We'd been thinking for months that our crossing of Greece was going to be fantastic, incredible, exceptional. Why? I don't know. Yet, nobody had over-sold it to us. We have probably been victims of clichés... Beautiful walks, gastronomy, the sea, the sweet Greek life, History presents everywhere, can you picture it? We were already dreaming about it. Finally, we had created so many expectations that we were a little disappointed. It's not the worst place we've crossed during the trip, but it's probably where we've lived the biggest gap between our imagination and the reality of our experience. But if everything went as planned, this adventure would have much less interest!
It all started with a scorching afternoon in July. Ah? You never thought of hiking in mainland Greece in the middle of a heat wave? Stay on it, you're right! When preparing our itinerary we said three things: we didn't want to be in Portugal or Spain during the hottest months, we had to cross the Alps between June and October and we had to avoid to be in Greece in summer. Almost a clear round but little by little, our planning has slipped, always a little further. We left Portugal on February 5, 2018, there was little chance of being wrong. We arrived in the Alps mid-July, it was still okay and we came out at the beginning of November with the first snows, it was tight. The winter in the Western Balkans slowed us down more than we had imagined. Many, many snow, incredibly short days, then many guests in the spring, result, we arrive in Greece in early July.
“Off the beaten path”
In Albania, there were many trails because people use them daily, to go somewhere or take their herds to the mountains. On the other hand we had trouble finding information, mapping still has a lot of progress to do in the area! Arriving in Greece, we had spotted several long distance trails like the Epirus Trail and the O2, dedicated applications, maps and GPX tracks: luxury. In fact, it's obvious that these trails are almost not used or maintained. Such a pity! For almost three months in Greece, we only met a couple of hikers, they also accompanied us for a few kilometers.
From mountain to mountain
From the mountains of Greece, we had very different insights and feelings depending on the places. In Epirus, in the North of the country, as on the Pindus range or in the mountains of Vardoussia in the center, we met absolutely no one in the mountains and the few refuges were all closed, most of them definitely. It's a vicious circle that's difficult to identify the outcome of... no shelters-no walkers, no walkers-no trails, but if there were shelters, there might be more walkers and therefore trails! The snake biting its own tail...
To climb Mount Giona, the trail was clear and easy to follow, the mountain deserted and beautiful. Only trace of humans, the waste, left probably by shepherds, who often ruined our pleasure.
Mount Olympus was another story, almost the opposite in fact. Moreover, we often hear "Mount Olympus" but it is more correct to speak of the Olympus mountains. Olympus is a mountain range, the highest of its summits is Mytikas. As the summit is often invisible from below, either draped in clouds or dazzling with snow, Greek mythology regarded it as the domain of the Gods, inaccessible to humans.
Today, tourism, communication and despite this, the limited resources made mythical climbing the mountain but also made it dangerous! The climb itself is quite technical, steep, stones can easily fall and make you loose your balance or fall on the person who follows you. Every year, several people kill themselves trying to reach the summit of Mounts Olympus. I'm not talking about climbers who find themselves in trouble on Everest, lacking oxygen or caught in a storm. I'm talking about, for example, this family there, the 9-year-old girl in Crocs shoes and weeping, the panicked father who told us, "I did not know it would be like that!!!" arguably the biggest defect of the internet and social networks today: to give the illusion that everything is accessible to everyone, that we can all go where only a few insiders risked a few years ago and take THE souvenir photo.
Beyond this subject that annoys us a little, Mounts Olympus have kept their promise. A capricious weather because they can not be climbed like that, a mythical atmosphere, almost supernatural and breathtaking landscapes. To top it off, the climb was done in great company since Matt joined us from Florida to walk a week in Greece with us! Matt works for one of our main sponsors, Zpacks, and over time we have become friends. In many ways Matt's arrival made us jump for joy! First he's the one who came from the furthest in the world, then we try to work essentially with brands that we believe in and who also believe in our project, this is the case with Zpacks!
Our ultimate mountain experience in Greece was in the Pierian mountains. Maintained trails, splendid views and, and, and... An open refuge! Before we started to climb, we looked for the details of the keeper, an obstacle course as always. Web pages written in Greek that Google does not offer to translate, incorrect phone numbers, without mentionning those where someone picks up but to our question "Do you speak English?", hang up immediately, you must summon your patience. After several messages sent to strangers on Facebook, an answer: "Call Paris, the keeper, at this number". He answered, promised to be there to welcome us and he was there! Passionate and generous, Paris was the only Greek to make live the Greek mountain in our eyes.
The second most lively place in Greece for us was the small village of Kolokithia. After finding a closed refuge in the mountains of Vardoussia, we had to get out of there: we had no more food. Direction the nearest village: Kolokithia. The typical Greek village: the small terraced square with its majestic plane tree and its café. 6:00 PM in August is the end of the siesta, everyone starts to arrive for a card game or a café frappé. Our presence doesn't go unnoticed. Everyone throws at us, more or less discreetly, curious and surprised looks. And then finally, after a few tens of minutes, the usual mechanism starts. The first one dares. Stavros approaches us and asks who we are, how we got here, if we need something and finally sit at our table. From there, here we go! Those who arrive after at the cafe, see their friend talk with these two strangers who suddenly are no longer foreigners. One thing leading to another, we were planning to stay in Kolokithia for a coffee, we spent three days there as everyone vie to be the most generous! The most amazing thing about all this is to arrive in a village in one of the most touristic countries in Europe and to hear that no one has ever seen tourists there. Yes, in 2019, in Greece, you can still feel like an explorer!
We say it and we repeat it, we repeat it to ourselves too: everything that happens to us is conditioned by our way of approaching things, our mood. We are often asked how we do all these encounters, how we get invited to people's place? Of course, there must be good will from the people in front of us, but these meetings are provoked, we talk to each person we meet and Nil is damn good at cheering up the most grumpy!
Holidays in Skopelos
However, you probably won't meet this feeling of exploration of a virgin territory while strolling on the Greek littoral. Even though we had imagined our itinerary differently, on the spot it seemed unthinkable to cross Greece without visiting at least one island. We set our sights on Skopelos, an island in the Sporades, relatively close to the mainland and easily accessible for us. At the end of August / early September, the island had already emptied most of its tourists and we were relatively quiet to explore Skopelos, known for being one of the greenest islands, in opposition to the other, very rocky.
Pelion : the family nightmare
After our island getaway, we continued our journey on the Pelion Peninsula. On paper, the region was very promising: a mountainous land plunging directly into the sea, small idyllic coves and, in mythology, it was the Centaurs terrtory and where the Gods went on vacation!
In fact, the creeks were beautiful and it was fantastic to be able to bathe every day but to go from beach to beach meant inevitably to go back inland and to go up and down 'cauz... this is mountains! Overall, the area is not really made to hike. Trails are either farm tracks or abandoned roads on which it is very difficult to progress.
You don't believe us? Ask my family how was its adventure in the Pelion with 2PVA! The bivouacs on the beach were absolutely sublime, the family adventure was real and intense but the abandoned trails, the lack of markings and fresh water made us die hard, so much so that we had to call the firefighters to come clear the trail and bring us water. The whole story of this episode and the heroic act of Nil in the video:
At the beginning of this crossing of Europe, we can say that we mastered French, English and Spanish. The other Latin languages, we made do them. The languages descending from Serbo-Croatian, we ended up getting by with, in any case the minimum to survive in these countries and have ersatz of human contacts. In Albania, people wanted so hard to communicate with us that they made it possible. In Greece, how can I say... Maybe we've become a little lazy, maybe all the new languages that our brains had to integrate this year left no room for another. Anyway, our mastery of the Greek language after all those weeks spent there makes us a little blush. For our defense, this unusual alphabet was a real obstacle since at first we could not even pronounce the words we saw written.
Delphi, the navel of the world
You may have noticed that museums, places of worship and other monuments, are not really our cup of tea. When we're in town, we take a hotel room to work and we only go out to eat something. Period. Why? I don't know, it's like that. The purpose of this trip is not to do "tourism" but to explore. So when we ended up in Delphi, mythical place of Greek mythology, we were a little annoyed. We were there, the place was as much loaded with History as tourists. The 2:00 PM heat defeated the little motivation we had to spend money on a tourist visit. So we did our way! A few hundred meters higher, we were overlooking the site and our little drone did the rest!
Kerkini: waste and pelicans
Before leaving Greece, we had one last surprise, mixed, to say the least.
On a last-minute change of itinerary, we found ourselves at the edge of Lake Kerkini. This artificial lake has been classified National Park for about fifteen years. and is home to exceptional wildlife, from pelicans to pygmy cormorants and water buffaloes. The views were sumptuous and totally unexpected.
Unfortunately, in some places, there are more fishermen and garbage than wild animals...
In summary, we may have had too many expectations when we arrived in Greece, they were not all satisfied but we discovered a country and a culture that we had the illusion of knowing. The thirteenth page of this adventure turns and opens on the Bulgarian mountains as well as the third and last winter of this journey! To be continued!