Greece – Off the Beaten Track
by Seng Mah
To traverse Greece is to partake in a delightful feast of experiences, where every dish is unique, every flavour enticing and every mouthful so deeply satisfying that you cannot wait to return to this sun-drenched country to taste more of what it has to offer . For many, Greece is synonymous with pretty islands surrounded by turquoise seas; but it is so much more than that -- it's a land of veritable contrasts, of mountains and deeply shaded vales, of dramatic coasts and secluded villages nestled within groves of pine or olive trees, of ancient cities and monolithic ruins, and of a people and culture so rich in history, triumphs and tragedies.
I find myself returning to Greece time and again, sometimes to re-visit places and settings but mostly to discover new ground and to explore new nooks and crannies. Greece is so diverse, so multifarious and nuanced that one visit is never enough.
In the mountains of Zagoria, for instance, the roads twist and zigzag, opening up views of rugged mountains, plunging gorges and emerald rivers carving their paths through valleys of shale. Here, villagers have built beautiful, arching bridges that cross streams and rivers. When the light is perfect, you'll want to reserve some time to sit back and take it all in, before you press the shutter button to record the scene for posterity.
At twilight, I sit outside and take in the crisp mountain air and watch lights twinkling from mountain villages across the valley. The views are jaw-dropping and I am completely enraptured by scenes that seem to have emerged from a long ago time.
In the morning, a short hike along a stony path takes me to an old monastery perched right on the edge of Vikos Gorge. After recovering from the pure amazement of rivers of mist winding their way through the gorge, I make my way through the narrow gateway into the monastery, where I find a number of closely sited buildings huddling under the overhanging lip of the cliff against which they have been built. Through a doorway, I enter the chapel. When my eyes adjust to the dim light within, I am drawn to the gleaming gold, scarlet and silver ikons within the chapel and I learn about the saints and martyrs of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Just when you think that nothing can top the splendour of the Zagorahoria, you arrive in Meteora, which directly translates from the Greek as "in the heavens above", where old monasteries sit precariously on soaring sandstone pillars. This UNESCO World Heritage Site looks like it has come alive out of the pages of a magical, fantasy novel -- there is a feeling of age and majesty here, and opportunities to delve into its monastic history reveals that the monasteries were build so high to deter raiding and robbery by bandits. The views are best taken at sunrise or sunset, from one of many vantage points available in the region, but watch out for the powerful winds that sometimes threaten to blow you off the edges of the rocky outcrops.
Greece has islands aplenty, and it can be difficult to pick a handful to visit. My favourite of them all is Hydra, a short ride by fast ferry from the port of Piraeus on the Greek mainland. Landing on Hydra, I felt as if I had stepped back in time. Here were cobbled pavements and buildings full of character (even if many of them had been converted into cafes, bars and restaurants). There are no cars, motorcycles or bikes on Hydra -- the only modes of transportation are on foot, on donkey or via water taxi or caique, so there's a serenity here that is not interrupted by the sound of engines or the tooting of horns. The air is fresh and sweet with the salt of the deep blue sea surrounding the island. Exploring Hydra on foot is a dream -- the narrow streets wind and divide and I discover myself suddenly high above the town, staring in awe at its whitewashed buildings tumbling down towards the azure half-circle of the old harbour. A pleasant tinkling sound interrupts my reverie and I turn to see a train of donkeys, their bridles and bells clinking, making their way to town to collect and transport goods from the port to the villages in the island's interior. The men who ride the donkeys are absolute characters: bearing full, windswept mustaches, deep tans, weathered faces, they seem iconically Greek and perfect for the camera. Despite the language barrier, I'm able to ask them if I can take their photos. They smile and nod, but do not stop (time is money), so I work quickly, following them and grabbing frames as I go.
What beguiles me most about the Greek Islands is the closeness to which life on the island is linked to the sea. Early every morning, blue fishing boats that look as if they could barely withstand a sea storm, return to port, bearing their catch. They're displayed at port and locals flock to the boats and the bargaining begins. Because there are no cars or trucks on Hydra, the island has grown a sizeable population of stray cats and it's very comical to see these cats all gathered at the port, waiting patiently for a morsel or four to be thrown from the boats. I strike up conversation with a pair of fishermen after their customers have left. Giorgiou looks to be in his late 50s or early 60s and I suspect that his laconic demeanour is because his English isn't strong. So he defers to his mate, Manolis, a hefty fisherman in a white t-shirt and sagging black sweat pants, who tells me about the his voyage to the outlying islands to fish. He is away days at a time, fishing by net, and returns to port to sell his catch. There's not much money to be made in fishing and I sense that while these men trace their ancestry through generations of fishermen, this is an industry that's seeing the end of its days. I'm driven to photograph the fishermen and their brightly coloured boats, each of them bearing the name of a Orthodox saint on its bow.
There is a gutsy rawness about Greece and the Greeks that draws me back there again and again. I could claim that it's the beautiful light, the rugged settings, the beautiful sea, the pervading sense of ancient history, the vivacity of the Greek people... Perhaps its all of these and more. I can't wait to go back!