The central mainland of Greece has long been thought of as the Greek heartland, the zone first liberated from the Turks. In fact, its most central province Stereá Elládha means literally “Greek Continent”. For the visitor its most stellar attractions are the site of the ancient oracle at Delphi, and, further north, the other-worldly rock-pinnacle monasteries of Metéora. Close to Delphi is Ósios Loukás monastery – containing the finest Byzantine mosaics in the country – and, to the south, the pleasant port resorts of Galaxídhi and Náfpaktos along the north shore of the Gulf of Kórinthos.
North of Delphi is the vast agricultural plain of Thessaly, dotted with mostly drab market and industrial towns, but also boasting the mountainous Pelion peninsula, with its enticing villages, beaches and hiking options. On the east side of Thessaly lie the remote monasteries of the Metéora and the imposing Píndhos Mountains which once formed the barrier with the eastern province of Epirus, the last region to shake off Turkish rule. The Píndhos range makes for scenic hiking opportunities and features the dramatic Víkos Gorge, reputedly Europe’s deepest. The Epirot capital, lakeside Ioánnina, still evokes an exotic past. Nearby lies ancient Dodóna, the majestic site of Greece’s first oracle, presided over by Zeus. Finally, the west coast is sprinkled with some good beaches and resorts along the Ionian Sea, as well as with more historic sites from every epoch. With your own transport (highly recommended) and careful planning, you can take in the central mainland’s main sights and pleasures in a couple of weeks.
The Pelion peninsula
The hilly PELION PENINSULA confounds every stereotypical image of Greece, with its abundant fruit trees and dense forests and water gurgling up from fountains or aqueducts. Summer temperatures here can be a good 5°C cooler than on the baking plains nearby, and this finger of land is very popular with Greek tourists and more discerning foreign visitors drawn to its pretty villages, excellent beaches and hiking routes.
The peninsula is dominated by Mount Pelion (Mount Pílio; 1651m), below which villages are spread out widely, linked by cobbled paths. The best concentration of traditional communities lies just north and east of Vólos, the main gateway to the region. The west coast down from Vólos to Áfyssos is less memorable, with concentrated development along the Pagasitic Gulf despite no decent beaches. The far south, relatively low-lying and sparsely populated, has just two major resorts – Plataniás and Milína – plus a few inland villages and the picturesque fishing port of Ayía Kyriakí at the extreme southwestern tip.
Pelion legends and food
For the ancients, the lushness of the Pelion made this the site of revelries by the gods and haunt of the mythical centaurs – thus the name Kentavros (Centaur) for various hotels and bars, as well as the rowdy creature’s depictions everywhere.
With its orchards of apple, pear and nut, the Pelion is still one of the most agriculturally prolific areas of Greece. Herbs, fruit, home-made preserves and honey are likely souvenirs. The Pelion boasts a distinct regional cuisine: spedzofáï (sausage and pepper casserole) and gídha lemonáti (goat stew with lemon sauce); seafood is often garnished with krítamo (pickled rock samphire) or tsitsíravla (pickled April-shrubbery shoots), and wine from the Dhimitra Co-op at Néa Anhíalos is widely available.
The Pelion trenáki
A prime west-Pelion attraction is the trenáki, or narrow-gauge railway, which originally ran between Vólos and Miliés. The 60km line, in normal service until 1971, was laid out between 1894 and 1903 under the supervision of engineer Evaristo de Chirico, father of famous artist Giorgio de Chirico (which accounts for the little trains which chug across several of his paintings). To conquer the 2.8-percent gradient and numerous ravines between Áno Lehónia and Miliés, the elder de Chirico designed six multiple-span stone viaducts, tunnels and a riveted iron trestle bridge, all justly considered masterpieces of form and function. The bridge, some 700m west of the terminus below Miliés, spans a particularly deep gorge and can be crossed on a pedestrian catwalk; indeed, following the entire route down to Áno Lehónia is a popular 5hr 30min walk, with occasional springs en route.
You can ride on one of the original Belgian steam locomotives (since converted to diesel), during weekends and holidays Easter–October (daily July–Aug), and several of the belle epoque stations have been restored. The train leaves Áno Lehónia (city bus #5 from Vólos) on the coast at 11am, taking 95min to reach Miliés, from where it returns at 4pm. Tickets are currently €13 adults, €8.50 kids, one-way or round trip, and go on sale at 10.30am (start queuing at 10am), at either Vólos or Áno Lehónia. However, groups often book out the three carriages, so best make enquiries at Vólos station a few days in advance.
The Píndhos Mountains
Continuing west from Metéora, you soon encounter the rugged peaks, forested ravines and turbulent rivers of the Píndhos Mountains. Over the centuries, this range has insulated the communities and culture here from outside interference, securing a large measure of autonomy even under Ottoman rule. Yet, today it’s the mountains themselves that provide the strongest attraction. Their physical beauty is stunning, with limestone peaks, dramatic gorges and dense forest contrasting with stone-built villages and arched packhorse bridges.
Roughly halfway over the mountains stands Métsovo, the most convenient venue for alpine life Greek-style, plus a taste of the local Vlach culture. Down on the plain below is the fascinating lakeside city of Ioánnina, capital of Epirus, the last region of Greece to be liberated from the Turks. Farther to the north, back up in the Píndhos mountains, authentic stone hamlets and the stunning Víkos Gorge provide unforgettable scenery and hiking opportunities.
Take the high road: the Katára Pass
West of Kalambáka, the 1694-m Katára Pass carries the only high-altitude paved road across the central Píndhos Mountains to link the regions of Thessaly and Epirus, which lie on either side. One of the most spectacular drives in the country, this centuries-old route switchbacks through folds in the enormous peaks rising more than 2300m around Métsovo. From November to April the pass is snowploughed – although these days the old, twisty road is entirely optional. Sixty enormous tunnels linked by long viaducts have been bored through the ridges here as part of the recently completed Vía Egnatía expressway, which now smoothly flows all the way to the west coast.
Europe’s last semi-nomadic peoples the Vlachs have lived in the Píndhos Mountains for centuries. Each summer, the melting of the winter snows finds the vast slopes here coming alive with the sound of bells, as the Vlachs bring their flocks up from the plains to graze in the mountains. Though the ethnicity of the Vlachs (from the ancient Germanic word for “foreigner” Walh) is a subject of much scholarly debate, most claim to be descendants of Roman soldiers stationed here in Classical times, and they speak a Latin-derived, unwritten language similar to modern Romanian. Today, although the Greek government keeps no records of ethnicity, it is estimated that perhaps 40,000 Vlachs live in small communities scattered throughout the Píndhos range, where you can still see shepherds wearing the distinctive goat-skin cape and wielding their fanciful crook. In the remotest areas, traditional Vlach pagan beliefs are only thinly overlaid with the Orthodox faith; many elderly women still have a black cross tattooed on their foreheads, to ward off the evil eye, and their gossip is rife with folktales of sorcery and curses.
IOÁNNINA, the provincial capital of Epirus, with some 130,000 inhabitants, boasts an idyllic setting, its old town jutting out into the great Lake Pamvótis along a rocky promontory, its fortifications punctuated by spindly minarets. From this base, Ali Pasha “the Lion of Ioánnina” carved from the Turkish domains a personal fiefdom that encompassed much of western Greece and present-day Albania: an act of rebellion that prefigured wider defiance in the Greeks’ own War of Independence.
Although much of the city is modern and undistinguished (albeit home to a thriving university), the old town remains one of the most interesting in Greece. There are stone-built mosques (and a synagogue) that evoke the Ottoman era, and Ali Pasha’s citadel, the kástro, survives more or less intact, its inner citadel, the Its Kale, now a museum park. In the lake, Nissí island has a car-free if overly prettified village, and frescoed monasteries. Ioánnina is also a springboard for visits to the caves of Pérama, among the country’s largest, on the western shore of the lake, and a slightly longer excursion to the very ancient Oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Finally, the city is also the gateway to what is possibly the area’s most rewarding corner, Zagóri.
In its heyday the Kástro’s walls dropped abruptly to the lake, and were moated on their landward (southwest) side. The moat has been filled in, and a quay-esplanade now extends below the lakeside ramparts, but there is still the sense of a citadel, with narrow alleys and bazaar-like shops.
Municipal Ethnographic Museum
Signs inside point to the ethnographic museum, an elegantly arranged collection of Epirot costumes, guns, silver-work and Islamic art, housed in the well-preserved, floodlit Aslan Pasha Tzamí, allowing a rare glimpse inside an intact Greek mosque. It dates from 1618, built on the site of an Orthodox cathedral pulled down in reprisal for a failed local revolt of 1611. The interior retains painted decoration in its dome and mihrab (niche indicating direction of Mecca), as well as a vividly coloured mimber or pulpit, nicely complementing a walnut and mother-of-pearl suite on display in the “Muslim section”.
More poignant is a section devoted to synagogue rugs and tapestries donated by the dwindling Jewish community of about fifty.
The inner citadel (the Its Kale)
Southeast of the Aslan Pasha Tzamí lies the inner citadel, signposted as Its Kale, a transliteration of its Turkish name – a kind of fortress within the fortress. The park-like grounds, with wonderful mountain views from this elevated spot, are occasionally used for concerts after-hours, and there’s a large and pleasant terrace café-restaurant near the entrance, occupying the garrison’s former mess.
Next to the old Fethiye Tzamí (“Victory Mosque”) and its slim, rocket-like minaret – which occupy an upper corner – one of the two Ottoman graves, surmounted by an elegant wrought-iron cage, is probably that of Ali Pasha, while the other contains his first wife Emine and one son. The mosque itself, remodelled by Ali, was built atop the remains of a thirteenth-century cathedral.
Next to the mosque, on the site of Ali’s vanished palace, where Byron was entertained, stands the arcaded so-called Byzantine Museum, a thin, largely post-Byzantine collection. The displays comprise masonry, coins, pottery, icons and colour prints of frescoes from various ages; the only actually Byzantine painting is a fresco fragment of The Betrayal.
A few paces down the hill, in the presumed treasury of Ali Pasha’s seraglio, is the Silverwork Hall, containing important masterpieces of Ioánnina’s centuries-old silver-working tradition.
The old bazaar and Jewish quarter
Apart from the kástro, the town’s most enjoyable district is the old bazaar and Jewish quarter, a warren of narrow lanes and alleys between the citadel’s main gate and Anexartissías avenue bounding it on the south. It retains a cluster of Ottoman-era buildings (including imposing mansions with ornate window grilles and founding inscriptions), as well as a scattering of copper- and tinsmiths, plus the silversmiths who were long a mainstay of the town’s economy. Retail silver outlets cluster either side of kástro’s gate; you’ll find the last traditional tinsmiths at Anexartissías 84, and the last copper-mongers at no. 118–122. Stoas off Anexartissías serving old warehouses, now being gentrified, can also be rewardingly explored.
The island of Nissí in Lake Pamvótis is connected by water buses from the Mólos quay on Platía Mavíli. Only islanders’ cars are allowed, hauled across on a chain-barge to the mainland opposite. The pretty island village, founded during the sixteenth century by refugees from the Máni, is flanked by several monasteries, worthy targets for an afternoon’s visit. By day the main lane leading up from the boat dock is crammed with stalls selling jewellery and kitsch souvenirs. Except at three overpriced waterfront restaurants and another cluster by Pandelímonos, quiet descends with the sun setting vividly over the reed beds that fringe the island.
Lake Pamvótis itself is certainly idyllic-looking enough, and it’s the region’s largest lake, but runoff pollution is an ongoing problem and most locals do not advise either swimming in its waters or eating its fish.
The Pérama caves
Some 5km north of Ioánnina, the village of PÉRAMA claims to have Greece’s largest system of caves, extending for kilometres beneath a low hill. They were discovered during late 1940 by locals attempting to find shelter from Italian bombing raids. The one-hour mandatory tours of the complex are primarily in Greek (commentary repeated in passable English) and make some effort to educate, though there are the inevitable bawdy nicknames for various suggestively shaped formations.
Dodona: the Oracle of Zeus
DODONA, 22km southwest of Ioánnina in a broad, mountain-ringed valley, comprises the ruins and large theatre of the ancient Oracle of Zeus, Greece’s first oracle, some of the site dating back as far as four millennia.
The impressive theatre was built during the reign of King Pyrrhus (297–272 BC), and was one of the largest in Greece, rivalled only by those at Argos and Megalopolis. The Romans added a protective wall and a drainage channel around the orchestra as adaptations for their blood sports. What’s now visible is a meticulous late nineteenth-century reconstruction. Almost all except the stage area is now off-limits, though it’s worth following a path around to the top of the cavea (seating curve) to fully savour the glorious setting, looking across a green, silent valley to Mount Tómaros. A grand entrance gate leads into the overgrown acropolis, with Hellenistic foundations up to 5m wide.
Beside the theatre, tiered against the same slope, are the foundations of a bouleuterion, beyond which lie the complex ruins of the Sanctuary of Zeus, site of the oracle itself. There was no temple per se until late in the fifth century BC; until then, worship had centred upon the sacred oak, inside a circle of votive tripods and cauldrons. The remains you can see today are adorned with a modern oak tree planted by a helpfully reverent archeologist. Nearby is a useful placard detailing the entire site.
Dodona occasionally hosts musical and ancient drama performances on summer weekends, though sadly since 2000 these are staged on modern wooden bleachers rather than in the ancient theatre.
Ali Pasha – the Lion of Ioánnina
As an “heroic rebel”, the Muslim Albanian Ali Pasha assumes an ambivalent role – for his only consistent policy was that of ambition and self-interest. As frequent as his attacks on the Ottoman authorities were, he also engaged in acts of appalling savagery against his Greek subjects. Despite this, he is still held in some regard by locals for his perceived role as a defier of Istanbul, the common enemy – folk postcards of the man abound, and a platía in the citadel is named after him.
Ali was born in 1741 in Tepelene, now in modern Albania, and by 1787 had been made pasha of Tríkala as a reward for his efforts in the war against Austria. His ambitions, however, were larger, and the following year he seized Ioánnina, an important town since the thirteenth century, with a population of 30,000 – probably the largest in Greece at the time. Paying perfunctory and sporadic tribute to the sultan, he operated from here for the next 33 years, allying himself in turn, as strategy required, with the Ottomans, the French or the British.
In 1809, when his dependence upon the sultan was nominal, Ali was visited by the young Lord Byron, whom he overwhelmed with hospitality and attention. Byron, impressed for his part with the rebel’s daring and stature, and the lively revival of Greek culture in Ioánnina, commemorated the meeting in Childe Harold. This portrait that he draws, however, is ambiguous, since Byron well knew that behind Ali’s splendid court and deceptively mild countenance were “deeds that lurk” and “stain him with disgrace”.
Ali met a suitably grisly end. In 1821, the Ottoman sultan resolved to eliminate Ali’s threat to his authority before tackling the Greek insurgency, and he sent an army of 50,000 to capture him. Lured from the security of Ioánnina citadel with false promises of lenient surrender terms, he was ambushed, shot and decapitated, his head sent to Istanbul. The rest of Ali supposedly lies in the northeast corner of the inner citadel.
Zagóri and the Víkos Gorge
Few parts of Greece are more surprising or more beguiling than the part of the Píndhos mountains known as ZAGÓRI. A wild, thinly populated region, it lies just to the north of Ioánnina. The beauty of its landscape is unquestionable: dense forest and rugged mountains are furrowed by foaming rivers and dotted with traditional villages (the Zagorohória), many sporting grand stone houses or arhondiká, dating from the late eighteenth century. Here, also, you can seek out evocative ancient monasteries set in improbably remote spots. Wildlife is impressive too: there’s good birdwatching, increasing numbers of wolves, plus legally protected brown bears.
The best way to enjoy the countryside is by hiking the numerous paths connecting the villages. The most accessible and rewarding target is the magnificent UNESCO-protected Víkos Gorge, while mounts Gamíla and Smólikas provide several days of serious trekking. Even if you don’t plan on hiking, the area deserves some time. Its remoteness, traditional architecture and scenery all constitute a very different Greece to the popular tourist stereotype and, despite growing popularity, the area remains relatively unspoilt.
Near the south end of the gorge, at 1150m elevation, stands handsome MONODHÉNDHRI, the main accommodation base in the area. The village survived World War II more or less intact – though it’s now slightly spoilt by tourist shops and parked coaches. Just before the flagstoned platía with its giant tree, the seventeenth-century church of Áyios Minás is locked, but the narthex, with fine eighteenth-century frescoes, is open. The wide, artlessly modern kalderími leading from the far end of the platía reaches, after 900m (not “600m” as signed) the eagle’s-nest monastery of Ayía Paraskeví (built 1412), teetering on the brink of the gorge (there’s a small viewing platform just behind) and now empty, though left open. If you’re extremely sure-footed and have a head for heights, continue around the adjacent cliff face along an exceedingly narrow and dangerous path to a stair-trail climbing to Megáli Spiliá, a secluded cave where villagers once barricaded themselves in times of danger. The views over the gorge en route are spectacular from a natural balcony, with all of Víkos spread vertiginously at your feet.
The Pápingo villages
MEGÁLO PÁPINGO is the larger of the two paired Pápingo villages, comprising two distinct quarters of 25 or so houses each along a tributary of the Voïdhomátis. It has served as the location for Jonathan Nossiter’s 2000 film Signs and Wonders, starring Charlotte Rampling, plus countless Greek advertising shoots. Even before this, Megálo was a haunt of wealthy, trendy Greeks, making it a dubious target in peak season, though it is still delightful at other times. The fact that large coaches can’t scale the steep hairpin road from the Voïdhomátis valley has made all the difference between here and Monodhéndhri; in peak season you must leave cars at the outskirts.
Megálo Pápingo is linked to its smaller namesake, Mikró Pápingo, by a 3km surfaced road; walkers should take the marked path off the road, via a historic bridge, which short-cuts the journey to half an hour. If you do take the road, just before the bend – at an obvious spot adorned by low masoned walls – you can detour to some natural swimming pools. Just below the church, in Mikró Pápingo, the WWF maintains an information centre (Mon, Tues, Thurs & Sun 10.30am–5.30pm; Fri, Sat & hols 11am–6pm; free) with worthwhile exhibits on the human and natural history of Pápingo and environs.
Vítsa and the Skála Vítsas
VÍTSA (Vezítsa), 2km below Monodhéndhri, is to many tastes less claustrophobic and more attractive than Monodhéndhri. There’s also access to the gorge via the signposted Skála Vítsas, a half-hour’s gentle descent from the platía along the Z9 – mostly on engineered stair-path – to the handsome single-arched Misíou bridge; from there one can continue upstream to Kípi village via the O3 path, or downstream along the heart of the gorge.
From either Vítsa or the Misíou bridge, the Z15 leads south to DHÍLOFO, one of the most handsome Zagorian villages. The village has road access (though cars must be left at the outskirts). Alternatively it makes for a rewarding hike. The path-start in Vítsa is trickier to find than the branch leading from the bridge, but once done it’s a twenty-minute descent to a stream bed, where the Misíou branch links up, then a climb along a crumbled kalderími which peters out in flysch badlands. After another stream crossing, the path resumes before becoming a track to the outskirts of Dhílofo, just over an hour along.
The village of ELÁTI (Boúltzi) is rather distant from the gorge, but there are fine views north to the peaks of Gamíla. From Dhílofo, walkers can continue down to Áyios Minás chapel on the main road and thence to Eláti on the Z24, but nearly half the way (90min) is along asphalt or bulldozer track, so you may as well come by car.
Dhíkorfo and the Kaloutás bridge
DHÍKORFO (Tzódhila) proves a beauty with its grand houses and unusual, minaret-like belfry of Áyios Minás church. Beyond the village the chief attraction is the enormous triple-arched bridge below Kaloutás, about 250m off the paved road by dirt track. All villages past Kaloutás were destroyed during World War II, but the road continues paved to Miliotádhes and thence the old Ioánnina–Métsovo highway – a useful short cut.
ÁNO PEDHINÁ (Soudhená), 3km west of Vítsa and Monodhéndhri, offers a few places with rooms and some superior hotels. At the base of the village stands the restored convent of Evangelístria, currently untenanted. Should you gain admission, you’ll see the katholikón’s magnificent carved témblon and vivid, cleaned frescoes from 1793, though the structure is much older. Nearby Káto Pedhiná is headquarters for worthwhile activity organizer
Hiking the Víkos Gorge
The Víkos Gorge cuts right through the limestone uplands of Mount Gamíla for 20km, separating the villages of western and central Zagóri. With walls almost 1000m high in places, it’s quite equal to the famous Samarian gorge in Crete, and a hike through or around it is probably the highlight of a visit to the Zagóri.
Despite the gorge’s popularity with hikers, and periodic bouts of trail maintenance, it’s worth emphasizing that it is not a Sunday stroll. Bring proper, over-the-ankle boots and a leak-proof water container and walking poles or a stick (also useful for warding off guard dogs and belligerent cows). The best maps for the region are produced by Anavasi Editions . Check conditions in advance of setting out. During April or early May, snowmelt often makes the Monodhéndhri end impassable, and during a rainstorm the sides of the gorge are prone to landslides.
The most-used path down to the gorge begins beside the Áyios Athanásios church in Monodhéndhri; a sign promises fairly accurate walking times of four-and-a-half hours to Víkos village, six hours to either of the Pápingo villages. Once past Monodhéndhri’s municipal amphitheatre, the path is cobbled for most of the forty minutes down to the riverbed, whose stony course you follow for another few minutes before shifting up the west (true left) bank, reaching the best viewpoint at a saddle ninety minutes from the village.
The entire route is waymarked, sometimes faintly, by red-paint dots and white-on-red stencilled metal diamonds with the legend “O3”. This refers to a long-distance path, which begins south of Kípi at Lynkiádhes on Mount Mitsikéli, traverses Mount Gamíla and ends beyond Mount Smólikas. However, the surface underfoot is arduous, with some boulder-hopping in the gorge bed, metal or felled-branch ladders getting you over tricky bits on the bank, plus slippery, land-slid patches.
About two hours out of Monodhéndhri you draw even with the Mégas Lákkos ravine, the only major breach in the east wall of the gorge; a spring here has been piped to make it more usable in summer. Another thirty minutes’ level walking takes you past the small, white shrine of Ayía Triádha; a further half-hour (around 3hr from Monodhéndhri) sees the gorge begin to open out and the sheer walls recede.
As the gorge widens you must make a choice. Continuing straight, the best-defined path takes you past the side trail to beautifully set eighteenth-century Kímisis Theotókou chapel (unlocked; excellent frescoes well worth the 15min round-trip detour). Beyond here, the route becomes a well-paved kalderími, climbing up and left to Víkos (Vitsikó; 870m elevation), four-plus hours from Monodhéndhri and also accessible by a 5km paved road from Arísti. This underrated village has two inns, and up on the square, with its exceptionally handsome church of Áyios Trýfon, a good restaurant.
Most walkers, however, prefer to follow the marked O3 route to the two Pápingo villages, crossing the gorge bed at the Voïdhomátis springs, some three-and-a-half hours from Monodhéndhri. It’s about two hours’ walk from the springs up to Mikró Pápingo, slightly less to Megálo, with the divide in the trail nearly ninety minutes above the riverbed crossing. After an initial steep climb, there’s a fine view down into the gorge near some weathered, tooth-like pinnacles, before the trail traverses a stable rockslide to the fork. Should you be reversing this route, the path-start in Mikró Pápingo village is signposted bilingually, and marked by a fancy stone archway in Megálo Pápingo.
The oak tree oracle
“Wintry Dodona” was mentioned by Homer, and religious activities here appear to have begun with the first Hellenic tribes who arrived in Epirus around 1900 BC. Herodotus records that the oracle was founded after the mythic arrival of a peleiae (either “dove” or “old woman” in ancient Greek) from Egypt, said to have alighted on an oak tree. In any case, the oak tree was certainly central to the cult with the oracle speaking through the rustling of its leaves, amplified by copper vessels suspended from its branches. These sounds would then be interpreted by frenzied priestesses and/or priests, who allegedly slept on the ground and never washed their feet.
Many oracular inscriptions were found when the site was first systematically dug in 1952, demonstrating not only the oracle’s lingering influence even after its eclipse by Delphi, but also the fears and inadequacies motivating pilgrims of the era in such questions as: “Am I her children’s father?” and “Has Peistos stolen the wool from the mattress?”
West Coast Greece
Starting just south of where the Vía Egnatía expressway ends, the west coast has some attractive beaches between Igoumenítsa and Préveza, among the best on the mainland outside of Mount Pílio. Igoumenítsa itself, the capital of Thesprotía province, is a purely functional ferry port. Attractive Párga, the most established beach resort heading south, gets super packed-out in summer and at Easter, so is best left for June or September visits. Just inland, there are worthwhile detours from the main route south: the intriguing Nekromanteion of Acheron evokes the legendary entrance to Hades; and the vast ruins of Nikopolis break the journey to Préveza, a low-key provincial capital at the mouth of the marshy Amvrakikós gulf. Down along the south coast, Mesolónghi is considered by Greeks as a sacred spot for being where Lord Byron died while doing his part to liberate Greece from the Ottomans.
Mesolóngi and around
Mesolóngi (Missolongi), for most visitors, is irrevocably associated with Lord Byron, who died here to dramatic effect during the War of Independence. Otherwise it’s a fairly shabby and unromantic place: rainy from autumn to spring, and comprised largely of drab, modern buildings between which locals enthusiastically cycle along a flat grid plan. To be fair, the town has been spruced up, especially in the centre, but if you come here on pilgrimage, it’s still best to move on the same day, most likely to Lefkádha island or the Peloponnese.
Gate of the Sortie
You enter the town from the northeast through the Gate of the Sortie, named after the April 12, 1826 break-out by nine thousand Greeks, ending the Ottomans’ year-long siege. In one desperate dash they quit Mesolóngi, leaving a group of defenders to destroy it – and some three thousand civilians not capable of leaving – by firing the powder magazines. But those fleeing were betrayed, ambushed on nearby Mount Zygós; fewer than two thousand evaded massacre or capture and enslavement by an Albanian mercenary force.
Garden of Heroes
Just inside this gate, on the right, partly bounded by the remaining fortifications, is the Kípos Iróön, or “Garden of Heroes” – signposted in English as “Heroes’ Tombs” – where a tumulus covers the bodies of the town’s anonymous defenders. Beside the tomb of Souliot commander Markos Botsaris is a statue of Byron, erected in 1881, under which – despite apocryphal traditions – is buried neither the poet’s heart nor lungs. Byron might conceivably have been offered the throne of an independent Greece: thus the relief of his coat of arms with a royal crown above. Among the palm trees and rusty cannon loom busts, obelisks and cenotaphs to an astonishing range of American, German and French Philhellenes, those Romantics who strove to free the Classical Greece of their ideals from the barbaric thrall of the Ottomans.
Museum of History and Art
Back on the central square, the Neoclassical town hall houses the small Museum of History and Art devoted to the revolution, with some emotive paintings on the upper floor (including a copy of Delacroix’s Gate of the Sortie), reproductions of period lithographs and a rather disparate (and desperate) collection of Byronia on the ground floor. Pride of place, by the entrance, goes to an original edition of Solomos’s poem Hymn to Liberty, now the words of the national anthem.
More interesting than any town sight is a walk across the Klísova lagoon, past two forts that were vital defences against the Ottoman navy. The lagoon, with its salt-evaporation ponds and fish farms, attracts a variety of wading birds, especially in spring.
A causeway extends 4km from Mesolóngi to the open sea at TOURLÍDHA, a hamlet of wood-plank and prefab summer cottages on stilts, plus a few tavernas. If you can stomach the intermittent stench from the nearby salt-ponds, there’s a packed-sand beach to swim from, with showers and a few café-bars. Makes a picturesque, funky outing if you’re visiting Mesolóngi.
Byron in Mesolóngi
Byron has been a Greek national hero ever since he became involved in the country’s struggle for independence. Almost every town in the country has a street – Výronos – named after him; not a few men still answer to “Vyron” as a first name. He first passed through in 1809 when tyrannical local ruler Ali Pasha was at the height of his power, and the poet’s tales of intrigue sent a shiver down romantic Western spines.
Later, in January 1824, Byron made his way to Mesolóngi, a squalid, inhospitable southwestern port amid lagoons – but also the western centre of resistance against the Ottomans. The poet, who had by then contributed his personal fame and fortune to the war effort, was enthusiastically greeted with a 21-gun salute, and made commander of the five-thousand-strong garrison, a role as much political as military. The Greek forces were divided into factions whose brigand-chieftains separately and persistently petitioned him for money. Occasionally Byron despaired: “Here we sit in this realm of mud and discord”, read one of his journal entries. But while other Philhellenes returned home, disillusioned by the fractious, larcenous Greeks, or worn out by quasi-tropical Mesolóngi, he stayed.
On February 15 Byron caught a fever, possibly malaria, and two months later died; ironically, he became more valuable to the Greek cause dead than alive. News of the poet’s demise, embellished to heroic proportions, reverberated across northern Europe; arguably it changed the course of the war in Greece. When Mesolóngi fell again to the Ottomans in spring 1826, there was outcry in the European press, and French and English forces were finally galvanized into sending a naval force that unintentionally engaged an Egyptian fleet at Navarino, striking a fatal blow against the Ottoman navy.
The inevitable magnet of the central province of Stereá Elládha is Delphi, 175km northwest of Athens. If you have your own transport, there are ample rewards in approaching it along the old road to Thebes, and you could also easily include the Byzantine monastery of Ósios Loukás. Legendary Mount Parnassós above Delphi offers skiing and walking opportunities depending on the season, while to the south, on the Gulf of Korínthos, the port towns of Galaxídhi and Náfpaktos are good for a seaside sojourn. Further east, Áyios Konstandínos provides access to the island of Évvia, while heading inland brings you to Lamía and the mountainous Karpeníssi Valley.
It’s easy to understand why the ancients considered DELPHI the centre of the earth, especially given their penchant for awe-inspiring sacred spots. Framed on all sides by the soaring crags of Mount Parnassós, the site truly captures the imagination, especially in spring, when wildflowers cloak the precipitous valley. But more than a stunning setting was needed to confirm the divine presence. Greek mythology will tell you the Delphi is the home of the oracle, the great Apollo (Greek God, son of Zeus and brother to Artemis).
The Legend of Delphi
The legend of Delphi begins in prehistory and in ancient Greek mythology. Delphi was a site seen sacred to Mother Earth and was guarded by the evil serpent, Python, who was eventually killed by the Greek God Apollo. The Cretans built a sanctuary for Apollo, who accompanied them at the post in the form of a dolphin – hence where the name Delphi comes from. Apollo was hereby known to speak through the Oracle, who would give cryptic predictions but during the winter months, Apollo could not be asked for any prophecy and would abandon the city until he returned in the spring.
History of Delphi
The first oracle established here was dedicated to Gaia (“Mother Earth”) and Poseidon (“Earth Shaker”). The serpent Python, son of Gaia, dwelt in a nearby chasm and communicated through the Pythian priestess. Python was later slain by young Apollo, who supposedly arrived in the form of a dolphin – hence the name Delphi. Thereafter, the Pythian Games were held periodically in commemoration, and perhaps also to placate the deposed deities. Delphi subsequently became one of the major sanctuaries of Greece, its oracle widely regarded as the most truthful in the known world.
The Oracle of Delphi
The influence of the oracle spread during the Classical age of colonization and its patronage grew, peaking during the sixth century BC, with benefactors such as King Amasis of Egypt and the hapless King Croesus of Lydia. Delphi’s wealth, however, made it vulnerable to Greek rivalries; by the mid-fifth century BC, the oracle became the object of a struggle between Athens, Phokia and Sparta, prompting a series of Sacred Wars. These culminated in Philip of Macedon invading southern Greece, crushing the city-states in 338 BC at the Battle of Chaeronea. Delphi’s political intriguing was effectively over.
Under Macedonian and later Roman rule, the oracle’s role became increasingly domestic, dispensing advice on marriages, loans, voyages and the like. The Romans thought little of its utterances, rather more of its treasure: Sulla plundered the sanctuary in 86 BC, and Nero, outraged when the oracle denounced him for murdering his mother, carted away five hundred bronze statues. Upon the proscription of paganism by Theodosius in 391 AD, the oracle ceased.
The Archaeological Site of Delphi
The sanctuary site was rediscovered towards the end of the seventeenth century and explored haphazardly from 1838 onwards; systematic excavation began only in 1892 when the French School of Archeology leased the land. There was initially little to be seen other than the outline of a stadium and theatre, but the inhabitants of Kastrí village, set amid the ruins, were evicted to a new town 1km west (now modern Dhelfí) and digging commenced. By 1903, most of the excavations and reconstruction visible today had been completed.
The Sacred Precinct
The Sacred Precinct, or Temenos (Sanctuary) of Apollo, is entered – as in ancient times – by way of a small agora enclosed by ruins of Roman porticoes and shops selling votive offerings. The paved Sacred Way begins after a few stairs, zigzagging uphill between the foundations of memorials and treasuries to the Temple of Apollo. Along each edge is a jumble of statue bases where gold, bronze and painted-marble figures once stood; Pliny counted more than three thousand on his visit, and that was after Nero’s infamous raid.
The style and positioning of these memorials were dictated by more than religious zeal; many were used as a deliberate show of strength or as a direct insult against a rival Greek state. For instance, the Spartans celebrated their victory over Athens by erecting their Monument of the Admirals – a large recessed structure, which once held 37 bronze statues of gods and generals – directly opposite the Athenians’ Offering of Marathon.
Further up the path, past the Doric remains of the Sikyonian Treasury on the left, lie the foundations of the Siphnian Treasury, a grandiose Ionic temple erected in 525 BC. Ancient Siphnos (Sífnos) had rich gold mines and intended the building to be an unrivalled show of opulence. Above this is the Treasury of the Athenians, built, like the city’s “offering”, after Marathon (490 BC). It was reconstructed in 1904–1906 by matching the inscriptions – including a hymn to Apollo with musical notation – that completely cover its blocks.
Next to the Treasury are the foundations of the Bouleuterion, or council house, a reminder that Delphi needed administrators, and above stretches the remarkable Polygonal Wall whose irregular interlocking blocks have withstood, intact, all earthquakes. It, too, is covered with inscriptions, mostly referring to the emancipation of slaves; Delphi was one of the few places where such freedom could be made official by an inscribed register. An incongruous outcrop of rock between the wall and the treasuries marks the original Sanctuary of Gaia.
Finally, the Sacred Way leads past the Athenian Stoa (which housed trophies from an Athenian naval victory of 506 BC) to the temple terrace where you are confronted with a large altar, erected by the island of Chios (Híos). The Temple of Apollo now visible dates from the mid-fourth century BC, two previous versions having succumbed to fire and earthquake. The French excavators found only foundations but re-erected six of the Doric columns to illustrate the temple’s dominance over the sanctuary. In the innermost part of the temple was the adyton, a subterranean cell at the mouth of the oracular chasm where the Pythian priestess officiated. No trace of cave or chasm has been found, nor any trance-inducing vapours, but it’s conceivable that such a chasm did exist and was closed by later earthquakes. On the architrave of the temple were inscribed the maxims “Know Thyself” and “Moderation in All Things”.
The theatre and stadium used for the main events of the Pythian Festival occupy terraces above the temple. The theatre, built during the fourth century BC with a capacity of five thousand (the seats sadly roped off), was associated with Dionysos, the god of ecstasy, the arts and wine, who ruled Delphi during the winter when the oracle was silent. A path leads up through cool pine groves to the stadium (its seats also off-limits), artificially levelled in the fifth century BC to a length of 178m, though it was banked with stone seats (giving a capacity of seven thousand) only in Roman times – the gift, like so many other public buildings in Greece, of Herodes Atticus.
The Castalian Spring
Following the road east of the sanctuary, towards Aráhova, you reach a sharp bend. Just to the left, marked by niches for votive offerings and by the remains of an Archaic fountain-house, the celebrated Castalian spring still flows from a cleft – the legendary lair of Python.
Visitors to Delphi were obliged to purify themselves in its waters, usually by washing their hair, though murderers had to take the full plunge. Lord Byron, impressed by the legend that the waters nurtured poetic inspiration, also jumped in. This is no longer possible since the spring is fenced off owing to sporadic rock falls from the cliffs.
Across and below the road from the spring is the Marmaria (marmariá means “marble quarry”, after the medieval practice of filching the ancient blocks for private use).
The most conspicuous building in the precinct, easily visible from the road, is the Tholos, a fourth-century BC rotunda. Three of its dome-columns and their entablature have been rebuilt, but while these amply demonstrate the original beauty of the building (which is the postcard image of Delphi), its purpose remains a mystery.
At the entrance to the precinct stood the original Temple of Athena Pronaia (“Fore-Temple”, in relation to the Apollo shrine), destroyed by the Persians and reconstructed during the fourth century BC beyond the Tholos; foundations of both structures can be traced. Outside the precinct on the northwest side (above the Marmaria) is a gymnasium, again built in the fourth century BC, but later enlarged by the Romans; prominent among the ruins is a circular plunge-bath for athletes’ refreshment after their exertions.
The Museum of Delphi
Delphi’s museum contains a rare and exquisite collection of sculpture spanning the Archaic to the Roman eras, matched only by finds on Athens’ Acropolis. It also features pottery, bronze articles and friezes from the various treasuries and temple pediments, which give a good picture of the sanctuary’s riches.
The most famous exhibit, with a room to itself at the south end of the galleries, is the Charioteer, one of the few surviving bronzes of the fifth century BC, unearthed in 1896 as part of the “Offering of Polyzalos”, toppled during the earthquake of 373 BC. The charioteer’s eyes, made of onyx and set slightly askew, lend it a startling realism. Other major pieces include two huge kouroi from the sixth century BC, betraying clear Asiatic/Egyptian stylistic traits; a life-size, sixth-century BC votive bull fashioned from hammered silver and copper sheeting; and the elegant Ionic winged Sphinx of the Naxians, dating from 565 BC. In the same gallery, the Siphnian frieze depicts Zeus and other gods looking on as the Homeric heroes fight over the body of Patroclus. Another portion of this frieze shows a battle between gods and giants, including a lion graphically mauling a warrior.
The Athenian Treasury is represented by fragments of the metopes (friezes) depicting the labours of Hercules, the adventures of Theseus and a battle with Amazons. A group of three colossal if badly damaged dancing women, carved from Pentelic marble around an acanthus-topped column – probably a tripod-stand – dates from the fourth century BC and is thought to represent the daughters of Kekrops. Among later works is an exquisite second-century AD figure of Antinoös, a favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian.
Modern Dhelfí, 500m to the west of the site, is as inconsequential as its ancient namesake is impressive. Entirely geared to mass tourism (including Greek skiers), Dhelfí’s only real attraction – besides proximity to the ruins and access to Mount Parnassós – is its cliffside setting.
Hiking is also popular in Delphi, thanks to the ideal landscape. Visitors hike to Corycian Cave, where in ancient times people would travel to see Pan, the Greek god of the wild, and his nymphs, during the winter months when the oracle was not available.
Museum of Delphic Festivals
The stone house where the poet Angelos Sikelianos once lived exhibits artefacts and paraphernalia relating to the events he and Eva Palmer organized in 1927–30. Their idea was to set up a “University of the World” and make Delphi a cultural centre. The project eventually failed, though it inspired an annual Delphic Festival, held now in July of each year, with performances of contemporary drama and music in the ancient theatre.
The world’s soothsayer
For over a millennium, a steady stream of pilgrims converged on Delphi to seek divine direction in matters of war, worship, love or business. On arrival they would pay a set fee (the pelanos), sacrifice a goat, boar or even a bull, and – depending on the omens – wait to submit questions inscribed on lead tablets. The Pythian priestess, a village woman over fifty years of age, would chant her prophecies from a tripod positioned over the oracular chasm. An attendant priest would then “interpret” her utterings in hexameter verse.
Many oracular answers were pointedly ambiguous: Croesus, for example, was told that if he commenced war against Persia he would destroy a mighty empire; he did – his own. But the oracle would hardly have retained its popularity for so long without offering predominantly sound advice, largely because the Delphic priests were better informed than any others of the time. They were able to amass a wealth of political, economic and social information and, from the seventh century BC onwards, had their own network of agents throughout the Greek world.
Hiking to the Corycian Cave
The Corycian Cave (Korýkio Ándro) plays a significant part in Greek mythology. Delphi, the ancient city at the foot of Mount Parnassus, was where the oracle once gave cryptic predictions and guidance to visitors. Visitors would then hike to the sacred Corycian Cave of Pan, the god of the wild, and his nymphs during the winter when Apollo (Son of Zeus) abandoned his post.
Hiking to the Corycian Cave
Allow a full day for this outing (4hr for ascent to the cave, 3hr 30min back to Dhelfí – consult The Mountains of Greece), and take ample food. To reach the trailhead follow signposting up through Dhelfí village to the Museum of Delphic Festivals. Continue climbing from here to the highest point of the fence enclosing the sanctuary ruins. Where the track ends at a gate, take a trail on your left, initially marked by a black-and-yellow rectangle on a white background; these, repeated regularly, indicate the trail is part of the E4 European long-distance route.
Initially steep, the way soon flattens out on a grassy knoll overlooking the stadium and continues along a ridge. Soon after, you join an ancient cobbled trail coming from inside the fenced precinct – the Kakí Skála, which zigzags up the slope above you in broad arcs. The path ends an hour-plus above the village, at the top of the Phaedriades cliffs. From one of several nearby rock pinnacles, those guilty of sacrilege in ancient times were thrown to their deaths – a custom perhaps giving rise to the name Kakí Skála or “Evil Stairway”.
E4 markers remain visible in the valley ahead of you as the principal route becomes a gravel track bearing northeast; ignore this and follow instead a metal sign pointing toward the cave, taking the right fork near the Krokí spring and watering troughs, with a complex of summer cottages on your right. This track, now intermittently paved, passes a picnic ground and a chapel of Ayía Paraskeví within fifteen minutes. Continue for some forty minutes beyond the chapel, heading gently downhill and passing another sign for the cave, until you emerge from the fir woods (2hr 40min from Dhelfí) with a view east and ahead to the rounded mass of the Yerondóvrahos peak (2367m) of the Parnassós massif.
Another fifteen minutes bring you to a second chapel (of Ayía Triádha) on the left, with a spring and picnic ground. To the left rises a steep ridge, site of the ancient Corycian cave. Persevere along the road for five more minutes to where a white bilingual sign indicates a newer path, marked by orange paint splodges and red-triangle signs. After forty minutes’ climb on this, you meet another dirt road; turn left and follow it five minutes more to the end, just below the conspicuous cave mouth at an altitude of 1370m.
Ancient Inscriptions in the Cave
In ancient times, the cave was the site of orgiastic rites in November, when women, acting as nymphs, made the long hike up from Delphi on the Kakí Skála by torchlight. If you look carefully with a torch you can find ancient inscriptions near the entrance; without artificial light, you can’t see more than 100m into the chilly, forbidding cavern. By the entrance, you’ll also notice a rock with a man-made circular indentation – possibly an ancient altar for libations.
Ósios Loukás monastery
Some 6km east of Dhístomo (which by bus is 35min east of Delphi), the monastery of Ósios Loukás was a precursor of the final flourish of Byzantine art found in the great churches at Mystra in the Peloponnese. From an architectural or decorative standpoint it ranks as one of the great buildings of medieval Greece; the remote setting is exquisite as well, especially in February when the many local almond trees bloom. Approaching along the last stretch of road, Ósios Loukás suddenly appears on its shady terrace, overlooking the highest summits of the Elikónas range and a beautiful broad valley. The complex comprises two domed churches, the larger katholikón of Ósios Loukás (a local beatified hermit, Luke of Stiri, not the Evangelist) and the adjacent chapel of Theotókos. A few monks still live in the cells around the courtyard, but the monastery is essentially a museum, with a souvenir shop on the grounds.
The design of the katholikón, built around 1040 to a cross-in-square plan, strongly influenced later churches at Dhafní and at Mystra. Externally it is unassuming, with rough brick-and-stone walls topped by a well-proportioned octagonal dome. The interior, however, is rich, with multicoloured-marble walls contrasting with gold-background mosaics on the high ceiling. Light filtering through alabaster windows reflects from the curved mosaic surfaces onto the marble walls and back, bringing out subtle shading.
The mosaics were damaged by an earthquake in 1659, replaced at many points by unremarkable frescoes, but surviving examples testify to their glory. On the right as you enter the narthex are a majestic Resurrection and Thomas Probing Christ’s Wound. The mosaic of the Niptir (Washing of the Apostles’ Feet) on the far left (north side) of the narthex is one of the finest here, the expressions of the Apostles ranging between diffidence and surprise. This humanized approach is again illustrated by the Baptism, up in the northwest squinch (curved surface supporting the dome). Here Jesus reaches for the cross amid a swirling mass of water, an illusion of depth created by the curvature of the wall. On other squinches, the Christ Child reaches out to the High Priest Simeon in The Presentation, while in The Nativity, angels predominate rather than the usual shepherds. The church’s original frescoes are confined to vaulted chambers at the corners of the cross plan and, though less imposing than the mosaics, employ subtle colours, notably in Christ Walking towards the Baptism.
The Theotókos chapel
The chapel of Theotókos (“God-Bearing”, ie the Virgin Mary), built shortly after Luke’s death, is nearly a century older than the katholikón. From outside it overshadows the main church with elaborate brick decoration culminating in a marble-panelled drum, but the interior seems mean by comparison, enlivened only by a couple of fine Corinthian capitals and the original floor mosaic, its colours now faint.
Finally, do not miss the vivid frescoes in the crypt of the katholikón, entered on the lower south side of the building. Bring a torch, since illumination is limited to three spotlights to preserve the colours of the post-Byzantine frescoes.
Mount Parnassós and around
For a taste of the Greek mountains, Parnassós, rising imperiously above Delphi, is probably the most convenient peak, though its heights no longer rank as unspoilt wilderness, having been disfigured by the ski-station above Aráhova and its accompanying trappings. The best route for walkers is the one up from Dhelfí to the Corycian cave (practicable April–Nov, but not in midsummer without a dawn start). For further explorations, Road Editions’ 1:50,000 map no. 42, or Anavasi Editions’ 1:55,000 map no. 1, both entitled Parnassos, are wise investments, though neither is infallible.
Arriving at ARÁHOVA, just 11km east of Delphi, you are well into Parnassós country. The peaks rise in tiers, sullied somewhat by the wide asphalt road built to reach the ski resort – the winter-weekend haunt of well-heeled Athenians. The town centre tends to trendy, chic and pricey, rather like a Greek Aspen, with its comprehensive après-ski boutique commercialization. A small number of houses in Aráhova retain their vernacular architecture or have been restored in varying taste, flanking narrow, often stepped, lanes twisting north up the slope or poised to the south on the edge of the olive-tree-choked Plistós Gorge. The area is renowned for its strong purplish wines, tsípouro, honey, candied fruits and nuts, cheese (especially cylindrical formaélla), the egg-rich noodles called hilopíttes, and woollen weavings, now mostly imported from elsewhere and/or machine-loomed.
Retracing the way back from Delphi and onto the Lamía road heading north, you come to Chaeronea, site of one of the most decisive ancient Greek battles. Here, in 338 BC, Philip of Macedon won a resounding victory over an alliance of Athenians, Peloponnesians and Thebans. This ended the era of city-states, from whom control passed forever into foreign hands: first Macedonian, later Roman. Beside the road, at modern Herónia, stands a 6m -high stone lion, said to have been erected by Alexander the Great to honour the Theban Sacred Band, composed entirely of warrior couples, who fought to the last man.
Skiing on Parnassós
There are two main skiing areas developed on the northwest flank of Mount Paranassós: Kelária (23km from Aráhova) and Fterólakka (29km). The top point for each is about 2200m, descending to 1600–1700m when conditions permit; the twenty or so runs are predominantly red-rated, making this a good intermediate resort, and served by fourteen lifts, of which about half are bubble-chair type. Most facilities (and the biggest car park) are at Kelária, but Fterólakka has longer, more challenging runs.
Equipment is rented on a daily basis at the resort, or for longer term in Aráhova (which teems with seasonal sports equipment shops). The main problem is high winds, which often close the lifts, so check the forecast before setting off. The skiing season is generally from mid-December to April, rarely into May.
GALAXÍDHI is a charming port town appearing mirage-like out of an otherwise lifeless shore along the Gulf of Kórinthos, just 35km from Delphi. With your own transport, it makes an ideal base for visiting both Delphi and Ósios Loukás, and it’s also worth at least two days in its own right. Amazingly, given its size, Galaxídhi was once one of Greece’s major harbours, with a fleet of over four hundred two- and three-masted kaïkia and schooners, trading as far afield as the UK. But shipowners failed to convert to steam power after 1890, and the town’s prosperity vanished. Clusters of nineteenth-century shipowners’ mansions, reminders of those heady days, reflect borrowings from Venice, testament to the sea captains’ far-flung travels, and to their wealth. Despite some starts at gentrification, the town retains its authenticity, with an animated commercial high street (Nikólaou Máma) and a good range of places to eat and drink.
The old town
The old town stands on a raised headland, crowned by the eighteenth-century church of Ayía Paraskeví (the old basilica, not the more obvious belfried Áyios Nikólaos, patron saint of sailors). With its protected double harbour, the location proved irresistible to early settlers, which explains stretches of walls – all that’s left of ancient Chaleion and its successor Oianthe – between the two churches and the water on the headland dividing the two anchorages. What you see dates from 1830–70, as the town was largely destroyed during the War of Independence.
Nautical and Historical Museum
Just uphill from the main harbour is the Nautical and Historical Museum, whose galleries do a well-labelled, clockwise gallop round this citadel-settlement in all eras. Ancient Chaleion is represented by painted pottery and a bronze folding mirror, then it’s on to the chronicles of Galaxídhi – the place’s name from Byzantine times onwards – and its half-dozen shipyards, mostly alongside the northwesterly Hirólakkas anchorage. The local two- and three-masters are followed from their birth – primitive, fascinating tools for ship building and sail-making – to their all-too-frequent sudden violent death. Along the way are propeller-operated logs, wooden rattles to signal the change of watches, a bouroú or large shell used as a foghorn and – best of all – superb polychrome figureheads.
Strolling or driving around the pine-covered headland flanking the southeastern harbour leads to tiny pebbly coves where most people swim. The closest “real” beaches are at the end of this road, or at Kalafátis just north of town, though neither is brilliant – harsh shingle underfoot and occasionally turbid water. With transport, head for better beaches at Ágios Vassílis (4km west) or Áyii Pándes (11km west).
NÁFPAKTOS (medieval Lepanto) is a lively port town and resort some two hours’ drive from Delphi, or an hour by road from Pátra. It is the largest settlement on the north shore of the Gulf of Korínthos and the jumping-off point for the bridge to the Peloponnese. The town spreads out along a plane-tree-shaded seafront, below a sprawling Venetian castle. The planes are nurtured by numerous running springs, which attest to water-rich mountains just inland. Also inland is the ancient sacred site of Thermon, dedicated to the twin gods Apollo and his sister Artemis.
The rambling, pine-tufted kástro provides an impressive backdrop; most of it dates from the Venetians’ fifteenth-century tenure. A complete tour is only possible by driving the well-marked 2.5km to the car park at the highest citadel, passing en route a clutch of nice cafés taking advantage of the view. At the summit are the remains of Byzantine baths and an Ottoman mosque, both converted into chapels. The curtain walls plunge down to the sea, enclosing the higher neighbourhoods and oval-shaped old harbour in crab-claw fashion (you can climb each rampart for free), with the original westerly gate giving access to Psáni beach.
Most of the town centre faces long, developed beaches. The more popular and less shaded west beach is Psáni, with its frontage road, Navmahías, lined with tavernas and hotels. To the east is Grímbovo, more tranquil and lined with trees (and with easier parking), where aqueducts bring mountain streams into gurgling fountains.
About 16km northwest of Náfpaktos, following signs for “Thérmo 46”, you come to the valley of the Évinos River and the small village of Háni Baniás. A farther 10km northwest you reach THÉRMO, a small town with a pleasant plane-shaded square, a filling station, bank ATMs, shops and tavernas. Of potentially more interest is ancient Thermon (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; free, photography forbidden), well signposted 1.5km southeast of the centre. This modest site, still under excavation, was the walled political capital and main religious sanctuary of the Aetolians. The main temple, c.1000 BC, orientated north-to-south rather than the usual west-to-east, was dedicated to Apollo Thermios; just east lies an even older, smaller shrine to Apollo Lyseios, while to the northwest are foundations of an Artemis temple. South of the main temple the sacred spring still flows, still potable and, in season, full of frogs. Beyond the spring extend two long stoas (with the occasional exedra), terminating at a bouleuterion. The keeper will unlock the small, one-room museum, crammed with unlabelled.
The Battle of Lepanto
The Battle of Lepanto was fought just off Náfpaktos on October 7, 1571. An allied Christian armada commanded by John of Austria devastated an Ottoman fleet – the first European naval victory over the Turks since the death of the dreaded pirate-admiral Barbarossa. Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, lost his left arm to a cannonball during the conflict; a Spanish-erected statue honours him at the old harbour. But Western naval supremacy proved fleeting, since the Ottomans quickly replaced their ships and had already wrested Cyprus from the Venetians that same year.
The myth of Oedipus
Pausanias identified the fateful Triodos crossroads as the site of Oedipus’s murder of his father, King Laius of Thebes. As the tale recounts, Oedipus was returning on foot from Delphi while Laius and his entourage were speeding towards him from the opposite direction on a chariot. Neither would give way, and in the ensuing altercation Oedipus killed them, ignorant of who they were. It was, in Pausanias’s supreme understatement, “the beginning of his troubles”. Continuing on to Thebes, Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx – which had been ravaging the area – and took widowed Queen Jocasta as his wife – unaware that he was marrying his own mother.
Lárissa and around
LÁRISSA, approached across a prosperous but dull landscape of wheat and corn fields, is a major transport hub, as well as both marketplace and major garrison: army camps ring it, the airport remains monopolized by the Greek Air Force, and the southwestern part of the city – with over 160,000 inhabitants – is dominated by ranks of military housing. There’s no real reason to stay here, unless your transport scheduling requires it, and, if that happens, you’ll find a city centre with an ancient theatre and the remains of an acropolis with archeological layers dating 8000 years back to Neolithic times. In the modern centre, life focuses around three main squares and a park.
Travelling north from Lárissa, the motorway heads towards Thessaloníki via the renowned Vale of Témbi, between mounts Olympus and Óssa, before emerging on the coast. West from Lárissa, the road follows the River Piniós to Tríkala, a provincial capital with a fairly attractive centre and important Byzantine monuments nearby.
The monasteries of the METÉORA are indisputably one of the great sights of Greece. These extraordinary buildings, perched on seemingly inaccessible rock pinnacles, occupy a valley just north of Kalambáka; metéora means “suspended in mid-air”, while kalabak is an Ottoman Turkish word meaning cliff or pinnacle. Arriving at the town, you glimpse the closest of the monasteries, Ayíou Stefánou, firmly ensconced on a massive pedestal; beyond stretches a forest of greyish pinnacles, cones and stubbier, rounded cliffs. These are remnants of river sediment which flowed into a prehistoric sea that covered the plain of Thessaly around 25 million years ago, subsequently moulded into bizarre shapes by the combined action of fissuring from tectonic-plate pressures and erosion by the infant River Piniós.
Legend credits St Athanasios, founder of the earliest hermitage here (late 900s), with flying up the rocks on the back of an eagle. More prosaically, local villagers may have helped the original hermits up – with ropes and pulleys. Centuries later, in 1336 they were joined by two Athonite monks: Gregorios and his disciple Athanasios. Gregorios soon returned to Áthos, having ordered Athanasios to found a monastery. This Athanasios did around 1344, establishing Megálou Meteórou. Despite imposing a particularly austere rule he was quickly joined by other brothers, including (in 1381) John Urod, who renounced the throne of Serbia to become the monk Ioasaph.
Royal patronage was instrumental in endowing monasteries and hermitages, which multiplied on all the (relatively) accessible rocks to 24 institutions during the reign of Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–66). Money was provided by estates in distant Wallachia and Moldavia, as well as in Thessaly itself. It was largely the loss of land and revenues (particularly after the Greco-Turkish war) that brought about the ruin of the monasteries – although some were simply not built to withstand the centuries and gradually disintegrated in the harsh climatic conditions here.
By the late 1950s, there were just four active monasteries, struggling along with barely a dozen monks between them – an era chronicled in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli. Ironically, before being overtaken by tourism in the 1970s, the monasteries had begun to revive, attracting younger and more educated brothers; today about sixty monks and fifteen nuns dwell in the six extant foundations.
Beyond visits to the monasteries themselves, the dramatic setting makes for exciting outdoor activities, especially hiking. In all, there are nearly 700 different trails among and around the monoliths, though many of them are far from an easy stroll and some are crumbling outright. In any case, if you go off-road, a good map is essential, and don’t hesitate to ask the locals about current conditions.
No Limits nolimits.com.gr. Long-established Greek operator focusing on mountain and river adventures in Metéora and areas of the Píndhos range, especially the Zagóri. Activities include trekking, rappelling, rafting and mountain biking.
Summit Post summitpost.org/meteora/150984. Excellent website providing everything you might need to know about climbing and hiking in the Metéora.
The four most visited monasteries and convents – Megálou Meteórou, Ayíou Nikoláou, Varlaám and Roussánou – are essentially museum-monuments. Only Ayías Triádhos and Ayíou Stefánou still function with a primarily religious purpose, though there has been a notable increase in pilgrimage by devout Romanian and Russian Orthodox. Handy service elevators have now been installed to take care of both deliveries and visiting dignitaries. However, access for most visitors is by extensive stairways carved into the rock in the early twentieth century.
Each monastery consists essentially of monks’ cells focused round a central space, with chapels and refectories added on as possible – up, down and sideways – given the physical limitations of constructing on a rock pinnacle. The central church of each monastery, the katholikón, is usually elaborately decorated with beautiful and often quirky sixteenth- and seventeenth-century frescoes.
Ayíou Nikoláou Anapafsá
The diminutive Ayíou Nikoláou Anapafsá is the closest monastery to Kastráki (20min on foot or 5min by car). The road leads to the base of the stairway-path (150 steps). This tiny, multi-levelled structure has superb frescoes from 1527 by the Cretan painter Theophanes in its katholikón (main chapel). On the east wall of the naos over the window, a shocked disciple somersaults backwards at the Transfiguration, an ingenious use of the cramped space; in the Denial of Peter on the left door-arch as you enter the naos, the protagonists warm their hands over a fire in the pre-dawn, while above the ierón window is the Sacrifice of Abraham. On the west wall of the narthex, a stylite (column-dwelling hermit) perches in a wilderness populated by wild beasts, while an acolyte prepares to hoist up a supply basket – as would have been done just outside when the fresco was new. Other Desert Fathers rush to attend the funeral of St Ephraim the Syrian: some riding beasts, others – crippled or infirm – on litters or piggyback on the strong.
The Megálou Meteórou (aka Great Meteoron & Metamorphosis) is the highest monastery – requiring a climb of nearly 300 steps from its entrance – built on the Platýs Líthos (“Broad Rock”) 615m above sea level. It enjoyed extensive privileges and dominated the area for centuries: in an eighteenth-century engraving (sold as a reproduction) it dwarfs its neighbours.
The monastery’s cross-in-square katholikón, dedicated to the Transfiguration, is Metéora’s most imposing; columns and beams support a lofty dome with a Pandokrátor. It was enlarged in the 1500s and 1600s, with the original chapel, constructed by the Serbian Ioasaph in 1383, now the ierón behind the intricately carved témblon. Frescoes, however, are much later (mid-sixteenth century) than at most other monasteries and artistically undistinguished; those in the narthex concentrate almost exclusively on grisly martyrdoms.
Elsewhere in this vast, arcaded cluster of buildings, the kellári (cellar) hosts an exhibit of rural impedimenta; in the domed, vaulted refectory, still set with the traditional silver/pewter table service for monastic meals, a museum features exquisite carved-wood crosses and rare icons. The ancient smoke-blackened kitchen adjacent preserves its bread oven and soup-hearth.
Varlaám is among the oldest monasteries, replacing a hermitage established by St Varlaam shortly after Athanasios’ arrival. The present building, now home to a handful of monks and one of the most beautiful in the valley, was constructed by the Apsaras brothers from Ioánnina in 1540–44. To get up to it from the entrance point means climbing about 150 steps.
The monastery’s katholikón, dedicated to Ayíon Pándon (All Saints), is small but glorious, supported by painted beams, its walls and pillars totally covered by frescoes (painted 1544–66), dominated by the great Pandokrátor of the inner dome. Among the more unusual are a beardless Christ Emmanuel in the right transept conch, and the Parliament of Angels on the left; on one pier, the Souls of the Righteous nestle in the Bosom of Abraham, while the Good Thief is admitted to Paradise. On the inner sanctuary wall, there’s a vivid Crucifixion and a Dormition of the Virgin with, lower down, an angel severing the hands of the Impious Jew attempting to overturn her funeral bier. The treasury-museum features crucifixes and silver items; elsewhere the monks’ original water barrel is on show.
Varlaám prominently displays its old ascent tower, comprising a reception platform, well-worn windlass and original rope-basket. Until the 1930s the only way of reaching most Metéoran monasteries was by being hauled up in said rope-basket, or by equally perilous retractable ladders. A nineteenth-century abbot, asked how often the rope was changed, replied, “Only when it breaks.” Steel cables eventually replaced ropes, and then steps were cut to all monasteries by order of the Bishop of Tríkala, unnerved by the vulnerability of his authority on visits. Today rope-baskets figure only as museum exhibits, supplanted by metal cage-buckets, as well as a hidden elevator or two.
The convent of Roussánou, founded in 1545, has an extraordinary, much-photographed situation, its walls edging to sheer drops all around. After some 150 steps up, the final approach to the convent (today housing about a dozen nuns) is across a vertiginous bridge from an adjacent rock.
Inside, the narthex of its main chapel has particularly gruesome frescoes (1560) of martyrdom and judgement, the only respite from sundry beheadings, spearings, crushings, roastings and mutilations being the lions licking Daniel’s feet in his imprisonment (left of the window); diagonally across the room, two not-so-friendly lions proceed to devour Saint Ignatios Theoforos. On the right of the transept there’s a vivid Transfiguration and Entry to Jerusalem, while to the left are events after Christ’s Resurrection. On the east of the wall dividing naos from narthex is an exceptionally vivid Apocalypse.
Few tour buses stop at Ayías Triádhos (Holy Trinity) – despite it famously featuring in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only – and life remains essentially monastic, even if there are only three brothers to maintain it. The approach from the parking area consists of some 150 steps down and then another roughly 150 back up the other side of the sheer ravine that separates its pinnacle from the road. You finally emerge into a cheerful compound with small displays of kitchen/farm implements, plus an old ascent windlass.
The seventeenth-century frescoes in the katholikón have been completely cleaned and restored, fully justifying a visit. On the west wall, the Dormition is flanked by the Judgement of Pilate and the Transaction of Judas, complete with the thirty pieces of silver and subsequent self-hanging. Like others at the Metéora, this church was built in two phases, as evidenced by two domes, each with a Pandokrátor (the one above the témblon very fine), and two complete sets of Evangelists on the squinches. In the arch right of the témblon is a rare portrait of a beardless Christ Emmanuel, borne aloft by four seraphs; on the arch supports to the left appear the Hospitality of Abraham and Christ the Righteous Judge.
Although Ayías Triádhos teeters above its deep ravine and the little garden ends in a precipitous drop, an obvious, well-signposted path leads from the bottom of the monastery’s access steps back to the upper quarter of Kalambáka. This 1km descent is a partly cobbled, all-weather surface in good shape, ending adjacent to Kalambáka’s fine, very early cathedral.
Ayíou Stefánou, the last, easternmost monastery, is 1.5km along the road beyond Ayías Triádhos (no path short cuts), and it’s the only one that requires no staircase climb to get to. Note that it’s also the only one that closes during lunch. It’s occupied by nuns keen to peddle trinkets and memorabilia, but the buildings – bombed during World War II and then raided during the civil war – are disappointing: the obvious one to miss if you’re short of time. That said, the fifteenth-century refectory contains an apsidal fresco of the Virgin, beyond the museum graced by a fine Epitáfios (Good Friday bier) covering embroidered in gold thread. The trail towards Kalambáka from Ayíou Stefánou is disused and dangerous – return to Ayías Triádhos to use the descending path.
Top image: Sanctuary of Athena, Delphi, Greece © peterlazzarino/Shutterstock