Igoumenitsa to Meteora

Saturday 9th April 2011, Ioannina
It really was hard to tear ourselves away from the idyllic campsite on the water's edge near Igoumenitsa this morning. We ate our breakfast of grapefruits gathered from the trees in Corfu and yogurt with Greek honey while sitting in the sunshine beside the softly lapping sea. Across the water rose the green clad hills of Corfu. It looked so inviting. Strange how islands lure you to them yet once you arrive you are soon searching for a way to leave!

Today we have driven just 100 kilometres across the mountains to the town of Ioannina where we are camped beside the lake. Temperatures today have been high but here there is a permanent gentle breeze across the lake from the snow topped Pindos mountains which has made life comfortable.

When we were here back in 2008 the highway between Igoumenitsa and Istanbul was under construction with only sections of it usable. It would seem, by the lack of vehicles on the mountain road that we took today, that the section to Ioannina at least has been finished and everyone except us is using it. We are in no great hurry and prefer to take the pretty routes and today's journey was nothing if not stunning!

This has to be one of the easiest, most beautiful and trouble free drives we've made, There was hardly a vehicle to be seen. At one point we passed a cyclist peddling up the winding mountain road. He later turned up here at the campsite and joined us for supper. We felt it was the least we could do for someone who'd peddled 100 kilometres while we'd been swanning along in Modestine, stopping whenever we needed an extra gasp of delight or even a cup of coffee on a mountain summit.

Down in the valleys azure rivers wound through the countryside. The roadsides were lined with purple flowering judas trees, yellow mimosa and the bright lime green of freshly opened leaves. In the grass the flowers were thickly scattered, a riot of colour. As we climbed higher the rugged hillsides became bare, grey and scrubby. Cattle roamed wild and the peaks of the mountains stretched into the distance with just a few dirt tracks and sparsely scattered shepherd's huts. Higher still snow covered the hillsides despite the heat of the day.

Roadside colour in the valleys, Epiros

Flowers of the fields, Epiros

Our route through the mountains to Ioannina, Epiros

Cattle track off into the mountains, Epiros

Cattle roam wild on the road from Igoumenitsa to Ioannina, Epiros

Snow still covers the peaks, Epiros

By lunch time we had descended into Ioannina and found the campsite. It's the only one in this part of Greece and we were unsure whether it would be open. We stayed here before when we visited this very pleasant and interesting university town with its fortress and fascinating history surrounding its Turkish overlord Ali Pasha. Having already written about Ioannina back then can I ask you please to look back at that report? There are some lovely photos and re-reading the text I find it really does give an excellent synopsis of this vibrant town. The link can be found at the bottom of this page.

Our pitch at the campsite, Ioannina

A few weeks ago we received a chance email from somebody who'd discovered our Ioaninna blog and wanted to know whether we could supply them with a photo of the statue of the King and Queen on the lakeside. At the time we didn't have one but there really are no lengths to which we will not go to satisfy our readers!
Statue of a King and Queen, Ioannina

Being Saturday all the bars in the town and inside the city walls were packed with friends meeting up to bask in the sunshine and sip chilled drinks together. Our choice though was for ice creams, chocolate and mocha, sitting in the shade.

Weekend relaxation with friends in the citadel, Ioannina

Mosque, minaret and the tomb of Ali Pasha in the citadel, Ioannina

Turkish tombstone, Ioannina

We returned home and were about to eat when the Dutchman we'd passed in the mountains arrived on his bicycle. He is hoping to cycle across Iran and make it down into India! He plans on cycling around 100 kilometres a day! We do encounter some mad people as we travel!

Sunday 10th April 2011, Ioannina
This morning our Dutch cycling friend was up and away before we'd started breakfast. It threatened to be another hot day so a drive up into the Pindos mountains with its snowy peaks seemed like a good plan. First though we needed to visit the nearby Perama caves which we'd missed last time we were here and had been recommended to us by Exeter friend Jessica.

Young rowers launching a boats from the campsite, Ioannina

The caves are only a couple of miles from the campsite, just around the lake. They've put the little village where they were found on the tourist map but the experience is anything but tacky. The caves were discovered during the second World War and used as a place for villagers to hide from the occupying Nazi forces. This is a karstic area and the caves, on three levels, are vast. We saw just a small section but that entailed hundreds of steps up and down, winding between the thousands of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites which fill every chamber. They were formed several million years ago when the lake was far larger than today. Water seeped through the limestone to hollow- out vast subterranean galleries. The effect of the thousands of different formations was stunningly beautiful, even for jaded travellers such as us. Photography was not allowed but Ian has done his best from the English language leaflet we received.

Limestone caves, Perama, Epiros

Limestone caves, Perama, Epiros

Leaving the cave at a higher level than we entered we had an excellent view along the lake where storks were circling. Later we discovered a couple noisily rattling their bills on an ungainly nest on a pole above the main street of the village.

Nesting storks, Perama

Beyond Perama we turned up into the hills. Some thirty kilometres uphill we were almost up to the snowline. The roads were better than we'd hoped though permanently winding upwards, every bend offering a different perspective of the lonely, rugged landscape. The area is obviously very isolated and we stopped at several little villages, including Vitsa, clinging to the mountainside. Built from the local stone these villages were part of the living landscape, blending in with the surrounding rock formations so as to be almost invisible from a distance - useful in the past when warring tribes from Albania, Bulgaria or Turkey might be roaming the mountains. Cobbled paths threaded their way between the buildings while in the centre could be found the square, the social hub of the village with a well, an inn and a bar where traditionally the men of the village would congregate.

Mountain village of Vitsa, Pindos Mountains

Street in Monodendri, Pindos Mountains

Following the road ever upwards towards Monodendri I stopped on a bend just in time to avoid crushing a substantially sized tortoise moving slowly across the road. Ian hopped out and carried it to the long grass. Other obstacles included goats and sheep, wild cattle and sleeping dogs.

At a friendly cafe in Monodendri we asked what we could have for lunch. It's Lent so the only food available was vegetable pie cooked by the patron's mother. It looked nice but we found it far too salty. The elderly lady who'd cooked it came to ask what I thought of it. I didn't have the heart to say it was spoilt by the salt so assured her it was wonderful. She proudly told me the flaky pastry was made with flour and olive oil and had been rolled and folded 12 times as was "tratidional" to quote her charming English. Gasping for more water,as soon as we left we rushed back to Modestine for our flasks.

Near Monodendri is the Vikos Gorge. According to the Guinness book of records it is the deepest canyon in the world, surpassing even the Grand Canyon! It's over 900 metres deep and 10 kilometres long. It's apparently very popular with hikers who walk right through, though we saw none today. We were daunted at such a prospect so decided to walk a mere couple of kilometres to the nearby Agias Paraskevis monastery overlooking a section of the gorge and peer down. Even that was tough going and a steep climb back up, though the scenery was wonderful.

Vikos Gorge from Agias Paraskevis monastery, Monodendri, Pindos Mountains

Vikos Gorge from Agias Paraskevis monastery, Monodendri, Pindos Mountains

Agias Paraskevis monastery at Monodendri, Pindos Mountains

Back at Modestine we drove on even higher into the mountains. The restaurant owner had told us of a stunning view at Oxia, right down to the bottom of the gorge. The road passed through a woodland with fractured stone columns towering up to either side of the road. Known locally as the stone forest it is yet another bizarre phenomena to be discovered in the region. All around us the columns rose, fractured horizontally so they looked like gigantic piles of grey paper.

Vikos Gorge and Monodendri from Oxia, Pindos Mountains

Karstic phenomena, Oxia, Pindos Mountains

Karstic phenomena, Oxia, Pindos Mountains

Eventually the road gave out. We'd seen nobody and felt alone on the roof of the world. A track led us on until we rounded a rock and – gazed down into the abyss! This was indeed awesome, even to veterans of the Cirque de Navacelle in the Languedoc. I think it was the sheer loneliness of the place that impressed most – that and the wriggling worms in the pit of the stomach! A wall of grey rock faced us across the ravine and deep in the bottom the dried-up river bed threaded its way along the gorge.

Vikos Gorge, Oxia, Pindos Mountains

Ian looking braver than he feels, Vikos Gorge, Pindos Mountains

On our rocky promontory tiny flowers bloomed and lizards skitted in the sunshine. I commented on the isolated wilderness and how pleasant it was sharing it with tortoises and lizards. Ian then mentioned these mountains were one of the last refuges in Europe for brown bears and wolves! The thought of being caught on a rocky outcrop overlooking a chasm with only one way out along a narrow path crowded with wolves and bears had me scurrying back up the path to the safety of Modestine!

It took us quite a while to wind our way back down out of the mountains to the main road to Ioannina. Back at the campsite we are almost alone. The constant breeze today masked the heat of the sun. This evening we discover we have got quite sunburnt. Nevertheless, Ian declares he's had a cracking day! First he cracked his head on a stalactite, then on a monastery lintel and finally an olive branch!

Monday11th April 2011, Meteora
We have returned to the same campsite we used back in 2008. This time it is a staging post for our onward travel however, and our exploration of the area has been limited to people watching with a chilled beer from one of the cafes in Kalambaka, the little town at the foot of the gigantic columns of rock towering around us. It is a fascinating area, both geologically and historically. I wrote a detailed account on our last visit. Please do read it and look at the photos if you missed it last time. The link is at the bottom of the page.

Curious rock formations at Meteora seen from beside the campsite

Today we have discovered the wilderness of inland Greece. Leaving Ioannina with regret we drove steeply up into the mountains on the far side of the lake.

Ioannina and Lake Pamvotida seen from the start of the mountain road to Meteora, Pindos Mountains

Our intention was to follow the winding route through to Meteora that we remembered from 2008. With all the work that has been done on Odos Egnatia, the new Istanbul highway, the flow of traffic on this difficult road had dwindled to almost nothing and money had not been spent on its upkeep. We were amazed at just how quickly a mountain road can degrade when subjected to the ice and snows of a couple of Greek winters. At first it was a delight to be alone in this wilderness, devoid of any other vehicles for much of the 100 km journey. It began to dawn on us however, that if anything were to happen to Modestine we could be stuck up there for rather a long time! The scenery was awesome and eventually we found ourselves right up at the snowline with patches still filling rocky hollows.

The roads in Greece have been patched up and repaired so frequently that the tarmac generally stands a foot or more above the ground to either side. With extremes of temperature the surface melts and freezes so that cracks appear. In addition there are frequently occurring seismic rumbles and the geological nature of the basic rock beneath certain stretches of the road appeared to be mudstone that was slipping downhill. The result was a road surface that was pitted and broken. Sometimes huge holes, several feet wide and deep appeared where the tarmac had collapsed when the ground beneath rolled off down the mountainside! Ian says the scenery was stunning but I saw little but the road surface ahead, winding my way from side to side, just squeezing past the edge of craters, grateful I wasn't driving a wider vehicle. The sign at the start of the route clearly stated that the Katara Pass was open to traffic so it must be okay to continue. In any case, there was no viable alternative now.

Eventually, just before the top of the pass, the route was barred where the road had slipped completely away! There were no diversion signs, even in Greek. Indeed, the only sign we saw was warning of wild bears!! Our map showed the only possible route would be a detour of about 100 miles through the mountains up to Grevena and back down to Meteora. Even then there was a likelihood of similar land slips. If we ended up in Grevena I insisted it would be better to head straight on for Thesalonika. That though would mean missing Mount Olympus.

Ian became a man possessed! Believe me, in a crisis he's far better than any GPS system. He directed me along tiny tracks marked in white on the map spread out on his knees. Sometimes these were surfaced after a fashion, sometimes not. We passed packs of wild dogs that chased Modestine, leaping up in front as I tried to drive through them. The roads writhed through the mountains, twisting and turning back on themselves. We passed a shepherd, his entire smelly flock surrounding us on the narrow road, his saddle-less horse tethered to a stunted tree. Eventually we came to a tiny village, its broken tracks deep in sheep droppings. The track seemed to end in a pile of rusting machinery and a stone wall on which two shepherds, wearing sheepskins over their shoulders and holding elaborately carved crooks, sat watching in astonishment as an English camper van tried to reverse back down the narrow lane! Strange how whenever we are totally lost there is always somebody sitting on a wall waiting to direct us on. Ian clambered out to ask the route to the next village. A crook was waved vaguely away to the left while they stared at Ian as if to say "But why would you want to go there? There's even less happening there than there is here!"

Eventually, as you see, we did find our way out and made it to Meteora after a detour of only around 15 miles! I wouldn't want to do it again though. I guess the locals know the pass is closed so why bother to change the sign saying it's open? It explains why we had the route to ourselves though. Paul op de Fiets, our Dutch supper companion back at Ioannina, cycled the same route yesterday. I hope he made it through okay. Perhaps he could push his bike across the damaged road somehow.

We are the only campers here. It's so hot everywhere during the day that it's hard to believe the season hasn't started yet. Nowhere though do we see campervans and most of the campsites are still closed. This is a pity as it restricts the places we can easily visit. We are hoping to find a site somewhere tomorrow that will enable us to get public transport into Thessaloniki and serve as a base for exploring other sites in Macedonia.

Links from earlier related travel reports
Ionannina. 2008
Meteora and Trikala 2008