Off The Beaten Path in Greece IV: Central/Western Greece
It's been a fun ride through Greece so far, but we're not done yet, and now we're getting into the more diverse parts of the country as we head North. In this post, I'll cover Thessaly (including the AMAZING Sporades Islands), and Epirus. Let's get to it!
Home of the Centaurs, Asclepius, and Achilles. The hallowed battleground between the Gods of Mt. Olympus and the Titans. The Meteora. The avgeek paradise island of Skiathos. What more can one ask for in a veritable Eden?
Most first-timers only know of the Meteora monasteries in Kalambaka or the island paradise of Skiathos when it comes to Thessaly. That's fine, the monasteries are an incredible sight to see and learn about, I encourage ALL travelers to Greece to check them out at least once, and avgeeks and sun-worshippers the world over flock to Skiathos every summer. That's all fine and dandy, but let's dig a bit deeper.
First and foremost, you can't go wrong with a visit to Mt. Olympus. At 9,570 feet high, it is the tallest mountain in Greece. Every year, thousands of hikers and mountaineers descend on the village of Litohoro (nestled in the Eastern foothills of the mountain) as the base camp for the trek up the mountain of the Gods. Now, Mt. Olympus is a National Park, so there are quite a few restrictions in place to maintain the natural beauty of the area. Getting into the park is only allowed on the roads already in place, and access is permitted from sunrise to sunset, and hiking is allowed only on the already formed trails. Hunting and harvesting any of the animal and plant life is strictly prohibited as well. The easiest way to get to the Park is by flying into Thessaloniki and either driving down or taking the train. If you are already in Thessaly or any of the other prefectures to the south, just head up the E65 (the Athens-Thessaloniki road) National Road, and just before you hit Larissa, turn East on the E75 and out to the coast by Neoi Poroi, and a leisurely, gorgeous drive along the coast until you get to the base camps at Litohoro.
Speaking of Neoi Poroi, I happened to stumble on this hidden gem of a beachside oasis this past summer. If you're looking to get away from the mass crowds of beachgoing tourists, this is THE place to go. The only way to get a spot on the beach is to be a guest at one of the local hotels, as they are the exclusive beach managers, and they really enforce this little rule. I had the pleasure of staying there for the better part of a week, and even though I was happy to head back to the mountain villages, this is a spot I'm definitely going to return to. The water is pristine, warm, and inviting. The beachside cafes and shops are bristling with tourists (mostly Eastern Europeans and Russians, and of course the locals), and hotels are still incredibly reasonable and affordable, even those right on the beachside road. It is well worth the trip here if you are a sun worshipper, even for just a handful of days.
On the topic of sun-worshipping, let's hop over to the little island of Skiathos, just off the coast of the mainland in the Aegean Sea. This is one of Greece's smaller, yet utterly pristine islands (12 miles long, and almost 4 miles wide), boasting 60, count them, SIXTY beaches on 27 miles of coastline. For you movie and musical buffs on holiday, Skiathos is also where the 2007 film version of Mamma Mia! was filmed. Skiathos Town is the largest populated area on the island, but no trip to Skiathos is complete without a stop at Bourtzi, a very picturesque peninsula where the remains of a 13th-century Venetian fortress stand, and if you ask me, one of the most romantic spots in all of Greece. You can get here by ferry, or by flight from Athens year-round, or from elsewhere in Europe seasonally (usually from March to late September). Speaking of that airport, it is a plane spotters dream, with the arriving flights coming within feet of your head on landing.
Now, for our outdoors folks, you'll LOVE this next destination. This area holds a place near and VERY dear to my heart as this is very familiar and welcoming territory. The area is in the mountains just Southwest of Trikala, in the area of the village Pertouli. One of the best ski resorts in all of Greece is here, a true hidden gem, with some of the very best powder found outside the Alps or the Rockies. Less than a mile up the road is the Kerketio Extreme Sport Center, where you can ride snowmobiles through the surrounding forest during winter, or 4-wheel ATV's and equestrian activities in the summer. They also do a variety of other sports activities as well, on top of having some of the best coffee baristas anywhere. The old school log cabin feel is incredibly inviting, and the family that runs the place will make you feel like long lost relatives. By the way, the scenery up in these mountain ranges is absolutely breathtaking. At night, since there is absolutely no light pollution from any cities (Trikala is on the other side of the mountain range), the stars in the night sky are some of the most brilliant specks of diamond-infused light you will ever see.
Looking for a place to stay in these fantastic mountains? You have to head into Pertouli, and get a room at the Chatzigakis Manor. It's hidden from the main road, and literally above the village, but with some absolutely AMAZING views, and gorgeously appointed rooms. Don't believe me? Just check them out, and at very reasonable rates, year-round. But beware, there are only 36 rooms, so get yours booked first!
There's a LOT more to Thessaly, so hit me up with your favorite places or anything I've missed!
The main city in Epirus is Ioannina. Getting there is easy, it's a simple 45-minute flight from Athens, or a 4 1/2 to 5-hour drive, depending on the route you take. Either way, it's worth the visit. This vibrant city, complete with a university, a plethora of old monuments and museums, and a collection of cafés and bars—is the answer to those who are looking to mingle with native Greeks.
Vikos Gorge is in the Pindus Mountains in Northern Epirus and holds the Guinness record for the deepest gorge on Earth. In these mountains, you will also find the mythical and famed drakolimnes, or "dragon lakes" in English. Remnants of the Ice Age according to scientists or the dwelling places of dragons incessantly fighting each other according to tradition. They are areas with a singular and sensitive ecological balance. High temperatures, scant nutrients, wide variations in sunlight during the summer and the winter months have turned these alpine lakes into truly unique ecosystems. Their waters are home to the Alpine Newt, which from a distance, with its fierce orange and red body, looks like a miniature dragon, giving the lakes their name! Definitely a must-see!
Rafting and kayaking in the Voidomatis River are incredibly popular and gaining popularity year after year as foreigners visit. Revel in the beauty of Epirus’ Voidomatis River. One of Greece’s cleanest rivers offers adrenaline-pumping fun to those into water sports and provides a sense of adventure. You will get to admire stone arched bridges, incredible nature and even enjoy stops at monasteries nearby.
Now, I know that's only the briefest of looks at two incredible parts of Greece, so if you know of others, please let me know! Get in touch with me either in the comment section, email me at email@example.com, or on social media. I look forward to hearing from all of you!