In my mind I think of Greece as a place full of islands and white sunshine, where people cruise around on yachts and the sky is bright blue, and days are spent stumbling through ancient wonders of the world.
That is probably true in the southern part, but the northern part is a long way from the islands, and instead of long beaches on the Mediterranean sea, it shares a long border with Bulgaria. It also shares a culture of mountain villages, salty white cheese, stone houses, homemade wine, an obsession with nuts and honey, and lots of free parking because there aren’t many tourists here. Fewer international visitors also means there is a rustic, genuine vibe of being somewhere a little off the beaten track.
James Bond was the inspiration for this Meteora trip. There is a scene in For Your Eyes Only where Roger Moore is hunting the bad guys, and he climbs up these crazy rock formations to a monastery on top of the cliffs. In real life there is a whole community of monasteries, built hundreds of years ago by monks who settled in this area so they could live in spiritual isolation. The biggest ones are open today to hikers and tourists, and it was a nice hike except for the man huffing and puffing next to us… we were afraid he was going to have a heart attack! At the top we lit candles and leaned out over the elevator shaft, wondering how they built these things, and understanding why James Bond wanted to hide here.
We stayed at Mama’s Cozy Rooms in Kastraki, a small village at the base of the rocks, that was literally a cozy set of rooms on the ground floor of someone’s house. When we pulled up the family was outside peeling potatoes and hanging laundry, and decorating their garden for Orthodox Easter. The daily delivery of tomatoes and onions was piled by the front door. We sipped tea on folding chairs and looked out our window to see the massive gray rocks of Meteora across the street.
Church bells rang out over a leafy town square, where men sat having coffee and teenagers kicked a ball, and a bunch of cats were hanging around the butcher shop. Dogs chased each other and Germans walked by with hiking poles, and there was a steady traffic of elderly men sauntering by with bent backs and black pants. A priest wearing a long black robe came down the street to unlock the church doors, and moments later, church bells pealed over the rooftops.
Like everywhere else in Europe, people in Greece like coloring Easter eggs and braiding fluffy loaves of Easter bread. The Greek Easter bread has a unique spice called “mahlab,” which to me was very strong. It tastes like cloves, but I learned that it comes from the pits of sour cherries and is sort of a cross between bitter almonds and roses. They also have a lot of cheese bread and spinach pies.
After a day of hiking and a few rounds of Killer Uno, we had dinner at this restaurant recommended by Mama’s. There were, beets, tzatziki, fried zucchini and feta, grilled chicken, meatballs, pork chops, and syrup-soaked squares of honey cake . Mike likes beer, the boys like Coke, and I like my “viertal” of whatever the house is serving. The owner of Mama’s is a waiter at this place, and he took care of us like family.
Over the next 3 days we drove to Agios Athanasios, the Edessa waterfalls, Pozhar, Thessaloniki, Rupite Hot Springs, and Phillip of Macedon’s tomb. With all that driving and all the potential complaining, it was nice to have a huge bag of sour gummy coke bottles to keep the kids happy! I hear quite often that most of what we’re doing these days is dumb, but I get through those moments by thinking, well, at least their life is memorable and dumb.