Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 3

Delphi has two positives that compensate for a big negative. On the down side: it is a tourist mecca, an easy day trip from Athens, and therefore attracts many busloads of groupos. In its favor: Delphi is located high up on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and has spectacular views. Plus, the ruins of ancient Delphi are more intact and interesting than many old stones.

We arrived at our hotel, the Varonos, in the late afternoon. Our Oracle had done a good job of leading us to the site of the other oracle, for which Delphi is famous. In brief, here’s the oracle story: at its peak, in the 4th century B.C., multitudes of pilgrims made their way to Delphi to ask advice of an oracle who was believed to speak for Apollo. Those asking advice ranged from kings to peasants. They consulted the oracle on momentous issues such as whether to begin a war and personal matters such as what to do with a misbehaving child. Sometimes the oracle gave a clear message. Often it was ambiguous, allowing the listener to decide how to interpret what was said.

The oracle was an older woman chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. According to legend (and validated by some historical evidence) intoxicating fumes rose up through the fissure causing the oracle to fall into a trance. At this point Apollo moved in to possess her spirit and, once possessed, the oracle prophesied. Unfortunately, the oracle spoke in gibberish (we’d say she spoke in tongues) and a priest of the temple was needed to translate. For those of you who care about such things, archaeologists think that a gas high in ethylene was the source of the trance.

A large and beautiful temple complex, the Sanctuary of Apollo, was built around the oracle. For a few hours during our one full day in Delphi we walked through the area, which is built on a hill. We saw temples dedicated to Apollo and Athena, a well-preserved theater, treasuries, a stadium and votive offerings. Fortunately, unlike our experience at the Acropolis a few days earlier, the groupos didn’t ruin the visit.

Delphi fell to the Romans in 191 B.C., after which the oracle’s influence waned. In the 4th century A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished it – along with other ‘pagan’ sanctuaries in Greece.

The Varonos was a bit of a weird hotel. It is advertised as a friendly, family-owned hotel, centrally located on Delphi’s main drag, Pavlou & Friderikis. And it is all of that. Delphi is a very small village, so everything is centrally located. There are only two main streets, so it’s hard not to be on one of them. And the people at the Varonos were indeed friendly and helpful. Weird mostly in the décor. The lobby and reception area was filled with stuff. Chairs, plants, tables, pictures, tchotchkes everywhere – hardly space to walk. And most of this stuff was not beautiful, so the impression was one of clutter.

And then there was the room. We had one of their new premium rooftop rooms that promised a great view, which it did have. The only problem was that it was like an attic, with a sloping ceiling and large wooden beams that found my head on multiple occasions. I tried putting up stickies to remind me to bend down low enough to avoid a concussion, but the stickies wouldn’t stick, so that didn’t work well. Well, what the hell, it really did have a great view.

We continued our daily exploration of food and drink in Delphi. We weren’t expecting great cuisine, but we found some rabbit and lamb dishes that were new to us and, I’d say, OK. Not wonderful, but not bad either. I had developed a routine of having one or two glasses of ouzo before dinner. Two ouzos followed by wine left me in a more than usual happy state, which was fine if all I wanted to do after dinner was go to sleep. Sandra never got into the ouzo routine. She didn’t love the taste.

Bye, bye Delphi – we’re off to the north. It was to be a 6-7 hour drive up to the Ioannina area in Epiros. My idea was to explore the Zagoria Villages and whatever else we could find of interest. In the research I did it didn’t look to me like Ioannina would we a very interesting place to stay. It’s a large city with nothing much to see or do. So I searched the Internet to find someplace nearby that would be a base from which we could explore the area.

What I found was the Horizon Hotel in a little place called Ligiades. This is what a website said:

Hotel Horizon is found in Ligiades, a picturesque village a few kilometres from Ioannina. The hotel is ideally situated on the slope of the mountain Mitsikelli, looking out to astonishing views of the Lake Pamvotis and the city of Ioannina.

The hotel offers as a great base for exploring Ligiades and Ioannina, as well as the many historical, archaeological and religious monuments in the surrounding area. The villages of Zagori, Metsovo, Tzumerka and Konitsa, are also easily accessible from the Horizon Hotel.

All air-conditioned rooms of the hotel are equipped with a TV, refrigerator, mini bar and wireless internet access. The room balconies have views of the city and lake.

As it turned out, the description was accurate. But there were a few useful pieces of information that were missing. I didn’t realize that Ligiades was way way up the mountain to begin with and that once in the village everything was vertical – going up some more and then some more. Or that services in Ligiades were rather limited – like no stores of any kind. Fortunately, there was one restaurant and the hotel did serve breakfast. They were certainly right about the view. We had a balcony that looked down on the lake and Ioannina, and it was beautiful

Our first challenge in getting to Ligiades was where to go once we left the main road leading to Ioannina. Fortunately, our Navigon app covered small places and the Oracle was able to lead us up the mountain. But once in the village we were at a loss where to go, and there were no signs (that we could read) that were of any use. After some confusion (and no people anywhere in sight to ask) we saw a sign that looked hopeful and followed it. Turns out it took us to the restaurant, not the hotel. The restaurant owners were helpful. In fact, they sent a young man on a scooter to guide us.

That was great, until shortly after we got started a truck delivering construction materials blocked us. It wasn’t going anywhere, and neither were we, since the road/lane was too narrow to get around the truck. The young man told us (without words since he didn’t speak English) that we’d have to wait and he’d be going back to the restaurant. He did point us in the right direction and gave us this guidance: “Zig zag,” he said. “Zig zag, zig zag,” indicating for us to keep going uphill, zigging and zagging until we got to our destination.

Eventually the truck finished unloading and we were able to continue. We did as instructed, zigging and zagging up the hill. And, miraculously, we arrived at the hotel. There was one last zig that would take us up to the entrance, and as we were trying to figure out how to maneuver the turn a man came out of the hotel and said not to try, but instead park on the road. Success! We had arrived at the Horizon.

Ligiades was not teeming with tourists. As a matter of fact, we were the only guests at the Horizon and would be the only guests for the three nights we were there. The only dinner option in Ligiades was the restaurant we’d been to earlier. I’d had enough zigging and zagging in the car for one day, so we decided to walk down to have dinner.

It turned out to be a very tasty meal. We had tzatziki (a dip made of yoghurt, milk, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil and dill), meze, pork and chicken. The service was good, and – Surprise! – we had the restaurant to ourselves.

The next day we headed to the Zagoria Villages. There are 46 villages in the Zagoria. The attraction is that the area is mountainous and scenic, the natural habitat is undisturbed, the old grey stone houses and churches with painted interiors survive and the residents adhere to a traditional way of life. Incidentally, it was in these mountains that the Greeks defied the Italian forces when they invaded from Albania in November 1940.

The main village is Monodendri, 24 miles north of Ioannina. Monodendri fooled us. We were out of it almost before we knew we were in it, so we turned around, went back to the beginning and began walking. We were headed for the Vikos Gorge, which starts in Monodendri, and an old monastery nearby. To get there we meandered through the small lanes of the village, past the grey stone houses that were, as advertised, quaint and charming. It was cooler up here, even though the elevation wasn’t all that high, about 3,500 ft. We’d had sunny, warm or hot weather since we arrived in Greece, so the change in temperature was pleasant.

The Gorge is the focal point of the region. It is 7.5 miles long, 3,000 ft. deep and a favorite spot for trekkers. We would not be one of them. On the edge of the gorge with a panoramic view is the abandoned Agia Paraskevi monastery, founded in 1412. It is an absolutely wonderful structure (grey stone of course) that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I loved it. It has a small basilica and nave with a wooden roof surrounded by monks’ cells. There were only two other visitors at the monastery when we were there. That was a real gift.

We had a nice lunch in Monodendri (souvlaki and moussaka) and mapped out a plan for the rest of the day and tomorrow. We’d stock up with food and wine, return to Ligiades and hang out. The room in the Horizon was conducive to hanging out. There were chairs for reading, good light and the balcony with a view. A break would give my hurting foot some down time. And we wouldn’t have to hassle the zigs and zags.

At our lunch restaurant we ordered sausages and kebab to go. At a little pastry shop in Monodendri we picked up some cheese pies. We restocked our mobile wine cellar. And on the way back to the hotel we picked up some tzatziki at the Ligiades restaurant. We were set for at least two days worth of in-room picnics.

As it turned out the next day was the first and only day of rain we had in Greece. It would not have been a good day for driving or touring. So all was well. Just one itinerary correction: if I were re-doing it I’d cut our time in Ligiades to two nights.


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