Monthly Archives: February 2014

Greece without the sunshine, beaches or islands

It was raining in Greece. And when it wasn’t raining fog descended on us when driving through the beautiful mountain roads, making it very hard to enjoy the views.

Our race back to the Netherlands and the UK had started the moment we crossed from Asia into Europe at lightning speed (you can read about our Turkey into Greece border crossing on the Europe page under ‘Countries’). We were due at our family homes for Christmas, so not much time left to cover the remaining kilometers. But we still wanted to try to see some of the countries’ highlights en route. No more detours though, just more or less a straight line to Western Europe.

Greece was eerily quiet. The brand new toll roads were simply empty. Even when passing through Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, there was hardly a soul on the roads. Other signs of the recession were everywhere you looked: restaurants were empty and building projects half finished.

thanks to the recession we can camp on this unfinished building site

thanks to the recession we can camp on this unfinished building site, a lucky find in the dark on this heavily built-up part of the Greek coast

In Greece we decided we wanted to stop at just 2 places: Meteora and Zagori. At Meteora we wanted to see the famous monasteries and nunneries built on top of rocky outcrops and in Zagori we wanted to have a wander through the world’s deepest gorge according to the Guinness Book of Records.

Meteora was covered in low hanging clouds when we arrived late in the afternoon, and heavy rain and cold temperatures added to the doom and gloom. We found a spot to camp, overlooking a monastery we could occasionally see through the mist. After reading our books for a little while we decided to head into town for a meal – it was not the weather for cooking.

we can occasionally see a glimpse of the monastery on the rock in the background

we can occasionally see glimpses of the monastery on the rock in the background

That proved too difficult as most restaurants were closed, some places only served drinks, others only had meat on the menu. We even found the vegetarian owner of one of the restaurants who told us he always struggled to find food as a vegetarian in Greece…! He offered a salad for Jude, not what we had in mind on a cold and wintery evening.

Back at our campsite the weather hadn’t improved and we pitched the tent in the rain, settling down in our Taj Mahal with a good book and the laptop for a movie. As long as you don’t have to go out for a toilet stop it is quite cozy up there, even in the rain.

again we have a 4-legged friend visit us

again we have a cute 4-legged friend visit us

Unfortunately we now have to protect our mattress and duvet with plastic sheets and tarps when we drive in the rain, as the waterproof cover of our roof top tent has completely warn and leaks like a sieve. Five years in the harsh Australian sun plus a year on the road had taken its toll. Even with all the plastic and tarps protecting it, we get an occasional wet patch inside, making traveling in the wet a bit more laborious than it should be. Luckily the actual tent is still perfectly waterproof. But it’s definitely time for a new cover when we get back (so we don’t have this problem on our next trip!).

The next morning it did stop raining, but the clouds stayed low, so we visited just one monastery and one nunnery without getting the full impression of their stunning settings. Dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, groups of monks built a series of monasteries perched on rock columns, accessible only by rope ladders, which kept them safe over the next 800 years from political instability, Turkish invasions and even the Germans during WW1. The collections of artwork and literature they still house is incredible.

this used to be the only way into this monastery, via a rope ladder or hoisted up in a hessian bag

this used to be the only way into this monastery, via a rope ladder or hoisted up in a hessian bag

the old refectory (dining hall for monks), now a small museum

the old refectory (dining hall for monks), now a small museum

trying to see some of the amazing views

trying to find some of the amazing views

burying was not an option on the rock

burying was not an option on the rock

Despite the mist, it was very impressive, but the bakery with its ginormous chocolate croissants was calling and quickly established itself as our favourite attraction in town.

view from the village of  the rocky outcrops

view from the village of the rocky outcrops

In Zagori we had a bit more luck. It was still raining when we arrived and did the short walk to one of the old and now empty monasteries for a view down the Vikos Gorge, which claims to be the deepest in the world (1,750m). The definition is a bit arbitrary: to be a gorge, the depth must be greater than the width, so deeper places such as the Colca Canyon in Peru (3,500m deep) don’t qualify.

It was spectacular nonetheless. Even better, we found a lovely restaurant serving local dishes which included a vegetarian pie so we spent the evening next to a roaring open fire. Just what we needed. And our luck continued. That night and the next morning it was dry. It was still cold, windy and overcast, but we had set our minds on the 12km gorge walk from Monondendri to Vikos and this weather wasn’t going to stop us.

Rugged up we started our descent into the beautiful gorge, disco legs settled in about half way down, but the views were spectacular. In summer it must be a treat to swim in the beautiful river.

dodgy ladders on our trail in the Vikos Gorge

dodgy ladders on our trail in the Vikos Gorge

a great trail

a great trail

a great swimming pool in summer

a great swimming pool in summer

lots of moss everywhere

lots of moss everywhere

on our way to Vikos

on our way to Vikos

stunning Vikos gorge, unfortunately we didn't see any bears

stunning Vikos gorge, unfortunately we didn’t see any bears

We kept a look out for brown bears, wolves and wild goats, but the most exciting thing we saw on that walk was a brilliantly coloured salamander. They are not scared at all and it just sat there whilst we took its picture. The colours are amazing.

very cute salamander who wasn't scared of the camera

very cute salamander who wasn’t scared of the camera

At the end of our hike we even saw the sun a few times and when we asked around for a taxi in Vikos we were invited in for a coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and some homemade biscuits by Dora, before Costas drove us back to Lara, the long way.

our hostess serves great coffee and fresh orange juice before her husband gives us a lift back to Lara

Dora serves great coffee and fresh orange juice before Costas gives us a lift back to Lara

view from the top

view from the village Vikos over the Vikos Gorge

picturesque village

picturesque village

Noutsos (or Kokkoris) Bridge, built in 1750 over the river Voidomatis

Noutsos (or Kokkoris) Bridge, built in 1750 over the river Voidomatis

It was quite an unusual Greek experience (no beaches or islands with whitewashed, blue roofed houses and blue waters for us), but we enjoyed Greece. We’ll have to go back one day for a more typical Greek experience.

an attempt to dry things when the sun appears in Greece

an attempt to dry things when the sun finally appears in Greece

From the Silk Road to the Roman uh oh … Greek Road

Once in Turkey we reached the end of the Silk Road, which we had been following on and off for 6 months. We were now firmly in the Roman Empire, and were looking forward to some dead-straight Roman Roads, or so we thought. It turns out most of the stunning ancient cities were built by the Greeks and only much later colonized by the Romans…

Turkey has many ruins dotted across the country, many world-class, but as we were now on a mission to get back to the Netherlands and the UK before Christmas, in less than a month, we had to get our skates on. No more detours of over 1,000km as we had done in Iran.

It was time to put our Adventure Racing skills to good use and plot the most efficient route, still stopping at a few highlights along the way. We got the Lonely Planet out (lucky for us we had an old one for Turkey, the new ones have less and less information in them), grabbed our good ol’ paper map and started planning the next section of the route. The first victim of the new regime (of no detours) was Istanbul.

Our tour of the Greco-Roman ruins in Turkey started at Pamukkale. Even though it is probably more famous for its travertines (calcium deposit terraces with crystal blue water). The Greeks of course knew about these calcium rich hot springs and built a city and spa at the top of the terraces. The ruins of Hieropolis are predominantly Roman, as the original Greek city was lost in an earthquake. The location is stunning, as the city with its many temples, baths and theatres sit directly above the travertines.

Pammukale means 'cotton candy' in Turkish

Pammukale means ‘cotton candy’ in Turkish

We arrived on a cloudy, cold day and visited the terraces first. Of course we had to wade into the warm, knee-deep water and take the obligatory photo with the beautiful blue water. In summer many people wear nothing but their bathers, but we had to roll up our trousers to get in.

It wasn't the day for a swim!

it wasn’t the day for a swim!

Roman ruins being slowly engulfed by the travertines at Pamukkale

Roman ruins being slowly engulfed by the travertines at Pamukkale

We then explored all the ruined temples, market places, public toilets, graves and temples, before jumping into the only naturally heated swimming pool on the planet with original Roman columns lying on the pool floor. Even if the pool would have looked different in Roman times and there were no nymphs feeding us grapes to complete the experience, we thought it was pretty special.

lazing around in the heated pool at Pamukkale. They are genuine Roman columns!

lazing around in the naturally heated pool at Pamukkale. They are genuine Roman columns!

Our next stop was Ephesus, a harbour town that lost access to the sea and subsequently lost its inhabitants a long, long time ago. We reached the beach next to Ephesus the evening before, just in time to watch our first sunset over a sea since leaving the beach at Sihanoukville in Cambodia, many months ago. It was a bit late and cold for a swim, but we dipped our toes in and had a beer to celebrate beach camping again.

It turned out to be an eventful night on the beach. A local Romeo in his shiny new 4WD was taking his shiny new girlfriend to find a secluded spot. Unfortunately he managed to get himself bogged about 10m from where we were camping. For the next hour or two the local tractor tried to pull him out and failed. Whilst very funny, it meant we got a little less sleep than we had hoped for.

a mini tractor failing to dig out the heavy 4WD (view from our tent)

a mini tractor failing to dig out the heavy 4WD (view from our tent)

Romeo got bogged pretty close to our camp site

Romeo got bogged pretty close to our camp site

We set off in the morning, leaving the deserted 4WD and tractor on the beach. Ephesus, built in the 10th century BC is absolutely stunning and extremely well preserved. As you wonder round, you actually feel as if you are in a Greco-Roman city. Many buildings have already been painstakingly restored, including the theatre (which can seat 25,000), the impressive and intricate façade of the Library of Celsus, as well as the toilets….  Many others are undergoing restoration work with teams from all over the world.

main street of Ephesus

main street of Ephesus

like in China there was not much privacy on the toilets...

as in modern China, there was not much privacy on the toilets in the old Roman days… (water to clean yourself ran in the little gutter in front of the toilets)

immaculately restored Library of Celsus in Ephesus

immaculately restored Library of Celsus in Ephesus

Roman theatre seating 25,000 in Ephesus

Roman theatre seating 25,000 in Ephesus

In 100BC, Ephesus fell under Roman control and grew to one of the largest settlements with a population of over 200,000 people. Archeologists have recently unearthed a series of Roman ‘terrace houses’, occupied by wealthy merchants and officials. They have incredible detailed mosaics on floors and walls which they are now trying to piece back together. Imagine doing a jigsaw puzzle with 1.000.000 pieces or more…

fancy a jigsaw puzzle with over 1,000,000 pieces?

fancy a jigsaw puzzle with over 1,000,000 pieces?

incredibly detailed mosaics in the townhouses of the wealthy in Ephesus

incredibly detailed mosaics in the townhouses of the wealthy in Ephesus

Very close to Ephesus is Maria’s house. Yep, that’s Jesus’ mum – she was brought here by the Disciple John after Jesus’ death for her own safety. It’s a very significant pilgrimage site for many religions, and three recent Popes have visited. Luckily for us it was pretty much deserted when we arrived. The house is tiny and was found after a German priestess in the 18th century had a vision and told people where they could find it – and they did. Well, they dug up foundations of a small house and have rebuilt the old house. You can now have a look inside, say a prayer and burn a candle. They also take water home from the spring underneath her house and tie paper ribbons to a fence – not a pretty sight as they all get moldy after a few days of rain.

Maria's tiny house

Maria’s tiny house

Our Roman (or Greek) road then took us north up the Aegean coast to the ancient city of Pergamon. The hilltop site is topped by the reconstructed temple of Trajan, a Roman emperor who led the biggest expansion of the Roman empire. Their amphitheater is equally impressive. As the city is built on top of a steep hill and they didn’t want to block the views of the surrounding areas with the stage of the amphitheater, they used a removable stage! You can still see the holes in the ground where the pillars were placed when a show was on. And the views remain very impressive till this day.

very impressive Temple of Trajan at Pergamon

very impressive Temple of Trajan at Pergamon

We weren’t too impressed with Troy. We felt we needed to stop here as it is such a famous, although much exaggerated, made-up story, but we think it would have been best to stop here first and then move on to the more impressive ruins. The ruins here are old for sure, and if these would be the only ones you saw, you’d be well impressed. But they definitely miss the wow-factor of the sites we had already seen.

the wooden Trojan Horse, a nice story but not necessarily true

the wooden Trojan Horse, a nice story but not necessarily true

We still loved the wooden horse and as we were there on the same day that most of our friends were dressing up and having a little fun adventure race in Perth called the Troyathlon, we felt connected. The other much loved ‘things’ we saw were some squirrels frantically gathering nuts in preparation for winter. They are so much fun to watch! We took more photos of the squirrels than of the ruins…

getting ready for winter

getting ready for winter

Our last stop in Turkey was Gallipoli on the other side of the Dardanelles. With not a bridge in sight we took the little ferry to get across. We were now leaving Asian soil and starting our final stretch on the European continent. It really began to feel like we were entering the final leg of the journey.

crossing from Asia into Europe across the Dardanelles

crossing from Asia into Europe across the Dardanelles

lunch overlooking the Dardanelles

lunch overlooking the Dardanelles

Gallipoli is not part of the Roman or Greek history, but a place rich in links with Australia and New Zealand. On Anzac Day many Ozzies and Kiwis come here to commemorate the long and arduous battle between their troops and the Turks during the First World War. Over 9 months, the Allied forces suffered 50,000 fatalities and a further 100,000 injured (interestingly the vast majority were British) but failed to take control of the strategic peninsula.

ANZAC Cove - 20,000 troops landed here sustaining 5,000 casualties

ANZAC Cove – 20,000 troops landed here sustaining 5,000 casualties

We had Anzac Cove and many of the other monuments to ourselves. The memorial for the many Turkish fatalities was the only busy area on the peninsula and is seen by the Turks as a defining moment in their nation’s history. In many places you can still see the trench lines, which are sometimes separated by only a few meters. But the lasting impression of Gallipoli is an overwhelming sense of peace. The whole area is a national park, so there is none of the over-development which is a feature of so much of the Mediterranean coast.

the impressive Turkish war memorial at Gallipoli

the impressive Turkish war memorial at Gallipoli

silent contemplation at the Lone Pine War Cemetery

silent contemplation at the Lone Pine War Cemetery

From the sad memorial grounds of Gallipoli, we headed on to the modern Greek roads, but that’s another story coming soon…

olives anyone?

olives anyone?

also in Turkey we meet so many friendly people - Jon has to join this man to pick some fresh oranges

also in Turkey we meet so many friendly people – Jon has to join this man to pick some fresh oranges

drying our last laundry 'on the road'

drying our last laundry ‘on the road’ in our last hotel on the road (Pamukkale)

crossing into the European Union at last (border Turkey with Greece)

crossing into the European Union at last (border Turkey with Greece)