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GREECE: Athens, Santorini, Crete, Zagori, Pindus Mountains, Meteora

After five weeks in Greece (called Ellada or Ελλάδα in Greek), we most enjoyed wandering romantic Santorini Island and trekking the rugged northern mountains of Zagori. We hiked a total of 170 miles (280 km) with day packs and stayed overnight in pleasant pensions and north Pindus mountain refuges. Robinson Expeditions conveniently moved our luggage each day to the next pension. Carol and I joined a group of friends touring Greece (via Amsterdam, Netherlands) from April 26 to May 30, 2001. Before visiting Greece, read about crucial Greek history, culture, and language in books recommended at the bottom of this article. Good preparation will help your mind cut through the clutter of modern Western trappings and services which surround most tourist destinations.

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Highlights of five weeks in Greece

By the way, in comparison to Greece, neighboring Turkey offers taller mountains, more exotic charm, and friendlier people (who crave Western contact more than Greeks, who suffer more tourist crowds). Turkey preserves many important Christian historical sites and ancient Greek ruins. Of course your enjoyment of each country is subjective — a couple of friends in our group loved Greece (and each other) so much that they got engaged in Samaria Gorge on Crete!

Greek food

Greek food has evolved in the Mediterranean region for 4000 years. In 320 BC, Ancient Greek poet Archestratos wrote the first cookbook in history. Today, Greek and Turkish cuisines are closely related due to proximity and Ottoman Turk occupation (1453-1829). Next to Thai food, Greek is my favorite world cuisine. We found food in Greece to be uniformly delicious, albeit sometimes overly soaked with olive oil. After four weeks of eating Greek restaurant food, local diet grew repetitious (as in Turkey). We yearned to replace the boring white-bread breakfasts with our favorite whole grain breads, oatmeal, and fruit available back at home. I’m thankful for the amazing variety of international foods available in Seattle groceries and restaurants. The worldwide diaspora of Greek people brought Greek food to Seattle that tastes as good as in the homeland!

Athens

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In Athens, the amazing Acropolis and Parthenon still inspire awe as classic symbols of early Democracy. Avoid crowds by arriving early morning.

The Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games were declared in 776 BC (for male athletes only) and ran every four years at Olympia on Peloponnese Peninsula until 394 CE, when Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them as pagan. The Games were not revived until 1896. The return of Olympic Games to Greece in 2004 was a proud and triumphant moment for the people of Athens and Greeks worldwide. About 10 million people live in Greece, and about an equal number of Greeks live in other countries worldwide, scattered by a tumultuous history.

Santorini island

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Geologic and human history of Santorini

Humans first arrived around 3000 BC on this volcano known in ancient times as Thira. The island was a volcanic cone with a circular shoreline until 1646 BC, when one of earth’s most violent explosions blasted ash all over the Mediterranean, sunk the center of the island, launched tidal waves, and may have ruined the Minoan civilization 70 miles away on Crete. Remarkably, volcanic ash dumped onto the volcano’s flanks actually preserved the village of Akrotiri and its 3600-year-old frescoes from the Minoan era. These are some of the earliest known examples of art in history, which you can now view in museums. In 286 BC, the volcano split off Thirasia (“Little Thira”) Island (to the West, left on map). The volcano began rebuilding, and in 197 BC the small center islet of Palia Kameni appeared. In 1707 CE, lava started forming Nea Kameni, the larger center island which erupted as recently as 1956 and caused a huge earthquake (7.8 on the Richter scale) which destroyed most of the houses in the towns of Fira and Oia. Fira and Oia have since been rebuilt as multi-level mazes of fascinating whitewashed architecture, attracting tourists from around the world.

The sirocco (or scirocco) winds from the south can turn the sky over Santorini reddish in color with dust swept from Africa. In summer, the winds shift and become the meltemi, which come from the north-east. On May 5, 2001, we experienced unusually strong 50 miles-per-hour winds from the west, the strongest wind that our hotel owner had ever seen in 10 years living in Oia, Santorini.

Santorini travel tips

Santorini is justifiably celebrated for its romance and beauty. Reserve ahead like we did, or else pay a premium to find a place more spontaneously. As elsewhere in the world, the cheapest lodging with best value usually fills before more expensive rooms.

We pre-booked and enjoyed several nights at the inexpensive Ecoxenia Studio Apartments, one of the best values on the island, located on the sunset (West) side, very quiet in the countryside, about a 15 minute walk (or short taxi ride) from Oia village, the most photogenic village on Santorini. The following lodging and transportation links may help you plan your trip:

Ferries: We flew from Athens to Santorini, to Crete, then back, which is quicker than navigating the ferry system for the long distance from the mainland. Fly the longest legs, then take local ferries to closer islands. Compare prices and consider how much time you spend in open water with little to see.

Crete

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Before visiting, be sure to read the latest art history of Crete and the ruins of Knossos. Seeing the ruins and reading local documentation probably won’t impress you unless you’ve studied in advance.

Crete is the home of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoan, which was contemporary with nearby advanced Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The hundreds of interlocking rooms in the six-stories-high Minoan Knossos palace complex on Crete probably originated the myths of the Labyrinth and Minotaur (half man, half bull). Water pipes running 18 kilometers from mountains to the Knossos supplied the world’s first known flush toilets and sewers by around 1500 BC, when the Minoans reached their peak. Three-story town-homes and the first known paved roads in Europe also indicate a wealthy, organized society. Archeaological evidence suggests that Minoan and earlier societies on Crete may have been peaceful:

The purplish-red spathe (specialized leaf or bract) and foul-smelling stench of the dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, also called dragonwort, dragon lily, or voodoo lily) attracts flies to the base of its erect, flower-bearing spadix in Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete, in Greece, Europe. The purple spadix can reach over a meter long. With an odor of dung or rotting meat, the Dragon Arum entices flies deep inside into the bulbous chamber of its spathe where the flowers are actually located. The insects can sometimes get trapped overnight but are later freed, covered in pollen to find other flowers for pollination.

For a book that brings alive the ancient era of the Minoans and the eruption of Thira, I recommend reading Voice of the Goddess, a historical fiction and romance book by Judith Hand (Copyright 2001). I read the book after visiting Crete, and would also have found it valuable reading before going. In this well-researched book based upon archaeological evidence plus creative imagination, Judith calls the Minoans, “Keftians,” because the Egyptians of 1500 BC called Crete, “Keftiu”. In the early 1900’s, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans spent 35 years uncovering the Knossos, and he coined the term “Minoan” in reference to Minos, a king of Crete mentioned by Homer. However, King Minos may have been Mycenaean, an invader from mainland Greece, which would make “Minoan” a misnomer for the female-worshipping ancient people who built and maintained the Knossos from 1900 to 1450 BC.

Olive history

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean. 50,000-year-old olive leaves have been found fossilized in lava on Santorini island. Oil-producing olive varieties have been cultivated over 6000 years, starting with a sparse, thorny tree and ending with today’s compact, thornless, and oil-rich varieties. The Minoans were some of the first people to get rich from olives.

Unfortunately, the tap roots of olive trees cannot hold the soil like the surface roots of native forests, and planting of vast olive groves on mountainous terrain caused an environmental disaster — the topsoil washed away, resulting in the dry and rocky landscape you see throughout much of Greece today. Crete was formerly 90% forest, but is now 17% forest. Humans have stripped the trees to clear space for olive plantations, to build ships and towns, and to burn for cooking. Big naval battles in wooden ships over thousands of years helped spur demand that decimated forests.

Flowers and aromatic herbs of Crete

My favorite plant on Crete was the Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, also called Black Arum, Voodoo Lily, Snake Lily, Stink Lily, Black Dragon, Black Lily, Dragonwort, or Drakondia, a member of the Araceae family) which grows a dark purple flower spike up to a meter high above green leaves mottled with white spots and eye-catching stalk striped with white and green (see photos). In May, the Dragon Arum was blooming in the Samaria Gorge and growing green seed pods (which later turn red) on the bluffs around Loutro. This striking plant is native to the Aegean Islands and the Balkans.

Many other spectacular flowers grow on Crete, such as the Star of Bethlehem Lilly, seen at Omalos. As we walked coastal cliffs near Loutro, wonderfully rich aromas of thyme and other herbs wafted strongly all around the most fragrant hike ever.

Hiking in Zagori and north Pindus mountains

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A highlight of our trip to Greece was trekking through Zagori in the north Pindus (or Pindos) mountains, near Ioannina in northern Greece (near the border with Albania). Zagori contains 45 villages collectively known as Zagoria (Zagorochoria or Zagorohoria). In May 2001, we were exhilarated by hiking through large expanses of purple crocus and a variety of other wildflowers in peak bloom on the Tymfi Massif. A metallic green beetle contrasted brightly with a magenta thistle.

We enjoyed hiking the spectacular Vikos Gorge, the world’s deepest canyon in proportion to its width. (We only encountered two other hiking parties in the Vikos Gorge, but hundreds in overcrowded Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete.) Limestone rock towers rise impressively thousands of feet above the traditional slate houses of Vikos and Micro Papingo. Visit Kalogeriko triple-arch stone bridge, 300 years old, near Kipi.

Tourism is fairly new and visitors few enough here that the towns feel special and less-commercial than the more well-known destinations in Greece. Mountain inaccessibility helped preserve local culture over the centuries.  The Greek Orthodox Church orders society here, and crime is rare. Few locals speak English, so learn the Greek alphabet and basic phrases. Public buses and tours easily reach the area from the local capital of Ioannina.

Northern Greece seasons & climate

Best to visit in May-June and September-October. In our May trip, beautiful flowers bloomed in the mountains, and temperatures were not overly hot. May-June are temperate, with sporadic thunderstorms. July-August are scorching hot. September is temperate. Lodging will be tighter August 5-20, the most popular-high season for Zagori due to the many Greek visitors. October is damp. Snow covers Zagori mountains from November to April.

Our excellent guide Mike Vasileiou kept us on the right trail, and our luggage was conveniently shuttled between hotels by Robinson Expeditions, Ioannina, Greece (on days 3-4 we carried our own sleeping bags). If you are sufficiently experienced to hike rough trails on your own, be sure to use good maps and detailed trail descriptions, since many trails are not well marked. Ask a local expert or tourist office for advice:

Where is the world’s deepest gorge, canyon, or valley? What makes Vikos Gorge unique?

Answers depend upon definitions. According to the Guinness Book of Records 2005:

Two week itinerary for Zagori, Meteora, and Mount Olympus

The following demanding 10-day hiking trip (booked with Robinson Expeditions) includes transportation starting at Ioannina and ending at Meteora, plus we added a 5-day extension to see Meteora and climb Mount Olympus.

  1. Day 1. On May 15, 2001, we flew from Athens to Ioannina, in the Epiros region. Bus to Vitsa and stay in a new hotel in this attractive town of slate rock homes. Look into Vikos Gorge at Moni Agias Paraskevis, a slate monastery at Monodhendhri village.
  2. Day 2: Hike Vikos Gorge 6-7 hours from Vitsa or Monodhendhri to Vikos. Watch trail markers carefully, especially in the first descent through boulders. Don’t get lost.
  3. Day 3. Hike 3 hours from Vikos to Micro (or Mikro) Papingo (descend 250m/800 feet, ascend 370m/1200 feet) through beautiful fields of flowers (red poppies, white & yellow elyssum, and purple, white, & yellow stars).
  4. Day 4. From Micro Papingo village, ascend a demanding 3 hours and 1000 meters to overnight lodging at Astraka Refuge, located on windy Astraka Col. We left most of our gear at Astraka Refuge while we day hiked 3 hours round trip to scenic Dragon Lake (Dhrakolimni) of Gamila, which was tiring by the end of the long day. At Dragon Lake, many blue crocus flowers popped through snow patches on May 18, 2001. Cliffs of Mount Astraka loomed impressively above. Hope for a day with no wind to get pretty photo reflections of peaks in Dragon Lake. After our trip, the popular Astraka Refuge was upgraded to 43 bunks by EOS, the Greek Alpine Club. (The former Astraka Refuge was crowded, with poor meals and sounds of wind, barking dog, and people snoring keeping us awake in the rustic downstairs dormitory room.) Near this hike through the limestone landscape is the Provatina Cave, 2nd longest straight drop sinkholes in the world (405 meters), after a Yucatan cenote hole.
  5. Day 5: Night 1 of 2 in Tsepelovo: We hiked 6 hours from Astraka Refuge to Tsepelovo, through the largest fields of crocus flowers that I have ever seen. The impressive variety of wildflowers included grape hyacinth (muscari), wild narcissus, purple phlox, yellow daisy, wild garlic, powder blue forget-me-nots, violets, creeping thyme, and more. We admired broad views of pancake-shaped rocks, limestone holes and high plateaus. The hike was very long and tiring, but well worthwhile. The trail may not be marked very well, so get a good trail description, map and/or guide. In Tsepelovo we stayed at the pleasant Gouris Hotel in private double rooms, where we caught up on sleep. Gouris Hotel was the first pension in Zagorahoria, starting in the 1960s. Tsepelovo (1100 meters altitude / 3500 feet) is the second biggest tourist center in Zagori, after the Papingo villages. Optional day hike from Astraka Refuge: Loop walk to the summits of Mount Gamila (2480m) and Mount Astraka (2436m), 7 hours round trip. We haven’t done this, but I bet it’s rewarding. Easier exit: A more common exit from Astraka Refuge to the road (probably easier) is through forest to Aoos River, Stomiou Monastery, and the town of Konitsa.
  6. Day 6: Night 2 of 2 in Tsepelovo: We were driven several kilometers to our last overlook of Vikos Gorge, near Vradheto, which can also be reached by trail from Tsepelovo to complete the trek circumnavigating Mount Astrakas. We drove onwards to see the impressive triple-arched stone Kalogeriko Bridge alongside the highway near Kipi.
  7. Day 7. Our most difficult day, 10 hours hiking: We ascended 854 meters/2800 feet over Tsouka Rossa Pass, descended 1037 meters/3400 feet, and were picked up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle which drove us to Vrissohori. Descending Tsouka Rossa Pass required a two-rope rappel down a steep 30 degree snow slope, which is the scariest thing Carol has ever done. Watch out for ice! We walked steep slopes on a lightly-used slippery trail for the rest of the descent. The trail is often not marked, so get a good trail description, map and/or guide. Rope and ice ax may be required. Hiking through one of the remotest parts of Europe, our efforts were rewarded by seeing 4 wild goats (chamois) and an eagle. Apparently 100 bears still live in these remote north Pindus mountains, though we didn’t see any. We enjoyed spectacular views from the friendly Ioannis Tsoimanis Pension in Vrissohori.
  8. Day 8. From Vrissohori, we walked 3.5 hours on roads, crossed the Aoos River on a partially-constructed highway bridge, and drove 4WD car to our private tent camp at 2000 meters/6600 feet elevation on Mount Smolikas. On a hot humid day (24 C or 75 degrees F), we saw a tortoise, a rare orchid, and bright green metallic beetles on purple thistles beneath a spectacular backdrop of the north Pindus mountains and Mount Gamila (2497 m).
  9. Day 9. Our longest day, 10.5 hours hiking: We climbed 870m/2850 feet to the summit of Mount Smolikas (second highest mountain in Greece, 2637m/8650 feet elevation) and traversed down to Samarina. We enjoyed spectacular views of the sharp-toothed north Pindus mountains and Mount Gamila (2497 m) to the south. On the descent, we admired more blue crocus, plus some isolated white barked pine trees with trunks 1-meter in diameter, natives to the Pindus and Bosnia. Local geology includes shiny dark green serpentine rock (former ocean crust subducted then lifted into the mountains) and an alpine moonscape of red rock near the summit plateau. In the snow bowl far below, we saw Albanian refugees sneaking into Greece, probably for gainful employment (such as for construction work). We descended to Samarina, a ski resort and home of the Vlach people, an ethnic group of shepherds. The descent was harrowing and tiring on loose rocky scree, crossing several dangerous snow chutes, with the security of ropes brought along. We have now left Epiros and Zagori, and crossed into the Macedonia region of Greece.
  10. Day 10. From Samarina, we drove to Meteora for a 24-hour visit. Alternatively, you could return to Ioannina by bus, where you could fly somewhere else.
Optional 5+day extension to Meteora and Mount Olympus
  1. Day 11. See Meteora for at least one day. Then drive to Litohoro to prepare to climb Mount Olympus.
  2. Day 12. Begin 3-day ascent of Mount Olympus: Drive 1 hour from Litohoro to Prionia. Hike 3 hours to Olympus “Refuge A” on a steady trail graded for horses.
  3. Day 13. Mount Olympus summit attempt: One route is easier than the other. However, we only made it to 2800 meters/9200 feet elevation, before fresh slippery snow blocked us. The trip was adventurous and worthwhile, despite bad weather.
  4. Day 14: Descend from Olympus “Refuge A” back to trailhead and return to Litohoro. Visit the ancient Roman ruins of Dion, sacred city of Macedonians and Alexander the Great.
  5. Day 15: Drive to the big city of Thessaloniki, where you can fly to Athens, Amsterdam, or other points in Europe. An “open jaw” flight back to Amsterdam from Thessaloniki would have saved us time and money compared with our return via Athens.

Mount Olympus was declared Greece’s first national park in 1937 and consists of eight peaks including the “Throne of Zeus” at 2909 metres and Mytikas which has the highest summit at 2919 metres. The park is located 100 kilometres south west of Thessaloniki. Hiking season is June through October. The huts will be most crowded in July and August, when advance reservations are most necessary. May through mid-June usually have the best weather for climbing. Visit the EOS (Greek Alpine Club) office in Lithoro for details of trails, mountain refuge reservations and advice about weather conditions.

The world according to Mike

Our mountain guide Mike Vasileiou was born in Ioannina from a mother who was a Vlach, a shepherd ethnic group, traditionally semi-nomadic, grazing flocks in summer mountains and returning to valleys in autumn. Working with Robinson Expeditions, of Ioannina, Greece, Mike likes to shepherd hikers like us to the high mountains of Greece and Italy. When our group would pester him for details of the next day’s hiking plan, Mike would knowingly say, “After dinner, all will be revealed!”  We soon learned that if the next day was going to be long and hard, Mike would enthusiastically say, “We are going to have another glorious day!” Then, at every dinner his sincere toast would always be, “Here’s to the next day!” After we had safely traversed the rigorous Tsouka Rossa Pass and Mount Smolikas (second highest mountain in Greece), he assured us that “Mount Smolikas is the cake, and Olympus is the cherry.” We had successfully hiked our hardest.

Traversing Mount Smolikas is an adventurous scramble in one of the wildest remaining parts of Europe, whereas Mount Olympus is a more accessible and easier ascent done by thousands of rock scramblers every year. Mike warns that these mountains can seriously challenge anyone when the weather gets bad. He has personally saved the lives of several hikers on Mount Olympus and other peaks.

Meteora

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Meteora means “suspended in the air.” The words meteorite and meteorology come from the same Greek root. The conglomerate rock at Meteora has eroded into fantastic peaks upon which medieval monks built remote monasteries, some still active. The isolated monasteries of Meteora helped keep alive Greek Orthodox religious traditions and Hellenic culture during the turbulent Middle Ages and Ottoman Turk occupation of Greece (1453-1829). In 1988, UNESCO declared Meteora to be a World Heritage Site.

Travel Tips for Meteora

Modern Greek history

The Greek War of Independence of 1821-1829 reclaimed Ottoman Turk holdings in the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, and the Cyclades and Sporades Islands, but intervention by Britain, France, and Russia would set up foreign kings to control Greece on and off for generations. With the decline of the Ottomans in the mid-1800s, the “Megali Idea (Great Idea)” of a new Greek Empire became popular for reclaiming former Byzantine Greek lands. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 expanded Greece to include southern Macedonia, part of Thrace, more of Epiros, the North-East Aegean Islands, and union with Crete. After siding with the Allies in World War I, Greece invaded Turkey as far as Ankara. However, the young General Mustafa Kemal (later called Ataturk) drove the Greeks out of Anatolia, finally evaporating any Greek desire for the “Great Idea”. In a huge exchange causing great hardships on everyone involved, 1.5 million Christians left Turkey and 400,000 Muslims left Greece.

Greece also suffered terribly under Nazi occupation in World War II, with many civilians dying of starvation and half the Jewish population sent to death camps. Greece’s turbulent history culminated in a 1946-1949 Civil War between monarchists and democrats, where more Greeks were killed than in World War II. Despair motivated nearly a million Greeks to seek better life in Australia (Melbourne), Canada, the USA (New York and Chicago), and other countries. After a coup by Colonels 1967-74 and later socialist rule, Greece shifted politically to the right by 2001.

Greek standard of living rose rapidly and low interest rates expanded car ownership. Greece proudly hosted the lightly attended 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which was seen on worldwide television by an unprecedented 3.9 billion viewers.

In 2010-12, a severe national debt crisis required Greece to agree to Eurozone and IMF loan rescue packages including harsh, unpopular austerity measures to control deficit spending.

Recommended books about Greece from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Greece travel” books at Amazon.com.

Before visiting Greece (called Ellada or Ελλάδα in Greek), read up on crucial Greek history, culture, and language. Good preparation will help your mind cut through the clutter of modern Western trappings and services which surround most tourist destinations.
2012: 2012: 2011: 2011:

2012: 2012: 2012: 2010:

Greek language:

By studying Greek language tapes for 10 weeks before the trip, I felt closer to the culture by being able to read and speak Greek numbers, signs, and place names.

Historical fiction:

Free information:

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