Sunday, June 29, 2014

To the North - Other Side of Greece (Part 1)

To most, the images of Greece that jump to mind are of islands, beaches, the aquamarine Med and, one would hope, ancient temples. Following recent events, there may also be a splash of rioters and torched EU flags. As I have now discovered first hand, Greece has another less well known but equally spectacular side. To the mountains and the North!
Out of Attica

In early spring last year we teamed up with the Greek family (having married a Greek, I am fortunate enough to now be part of a big Greek family) and jumped into a couple of cars with 420 kilometre of roads ahead of us to the province of Epirus and Greece’s north-westerly borders.

To reach Epirus from Athens there are two very different routes. One on a south-westerly heading, the other north-easterly. When combined they do their best to circumnavigate the almost impassable Pindus mountains which lie at the heart of mainland Greece. On the way out we chose the south-westerly path.

Once out of Athens’ ugly sprawl we soon crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, passing high above and over the Corinth canal. The canal is a marvel of 19th century engineering, cutting a deep, narrow trench between sheer cliffs, thereby artificially separating the Peloponnese from the continent.
Our road then took us across the north coast of the Peloponnese for a long stretch almost all the way to Patra, Greece’s third city. This is a stunning bit of road. It hangs to the thin stretch of coast between the mountains of the Peloponnese to the south and the Gulf of Corinth to the north, whose calm turquoise waters soon give way to the Pindus Mountains as they rise up from the depths, guarding the mainland.

Unfortunately, the simply atrocious and dangerous state of the road makes it difficult to take in much of this vista. A project to fix this “highway” was stopped mid flow when funds ran short, leaving a swerving, pot holed, cone lead death trap. As the Greeks would say “Krisi, Krisi” (“Crisis, Crisis”). Needless to say the suicidal tendencies of the Greek driving public do not help matters.
Ever a country of dichotomy, we eventually turned off this third world track onto one of the most remarkable bridges I’ve seen. Crossing back over to the mainland, the Rio-Andirrion suspension bridge, re-joins the Peloponnese to the mainland. The huge structure is designed to counter the joint problems of a soft shingle-sand base and the regular earthquakes which shake the region (not a great combo for stability).
The views from the span are fantastic. I was behind the wheel, but where possible flicked my eyes to the right. Just out there, nearly within reach, was the small patch of sea which played host to the Battle of Lepanto. A defining moment in the history of Europe, where a grand coalition of Catholic ships defeated the fleet of the Ottoman Turks and in doing so played a major part in halting the conquering of further European lands by that mighty empire from the East. To think that earlier that day on other side of the Isthmus of Corinth we had passed Salamis, where the Athenian fleet came out on top in a no less significant sea battle against the Persians. If the Europeans had lost either of these battles, the concept of East and West would look significantly different today. I can’t help it, but feeling the presence of such history thrills me. I take no fascination in the blood shed (in fact, it appals me), but the significance draws me in. One of the reasons I love Greece.

Not far from the bridge, via a scary emergency stop on the highway so not to violate a well hidden red light, we found ourselves in the town of Messolongi and took a pit stop to explore. The town has its fair share of the usual uninspiring Greek modern urban architecture, alongside a splattering of interesting sites. 
The city walls and moat provide an indication of the strategic importance of the place. An evocative cemetery pays tribute to those who died for the cause in the war of independence against the Ottomans. Grand grave memorials remember the sacrifice of many including, interestingly, Lord Byron. In a spat of romance he joined the Greek cause and succumbed to malaria in this small outpost of Europe.
That unfortunate fatality provides a convenient link to what I found most interesting about Messolongi, its remarkable setting. Within 5 minutes’ drive from the town centre, we could have been in Louisiana. A large shallow lagoon and humid micro climate have produced an ideal setting for the breeding of gazillions of mosquitos, Byron’s fatal foe, and water birds.

Through this lagoon cuts an extraordinarily narrow strip of land which sits a fraction above the water level and barely has room for the road that runs along it. Driving along it was a weird sensation. Looking out the side window, the water was so close it felt as if we were driving on top of the water.
At uneven intervals huts on stilts hover above the water with rickety mini bridges joining to the road. Fisherman cast wide nets from narrow boats and areas of lagoon are partitioned off for fish farms. The place is littered with sea birds. Of the hundreds we saw bobbing on the water and circling in the sky, a couple just so happened to be of the pelican variety. Fantastic. In short, it is nothing like anywhere I have been in Greece.
Leaving all too soon, we were back in the car and heading north to our home for the next few days, Ioannina. As we chewed up the kilometres the hills swiftly rose up around us, before becoming mountains. We were cutting across the edge of the Pindus range. At points the drive was very beautiful, cutting through narrow valleys. Eventually the land opened up into a large, flat plain shielded on all sides by more mountains. In the middle of this plain sat a sizeable lake and around this lake clung Ioannina, the historic, cultural and ruling epicentre of the region. We had a lot to explore and nearly a week to do it.
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