Delphi, Meteora & Central Greece

Five years ago, my husband and I and our two children (then 7 & 9) did a road trip around the Peloponnese, hiring a car and staying in guest houses, visiting ancient sites such as Olympia, Mycenae, Mystra and Athens. It was such a brilliant holiday that we vowed to do it again, so we’ve just returned from 2 weeks in Central Greece, this time in a hired camper van, doing much the same thing. We deliberately chose Easter, as none of us like heat or crowds, and last time the Greek landscape was so ridiculously pretty and spring-like that we decided to sacrifice heat for flowers and freshness, and it was definitely the right call.

Now, obviously this post is going to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Jurassic Coast – it’s about as off-topic as you could get, but after describing our latest holiday to several friends who expressed a lot of interest, I realised it may well appeal to many of my followers. History, travel, nature, food, wildlife and discovery are all what it’s all about, so why not share this one too? I’m aware this may all be old hat, as many people have already discovered Greece for themselves, but our family holidays went from camping in Cornwall or the Gower, via France to Italy, and we never did Greece as kids, so a lot of it was new to me, so please bear with me!

There’s so much to tell, this post is about the trip in general, but if anyone would be interested, just comment and I’ll happily do a follow-up with some of the practicalities.

We flew into Athens and after meeting the motor home hire man and a brief lesson on how things worked, headed to our first stop, just an hour from the airport as it was quite late by then. This was a fairly basic campsite near Marathon, but within about ten minutes of leaving the airport, the sat-nav had sent us off the main roads and onto winding lanes through olive groves absolutely smothered in wildflowers, with vineyards, back gardens full of goats and beehives amongst the olive trees, and it definitely felt like we’d arrived.

After a quick foray into town for breakfast essentials, we were off to our first real stop – Delphi. I have been there before on a study tour and remember how atmospheric and magical the location was, but that was over 20 years ago now, so I was secretly a bit worried I may have rose-tinted it somewhat.

The drive was about three or four hours, winding up and up into the mountains. Again, the wildflowers were just spectacular. If you’ve been to Greece or the Med in summer, olive groves are beautiful but dusty, dry and largely dead – in springtime, they have all the new lush greenness of an English apple orchard, but with drifts of rock roses, poppies, wild irises, giant daisies and every colour of flower you can imagine. The mountains are similarly spectacular – there is a bright pink tree called the Judas Tree which is everywhere in spring, and whole hillsides of yellow broom, sage and even early lavender. It’s always changing, too, with region, altitude etc, so the flowers never get boring. It is quite a sight, and everywhere are bees, with beehives in large clusters every few miles, also brightly coloured and cheerful.

The campsite was just out of Delphi village, which is quite a large village clinging to the side of a steep mountain, and we wound down a bit to find the site, which was large, comfortable and completely empty! We were very much out of season – we had to check ahead that things were actually open, as Greek Easter was the week after ours, and not much opens until then. This meant a few inconveniences – empty pools & closed mini-markets on the campsites etc, but it did mean that we often had the place to ourselves, or near enough.

With a view across one of the oldest olive groves in the world (locals claim that some trees are as old as the site, about 3,500 years old apparently), we sat looking down at the sea and tucked into the first of many camper-van meals of bread, tomatoes, feta and tinned stuffed vine leaves. Heaven.

The next day, we walked up a track through some more flower-strewn olive groves to Delphi, where the site is a few hundred metres from the village. Sprawled all up the side of the mountain, the size and complexity of the ruins is very impressive, with everything you could wish for from an Ancient Greek site – temples, an amphitheatre, grand colonnades, walls with unbelievably gigantic polygonal stones crafted to fit together as if they were just moulded (and at closer inspection these were engraved with hundreds of tiny inscriptions, apparently manumission documents freeing some of the slaves involved). Winding up the paths between the structures you still get a sense of what a massively important place this must have been (Greek legend has it as the centre of the world, and you can still see the stone that Zeus cast down to mark the navel of the Earth), and at the very top is the stadium, which seated 6,500 people, just to give you an idea of the scale.

There is a good museum with some fascinating and impressive artefacts, including lots of monumental sculpture, and the famous bronze Charioteer – a young man/boy who would have been driving a bronze chariot with life-sized horses.

It is all on such a scale, and so well preserved, that you don’t need to be an expert to feel the importance, and the setting is just as magical as I remembered, clinging to the side of a mountain with eagles and peregrines overhead and flowers in every available crack and crevice. We had lunch in the village (with background of goats, goat bells and their shepherd) and walked back down to the campsite, where we spent the next day just doing very little – playing cards, reading, eating and doing general lazy holiday stuff!

Next stop was the Meteora – this is somewhere a friend told me about, again about 20 years ago, and I’ve wanted to go to ever since. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a cluster of weird rocky outcrops rising directly from the plains below, with monasteries built in impossibly inaccessible locations right on the tops of the crags.

It is a very strange sight, and parking in a campsite with the peaks just behind looked very weird. We ate in that night as we had stocked up on our journey at the only supermarket we passed all day. This was a Lidl, which seemed like a disappointing cop-out, but it turns out that Greek Lidls are still quite Greek – the freezer section is full of spanakopita, squid and octopus instead of chicken nuggets, and the meat fridge had whole lambs for sale, complete with heads!

The next morning we took the (pretty useless) map from the campsite and walked out to find ourselves some monasteries. The road we took took us in front of the peaks, past caves still obviously well-used by shepherds, and then meandered into a number of paths. We did quite well, finding our way to the top of a pass topped by a terrifyingly under-cut finger of rock, but had to retrace our steps as the path got really quite scary down the other side, and pretty much disappeared into rain gullies and cracks in the mountain-side. We had a good meander, looking up at the monasteries from below, and headed back to the campsite before a nice meal in one of the tavernas in the village (Kastraki).

The food has all been excellent, and the Greek tradition of hospitality to strangers (‘philoxenia’) is still going strong. Everywhere you get a warm welcome, everyone seems to have plenty of time for one another, and I don’t think we had a single meal without some sort of free treat – walnut paste sweetmeats, little cakes etc. They LOVE children, and kids in restaurants can come and go as they please, with no tutting, hushing or hassle. It may be because it’s early in the season so most tourists are Greek, but the atmosphere everywhere has been so laid-back, and welcoming, that it is one of the most relaxing places to travel.

Anyway, the following day we decided to drive round the monasteries, as there are a few roads that wind around the top of the peaks, and I’m very glad we did – every hundred metres or so you get a new view, with a different building coming into view, glimpses through to the snowy mountains beyond, and into the plains of Thessaly the other side. If you can ignore the luxury tour buses full of Japanese tourists, it could be any time within the last few hundred years. We visited Moni Megalou Meteorou, the largest monastery, which is open to the public as well as still having private quarters where the monks practice. It is NOT recommended if you don’t like heights! The sides all around are hundreds of metres of sheer drop, accessed now by a bridge, but originally all supplies, and the monks themselves, were hauled up on ropes in wicker baskets. The functional bits (wine cellar, kitchen etc) are fascinating, and there is a brilliant museum which is a potted history of Greece in one room (amazing costumes on display, from peasant felt robes to highly elaborate embroideried waistcoats etc), and an ossuary full of shelves of beautifully ordered skulls and bones. The church itself is the star, though – with every single surface either gilded or covered in frescoes depicting hideous martyrdoms of the saints. Beheadings, stoning, burying alive, burning at the stake, grilling, and every kind of violent death is depicted in glorious Byzantine-style detail.

We drove just a mile or so and found an immaculately neat alpine-style meadow where we stopped for a picnic. This was soon gate-crashed by a flock of goats and sheep, attended at first by some rather scruffy shepherd dogs, but these soon decided to abandon their sheep duties and hang out with us instead, just in case a bit of picnic came their way, probably! There are dogs everywhere in Greece – in the mountains, in villages, in campsites, lying in the middle of main roads – they are usually large, shaggy and a bit scary from a distance, but have all been, without exception, as friendly and laid-back as you can imagine. They love a bit of love, and don’t really pester you, they just say hello and go back to sleep, usually. It’s made us all quite home-sick for our dog!

Shepherd dogs in Meteora

After a 4-hour drive across the huge, rather boring central plains of Thessaly (albeit with stunning snow-capped mountains in every direction), we reached the Pelion Peninsula. Incidentally, we had come expecting the roads to be a bit rubbish – some of the ones in The Peloponnese were shocking, but the main roads and motorways are exceptionally good – one was so brand-new it wasn’t on our sat-nav, and we have often been the only vehicle in sight in any direction. This may be because of the tolls – a motor home can expect to pay 6-10 Euros per toll, so on a long journey you can either factor this in, or take a more scenic route, but if you’re wanting to get from A to B, they’re very efficient.

We decided on the Pelion Peninsula because it has a reputation for great scenery, good beaches and lovely walking. The ancient cobbled mule trails have been well maintained or lovingly restored, and there are many well-marked trails and circular routes. I must confess, we didn’t actually manage any of the official walks! Books, beaches and general laziness overtook us, but we had a lovely day driving to the far tip, visiting empty coves, little villages and stopping for the odd wander and a look at the mountain views.

This was a particularly lovely campsite. Our van was about 4 metres from the beach, and again, it was really quiet. The restaurant had just re-opened for the season, as things were hotting up for Easter, and we had an excellent meal by the beach. That Saturday, they were stoking up the spit roast with a whole lamb, as as soon as Lent ended at midnight, they could have a midnight feast to celebrate Easter. We could hear the singing from the local village church, and the site was busy with families all getting together to celebrate.

It was a lovely place, and we probably should have stayed another night, with hindsight, but the next day was Greek Orthodox Easter and we were aware that that Sunday and Monday there may not be much open, so decided to move on to the next place. The next morning, Easter Sunday, it turned out that the previous night’s lamb was just a warm-up. Before breakfast, they were loading up four more! Every village square and lots of back gardens we passed that day had at least one lamb on a spit, each attended by several men who looked like they’d settled in for the long haul.

We took a short-cut to our next destination – a ferry to the nearby island of Evia. I’d never heard of Evia, but it’s Greece’s second biggest island, and runs alongside the mainland, quite easily accessible from Athens. This was most noticeable by the fact that we saw more cars in out first ten minutes on Evia than we had in the whole of the rest of the trip! It’s a very varied island, with steep mountains dropping straight into the sea on the west coast, whilst over the spine on the east coast, it’s all lush river valleys, leafy deciduous woodlands, pretty pastures and lots and lots of road-side vegetable stalls. It is so green and the soil so brown, it looks like a gardeners dream come true. We stayed at two different sites here, one on the mountainous side, with another beach all to ourselves, and a nice village just a short walk away. We were sitting watching the sea, and I happened to look up just as dolphins went past in the distance. This was a major excitement in itself, but then about an hour later they came back, much closer in, and played around, leaping clear out of the water at times.

Our final stop was Eritria, further south on Evia; by this time we were working our way back towards Athens, ready for the final leg to the airport. This was the busiest site, and the busiest area, but still pretty laid back. It was also the only one that had already opened it’s swimming pool for the season – freezing, but good for a token dip, and surrounded by nice warm stones to lie on and bring the blood supply back to the extremities! It was a short walk into town, where we had a brilliant meal on the bustling seafront, with Easter bank holiday crowds of Greek families out in numbers celebrating, strolling and just spending time together.
The food has all been excellent, and in a harbour location, to be paying 2-4 Euros for substantial starters (you could do a great meze style dinner easily) and 5-7 Euros for fish, meat or fantastic vegetarian mains, is a welcome surprise. The quality has been excellent, and we’ve had a few really good Easter or seasonal dishes as well as serious quantities of taramasalata, kalamari and great meat or white bean stews. Vegetarians would love it, as vegetables are given equal billing to meat and fish, with fantastic stews, fritters, and stuffed vegetables easily available.

Eritria has a very long history as an important strategic and religious site, with ruins dating back to 3000BC. There is a good museum, and extensive ruins including an acropolis, an amphitheatre, large areas of domestic and ceremonial buildings, a gymnasium and temples.

We walked into town to see the ruins and buy some bread for lunch, but I have to admit we got tempted by the seafront tavernas again and stopped for lunch. There were some useful shops, with a couple of supermarkets, a fabulous bakery (all Greek bakeries seem to be fabulous – their everyday cakes, breads, pastries and biscuits are a bit of a work of art) and a couple of souvenir shops where the kids could blow their holiday cash.

Doing it with a motor home, especially at Easter, turned out to be pretty much ideal. You have so much flexibility (although there are surprisingly few campsites in mainland Greece), and it was comfortable enough for the longer journeys, but we never needed to do more than 4 hours or so in a day, and with your own food, drink & loo you can stop wherever you like to have lunch, go for a walk or whatever. The weather was, luckily, ideal – t-shirt & shorts in the day, nice and cool at night, and the places we went were quiet and atmospheric – I dread to think what Meteora is like in August.

Going in the Easter holidays, you will have to expect some things to be closed/ reduced service, but if you like peace & quiet, it’s worth it, even if just for the wildflowers & scenery alone. If you’re not tied to school holidays, you could try later April/May, which I’m sure would also be lovely. I have ‘done’ Athens both in spring and summer, and it is definitely two very different places, in terms of heat, crowds and hassle.

I was trying to sum up who this kind of holiday would suit, but I honestly think it could suit most people. Young families, older kids/teens, couples, older couples, keen outdoorsy types, beach bums, history fans, wildlife lovers, climbers, walkers – I think most people could adapt what we’ve done to make a brilliant holiday to suit themselves. And if you love it, go back and do the Peloponnese – that’s magic too!

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