Travel Destinations

Monday, June 8, 2015

Getting to the Heart of Central Greece: An (Off)-Road Trip

Off-Road Trip Through Central Greece with Tripology Adventures
Look, Mom, no guardrails!
We love a good road trip. We have circumnavigated Spain, managed a particularly worrisome rust-bucket around Belize, blown up a rental in Ireland (the green handle is not necessarily diesel), driven the length of Croatia, bent a rim in Costa Rica, gone across and back Denmark, and managed to get not one but two flats right in front of London’s Department of Transportation.  Driving is one of the best ways to explore a country, and Greece is no exception.  Our road trip through Greece was no ordinary road trip.  To explore the heart of Greece (or the navel of Greece according to the Greek god Zeus), we took our standard road trip one step further.  We took an off-road trip through Central Greece.  Tripology Adventures’ off-road trip from Athens through the Pindus Mountains is the mythological mother of all road trips. 

We didn’t start driving right of the bat.  The first evening, the 14 of us joining Tripology’s off-road tour were briefed on the workings of our endeavor with information on what to expect, safety, and answers to any questions we had.  We were then treated to the first of many epic meals, this one under the glow of the Acropolis, while we all got to know each other a little better so we weren’t complete strangers when we began sharing a vehicle. 

The next morning we left Athens. In-town driving is perhaps the most challenging part of the trip.  I much prefer a winding country road to swapping paint and clanking mirrors on congested streets while scooters zip through with millimeters to spare.  

Car One Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Through Central Greece
Car One: Karen, Iris, Katherine, and Me
For this particular adventure, we were given Jeep Patriots.  The Jeep 4x4s were the perfect size for the paths through the mountains; a full-size SUV simply wouldn’t fit.  Said Jeeps are outfitted with CB radios to provide constant contact with one another and, most importantly, the lead car. 

Yoav Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
Every morning Yoav showed us our planned route for the day.
The lead car was driven by Nikos, hands down the best possible man for the job.  Why you ask?  Because he was humbly a world class rally racer for decades and to this day the organizer of the biggest rally in the country and president of the auto club of Lamia, the oldest in Greece.  Also in the lead car was Yoav, our guide with a plethora of Greek knowledge both ancient and modern.  Beyond that, he also had a keen eye for what the casual traveler might not spot, like a random salamander crossing the trail. Yoav communicated with the four cars behind via the CB radio to let us know where we were going, when to turn, and what to look for.  Yoav also told us mythology stories with his own personal spin.

Delphi Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
See that winding road in the background?  That's the road we drove to Delphi.
The lead car led us safely outside the city of Athens and, after a bayside lunch, we made our way to Zeus’s center of the world, Delphi, but not the way the tourist busses go.  Ours was a zigzagging path over a beautiful range, with our first view of the purple Judas trees which grow all over and break up the lush greens of the hillsides.  Every stop on this journey from start to finish was amazing.  I thought, we’re at the Temple of Apollo, site of the Oracle, where do they take us from here?

Acropolis Rally Road Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
Kicking up dust along the Acropolis Rally track.
Ever dream of driving a leg of a World Rally Championship course?  Well, our next day of driving put us on miles of dusty Acropolis Rally track.  It was thrilling to drive a famous stretch of rugged road.  I couldn’t imagine running that road at full speed, blinded by the dust of competitors and deafened by your co-driver screaming pace notes.  Along all the roads of Greece are kandylakia, shrines memorializing auto accidents on Greek roads winding along sheer drops.  These shrines do not just mark the site of fatal crashes, but also where lives were spared.  We were surprised to not see as many along the rally course, what our car companion Iris called “the rally road of death,” though it was actually one of the least hair-raising roads we drove since we didn’t take it at the speeds of rally drivers.

Sheepherder Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
A sheepherder at work.  How's that for an office view?
On average, we spent around four hours behind the wheel per day. These days were broken up by planned stops at landmarks, quaint villages, and cries of “stop the Jeep, let’s get a picture of that.”  Along the way, we passed sheepherders, beekeepers, random roadside cattle, hillside goats, and old guys with weathered faces like you see in National Geographic.  

Jeep vs. Rock Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
Nobody wants to have an accident, but it illustrated how Tripology Adventures is ready for anything.
On this particular day, Tim, our token Brit, managed to get his rig stuck on a small boulder on a cliff side with a few hundred-yard drop.  The team was able to make short work of the obstacle with the help of a strong hitch.  

On Top of the World Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

Soon we were back on our way to picnic on a high peak with a lone tiny church overlooking valleys that stretched on forever.  Some places just make you feel small, like a nit on a gnat’s neck.  It was just vast.

Evrytania Church Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

After a night in the mountains, we were back on the trail to villages with history and charm and water-powered mills.  On our way, we noticed the changes in the color of the earth, as the morning found us driving along deep red dirt roads bordered by forests of tall pine trees.  The fog in the morning was a bit disconcerting, as fog is always a little scary on a windy road, so I appreciated the pace Nikos set.  This is also the day we entered Evrytania, the Switzerland of Greece, with such breathtaking views people decided to build random churches on the side of the road and on hills overlooking the rivers.

Kremasta Resevoir Evrytania Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
The greens of Evrytania.
Our fourth day of mountain trail driving brought us to vistas of lakes, rivers, and valleys.  I loved the striations that could be seen, especially where the roads had been carved out of the mountainsides.  Patterns ranged from gigantic herringbone to stacked Pringles.  Some of the driving is slower going when the trail gets a bit thinner, steeper, or more precarious.  The lower gears came in handy.  

Karaiskakis Tower Above Proussos Monastery Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
Karaiskakis Tower.
We got out of our vehicles for a bit to take a short hike to a platia for lunch.  Then we went on to the day’s big payoff, Proussos Monastery, placed on the side of a mountain overlooked by Karaiskakis Tower perched on an adjacent gigantic rock. 

Agrafa Taverna Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece
Lunch along the river in Agrafa.
The next day’s drive took us to a restaurant in a little village called Agrafa, which only months earlier had been nearly wiped away by a landslide.  The restaurant owners showed us pictures of the devastation.  They had made such great leaps towards getting the restaurant back up.  I was moved by their stick-to-it-iveness.  

Related: Travelers Guide to 33 Traditional Greek Foods

Pindus Mountain Range Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

Back up the mountains we finally reached the snowy caps of Pindus.  Honestly, when I think of Greece, snow isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  You’re way up there too.  Ask yourself, when was the last time you drove your car past a little cloud hovering below you in the sky?

Meteora Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

Finally in Kalambaka, we arrived at the World Heritage Site of Meteora, six Eastern Orthodox monasteries built on top of sandstone rock pillars up to 1,800 feet high.  I cannot stress enough; have plenty of space left on your camera’s memory card.  Meteora was the furthest site from our starting point.  In the distance, we could see the snow covered Mount Olympus. We spent two days in Meteora and could have easily spent a few more.  

Cut Out Roads Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

The way back to Athens was a straight shot on highways and smooth pavement.  We were treated to yet another fine meal, this one on the shores of the Northern Evoikos Gulf in Kamena Vourla, with various fruits of the sea cooked to perfection.  On the way to lunch, Yoav pulled over for what we thought was a random leg stretch.  How excited were we to find out where we were actually standing . . . “THIS IS SPARTA!”  Don’t blink, you might miss it.  It’s a wall with a few statues and an unassuming sign explaining a very important battle.  The shore has since receded quite a few kilometers away.  Still . . .

Sheep Along the River Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

A few words about group travel anxiety.  Typically, we travel alone.  I have a fear of group travel.  I may have personal space issues and am afraid I may bug somebody.  But sometimes, travel as a group is a necessity, so my wife has a habit of telling me I’m just going to have to get over it and be a team player.

Mountains Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

For the average traveler, which we are, this trip can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be done alone.  While you could road trip through Central Greece and visit sites like Delphi and Meteora, the only way to see some of the quaint mountain villages we visited, view the green countryside and emerald waterways, and drive over mountain peaks is to get off the highway and drive dirt roads, sometimes for hours.  If anything happened, like the incident of Tim and the boulder, you could be stuck for hours waiting for help.  I’m not even sure if Greece’s version of AAA (alpha-alpha-alpha?) would drive out to some of the roads we followed. 

Cows Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

Beyond Nikos and Yoav, Tripology Adventures had a crew behind the scenes who were prepared for anything.  The ringleader/host/pre-runner was a fellow by the name of Izhar, one of the owners of Tripology Adventures.  Trust this man, he knows things.  He went ahead every day and made sure the trail was safe.  He made the necessary arrangements for a comfortable stay in the next town.  He also scouted each route we would take for the day, as some “roads” are not always accessible due to rock slides, downed trees, washouts, etc.  The route is never set in stone, but they’ve been doing this for years so nothing is a surprise.  They adjust on the fly and there is constant interaction to fulfill any special needs.  I felt safe, always more alive than afraid.

Tripology Adventures Tour Group Off-Road Trip Central Greece
A group of strangers who became friends telling jokes in the shadows of Meteora.
As I said before, I have a fear of group travel, a fear of the unknown, unknown fellow travelers.  Our big fat not-so-Greek convoy: Nanette - salt of the earth, gentle soul, and so much fun; Peter – chef, restaurateur, all-around super nice guy; Annette - thinks she can fit all the things she's done and doing on a list and somehow stuff that into a bucket (she's going to need a much bigger receptacle); Josette - you wouldn't believe she was a pilot until you heard her on the CB; Mary – foodie, sommelier, our token Canadian; Larry – golfed every single one of the top 100 courses and then wrote a book about it; the lovely Annie – a joy who celebrated a birthday on the road with a bunch of strangers; Lisa – self-proclaimed picky eater who ended up trying octopus and didn’t hate it; Jessica - her motto is “never say no” and danced on a table to prove it; Tim - proud Brit, quick with a joke or great story, take your pick; Iris - my co-pilot (or I was hers), a foodie who sang acapella after an impromptu standup routine; and my Karen - someday someone will write a true to life biography about her and they'll mistakenly put it in the fiction section, I'm a grown man and I cried when we parted.

Evrytania Central Greece Tripology Adventures Off-Road Trip Central Greece

These are the people we shared these experiences with.  We didn’t just drive the terrain and break pita together.  We shared knowledge, learned about Greek history and culture, and laughed together.  You can get your own SUV for a small supplement if you really want to, but I don’t suggest it.  I met some wonderful people on this trip, people I initially didn’t even want to meet, but people I assure you I will never forget and will see again in the future.  This trip made me throw my biases against group travel out the window. 

Thank you to Tripology Adventures for hosting our off-road trip through Central Greece and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.  I would travel anywhere in the world with them.

Travel the World: Visit the heart of Greece by taking an off-road trip through Central Greece with Tripology Adventures.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.