From the east of northern Greece we travelled west, 650 kilometres, to visit one of K's cousins. In 2008 he was building a luxury hotel up in the mountains near the city of Ioannina. At this higher elevation it was green and cool. We stayed four more days than we had intended, visiting wonderful little villages built out of stone, the roads cobbled and paved. Deep gorges, rivers that were actually full of water. It was really relaxing, especially when we knew the rest of Greece was having a heat wave. It was a relief after the dryness and dirt of the east.
The roads up there were terrific, much the best we've seen in Greece. Six lanes, straight, a speed limit of 130 kms and no tolls. They are still working on them but are more or less like this right up to the borders.
I don't remember much about this road trip. I know we did it in one day and marvelled at the long straight roads. We could see huge viaducts, bridges and tunnels being built alongside the road we were on. It must be a super highway now. Once we got into the mountains the roads became narrow, steep and twisty again. These have mostly been bypassed and that trip can be done in half the time.
We spent many hours closed together in that car. Somehow we made it there and back. Small things on the road added up to moments of great stress but once we arrived all was well again. Seeing the cousin brought smiles of joy for K.
I do remember one stop for coffee at a small, mainly Muslim, village. That must have been at the beginning of the trek. Over towards Turkey in the region known as Thrace (where we had been) there are large Muslim communities. Once again I tried not to stare and would have loved to explore more. The women wore long dresses and head scarves and there was a minaret instead of an orthodox bell tower. There were only men in the cafeteria but we/I didnt feel an intruder. The capuccino was hot and the ladies toilet was very clean. Mostly unused I suppose.
We sat in the village square and had coffee under the chestnut tree. Drove through ravines of green forest and dined in the next village right on the edge of a very deep canyon.
2nd biggest in the world after the Grand Canyon
Drove back to Aristi again for the local raki, called tsipoura, sampled the local cheese pies, no comparison to the greasy fast food version of Athens, and lapped up the peace and stillness.
Just a note about the pies. Pies of all sorts are part of the local cuisine, big round baking dishes of pies with greens, cheese or chicken and thick handmade pastry.
Our cousin got an old friend, a village woman, to make one specially for us . It was half a metre across, a very thin layer without pastry. The flour is incorporated into the cheese and eggs. By gosh it was good. The three of us managed to eat it all and drink a few beers. No wonder I was the size I was.
There are 46 small villages in these mountains and they are very busy in the winter when snow calls for roaring fires, litres of raki (strong spirit) and roasted wild boar. Summertime they are quieter, popular with river rafters and hikers but wonderful for a holiday away from the crowds that surround you by the sea and on the islands.
We sat at an outside bar till one or two a.m. most nights talking and drinking with the cousin and family and most of the village. Then we walked home, guided by the fireflies - called 'picolo-bithes' in greek!
We stayed at a pension run by an Albanian couple. It was beautifully decorated, lots of wood and natural stone and impeccably maintained. She made a breakfast of champions for us with eggs and fruit, good coffee and piles of fried cakes with lots of local honey. Everything is 'local' around here which is just what we, and tourists, want.
Once we met our cousin much of our days were spent eating and drinking in the picturesque mountain villages. But that's how a holiday should be, shouldn't it?
Nowadays I'd take the time to hike some of the trails and visit the monasteries and churches of which there are many and most are very old. Not religious tourism. These old places are fascinating.
We could have visited Albania from here. We were only 65 kilometres from the border. Another time. Perhaps
There are a lot of trout in the streams and rivers but fishing is forbidden. We found and brought back a few kilos of smoked trout for everyone, bought straight from the place it was smoked and vaccum packed. There were stalls all along the roads out of Ioannina with tanks of fresh trout and we bought some of those too. It has been many years since I've tasted fresh trout. Since I was last in NZ and my brothers returned with their catch from a fishing trip.