. Now wine connoisseurs will turn their noses in disgust with what I have to say, but as a man with limited knowledge, lack of ability to make subtle distinctions, or the inclination to pay much for wine, the Greek system of offering an unknown wine by the litre at a jolly good rate of return is perfect for an unsophisticated Neanderthal like myself. ‘A litre of house white please’ was to become our evening opening statement and usually followed by a second on one too many occasions. In my humble opinion you can’t really screw up white wine and it’s perfect to chug down after a hot day of not doing much and compliments a fine meal, unlike the British way of smashing down pints of beer while feasting on a curry and unable to move for the remainder of the evening suffering from bloat. Needless to say, the British adopting Greek cuisine would probably single handedly stop the NHS from going bankrupt whilst giving UK agriculture a boost.
From the beautiful lakeside location of Kastoria we headed east over to Litochoro, a delightful town sat in the shadow of Mount Olympus and in sight of the Aegean Sea. Sat at just under 3,000 metres Olympus is very much doable although unfortunately we didn’t have the time to climb the summit. To add a bit of context, that makes Greece’s highest mountain three times higher than England’s and the ruggedness of Greece so far has been a constant source of amazement to me. I don’t know why, the entire Balkan peninsula is a rocky, mountainous region and Greece is well and truly part of that same peninsula. Anyhow, we did hike up some part of a mountain that finally delivered us to a waterfall (of course) which was cold enough to decide against jumping into the tempting clear waters despite sweating buckets during the hike. An internal debate ensued. I’m constantly afraid of not being as much fun as I was 15 years ago, usually because I’m not, throwing out excuses that I’m too tired or the water is too cold! For once I put the excuses aside and threw myself into the pool below the waterfall until my balls disappeared up into my stomach, but it was worth it, feeling refreshed and fractionally younger than 10 minutes beforehand. As with the majority of Greeks, they tend to be a friendly bunch and our taxi driver to and from the hike was no exception, an older gentleman full of chit chat and keen to impress my Argentine girlfriend with his progressive tango collection that he promised to have downloaded later that day when he was to take us to the beach. However, it was on the journey home from the beach later in the evening that filled me with happiness. Sat in the back of the taxi, progressive tango once again flowing out of a Bluetooth speaker stuck to the front dash, all the car windows down with the warm evening air cleansing my slightly drunken spirit as I hung my head out of the window watching the world go by and the stars above me. This is the variation of a journey I have made on several occasions in various countries, one that is hard to describe, but one that always makes me smile and at ease with the world around me.
Athens was our final stop on this leg of our journey, and I’ll cut to the chase, it’s pretty rubbish. It’s no secret that I’m not fond of cities and Athens is no exception with its urban sprawl, masses of graffiti, and an almost shocking number of homeless folk. Of course, this is largely the consequence of a colossal financial crisis that hit Greece hard and so the state of the city instantly becomes more forgivable, but sat at the highest point of the city one night, looking back towards the Acropolis I couldn’t help but feel the sight would be so much more beautiful without the millions of people. There appears to be very little modern development in Athens which I guess, economics aside, is largely down to the fact that whenever anyone digs a hole they hit a rock or a vase which then requires a full archaeological survey, delaying any building for years and therefore not worth the hassle. The Ottomans had no such qualms as we were soon to find out. The Acropolis is no doubt iconic and for good reason thanks to its spectacular location on top of a rock which, who would have imagined it, is more or less the definition of an Acropolis. In fact, the Acropolis isn’t I suspect what you are thinking, that is the Parthenon, the world-famous icon we are all actually focused on. By Greek standards it isn’t actually that old, dating back only 2,500 years, but during that time it has undergone many transformations. My favourite is when it was in possession of the Ottomans who fortified the site and stored gun powder inside the Parthenon which was then blown up by the Venetians during a siege. Since Greece’s independence they have enthusiastically removed anything non-Greek from the Acropolis in an attempt to project the Ancient Greek history that we are all so excited about at school. Many other sites and several museums will easily fill a week and a €30 pass covers the entrance to many attractions including the Acropolis itself which makes the pass an absolute bargain. Granted, a week of walking under intense heat, staring at stone blocks arranged differently, the odd column and mosaic, and more statues, swords and pottery that you could ever wish to see may drive the less historically minded person a little insane. But as the saying goes, ‘while in Athens.’