The treasures of Central Greece (part two) – World Meanderings (n°59)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
This week we continue our trip through Central Greece. After visiting Arachova, Mount Parnassos, Delphi and the beautiful beaches of Itea we get back on the road and head North to Karditsa our second “base camp” from where we will go to the sensational “Meteora” and their high perched monasteries, and to Lake Plastiras area’s unspoiled landscapes.
The Greek road network is in pretty good condition and you’ll find it easy to drive in Greece. After living Arachova it will take you two and a half to three hours to get to Karditsa through the Plain of Thessaly covered with vast cotton fields. Kardista is a lively town at the foot of the Pindos Mountains and although it has no canals it is often called the “Greek Amsterdam” thanks to its extensive network of bicycle lanes. After driving most of the morning and in a city where a third of all urban trips are on bikes we decided to live the car and hop on a bike to discover Karditsa. Renting a bike is easy. You just need your credit card or get the “Karditsa Easybike Card” to get a bike at one of the numerous “municipal bike rental stations”.
Although Karditsa is an ancient town, most of the city centre buildings date back from late 19th and early 20th centuries. During our ride we discovered neoclassical façades, Byzantine style churches, vast parks, the impressive Municipal Market, busy shopping streets such as Valvi Street where there still are craftsmen and traditional houses. You will easily spot the “Arni Hotel” with its beautiful white façade standing on a street corner in the heart of the historic centre near Pafsilipo Gardens where peacocks walk around freely. Arni Hotel is one of the first hotels built in the Balkans in 1921 and has a unique rococo architecture while offering its guests modern and top range amenities. You can also rent a bike at the hotel that provides special rates for its guests.
Of course “Arni Hotel” was refurbished several times since its construction and offers modern comfort. All the rooms and suites are spacious and elegantly decorated in Art Deco style and have marble bathrooms. You can even ask for a complementary lap-top if you need one. Karditsa area is renowned for its tasteful gastronomy and the hotel’s restaurant “Arni Bistrot” attracts not only tourists but also many local people who know they will find here authentic recipes masterfully reinterpreted by the chef.
I had a wonderful plate of “Slowly roasted pork belly slices with ginger and Sake sauce” (only 10 Euros), while Frederic chose a generous “Black Angus beef tagliata marinated with local herbs” (only 14 Euros) and we both had a “Lemon yogurt mousse with almond crumble” for desert (4,5 Euros each). In order to allow its guests to enjoy a great dinner “Arni Hotel” proposes special weekend packages including a one-night accommodation, a welcome treat with flowers and sparkling wine, a full dinner with wine and breakfast for only 70 Euros per person. A real bargain for a romantic stay!
Our following day was fully dedicated to the discovery of the unique Meteora site and their Orthodox monasteries. Meteora are an absolute must while visiting inland Greece. The legend says that the Meteora were created by gods who had fun, throwing rocks from heaven on top of rocky peaks! They actually were slowly sculpted by time, rain and wind. There is no trace of a previous occupancy before Orthodox monks began to live in caves dug into the cliffs in the 11th century. During the 14th century, Athanassios, a monk expelled from Mount Athos monasteries founded the first perched monastery in the area. One can only be amazed by the determination and commitment of these first monks who by dint of hard work and faith built these huge monasteries on top of steep peaks using only ropes, baskets and muscle strength. The very first stairway was cut into the rock in 1920!
There were 24 monasteries at the most in the 15th century, but most of them were destroyed during wars, especially in the beginning of the 19th century during conflicts with the Ottomans. Today only six are still inhabited by monks. They are well preserved and open to the public. If rock climbers from the whole world go here to conquer these almost vertical peaks, most tourists follow the 17 km long touristic road that connects the monasteries. You can get a map at the tourism office of Kalambaka, a small town at the foot of the Meteora site. It will help you find your way and also inform you about the opening days and hours of the different monasteries.
The monks are very welcoming, friendly and are willingly answering to any question you may ask. Ladies have to wear long skirts but if you wear a short one or even long trousers you will have to put on one lent by the monastery. You may find it challenging to visit the monasteries! You’ll need to climb 144 steps to get to the door of the largest one founded by Athanassios but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Its church is impressive and has a magnificent wooden iconostasis of the 17th century. Don’t miss to stop on the outside terraces to enjoy the view over the nearby monasteries and the valley down bellow.
You’ll need a full day to visit the different monasteries. Don’t expect to find a restaurant on the site. There are a few “food-trucks” on the parking lots of the monasteries selling the usual junk food. My best advice is to shop in Karditsa or Kalambaka and make yourself a pic-nic basket full of fresh produce of the area: raw ham, paté, tomatoes and fruits. Why not taste local food such as the traditional Thessalian pies called “plastos” or “batzina” and a local cheese called “graviera”? There are plenty of empty and bucolic places to stop at along the touristic road and you will enjoy spectacular views in the same time. By the end of the afternoon you can drive back to Hotel Arni and Kardista to enjoy its lively nightlife.
On the following day take time to discover the surrounding countryside and enjoy its wonderful landscapes. You can drive east to get to the beautiful Plastiras Lake and the typical villages built on its shore. Next go to Pyli village and drive along the deep gorge dug by the Portaïkos River. The site is truly impressive and on the way you will see beautiful arched stone bridges, first Pyli Bridge and then Palaiokaria Bridge spanning over two waterfalls.
Don’t miss to visit the charming Byzantine style church located also at Pyli at the entrance of the gorge, Porta Panagia Church. If you still have time continue driving to Fanari 16 km South of Trikala, where you can visit an impressive fortress built on top of a hill. It was renovated in 1995 and is in pretty good conditions. After climbing up on the ramparts you will have a wonderful view over the Plain of Thessaly.
Next week we will drive East to the coast and visit Volos an attractive seaside resort and the Pelion Mountain a fantastic little known area of Central Greece.
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes