Friday, December 26, 2014

The Route V - Castles and Crashes on the Loire (Day 2)

Described as the last major wild river in Western Europe and flanked by historic cities, vineyards and more chateau per square inch then just about anywhere on the planet, it is fair to say that I was excited at the prospect of following the Loire on two wheels for the next day or so.

We were convinced, by the highly amicable owner of the old coaching house we had hit the hay in, to aim for the historic city of Blois, some 120 odd km up the river in a north-easterly direction. Ever the friend of the cyclist (after all, the French invented bikes and cycle tours), we were told that a special cycle path ran the entire length of our proposed journey along the banks of the Loire. We shovelled down a huge breakfast of pastries covered in a dozen different types of home-made jam – the owner had a curious confiture obsession – slapped on the Vaseline, pulled on the Lycra, put already slightly sore bums on the saddle and pushed off.

It was great to ride back through the old town in the daylight, taking in the numerous medieval buildings, central square and church. Chinon is a very impressive town, combining beauty and historic resonance. It even has an outdoor lift fitted out for bikes to take you from the lower town to the upper town. Taking advantage, we were soon peddling up the steep winding track up to the chateau gate. A quick peer inside the mighty fortifications, before pushing on and over the crest of the ridge and onto a long, straight, fast downhill track out of town.

We knew that if we headed pretty much due north we couldn’t miss the Loire. After about 10km through increasingly rural and pretty countryside, we did just that. First came the lush water meadows in the river’s flood plain, then the side streams, then a great dyke hemming in the mighty flow. Built to fend off the periodic flooding of the Loire, such dykes run for much of its length, with this one just the right height and width to combine a bike path and stunning views over the river.

We followed this idyllic track without diversion all the way to the city of Tour. It was a fantastic half day, with the landscape switching between riverside woodland and wide open countryside ripe for chateau spotting. We must have seen half a dozen in that morning alone, with the shere scale of Chateau de Villandry standing out. French kings made the Loire valley their retreat from Paris and the riches of the nobility followed, littering the landscape with one parapetted ego-boost after another.

For all that man-made grandeur, nothing could beat the river. Deep green-brown and rippling, long sections of wide unity were intermittently broken up by small islands. The former drew the eye to the far shore and green hills beyond, the latter to the fast flowing current and resident wildlife – we must have seen a dozen herons busy fishing the waters.

It was on one of the more seemingly rustic sections that we were surprised to come across a small skate park next to the bank. We had to give it a go. What could possibly go wrong when tackling a quarter pipe with pannier loaded road bikes…?


Queue inevitable bike flip, crash and compulsive laughter fit. While Dave busily made sure his moving parts still worked, I had to crouch down in hysterics.

Fortunately Dave suffered nothing worse than a bruise and a minor life lesson and we were soon back down on the bikes, keen to reach Tour.


By the time we reached the outskirts of the city, we were blooming starving. Four hours on a bike doesn’t half bring your stomach’s needs to the fore and this was not helped by some serious loss of bearings amongst the very average looking new bit of the town. Unhelpfully, the magical Loire cycle path signs disappeared to be replaced by multiple signs pointing in conflicting directions with no clear indication of where they were going.

We resorted to questioning the locals in my best francais (“ou est le centre de ville?” is about as the limit of my skills) and eventually found ourselves in the old city. Full of wide tree lined boulevards and imposing civic buildings, Tours has some presence. We were distracted from the setting by a full blown sirens-wailing, police-cordoned, fire-engine accompanied crash. From what I could work out through the crowds of on-lookers, a car had smashed into a tram, knocking it off its tracks. Fortunately I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.

We refuelled with a ginormous lunch, accompanied by a stereotypically rude waiter and polished off with strong beer and stronger coffee. Moving off very slowly, we meandered around town a little, eventually finding our way to Cathedral. I had heard it was impressive, but was blown away by its scale and intricacy. I ventured in and was lost from the exploits of the day strolling as quietly as possible (hard with clips) around the vast interior. I am not religious, but still regularly find peace in these places. They were designed to be other worldly and remain so, nestled in amongst the modern metropolis.


Dave snapped me out of my cathedral musings with a kick up the arse. Back on the bikes, we peddled back to the river and followed it all the way out of the city. As always, we were lagging behind where we should be, having 60 plus km to go before reaching Blois. It was touch and go with the light, so we powered along the river side road all the way to Amboise without a halt.

Surprise, surprise, this town had another massive castle, surrounded by a tightly enveloped medieval town. A perfect spot for a beer. So perfect in fact that everyone else had the same idea. Not being able to find a table, we pushed on beerless, passing under the mighty castle walls before before criss-crossing the sharp hill which formed a large rampart for the town.

Pretending to stop to catch the view – I needed a break from the hill – I accidentally caught one of best views of the trip. Away from the river, the land dropped and then rose sharply by way of a rich green valley, littered with old farms and villages. From the base of the valley, fine mist rose until scythed away by slanting late afternoon light. Fantastic.

It was quickly apparent that we had lost the cycle path. Instead of going back, we took a small lane through the fields and spent the next 15km or so pedalling up and down the small hills of the undulating countryside. Breaking back on to the river, we finally found our spot for a beer, Chaumont-sue-Loire. Grabbing a couple of tinnies, we parked up on a bench, facing downstream (incidentally away from the now two-a-penny chateau of the village). The sun was nearing the end of its day, emitting a sultry red light. This reflected off the river, broken up by the sails of an old river boat and a low bank in the middle of the stream strewn with hundreds of white birds.

We needed to get a move on. We had 30 minutes light left at best and we both felt a bit of a chill as the temperature dropped – Lycra has its drawbacks. Back on our bikes, the road took us fast and direct along the river all the way to Blois.

It was twilight when we arrived. The medieval city was strewn along the far bank, its lights wrestling with the last red rays and deepening greys for domination of the sky. We crossed the bridge and our trip down the Loire was at its end. Paris lay due north.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Route V - Poitiers to Chateau Country (Day 1)

Another year, another stage of our grand St Petersburg-Lisbon cycle tour. Having concentrated on heading north-east over the last 4 trips, linking up Paris to the Swedish border, we were now looking to make some progress in the other direction. It was time to cycle cycling central, France. Poitiers to Paris to be precise.


Not the ideal start. Waking before light at a mate’s house in south London, Dave and I fell out the door and put bums on saddles in a sleepy daze. Dave had the remnants of a nasty bug. This was to both our detriment as, only marginally worse than setting out on a 400km cycle feeling sub-par, is setting out on the same cycle with a mate vociferously complaining about feeling sub-par. A touch harsh, but there you go.

Having crossed London as dark gave way to dawn, we entered St Pancras and rolled onto the Eurostar. If you are considering cycling on the continent, I can’t recommend enough making your way there by train and the channel tunnel. Compared to flying with a bike in a box, it is an effortless pleasure (or in our case, a marginally tainted pleasure, given we were kept up by the unfathomably loud chatter of an adjacent group of over-excited Americans – I dig enthusiasm, but not the public type at 7am).

I did eventually nod off somewhere under the sea, phasing out until my eyes blinked open to bright sunlight just as we pulled into the Gare du Nord. I was excited. The gap in distance and time between this arrival and our scheduled return train 4 days later was a blank slate waiting to be written, pedalled and experienced. In short, here was an opportunity for some adventure. We grabbed our bikes, pushed out the station and took on Paris commuter hour.

With my not very zoomed-in google map print-out billowing in my hand, we took a series of tight back routes over curbs and through lights, before gliding across the Jardin des Tuileries, waving to the Louvre and crossing the Seine. Coming out of the horn-beeping chaos of rush hour, it was a reminder of how beautiful the French capital is. All rather surreal before we had really woken up.

We glided through the café-lined boulevards of the 6th and onto another train at Montparnasse. A couple of hours’ whizz through the French countryside later and we disembarked on the platform at the central medieval French city of Poitier. We were all prepped, fully lycra’ed up with Vaseline in all the right places.  


We had a plan. Well, a sort of plan. It was 2pm on Thursday and we had to get to Paris by the Sunday evening train home. We also had a series of broadly fitting together maps. But that was it.

Leading out from the station, I was proud to get us lost within 2 minutes, circling round on the hilly narrow streets of the old town. Having failed to either find the cathedral or the way out, we doubled back and followed road signs on to a major road heading north. Too major, as it happened. Bicycles were forbidden and we were soon coasting the wrong way down a fast slip road, over a railing and down a steep embankment to get the heck off.

Back to the map and compass and we found the ‘right’ way out. Within minutes we were in lush countryside, running parallel to the river beneath the woods. Lovely. Even Dave had a smile. Then he punctured. While I found this hilarious, he failed to see the funny side, having to change the tyre 3 times before we could move on. Even my offer of chocolate cookies did not fix the situation. Serious.


It was now nearly 3pm and we had at least another 100km to cover if we wanted to stay on track. We had to get moving. We followed the Le Clain river at a brisk pace though a series of villages before the land rose and we discovered our first chateau.

And then another. And then another. This is what this region is famed for and it was not letting us down. We took a few minutes to take in the all too perfectly chateau’esque Chateau de Dissay. I particularly liked the cacophony of a bull-frog serenade that greeted us as we ventured to the front door via a lily-strewn moat spanning stone bridge.

Pleasurable as this all was, time was running short and we needed to take a short cut. Our initial thought of following the La Vienne river all the way to Chinon had to go out the window. We left the water behind, heading north-west onto dead straight, fast roads. Fuelled by all too good pastries form a pattiserie in Lencloitre, we powered through the fields, transversed a small forest and rolled in to the town of Richeleu.

Named after the infamous Cardinal Richelieu of The Three Musketeers fame, the town was a gorgeous oddity. Flanking the now castleless Castle Park, streets of high architecture flowed out from the entrance to Richelieu’s former estate, surrounded the town square and then vanished into fields. It felt like the centre of a wealthy old county town, but without any of the surrounding urbanity. I figure Richelieu and hangers-on built the town as a status symbol, but once the patronage ran out there was nothing to maintain or expand it.

The town square backed up this theory. Expansive and pristine with a richly decorated church at one end, a small café at the other and little betwixt. Where were all the people, the shops, the life? I guess they left with Richelieu, only to return in the form of tourists in the high season. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this strange set of affairs, the couple of local beers devoured whilst lounging outside the café in the slanting late afternoon light were immaculate.

Following a tip from a tipsy, now-local Dutchman who recognised the small Dutch cycling team embossed on the dodgy rip-off cycle shirt Dave bought off the internet (I love how things work out), we diverted onto a small country road that was to provide one of the most enjoyable hour or so’s cycling of my life.

Skirting the upper edge of a steep, broad rise, this smooth path gave phenomenal views of the surrounding countryside dropping beneath and then off onto the horizon. Fingers of late-day sunshine streamed across the green, curving, rural landscape.

We passed down and through the idyllic hamlet of Marcay, before climbing up to the chateau of the same name. We took a breather and then persevered uphill to the cusp of the La Vienne river valley. It was quite a sight. Wood, vineyard and farm stretched doen to the rushing water, before the land erupted upwards to another ridge. Proudly clinging to its side was the medieval town of Chinon, with its famed castle dominating all from on high.

We plunged down the hill at speed and arrived at the wide, wild river just as the sun set, reflecting off the water and streaming the whole seen with red and orange light. Just one of those moments.

Now we needed to find a bed for the night.


An outpost of medieval England in central France. Well, almost. The chunky castle and winding rows of medieval streets, which stretch down the hillside to the river, were once the stronghold of Henry II of England, from where he held court over his Angevin Empire, covering England and much of France. I say almost, as Henry was immeasurably more French than English.

It really is an impressive and beautiful place. I am rather embarrassed that I had never heard of it before peering at the map ahead of our journey. France draws you in with such gems.

We crossed the bridge into town and rode along the cobbled streets, past rows and rows of beautiful old stone buildings, looking for a place to stay the night. We lucked out. We stumbled upon Hotel Diderot, a centuries’ old coach house, complete with beamed ceilings, flower-strewn garden and friendly hosts. A steak, a bottle of local red, beers and some chat with the proprietor of a rugby mad bar later, and we were out like a light, getting what rest we could for the big day ahead of us. A long stretch of the Loire awaited.

A good thing Dave was recovering,,,

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Meteora – Other Side of Greece (Part 5)

The Pindus range forms a formidable barrier to passage by land between the Aegean and the Adriatic. High, precipitous mountains with sharp, twisting valleys betwixt and between. This posed a particular problem for the Romans as, stretching from the Gulf of Corinth up into the Balkans, the Pindus divided their European provinces from their Asian ones. Invariably spurred on by a challenge, the Romans used their engineering ingenuity and stubborn determination to hack a route through the middle, the famed Via Egnatia. 

For over 2000 years, this route was followed by Byzantines, crusaders and Turks. It was only at Greece’s pre-crisis pinnacle that ambition and method were combined (not forgetting a big dollup of EU funds and the magic of  securitisation…) to drive a better route round, over and through the mountains, the Egnatia Odos . 

I mention this as, soaring up between Ioannina, our origin, and Meteora, our destination, were those very same Pindus and we were fortunate enough to follow the Egnatia Odos across. This made for a fantastic journey, speeding through the jagged wilderness parallel to the Roman road. Spectacular scenery was a constant only interrupted by dozens of tunnels scoured through the mountains.
At one point we took a wrong turn, diverting us onto the age-old road up the mountain. We soon realised the substantial benefits of all that hard labour. Finding ourselves on a steep, crumbling, windy path framed by limited barriers and mighty drops, we quickly chucked a very precarious “u’ey” and returned to modernity. Given the scale of Greek government inefficiency, I doubt the Egnatia Odos was value for money (it cost billions), but it is nice to think that our generation has mirrored an achievement of the Romans and linked East to West.


All of a sudden, the Pindus fell away before us. The road snaked sharply downwards and we emerged on to a valley floor. To each side, the remnants of the mountains veered away to the side and, before long, Meteora emerged before us. It was quite a sight.
Dozens of giant grey-beige columns of rock spring up into the skies. Coming in an array of sizes and arching shapes, they grow from the earth like an off-the-scale petrified forest. In between, greenery grasps cliff edges, chasms and narrow valleys. Clinging to the top of many of these stacks are centuries old monasteries. If that was not enough, an audience of snow-capped mountains frames the scene. Try as I like to provide a helpful comparison, I have never seen anywhere quite like it.

A startlingly beautiful place to visit, but what drove monks to live here, half way up into the sky? The answer is security. Retreating from the unsettled times that spilt out from the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire, monastic communities sought safety, huddled and cramped onto to the narrow cliff tops. 
From humble beginnings, a number of these monasteries grew in stature and grandeur, culminating in a wide array of impressive churches, wealth and power. A mesmerising example is Megalo Meteoron (“the great place suspended in the air”). This is the largest of the monasteries, founded in the fourteenth century and embellished with the riches of a former Serbian king who retired as a monk to contemplation in the clouds. It combines features of a fortress and a palace with the rich frescoes of its domed church at its focal point.

At its peak, there were two dozen monasteries clinging to the precipitous landscape, ranging from simple cave dwellings to the aforementioned quasi-monk-palace. Only six have survived the centuries in active use, and one of my favourite parts of driving the single narrow road that cuts through the landscape and wandering the significantly narrower paths was spotting remnants of those buildings and communities long since vanished. Half a crumbling wall on a column peak, signs of an old alter in a cave.
On first seeing the monasteries the second thought that jumps to mind (the first being “wow”) is “how the hell do you get up there?” The flip side of a formidable impediment to those wishing to sack and steal, is a major challenge for day-to-day living of the residents. Clearly it helped (and indeed helps – Meteora is still an active monastic community) that monks have a habit of keeping themselves to themselves, but occasional access to the world is essential. The reality is that different monasteries overcame the problem in different ways.
My favourite is clearly the systems of pulleys and nets. The idea of bearded monks being lowered down ravines in giant rope nets is wonderfully absurd and fantastically real. At the monastery of Varlaam the monks had to be hauled over 300m up a vertical cliff! 
In other monasteries, series of steps hewn out the side and, in some cases, insides of the rock columns are the only way up. We had loads of fun trekking up these uneven winding walkways with Niko and Alexi strapped to our backs. Unfortunately, they would not let us in the nets.

Once at the top, the interior of the monasteries were fascinating, providing a window into a rare continuous past in Greece. Places of high learning in the Byzantine style, fused with practicalities of self-sufficient communal life in the clouds – opulent gilded churches rubbed shoulders with bakeries and breweries.
Fascinating as this all was, nature won out for my attention. The stack-top views were amongst the most jaw dropping I have witnessed anywhere in the world. Each different angle provided another marvel. The pictures barely do it justice, but beat my words.
As a parting comment, I think it fitting to share my favourite experience of our visit, an enchanting fusion of man and nature. Snaking up the winding lower road from Kalabaka in the late afternoon, we had decided to try and explore one more monastery before the day came to its close. Settling on the nunnery of Rousanou, we parked up the car and started on the circling climb up to the entrance. As we reached the narrow high bridge which linked to convent to the outer world, we took a moment to look back from where we came. The sun was beginning to set, shooting softened colours across the bewitching landscape. After dropping sharply into the narrow, twisting valleys, the land rose as two giant columns, framing the horizon.
We knocked and were greeted by an old nun. We had clearly missed visiting hours, but she kindly let us in. Consequently, we were left on our own to explore the centuries old surroundings without the bustle of fellow tourists. We declined an invitation to a service commencing in the small frescoed chapel which sat at the centre of the dwellings, but benefited from the chanting second-hand as we lingered in the background. I was transported beyond the norm, listening to the mesmeric verses while peering out a narrow window to the world which lay precariously below and beyond this mountain top refuge. A brief glimpse into the lives of the dozens of nuns (and monks before them) who devoted their lives to worship in this remarkable place.


Sad that our time in Meteora had been too short, we jumped back in the car and set out on the last leg of our road trip around north-west Greece.

Descending from Kalabaka, we were soon on the plain off Thessaly. Yet again on this trip we were passing through an area of Greece that defied my preconceptions. No longer mountains, swamps or islands, we were crossing a land that was dead flat fertile fields from horizon to horizon. We were in the Kansas of Greece.
The novelty soon wore off.  After a couple of hours on the road, it was a joy to reach the edge of the plateau and climb up and over the hills to the south. As we made our way back onto the Ethniki Odos (the national road), I was excited by the planned stop-off ahead of us. Thermopylae. To anyone interested in the history of Europe (or a fan of the movie “300”), the name conjures up heroic images from a time when the history of Greece, and arguably Western civilisation more generally, stood at a perilous cross roads. Leonidas and his men perished at the hot gates, holding up the advance of the mighty Persian army just long enough to allow a coalition of Greeks to steel themselves and sent the Persians packing at the epic encounters of Salamis and, eventually, Plataea.

What did we find? A hot spa and tacky statue. Even the sea had left. What was once the cliffs crashing down into the sea, with only the hot gates to let passers through, was now hills falling on a marsh plain. Over the intervening 2,500-plus years the sea has retreated a couple of miles and took the original iconic setting with it.

With the beautiful views of the Evian channel to console us, we drove on into Attica and back to where we started, the northern suburbs of Athens. It was just a glimpse, but the other side of Greece was truly impressive. There is so much more to this country than I realised. So much more to discover…

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sukkot in a Sukkah

Today I celebrated Sukkot for the first time, in Canary Wharf of all places. A marvellous example of London at its best, a microcosm of the world. How did this come about? Fortunately for me, my good friend Jonathan Levy happens to be Jewish and happened to have an invite for himself plus another to the Sukkah just behind the Jubilee tube station.

For the uninitiated – such as me prior to lunch today — the following highly informative explanation comes courtesy of Jonathan:

"Sukkot is a week-long Jewish festival that occurs two weeks after the start of the Jewish New Year. One of the distinctive features of this holiday is the building of temporary hut (called a Sukkah) with a partially open-air roof made of organic materials, such as leaves or bamboo. The Sukkah is often decorated with harvest themes such as fruits or flowers. It is most commonly used for eating meals, but some people will even sleep in the Sukkah for the duration of the festival. The Sukkah commemorates the temporary dwellings that the Israelites inhabited when they wondered in the Sinai desert after leaving Egypt. But at a deeper and perhaps more relevant level, the sukkah represents the transient nature of life, as demonstrated time and time again throughout history."

On to the specific festivities in the Wharf. When we arrived I was surprised by both the size of the Sukkah and the length of the queue leading into it. A tidy line filing into a cube-shaped, posh looking shack.

Having learnt a bit of the background of Sukkah in the queue, we entered beneath the bamboo laden ceiling (a tradition), past the man carrying various foliage and a citrus fruit (a tradition) and a very evident fire extinguisher (you guessed it, another tradition, although it is possible Jonathan was joking at this point). Inside was a large single room beautifully decked out with flowers and lights above lines of thin tables in the middle and side tables extravagantly laden with kosha luncheon and desert.

Populating the tables were rows and rows of people, with others standing all around. Men in kippahs (I was very happy to have borrowed one), women and children. There was a merry, festive atmosphere and we had a great time. A light weight speech from one of the arrangers was the only noticeable bit of centralised ceremony. His joke about the counsel threatening to take down the unapproved building if it had not been removed within a week went down well, the crux being that by custom the Sukkah has to be taken down at the end of the festivities and that it would be great to have help from the counsel in doing this...

As we left this place of community and custom my normal work mood had risen to a jovial place and I was only sad that I could not come back for the climax of Sukkot. On the final two days work is outlawed and drink nigh on compulsory. It is meant to be one heck of a time.

Another time I hope. Chag Sameach

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Zagorohoria – Other Side of Greece (Part 4)

Despite the lingering effects of our multi-day bug, we were bursting to get out of Ioannina. Chris, the boys and I jumped into the car and headed out of town in the general direction of big mountains.  

Before long we were climbing up a steep, precarious, valley side. The road zig-zagged back and forth, offering ever better views of the land we had left behind. Up onto the top and we were on the edge of the Zagorohoria. A famed region in Greece, made up of a series of small mountain villages scattered over 1000 square kilometres of the Pindos mountains. There have never been many people here (I understand that the permanent population is currently under 4000!), but for those that have called it their home, the harsh geographical setting have provided much protection against the coming and going of overseers.
You can spend weeks exploring the nooks and crannies of this region, but we were lucky that the part closest to Ioannina contains some of the most spectacular scenery. Across a small section of upland plateau and the land before us suddenly fell away in dramatic fashion. A real Roritania moment, as we parked up on what felt like the edge of the world.
To our right, the higher land was wrought in two by the Vikos Gorge, falling hundreds of meters down shere cliffs to the torrent of the Voidomatis river. Moving to the centre of the vista, the gorge widened out into a more curvaceous valley, backed by snow-capped mountains and riveted by smaller hills in between. To the left, the mountains on each side abruptly halted, creating twin gates to the flat, fertile land which lay beyond.
Over this remarkable scenery were scattered small groupings of traditional stone houses, linked by age-old mountain paths. We jumped back in the car and took the snaking road down into the midst of the valley. We passed a couple of these hamlets on our way down to the bottom, where the land was green with forest and thicket. After crossing the light blue-green waters of the Voidomatis, we climbed back up the fast rising far side of the valley towards Papingo.
Papingo is one of the larger villages of the region, parked a fair way up the increasingly steep slopes of a mountain. As well as being home to many beautiful buildings, an old bell-tower and, as we were delighted to discover, fantastic local dishes, it provided as magnificent views as one could hope for. Further into the mountains than our first vantage point, the Vikos Gorge dominated to the front, rising up on both sides, before corrugating off into the distance. It resembled the Grand Canyon, but with foliage. It excited me to think that brown bears still lolloped out in those wilds. The views behind were much worse, as large bulk-heads of granite burst out the top of the mountain, clung to by the remains of the winter snow.
Stopping as often as possible to take in the surroundings from different angles, we drove back down the mountain to the river floor, before heading up the other side by a different road that took us to the east and further into the Zagorohoria. Far too soon, we were back into the uplands, leaving the splendid, frictional destruction of the Voiomatis river behind.
As the road and land calmed, we passed more hamlets, flanked by orchards and populated mainly by goats. In the middle of a field to our right, I noticed a large but low stone building, topped with tiles and a small dome. Stopping off to take a closer look, we discovered a centuries old Orthodox Church and a wizened old man. He produced a large key and let us into a treasure. Stooping through the low door, we entered a dark world of pristine saintly icons. Passing through and looking up to the dome, every surface was detailed with intricate frescoes, telling dozens of tales. Faded by goodness knows how many years, the richness of artwork was still clear to behold and had their intended impact.
Limited by the daylight, we headed back to Ioannina, descending from the heights of the Zagorohoria via another twisting, precipitous road. We had caught a narrow snapshot of the region, but had seen more than enough to understand why the Greeks hold it so dear. One to venture back to with much more time, a stick and some sturdy trekking boots.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Ups and Downs in Epirus - Other Side of Greece (Part 3)

I immediately liked the feel of Ioannina. The modern part of the town seemed much like any other, but the narrow old streets leading down to the medieval castle walls had a pleasant buzz, old style charm meets student energy – Ioannina is a major university city. This was our base for the coming few days, from which we planned to explore the wider and wilder region.
After our trip to Drymades (see previous post -, we set out on a wide circuit through the surrounding valleys. As the mists cleared, we saw chunky mountains boxing in sharp narrow valleys. It is one of those rare regions where every turn brings a new marvellous view. A joy to drive on small windy roads, past the occasional goat herd impediment complete with accompanying shaggy shepherd.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in an old stone house at the foot of the mountains.  Nikolaki charmed the waitress and Niko senior complimented the tasty local dishes. I felt the initial symptoms of a bug coming on, but did my best to shrug it off with a paracetamol and some local wine.
We drove on a short distance, before parking up at a sudden break in the mountains. This was the entry to the famous Vikos Gorge. By some estimates the deepest gorge in the world, measuring at points half a kilometre deep. This was another level of beauty. Ahead and rising sharply up above were a parallel set of green-clad cliffs, split by the cobalt blue rushing waters of the Voidomatis river. There is nothing quite so refreshing as the sight, feel and taste of fast flowing mountain streams. I just wanted to dive in. Instead, I climbed atop a traditional stone foot-bridge which crossed the river at the opening of the gorge. The region is famed for these precariously curvaceous, arched bridges, which have an air of Rivendell. Gazing up the gorge, a couple of rainbows set off the scene.
Moving on, we passed along another wider valley and up to the town of Konitsa. A pretty town nestled into a mountainside and giving great views of the cultivated river valley that spreads out beneath. It is also a centre for adventure sports. My big tip for those looking to climb, white-water-raft or take on other similar adrenaline activities in a stunning out-of-the-way place, is come to Konitsa in Epirus. With its setting and natural resources, it really could be the Queenstown of the Balkans.
As we set off for the final leg of our journey back to Ioannina, Epirus gave a gift. Driving down the winding road from Konitsa, I caught a glimpse of a huge bird circling. I ground the car to a halt, jumped out and stared in wonder. Crossing in front of me was as big a bird of prey as I had ever seen, golden-brown in colour. It was a Golden Eagle, a bird I had wanted to see ever since reading animal books as a small kid. It soared above the valley beneath us, swooping further and then nearer, passing right in front of us. A fantastic sighting.

Completing the circuitous route, we headed back to Ioannina along a high ridge road, providing magnificent views of the valleys and ravines below. Just for effect, double inverted rainbows crossed the landscape. Not a bad end to the route.


With traveling you have to take the rough with the smooth. The next three days in Ioannina were rough. Soon after arriving back from our big day on the road, I spiked a temperature and flu came on with a vengeance. I could barely leave my sweat-ridden bed for the next 48 hours. Not an ideal situation when you are travelling with an 8 month year old and a 22 month year old. In a word, it sucked.

Fortunately, the others were still fine the next day and did another big drive through the mountains of the Tzoumerka region to the south of Ioannina. From the rave reports from the trip and resulting photos, I can confidently say it is well worth a trip. High mountains dropping to isolated valleys, populated with a light scattering of age-old villages and a host of wild and semi-wild animals. It was great to see Nikos senior so excited. He had wished to visit Tzoumerka for years.
By the time they arrived back, little Alexi was ill, then Christina, then Vasilia, then Nikolaki. Great times. Instead of adventures in the mountains, we were quarantined in a small hotel room with 2 small ill children. The few times we did get outside we were caught in a constant cold drizzle reminiscent of England in the worst of February. Miserable.

Nola made the sensible decision to drive Nikos senior and Vasilia back to Athens before Nikos caught the flu, leaving Christina and me and the kids to salvage what we could of our holiday.


After a full three days, we had mended sufficiently to take a few tentative walks around old Ioannina. Thankfully, the weather had also turned. Winter was giving way to the gentle sunshine of early spring, which helped our spirits.
We walked along the shores of the lake beneath the high medieval walls of the castle. In the daytime there were many birds, at dusk thousands of bats flapping around over the water (and overhead as Chris found out on our first night when one pooed in her hair!). Through high gates, we entered the old castle. Via winding alleys, we made it to each of the two citadels which sit at opposite ends of the castle. These retain remnants of the Ottomans, who ruled the region for nearly 500 years right up until 1913. The Greeks have destroyed most traces of their over bearers, but thankfully, the castle of Ioannina still contains the Fethiye Mosque and Aslan Pasha Mosque, now housing museums. 

Visiting these buildings gave a glimpse of a time so purposefully forgotten. A time of despotism, but also enlightenment and learning. Where now there is predominantly Greek homogeneity, there were once Turks, Greeks, Jews and Slavs living not as equals, but in relative calm.

Looking out from the top of the citadel walls over the lake to the mountains beyond, I was struck that Ali Pasha would have stood in the same spot, looking over a domain that once encompassed most of Albania and North-West Greece. Now it is a pretty back-water.

Largely back in the game, our next stop was the famed Zagorohoria...