Greece has in recent years become a favourite place to visit, learning late in life to fully appreciate all that it has to offer. I’m not alone, there are many keen to book their annual holidays in Greece. Ancient ruins, beautiful beaches, spectacular scenery, clear seas, great cuisine, lively nightlife, plus the islands which often offer all the above, having an eternal appeal.
Yes, that’s quite a bit of hyperbole, but none of these are the main reasons I enjoy visiting so often. Several road trips around the country, stopping at a number of the traditional villages, where family run taverns are usually the choice for accommodation, and dining were more authentic Greek experiences. Regardless of how difficult times maybe, the welcome has always been friendly, even almost being adopted as a temporary family member.
The food is usually excellent too, a far cry from the greasy, bland meals served up in the cheap and cheerful diners, catering for hordes of families or party goers just looking for a quick bite to eat. Locally sourced meat and vegetables, slow cooked to perfection, with maybe a light Greek salad as a starter, all washed down with an acceptable local wine and plenty of good company. There is always a bottle of Tsipouro close by, and it’s likely that more than one is finished on any given evening.
The Chef is often the mother, she is also usually unmistakably the boss; doting on her guests, ensuring they are well fed, but chastising a wayward waiter or bartender with nothing more than a stern glance.
Here are a few of my favourites:
Makrinitsa is one of the mountain villages that make up the Pelion community, and quickly became one of my favourite places after a short visit a few years ago. Accessed by a winding mountain road that leads up to the village, which then lines the road, with a few cobbled side streets, many water fountains, and occasional small square.
There is a small market, selling traditional goods from honey, jams, and delicate teas, to locally crafted artwork. Although cars are generally used to transport goods around, mules are still employed, often making their own way, knowing the journey by heart, completing it daily throughout their working lives.
Makrinista is also known as the “Balcony of Pelion”, and after taking one look across Volos, and the valley below, and to the distant Pagasitikos Gulf, it soon becomes clear why.
Mystra, a small town on the Sparta to Kalamata highway, may seem to offer little of interest, aside from the nearby Byzantine city of the same name. It is certain that most tourists come to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, but those that dwell awhile in the pretty village, find there is more than meets the eye.
There are a few shops, a couple of taverns, hotels, a couple of picturesque churches, and a number of run down buildings, but it has a charm all of it’s own. Dominated by the mountains which provide natural shelter, the village does not take long to explore. There are a few country lanes, lined with stone built homes, colourful, well-kept gardens, and in summer the resounding din of crickets are heard throughout the village.
Rest will be needed after all that exhausting exploring, taking lunch at the one of the few taverns; the greeting is warm and the food tasty, and I enjoyed one of the best Greek salads I’ve ever had here. I was also fortunate enough to have two nights at the boutique Pyrgos of Mystra hotel, which is delightful, very pretty, with a small team of staff. They are extremely friendly, and helpful, providing plenty of tips for the area including visiting nearby Sparta.
It also enabled me to take the ten minute drive to Tripi, to try some speciality local cuisine, recommended by the hotel. It’s definitely worth the drive, I later parked up at the hotel, and returned to the tavern to enjoy a few drinks with my new friends.
Hydra is not merely a village it is the only town on the island of the same name. One of the Saronic Islands a few hours from Athens, it is almost certainly popular with tourists in the height of summer, but when I visited in October, it was quiet, and about to close down for the winter. A number of cobbled streets climb up from the picturesque, little port, there aren’t any vehicles so it’s necessary to either drag your own luggage, or hire a mule driver to transport your luggage to the hotel.
Everything seems centred around the port, which is lined with restaurants, souvenir or craft shops, and taverns selling light bites, wines and thankfully Greek coffee. It is the perfect place to chill out, watching, well actually not a lot, as nothing is particularly happening.
It is this slow pace of life, which appeals to me, where time seems to have stood still, and people still care about each other, and their community. It is alien to many of us, rushing around in our technological hamster wheels, with neither the time or inclination to observe what is going on around us. Sitting impatiently in traffic jams, seems a far cry from places where goats running down the road is the only likely hold up. Where the elder statesmen of the village go out early to the local store for fresh bread, end up setting the world to rights on a stone wall, only returning home for lunch, all possible topics being discussed to exhaustion. It seems likely little has changed in many of these villages for almost a century.
These are just an example of the villages scattered throughout Greece, which seem to offer an authentic taste of the country. While the awe-inspiring spectacle of Meteora, or stylish, and pretty Nafplio maybe main attractions, the villages are a very worthy distraction.